Monday, October 29, 2012

The Monster in My Office

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 (, 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.

Happy Halloween!


  1. My monsters are smaller and several, the starts of brave novels that languish in digital isolation on a file server but who rattle the bars from time to time. Some may eventually escape into the light of day to be beaten into shape, but I thoroughly expect that some will be part of the legacy that my heirs will have to sort out, the brilliant and the flawed, the long-winded and the all-too-brief.

    But see, you have stirred the little monsters. Now they are calling out to me to look again at their deformed and unformed bodies and to ponder afresh what I should do with them. I writhe in the torture of their cries.

    Happy Halloween, James! Thanks a lot. ;-)

  2. I have one monster/embryo that is barely begun, and yet put aside already. I had such plans for the story that waits ... it would be a murder mystery and the first of a series, and so it would attract a following. It would bring in badly needed revenue to fund travels that would engender more stories. It would expose those who belittle public education efforts at saving the world.

    So many targets for one story to hit ... perhaps I am its monster.

  3. I have one of those first-novel monsters lurking on my hard drive. Oh, it went to press, sort of (via the self-publishing route), but it needs a HUGE amount of work, including a new title, a new cover, and myriad fixes in between. It might even see the light of day again and in far better form . . . someday.

  4. I have a few paintings tucked away in closets that are true monsters. They'll never see the light of day. But the novels are still in process - maybe they'll turn into monsters yet. We'll see. No way to turn this into a series, eh? Maybe even for screen?

  5. James:
    "...first-person treatment brands it as an irretrievably vomitous semi-autobiographical first novel."

    Wow, I guess you don't read the same literary novels I do, where first-person is a well-embraced method of obtaining deep and riveting POV. I can't stop you from thinking of your work as "vomitous," yet please don't attribute the phrase willy-nilly to all of the first-person works I so love!

    I fully appreciate your expression:
    "I sometimes want to just strip off everything I can repurpose from The Wine Ghost and leave it like a car on cinderblocks." This sentence speaks well of your ability to write effectively in the first person.

    Terry: Love your comment!

    May lose power at any time here. For all those in Hurricane Sandy's path, stay safe.

  6. Be safe everyone! More fearful than the monster in the closet (or desk drawer) is Hurricane Sandy. Eek!

  7. I'm not sure I have any monsters, but I am an advocate of never throwing anything away. You may write something, hate it, and know it's not salvageable. But don't throw it away. You may change your mind!

  8. Wow, James ... and I thought I had problems!

  9. @ Christopher: I'm sure you do. Good luck with them.

  10. @Kathryn: Misreading to construe the post as saying all first-person novels are vomitous semi-autobiographical first novels is disingenuous at best, and to what I may attribute any label, willy-nilly or not, is my business.
    The vomitous semi-autobiographical first novel is a subgenre all its own.

  11. Now,James. Kathryn is one of our resident bloggers. Please be polite. ;) Kathryn, perhaps you were a bit harsh to our guest? He seems to feel this is so. I hope you two work it out.

  12. @Larry & Linda: I hope you DO take your monsters out for a spin! Thanks for the notes.
    @Terry: Maybe it's just incubating. Some good ones take their own sweet time, don't they?
    @Helen: You're a gal after my own heart. The Wine Ghost actually grew around a one-paragraph seed I harvested from a short story of mine published in a college litmag. It won't fit in the next pared-down draft, so I've already harvested it for the genre novels. It's a damned fine paragraph, and I'll shuffle it around till I finally squeeze a nickel out of it.
    Which is actually just about the rate we're looking at this days...

  13. @Dani: Perhaps a simple misreading on both parts. I've moved on.

  14. Having been lucky enough to read the Wine Ghost, I think the effort (and James's reflections on it) showed that first novels, at least, are as much exorcisms as they are works of art. And I think all honest writing hurts like an exorcism, because it is at once autobiographical and exhibitionist in showing your truest demons: what you think about humankind.

  15. I've got a monster of a first never-been-published novel around here somewhere as well, but not nearly as long as yours.

    Morgan Mandel

  16. Mine will be about 70k after I strip it down; if I rework chapters for length and bring in interstitial elements for continuity's sake, it may come to about 80k. I don't think it's about raw word count as much as how much will stick! Your mileage.may vary, Morgan!

  17. @Zak: Thanks, buddy. Your developmental edits on The Drowning God make me wish you were around for the first draft of The Wine Ghost!


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