So there I was, pushing a grocery cart along the book aisle at Walmart. I was checking out the titles as I always do when I perform the monthly tour of warehouse club shopping, i.e. Sam’s Club, BJ’s, Walmart etc. Suddenly my eyes passed over two titles, one by a major author of historical fiction, its cover bright and shiny, a tome so massive I could coldcock a rabid walrus with it. I like big books, important books, books that speak to the human condition. Lehane’s The Given Day, Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books…In my feverish writer’s fantasies, I churn out my”important” novels, shipping phonebook- sized volumes to slobbering publishers, who immediately clear parsecs of space on the front tables at airport bookshops, chain stores in the biggest cities and mom & pop outfits in the smallest towns. The other title that caught my ego was written by an actor aquaintence of mine, currently co-starring on a hit TV series. His title is the third in a series of self-help relationship advice-type books, all of them bestsellers. They’ve put him “on the map” to a completely different degree than if he had remained “just” an actor. Looking at my colleague’s face on the cover of his book, displayed right next to the giant historical novel I was dying to read, sent me into a tizzy of self doubt. “These guys have figured it out,” a voice whispered in my mind. “They write books people want to read. What the Hell’s your problem?”
The first few years of my writing life were consumed with writing about the supernatural: monsters, things that go bump in the night. I love that stuff and I know a lot of other people do too. But when I submitted my novel, The Revenant Road, several reputable editors replied, “Like the book, but Horror is a hard sell right now. Try one of the small presses.” I did and happily, the novel found a home. Other publications followed, magazines, anthologies…I took the path that everyone says should lead to publication by one of the majors: Just write the right book, and you too can wind up on the book table at Walmart. But what is the “right book?” I spend so much time wondering about what the next story “should” be. What will people, editors, agents…want to read? At the same time, I believe in being “led” by the story, letting the story tell me where it wants to go, how it wants to come into the world. I am a big proponent of writing what you like to read, of writing the stories that you’d enjoy as a reader. But what if I’m wrong? What if my tastes are too genre- specific, too niche-y? As I’ve written on this blog before, I want readers. We all do. I want to reach as wide an audience as possible. My latest novel is not Horror related, although it is a comedy with fantastical, supernatural elements. After more than a year of writing, rewriting, editing and re-editing, and finally submitting the manuscript to several agents for consideration, I was happy, content with what I’d written. I’d told the story I wanted to tell, written the book that was crying to be written. I wrote The End, smoked my customary end of book-cigarette, clicked my heels and pushed “SEND.”
Then I went to Walmart and was struck by a paralyzing doubt.
These other writers seem to have their finger on the pulse of the industry. Shouldn’t I learn the lessons they’ve obviously learned? Shouldn’t I write books that are guaranteed to get published? I have “a platform,” a modest celebrity, and plenty of ideas, and the inclination to create. What the hell am I thinking, writing stuff I’m interested in? But then I think about writing a self-help manual or a massive historical novel, and I get a little queasy: It’s a lot of work to string four or five hundred pages together around a subject that I love. I can’t imagine doing it for a subject that holds no interest for me. I know those topics interest the writers who master them, and they are rewarded accordingly for those efforts. But is that the only way to make it onto that frigging table?
Sometimes writing in a single genre can feel like living in a literary hinterland, shunned, a pariah writing in his cold, dank cave by candlelight, a cave peopled by zombies, vampires and flesh-sucking freaks. Don’t get me wrong: They may be interesting to write about, but when it comes to scintillating dinner conversation the rampaging Undead leave a lot to be desired. I guess I’m yearning for a kind of legitimacy, the tincture of mainstream acceptance, which is strange when I remember that I consider the ‘mainstream’ a tepid, boring place, with little edge and nothing incisive or revelatory or even entertaining to say about the world in which we live. Then again…I write about werewolves: What the hell do I know?
Finally though, as I stood there, consumed by my own growing ambitions, deafened by the sound of gnashing teeth, I realized that I could use my frustration as fuel, fuel for stories, fuel for ideas. Usually I write from anger, or passion. Lately I’ve been ruminating about what my next story will be about. I toss story ideas around constantly, hoping to sift something shiny at the bottom of my mental prospector’s plate, sifting for literary gold. Maybe this crisis of confidence will lead to something of value. Actually, I’ve been kicking around an idea for a screenplay, a story set in a giant warehouse grocery/everything store that is actually the entrance to Hell. The customers and employees are trapped one night during a terrible snowstorm. Then the toilets begin spewing forth pure Evil; monsters of every stripe, pouring out to threaten an unsuspecting world; nametag-wearing, flesh-sucking demons armed with price guns instead of pitchforks. Maybe I’ll set the story at Christmas. Could make for a perennial anti-holiday favorite. (See what I mean?)
I know there are no guarantees to publication; that there are no “right” stories or “wrong” stories, only good stories.
But sometimes I wonder.