The subconscious and the conscious: building stories

Recently, I’ve had a rash of publishers asking for explanations of how a story came to be—for Asimov’s Science Fiction, for the forthcoming audio editions of the John Joseph Adams anthologies Wastelands and The Living Dead, so on.  I can understand why editors would want such information.  As a kid, an aspiring writer, I loved the story notes in the back of the collection—indeed I would read them first.  I could surely garner from them the secret of how one got story ideas.


As a writer, however, I have an inordinate amount of trouble in fulfilling this simple request.  Stories suggest themselves to me in lots of ways—as titles, as images that strike my imagination for one reason or another, as blazing germs of ideas that appear in my head for no reason I can discern:  the proverbial light bulb going off.  The problem is, my light bulb doesn’t provide much illumination.


I can only assume—ruling out the ancient Greeks’ explanation for this phenomenon:  the muse—that these images, titles, germs of ideas, whatever, rise up out of the soup of my subconscious, the products of endless reading, observation of the world around me, what have you.  The problem is, the subconscious doesn’t provide stories; it provides germs, nothing more.  Take my story “Death and Suffrage”—a kind of pun on the common phrase “Death and Suffering.”  Suffrage, however, means the right to vote.  What the hell does that mean:  how does it lead to a plot, characters, all the components a story must have?  That moment of discovery—that certainty that this is going to be easy—soon runs up against the practicality of building the story itself.


Enter the conscious mind—which does all the hard work.  “Death” after some thinking
suggests the common (all too common these days) trope of the zombie, the flesh-eating ghoul returned from the dead.  Suffrage, as I’ve said, means the right to vote.  Voting zombies, an intrinsically stupid idea!  How to make it work?  Well, as the saying goes “The dead always vote” in Chicago, and I have a setting.  But the idea itself seems too weightless to carry a narrative.  Why would zombies want to vote instead of eating human flesh, and what would be the effect of such a phenomenon—on the voters themselves, on the campaigns, on the candidates and their advisors?  And suddenly I’m on my way to a story.


What started as a ridiculous idea becomes something a little more tenable.  The story went on to publication, it won an International Horror Guild Award, it was picked up and filmed as part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror television show, it’s been reprinted several times, and suddenly I have in hand perhaps my most successful story.


None of which answers the question of where the initial title, that pun (is pun the write word?) on the word “suffering,” comes from.

On hasty composition

Years ago, following the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention, I was delayed at the Philadelphia airport.  I spent thirty minutes or so trolling the shops, and then, with six hours yet to go, I bought a notebook and started scribbling down the story that would become “Hunger:  A Confession.”  By the time I landed in my then hometown of Knoxville, TN, I had a complete draft in hand—a personal record.

I wouldn’t claim that it’s the best story I’ve ever written—I’m not sure a writer is ever in a position to make such a judgment about his own work.  But it was an interesting experiment in writing fast.  I’m usually laboriously slow—the kind of writer who must perfect (to the best of my limited ability) each sentence as he goes along.  Which is probably why I’m lucky if I manage two stories a year.  And we won’t even talk about novels.  (I think my vita speaks for itself on that score.)

But writing fast is something I’ve been forced to do upon occasion, usually when a deadline is hurtling down upon me.  “The End of the World as We Know It” was written straight through in a single twenty-four-hour sitting; “The Crevasse”—a collaboration with my friend Nathan Ballingrud—was composed even more quickly.

None of this is particularly interesting to someone who doesn’t write, I suppose—who cares how long it takes to write the story; it’s the quality of the final product that matters.  But from a writer’s perspective it does raise an interesting issue:  why do some stories seem to come so quickly while others resist every effort to move them along at something more than the proverbial snail’s pace?  If I could solve that problem I’d eliminate the source of much personal discontent.

Deadlines certainly play a role.  Both “End of the World” and “The Crevasse,” among others, were written with deadlines looming.  Yet as “Hunger” attests, there seems to be more to it; sometimes I suppose you just get a clearer channel to the muse (for lack of a better term).  All I know is that life would be a lot easier—for me and for those unfortunate enough to be around me when the words come slowly (or not at all)—if the static cleared a little more often.

In any case, “Hunger” has had a much longer life than its hasty composition warranted.  It got picked up for two year’s best anthologies in 2004, and just now Ellen Datlow has been kind enough to reprint it again, in Hauntings, from Tachyon Publications.  Pick it up—if not for “Hunger” than for the heady company it finds itself fortunate to be among.  You’ll find stories there by Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Kelly Link, and Lucius Shepard among many others.  And the cover art—by Valentina Brostean—is alone worth the price of admission.

I still haven’t figured out the secret of hasty composition though.  I guess there’s nothing else to do but try.

New stuff here and on the horizon

I haven’t written here in a while, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to say that I have a new essay in Nightmare Magazine on my many shortcomings as a horror writer. :)  You can read it here.  The essay grapples with the question of why so few works in the genre actually scare us–and by scare, I mean the shivering-under-the-covers terror I used to feel as a kid.

In other news, I have two new short stories coming out imminently.  “City So Bright” takes on the question of what happens when the union movement comes to Oz.  It appears in Oz Reimagined, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen.

Also on the horizon is my story “Mr. Splitfoot,” in Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.  The story is about Kate and Maggie Fox, 19th-century mediums who came to fame in 1848, when they heard (or produced:  the jury is still out) a series of rapping noises in their Hydesville, New York, home.  The Fox sisters really existed, and many of the events described in the story happened pretty much as described—or as accurately as I could reconstruct them anyway.  The events in Hydesville were a local cause célèbre, drawing people from miles around to witness them, and the sisters did attribute the source of the poltergeist events to a spirit calling himself Mr. Splitfoot—though they later reassigned them to a peddler said to have been murdered in the house, an inconvenient fact the story ignores.  Many years later, in 1888, Maggie confessed to fakery as described in the story, alienating her sister.  Soon after she recanted, and not long after that she died at a New York City home owned by a woman named Emily Ruggles.  I took considerable liberties in creating the character of Emily Ruggles, about whom I could find almost no information.  The rest of the story is likewise the product of my imagination.  Fiction will have its way.  Those seeking more reliable information on the Fox sisters would do well to consult Barbara Weisberg’s excellent 2004 biography, Talking to the Dead.

The most depressing thing I’ve ever read

“This Is How You Disappear” appears in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Forewarning:  it is not a happy piece.  Tangent Online describes it as “frightfully depressing” while Locus reviewer Lois Tilton goes a step further, calling it “one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read.”


Under some circumstances, this would be disconcerting to say the least.  In these circumstances—maybe not so much.  Writers are constantly being asked where they get their ideas.  I’ve heard some pretty funny answers.  Neil Gaiman has said “From the Idea-of-the-Month Club” and “a little shop in Bognor Regis.”  Harlan Ellison famously said, “Poughkeepsie.”  Such answers—however flip they may be (and they’re plenty flip)—have at least the virtue of getting at the essential mystery of the writing process.  Who can say where ideas come from?  They just come, often without provenance or explanation.  Yet occasionally, when a writer gets a more specific question—“Where did you get the idea for [insert particular story title here]?”—the genesis of the story can be readily traced.  My story “In Green’s Dominion” was triggered by reading Andrew Marvell’s seventeenth century poem “To His Coy Mistress,” which includes the famous lines “My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.”  My story “Touched” grows out of the old Appalachian superstition that those with mental disabilities—those who are “touched”—are compensated with some kind of supernatural ability (in this case to raise the dead).  Which brings me back to “This Is How You Disappear.”


Usually I might take “frightfully depressing” and “one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read” as negative reviews—but in this case those lines get right at the heart of the matter:  depression.  As I’ve mentioned previously, if only briefly, in this space, I suffer from Bipolar disorder—specifically Bipolar I, the more extreme of the two types.  As the name implies, the disease involves dramatic mood swings.  There are periods of mania, marked by impulsiveness, sleeplessness, disordered thoughts, and risky behavior, among other things; and there are periods of profound clinical depression, sometimes (as in my case) accompanied by suicidal thoughts.  When these episodes recede—when you wake to your normal “self,” if you’re fortunate enough to survive—you often find yourself standing amid the wreckage of your former life.


Medication helps—in my case, medication has helped a lot—but it can’t undo the wreckage.  And it raises disturbing questions about identity:  if your sense of selfhood is the product of chemicals in your brain, and if that sense of selfhood can be dramatically altered by the use of pharmaceuticals, how do you draw the line between you and the disease?  If the disease is you, who are you without it?  Indeed, are you anyone at all—does the self even exist, or is it merely a grand illusion?  From the outside these questions may seem trivial:  what does it matter as long as you feel better and you’re not wrecking your life and the lives of those you most love?  From the inside, in my case anyway, they are crucial questions—and perhaps (probably) unanswerable ones.


But the story, in any case, was intended to get at these central issues:  at the way mental illness (and enough with the stigma already) wrecks lives, alienates you from your family and friends, alienates you even from yourself.  Is it depressing? You bet.  Was it intended to be?  Of course:  how else to evoke the experience of mental illness than by plunging the reader into the middle of it?  And of course, the most crucial—the most terrifying—question of all:  Where do you get your ideas?


Sometimes you live them.