Welcome To The Vacuum

Conflict is the cornerstone to every story. But what many don’t realize is, conflict is also the cornerstone to writing a good story.

It is. I promise. We, as writers, don’t want it to be, but it’s a driving element. Stories are formed as the result of agitation and opposition. The narrative grows from the battle between brain and heart, a dust-up between wild dreaming and unyielding practicality, the duel between the writer’s tremendous ego and the writer’s shrinking violet self-esteem, the punch-out between the writer’s wishes and the needs of the market, and the bloody fracas between writer and editor. A stone is only polished by abrasives. We find gems through agitation.

That last one — the war between writer and editor, or more generally, the war between writer and constructive criticism — is what I wanna talk about. But first, the lead-up:

I’ve been toying around with self-publishing. As noted in the last post, I’m not really sure the short fiction market is Where It’s At at this point. Okay, sure, maybe I’m subconsciously driven to this conclusion because I’ve gotten a couple-few rejections lately, and I’m a secretly Bitter Bill with a mouth full of venomous regret, but be that as it may, I think I still have a point. The short fiction market isn’t exactly a giant beacon in the industry. They don’t pay well, for the most part. I don’t know how well it really exposes an author anymore. It’s a niche, don’t get me wrong, and a ton of excellent writing is being done in that niche. But if you want to be a writer that, y’know, eats, and maybe one who lives under one of those newfangled roofs, well, heckadang, that might not be your sharpest option.

Thing is, I still like writing short fiction. It’s a powerful exercise, a lesson in craft. With a novel, you can easily rely on the bloat; you can just stuff your prose-turkey with as much Stovetop as you’d like until that bird’s bulging. A short story, not so much. It’s lean. It’s mean. Like with a screenplay, you have to work with the scalpel instead of a wood chipper.

So. Yeah. Self-publishing. I figure, maybe I’ll put some stuff up for free, like I already did. That story here gets an odd number of hits, even though it’s of dubious quality. Or maybe I’ll post some stories for free, and sell the others to a captive audience (like, literally, maybe I’ll duct-tape all you loyal readers to the water heater in my cellar and force you to pay me in goods and services for my fiction; expect lots of “sexual favors” and “lawn maintenance” tasks for you to complete). Maybe I’ll cobble them together in a PDF, because I got some InDesign skilz, and maybe you’ll all come out of the woodwork to support me as a burgeoning artist. Or maybe I’ll release fiction that can only be written by sky-writers (the original Twitter!).

Except: one prob, Bob.

Monster Fight! The conflict disappears.

If we operate on the assumption that the best work is made as a result of agitation-before-release, then self-publishing has in its model a danger to the writer, because the agitation isn’t so easily felt. No agent or editor is going to say, “This doesn’t work so much; maybe add this, subtract this, and why is there a llama on page four? Is it subtext? Does the llama stand for the Iraq War? I do, however, like the guy who beats people to death with a bannister. That’s your hook, so don’t lose that.”

The Internet does not serve as suitable agitation, I think. You can see it, already, with some self-published fiction (some of which is very good, some of which is very bad). The responses are generally unwholesome in their sycophancy, or are on the other side of the pool, peeing in the waters. It’s hard to take either as constructive; I LOVE IT and THIS MAKES ME WANT TO PUNCH A BABY UNTIL HE EXPLODES are not really geared toward helping you improve. Plus, once a piece is out there, it’s out there. Sure, you can change it after the fact, but people have already read it. Your impression’s made, for good or ill.

Ultimately, self-publishing requires the author to step outside the circle jerk (last guy on the cracker has to eat it!) and seek new avenues of agitation, because if he doesn’t, he’s just wanking it in a great big vacuum. It’s womb-like, I imagine. Soft. Warm. And way too protected.

Now, this might seem like an argument against self-publishing (and, to a degree, it is) and an argument for trying to get published in more “traditional” ways, but consider, too, the following: many of my recent rejections have not been useful to me. By which I mean, they told me nothing. Most were form letters. Most erred on the wishy-washy side of, “Oh, it’s fine, it’s just not for us,” which may be true, but because it’s a form letter, I have no way to actually test that. It might just be a form letter intended to stop a sensitive writer like me from hanging himself with an extension cord.

When I used to get rejection letters, they generally had at least a taste of the personal to them. Even form letters might have a small handwritten note attached (“It was good, but the characters didn’t work,” or, “I really think you can shop this elsewhere and be successful,” or, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell,” which I think was maybe a little rude, but then I realized, oh, it’s just that silly demon again, call Max von Sydow — am I right? Fellas? Am I right? Hah, that silly Pazuzu). I also got some that suggested I improve a few things and resubmit; I did, and as a result, got published.

Point being, submitting to the traditional fiction avenues is no longer a source of agitation. It’s not much different from me just sticking my work on the bathroom wall — I’m not getting any valuable feedback. The work isn’t improved. No agitation will polish the stone.

Self-publishing is still viable, but we have to actively seek the agitation and conflict — be it work-shopping with other creators, seeking the opinion of editors, getting thoughts from friends and loved ones (honest friends and loved ones), or even collaborating. Construction is born out of challenge. Why not seek that? (Answer: because our sensitive writer selves don’t always like criticism, even when it’s helpful, because we’re fragile little ice crystals, and we fear being stepped on, but that’s a story for another day.)

Will Hindmarch, psychically anticipating this blog post, wrote to me in an email a truly great thing: “The Internet can be the new Denny’s, and it is always midnight there.” By which he means, it can be like sitting around in a diner booth at two in the morning, with a handful of peers and collaborators passing around a manuscript and talking it through. The agitation of stale coffee and the late-night brain trust. (And for this, Will wins a set of steak knives.)

So — what am I going to do? Shit, I still don’t know. But I’m leaning toward some kind of self-publishing, with an intention to build audience that way. (Doesn’t mean I won’t still seek out avenues of “traditional” publication, though. If I don’t get published in Cemetery Dance just once, I’ll eat my own left hand as punishment for its transgressions against me.)

I just need to seek out the conflict that hones and sharpens.