The Storytelling Impulse

Writing stories is fun. I’ve done a fair amount of it over the years, and have enjoyed a very modest bit of success. Nestled among the successes, however, have been … let’s not call them failures. Let’s say, there were some stories that I felt pretty good about, but that I was unable to sell to a publisher. Four or five novels and a somewhat thicker sheaf of short stories, all of them gathering dust.

Not that getting a story published in a magazine is a cure for dust-gathering. A story appears, let’s say, in Asimov’s. A few thousand people can read it if they choose. The following month, another issue arrives in their mailbox, and last month’s issue gets tossed on a shelf. Quite likely it will never be thumbed through again.

Still, getting a story published is better than not getting it published. If an editor is willing to pay money for a story, that’s an acknowledgment that the story has some meaning, some human value.

I’m starting to feel restless. Starting to feel that it would be fun to write another novel. I have a couple of ideas that I’d like to explore. Another option, one upon which I gaze with more trepidation, would be to take one of my existing unpublished novels, tear it apart, and rewrite it from the ground up.

I’ve made vague stabs a couple of times at rewrites. I have a rather considerable stack of notes and new scenes for The Chinaman’s Box of Spectacles, a fantasy set in Illinois in the 19th century. I think I understand why it didn’t sell. There’s a structural weakness in the plot — a sort of soft spot. Whether the rewrite would solidify the soft spot, I don’t know.

Then there’s The Leafstone Shield. Its problems are perhaps deeper than those in Spectacles. It’s too darn long, for one thing. It’s disguised as a fantasy epic, but it displays no real sympathy for the genre it claims to belong to; on the contrary, it tiptoes dangerously close to being a sarcastic commentary on the fantasy epic. And the theology (there are gods in the story) is not very plausible — because what about gods is plausible?

As an aside, Putting a god in a story is not a great idea, because gods are too powerful. A story is about a human being who has a serious problem — and a god can always solve the problem with a wave of His or Her hand. Not even Terry Pratchett has much traffic with gods.

But we were talking about rewriting. I was, anyway. Rewriting is not a very spontaneous activity. There’s a lot to keep in mind all at once, and at almost every turn you’re forced to consider whether a scene you’re fond of can be salvaged, or whether it ought to be tossed out. If you’re too fond of your material, you can’t do a rewrite. But if you’re not fond of your material, why write the story in the first place?

At a higher level, there’s the question of what readers care about. And also, the question of whether it matters what readers care about. I don’t tend to write novels with much sex in them, for instance, because I find sex scenes tedious (or embarrassing) to read. I’m well aware that sex sells books, but so what?

Another book that’s too long, a book I never sent to my agent at all, is a mystery called While Caesar Sang of Hercules. Nobody has ever read this manuscript. One of the discouraging things about it is that I was trying for absolute historical authenticity (it’s set on the Bay of Naples in about 60 A.D.), and I fell short of my own expectations in a couple of areas. Even so, I’m very fond of the story, and I’m not sure it needs a rewrite.

Nor does my most recent unpublished novel, A Long Shadow. I can readily see that it isn’t structured in quite the ideal way for the tastes of the modern mystery reader … and I don’t care. I told the story the way it needed to be told.

I wish I could make these stories available to readers in some form. Sure, I could put them up on my website, but it hasn’t escaped my notice that nobody ever reads the eight short stories that are on the site already. I have had exactly one email about them in the two years since I uploaded them. But I don’t want to get stuck in self-pity here. That’s not the point. The point is, telling stories is fun. I think I may want to do some more stories.

It would be nice to get a little acknowledgment once in a while from the big wide world. It would help me stay focused on the writing. But maybe I’m becoming patient enough that that’s less an issue now than it was at one time. Maybe I can just enjoy telling the story.

More to the point, it would be nice to think that a few readers have encountered these characters. How Germanus and Licinia fell in love, how John Gordon’s sidekick O’Malley started (maybe) a certain well-known Chicago fire, how Wong Feng stole the sacred cauldron from the Emperor of Heaven, how Kyura defeated Posthilnueze at the battle of Blacktooth Gap (with a little help from three inept and quarrelsome ghosts whom you might recognize if you ever watched afternoon TV) … oh, and so many other things!

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3 Responses to The Storytelling Impulse

  1. Greenman Ron says:

    Jim– Since most work in the genre typically considered fantasy is such crap sarcasm, particularly if not too broad, is not such a bad idea. Gods need not be too powerful. In Homer they are petty are bored and more of a capricious nuisance than omnipotent directors of human affairs. Single powerful gods are tougher to deal with but even the Judeo/Christian god is less than the perfect, omnipotent personae children are manipulated with. Gawd errs constantly in his creation or if he deliberately makes what he got then he is malevolent, not in the less than perfect creation, but in the lie that it is good else why make perfection then inhabit it with creatures incapable of perfection. He’s also quite insecure, requiring constant praise or he’ll punish you with his super powers. He’s such an insecure super hero he demands his fans not even praise other super heroes or “God Smash!” Harvey Milquetoast turns into the Hulk if you don’t cower and tiptoe around his fragile feelings. Homer’s gods are better but just as psychologically unstable. Gods are always plausible because they tend to be caricatures of our whole selves. Better than comic book heroes who (except for rare cases like Batman who lacks powers–just has skills and pathos) display single aspects unless presented as a pantheon a’la the Greeks or the Justice League. Write this book and I’ll read it. Be a Homer, be a Tolkien, be the Bible authors (Gang of Four is appropriate considering what’s been done with this brilliant psychological thriller once the religionists got a hold of it)! And as for historical accuracy (I’m bouncing), I recall a quote, can’t remember exactly nor can I give proper attribution but to paraphrase, “History is a body of lies wherein all the dates and names are true, whereas in literature all the dates and names are invented to convey the truth.” in my opinion historical literature is one of the best forms of both genres because characters I can relate to do things around events that create a sense of reality. Steinbeck and Hemingway, to name only two, write historical fiction. The HBO series Rome was absolutely brilliant. The larger events became a great historical lesson for the back of the mind while the day to day issues, real or imagined, of the characters, historical or fictitious, kept us interested (and the nudity didn’t hurt). Anyway, go for it.

  2. georgek says:

    Jim, have you looked into the Kindle store at all?

    • midiguru says:

      No. Since I don’t own a Kindle, I have no easy way to find out what sorts of things are available, how they look, and so on. I’ve looked at, which is a fairly interesting self-publishing site. You can make your books available in print editions and they handle the shipping.

      Self-publishing is not a problem. For that matter, I can easily create PDFs and upload them to my own website for free download. Or, if I’m feeling ambitious and don’t like lulu for some reason, I can set up my own online shop, complete with PayPal, secure credit card payments, or whatever I like.

      The sticking point is that there’s no easy way to do any self-promotion. Promotion would require an enormous expenditure of time and effort (not to mention money), and it’s not the sort of activity that I enjoy. Even if I did enjoy it, life is too short. There are many, many things that I enjoy, and I will never have time to do them all.

      But if I’m not going to do any promotion, why go to the trouble of putting together a volume of stories, or an edition of a novel, and make it available on Kindle or lulu? That would, again, be a waste of precious time.

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