"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of "The Collector" series, The Killing Kind, and Red Right Hand.

"A refreshingly new voice in noir." --Ed Kurtz, author of Nothing You Can Do and The Rib From Which I Remake the World.

"A glorious boilermaker of noir and East Coast gothic. The action is taut as a sprung snare and Bagley tightens the screws with every page." -- Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase and Blood Standard.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Behind the Story

I recently assigned the students in my Writing Mystery and Crime Fiction class to read Chris F. Holm's "The World Behind." This excellent story appeared in the June 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Track it down if you missed it.

Knowing that Chris is a cool guy, I asked him to write a paragraph or two about what went into the writing of that story. It would be a great help to my students. Well, Chris was more than generous with his time. He wrote four pages about the writing and submission process. With his kind permission, I am reprinting that essay here. Thanks again, Chris.
Behind “The World Behind”

When Patrick asked me to write a few words about the genesis of “The World Behind,” I wasn’t sure what I should say. It’s not that there’s no story to the writing of the “The World Behind”; the problem is, there are two. The first of them plays nicely into the romantic notion of being a writer – you know, inspiration strikes, and suddenly you find yourself scribbling on a Post-it/notepad/the back of an old grocery store receipt in a desperate attempt to get it all down. Thing is, that’s only half the picture. I’ve got dozens – hundreds, maybe – of such notes scattered throughout my house, the vast majority of which are never going to wind up a finished (much less published) story. Some of the ideas I never get around to writing seem to me to be every bit as good as the ones I do, which suggests it’s not so much quality that dictates what gets written as it is motivation. Now, the story of my motivation for writing “The World Behind” isn’t very romantic. In fact, I considered leaving it out entirely, but that struck me as cheating. After all, for most writers, inspiration comes easy – it’s the motivation that’s the tricky part. So, at risk of getting long-winded, here goes.

The first story begins with a walk.

I suppose all writers have their rituals, their habits – their ways of recharging the well when it runs dry. For me, that way is walking. Maybe it’s that walking, like writing, has its own natural rhythm. Maybe it’s the fact that while you’re walking, you can lose yourself in the details of the world around you, or the thoughts inside your head. Maybe all of that is crap, but either way, it works for me.

Anyways, this particular walk took place in the dead of summer (August 10th, to be exact. Yes, I checked the Word file, and yes, I know that makes me a dork.) Mine is a quiet neighborhood at the edge of town, where dead-end streets give way to forest. I remember seeing, at the end of one street, two houses in the midst of being built, and a narrow path worn through the weeds between them. I guess it got my wheels spinning, because when I got home, I wrote this:

Timothy lived in a well-manicured little house in a bland little suburb at the edge of town. At the end of his street was a turnaround, around which sat the Tyvek-clad skeletons of three houses, identical to each other, and, for that matter, nearly every house on the street. They’d been erected years ago, when the market was better, but then the market declined and the money dried up, and so now they sat, hollow and empty and unfinished. A dense thicket of brambles lay beyond them, encroaching on their uneven, rock-strewn lawns, and fading gradually into an old-growth forest. A single, winding path of bare dirt cut through these brambles into the forest beyond.

When Timothy was eleven, he set out to find where that path led. He struck out through the brambles on the path scarcely wider than the shoeprints he left behind. He pushed through them for what seemed like forever, mindful of thorns and poison ivy and bees and the like. Eventually, the path widened and merged with another, larger path, and that path, with another. He followed them until dusk, amazed at where they led – he could see his school, and his doctor’s, and the Quick Stop at the edge of town. They seemed to go on forever, to lead everywhere – invisible, anonymous. The world behind the world.

Problem was, that’s all I had. I had no idea where the story was going, or even what kind of story it would be. Fantasy, maybe, or psychological horror. So, not knowing what do to with it, I shelved it, not even looking at it again until the following April.

Which brings us to the second part of the tale. This one begins with a rejection.

A lightning-fast rejection, to be precise. I mean, I didn’t think the staff at Ellery Queen could possibly process submissions fast enough to get a rejection to my door a mere twenty-eight days after I dropped my story in the mail. And yet there it was, staring back at me from an envelope addressed in my own damn handwriting. “Dear Writer,” it began. Shit. Not even a personalized response.

I admit, that rejection threw me for a loop. Never mind that Ellery Queen is one of the toughest markets in genre fiction to crack, or the fact that this particular story (a nasty little hard-boiled throwback) wasn’t all that well-suited for their pages. I was pissed. I was determined. So I resolved that I was going to sit down and write a story they couldn’t possibly reject.

It’s worth noting, I think, that trying to change your style in a crass attempt to crack a particular market is a bad idea. If you don’t have a passion for the story you’re writing, it’s probably not going to turn out very good. So the trick was, I had to come up with something that fit within my own style, but would also appeal to the tastes of Ellery Queen’s editorial staff. So I thought to myself, for the first time in my fledgling literary career, “What would Stephen King do?”

The answer I came up with was a coming-of-age story, in the vein of King’s “The Body” (or at least, as I remembered “The Body” to be, since I hadn’t read it in damn near twenty years). The way I figured it, there was a certain innocence and relatability inherent in all good coming-of-age stories, and those traits might prove the spoonful of sugar to make the violence go down. And once I knew what kind of story I wanted to tell, I realized I’d already started telling it – I just hadn’t known it at the time. So I dusted off the old file and got writing. The first draft took me three weeks. Editing took another two, and then “The World Behind” was out the door.
Now, you might question the logic of writing a story that includes cursing, animal deaths, and a child murderer in an attempt to crack a magazine known (erroneously, in my opinion) for sleuths who knit and crime-solving cats, but luckily, I was too stupid to let that stop me. When I dropped my story in the mail, I was simultaneously certain they’d accept it, and that I’d wind up one month later with a form rejection. Such is writing, I suppose.

As it happens, my story was accepted on Friday, October 13th – a lucky day in my estimation. It was to appear in the April 2007 issue, but got bumped at the last minute in favor of a story by Joyce Carol Oates. Janet Hutchings, the editor at Ellery Queen, had the unbelievable good grace to apologize. Then she informed me I’d be in the June issue alongside Lawrence Block – a living legend, and one of my all-time favorite authors to boot. I swear I could’ve kissed her.

So there you have it. The story behind the story. Probably not as few words as Patrick had in mind, but brevity has never been my strong suit. And there’s still plenty of stuff that I left out. Some, like the inspirations for specific bits within the story, are just plain dull. Some, like using the short form as a lab of sorts (with a nod to fellow writer Lyman Feero for stealing his term) to experiment with new techniques (in the case of “The World Behind”, with a present-tense frame around a past-tense story told in flashback), just didn’t fit into the neat little two-story thesis I was shooting for. And there’s always the chance that my Muse is off somewhere stewing, because this ain’t the way things really went down. Still, it’s as close as I can manage.

So if you’ve read this far, then thanks. I hope you found it helpful. Oddly, I’m pretty sure I have.

Chris F. Holm
October 2008


Chris said...

Man, that Chris guy's kinda long-winded...

ink and beans said...

But sometimes us long-winded guys are just having valuable thoughts that require more wind to voice.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You've been memed if you care to play. http://pattinase.blogspot.com/