Art/Work

Still sifting through the rubble left over from the semester, and I’ve wound up with a list of things to do about as long as my very-long forearm. Last summer/fall was entirely preoccupied by a single task, drafting the novel, so this year I find I’m rather out of practice in living life a little more organically.

Most years I feel a little bereft the week after school wraps up for the term. A highly-structured, high-accountability life with dozens of human connections lurches into the blank expanse of summer, which is no less work-intensive but much more discretionary and features far fewer players in the ensmble. It’s of course one of the auld ironies that plenty of folks assume teachers begin the annual ritual of gallivanting about when summer comes around, but at best I’ve got a soupcon of gallivanting tentatively penciled in for about two weeks this year. Among the topmost items on my to-do list, however, are investigating new books to teach in 2022-23, fleshing out a new class to pitch to the university’s newly-launched Center for Learning through Games and Simulations, redesigning some peer review structures for composition classes, etc. It’s quite a lot to do, and it’s best to do it while the spring experience remains fresh in my memory. And when it’s all done I get dessert: the chance to chip away at some new fiction and poetry projects, all the while chipping away at the revision of the novel.

Though I’m not a fan of thought-terminating cliches, I often have to remind myself that the work is the work. There are parts of it that are enormously rewarding, but the lion’s share of it aligns with my desire to put food on the proverbial table. I might well get the university equivalent of a merit raise this year, but when I look back on the documents I compiled to apply for that raise I come away with a vivid sense of the structure behind the structure, the grindy, hustly, churny bits of buiness that make the pleasures I sometimes get to indulge in possible. I have four years’ worth of documents foldered on my computer desktop, and another new folder awaits all the materials I’ll need to compile for 2026-27. The trick generally involves making the daily grind look and feel organic, like a natural, intuitive process rather than a systematic, rule-bound march toward that distant destination. Sometimes, however, the bones lay bared before me.

Every profession has it or something like it, of course–that under-structure of work that seems blandly mechanical at one level but becomes artful in practice. In teaching it most often occurs as a rhythm, a musical balance between classroom instruction, fielding questions, and getting and returning work, all while being responsive to the improvisations of students and administrators as we go. It’s true of every profession, however. My partner had a bit of dental work done on Wednesday, for instance, so I went to grab her the dinner she wanted from our local mashed-potatoes dispensary. And while I waited in line I could see a cashier utterly in the zone (whipping through customers at an impressive rate, keeping the lines of communication between the counter and the kitchen humming) coupled with a prep cook who was merrily pulling and packaging orders with dazzling automatic efficiency.

The snag in the system, however, was a middle manager (at first blush it looked like he had just started his shift) who was utterly out of sync with everyone else, working on a different set of imperatives that had a bit of footing in the dinner rush but was probably looking forward to all the tasks he needed to tackle by closing. It’s the sort of thing that gives one pause whenever a pundit speaks of unskilled labor. There are yawning chasms between knowing the work one is meant to do and doing that work efficiently and artfully. We can see it in its boldest, plainest strokes–the bench-riding second-stringer standing in for the masterful athlete, for instance–but generally forget that most steps in our daily experience hinge on someone who has worked long enough and hard enough that all the tricks of their trade become instinctive and invisible.

I’m thinking about that a lot when it comes to fiction today, the ways in which technique, when artfully accomplished, vanishes into the flow of a story–and the ways in which accomplished writers can venture past established techniques, can improvise and innovate to tell stories in unexpected ways.

Speaking of stories, while you’re here why don’t you swing by The Big Purple Wall, where my short story, “Clicker,” is freely available and currently in contention in a lively virtual scrum. If the spirits move you, you can vote every day, but I hope you enjoy the story any which way!

Concatenations

The past few weeks have afforded me the time to do a bit of extracurricular reading, which has served as a poignant reminder of how the reading/writing feedback loop works, at least for me. I think every book of writing advice under the sun tells us to read widely, variously, and voraciously, but I find what happens after is not discussed nearly as often.

Only rarely do I find myself directly influenced by any text I’ve encountered. I’ve never told myself to write a story or poem just like the one I’m reading. Every now and again I’ll come across an interesting poetic form, for example, and try to reverse-engineer it via a few trials of my own, but for the most part the new input caroms around the inside of my skull like billiard balls. Today I’m rereading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, for example (I selected it for a class sight-unseen, based on good classroom experiences with Lucky Fish, skimmed it over Christmas, and am giving it a class-prep scouring right now), which is a lovely blend of natural observation and personal reflection. Inside my melon, however, the new content I’m pouring into my brain is colliding with memories, stray thoughts, and daydreams as well as snatches of facts and all the interruptions one is apt to encounter when one tries to sit still for an hour or three. It makes for an unpredictable mixture, but from it–because my brain is feeling pretty spongy this morning–I’ve been able to pluck out several unexpected bits and bobs that might turn into poems or stories as well as a few Notes to Self that could figure in my revisions for the novel manuscript when May rolls around. It’s much like adding loam to depleted soil–there’s a little nourishment to be had, but there’s no telling what will grow from it.

The chief challenge when attempting to encourage the reading/writing feedback loop is capitalizing on those chancy, flickering collisions. For the same reason I keep a bedside journal (and have an overhead bedroom lamp I can turn on remotely with the push of a button)–to catch fleeting thoughts before I drift off to sleep, thoughts I would otherwise surely forget–I tend to keep my phone beside me when I write. My Notes app is filled with ideas and reminders, suggestions I hope my future self will be able to take advantage of. As a tag-along clause, it’s important (for me, at least) to jot down hints and intimations with sufficient clarity for Future Me to follow up on. If I don’t, I generally find myself mystified by the cryptic, impressionistic ravings of this “Bill Wandless” person–if that is his real name.

Those habits of receptivity and recording, coupled with practice as constant as I can manage, might well be the most important formative forces in my writing life. While I sometimes rather wish I had a bit more control over what those forces actually form, it’s hard not to be astonished and delighted by the way my mind can surprise me.

Massaging the Message

As far as social media goes, I tend to be supersaturated. I use one platform to keep up with old friends; I split Twitter three ways, with one site serving as a professional destination, another as a site dedicated to my morning doomscroll, and another devoted to hypnosis. I also frequent about five Discord channels to keep abreast of hypnotic oddities. All of which is to say I have Ideas and Opinions about social media.

You’ll find plenty of guides out there with good and useful advice for representing oneself professionally on various platforms. This is not one of them. This, however, is a collection of user-end reflections that I hope will suffice as food for thought. A light snack, mebbe.

The first rule of thumb, as I see it, is Giving Folks Something to Find. That might seem like it goes without saying, but I can think of more than a half dozen writers and creators off the top of my head who host professional destinations they update once in a blue moon. (In at least one case I mean that literally: an active writer of no little renown hasn’t updated their official site since mid-2020.) I don’t think one needs to go bananas, posting every ten minutes, but I think it’s important to give folks a reason to visit one’s corner of the Web every now and then. I clean out my bookmarks every couple of months, and much of the cleaning centers on deleting sites that seem defunct.

The second rule of thumb, such as it is, is to be complex and genuine. Even though I’m subdivided into a half dozen Wrackwellians, I still try to exhibit a bit of variety in my various online personae. Just because one destination is devoted to hypnoweirdness doesn’t mean I won’t talk about books, music, games, or my various Ideas and Opinions from time to time. I harbor suspicions about people who are always on message, whatever the message might be. Humans tend to ramble and digress; to do otherwise seems to me at least tedious and, on occasion, even inauthentic. As most creative folk will tell you, there’s no persona so bland that someone won’t take offense to it, so you might as well go ahead and be yourself. Given time, the like-minded will find you.

2a, while I’m at it, is to exhibit some variety even when you’re posting self-promotional content. It’s part of The Hustle, and it should not be disregarded, but (as above) I can name a half dozen creators off the top of my head who post the same promos at the same time every day. There’s probably some tactical savvy in that practice, but as a reader I just scroll on by every day. If they’ve actually mixed in any new content, alas, I’ve certainly missed it.

The third is to network authentically, which is I think a smidge different than simply being complete and authentic. Follow creators you like. Ask questions and offer answers to some when and if you can (but be sure not to cut in if you can see someone is purposely engaging another respondent). Be supportive and kind. Promote projects you’re excited about. Be circumspect, polite, and mindful of context. If you make a mistake, apologize openly, wholly, and sincerely. I like to think when you do those things that folk will be happy when they find you. Your web presences might not take off as rapidly as you might, but they’ll grow in time.

3a, while I’m at it, is to hold back if you think any online behavior of yours will be viewed as tactical or transactional. Because it probably will. Fun fact: a writer has done a great job of digesting the reasons to resist that impulse, but because one of my stories is under consideration for a volume they’re editing, I won’t link it here right now. (Though I will later if I remember.) I think one is always free to promote the work of one’s friends, but of course most readers will take those recommendations with a grain of salt. In my experience readers really latch on to disinterested promotion. If I tell you I absolutely loved Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, and link to his site, or if I tell you I’m very much looking forward to Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and point you toward one of the creator’s Twitter feeds, then you might consider checking them out. Maybe you’ll consider me a Gentleman of Rarefied Taste, which is a sidelong benefit, but you probably won’t view the referrals as a crass attempt on my part to sell you something. It’s useful and good to express admiration; creative folks need and deserve plenty of support. But people are pretty dang savvy when it comes to judging if folk are posting to score points or are hoping to gain in some way by making the recommendation. They tune out if they detect fawning or insincerity or–worse still–if they see you’re trying to hop on someone else’s coattails to promote your own stuff.

Somewhat related to the third point is the fourth: try to be mindful of sloppy slabbery. You’ve seen them before: early reviews for a writer’s Hot New Thing come in, and suddenly your Twitter feed consists of an undifferentiated slab of links to those reviews. I might pause and take a look if the recommendation happens to come from someone whose opinion I respect, but otherwise I’ll scroll right by and maybe miss out on something I might have otherwise considered. As above, it’s easy to tell when someone is being gracious and graceful, easier to tell when they are clogging your feed to Create an Impression. This is doubly true when we can all queue reviews up so that folks just see a couple each day. I tend to think that yields a more effective kind of buzz.

That’s all for the moment, but only because I’ve overshot my dedicated blogging time. I have more Ideas and Opinions, alas, but they’ll have to wait for another day.

The Wonder of Come-Uppance

My writing habits have been a little off-kilter of late, in part because of spring break and midterms, in part because I’ve been doing a little more work with hypnosis, and in part because Elden Ring was released at the best and worst of all possible times. Perhaps someday down the line I’ll write a bit about the narrative art of the Soulsbourne games, but first I’m going to hop in that open coffin behind the Valiant Gargoyles and see what happens.

In terms of storytelling, however, what I’ve been thinking about most often lately are olde-skool narrative ethics, the ethics of telling. It’s a subject that filters into common conversation from time to time when we look at an era and can detect trends and movements (when we look at the horror flicks of the Eighties, for instance, and quite reasonably perceive the connection between sex, drugs, and death), but an ethical imperative is always swimming just underneath the surface every time we tell a story. When we can see the moral of the story too clearly we often judge the work clumsy, but there are plenty of ways ethical telling can go awry from both the writerly and readerly side of things.

I’ve groused on here before about my resistance to nihilistic horror, horror in which it’s clear that nothing the characters do is driven by good motives or ultimately meaningful. There’s a whole genre devoted to those sorts of exercises. Some of them simply punish any character that espouses their principles or attempts to act selflessly, but some of them are more programmatically self-aware, having their villains spout philosophy as they indulge in their wickedness. I like to interpret those gestures generously when they occur in horror movies, working with the assumption that the writers and directors view that cynical indifference as extra-scary, but for the most part I just avoid them, even if the work is considered Very Important. I know that sort of content is not for me–I simply won’t enjoy it.

But here at the Abbey we watch more than our fair share of Acorn TV, and as a result my mind is normally flooded with murder mysteries of the quasi-cozy sort. I think the genre is especially revealing in terms of laying bare ethical attitudes. Lately we’ve been watching the shortish episodes of the Sister Boniface Mysteries as a shot and the longer episodes of Midsomer Murders as a chaser. They make a sense of narrative contrast fairly plain to me. The former are almost uniform in their essential attitudes: the series, which feels as though it’s steered by a single authorial hand, is generally good-natured and optimistic. It’s had a vengeful human monster or two in the mix, but it takes for granted that most folks are driven by a variety of motives but would probably be mostly decent if fed, homed, cared for, and left unattended. Sister Boniface also often takes an extra step or two to punish the boorish and cruel people who are not actually guilty of the murder of the week, and it’s not at all shy about making its murderers somewhat sympathetic. I think that’s at the heart of The Cozy Ethos, in which genuine wickedness is exposed and contrasted with the virtues and milder vices of most characters.

Midsomer Murders is more interesting to me, however, because it’s often easier to feel the influence of many authorial and directorial hands. Since Neil Dudgeon has become the lead the series has centered on something like common-law psychology, with DCI Barnaby unriddling mysteries by dint of his superior understanding of human nature. But in some episodes we’re treated to fairly grim visions of village life: people despise each other, harbor deep, petty resentments, and will gladly wrong one another so long as they believe they can get away with it. Getting at the central crime usually involves wading through a handful of more minor crimes, most of them motivated by envy or jealousy. Where Midsomer is most jarring, however, is in its effort to mix a bit of comedy into every episode. When the murder is genuinely cozy–when a normal human has been murdered and a motivated culprit identified–we get a mingling of guilt, confession, and rueful humor, which comes as a balm. In “The Miniature Murders,” for example, we get manslaughter and a duo of women who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to protect one another, driven by feelings of fondness and indebtedness. On those occasions when the village vision is particularly grim, however, the laughter at the end often feels forced. We get to see an ugly Before picture matched with an equally unhappy After, with a series of casual and vindictive wrongs piling up in between. The tensions and conflicts have all been laid bare, and in the final assessment there’s not much to laugh at.

I know there can be such a thing as too much goodness, when the characters feel stiff and artificial in their enactment of some principle. I think our most vivid expression of this tendency is for villains to accidentally bring about their own deaths, so that the protagonists can keep their hands clean. But I tend to wonder and worry about writers, readers, and viewers who can indulge in cynicism and bitterness for long, unrelenting stretches without relief. That feels too much like life to me, at odds with some of the most imperative needs art can meet.

Circles and Circulation

Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

The last week has been fairly hectic for me, in part because it involved the run-up to Spring Break (and, perhaps less festively, midterms) and in part because it involved the kind of preparatory space-clearing needed to make something of a free-ish week. My Inner Delinquent would like nothing more than to take a deep dive into Elden Ring, but I can see enough enticing deadlines on the horizon to keep the creative gears turning.

To get myself ready I made time for a deep dive: I have seven holdover stories from the latest edition of my submission tracking guide, and I gave myself about a week and a half to revise four of them, normally with a specific destination in mind. In some cases that was simple work–trimming off a couple hundred words, and in one case adding 400–but others involved more extensive reconfiguration. It’s easy to get caught up in the zest of a fresh draft, but there’s real pleasure to be had in spending time with an old friend and seeing how it’s changed since last you met. Still happy with all those pieces more or less as they were and as they now are, and I think it’s healthy to go back and revisit old haunts, if only to see how they’ve changed and how you’ve grown.

The tricksier bit of business is owning up to unreadiness. The two remaining stories from that holdover set are, I think, pretty dang good, but at the moment the places I’d most like to send them are closed to submissions. There’s a sort of insistent impulse to send them somewhere–anywhere!–just for the sake of feeling as though I’ve got irons in the fire and many things to look forward to, but I’d rather see them sent to the best homes I can think of, even if that means waiting for another month or three.

And the same general principle applies to writing new stories, especially in response to anthology calls. I’ll often rattle ideas around in my skull for days and even weeks, but sometimes they just don’t catch (or, with an annoying degree of regularity, they emerge in an underdeveloped form and find themselves shouldered aside by far more energetic ideas with much later deadlines). An older version of me might have forced the issue, trying to write something–anything!–for the sake of maintaining momentum and good writing habits. But I think that’s a disservice to both the editors of the world as well as my own sense of what it means to write good stories. I can be prolific when I try, but I’d rather be a smidge more discriminating.

Circulation, especially during dry spells, can feel quite a bit like running in circles, trying to beat your own best time. But when it comes to writing, and to writing the best fiction I can, the clock or the calendar is probably not the instrument best suited to measuring progress.

Beasts of the Outer Swells

I’m incredibly excited to be writing for the crackerjack team at Superhero Necromancer on their latest addition to The Rainy City campaign setting, Beasts of the Outer Swells. The Kickstarter went live this morning, and it’s already reached its goal, which means this nifty zine will be winging its way to mailboxes all over the world in just a few months! The images are absolutely fantastic, and if you fall in love with the art, be sure to pop over to the site of the artist, Bill Spytma, where you’ll find even more of his portfolio. (Prints can be had at Society 6 as well!) Writing for games is a real treat for me, and if you’re into whimsy, weirdness, and a bit of the wicked, The Rainy City it might just be your cup of tea!

Content/Contented

To begin, a confession: I’m pretty terrible at self-promotion. I’m somewhere on the introverted half of the spectrum, as many writers are, and I’m also afflicted with a strong sense that lots of the content we are bombarded with in our daily lives is unwanted. So my strategy for the moment, such as it is, is to keep on posting here–what the kids call Contentâ„¢–so that readers who find me have somewhere to go if they want to see what sort of mischief I get into.

There is some fine guidance on managing the daily work of self-promotion out there, to be sure. Not too long ago Sadie Hartmann–known to many on the webz as Mother Horror–posted this super handy guide to navigating the wilderness of social media, and I’ve come across others here and there. Like any aspect of the writing life, however, one’s presence on the internet as a Hawker of One’s Own Stuff probably ought to involve a little calculation and circumspection. Back in the day I hosted a blog that I posted to daily, and I had a respectable number of regular readers. At day’s end, however, I realized that my blogging time was obviously digging into the time I needed to devote to fiction and poetry, so I had to let it go. Nowadays I hope/intend to strike a better balance, with a post here two or three times a week, posts to Twitter several times times a week, and the rest of my time devoted to my work. I’ve started off the year well, with two short stories already in the books and some writing for a game project already in polished draft form, so it seems to be a balance that suits me. The trick, of course, is finding the balance that suits you.

I’ll add to these thoughts on content a little ways down the road, but for me–at least today–it’s something like an exercise in mindfulness. I’m trying to be a little more deliberate and reflective this year in terms of what I do and how I do it, and if I chance upon any discoveries or unriddle any mysteries along the way, well, you’ll find them here first.

On #Feelz

Photo by Gary Fultz on Unsplash

Today I am roaming a strange corner of the Feelscape, having risen to the news that my application to join the Horror Writers Association was accepted. I’ve got a few degrees, which is nice, but I’m also a certified mixologist, a certified hypnotist, and an authorized horror. Expect more from your neighborhood weirdo.

Because the better part of the speculative fiction writing life consists of staring at a monitor and hunting down synonyms for squamous, such recognition is a lovely thing. I’m not in the business of ranking my feelings, but crossing over a professional threshold like HWA membership certainly falls somewhere in the vicinity of publishing a story or finishing a project. These are the writerly highs we can rely on.

But today I’m also enjoying a writerly feel that often strikes me as equally rare: the one that comes from rescuing a draft breaking bad. On my desktop I’ve got a ridiculous and conspicuous array of folders I deperately need to organize (Writing Priorities, Creative Writing, On-Deck Projects, Works in Circulation, Works in Progress, and Pieces to Work Up among them), but somewhere I dare not mention I have a folder that harbors my secret shame–those stories that are finished, by which I mean written from beginning to end, by which I mean gone too far for me to fix. At some point I’ll extract the core idea and begin again, but in the case of such stories the repair work calls for much more than insistent revision, which can sometimes salvage a draft from matters of defective tense, perspective, et cetera. The inhabitants of this Island of Misfit Stories involve some error I made at the outset that conditioned the entire draft, and while I can cannibalize passages for sexy turns of phrase I have to concede that the story in its current form is a lost cause.

So it’s a rare relief–or perhaps even a sign of something like maturity–that this morning I looked back at the first 500 words I’d written for Blood Rites Horror’s For Whom the School Bell Tolls anthology and realized the story in its emergent form wouldn’t get off the ground. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the prose I’d committed to pixels, but I recognized an early commitment I’d made, exploring the psychology that motivates my main character, was bound to yield a certain kind of epiphany at the end. It would have made for a good story, I think, but not one with the effects I intend. I have the bad habit of trying not to waste prose if I can help it, but scrapping what I had and beginning again with a clearer sense of what I need is not a waste at all. It’s a necessary step for writing the finest story I can imagine.

It’s perhaps not the feel I’d most like to have on a Tuesday, but it’s an entry in the catalog of #feelz I’m learning to respect more and more as my writing life unfolds.

The Power of Prompts

(Image adapted from the beautiful photography of Greg Rakozy over at Unsplash)

Not very long ago a writer on The Twitters asked how folks came unstuck when they found themselves bestookened when they sat down at the keyboard. Plenty of people ventured plenty of good answers, but I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge just how powerful prompts can be.

I’m something of a pragmatist these days, which means I do less writing for my own diversion and more purposeful writing to spec. When I speak of responding to prompts, then, I’m not often talking about the ones you find on many writing websites (and please note that I’m not disparaging them, either–they can be incredibly helpful when the brainpan has run dry). I’m talking about the prompts that materialize when anthologies of fiction are being put together and special issues of magazines are being assembled.

It’s worth noting, however, that I’m not especially crass or mercenary about it. I don’t target the ones that are offering the best rate of pay or even the best exposure. Most of the time I need to find a sweet spot, matching an existing impulse to write a new thing (and my idiosyncratic habits of mind) with a destination that seems especially and explicitly receptive to such stuff. When I find something that strikes me as really juicy–take for example this call for submissions-slash-prompt from Clash Books–I really can’t keep those wheels from turning. Even if I can’t commit a story to paper in the time frame proposed by the editors, I almost always come away with a seed worth planting, watering, and watching.

Right now I’m doing a little bit of writing for the good folk over at Superhero Necromancer, over the weekend I’ll put some finished pieces back into circulation, and after that I plan to write some pieces in responses to calls for stories and poems that have inspired me. It’s the sort of engine that requires regular maintenance and, truth be told, a little bit of warming up in colder weather. But once it becomes a pattern and a habit–ideally as a supplement to the ideas we already have rattling around our skulls–then the search for prompts can become an enormously generative part of your creative life.

Welcome to Wrackwell Abbey

Still getting settled here at the virtual Abbey, so I’ll use this featured post as a guide to the sideshow.

This homepage will feature a conventional stream of updates; I’ll try to post something useful here once or twice a week, more if I can say something kindasorta interesting kindasorta concisely. The first time I had a blog I tried posting daily as part of my regular regimen, and it got tedious pretty quickly for all parties concerned. I’ll let the Muses determine how often new prose appears this time around.

The tags and categories will, I hope, be fairly intuitive. Clicking “Fiction” will teleport you to content focused on short stories and novels; “Poetry” will do the same for verse. Using the menus will get you to lists of fiction and poetry I’ve published; I’ll do my best to make sure they’re accurate and up to date. I’ve got a subcategory/tag for “Hypnosis” as well, as I find the way it bears on language, storytelling, and the mind endlessly fascinating, and “Oddities” will lead you to all the other bits and bobs that constitute a life lived online. You might find a little content on music, on gaming, on film, and on other cultural subjects in which I am invested–at bottom I’m a sucker for subject matter that’s filthy with ethical implications, where language and human behavior interact in strange ways. I’ll try not to let the Tags get out of hand. With luck I’ll also get the sidebar menus up and running, which should deepen and broaden the widgetry.

For bite-sized and/or fun-sized posts you can find me over at @ArsGoetica on Twitter. I’m on a few other social media platforms as well, but that tends to be the one I mind most often. (For the record, that tag is a portmanteau of Ars Goetia, a section from The Lesser Key of Solomon, and Ars Poetica, which I thought summed up my writing interests nicely.)

For my experiments in hypnosis you can find me over at Painted Maze Hypnosis on SoundCloud. It’s a work in progress, especially in terms of adapting the voice I use for live hypnosis sessions into recordings, but in time I hope it will become a repository for several soothing, affirmative files that will help writers overcome a few of the hurdles that plague us.

(The image that serves as the banner for the site as a whole is adapted from Johannes Plenio. You can find more of his gorgeous photography over at Unsplash.)