Writing Tips

Third Bear Variations: “The Quickening,” Inspiration, and Possibility

Jeff VanderMeer • April 21st, 2011 • Writing Tips

The 2010 Shirley Jackson Award finalists have been announced, and my collection The Third Bearis on the list. The only original story in The Third Bear is “The Quickening,” which you can read online here. It’s one of my favorite stories because it poses a challenge to the reader that will resolve as either an unscratched itch or something more satisfying.

The story is about a girl in 1950s Florida who is given a talking rabbit by a mysterious stranger. Her Aunt Etta, who oversees a rich man’s mansion and his orange groves, sees the talking rabbit as a way to make some money, but the talking rabbit is uncooperative. Indeed, out of earshot of anyone but Aunt Etta and the girl, the rabbit repeatedly says “I’m not a rabbit.” From there, things get rather dark, and the resolution may not satisfy someone who wants a clear taxonomy applied to the rabbit.

My inspiration for the story was a postcard found in a St. Augustine, Florida, giftshop:

Aunt Etta

But while in Amsterdam this past two weeks I found another postcard that hinted at a totally different story:

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What if this image, not the first, had inspired “The Quickening”? What if the appearance of the rabbit had been a cause for joy or bliss? What if Aunt Etta had not loomed so precipitously over the narrative?

This made me think about variations on “The Quickening” and how there are many different lives to a story that go untold, and many different moments that could have been other moments.

Perhaps in some universe of potential story, Aunt Etta untied the rabbit from the stake and gave up. The rabbit’s stubborness wore down her own, and in that wearing down she became a better person. In that world, the rabbit’s continual refrain of “I am not a rabbit” becomes not a challenge but an invitation, and with the girl who narrates “The Quickening,” she seeks to explore what “I am not a rabbit” meant in a curious, perhaps even a mischievous way.

“Oh, you’re not a rabbit, all right,” Aunt Etta might say. “You look more like a frog, or a weasel. Are you sure you’re not an orangutan?”

And by doing so, her relationship with the girl opens up because they have engaged together in imaginative play.

In another world of potential story, I might also have followed the secretive woman from the Barnum Circus who visits the rabbit—which will not talk while she is there, although something passes between them. What was her tale? Why was there a moment of recognition, half sensed by Aunt Etta? This might even be a whole other story in itself.

Then there are the rabbits the girl didn’t receive from the mysterious man. Did they talk too? Who got those rabbits? Each rabbit accepted an acceptance of a new narrative, a new set of conditions, a whole new world. Some of those rabbits, surely, spilled their guts. Some of those rabbits must have been babblers Why the heck did I pick such a surly rabbit?!

What of the children of the migrant workers, who the narrator finds shy? What were their stories? Did they see the mysterious stranger? Did they receive rabbits? How they perceive the girl, Aunt Etta’s charge? Did they perceive her as she perceived herself—awkward, lumbering, apart? Or was she just someone to avoid because Aunt Etta could hire or fire their parents?

There’s the Mexican foreman with whom Aunt Etta has a physical relationship off and on. What did he see in Aunt Etta? What if anything did Aunt Etta tell him about the rabbit? Was she a totally different person with him?

Perhaps the Mexican foreman knew about the rabbit all along. Perhaps he disliked Aunt Etta because she held power over him. Perhaps he let the stranger give the girl a rabbit to see what would happen. And perhaps not. Maybe to him, it was just another job, one he’d soon be rid of once he’d saved up enough money to open his own business. To him, the rabbit was just another sign of Aunt Etta’s state of mind, she herself someone to occupy his time until he was gone. Who knows?

Then there’s the mysterious stranger himself. What did he think he was doing, giving the rabbit to the girl? Could he have foreseen what would happen? Is this his job? He just goes around giving out rabbits, some of which happen to be talking rabbits? Perhaps this was the first and last time. Maybe he got a job handing out wallabies or meerkats or guinea pigs later. Maybe rabbits got to be just too much of a hassle.

But this rabbit—it does niggle, even to me, makes me itch a little. Was he rabbit, or something else? Was he a zombie rabbit, or an uplifted rabbit or a ghost rabbit or a space rabbit or a robot rabbit or a god-rabbit? When he thought of home, where was home? (Could he have solved the story just by telling everyone who he really was?—”I am the Jesus Rabbit, worship me.”—I don’t think so.)

We’re in the girl’s point of view the whole time, of course, so perhaps there was no stranger. Perhaps she made that up. Perhaps, indeed, there was no talking rabbit, maybe not even a non-talking one. You never know with people telling stories. You never know how much of the truth you’re getting, and how many lies. You never know what world’s story you’re receiving, or how that starting point of inspiration might’ve been different and everything else that came after…changed, irrevocably.

Author David Erik Nelson on the Craft and Commerce of Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • March 8th, 2011 • Writing Tips

Today Omnivoracious ran a short piece on how to make a sock squid, with a short intro I put together. The project is part of David Erik Nelson‘s Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kid. I thought it would be interesting to ask Nelson to give me some thoughts on the craft and commerce of writing for Ecstatic Days as a kind of behind-the-scenes piece about his featured book and the writing life (which also ties into this recent Booklifenow feature). Here’s the insightful result…

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Style is Story is Style

Jeff VanderMeer • February 27th, 2011 • Writing Tips

It should come as no shock to anyone that style in fiction is the arrangement of words in a story by a writer. If the writer is said to have a “distinctive” style it is because the writer’s voice has found expression in a way unique to the writer that resonates with the reader. Inasmuch as a story has depth, it is usually because the style can “multi-task,” to use a horrible word, and operate not “just” as how a story is told but in an intrinsic way, with each sentence/paragraph performing a different function in the context of the different elements of a story (character, setting, theme, etc.).

Some styles cannot multi-task. This is not a function of the simplicity or complexity of the words chosen necessarily, but a function of the simplicity or complexity of the layering the writer wishes to achieve; some writers have no choice but to operate at a simple level, while others can create simple and complex layering as they choose. Sometimes, the inability to multi-task is due to the banality of writer’s worldview. Sometimes, it is due to writing for a specific audience. Sometimes, the writer hasn’t yet matured to the point where his or her style can carry the weight (or carry it in an effortless fashion). Sometimes, of course, it is a choice—and a damn good one. Nor does a multi-tasking style mean baroque or purple prose; many great multi-tasking styles are “invisible.”

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Need a Story or Novel Critique? Try Tom Piccirilli…

Jeff VanderMeer • February 23rd, 2011 • Writing Tips

With several book projects gearing up, I’m not accepting any further manuscript critique work for awhile. But I did want to let anyone who’s interested know that Tom Piccirilli is currently available right now. Tom’s an award-winning, critically acclaimed author who has been a professional for more than 20 years, writing all kinds of fiction from the supernatural to noir to neo-noir, to thrillers, subtle horror, visceral horror. This guy’s just about done it all.

Furthermore, his rates are very generous, to say the least: “$50 per story, say, up to 5k words. Or 5k words of opening chapters to a novel. 2-3 single-spaced pages of critique. $250 for a novel manuscript 5-10 pages of critique.” You can contact him at Picself1 at aol.com for more details.

The Moments Between: Vanquishing the Language of Defeat

Jeff VanderMeer • February 19th, 2011 • Writing Tips

I really enjoyed this recent post from John Ginsberg-Stevens, which riffs off of my essay “The Language of Defeat.” The essay is part of my forthcoming collection Monstrous Creatures and can also be read at Clarkesworld. The argument I put forth is just a more detailed version of the sentiment I expressed in my recent post about the direction of my blog going forward.

Ginsberg-Stevens does a nice job of examining the general ideas in my essay while also putting forth some thoughts that I think push forward from my essay, or inhabit the empty spaces within its structure.

The trick is to think about those moments between, what lies inside and between the categories and assumptions that we project and ingest and wrestle with as we read and think and imagine. It is easy to conflate the cultural and literary utility and pleasures of genre with other considerations, and create not just borders, but outright barriers that inhibit our ingenuity as readers and writers and editors. The syntax of defeat creates obstacles, rather than conditions for creativity. The question for me is, what ideas enrich our experience of literature, increase our insights into what it gives us, and help us to recognize and incorporate the little moments between into the life of the mind and spirit that literature invigorates in us.

In the above quote, I might suggest that “conditions for receptivity” would be as appropriate as “conditions for creativity.” It’s our receptivity that feeds into our creativity, that allows the conditions for creativity, or imagination, to find the most fulfilling and unique manifestations. Which is vital in the struggle against cliche, stereotype, and received ideas. The more we find unique ways to think about books and the more we are receptive to the complexities a good book offers, the less we are colonized by groupthink and The One Right Way.

PS The books lists at the end of my original essay are incredibly random, as this was an added element. They’re not to be considered definitive, or a top 10 or anything like that.

Four Years At Sea, No Sign of Shore

Jeff VanderMeer • February 8th, 2011 • Writing Tips

As of this week, it has been four years since I was shoved ignominiously, bloody and already scarred, into the deep waters that constitute writing and editing books full-time. That the leviathans that live here haven’t devoured me yet is perhaps due to certain abilities of camouflage and mimicry, along with an equal propensity for flight and for fight.

At first, you are drowning in the dark water, lungs shrieking at you to rise prematurely to the surface, all of your senses oddly muted and mutable…but before the panic at water in your throat can end you, you discover with no little surprise that you have gills and although the landscape is strange you navigate through it without constantly gulping for air. Over time, you become used to the denizens of these places, some illumined with light and others shrouded in shadow. You look up toward the faded gold glimmering that is the sun shining down to you, but at first you have no desire to surface. You acclimate yourself to what is beneath.

When finally you rise, it is not a breach or a lunge, but a stealthy quick surveillance, eyes barely above the water, almost as if a mudpuppy in a trough upon a mudflat. When no harpoon nor other instrument of disaster pierces your skull, you become bolder. You float upon the surface and welcome the warmth you find there. Your senses are no longer muted, and you are no longer focused just on survival. You can appreciate the silhouette of the frigate bird, ignore the albatross, breathe in the scent of the sea and sleep to the sound of currents expressed as waves.

From pieces of wood and vines that float past, you build a raft over time. You begin to fish for your supper rather than subsist on seaweed. The raft becomes a boat. The boat becomes a ship. It’s a ramshackle ship, yes, with pieces not properly lashed together that break off, and it needs bailing—sometimes weekly, sometimes it holds water longer. But you’re able to make a crude stove and eat cooked meat and even find a violin in the water and teach yourself to play.
You encounter other rafts and boats and ships. You salvage from the waters not just a violin but a telescope, a desk, chairs, a sofa. The bounty of the sea, from your position at the ship’s wheel is uncertain only in its quantity and type, for it is always there, moving past you. Opportunity for the taking.

That your days are more certain than before is clear—and you are in no fear of drowning or of starving now. But some weeks are leaner than others, and each new sail encountered elicits the thought friend or foe? It’s a stop-start rhythm, an uncertain and treacherous current, that you must steel yourself over time to accept. You’re weather-beaten by now, skin toughened by the sun, and you are forever looking to the horizon with one eye and into the waters beneath the bow with the other. Each offers opportunity and each is treacherous.

You’re not really in a ship you built. You’re not really at sea. You’re surrounded by friends and family and colleagues. But still, after a time, you recognize there’s no far shore in sight, and may never be. And you have to be at peace with that.

The Third Bear: The Lives of Short Stories

Jeff VanderMeer • January 23rd, 2011 • Writing Tips


(Click here for music feature, free downloads, and other linkage.)

Novels have secret lives and extended lives, periods of initial interpretation and re-interpretation that accrete around the actual writing, initial publication, surges in interest or of dis-interest, and new editions. Novels become like scarred and barnacle-encrusted ships. Eventually they’re refurbished, perhaps even given a re-enforced hull, or they chug along in a state of ever-more apparent neglect. Sometimes, too, they’re left in dry dock, scuttled, run aground by false lighthouses, or pulled apart for salvage.

Short stories (and novellas) endure a different fate, one more akin to the process by which sea turtles reproduce. Hundreds of eggs are laid and eventually hundreds of baby turtles hatch and frantically make for the sea, many of them getting picked off by birds or crabs. Once they reach the sea, even more get eaten by fish and other predators. Some run afoul of fishermen’s nets after they reach maturity. Short stories, by dint of their initial appearance in magazines or anthologies, are more like sea turtles than ships. Some never make it out of the shell. Those that do frantically seek publication, but only a few make it that far. Of the ones that do, most are destined to be ignored and never heard from again. Only a handful make it all the way to some kind of prominence or recognition.

That may be stretching a metaphor to the breaking point, although I like the image of stories like baby turtles flopping down the beach to the sea. But it is true there is a process of attrition on the route to publication, and even afterwards.

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Book Like for the Holidays? Spread the Booklife Cheer

Jeff VanderMeer • December 13th, 2010 • News, Writing Tips

Dear Reader:

It’s now been a year since my writing strategy book Booklife came out, and it’s received lots of praise, leading to an interview on National NPR, among other opportunities like speaking at MIT and the Library of Congress. I’ve even had artists and musicians tell me they picked it up and found that the advice in it worked for them as well.

I know there are more of you out there, so if you’ve enjoyed Booklife and/or the Booklifenow website, it would be wonderful if you’d be willing to blog about it this week, recommending the book as a holiday gift. (Or tweet or facebook if that’s more your style. Or even re-post something you wrote when the book came out.)

I don’t usually ask people for favors like this, but my wife Ann and I are gearing up to do at least one, possibly two, really cool projects where we won’t be taking a fee upfront. To do those kinds of projects, the coffers need to be full—and Booklife has sold well enough to date that buying Booklife (US edition) will put money in my pocket right around the time I’ll need the extra boost to absorb the impact of these non-comped projects; if the royalty check is big enough, it may even help fund these projects. (One of which is a fiction antho focused on new writers, with a truly international open reading period.) You could say that this request is in keeping about Booklife’s advice to take the long view.

If you do decide to blog, here are a few possible links to include:

Booklife at Amazon

Booklife Kindle edition

Booklife at Indiebound

Booklife at Indiebound (ebook)

Booklife at Powells

Direct from the publisher, Tachyon

As importantly, I’m interested to know how Booklife was of use to you (or, even, where you wished it would’ve been of more help), and will write a follow-up post here and on Booklifenow that links your post. If you tweet or facebook post, consider echoing into the comments thread here.

Finally, thanks for considering Booklife as a holiday gift for the creatives in your life!

Borne in Progress

Jeff VanderMeer • December 3rd, 2010 • Writing Tips

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After helping Ann deliver the Lambshead Cabinet antho, I’m back on track with my novel Borne.

In case anyone thinks writing a novel is a swift or easy thing to do, above find the marked-up first page of Borne above. I think it’s safe to post this since I’ve posted a version of this opening before.

Process-wise, I originally wrote the description of Mord in this post-apoc city with no real sense of the character’s point of view. I was more interested in getting down the description/details and making it a tactile, real experience. So I polished that until it was in shape for that initial, very simple purpose.

But, as usually happens, you get a deeper sense of character as you write, and have to go back. Somewhere around 10,000 words, the character clicked into focus and the next 10,000 words were different in style and voice. I let that run out to about a total of 35,000 words before coming back to the beginning, just so I’d have enough text to work with.

Now that I’m going back over the manuscript frag, that first 10,000 will change radically in voice as well as structure, and that will affect the next 25,000 because some stuff that occurs later in the novel will be placed closer to the beginning and the whole thing will eat itself and regenerate along different lines. Among the things that entails is fleshing out a character called the Magician, researching the history of traps, and reading Mike Davis’s Dead Cities.

The page above had gone through five drafts to get the description down, and now I’m ripping up the floorboards and constructing a different kind of room, so to speak. Some changes have to do with the narration, some with moving around information, some with setting. And in more than a few places this draft had way too many words better suited for an essay. I was much too in love with the descriptions, which would work perfectly well if this were a short-short. But it’s not. It’s the opening of a novel that is supporting, foreshadowing, and setting up many different things. In an odd way, it has to be simpler to become more complex. And, since I now know I’m writing a novel not a novella the opening can simultaneously convey less pure information since I have more space to add in what needs to be added in to properly contextualize.

A lot of this may seem bloodless in the way I’m describing process, but it’s actually an extremely personal, intimate, and emotional type of drafting, as my aim is to remain true to character and to the integrity of the events that should occur. There are also issues of balancing types of scenes, as the past is integral to the present of the story, but big lumps of past inserted incorrectly will, from the reader’s point of view, just slow down the story. So they must be correctly connected to the other scenes, including transitions that aren’t arbitrary or surface but hardwired and integral to the narrative.

All in all, just another day on the job, and immensely satisfying. But: requiring patience. Shortcuts and thinking something is done when it isn’t are killers to drawing out the full potential of a manuscript.

Creative Breathing

Jeff VanderMeer • November 11th, 2010 • Writing Tips

I’m going to be posting a little more on Booklifenow over the coming months, in addition to Jeremy L.C. Jones’s heroic efforts. I just posted a piece entitled: “Just Breathe: Rejuvenating the Imagination.”