Friday, June 3, 2011

In which I reveal far more about my personal creative process than anyone could possibly need to know

I find that the more I know and understand about the context of a thing, the more likely I am to enjoy it or at least appreciate it. That’s probably a universal thing, whether or not most people would be consciously aware (or dorkishly hyper-aware) of it, so I’ll go a step further and say I’m actually a fan of context just as an abstract concept. Which actually explains a lot about me as a pop-culture enthusiast in general. I’m a diehard devotee of the rock album as a meaningful entity that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. I’m intrigued by retrospectives that incorporate artist’s biographies. I’m an absolute sucker for any story that includes the metafictional device of a story-within-a-story, and the more blatant the parallels (e.g. repressive authority figure in framing story becomes despotic supernatural overlord in sub-story) the better. Modern superhero comics are all about the context of their own history, the geek holy grail of Continuity, and anyone who argues to the contrary is being to some degree disingenuous.

When I was in high school I was in a band, sort of, depending on how you define terms. Of course I was in the school band (marching and concert), that’s verifiable, but I’m talking about a garage rock band which is a little trickier to pin down. My best friend played the guitar and I enjoyed singing and could tolerably carry a tune, and my friend’s uncle had built a lo-fi home recording studio in the utility room in his basement, where my friend and I used to hang out a lot and goof around. Eventually we got a couple of other guys who were in the school band to jam with us in the studio; one was a drummer, and the other played sax (as did my guitar-playing friend, who was really the closest thing to a musical prodigy I had encountered at that point in my life) but was willing to be taught to play bass guitar because that was the gap in the traditional rockband lineup that needed filling. We whiled away many an afternoon blasting out bad basement covers of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Queensryche. We never had a gig, paying or otherwise, though one time we did invite some other school band cohorts over to listen to a couple of our more-practised tunes. There’s also, to my knowledge, no recorded evidence of this band’s existence, although I do have a cassette’s worth of songs performed just by my buddy and me on vocals and acoustic guitar.

Whether or not this qualifies as being in a band is largely irrelevant, really, because clearly either way this was a very minor and go-nowhere endeavor in the grand scheme of the world. In my mind, though, I was always daydreaming about fifty steps down the road. I didn’t seriously believe that our band would ever become anything real, but it was fun to fantasize about what would happen if it did. Which, in my mind, very much took the form of the retrospective, so I would sit in my French III class and doodle in my notebook and come up with our extensive back catalog as viewed from about the time we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I brainstormed the names of albums and the cover art for them and the track listings, all of which would show a certain amount of evolution over the long haul. If I remember correctly, the band wouldn’t record its magnum opus rock opera until the third album or so, because the debut album would just be straight-ahead in-your-face grand entrance anthems and the second album would be totally whoa next-level mind-blowing, and THEN (and ONLY THEN) would the world be ready for the only possible way to top that, a combination of musical and storytelling genius which would make Tommy seem like Rock Around the Clock.

(The vast majority of the time when I recollect the insane hubris of being 16 years old I wince and cringe in horror, but I swear, sometimes I just miss the sheer audacity of it all.)

So times change and life goes on but some habits really die hard. Rocking and/or rolling hasn’t always been my most prominent creative outlet; neither has writing, either, but it’s arguably been essentially constant, always there even when overshadowed by something else. (Or you could argue that when it comes right down to it, penning the libretto to an imaginary heavy metal singspiel or running a densely backstoried roleplaying campaign, it’s all been writing all along.) And when I think about writing, I’m just as likely to think in those broad, pre-retrospective swoops as in specific, nuts-and-bolts story-constructing terms. I’ve lived out entire careers in my head involving various genres and conventional-wisdom-defying crossovers thereof. One of these days maybe I’ll even get around to actually writing something that could fit into one of those pre-fab contexts I so adore.

Or maybe I already have? The odd thing (ok, one of many, many odd things) is that once I acclimated myself to the notion of completely artificial contexts I found it liberating to leapfrog wildly around what would otherwise seem to be a one-way path. A normal artistic career would generally seem to start with the artist following in the footsteps of traditional masters, then maybe doing things that were more and more experimental, then possibly feeling like the envelope had been pushed far enough and going back to elemental basics. Ideally that entire arc is a journey of discovery but it’s somehow become weirdly predictable, and when you think of it that way it’s like having a map of short-cuts. Why not jump right into the experimental stuff, if that happens to strike your fancy?

Which brings us (surprise! This was all going somewhere!) to a few years ago when I decided I would try something slightly ambitious to jump-start my writing. I would crank out as many short stories as I possibly could (at least half a dozen but preferably more like a full dozen) and I would shop them around to as many magazines or websites or other publishing venues that actually pay for fiction submissions as I could possibly stand before the crush of rejections overwhelmed me. And like many a noble experiment, the actual results were both mixed and somewhere below expectations. I think I finished something like three stories, one of which was just awful (but at least got a long-simmering idea out of my head), one of which was decent and one of which was … weird. The weird one was the only one of the three that got any kind “wow” reaction from some (but by no means all) of the friends and loved ones I showed it to before trying to outright sell it. It didn’t get any bites in the publishing market, but neither did the semi-decent normal story (I don’t think I bothered even trying to shop around the wretched pump-priming effort). And then the whole experiment kind of stopped being something I actively devoted energy to.

Here’s the thing about the weird little third story, though: it’s a trifle. And deliberately so. Because of course in the midst of the writing experiment I was envisioning an anthology of short stories, all by me, most of which would be substantial and meaty, but of course any good anthology is going to have palate-cleansers and amuse-bouches and so forth to break up the heavier plates that are the real feature attractions of the feast. Logically you might focus first and foremost on those main dishes and then later go back and spice things up, but as I’ve presumably made clear by now I’m perfectly happy to pretend the big accomplishments are already done and work on the fun little counterpoints.

In the specific case of my weird little story, I thought about traditional narrative structures and what I consider The Big Divide between classical voice and tense (third-person and past, respectively) and modern voice and tense (first-person and present) and thought an interesting diversion would be to do neither of those and write a story in second-person future tense. Which is patently ridiculous, which of course made it that much more fun, above and beyond the genre-tastic premise itself which I came up with, which was also fun.

However I don’t want to give away what that premise is because I would much rather you read the story itself, which you can totally do because, long after my experiment crashed and burned, the story is about to be published. Granted, it’s as part of an anthology by various authors and not my own personal greatest hits, but it’s still pretty cool. How that came to pass is a long story in itself and I’ve probably rambled enough as it is (not to mention if I save the telling of it for another day I can plug the book again later, too) so please allow me to proudly present How the West Was Weird, Volume 2.

The book will be on sale to the general public on July 1, but as a contributor I have an inside track and I can hook you up with a sweet pre-order deal (which also gets you free shipping) by directing you to click this link right here. So order early and order often! Tell your friends, or any affable strangers who randomly profess to you a love of short fiction or cowboys in combination with horror, sci-fi and fantasy elements! Snag a whole case of copies, keep one and donate the rest to libraries, schools and prisons!

Yeah, ok, fine, I’m not very good with the hard sell and shameless self-promotion. But I had to put it out there, and if it moves even a single copy of the book that otherwise would have languished in the warehouse, that’d be pretty cool.

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