I wrote Not for Nothing right on the heels of a second read of Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. And that read was because the movie showed up on some ninety-nine cent shelf, to remind me, to impress me, to lure me. And I’ve been telling anybody who asked that that was probably right around 2006 — I was pretty sure Not for Nothing was the last novel I wrote before Flushboy, in 2007. Just looked at the timestamps on the old files, though, and:
Category Archives: craft
I’m pretty sure the first rashomon I ever saw, at least the first where the on-the-fly construction of the story really set me back on my heels, was this one:
After that I was hooked. Completely. Forever. Happily. Now I keep a running list of rashomon stuff, which I’ll annotate below some. But it also strikes me that every single first-person story is basically being told as ‘counter’ to the version that ‘really’ happened. Yes? Or undercutting it, embellishing it, fleshing it out—taking whatever rhetorical strategy is necessary for our estimation of this narrator to be ‘good’ rather than ‘bad.’ I mean, in the stories that are obviously rashomon, each character’s version of events is that wonderful kind of selecting an offense that anticipates the defense, yes? From Nick Carroway to Patrick Bateman, there’s not a single narrator we can trust. And that indeterminacy, that’s where fiction lives. Without it the process of creating a narrative is really just stacking bulletpoints one after the next. Without self-aggrandizing selection, we’re left with the illusion of non-fiction. Which can be fun in itself—those are fertile grounds to lie in, if you can adopt the right ‘journalistic’ pose, and keep from grinning too obviously, and if you don’t get seduced by research or correspondence to facts or, though I hesitate, “truth”—but what I’m talking about here is conflict. That’s what’s at the heart of every rashomon. As readers, we know almost immediately that all of these versions can’t be the way it really went down. They’re not just wildly divergent, they’re so obviously self-serving. And that friction, it produces heat, and that heat it drives the story.
Back in the late nineties, I’d see Stephen Dixon stories all over and flip back to his author bio at the end of the journal or whatever not because I didn’t already know it, but for the rush: it always said he had some three hundred stories published. I had maybe six at the time? Three hundred was an amazing, impossible, never-get-there kind of number. And I’m not there yet. This isn’t that post. Though I did just total up my stories from print- and e-mags and anthologies and best-of-the-years and textbooks, meaning there’s some doubling, even some tripling, and maybe a ‘forthcoming’ or three sneaked in (I did manage not to count novel chapters that ran in different places, anyway), but still, sitting at 201, looks like. Since my first publication in Black Warrior Review back in 1996 (well, ‘first’ would be this little mag MindPurge, then there was North Texas Review. But BWR was the first I got a check for. And checks matter). Still chasing Dixon, though.
I can’t remember if I wrote The Gospel of Z right before or right after The Least of My Scars. They were right next to each other, anyway. Oh, yeah: I wrote the first draft of Z before Scars, then the next draft after Scars. I’m pretty sure. And, it wasn’t the first zombie thing I’d written. My first zombie novel was It Came from Del Rio. Which I’m thinking was 05, maybe? -ish? I know I did Zombie Bake-Off in 07, anyway. And, coming into both of them, I knew nothing about zombies. I mean, I’d seen the zombie movies, of course, and read some of the stories, but I hadn’t thought about the zombie in any real way. This is probably why Dodd in Del Rio has a bunny head, and keeps a journal. And why the zombies in Zombie Bake-Off are molting into stage after stage: I was making it all up as I went.
It’s live over at LitReactor. And it’s in keeping with that write-up I did over at Fantasy Matters a bit ago. And I guess I also kind of winged off the same stuff in my reviews of Freedom and The Last Werewolf. And, hopefully it’s not in any working against my first write-up dealing with all this, “On Genre,” at The Cult. And, I could have even been talking about some of this stuff (though running it through ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’) here, forever ago.
and, nothing against Oklahoma, either. I watched Saving Grace, I mean, and I’ve read some good books and stories out of there — however, when I wrote ATBS, I remember very specifically driving everybody way around Oklahoma. Just because I knew that if I let anybody set tire there, that the story was going to be forever getting up to Kansas like ATBS needed.
None of which is what I’m about to link, here. What I’m linking is my invective against “OK.” At the spanky new LitReactor. Click here. Though, people who have been through my classroom, you of course already know that you don’t get credit for your whole assignment or submission (or life) if you ever utter “OK” or “O.K.” on the page. It’s a word. You spell it with four letters. It’s not that complicated.
Back in 2005 or so, I was under contract to write a sequel to All the Beautiful Sinners for Rugged Land — they’re gone now, but they were hot for a while, and produced some gorgeous books, and, as far as I know, did the first ever serious book trailer, too (For Henry’s List of Wrongs) — and it was supposed to be a sequel, this “Seven Spanish Angels,” a title I was of course ripping off, but also, it was a title that I felt would keep me honest. Becuase, I mean, you don’t abscond with something like that and then not treat it seriously, right? At least I couldn’t. I remember when that song came out, I was twelve, and didn’t have the record, of course, but could dial it in out in the parents’ and uncles’ trucks some lucky times, and I’d close my eyes and just be there in that song. It was the same as listening to Marty Robbins sing “El Paso,” to me — and of course, six years before, I’d listened to “El Paso” probably ten thousand times on a cassette player by my 25mhz Compaq, writing The Fast Red Road. This was that again, for me.
For ten Wednesdays the subject will be fiction. Mostly yours. With our class meetings going all afternoon, too, it’s not unlikely for you to be bringing a story to workshop each week. No essays or memoir or journalism either, please. Just lies, told in a fashion so compelling that we impart reality to them, that we extract truth from them.
Stories we get lost in and and don’t want to find our way out. Perfect titles, irresistible hook lines, scenes paced such that the pages turn themselves, characters that fit in this world better than we do, situations and settings we couldn’t have imagined but recognize anyway, then an ending you don’t have to read twice, because you want to save it for later, when you need some reason not to kill yourself.
Provided you can write, it should be an easy summer.
1) Characters are most interesting when they lie. It’s when they’re the most naked, the most vulnerable, the most perplexing — the most like us. Stories need stupid decisions that, at the time, seem absolutely rational and necessary. Without stupid decisions, the world isn’t thrown out of balance, and so there’s no need for a ‘rest of the story’ to balance it back.
2) If you keep having to dip into the story’s past to explain the present, then there’s a good chance your real story’s in the past, and you’re just using the present as a vehicle to deliver us there. However, we cue into that charade extremely fast, and move on to another story, another book.