The Drowning God, a paranormal thriller complete @ 95,000 words, is currently represented by Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
More news to come…
More news to come…
There’s a monster in my office, and it gnaws at me.
This monster dwells in the twilight world between life and death, never daring to crawl out of the shadows. It’s too hideous for the light of day; bloated and grotesque, its malformed appendages flap spastically. No wonder I keep it in the dark.
If you ever looked more closely, as several people have, you would see that its individual parts are quite lovely, even if they don’t fit together like clockwork. Were the extraneous bits sliced away and the remainder stitched up neatly, we could see what massive reconstructive surgery might get this creature on its feet.
For now, the monster remains in the shadows. I lock the bottom drawer to keep it from wandering out.
It’s my first novel, The Wine Ghost, in which we consider the terrible freedom of Frank Boyles, the last Baby Boomer. Set in Arizona, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand, The Wine Ghost was twelve years in the making. I wrote at least 350,000 words on three continents to get the present 110,000, and I learned lessons in writing that no classroom can contain. The Wine Ghost is so dense, challenging, and chaotic that it’s unpublishable in its present form, but writers who’ve read the whole thing (and the handful of agents who’ve read the pitch and substantial excerpts) have said it’s a remarkable achievement, despite the fatal flaws.
Here are some of those fatal flaws (from my current perspective):
• The first half of the novel is a nosedive, and readers begin to wish for the final collision 30 pages in. As it is, it takes 60,000 words for Frank Boyles to fall off Japan.
• The upward spiral of the second half provides stronger structure, and it’s less relentlessly depressing than the first half, but the pacing is crippled by chapters up to 9,500 words in length.
• Those overlong chapters end like short stories, depriving readers of thrills, chills, or cliff-hangers that might help them keep turning the pages.
• Even at a slim 110,000, it’s nearly Dickensian in the number of characters and subplots, a ridiculously overdrawn expat milieu that drowns a simple tale of disgrace and redemption.
• Its many stylistic indiscretions (i.e., showing off) brand it as an irretrievable semi-autobiographical first novel from a boy who had read too damned much Cormac McCarthy and far too little Hemingway.
Well, what to do with a monster like this? “Kill your darlings” comes to mind, but there’s still good meat on those awkward bones. I’d be a fool to just delete it.
• plucking out whole works of short fiction
Done and done. From The Wine Ghost, I’ve harvested short fiction (“Dry Wash” in The Bicycle Review, “Coolie Tales” in not from here, are you?, “The Belly Lesson” and “Tracy-baby Tells a Ghost Story” in a for-the-love online litmag) and poetry (“The Algerian Witch’s Abandoned Brood” in Hauptfriedhoff, for which I also penned the foreword). This is good exposure and possibly good advance PR, as long as I credit these appearances in my final MS.
Oh, and as long as I eventually rewrite and sell the book.
• repurposing plot, setting, and character
Check. If The Wine Ghost is to become a viable novel, I must cut 40,000 words of extraneous characters and subplots, and I’ll be damned if they’re going to waste. Almost all of that 40,000 words, including an entire valley and one of the most frightening maniacs I’ve ever written, is going into my paranormal thriller series. A no-brainer, as they say.
• entering first-chapter contests
Consider this: your first novel, like mine, may be unpublishable in its current condition, but you polished the living daylights out of that first chapter, didn’t you? Despite structural flaws in the work-as-a-whole, you might still get some cash out of that first chapter. Dr. John Yeoman has put out a straightforward, thoughtful guide titled “How to Win Writing Contests for Profit.”
Now you know.
• thematic analysis: the rut or the sweet spot?
We make and break patterns in our writing over the years. Sometimes patterns emerge because we’re caught in the loop of trying and failing to get it right, and sometimes such patterns remain because we got it right the first time and it works so damned well. Because we’re swinging for the fences and bursting with things to say, our first novels are perfect for spotting the beginnings of larger thematic patterns in our writing.
The Wine Ghost is no exception. My old friend, developmental editor Zak Johnson, says this: “I think you’ve mined your Wine Ghost for more than you even realize. (the evil uncle from “Dry Wash”) has reappeared as the obscene old man in many of your works … if you do (rewrite The Wine Ghost as a commercially viable novel), keep the original as a relic of the exorcism that brought it out of you.”
Or as a standalone shrine to my daddy issues. Enough said there.
A re-read of that novel may show you patterns to build upon or abandon. Don’t just write it all off as juvenilia.
• just one more draft, I promise
After 30 years as a professional writer and editor, I put The Wine Ghost aside and started submitting fiction in 2009. I have a completed and competitive genre novel making the rounds of publishers, and I’m halfway done with the sequel. I can’t drop that to start draft five of The Wine Ghost, especially knowing that it would take a sixth and seventh draft to get this beast on its feet. I have too much going on. I sometimes want to just strip off everything I can repurpose from The Wine Ghost and leave it like a car on cinderblocks. I’ve moved on, I tell myself.
If only I could. I’ve planted crossover elements in my paranormal thriller series such that it occupies the same time and space as The Wine Ghost. It’s not just the paranormal thriller series, either. I’m constantly laying Easter eggs and setting breadcrumb trails that lead back to the monster in the bottom drawer.
I don’t kid myself that The Wine Ghost will ever, ever make more money or even gain more critical acclaim than a genre book. It’s not that I miss the freshness and urgency of the literary expression that led to my writing The Wine Ghost; I’m a much better writer now than even a few years ago, when I wrapped up the fourth draft.
The dreadful fact is that it’s an important book, the book that called me to write it because it may speak to some teenager as confused and depressed as I was when I first got a little relief by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren or Lord Dunsany’s Pegana tales. It may show some kid a path out of a darkness that almost took my sanity and my life.
This monster gnaws to tell me that I must keep honing my craft in order to do the story justice. Every genre chapter I write, every blog post I submit, every short story that goes over some indifferent editor’s transom — it’s all surgical training to reanimate the monster in my office.
I’m lifting weights here, people.
And it may sound perverse, but I hope you have a monster in your office to keep you moving as well.
Visit it sometimes. Thank it for keeping you working. Promise it that you’ll stop by more often and that you’ll eventually bring it to life and set it free on an unsuspecting world.
It doesn’t hurt to make these promises, even if you don’t intend to keep them.
And don’t worry if you forget to go to see your monster every once in a while.
If your monster is anything like mine, it will come to see you.
Versions of this post have appeared in Blood-Red Pencil and Write Now, Right Now
A 1968 French-Italian production of three Edgar Allan Poe tales, narrated by Vincent Price. Federico Fellini signed on to direct the segment “Toby Dammit” thinking the other segments would be directed by Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, but he was depressed to learn the other directors would be Louis Malle and Roger Vadim. Sure enough, Malle’s and Vadim’s segments (“William Wilson” and “Metzengerstein,” respectively) are stylish and forgetable-to-tedious, but Fellini’s “Toby Dammit,” the last and longest segment, is well worth the rental. Terence Stamp plays a strung-out British film star nodding past a cavalcade of classic Fellini caricatures, all the time haunted by the figure of a little girl bouncing a white ball…Very, very spooky.
Time Capsule: Also featuring Alain Delon and a scantily clad Brigitte Bardot (“William Wilson”) and a scantily clad Jane Fonda on horseback falling in love onscreen with her brother Peter (“Metzengerstein”).
Wednesday is still my favorite day of the week, thanks to Rod Serling. The only thing good about living in the Central Time Zone was being able to stay up late enough to see Night Gallery. Yes, it’s time to talk about Serling’s OTHER best macabre television series ever. Serling introduced each segment by way of a work of art, a painting or sculpture often as creepy as the segment itself. The segments, especially in the 1970-’71 season, largely avoided the topical concerns often expressed in The Twilight Zone, replacing social consciousness with…bite. “Midnight Never Ends” – “Sins of the Father” – “Little Girl Lost” — even the titles were chilling. Night Gallery on DVD is the perfect antidote to torture porn and tweenie-targeted vampire(ish) nonsense. It’s fast-paced enough for modern audiences, but the writing ranges from rock-solid to excellent, and the performances uniformly reach heights we just don’t see in slasher-trash (sorry, fans of Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Malcolm McDowell and a cast of little-knowns, but now we’re talking about Vincent Price, Orson Welles, Ray Milland, Cesar Romero, Sam Jaffe, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Godfrey Cambridge, Roddy McDowall, Raymond Massey, William Windom, Jack Cassidy, Wally Cox, Robert Morse, Rudy Vallee, Victor Buono, Jack Albertson, Lawrence Harvey, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Patrick O’Neal, Leslie Nielsen, John Carradine, John Astin, Pat Boone, Mickey Rooney…) Oh, yeah. And bits of it were scary as hell. Between light-hearted segments like “A Midnight Visit to the Neighborhood Blood Bank,” “Dead Weight” and “The Flip-Side of Satan,” we had “Something in the Woodwork,” “Pickman’s Model,” and one of my personal favorites, “The Doll.” Laugh if you will, but I still can’t sleep in a room with a doll, with those glassy eyes and that frozen little smile just waiting to widen into a big, toothy grin…damn!
“Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way, not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.”
—Rod Serling, from the Night Gallery pilot
Four years after Dracula and arguably at the height of Universal’s gothic splendor, The Bride of Frankenstein lacks the misplaced angularity borrowed from German Expressionism that characterized many of the Frankenstein sequels, and it retains a warmth and peculiarity that makes it one of the most human and humane monster movies ever. Thanks to James Whale’s subversive direction, Ernest Thesiger’s evil and effete Dr. Pretorius chills and delights, Karloff horrifies as the monster in his first speaking appearance, and Elsa Lanchester entrances as the iconic Bride. It’s a beautiful bit of cinema history that raised the bar for Hollywood horror, and there’s still nothing else quite like it.
“Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good.”
— Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger)
Vincent Price chews up the scenery as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who commits suicide in front of the critics who’ve thwarted his career. As critics begin to die in bizarre fashion, twistedly reminiscent of the gruesome and unexpected murders in Shakespeare’s plays, chief critic Peregrine Devlin begins to see a startling pattern… Along the lines later aped by Se7en, but far more clever and much, much more fun with a heavyweight supporting cast including Diana Rigg, Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, and Swindon’s own Diana Dors.
“A remarkable performance. He was overacting as usual, but he knew how to make an exit.”
— Peregrin Devlin (Ian Hendry)
I rest easy in the long, lonesome place between completing a novel and making the sale, all thanks to a forum troll.
It’s not fun, mind you. Agents queried thus far have passed. Contests and direct submissions aren’t panning out either. It’s disappointing, but it’s just business, and these people are polite and professional.
Why I rest easy: nothing these agents and publishers say can hurt me. That’s mainly because I have faith in the project, but it’s also because the troll fulfilled his role.
If my own dear mother called to say I should give up this writing business, I would smile and nod and keep right on doing what I do.
But let me just tell you the story:
In 2009, my favorite online home-away-from-home was a fan forum for XTC (the band, not the drug). This unique bunch, XTC fans of all ages from Scandinavia to the Antipodes, are by far the wittiest, most knowledgeable and kindest online family it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. I count several of them as “actual” friends, not just online friends, and in the days before Facebook, we shared personal details on the forum we wouldn’t share online today. It’s a pretty tight group.
I took several months offline to complete the first draft of The Drowning God, a paranormal thriller. When I got back online, I was eager to tell my fellow fans about the novel and other projects. It went something like:
(between chapters of The Drowning God)… I also wrote something much more Gothic and ornate: an eight-part 1930s-serial-style Lovecraft Mythos/Clive Barker mash-up. It’s about 18k of crazy layered with Lovecraftian paranoid prose, teased with a dash of Borges, and topped with Stephen King/Michael Crichton “actual doc” verisimilitude frosting. Yum.
Yes, this was very silly (although it’s an accurate description of In the Red, my 2009 novella), but keep in mind that these are my people. We’re the last hardcore fans of XTC, a British punk band that went pastoral and even orchestral and survived till 2006, and we’ve survived with them. On that level — our shared obsession with the sublime and sometimes frightening music of Andy Partridge and XTC — no one understands us as we understand one another. So silliness is not out of bounds there. We’re an odd online family, but family’s what we are.
Except for one spiteful and maladjusted bastard stepchild who called himself H0neyc0mb Jack. Jack lurked on the “friends” forum, which he had chosen not to join. He responded the next day on the “official” forum, an entirely different entity:
Just the sort of juvenile mockery I grew up with, but it was good enough. The troll fulfilled his role.
Familiar and not-very-interesting troll strategies here:
• posting on a different forum for deniability (“Dear boy, my post had nothing to do with you! Just trumpeting my successes and whatnot. But what is this? Do you scribble as well? What a coincidence!”)
• exaggerating the target’s claims (“But of course you’re shooting for the Booker Prize, old sock. What young Turk like yourself would not?”)
• and the troll’s best game, playing on my perceived weaknesses: academia’s scorn of genre writing, the rapidly changing publishing market, my advanced years (I was 47 at the time, not 50), my lack of contacts, and my wide-eyed naïveté.
I kept on writing and submitting. Several friends PM’d to commiserate about his unwarranted cross-forum cruelty, but I held my tongue. That in itself was unusual. At the time, I loved an occasional wee online dust-up, and I’ve never been one to let a bully have the last word, online or off. But this was different because there was something to be learned here. This rubberheaded troll had touched a nerve somehow, and I sucked it all in and examined it instead of lashing out.
I kept on writing and submitting. I looked up the Booker Prize to see how hard he was mocking me.
And I kept on writing and submitting. With a full-time job, a new baby, three moves, and an overlong sojourn in the barren gulag archipelago of for-the-love online litmags, I kept on writing and submitting. I joined a professional writing organization, The Horror Writers Association, and a couple of local writers’ clubs. I put out 80,000 words of short stories, essays, and reviews, and I polished The Drowning God to within an inch of its life.
That was the lesson. I kept on writing and submitting. Over time, the truth in the action dispelled the troll’s lies.
Think of it this way: every environment has a scavenger, a bottom-feeder that turns dead matter and excreta into energy. In the process, it removes toxins and debris to make room for new life.
Trolls and haters are good for the writer’s mental environment. They uncover the fears, thus helping to turn toxins and debris into new energy and new work.
Thank you, bottom-feeding scavengers.
Thank you, H0neyc0mb Jack, wherever you are.
As for Kendley Fiction, I will meet meaner, stronger, smarter trolls. That’s part of the deal.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.
I write for today. I also have hopes for the future, but I write for today.
Oh, the future:
Every dog has his day.
Kendleyness is next to dogliness.
Therefore, I will have my day.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
[update 10/11/2013: H0neyc0mb Jack pissed off into the ether Jan. 31, 2011. I assumed at the time that he tired of trolling or forum admins finally booted him. Since I linked this post to the APE Records forum, however, astute observers have made assumptions about his probable identity, correlating the time periods of Jack's final posts on that forum and the rough date of the suicide of a long-time XTC fan with a similarly troubled online history. It may be that Jack didn't live to see the publication of The Drowning God.]
For decades, Atlantans argued that Dead Ernest was none other than Ted Turner. That’s right. We honestly believed that before satellite Superstation WTBS, before CNN or The Cartoon Network, before Turner Network Television or Turner Classic Movies, this media mogul had dressed as a warbling backwoods ghoul to introduce the Friday night horror movie. It was an irresistible rumor.
It was plausible, too. There are no clips or stills of Dead Ernest, nothing to mark his passage, and that fits with the story that Dead Ernest was chiseled from the obelisk as an embarrassing relic of Turner’s small-time UHF past. Even the time frame was an estimate: Dead Ernest hosted Friday Night Frights on Turner’s channel 17, WTCG (“Watch This Channel Grow!”) from around 1972 to 1974 or 1975. Nobody seems to remember exactly when it started or ended (although some will remember that the slick intro superseding Dead Ernest’s stint on Friday Night Frights was just a collection of ominous video effects set to “Bruce’s Theme” from Jaws).
Who wouldn’t want to erase the memory of playing Dead Ernest? He rose from a plywood coffin wearing a tie-on cape, pasty make-up and a pair of dime-store vampire fangs. Thanks to the fangs and his thick southern drawl, his agonizingly drawn-out patter was nearly unintelligible. He was a joke, a bizarre waste of airtime, an excuse to go get another popsicle during the station identification break. We called him “Count Crackula from Peckervania,” but we showed up at the tube faithfully, every Friday night at 7:30.
We showed up despite Dead Ernest. We showed up for the movies, which were wonderful. AIP or Amicus to start, with racier Hammer films topping off the double bills. Toward the end of the evening, the station identification breaks featured Dead Ernest reading the newspaper or pretending to bathe in his coffin as if he had run out of his limited schtick by the end of the first feature. He was no Robert Osborne.
He was no Ted Turner, either. Diligent researchers at E-Gor’s Chamber of TV Horror Hosts reveal that he was Bob Chesson (he passed away in 1990), then an employee of Turner’s Charlotte, N.C., Channel 36 WRET (“Robert Edward Turner”). The segments were pre-recorded to run in Charlotte one weekend and then sent USPS to Atlanta for the following weekend.
The mystery has been solved, whether Atlantans want to believe it or not.
Of course, what with his AOL/Time Warner shares going tits-up, Turner might consider revisiting the Dead Ernest option….
Ever wonder about your local TV horror host? Check out E-Gor’s Vault @ http://myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tvhorrorhosts/index.html.
Also, watch American Scary, a loving tribute to the men and women who hosted our late-night horror movies, from Vampira to Son of Svengoolie. Streaming on Netflix.