|Saturn Devouring His Children by Goya|
By James Kendley
There’s a monster in my office, and it gnaws at me.
This monster lives in the twilight world between life and death, never daring to crawl out of the shadows. It’s too hideous for the light of day; it’s bloated and grotesque, with far too many bizarre and malformed appendages flapping spastically about. No wonder I keep it in the dark.
If you ever looked closer, as several people have, you would see that most of its individual parts are quite lovely, even if they don’t fit together like clockwork. Were some of the extraneous bits sliced away and the remainder stitched up neatly, we could see what massive reconstructive surgery might make this creature viable.
For now, the monster remains in the shadows. I lock the bottom drawer to keep it from wandering out.
It’s my first novel, The Wine Ghost, in which we consider the terrible freedom of Frank Boyles, the last Baby Boomer. Set in Arizona, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand, The Wine Ghost was twelve years in the making. I wrote at least 350,000 words on three continents to get the present 110,000, and I learned lessons in writing that no classroom can contain. The Wine Ghost is so dense, challenging, and chaotic that it's unpublishable in its present form, but writers who've read the whole thing (and the handful of agents who've read the substantial pitch and excerpts) have said it's a remarkable achievement, despite the fatal flaws.
Here are some of those fatal flaws (from my current perspective):
• The first half of the novel is a nosedive, and readers begin wishing for the final collision 30 pages in. As it is, it takes 60,000 words for Frank Boyles to fall off Japan.
• The upward spiral of the second half has stronger structure, and it’s less relentlessly depressing than the first, but the pacing is crippled by chapters up to 9,500 words in length, chapters ending like short stories rather than ending in thrills, chills, or cliff-hangers that might help keep readers turning those pages.
• Even at a slim 110,000, it’s nearly Dickensian in the number of characters and subplots, a ridiculously overdrawn expat milieu that drowns a simple tale of disgrace and redemption.
• It’s written in the first person. Along with its many other indiscretions, first-person treatment brands it as an irretrievably vomitous semi-autobiographical first novel.
I’ve moved on, I sometimes tell myself. I can’t start draft five anytime soon, especially knowing that it would take a sixth and seventh draft to get this monster on its feet. I have too much going on.
After 30 years as a professional writer and editor, I put aside The Wine Ghost as a “hobby novel” and started my fiction career in 2009. This stage of my career as a “seasoned newbie” is all about the foundation. I’ve completed a stint as senior editor of an online litmag. My first website is up (http://www.kendley.com), and the more competitive, more sales-friendly version is under construction in dry dock. I’m a member of a professional organization, the Horror Writers Association. I’m working social media, and I’m guest-blogging (and grateful for the chance). I have a small backlog of stories for reprints. Most important, I have a completed and competitive genre novel, The Drowning God, making the rounds of publishers, and I’m a quarter done with its sequel, The Hungry Priest.
As for The Wine Ghost, I’ve mined it for short fiction (“Dry Wash” in The Bicycle Review, “Coolie Tales” in not from here, are you?) and poetry (“The Algerian Witch’s Abandoned Brood” in the Danse Macabre e-collection Hauptfriedhoff, for which I also penned the foreword), and I’ve lifted setting elements and whole characters for my genre series. I sometimes want to just strip off everything I can repurpose from The Wine Ghost and leave it like a car on cinderblocks.
If only I could. The Wine Ghost never stops gnawing at me, so much so that I’ve planted crossover elements in The Hungry Priest such that my literary novel and my genre series will occupy the same time and space. The Wine Ghost intrudes on my other work in ways I won’t even reveal; I’m constantly laying Easter eggs and setting a breadcrumb trail that leads back to The Wine Ghost, back to my monster in the bottom drawer.
This monster still gnaws at me. It’s not that I think that The Wine Ghost will ever, ever make me more money or even gain me more critical acclaim than a genre book. It’s not that I miss the freshness and urgency of the literary expression that led to my writing The Wine Ghost; I’m a much better writer now than even a few years ago, when I wrapped up the fourth draft.
This monster gnaws at me because it’s an important book, the book that called me to write it because it may speak to some teenager as confused and depressed as I was when I first got a little relief by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren or Lord Dunsany’s Pegana tales. It may show some kid a path out of a darkness that almost took my sanity and my life.
This monster gnaws to tell me that I must keep honing my craft in order to do the story justice. Every genre chapter I write, every blog post I submit, every short story that goes over some indifferent editor’s transom — it’s all training to deal with the monster in the drawer.
I’m lifting weights here, people.
And it may sound perverse, but I hope you have a monster in your drawer to keep you moving as well.
If you have a monster in a drawer somewhere, take it out during this season when monsters abound. Thank it for keeping you moving, keeping you writing. Promise it that you’ll visit it more often, and that you’ll eventually bring it to life and set it free on an unsuspecting world.
It doesn’t hurt to make these promises, even if you don’t intend to keep them.
Don’t worry if you forget to go to see your monster every once in a while.
If your monster is anything like mine, it will come to see you.