Cleaning up Cobwebs

Surprisingly not also the title of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album.

As part of an ongoing project I have spent the last couple of days going back over some of the work I self-published way, way back half a decade ago to clean it up. Predominantly the anthology piece that Chris Hickey and I worked on and threw up on Amazon and somehow managed to sell several hundred copies of through word of mouth, despite not hiring a professional editor and letting a few typos slip through the revision process. It’s hovering at 4-5 stars and not all of them were friends and family being kind to us, so that’s a plus.

But there are typos there, and I know they’re there, and it weighs on my mind and bothers me especially as I work to put more new stuff out. Ideally people will read the new stuff and then go back through the older works looking for more, and I’d really like all the older pieces to be up to the standard of my recent ones.

It is extraordinarily weird to edit 4-5 year old work that you haven’t read since publication. I am incredibly aware of how much I’ve changed as a writer since I first wrote these. Maybe not improved, but changed my focus and worked to compensate for innate weaknesses I have in certain areas. I am actually not as embarrassed as I thought I would be, going back over these. The stories are still pretty decent. They aren’t as subversive or genre-savvy as I’ve become since I wrote them, but taken on their own they are a nice little collection of urban fantasy romps with a slight horror tinge to them. I’m still very proud of the magical tech support piece I wrote before ever hearing of Charles Stross’s The Laundry Files, incorporating some of the cosmic horror elements he also draws from but putting much more of an emphasis on machine-loa and totemism than high tier mathematics.

If anything I think my Lovecraft nods and pastiches are probably my least favorite. They’re not bad, but the predate me really knowing what to do with old HPL. Like I’ve mentioned before, as a Jewish kid from New England I am incredibly aware that to Lovecraft I would be one of the deep ones defiling pure white bloodlines, and I recognize that what makes his horror so effective is him entering a kind of xenophobic fever dream state and ballooning the concept of The Other into something almost incomprehensible in scale. What I have noticed is that my favorite contemporary mythos stories don’t just include elements of his work or lampshade his racism, they acknowledge it and treat him as an unreliable narrator. One of the projects I would like to work on in the far future is a YA series with teenage versions of various mythos hybrids wrestling with the changes happening to them and the authorities, who have been informed by outdated and bigoted concepts put forth in Lovecraft’s work, going after them. Maybe the Deep Ones are actually in loving relationships with coastal humans, genuinely care for towns like Innsmouth, and the children of those unions were thrown to orphanages after the feds carried out incredibly violent raids and institutionalized the adults, and all of a sudden those kids begin to discover their heritage and find that their parents and grandparents actually protected the coast from the truly monstrous beings of the depths while also facing rampant persecution from the cities, forced to move out into “backwoods” fishing villages and become insular out of self defense more than a hatred for humanity.

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. I don’t dislike my old stuff but I have noticed a lot of glaring flaws that I seem to have excised from my work since I wrote these:

  • Talking head syndrome, which can be fine, but I added in some character motions and physical tics between lines to make it feel a little more organic.
  • Really awful reliance on flowery adjectives and adverbs when they didn’t fit the rest of the narrative tone; in this case I took a cue from Stephen King and boiled stuff down to the very simple and blunt so as not to draw attention away from the weirdness of the plot.
  • Fairly white stories. I notice I have a mix of male and female protagonists split nearly down the center, and no stand-out sexism, but wow you can tell this stuff was written by a dude from a 97% white state who hadn’t traveled very much. It’s a night/day difference with my current work where the fantasy cultures draw from Ottoman, Bedouin, Moroccan, Arabian and African influences and I very much picture my (gay) male lead as looking like a younger Idris Elba. There’s really not much I can do with the older stuff that wouldn’t require significant rewrites and plot changes, but that really stood out to me like a sore thumb. Given how many of the stories actually take place in rural Maine I guess it kind of fits, but I wish I’d incorporated stuff like the Somali refugees that came in over a decade ago and have really turned areas like Lewiston and Portland into multicultural hubs with growing economies and amazing street food.

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It’s also really fun looking at the differences with Chris’s work and how we diverge and come back together on various topics. He definitely goes darker and his work takes more of a technological bent to it, which is great – dude does gritty blue collar and white collar magics both really good, underground clubs, street people and more. I think mine very much trends toward fantasy and dark fairy tales more than proper horror, and it’s less about monsters than it is the shadows they cast over everyday life. His characters come to bad ends, mine end up scarred but hobbling along having learned something.

Anyway, that’s been most of my weekend and week thus far. If you’ve never done editorial passes before, holy crap do they take longer than you could anticipate. I’m even doing the tried and tested rule of reading each story backwards to look for typos that might get lost in the narrative flow, and I found one that I would have otherwise missed. The rest of my free time has been spent helping a friend set up her art portfolio online since I have way more experience tooling around with wordpress than she does. Apparently I am creepily good at mimicking her voice because I got impatient waiting for her to get back to me with an About Me blurb and just wrote one offhand. So, you know, all those years spent honing my ability to listen to speech patterns and verbal tics and oft-used words? Totally worth it after all.

51xh2nkv6NL.jpgI am really bad on recommendations today because I’ve spent so much time working on side projects that I haven’t picked up a new book after finishing New Paris, so I’m going to go with an older one. My wife actually turned me on to Janny Wurts’s Curse of the Mistwraith a few years ago. I had just read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and was in the mood for another sprawling, epic fantasy piece and she knows I like things that really subvert expectation, so The Wars of Light and Shadow it was. First, I think Wurts is a massively underrated author who doesn’t get nearly as much acclaim as she should. I haven’t even read her entire catalog or the whole Wars series, but when someone is able to churn out a huge, intricate Moorcock-inspired epic while also co-authoring a trilogy with Raymond Feist, the average response to her name should not be “who?” like it often is among fantasy discussion groups I’ve joined. The gist of the story is that light isn’t good and shadow isn’t bad, which is not a new trope but she puts some very unique spins on it. Two brothers, one a master of each gift, find themselves thrown into a world ruled over by a being known as the mistwraith. Working together and perfectly complementing one another, they vanquish it fairly early on in the story and its last curse turns them against one another. What follows is an enormous military campaign meshed with cat and mouse tactics as both brothers, wrestling with the magically-induced hatred that grows when they get near each other, struggle to protect the world from various other threats while constantly drawn to fight. The whole series was inspired by the battles of the Jacobite uprising and draws on the sheer brutality of that conflict, and goes out of its way to show how each side villifies the other while also being sympathetic. The two brothers are not only forced to fight one another by magic, they’re doing it in a completely destabilized region where the old ruling families have been deposed and regarded as barbarian clans, and who in turn consider the new nobility callous and vicious. And they are, except mainly directed at the barbarians who they themselves consider savage and wicked. It’s a big, sad cycle of violence sprinkled with world-ending prophecies, parasitic magical entities and shady wizard circles, like a more overtly fantasy Game of Thrones.

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