My short story “Doppelganger,” from The Boy in the Well, appears in the latest edition of Connotation Press. Please check it out, and while you’re there, check out some of the other awesome stories in this issue!
My partner’s mom read The Boy in the Well the other day and, to my relief, really enjoyed it. As she praised it, she mentioned how the writing just “flows out of you.” I had no choice but to laugh, because, as anyone who has been a writer for any amount of time can tell you, it almost never just flows out easily.
Those six stories that just “flowed out of me” took three years to finish. They went through maybe half a dozen different drafts each. For some of them, not much changed between the first and final drafts; “The Ambulance Driver,” at a terse 190 words long, has only altered by a few words here and there to add precision and clarity. Others, like “The Boy in the Well,” have had sections put in and taken out, multiple endings attached, and witnessed me on the verge of madness trying to decide not just what a character would say but how they should say it. It really isn’t a pretty process, and it’s little wonder that so many creative writers have turned to addiction and/or often end up divorced.
None of that comes through in polished writing, though. I often tell my writing students that writing is the opposite of math; math teachers want to see all of your work, but English teachers (and readers in general) want to see all the seams welded closed, no untidy strands anywhere. So much of my own writing takes place in the editing stage, when I go through ruthlessly and look for any scene, sentence, or even individual word that does not belong.
One of the great writing advice clichés is “kill your darlings,” and nothing sticks out as fast as a line that a writer left because they liked it, even if it brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt. Short stories are especially susceptible to this, and the shorter they are, the more certain you have to be about every single word. Even a longer story (anything over ten pages or so) has to emphasize this kind of careful grooming. All of this is an incredibly painful and time-consuming process, which is why it is sometimes much easier to write something new than to go back to something and spend several months working out all of the kinks.
Lots of people have this idea that a writers just sits down at a laptop or in front of a notebook and bullshits whatever random crap enters their mind, and that word vomit magically becomes some best-selling novel. (And given some of the “hit” books in recent history, perhaps on some level that is true.) But a real writer—someone who cares much more about craft than the possibility of a royalty check—has to wrestle with his/her own work to accomplish anything.
Take Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, for example. Both writers have a style that could be described as “easy reading” because, as writers, they’ve done almost all the work for you; all you have to do is enjoy the ride. Reading Cat’s Cradle, one could think that Vonnegut wrote it in an afternoon since we can read it that quickly. However, his writing process was pain-staking: he refused to move on to another page until the page he was writing was perfect.
Brautigan had a similar need to revise and edit constantly; his friend and biographer Keith Abbott once told me at Naropa that Trout Fishing in America went through seventeen separate drafts before it was finally published as the quick, easy read we now think of as a classic novel from the 1960s.
This is not to say that those divine moments of inspiration don’t appear from time to time. There are moments when you’re writing something that you know is gold, and the thing almost seems to write itself. If you’re exceptionally lucky, it doesn’t even need all that much revision afterward. But those moments are rare, and a real writer knows to appreciate them when they come, because between those bouts of inspired genius are long, long stretches of doubt, bad writing, and endless revision.
I was interviewed by Monkey Puzzle Press about my latest chapbook The Boy in the Well. Here’s an excerpt:
What triggered this project?
Once I finished Tapeworm, my cupboard was bare of stories. Everything I had written up to that point was either among the fourteen stories in Tapeworm or died when my laptop crashed shortly after completing the collection. I had to start over from scratch, which is both intimidating and exhilarating. I started with flash fiction stories about the darkest and most twisted stuff I could imagine. Then, I’d have an idea like “What would Edgar Allan Poe be writing if he were alive now?” or “How would two rednecks dig a grave for someone they planned to kill?” After a few years, I had the thought of putting together a chapbook, so I made a list of the best things I’d written. The six stories that emerged became The Boy in the Well.
You can read the complete interview here.
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sensation of holding Tapeworm in my hands for the first time. When Nate Jordon handed me that beautiful book, I stood absolutely speechless for several minutes. My heart swelled with pride. Sure, I’d been involved with book publication plenty of times before. I’d put out chapbooks of my work twice, and I’d been an editor enough times to know the joy of holding the finished product. But this was a book I’d spent nearly six years writing and editing, and it was all mine. All the weight of those experiences and memories—from sitting in the window of a furnished apartment in Russellville, Arkansas, typing the first lines of “Second Coming” to the looks on people’s faces when I read “Tapeworm” at the Summer Writing Program to the elation of seeing “The Ringing in Her Ears” in print the first time (then the second, then a third)—flooded back to me in that moment.
I had a similar experience the day after Christmas 2013 when Nate handed me The Boy in the Well, though I do suppose that was less of a spiritual high than the first book. Part of it was I had made the trek to Monkey Puzzle HQ in Harrison, Arkansas, with my brother, and he’d never met Nate before, and I didn’t want to leave them to watch me drowning in a sea of self-indulgent reverie. (This did not stop me from taking long, loving glances over at it from time to time.) Part of it too, I suppose, is that I was, for the first time I can remember, almost equally excited about the prospect of my book appearing on Kindle, Google Play, and the other e-reader formats.
Full disclosure: I don’t own any e-readers. I’m not against them (obviously), but I just prefer the experience of holding a book. I enjoy the book as object—when I moved to Colorado, my parents laughed that I had only one chair, two boxes of clothes, and six boxes of books (and two more we couldn’t fit). For as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, I longed for the days of holding a completed book in my hand, and I maintain that there is no experience quite like it. But the reading world has changed, and it will do me no good to hold on to the nostalgia of the past, especially if I have any hope of success as a writer.
People often complain about how we don’t read as much as we used to, and, to an extent, they are correct. People don’t read novels as much as they once did, but they read plenty of shorter stuff. People want quick fixes, and paperbacks and hardcovers take time, both to produce and to ship. A really thick book can also take up a lot of space, which makes it slightly more inconvenient for people who have to travel. You’ve also got to deal with nosy people (like yours truly) looking over your shoulder, trying to figure out what you’re reading.
Things like the Kindle help with this. Readers can access books in seconds, rather than waiting a week for it to arrive in the mail, or the indignity of putting on pants to go find a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Within minutes of posting that The Boy in the Well was live on Kindle, I had Facebook friends posting that they’d purchased it on Amazon. Because it’s cheaper, because it reads quickly, and because it will always be the same size as your tablet or reader, this new format makes it easier to get my work out into the world. Of course, there might still be people reading over your shoulder, but it’s probably only so they can add that new book to their own queue or wishlist.
Nothing can ever replace the book as object, though. I can still autograph paperback copies (like, say, at a release party on January 15) and I’m guessing no one wants me to take a Sharpie to their reading device. And while I’m happy that my writing can get to people faster than ever, it just doesn’t quite have the same charge as holding a collection of stories in my hand and knowing that every word between its covers is mine. I’m not mourning the loss of paper books—I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely—but I do want to take a moment to praise their contributions to the reading experience before fully embracing the digital revolution in publishing.
The Boy in the Well is now available on Amazon Kindle for the incredible price of $2.99. While there is no experience quite like holding a book in your hand, e-books are making it easier than ever for people to read. Please help support independent publishing and purchase a copy. If you do, I would also very much appreciate a review for Amazon and for you to follow my author page–that makes it more likely that others will find my work as well.
My forthcoming chapbook of horror stories now has a cover image, and I’m happy to say that it is appropriately creepy. Nate Jordon did his usual excellent job–he’s also responsible for the cover of Tapeworm, in addition to all of the fantastic editing skills he’s applied to both books. He deserves extra praise, because I’m among the absolute worst authors when it comes to thinking of cover images. Usually, I hand the book to someone who is more visually inclined than myself and tell them to let their imagination go wild. (As my high school art teacher once said while appraising a project, “Nick, you have good artistic taste,” stopping well short of the word talent.) And this image is even better than I could have expected. I’m very much looking forward to holding this image in my hands in the near future.
I’ll be performing as the featured reader at the January 15, 2014 F-Bomb Reading. This event (hosted by the amazing Rob Geisen) will also serve as the official release party for The Boy in the Well. Admission to The Mercury Café is free, and their food and drinks are delicious. (Be forewarned–they only take cash and checks, so come prepared.) As always at the F-Bomb, 3-4 minute open mic spots are available for flash fiction writers on a first-come, first-served basis. The reading will start at 6:45 p.m. Please join us for a great time and an opportunity to buy the first copies of The Boy in the Well.
The project that has occupied my attention for most of 2013 is my chapbook of horror stories forthcoming from Monkey Puzzle Press. (For the uninitiated, a chapbook is a short collection of writing, typically between 25-75 pages.) Since late March, I’ve been editing, ordering, and perfecting my little six-pack of stories. I’m finally in the last stages of publication; I’ve made all the edits, approved the layout, and now only wait for the final galleys to take one last glance to make sure everything is as close to perfect as I can make it.
These six stories are the best writing I’ve done in the three years since Tapeworm was published. They’ve gone through multiple drafts, and they’ve occasionally been performed and published. I’ve written quite a few stories over that time period, but these were the stories that most disturbed me. Whenever I read something I’ve written and it disturbs me enough that I feel I can’t re-read it for a while, I know I’ve found a winner. These stories, especially the title story, all had this effect on me.
These are horror stories, but not the kind of horror you find in airport bookstores. There are no vampires, werewolves, or sparkle fairies here. My brand of horror comes disguised as a beautiful spring afternoon in “A Lesson for Ducklings,” or as a fortune cookie in “Doppelganger.” My kind of darkness springs not from malice, but from good intentions in stories like “The Ambulance Driver” and “The Boy in the Well.” The chills in my type of horror come from exploring just how far we can take our desires in stories like “Mirror” and “Gravediggers.”
I’m proud of these stories. I’ve polished them for months, trying to find the just-right way to say everything and capture each character’s unique voice and perspective. The Boy in the Well is not yet out (official release date TBA), but it will be available soon in print, eBook, and audiobook formats. My level of excitement grows by the day. Stay tuned for updates—I’ll post them here as they become available.
This is my homepage. It will include information about where to find my books and where I’ll be performing. As it evolves, I’ll add other features as well.
You can find my first book Tapeworm at Monkey Puzzle Press.
You can find out more about the Denver F-Bomb Reading Series here. I’ll be the featured reader at the Jan. 15, 2014 event (which will also serve as a book release party for The Boy in the Well). I’ll also be hosting the June 11, 2014 F-Bomb event.