the virtues of being ready

I received a letter from Descant magazine sometime during my business trip. It mentioned that the formal launch of the issue with my story in it would be 1 March, and that it would be in bookstores shortly thereafter. It's available at Book City, Chapters/Indigo, and various independent shops. If you like ghost stories, definitely check it out.

Since the story is in final form and officially published, I thought now would be a good time to blog about its making. In some ways it's at least as spooky as the actual story.

Late one worknight, I was surfing the web. Most of me was already asleep, and there was one part of me that kept looking at the clock on the computer desktop and thinking, "really ought to get to bed". But you know how it goes: one more link, oooh that sounds interesting, one more link...

The last link was an interview between Neil Gaiman and... someone. It was a promotional interview for The Graveyard Book, and at one point, either Gaiman or the person conducting the interview said, "No one expects a ghost". The other person agreed.

I honestly can't remember who was quoted as saying what, and I've never been able to find the interview since. I suppose if I dug through Gaiman's blog enough I'd eventually find the link again, but it's never seemed worth it, because of the two things that happened next.

The first thing was that some part of my still-conscious or subconscious brain found the statement "No one expects a ghost" very offensive. As an awake person writing this now, I have no idea why. I just remember feeling very angry about it. I even remember saying out loud, "They do too!"

And then Mary Beth started telling me what happened to Avery. Judging from her voice, she was at least five years older than the ten-year-old child in the story I wrote, but I could literally hear her in my head. She had that distinctive accent only used by people of Anglo-Saxon descent from Wellington or Halton counties. It's probably died out now with the influx of people in the new subdivisions there. I've never been able to imitate that accent out loud, but apparently one part of my subconscious knows exactly what it sounds like.

I opened up a word processing file and started writing down what Mary Beth was telling me. The first three-quarters of "The Expected Ghost" started off basically as dictation-taking. My conscious brain was able to guide things a bit — I picked the name "Avery" deliberately, taking it from a totally different web page I'd read earlier in the day — but a lot of it was just taking the words down without crafting them at all.

It would be more romantic to say I stayed up the rest of the night taking down that first draft, but the truth is eventually I looked at the clock and realised I really had to get to bed, so I reluctantly saved the file, shut the computer down, and caught some sleep. I finished the rest of the draft the following evening. One of the first revision jobs I had to do was to make sure the seam line between the subconscious dictation and the deliberate "awake" writing was invisible.

I got to write a ghost story that a ghost told me about. As far as "craft" goes, I can't say I'd recommend this as a usual method. It's far more likely the writer would just fall asleep on the couch than get any work done. I'm very lucky that I had the wherewithal left to open the word processor and start writing instead of thinking, "good idea, shall have to figure that out tomorrow". That seemed to be the biggest lesson — when it arrives, write it down.