Storyville: When to Be Conventional, and When to Be Weird

Throughout my career as an author, over the past nine years, I’ve often struggled to find my voice. Especially early on, when I was trying to figure out who I was. Who would I let influence me—Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, or Will Christopher Baer? In the end, and after writing many stories that failed, after taking classes with Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, Jack Ketchum, and many others, after getting my MFA, and letting literary voices such as Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haruki Murakmi seep into my head—I settled on a perspective, a voice that was uniquely my own.

And then I tried to sell my second novel, Disintegration.

After writing the first half in my MFA, and then pouring the final 40,000 words out of my head in a great rush over the course of one week between freelancing gigs, I had a book. Something I was proud of, that I thought was special. I can remember finishing it and breaking down—crying. I thought I might throw up. I’d been that man, that dark character, for months—years. I was exhausted, spent, and sick to my stomach. It had been a rough ride.

It was time to send it out into the world.

I started with small presses, and over the next year, got a lot of positive responses, including a board vote at Akashic, where it lost by one vote—and they passed. When I’d exhausted those markets, I thought, “Hell, I guess I have to try for an agent now.” Which was probably the tougher road. I didn’t have many other options.

Don’t hesitate to be weird, to take chances, to raise the stakes, and have your characters risk more—but also look at the big picture, and ask yourself if it all works together

Another year went by, and the rejections were piling up—20, 30, 40. I was running out of agents. One day I got a phone call from Paula Munier, and she told me she loved the book, she’d only read 100 pages, but she wanted it. Against all logic, I told her to finish the book. It was kind of bleak, I told her. And right there I should have known that some changes were coming. She read the rest, and the offer still stood.

Now we were shopping it to the big boys.

Another year went by and we kept getting close—the author can write, they said, that’s for sure—a powerful voice, but we can’t find a place for it in our catalog. I started to hear that more and more. Disintegration was somewhere between crime and horror, and I was starting to realize that this may not work. Then we heard back from Random House Alibi, they loved it, and we signed.

Enter Dana Isaacson.

Dana had been at Random House for many years, and my agent told me to trust him. So I did. For the most part. There were two exceptions—a pivotal scene, and the ending.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel there was a rape scene in Disintegration. Or, I thought there would be a rape scene. When I sat down to write it—the moment building, vengeance on the horizon, my protagonist tracking down the woman that tased and robbed him—it seemed like it had to happen. But I wasn’t sure. I knew it would define the novel, it would be all that anyone talked about—I knew it would alienate some readers.

What should I do?

I left it up to my protagonist. It was his bottom, I wasn’t sure what he’d do. And when that moment arrived, when that scene unfolded—he stopped short. I thought that was enough.

I was wrong.

My editor told me that this in fact should NOT be him hitting bottom, as I had thought. And then he said the ending had to change, too. This should be his first step back up into the light, he said. That way when we get to the end, the audience will buy the transformation. I fought him on it—to the point that my agent had to send me an email telling me to listen to Dana, to trust him. He knew what he was doing.

I changed the scene. And it made all the difference. What happened in that moment? Well, you’ll have to read the book, but my protagonist stopped being a monster, and saw that the woman was really just a girl—and that she wasn’t lost yet, it wasn’t too late for her to get out. It ended up being a powerful scene, I think. And then, when we got to that ending, one of five I had written, we tweaked it again, and it all made sense.

Maybe there WAS still room in this world for a guy like him, maybe there was still hope.

Quite often when I write novels, or short stories, I take familiar territory and try to make it my own—different, unique, and special. But what exactly does that mean? Where is the intersection between weird and conventional, between expected and surprising?

We make choices all along the way, but it always has to serve the story. So when you make your decisions, think about the following things:

  1. Are you being weird just to be weird? Or does this serve the story and plot?
  2. Does it make sense? Do you “buy it?”
  3. Does this fit your character, and his/her place in the world?
  4. Is this twist out of left field, deus ex machina? Or has it been earned, are there clues all along the way that we can only see now?
  5. Are these decisions supported by your theme, mood, symbolism, and setting?
  6. Can you write the character (or setting) you just created? Do you have the knowledge and experience (or are you up for the research) in order to do this?
  7. Are you fulfilling the expectations of your genre? There is a difference between being innovative and falling short. If I want a hamburger, it better still be a hamburger—but there is big difference between McDonald’s, Burger King, In-N-Out, Steak ‘n Shake, Portillo’s, and White Castle. Not to mention gourmet versions like Au Cheval, Bachi Burger, and Brindle Room.
  8. What is the overall sensation? Step back and read your story, or novel, not as you, the author, or as the editor—but as the READER, your final audience. What emotions do you feel? Are those the emotions you WANTED the reader to feel? If not, edit and tweak, until you get the desired response.
  9. Make sure we care. You can be as strange, bizarre, surreal, and/or innovative as you want—but we still have to CARE about your characters. The basics of storytelling still apply.
  10. What is the most satisfying result? Look at your hook, your inciting incident, your tension, the conflicts (internal and external), as well as the climax, resolution, change, and denouement and ask yourself—is this satisfying? If not, then something went wrong.

So the next time you sit down to write that epic tome, or even just a bit of flash fiction, don’t hesitate to be weird, to take chances, to raise the stakes, and have your characters risk more—but also look at the big picture, and ask yourself if it all works together. The journey is important, but so is the result. You can look at the novel that kicked off the New Weird movement, Perdido Street Station and SEE all of the wonderful choices China Mieville made, how unique it is, how different, how bizarre. But in the end, it boils down to the relationships between the main characters, the epic battle of good vs. evil, and whether or not we care about the people in his story. And we do. There are so many quiet moments that get us to care, to love, to worry, to fear, to rage, to hope—all in a strange new place, with horrific creatures we’ve never seen before, and a mythology that is all his own. In the end, no matter how weird it gets, China masters the basics, in ways that are deep, layered, and full of emotion. And you can, too.

Image of Perdido Street Station (Bas-Lag)
Author: China Miéville
Price: $12.99
Publisher: Del Rey (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 710 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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