Sunday, October 14, 2012

Writing For Myself, Part I

Its best to write for yourself if you want to sound like yourself and not someone else. We all do the ventriloquist act a bit, and we never lose some of the voices we've stolen or borrowed. But influence is quite different from being a copy cat. Write like everyone you know is dead, and that you don't have to worry about what other people think. Write the story you would like to see, even if its vulgar, violent, or romantic and soft, or all those things. Write the story that means something to you. You won't always write a story with heavy meaning, because some days we just want something light and simple, other days, something more insightful and complex, and at our best, a combination of those things. - Stolen from Joe Lansdale's Facebook
So, it's amazing how long it takes us to learn some things. Things you'd think are so basic, so intrinsic to who you are, they'd be simple, straightforward, and as plain as the nose on your face.

Of course, if you're like me, you get caught up in things. Especially when they're exciting, especially when they seem like the fruition of life-long dreams. You go along with the flow, not only because that's what's expected of you, but also because you want to fit in, want to "play ball", play "nice", and get along with everybody.  As a writer, you also want an audience, and you want to appeal to that audience.  And at the beginning, you really don't know who that audience is, maybe just because you haven't figured out who YOU are, yet. Not totally.

You've all heard this before. Admittidly, this is extreme navel-gazing, me threshing out my thoughts and ideas on my blog.  That having been said...

I began my "career" in the CBA (Christian Bookseller Association). My faith and belief in God and Something Bigger has always been a driving force in my life, and at the time I felt that would be a reasonable place for me to find my voice, find my audience...

Even though I'd never read much "Christian" Fiction, really. 

Even though, the little Christian Fiction I'd read, I hadn't exactly liked. 

But I figured maybe I wasn't reading widely enough in the CBA, so I jumped right in, entering contests, submitting chapters, reviewing for several sites and publications. And I discovered several  things:

1. I hated most Christian fiction. It was poorly written, proselytizing, reductive, and did I mention poorly written?

2. I wanted to be a WRITER. Not a preacher. Not a missionary. I wanted to use all the tools I could, even the CBA-unmentionables: swearing, drinking, drug use, sexual innuendo. Also, I wanted to write about PEOPLE. Real, every day people. I could give two-hoots about whether or not my fiction boasted whatever it was  the CBA considered "correct theology," I just wanted to have fun writing, write the kinda stuff I'd like to read.

3. Most of all, I wanted to tell a story that was ME, and enjoy doing it. All the writing I did trying to break into the CBA didn't sound like ME, even though I'd barely figured out what ME was supposed to sound like, at the time. All I knew, what the CBA offered wasn't it.

So, after three years toiling in that genre, I jumped ship to the secular horror market with my sale of "The Water God of Clarke Street" to Shroud Publishing's anthology, Abominations. Writing that story, and several others, including my Hiram Grange novella, I felt freed of the CBA's constraints, felt like I could write whatever I wanted, and could use all the tools I needed, and be me.

Mostly.

Because there were a few short stories early on that I wrote specifically as "horror stories", because, hey: I had finally embraced the tag "horror writer." This is what horror writers wrote about. And hey: those stories paid decently, and had been invitations.  But I was making a "name" for myself, right? I certainly liked and felt like I belonged in the secular horror community much more than I ever did in the CBA community, so it'd be best to just "go with this", right?

So, sadly, I tried to write several "horror novels" after Hiram Grange. They failed, primarily, because they weren't me. They were horror novels, very reflective of the reading I'd done...

But they weren't me.

This past summer, I rediscovered Dean Koontz, in reading his biography: A Writer's Biography. See, I had been a  big fan of Dean Koontz, but I soon learned when I jumped into the secular horror writing scene that he'd become "persona non grata" because he was too hopeful, too idealistic, too preachy, too transparent about his personal beliefs, drew too rigid of lines between good and evil, his good characters TOO good, his evil characters TOO evil...

So, like a good little horror writer who wanted to fit in (because, as said, I liked the horror market - and still do - much more than the CBA), I stopped reading Koontz. Started reading all the other authors horror folks recommended. And, granted, many of those authors: Charles Grant, Ramsey Campbell, Norman Patridge, F. Paul Wilson, T.E.D. Klein, Karl Edward Wagner, Alan Peter Ryan, Gary Braunbeck, Norman Prentiss, Ron Malfi, Rio Youers, Mary Sangiovanni, and many others have been wondrous, wondrous discoveries. 

But some of those other writers?

Not so much. Writing violence and death and sex for the sake of, not in service of an important story or plot.  And nihilistic. So nihilistic.  And, I realized that I'd written and sold several short stories along those lines, because I'd believed: "I'm a horror writer. This is what horror writers write."

I'd come full circle. I'd given up on the CBA because religious fiction wasn't for me. And, even though I'd no intention of giving up on the horror market, I found myself, as of a year ago, wondering if I really fit in here, either.

See, I don't mind a dark, disturbing story. One that has emotional substance and an intellectual point that provokes thought. I have no problems with gore and sexual innuendo that's tastefully done, and believe that profanity is like any other literary tool: it can be used or (and often is) over used.

But I can't abide nihilism. I am SO not post-modernist. I believe in "right and wrong." Stories don't always need to end "happy", (and short stories serve a very different function than novels) but I want, in novel-length works especially, goodness and love and truth and kindness to prevail. I DON'T believe that right and wrong is "all relative."

I am, admittedly...and idealist.  And I plan on staying that way, and plan on writing that way, also. Because otherwise, it wouldn't sound like me. It wouldn't be me.

And if doesn't sound like me, and isn't me...what's the point?

I want to be and write like ME. And no one else.

Which of course, doesn't mean I'm going to start writing like Dean Koontz. To be honest, his stories are often OVER THE TOP in saccharine goodness. And his plots are formulaic, and his characters all speak in the same kind of voice, really.  And, I also believe that short stories are entirely different animals - they are designed for hard, sharp jabs in the gut, so they don't need full-blown resolutions that set everything "right" with the world. I have no problems writing short stories like these.

So I'm not going to mimic Dean Koontz, now. But I am allowing myself to enjoy the idealism in his novels again, without feeling guilty. And, I saw something in his biography that spoke to me, so deeply,  made something inside me leap up and exclaim: "THIS is what I want to write. THIS IS ME."
 I want to say to the reader, 'Take my hand. We're going to go through this terrible place, and things will happen that are too horrifying to think about, but it's going to be all right on the other end. There's going to be meaning and a purpose to this. Trust me.'  - Dean Koontz, A Writer's Biography
 How has this fleshed out, how will this flesh out? Come back Tuesday....