I self-indulged — and it felt great

In advertising and business, they call it “cross-marketing.” In literary studies, they called “intertextuality,” and when it occurs all in one place, by the same author, on purpose, they call it a “story cycle” or a “composite narrative” or a handful of other terms.

But that’s just for old or dead writers. When we new writers do it, they call it self-indulgence.

I’m self-indulgent. I connect all my stories.

In my head, all my fiction looks like this.

In theory, my long-term goal is to connect every piece of fiction I write to at least one other piece of fiction, but I know that’s probably not going to happen with the longer stuff, like my novels (how do I connect my historical novel set in the Louisiana bayou during the Civil War with my apocalyptic story cycle set in a future Pacific Northwest?). But with my shorter works, I have a lot more room to play, and I love drawing connections between stories, pulling minor characters from one story and turning them loose in another, re-examining themes in new ways, collecting multiple perspectives on a single place or event….

When people deride these sorts of literary games as self-indulgent, they do so because they feel the playfulness is for the author alone and will detract from good storytelling, which is mostly about the reader. And they have a point. But the best writing is often writing that the author enjoys. We are our own first readers, and if we’re not getting any richness or depth or entertainment out of our own work, how can we expect anyone else to?

And sure, maybe there are better ways to add richness and depth and fun to a work. But this is my way. I love how layering in overlapping references to other works that otherwise stand alone give each work an almost 3-D effect, a fuller conception of the world in which these stories take place.

I bring all this up because this month I’m publishing a handful of stories that all have something to do with each other:

In mid-March, SOL: English Writing in Mexico is publishing my story “It Was the Only Way,” about a Mexican-American woman who has been divorced by her white husband, robbed of her children and her dowry, and sent packing back home to Mexico. That’s just the set-up, of course — what happens when she crosses the border is the story, which I hope you’ll read — but note that line about her children. They stay in Texas with their white father. In this story, they’re still quite young, one just a toddler, but that toddler, Miguel, turns up in another story I’m publishing soon.

In “No Other Milk Would Come,” which will appear in Scintilla Magazine later this month or early next month, Miguel is a teenager working in a restaurant in the Texas Hill Country. As a rebellious boy, he is trying to rediscover his Mexican heritage, which causes tension with his white father and step-mother, but he finds solace and tries to establish his masculine independence when he falls in love with an older — and pregnant — waitress at work. The restaurant is rife with secrecy and shady dealings, though, so the romance, like Miguel’s relationship with his parents, gets complicated in a hurry.

These two stories are actually part of a trilogy of stories about Miguel and his family, the third of which is “Have Love, Will Hurt,” this time showing Miguel as a young adult. A few people are familiar with this story because I read it at the Pop Culture Conference in San Antonio last year, but it’s so far unpublished, so I won’t go into detail about it. I bring it up, though, because there’s another character in that story, a creepy, possibly dangerous man named Robert, who turns up in a third story you’ll see online soon.

On March 23, Fried Chicken and Coffee will publish that story, “Kicking to Stay On,” which focuses on Robert —  called Bobby by his co-workers — as he settles into his new job at an animal shelter. He’s sought work at the shelter on purpose, because he wants to learn how to kill animals. Bobby has a dark past, but his future is even darker.

This is the actual "storyboard" I did for all the stories and novella chapters (plus a few connected but excluded stories) for Strangers Die Every Day. Those aren't notecards -- those are sheets of printer paper, and that's an entire wall. When that thing gets picked up for publication, I'll do a whole post detailing this big wall of craziness.

Incidentally, you might be interested to know that “Kicking to Stay On” and “Have Love, Will Hurt” are both stories in my book-length collection Strangers Die Every Day. That book is itself a story cycle, all the stories and the novella interconnecting through shared characters, overlapping settings, some common themes, and the same inspiration. It’s under consideration right now, too, so I won’t say any more just yet, but if you’re curious, check out my publications page and look for “Barefoot in the Guadalupe,” “A Few May Remember,” “Kamikaze,” and “Counting Telephone Poles,” all of which are also in Strangers Die Every Day. (If you figure out the connections, keep them to yourself for now — I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone else’s fun!)

Also out this spring: a few new stories at Unshod Quills, which aren’t connected to anything (yet) but which are connected to other stories in UQ by the issue’s designated themes: my stories are on the themes of David Lynch, Razor Dance, and Secret Life. That last story in particular is worth noting in this post: keep an eye out for “The Edge of Seventeen,” which I wrote as a kind of mini-cycle of multiple perspectives on a single event.

And while you’re waiting for all these stories to come out in the next month or so, check out the rest of my publications and see if you can find any other connections between them. Because believe me, I put them in there. I really am that self-indulgent.

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3 thoughts on “I self-indulged — and it felt great

  1. Everything’s coming up ‘intertextuality’ today, but then intertextuality’s like that! Along with intertextuality of course there’s ‘intermetricality’ http://mairibheag.com/2012/02/15/intermetricality-a-definition/ And by the way, there is some kind of internet robot out there which records every time anyone mentions Harry Potter? I didn’t know that until I googled ‘intermetricality’.

    The fascinating idea of a novel set in the Luisiana Bayous during the Civil War, full of pirogues, Cajuns, gators, and Lord knows what else? 😉 Just kidding.

    I will check out the stories some time today. By the way, my novel has just moved one step closer to its publication date. It will be in print and in ebook form almost simultaneously. I’ll keep you informed.

    M

    1. I’m kind of in love with my Civil War novel, and yes, it’s because of the setting! The “Lord knows what else” is actually a rougarou, a bayou werewolf — or, at least, an insane murderer who pretends to be a rougarou while hunting deserters at the end of the war. It’s a damn fun novel. 🙂

      And yes, do keep me posted on your novel!

      Also: great post on “intermetricality.”

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