Storyville: Finding Your Voice
It’s tough out here in the trenches. The written word is dying, nobody is buying books, presses aren’t paying authors, and it’s impossible to get published or land an agent.
Hi, my name is Richard Thomas and I’m an author. (Hi, Richard). If you’re familiar with my work then you know that while I do have a novel out (Transubstantiate) I’ve also had over forty stories published online and in print over the past four years, including a story in Shivers VI ("Cemetery Dance") with Stephen King and Peter Straub. I’m not giving you this information to brag, I’m letting you know that I’m one of you. I’m getting my stories rejected on a daily basis. I’m trying to break into the same markets that you are. I’m searching for the strength to believe that I can defy the odds and get accepted in a market where only one in a hundred stories makes the final cut. I’m trying to find an agent. Believe me, I get kicked in the nuts regularly, and have been driven to tears as I sit at my desktop. I’ve put my fist through a wall. If I wasn’t bipolar when this all started, I most certainly am now.
With this column, I’m going to try and share with you my ups and downs, the ways that I’ve found success, the paths I’ve found to break in, so I can let you in on all of the secrets, wisdom, and bravado that I’ve discovered in my short tenure as an author. I’m doing this because I want to see you succeed. I want to give you the tools you need to craft your stories, the knowledge you must have in order to send out your stories to the appropriate markets, and the confidence and faith you’ll need to survive the dark times: the weeks when nobody wants your work, when your significant other wonders what you think makes your work so special, when you curse the day you decided to be an author. I’ll show you examples of the stories that have changed my life and remain glued to the inside of my skull. I’ll talk about all of the various aspects of submitting your work. And I’ll write about various aspects of the craft of writing short stories as well.
FINDING YOUR VOICE
One of the most important things you need to do when writing fiction is find your voice. Whether you’ve written ten stories or none, it’s crucial that you can talk about your work and define it. Why? Well, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with this fantasy.
“Hey, what’s that novel you’re reading?” the bookish man asks you in the elevator.
“Oh this? It’s an anthology I’m in.”
“Oh, you have a story in there? How exciting! I’m an agent. What kind of stories do you write?”
“Um, well, they’re about the dark, I mean, like, not the dark as in night, but more about the way that people, um, well you know that story, oh what’s it called, you know that author who just got the film made, the guy…"
The agent’s eyes glass over and he turns back to his iPhone, pressing buttons, already gone.
“Hey, what’s that novel you’re reading?” the bookish man asks you in the elevator.
“Oh this? It’s an anthology I’m in. The collection is about twisted love stories, but I’d describe my work as neo-noir, you know, French for “new-black,” contemporary dark fiction, often transgressive in nature. Have you heard of Dennis Lehane?”
You need to be able to talk about your work whether you're online or in public, when you're writing a query letter, a submission, or a note to a friend. If you can’t define your work, if you can’t understand what you're doing and convey that information to friends and editors, they will have no chance of understanding what you’re trying to do, and they’ll shut you out. They won’t think you’re professional.
But Richard, I don’t know how to describe my writing. I don’t know what it is.
That’s okay. This is the fun part.
The best way to understand your own work is to understand the work of the authors that inspire you. If there is one piece of advice that I can give you above everything else it is READ. Read your ass off. I grew up reading Stephen King, and he has affected my work. I read the beatniks in college, and that was an influence. I found Chuck Palahniuk and he brought me to a whole slew of neo-noir, transgressive authors; people like Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. I am finishing up my MFA, and that has gotten me to read voices like Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders. All of these voices (and many more) have impacted what I do. And they’ve introduced me to many genres (and sub-genres) that I never knew existed. Four years ago I couldn’t have told you what a neo-noir, transgressive thriller was.
GENRES (and sub-genres)
I usually start with horror. I think Stephen King has a wide range of talent, and isn’t always a horror writer. But I know what horror writing is. I’ve read enough of his work, the work of Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Jack Ketchum to get a sense of how you scare somebody, how you create tension, and what is expected in a horror novel. And then I find a way to twist it.
Science fiction is another popular genre, and I grew up reading Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and enjoy contemporary authors like China Miéville as well (some call his work steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction). From science fiction I’ve learned about how science defines reality, how you can expand the scope or focus of your story with the unexplainable, the unbelievable, and other aspects of the genre
There’s fantasy as well, and for me that usually means J.R.R. Tolkein, or these days, Neil Gaiman. I learned about world building, mythology and language, about how life can be altered a little bit or a lot, and what that can do to an otherwise normal story. Magical realism is a popular sub-genre right now.
Under the broad umbrella of crime and mystery writing you have examples like hardboiled, detective, noir, neo-noir, and thrillers. These categories have taught me about setting and plot, how to build up suspense, string a reader along, and lead a story into the darkness. Sometimes you even make it out.
Literary fiction is probably one of the most difficult genres to define, but much like art (or pornography, for that matter) you know it when you see it. I think of literary fiction as a style that elevates the language, avoids the conventions of most genre fiction, and involves asking questions instead of solving problems. It does not typically rely on excessive violence or sex.
In the end, whether you write in one of the aforementioned genres, or something else, the important thing to understand is that you need to study the masters that came before you. Whatever genre you write, read the authors that define it. You won’t like everyone, of course, but that’s how you’ll develop your taste. But whatever genre you grew up reading, step outside your comfort zone and see what else you can learn. Every genre has something to offer you.
YES, THERE IS A TEST
So right now, pick up a pencil and write down your five favorite authors. Write down your five favorite books. While you’re at it, write down your five favorite movies. And add to that your five favorite television shows. Don’t agonize over it, do it fast, whatever leaps out at you, it will reveal to you some common threads. Here, I’ll do this right now, in front of you, live and without a net. (UPDATED 2019)
Authors: Stephen King, Will Christopher Baer, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson.
Books: The Stand, Kiss Me Judas, Perdido Street Station, All The Beautiful Sinners, Annihilation.
Movies: Blade Runner, Under the Skin, Hereditary, Memento, American Beauty.
TV: Lost, Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield.
Okay, what do you see? Well, I see the darkness that I know informs my writing. I see lyrical prose and innovation. I see epic stories based on mythology. There is anarchy and chaos and rebellion. I see the future. And I see love, buried deep in the middle of it all.
Neo-noir, transgressive fiction. (Or these days, neo-noir, speculative fiction.)
That’s what I call my work. But it doesn’t mean that I only write one kind of story. I wrote ten stories in my MFA that I’d call straight up literary. I write horror now and then. I am dabbling in magical realism now as well. But if you’ve read my work, a lot of it, if you were as close to it as I am, you’d know a Richard Thomas story when you read it.
Now how about you?
Do some research into the list you just created and see what you can find. Study your answers and how it reflects back onto your own work. Even if you’ve never written a single story, but want to, if you look at your interests, you’ll at least be able to see what entertains you, what moves you, what excites you out there in the world.
And then start writing. Practice. Figure out what the standard expectations of your genre are, and use them. Eventually, you’ll start to twist those expectations. But for now, steal from every giant in that genre. Not word for word, but the style, the idea, the voice. You’ll never be able to keep it, because your own voice will start to seep through. Your past, your experiences: they will shine through because only you can be you. And keep doing it. Write stories of every imaginable length, long and short. Write five hundred words. Write one thousand words. Write three thousand words. Go back and do five hundred again. Watch that favorite movie over again. When it makes you smile, when your heart beats fast, take notice.
This is who you are. Embrace it.
A classic story to read: William Gay’s “The Paperhanger,” in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down or a fantastic collection, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (originally published in Harper’s.)
A contemporary story to read: Stephen Graham Jones’s “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit,” from The Ones That Got Away (originally published in Cemetery Dance #57).
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