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The Fine Art of Hindsight, In Theory & Practice

March 31st, 2006 8 comments

David Niall WilsonI had about a dozen plans for what I would write this month. Some of the words and phrases were written in my mind. Some of them ended up in my journal, and one nicely ordered set became my column for http://www.chizine.com/. Then, as so often happens, inspiration came to me in the form of life, e-mail, and the pursuit of perfection.

Recently a long term goal of mine was reached. I sold a collection of short fiction to a respected publisher. To top that off, the editor/publisher selected pretty much the same stories, from a large pool of my work, that I would have selected myself. The project, thus far, has been a dream. Along the way, though, I made a fateful promise that I thought was meant to make the editor happy, and learned that – subconsciously at least – it was meant to make me happy. It is one of those things, as it turns out, that will make us both happy, though it requires a lot of work.

The promise I made was simple. I would revise every story. All thirteen tales, all 98,000 words, would be freshly gone over, poked, prodded and re-shaped. Some of these stories were written as long ago as 1995 (I think that’s the oldest) and my “voice” has changed a lot since then. My understanding and application of style and grammar has evolved. Hopefully I’m even a bit wiser and have matured somewhat, emotionally and professionally. Still, when I said I would revise the stories, what I really meant was, ‘please, please, please let me revise the stories,’ and it was a selfish request.

Over the two plus decades of my career, one thing has never changed. When my work makes it to publication, and I read it, I cringe. Often. There is always something I would change, or rearrange, or excise completely. The biggest nightmare of this sort I recall was a story titled “The Dungeon Renewal Plan,” which was published in Cemetery Dance Magazine. That story was originally written during the lat 1980s when I was studying under J. N. Williamson in the Writer’s Digest School course on writing to sell fiction. It was an assignment. I wrote a simple tale about ghosts materializing from a drainage system on the anniversary of an attempted prison break. That was how it started.

After ‘graduating,’ I began submitting the stories I’d written during the course. One editor pointed out that my story left too many unanswered questions, and that the ending was ambiguous, so I sat back down and added the second half of the story. Being a very clever fellow, I broke up sections with the pithy discourse of a DJ on the radio, sort of giving a play-by-play of the action. More on that in a moment.

I sold that story to an anthology that never appeared. It was titled H2Orrors, and the stories all had to do with water in some way. The editor held the work a long time, but never managed to land a sale. Then another editor / publisher decided he was going to do an anthology. He’d published a collection of his own short stories, and was big on branching out. The anthology, as its predecessor, died with my story still unpublished. Since Rich Chizmar was involved, somewhat, he had the story in question, and eventually he asked to publish it in Cemetery Dance Magazine. I was thrilled.

You see, I knew this was a ‘great’ story. I was convinced, in fact, that it was among my strongest work, and that it would open some eyes when it finally saw print. I’ll tell you one thing; it certainly opened mine. The very first of the cleverly inserted radio DJ snippets gave away the entire plot to the story. How I didn’t see that in all the years I had that story in my hands, I do not know, but I certainly saw it when I read it, and I was mortified (remain mortified). That was the beginning of my new attitude about the sacrosanct quality of my work, and the process of revision.

Since then, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve regretted not giving something a final going over; how many manuscripts I’ve realized were perfect for a market and shot off out of the folder where I keep them without so much as a glance. It has resulted in world-class errors, like sending a story (again to Cemetery Dance) minus the final seven pages of the manuscript, only to find that the last page I DID send ended with a suitable “ambiguous” sort of horror finale. I even got a fan letter from a grad student in California commending me on the brilliance of ending it right there and leaving the imagination so fully engaged. That story has since been published as an Amazon Short at Amazon.com under a new title, “New Leather and Old Cognac,” with the final seven pages reinserted, but that’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to explain the joy of revising 98,000 words of short fiction that will represent me to the world as my first collection, Defining Moments. I’m here in the full knowledge that I’ll miss something, or regret something, eventually, when I read the book. I’m also here grateful that I have grown to have sense enough to want very badly to read and revise every page of the work involved, and to know that it needs it. Despite the fact most of these stories have been published, and that several have even been recommended for awards, I know they need work. When I turn them in they will be cleaner, brighter offerings – dusted and polished with love and affection. I also know that for many of these tales, it’s the first time they’ve experienced this. For being a bad parent to my work, I apologize. I will try to do better. Reading what I have wrought in black and white print I can’t erase has been very therapeutic.

As evidence of this, realize I wrote this essay, revised it, posted it, and this is the THIRD TIME since posting it that I have re-opened it to fix something (sigh).

So, in conclusion, thanks go out to Robert Morgan of Sarob Press for buying my work, and for giving me the time and opportunity to make it better than it was when he first liked it.
One last note, before I go. In my personal journal / blog I’ve been conducting some interviews, and publishing some book reviews. Since most of those involved in these interviews and reviews are fellow contributors to this site, I thought readers might enjoy dropping by for an extra glimpse into the minds that create Storytellers Unplugged daily. So far I’ve interviewed Elizabeth Massie and Thomas “Sully” Sullivan (of whom it has been said after reading my interview with him,‘The man writes like silk feels’) and I have “The Scariest Book I’ve Ever Read” reviews by Elizabeth Massie and the inimitable Janet Berliner. More will follow. You can find them in THE DEEP BLUE JOURNAL– hope you enjoy.

DNW

"Wow, but What About Me?"

by David Niall Wilson

(Don’t be surprised if there are several essays today…we lost “days” during Feb)

I’ve seen the subject of how authors get along with one another touched upon here, but recent events have caused me to believe it’s time to take it a step farther. There is a phenomenon that may, or may not be exclusive to the entertainment industry – and I include writing in this industry – that bears mention. For lack of a real name, and because it amuses me, I’m going to call it the “Wow, but what about me?” syndrome.

The perfect illustration of this took place last week when Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, went to trial in the UK, accused of lifting the research of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail for his novel. The case, on the surface and beneath the surface, is ridiculous. The book in question, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, was published as non-fiction. They did documentaries, and there have been a lot of other books written by a lot of other people on the same basic subject. Their contention is that Brown stole the concept that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and moved to France, founding a bloodline that lives through until this very day, and that the Holy Grail is actually the bloodline itself. In their book they claim to have researched this theory exhaustively, and to have proven it to their own satisfaction, if not that of the world. They cite a number of sources in their bibliography.

They can’t have it both ways, obviously. Either they made the crap up, and Dan Brown stole their novel – in which case they should be the ones on trial, along with Mr. Frey, for putting forth made-up-crap as fact, or the book is fact, as far as they know and believe, and the book is a work of reference – one of many that could be used, according to their own theory, to prove the concept behind their research. If this latter is the case, how can they sue someone for using historical fact as the basis for a novel, just because they are the first to bring the particular fact in question to public knowledge? Couldn’t Brown have read all the works in their bibliography as well as their own book, or even instead of it, and come to the same conclusions they did?

I confess, I’m in big trouble if Brown loses the case – most of The Grails Covenant Trilogy is based on what I read in that very book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. But I digress. I also want to point out, up front, that I have been as guilty of this syndrome as anyone – I’m trying to change.

“Wow, but what about me?” Syndrome is where someone sees the success of another, and can’t even finish their congratulations before they try to figure out how this success on the part of someone else can be warped into their own success. I want to point out, up front, that I have been as guilty of this syndrome as anyone – I’m trying to change. Examples?

Writer: “My agent just sold my novel to NYC.”
WBWAM Sufferer: “Wow, who is your editor? Can you mention me?”

Writer: “I sold a story to so-and-so for his “Brainfarts” anthology.”
WBWAM Sufferer: “Wow, how much does it pay? Are they open for submissions?”

Writer: “I sold my vampire novel.”
WBWAM Sufferer: “Wow, what kind of vampire book? Who bought it? Are they looking for more?”

Writer: “I got picked up to write a series novel.”
WBWAM Sufferer: “Wow, can you tell me how to get in on that?”

Writer: “I signed with a new agent.”
WBWAM Sufferer: “Wow, are they looking for more clients?”

You get the idea. I have been guilty of WBWAM in the past myself, and it only occurred to me long after the fact how incredibly insensitive it can seem. When a fellow writer shares a success, or a triumph, why is it that we tend to experience almost every emotion in the world except genuine happiness for them? I’m working on this, as a personal goal. Sometimes you have to ask questions about other writers’ editors, publishers, and agents. It’s a necessary part or this business, and not the most pleasant part, but the time to ask those questions is not within thirty seconds of receiving their good news. Give them a chance to revel in the glory. Give them well-deserved props and feed their ego. I know from over two decades in this business that the world at large will offer little encouragement. As a group, though, we can be supportive, civil, and at least give the impression that we care about the careers and work of others.

The Da Vinci Code trial just drives it home for me. Instead of being satisfied that their research had spawned one of the most successful novels of modern times, and that the novel in question has driven their own sales and royalties back up through the roof, these Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors said, “Wow, how can we use that to our advantage?” They seem to have asked this of their own publisher, who is now a part of Random House, UK – who published The Da Vinci Code, as well…or maybe it was the publishers who said it. Maybe it was Authors: “Hey, we’re all making you guys a lot of money.”
WBWAM Publishers: “Wow, How can we use you to make us more?”

The point is, when you hear some good news from a friend or a fellow author, and your spider senses start tingling … just say Wow. Just say Wow, to friends, and make note of the questions and third degree to follow for a later point in time. Give that moment in the sun a chance to warm things up, and when you come back later with your questions, I bet they are well received.

See, I curbed my initial impulse to write to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and point out that I used their research too, even though if they sued me in the UK I would probably drive sales of my trilogy up. I feel so much better…

DNW