Friday, May 23, 2008

Creative writing

I can't remember when I learned to love words, both reading them and using them. I do know that by the time I was in grade three I was using the weekly spelling assignment—use each of the ten assigned words in a sentence—to write, not a series of disconnected sentences, but a story of several pages, which incorporated the ten words (along with several hundred others); and doubtless there was more juvenilia which spilled from my pen during that time.

As I grew older, I began searching for ways to incorporate the writing of fiction into assignments that would normally have called for a more non-fictional approach. In grade six, when I had to read 'The Speckled Band' and turn in a piece of writing about it, I eschewed the essay format and instead wrote a one-act play entitled The Secret of Sherlock Holmes; in grade nine Geography I chose to create a fictional country called Basholme (from Basil [Rathbone] + Holmes, which gives an indication where my head was at, literary-wise, during those years), complete with cities, towns, rivers, lakes, a detailed (fictional) history, and even a few scraps of the language—Holmesian, of course—in order to create a national anthem, which I recall was 'Basholme lon sonvre' ('Basholme the Free'); and in grade ten, when we had to read John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, I submitted as my work on the story a chapter which continued the original novel beyond the ending Wyndham had set down.

In senior high there was more scope for what was labelled Creative Writing: an elective course which I enthusiastically took in grades eleven and twelve. I recall very little of these efforts, perhaps mercifully; yet the enjoyment which I had writing them, and the enthusiasm of my teachers, made me think that I had at least some talent with words.

I'd like to say that I spent the next fifteen years quietly writing away, filling notebook after notebook with stories and plots and ideas; but life has a habit of getting in the way. Livings must be earned, lives must be lived, and it never occurred to me that writing was something I could, or should, do. An exception came in 1989, when the Bootmakers of Toronto ran a Sherlock Holmes pastiche contest, and I decided to give it the old college try. I read a lot of Sherlockian pastiche at one time—some good, much of it indifferent, a handful actually bad—and while I recognised that I was not a natural hand at intricate plotting, I had a good ear for authentic period dialogue and descriptive passages not a million miles removed from those of Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus was 'The Adventure of the Suspect Servant' born, and I was pleased to hear, in January 1990, that it had won the contest. I thought little more about the story, until Mike Ashley, editor extraordinaire, contacted us in 1995 or thereabouts for help in tracking down some authors of Sherlockian pastiche. He was busy assembling the book which became The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, and I asked if I might send my own effort along. He said yes, and I did, and thus I made my first professional sale.

I had already written a short ghost story, 'Dead Man's Pears', which had appeared in All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society. When we began Ash-Tree Press, and I began editing All Hallows, I found myself immersed in the world of the ghost story to a greater extent than I had ever imagined, and found my authorial thoughts turning towards more ghost stories. I wrote another tale—'Tourist Trap'—for our anthology Shadows and Silence, and then another ghost story, 'The Appointed Time', which appeared in Supernatural Tales. So far, so small press; and then came the story that changed everything.

'Northwest Passage' was written for our third Ash-Tree anthology, Acquainted With the Night, at the behest of Christopher, who asked if I'd have a story for the antho. I'd been turning over the idea for the story for some time, and this was the spur I needed; the tale was written in three days, and was published in the anthology, and I was pleased that I'd finally been able to let the tale into the world. I really didn't expect much to happen, and was gratified to receive some very positive feedback: one reader in England wrote that he had never been to British Columbia, but when he read the story he could smell the pine needles, which I thought was a wonderful piece of praise. It was with growing astonishment that I saw the story take on a life of its own: a Stoker nomination, an International Horror Guild nomination, and then (unbelievably) a World Fantasy Award nomination. The news came on a sleepy Saturday morning, and I sat staring at the screen for some time, convinced it was a huge practical joke on someone's part ('Hey, she actually fell for it!'). I know there are those who feel that the words 'It's an honour just to be nominated' are somewhat hollow, a cliché trotted out for tired listeners, but in my case they were absolutely true: it was an honour to be nominated. Steven Millhauser, Gene Wolfe, Ursula le Guin, Stephen King, Peter Straub were nominated for World Fantasy Awards; Barbara Roden, of Ashcroft, British Columbia wasn't.

Then word came that the story had been picked up for two 'Year's Best' anthologies, and suddenly I had to face the fact that perhaps I might be a writer after all: not just someone who dabbled at it, but a real writer, someone who wrote stories that other people would ask for, want to publish (maybe even pay money for), and read. My fiction output, which until then had been glacial, sped up. I wrote a story for our fourth Ash-Tree anthology, At Ease With the Dead; I was asked, by editor Danel Olson, to write a story for Exotic Gothic; I had a story accepted for Strange Tales II from Tartarus Press; and other editors were suddenly asking me for tales. I wrote 'Association Copy' for Bound for Evil, and 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them' for Gaslit Grimoire and 'The Brink of Eternity' for Poe, and was suddenly confronted with the fact that I really was a writer.

The next step, however, was by no means an easy one. I seemed to be gaining some reputation as a writer of short supernatural fiction; but short story collections are notoriously problematic, and there was the slight difficulty of whom to approach with the idea of a collection. One or two friends were encouraging me to pursue the idea, but I had no idea who, if anyone, would be interested. If I wrote straight horror, or science fiction, or fantasy, it would have been easier; but my stories were more in the way of classic supernatural fiction, a genre which doesn't precisely set publishers' hearts afire. One day, perhaps, I might have a body of work that would interest someone; but I didn't see it happening anytime soon.

Thus it was that when Sean Wallace of Prime Books approached me and said that he'd be interested in doing a collection of my tales, I was taken aback, to put it mildly. But he was quite serious; and thus it is that my first collection of short stories, Northwest Passages, will be appearing from Prime in Fall 2009, in an edition of 1500 hardback copies and 150 leatherbound, signed copies. The volume will collect together most of my short fiction to date, and contain some new material, which I must begin work on.

The idea that I will have a collection of fiction out next year is still sinking in. In some ways I can look back on my life, and writing career, and see the progression to this point; in other ways it's still a complete surprise. Not so to my dad, who predicted, twenty or so years ago, that I'd write a book by the time I was forty. All right, he was a little bit off; but what's five years between family members?

2 comments:

nomis said...

Finding appropriate places to offer one's collection is indeed a difficult thing these days. The number of publishers working at level significant to warrant consideration are too few, and once that is combined with the general disinterest in anything that isn't absolutely "modern", the writer often find there is one or two possible options to consider. And, most likely, those markets are already filled to the gills, so to speak.

Which means even more congratulations are deserved for your fortune at Prime!

My own experience with first collections, which I'm going through right now, are this: the first few weeks after acceptance are filled with joy and excitement. Then, those weeks turn to months, and things don't seem as exciting any longer. You write, but wonder why, as nothing seems to be good enough to warrant being collected. Then, a few months before the collection's release, when cover art is drawn up and page counts and advertising are discussed, once the whole publishing machine starts to hum, the excitement and joy return. For me, one who can see his first collection starting to peek just at the horizon, it's a scary/wonderful time. Hopefully, your experience will be twice as thrilling.

Barbara Roden said...

Thanks, Simon. Yes, I agree that finding the right publisher for a) a collection of (gasp) short stories, and b) more or less traditional ghost stories at that, is a daunting task. Short stories face an uphill battle because we all know (or so the publishing industry boffins tell us) that short stories don't sell; and unless they're in a cut-and-dried, no messing about, has a section to itself in Chapters genre (SF, horror, fantasy) then you're really in trouble. In between the very small presses (300 copies) and the majors there's very little ground; which is why I was so pleased when Sean Wallace of Prime approached me, out of the blue, and asked about a collection.

Your observations about the process are interesting. The initial heady excitement is wearing off a bit, as I realise that I have to write another story or two up to the quality of the others in order to include new material. And the conversations I've had thus far with Sean about the process indicate that I'll be seeing a different side of the small press publishing world to the one I'm used to with Ash-Tree (and not just because I'm playing the part of the writer, rather than the editor/publisher). It'll be an experience to see the process through its various stages. The introduction is by someone who's not only a friend, but is someone I admire as a writer, and I'm honoured that he volunteered to do it; and I approached four people within the genre about the possibility of blurbs, and all four wrote back gratifyingly quickly with an enthusiastic yes. Now, however, I have to buckle down and do my part, so that the whole process can culminate in a book next October. I think that, in some ways, the intervening months will go slowly; in other ways, October 2009 will be here before I know it.