Hello darkness

I have recently volunteered to be the first reader for The Crypt Magazine, an online magazine of dark fiction and poetry published by the Ghost Orchid Press. I’ve often read and critiqued my fellow writers’ work, I’ve been a beta reader and critique partner, but I’ve never been a slusher. I think it requires a completely different set of reading skills and I’m really looking forward to it.

Between working with the Ghost Orchid Press and writing my recent stories, I’ve figured out something I’d been completely unaware of: I naturally lean towards writing dark fiction. I’ve always thought of myself as primarily a fantasy writer, especially historical, sword-and-sorcery type of fantasy. But whatever I write these days, comes out very dark – and I’m quite comfortable with that. It feels like I opened a dam and black water flowed out. It might be because it’s been a year – officially – since the beginning of the pandemic and my way of coping with anxiety and stress is to dig deeper and go darker, or it might be because it’s always been lurking inside me but I just haven’t recognized it. In any case, I’m ready to embrace it.

Oh, and if you have a dark story/poem under 500 words, The Crypt will open for subs on 1st March. Check the submission call.

White whale has landed

Those outside the querying trenches often mock those inside them for comparing the process of researching on-line, writing a letter and hitting “send” to the experience of sitting in a freezing hole in the ground while shells explode above your head. However, in my humble opinion, those who’d never tried to run the minefield of MSWL, died an agonizing death in no man’s land while waiting for requests, or felt the bayonet-in-the-guts pain of the full rejection have no right to express their opinion on the subject.

However, I’m not here to moan but to celebrate an extraordinary occurrence, the white whale of story writing: four days from the first word written to the story acceptance. Call it a wild fluke or karma or divine benevolence, but it was a ray of sunshine in my trench. Started the story on Friday, sold it on Monday. Admittedly, it is a very fast market and, also, I had a hunch that the story was right for them, but it’s still a miracle. What makes it even more important, on a personal level, is that the story was my reaction to the anxiety and heartbreak of the querying process.

I suppose it’s better to pour out your pain and sell it than to keep it in.

Anyways, Immortelle is coming soon. It’s dark, violent and crawling with zombies.

Colombina, or how a story wove itself from art and mist

Sometimes a story appears whole and perfect in a writer’s head and all they have to do is write it down. Unfortunately, that almost never happens to me, and Colombina is no exception. Writing it was a meandering process of trial and error, trying to fit different pieces together without a clear image of the finished picture in my mind. But in the end, some magic must have been involved because, once the pieces found their proper places, the story shone.

It started with a writing prompt: write a story from the POV of a magical object. A sword or a ring or a lantern would have been an obvious choice, but I didn’t want it to be obvious. I wanted an object that had power on its own, even without the magic, an object that could transform its owner. As it was almost the Carnival season (the Carnival tradition is religiously observed here), it crossed my mind that my narrator could be a mask.

Mead Schaeffer, Forbidden Lover

Just as I started thinking about masks, I came across Mead Schaeffer’s Forbidden Lover. It is an eye-catching illustration, pretty and borderline kitschy, but what is important is that there’s a story in it. You look at the masked lovers and you think, “Who are they? Why is their love forbidden?” And that’s how Caterina and Domenico were created.

By this point, it was clear that the story had to be set in Venice, which was a wonderful challenge for my inner art historian. The canals, the gondolas, the mist – those were the staples. But what particular details could one highlight in a city that is filled with magnificent works of art?

First, I needed a church. Santa Maria della Salute presented itself as an ideal choice: you can approach it by water, it’s famous enough for the readers to know it or find it easily, its style corresponds with the story’s setting and one can easily imagine it appearing from the fog, imposing and beautiful.

After the church, I needed to choose a palace and, honestly, it could have been any of the amazing buildings on the Canal Grande. But I chose the Palazzo Dolfin Manin because it’s one of my personal favourites and because it was designed by Jacopo Sansovino, who created some of the greatest Venetian landmarks.

Alvise Manin is an imaginary character, but he owes his name to the Manin family, who owned the palace in the 18th century.

The interior of the palace was decorated by Tiepolo, but his art did not fit the mood of my story, so I chose a different painting for Manin’s study. The Toilet of Venus or Venus with a Mirror is a popular subject and there are wonderful examples by Bellini and Titian, who are both locals. However, their goddesses are absorbed with their own images and pay no attention to the viewers. I needed a goddess who could meet the eye of the viewer. For that purpose, I chose Rubens’s version. I don’t specify this in the story, but I held it in my mind as I wrote.

Peter Paul Rubens, Toilet of Venus

The question of Caterina’s costume was also a challenge. I didn’t want her mask to be generic, it had to turn her into someone else. I needed a stock character: vivid, recognizable, fitting the story. Commedia dell’arte offered a solution. Colombina is a comic servant, a perky maid, clever and resourceful – a perfect character for Caterina to turn into in order to save herself. But also, perhaps a little less noticeable, hidden in the shadows, I used the motif of the hopeless lovers, Gli Innamorati, for Caterina and Domenico. And of course, Caterina’s father is the head of the household, Il Dottore, and Alvise Manin is the rich old fool, Pantalone. Basically, you have the whole cast of the Commedia dell’arte on stage here.

Writing about all these elements now, I’m surprised that I managed to weave them all together, but some of that work was unconscious. My previous knowledge, my interests, things I’ve read somewhere. I am very happy that it all clicked together. I hope the readers will enjoy the story as a whole and also wonder about the historical details.

In the end, I must add a disclaimer: this is a fantasy story in which I tried to make the real details as accurate as possible. If I have made any mistakes, I apologize for them.

The Book

Let’s make this clear: The Book is not the first novel I’ve written nor it is the last, so all the drama connected with it is purely subjective. But it is my current project and it has taken me on a roller coaster ride of hope and disappointment of epic proportions (subjective, remember!).

I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript in the summer of 2019. I’ve found some great beta readers (thanks, Scribophile) that helped me with the plot, characters and prose. I edited it and sent the first few queries in November and December. I had no luck with agents in that first round, so I went back to the manuscript, did a complete structural edit, rewrote some chapters and added new ones. I polished my query and synopsis. And started querying again.

In April, an agent saw my Twitter pitch and asked me for a full. In less than a month, I had an offer of representation. I signed the contract in May.

And then… nothing.

Global pandemic struck and I think my agent just didn’t handle it very well. There were enthusiastic emails and chats about developmental edits and line edits and submission packages, but those things never materialized. I’ve never received her editorial letter, never got any constructive feedback. My manuscript got no attention and no opportunities to get published.

I think our relationship has come to an end. And just like with any other relationship, there’s disappointment and sadness.

But the manuscript is still here, complete and polished. I just need to gather the courage to go back to querying. Wish me luck.

Look, I’ve made such a lovely mood board for The Book.

Suck it up, brain weasels!

2020 has been a good year.

Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement. 2020 has been a terrible year in so many ways. The pandemic, the lockdown, the fear, the crumbling economy and the horrors of homeschooling. It was a tough year to live through and I’m glad it’s almost over.

And yet… it’s been a good year for me, although there hasn’t been any special turning point, no epiphany to speak of. It’s just that I’ve finally allowed myself to do what I’d been wishing to do these past twenty years – let other people see my work.

To be honest, there has never been a time when I was not writing. But scribbling things in the wee hours and then burying them on your hard disc does not make you feel like a real writer. Nor does it give you confidence. It leaves you alone with brain weasels whispering in your ear that you’re not good enough, that your writing is trash and that no one will ever want to read it.

Brian the Brain Weasel

But in 2020 I decided I’m done with being my own greatest obstacle. 2020 was the year when I admitted to myself that I wanted to write speculative fiction, I wanted to write in English and I wanted to publish my work.

Five short fiction sales and one agent later, I think I’ve made the right decision.

So suck it up, brain weasels!