Detonation #10: The Side Piece

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Gather round spawlings, and let Auntie Octoclot tell you a tale of two novelists. A pair of faithless whores who barely get past writing the prologue before their eyes are wandering. Before they’re burning through a string of short stories, some very short, some they don’t even bother to name before slipping away and crumbling back into bed with their novels. It’s disgusting, really.

Or is it?

What is it about these slutty distractions encountered in the periphery of our novel writing journeys? Why isn’t one project enough? Where is the harm in stepping out on your novel?  Glad you asked, as I hereby offer the following arguments in defense of the much maligned side piece.

Novels are long and monogamy is boring

Let’s just say it’s a good thing each of my tentacles doesn’t feel entitled to know what crevices the others are exploring at any given moment. But when it comes to writing, your novel is in fact well served by occasionally dripping your quill over a fresh sheet of vellum.

A case study. Noggy and Lola are best friends. Imagine them locked in a room together for a year. They’d run out of things to say and Lola would zip the nose hole on Noggy’s gimp mask shut in his sleep. Or what if this wasn’t a dystopian dungeon world and they were permitted to come and go, spend time with other people, and still hang out in the dungeon whenever they both want? Isn’t that a more gratifying relationship in the end? RACK rules apply.

Saying you can only work on one project at a time is as ridiculous as saying you can only have one playmate at a time. But srsly, Nog + Lola = BFF

Procrastination can generate a robust body of work

It’s truly astonishing how clean your house gets, how orderly your filing cabinet, and how much other writing you can produce when you’d rather do just about anything than work on your fucking novel.

Noggy: Did you work on your fucking novel?

Lola: Erm…no.

Noggy: You made me promise to bludgeon you with a garden weasel if you didn’t work on your fucking novel.

Lola: I did, but so ardent was I in my fucking novel avoidance that I wrote three bitchin’ short stories.

Noggy: A promise is a promise.

Lola: You’re at Home Depot right now, aren’t you?

Noggy: You’re lucky the weasels aren’t out until Spring.

Not all ideas are shelf stable

A brilliant story idea is not like a can of condensed milk pushed to the back of the pantry. You can’t come back in a year expecting it to be as vibrant and magical as it was freshly squirted outta the creative udder. Some ideas you need to use right away before they spoil.

Noggy: Wanna help me drink a bottle of insanely expensive Japanese whisky?

Lola: You said I wasn’t worthy

Noggy: Yeah, but I opened it a year ago, thinking I’d finish it when I finished my novel. Now it tastes like socks, and somebody needs to drink it, even if it is you.

Lola: I’ll be right over…

Art is a process as much as it is a product. That process is rarely linear. As an artist the last thing you want to liken yourself to is a factory cranking out ‘art’. So redraw your novel writing maps to allow the occasional detour of a short story, essay, or even a goddamn poem(if you must). The finished novel is a worthy final destination, but the side piece turns that journey into a winding, recursive, messy, metaphor-mixing ride you definitely don’t want to miss.

The Haemophiliac by Tania Donald

The shortest month of the year is Women in Horror Month, and I’d rather not waste time inking out a list of scary ladies that’s mostly all the scary ladies you already know and are maybe dead (to all the horror bros proud of having read Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Gilman, I see you, here’s your cookie). Instead I’ll turn my tentacles to the ones doing amazing work not many people are talking about. Octoclot asks so little of you, so consider this humble request. Read Tania Donald. Do it now.

The protagonist of this historical gothic novella is the young and vulnerable Fraulein Klein. A seamstress desperate to turn her life around and climb out of the pit of poverty. Desperate enough to take job as a governess at a remote estate in the Black Forest. One year. For a suspiciously outsized sum. One year and she can afford to start her life over and take back the baby daughter she was forced to give up. In Fraulein Klein, Donald shows us a heroine battered by life but with enough steel in her to keep trying, for good or ill.

On arrival Klein is greeted by a haggard housekeeper who remarks on Klein’s scrawny appearance and immediately insists on feeding her, though not in a particularly kindly way. As Klein eats her first hot meal in an age, the housekeeper sets out the rules. She must remain in the child’s room at all times. She must eschew color, especially red. She must never ever allow the child to handle anything sharp, like a pin or a needle as she’s a hemophiliac, and the slightest prick will have her bleeding to death, the fate that befell her twin sister.

This novella is the epitome of a slow burn, punctuated with increasingly hot flare ups. What I particularly appreciated was the skill with which Donald developed the deep inner life of her protagonist. Complex characterization is so often lacking in the horror genre, especially in short stories and novellas, but Donald nails it. She also takes the time to develop those elements that make a story resonate past the final page. Things like theme, subtext, and symbolism, all through carefully chosen language and structure. The writing is sophisticated which elevates The Haemophiliac, in my unapologetically snobby opinion, to the level of literary horror.

Nothing is what it seems in this web of white lace nestled in the Black Forest. This is not the story of a sick child, but a story of what we carry in our blood, a legacy of betrayal and deception, the twin curse of lust and hunger. Traps of our own weaving. You are what you are, and no matter where you go you cannot escape yourself.

4/5

Detonation #9 – First Impressions

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

People are boring, living their monochrome little lives at their monochrome shitty jobs in their sad monochrome existences. Endless lists. Vague descriptions. Random numbers.

Devoid of personality.

How do I know? Because Noggy just spent the last two days reading hundreds of resumes, that’s why. And if I have to judge people, which I’m emphatically willing to do whether I get paid to do it or not, then I’m going to give it to you straight. What the absolute fuck? Does anyone ever take a step back, look at their resume, and think “Wow, amazing! I’m amazing. People are going to read this and shit themselves trying to hire me.”

Short answer: NO.

There’s blame to go around of course, all the job site optimizers and expert self-help influencers that tell you how to game the system. How to include every damn industry buzzword, stat, skill, tool, process, and methodology which, I discovered, almost always involve the word ‘cucumber’, so to better fool the modern yet stupid AI enhanced job placement fit scanners. These sorts of resumes don’t give you an actual picture of the person you’re looking to hire, they’re more like D&D character sheets without the bio and background part filled in.

But I guess there’s no room for colour when the ‘experts’ insist on mashing your life into a single page, reducing ALL resumes to the SAME resume. Which means that once it does get picked out of the labour carnival bin-o-fun by the claw and deposited on my donut crumb crusted desk, I get riled up enough to write another one of these fucking articles.

Look, I’m not saying you ARE necessarily boring, but your public business persona probably is. All I ask is that you find ways, even simple and subtle ways, to give me some idea about who you are and why I should spend any energy hiring you. Give me an interest, give me something you’re proud of that doesn’t involve this particular capitalist self-sacrifice. Present yourself differently. Show personality. If I see a flicker of light, where you casually mention in your soft skills section, that you’re drilling a hole to the hollow earth in order to find a dinosaur husband to add to your polyamorous collective, I can guarantee, given a minimal required skill set, that I’ll be booking an interview.

***

I’m sure you’re asking what the fuck this has to do with writing and why the hell you forced yourself to suffer through four hundred words of old man yelling at clouds?

Everything. It’s exactly the bloody same.

I have a question for you.

“How do you present yourself to first time readers?”

Unless you are already an established author with a solid fan base, or a true phenom, you’re constantly mining for one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. I’m talking, of course, about attention. Every author desires it. Every author strives for it. Few get more than a few grains, sluiced from the meandering, braided river of current public trends and interests. A river brimming with other prospectors, elbows up, trying to stake their claim and eek out a passable existence, hoping to hit the mother lode and strike it rich.

Let’s, for the sake of simplicity, focus on one particular type of author: the eager up and comer, one with a couple of stories ‘out there’ in the weird wide world, one who doesn’t have an agent or a contract or a big-name publisher. An indie author. Our aspiring literary star wants to gain attention, has to gain attention if they don’t want to get washed away.

As with resumes, authors fling themselves and their creations into the world. They toss the dynamite and thousands, if not millions, of eyes see the resulting explosion.

Boom!

Then what?

There are a couple of co-mingled elements at play here. The author and their writing. Not the same thing, though they eventually merge together as time goes on.

But the important part is the First Impression.

So, I ask again, “how do you present yourself to first time readers?” When they pick up your book and lick the cover, fondle the spine, devour the backmatter, gape at your bio, and leaf through a few pages, what impression are you leaving? Does your bio invoke awe? Does your writing speak for you, providing amazeball feelings? When they come across you on social media or your website or at book events or conventions, do they think “Holy fucking shit, this author is the cat’s ass, I want to be them, I want to be with them, I might even read their book if I can get it on sale.”?

You’d better hope so.

Every second another hardscrabble author picks up their pan and wades into the mayhem working on just that. Sure, you can slave away, slowly building up your claim, and maybe, just maybe you’ll eventually get lucky or at least modestly successful. But if you wait for a break or let poor work speak for itself, it may be a long dreadful bitter life.

So do yourself a favour, take a step back, look at your resume and make it as fucking interesting as possible, even if it’s only eighty percent honest. Oh, and don’t forget the cucumber.

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

This historical novel is a ghost story set in a maze of nested aliases. At its core, it questions the concept of identity. Who are we? Does that change depending on who we’re with? Who are we when we’re alone?

Arthor Crandle is a man fallen on hard times, a grieving father with an estranged wife. He’s travelled to Providence, Rhode Island to take a position as a personal assistant to a reclusive writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Once installed in the house, supposedly shared with a few other mystery tenants, he is consumed by the mystery of his employer’s past and drawn to the gregarious young actress living in the apartment downstairs.

In the well-established Lovecraftian tradition, Baker’s narrative is suffused with a gloomy nihilistic dread. Set in Spring – my least favourite season, muddy and cold – it rains constantly, the ocean is a repulsive set piece reeking of sewage, and the people are dour and suspicious. One gets the impression that nothing in this story will end far from where it started, and even if it did, nothing much will change as a result, because we are simply too insignificant to move that cosmic needle.

Arthor goes about his work, maintaining the household, transcribing handwritten manuscript pages, and communicating with H.P. primarily through letters. All the while Crandle is unravelling, seeing a ghostly little girl in the garden at night, hearing screams from the study, and encountering an oppressive malevolence stalking the halls. His one source of solace in a storm of confusion and despair is Flossie, the actress, though she too grows more and more insubstantial as the days press on.

It all comes back to the names, the aliases. Baker skillfully uses names as metaphor for the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Who are you? Using beautiful language and clever subtext, she builds a new mythology around an already somewhat mythical figure, and slowly, mercilessly, strips it away.

4/5

Detonation #8: If You’re Gonna Write, You Gotta Read

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re on the right side of the issue. For everyone else, shut up, I don’t care. I’m taking no prisoners because there is no grey area. Let me be perfectly clear:

It is immoral to write but not read.

That’s right, children. It doesn’t matter if you are dyslexic, or struggle with ADHD, or have a very busy life. Your excuses bore me. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability and the moral obligation to read.

But let’s back up and first establish what I would consider reading. Perhaps not an exhaustive list but you get the gist.

Books

Comics

Audiobooks

Articles

Essays

Short stories

Poems (I guess)

And perhaps more importantly, what does NOT qualify as reading:

Social media

Headlines

Memes

Podcasts

Buying books

Sniffing books

Posting pics of books to your insta

Talking about how many books are in your TBR pile

Rhapsodizing about how much you loooooove books

Watching the movie (Seriously, this didn’t work in middle school, why would it work now?)

Why is it so important to read if you aspire to write? Why is writing without giving equal time to reading a sign of corrupted character, anti-intellectualism, and a weak narrow mind?

Fairness. Obviously if you are writing with the expectation that others will read your work, it’s rather selfish not to devote attention to the work of others.

Empathy. If you are not regularly taking in narratives that do not originate with you, how are you to craft a story that will connect with others? How are you yourself to connect with others?

Better Building Blocks. Do yourself a favour and unsubscribe to that fucking word of the day email. There is no better vocabulary builder than a robust reading practice. There are so many words to play with and if you never read anyone else’s, you’ll be stuck with your boring starter set forever.

Craftsmanship. It’s been said the way to learn how to write is to write. And yes that’s part of it, but like any other craft, honing it means apprenticing yourself to those more knowledgeable. Study how an author you admire turns a phrase, describes setting, or adds flesh to a character’s bones. Self-taught won’t teach much.

All right, Octoclot, you’re thinking, you may talk the talk but are those tentacles walking the walk? So let me tell you, I was a delayed reader, unable to read fluently at grade level until I was almost nine years old, but once it clicked, it unleashed a monster. I demolished books like it was my job and I didn’t slow down until my thirties when I started to write. The more I wrote, the less I read, and my writing reflected that. It lost depth and breadth. It lost sparkle and imagination and universality. It became familiar and predictable. It didn’t take long to notice a direct relationship between the quality of my writing and the amount of time spent reading.

I’m also a bookseller, so reading a lot and reading broadly is critical to doing my job well. All told, I read about 30-50 books a year, and spend at least an hour a day reading online articles and essays. A good long form journalism piece is one of my fav ways to pass a lunch hour. By almost any metric, I read a lot. This isn’t bragging, but disclosure for the purposes of credibility. You don’t have to read as much as me, and possibly you read more, but trust me when I say the act of purposeful reading is essential to all writers.

You don’t have to read fast. You don’t have to read War & Peace (I haven’t). But a good rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time reading as you do writing. Ideally more. Read in long stretches, read in tiny bites, read literature, read trash, read poetry, read something translated. Do it every day. Cultivate in yourself a love of reading so passionate that if someone were to ask you to give up one or the other, you wouldn’t have to think twice. I promise it’ll make you a better writer and a probably a better person.

A writer writes. A maxim meant to shore up the confidence of those suffering from imposter syndrome, tentative to claim the title of ‘writer’. While the sentiment is well meaning, it’s not quite complete. Here’s the secret half of what a writer does: a writer reads.

Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5