Now Working, March 2010

I often mention my own writing in general terms here, but I’d like to start talking about more specifics. Not so much because I think a lot of people out there (or ANY people out there) are following my work at this point, but because I believe spelling out goals and processes helps clarify them for myself.

Also once I’m an established bestseller, it’ll be a fun larf for people to scroll back to these earliest blog posts and think, “Gee whiz, remember how it was then?”

OK, this is really more about that first reason than that second reason. Quick breakdown, then, of what I’m working on lately. I just finished a short story (when I say “finished” I mean revisions totally complete, not “I wrote a first draft”) about a murderer imprisoned in a strange penal colony, which happens to be on the moon. Plagued by nightmares, he volunteers for a strange experiment related to dreams, which he hopes will cure his nightmares, though that’s not the experiment’s aim.

I’ve spent most of my time this week brainstorming an idea for a novel, not that I intend to actually write the novel any time soon. I’ll keep focusing on short stories the next six months at least. But enough rough ideas for this novel had accumulated that I wanted to coalesce them into a short synopsis, set of outlines/plans, and character lists. It’s set in a near-future Seattle, drastically changed not only from today’s Seattle, but the rest of the world too. It delves into body modification, experimental biotech, brain implants, pleasure games, various forms of addiction, AI tools for trading financial instruments, and more. I’ll probably work on this here and there through the summer, try to hammer out a clear synopsis of 20-30 pages, make sure the interlocking relationships are worked out, then set it aside to gel.

I’m in middle revision stages of the most “space opera” thing I’ve written. It takes place in a transit station at the outer edge of the solar system, where humanity is trying to extend outward by building a series of jumping-off points. It involves a nifty transportation technology I can’t wait to explore further (in other related stories), as well as other cool, strange details I had fun inventing but don’t want to give away here. This was was a lot of fun, with a sort of retro science fiction feel. It’s also the longest short story I’ve written, about 10k words, and I’m trying to decide whether to just go with it, or lose a lot of great stuff by paring it down to under 7500 or so. This one’s fun, sexy, strange, full of wonder, adventure and even a little action. Hell, it’s got ray guns and spaceships! I’d love to write more like this in the future, get away from the too-internalized, slower-paced, “literary” trap I often get stuck in.

I’m also doing final revisions on a long-ish story set 50 or so years in the future, following an apparently wealthy guy from resort to resort around the world, starting in fun, still flashy, future Las Vegas. But this fella’s not an ordinary rich guy, seems to find an unusual amount of trouble, and worries a lot about people following him. I tried to create an enjoyable ride, watching him bounce around while learning who he really is and why he lives like this. I hope to have this one finished and sent out by the end of April.

I have four stories in circulation at various magazines, including the first one I mentioned. My goal is to finish at least one new story per month, and start enough new ones to keep the assembly line fed with raw material. I tend to do many revisions, somewhere between ten and twenty drafts, so in the past that’s meant keeping at least eight or ten stories working at any given time, in different stages. Right now I’m trying to make each revision go a little deeper in to the story, and do fewer “rounds” of revision. In other words I’d rather do seven really intensive revisions than twenty that are mostly surface-level.

Currently I have a list of about thirty “seeds” for stories — brief ideas, partial outlines, or full synopses — and I seem to add to this list of rough stuff faster than I withdraw from it. Often, though, I’ll end up combining two or even three separate ideas into one more complex idea: “Hey, maybe the ‘mind-controlled babysitter on a laser-rifle killing-spree’ story can be combined with the ‘silicon-based aliens from Mercury attack Earth’ story?!” Listen, man, don’t steal that idea!

Recently I set aside all my pre-SF stories, of which six had been completed, and decided not to spread my attention too thin by trying to find markets for those, at least for now. To keep things clearer for myself, I’m working on SF only at this point, setting aside all other work whether finished, in progress, or just planned.

So, quick recap: I’m trying to finish roughly one new story per month, start approximately that many new ones, keep adding raw idea stuff to the list of upcoming story plans, and spending a little time on the side planning the Seattle novel. I have four short stories finished and circulating among short fiction markets. That’s where things stand, and I’ll try to post updates whenever anything changes in an interesting way, like if I get published, switch to writing porn, or whatever.

John Cheever, Master of the Short Story

One of the great things about the appearance of a major biography of a beloved actor, or filmmaker, or writer, is the surge in magazine and newspaper stories revisiting the individual, taking the biography as a trigger for reappraisal. So if you love John Cheever but you’re not inclined to read through a fat new biographical book, you can read the features in New York Review of Books or Vanity Fair, or both. Both arise in response to Blake Bailey’s new book, Cheever: A Life (Vintage)

The two articles linked above are one part review of the new Cheever bio, and one part discussion of Cheever himself, one of the more interesting American writers from the middle of the twentieth century onward. Often referred-to as “American’s Chekov” for his focus on short fiction rather than novels (though he did write a few noteworthy novels, eventually), Cheever’s mastery of the short form was equalled by few. His works appeared most often in the New Yorker in the 50s and 60s, rubbing shoulders with stuff by John Updike, and competing for the attention of the contemporary American literary scene with J.D. Salinger’s stories and Catcher in the Rye, and Norman Mailer’s fiction and journalism.

I always thought of him less as an American Chekov and more as an F. Scott Fitzgerald for the latter half of the century. Though Fitzgerald ended up being better known for novels, the two writers really flourished in their shorter works, wrote crystalline, poetic sentences, and struggled to keep their personal lives on the rails despite the seeming effortlessness of their prose. Excess of drink, self-destructive affairs, and relationships of unbelievable volatility characterized both lives, and had similarly detrimental effects.

I carried this red paperback around with me, this collection of Cheever’s stories, off an on for years. I never sat down and plowed through the whole 700 or so pages at once, just enjoyed a few stories here and there. It always seemed to me very raw and difficult work, despite the preoccupation with bourgeois, suburban concerns. In fact, if Cheever carried on where Fitzgerald left off, I’d say maybe Raymond Carver took the handoff from Cheever and ran with it.

Certainly the best-known of Cheever’s stories is “The Swimmer,” not only because it’s one of the best, but also because it was made into a film starring Burt Lancaster. In that story, one of the more strange and unreal by this author, an affluent suburban guy sets the goal of swimming around his entire neighborhood, climbing fences and going through the back yards of strangers, swimming one pool after another, stopping to talk to his neighbors (who seem to know what he’s doing). Snippets of conversation allude to something in the guy’s situation being wrong, and eventually the reader realizes the guy’s swimming circuit is not the purely lighthearted adventure it may have seemed at first. Most of Cheever’s stories are about such men, and their wives and families and jobs, but “The Swimmer” is more raw and primal, and touches a nerve without the writer ever cranking up the narrative volume.

Many of Cheever’s stories I’d call more “vignette” or “anecdote” than story, something creative writing teachers (and books) warn new writers against. If you can’t set a scene or draw a character with the finesse of Cheever or Hemingway, probably it’s best not to try to have a story in which not much happens except talk over cocktails, or reminiscence about what an acquaintance used to be like compared to what he’s like now.

I guess the “red book” is out of print now, and a new collection of Cheever stories is available now… this one. Same 700-ish pages so probably the same stuff. Some time soon, I’ll have to get out my red paperback and rediscover some of the most adept and dexterous short stories ever crafted by an American writer.

The Stories of John Cheever