On March 15, my novel In Nightmares We’re Alone will be released from Off Limits Press (it is currently available for pre-order from their online store).
This marks a finish line (or at least the latest milestone) for a project that has had a long and odd ride through my head and the world, and which holds a special place for me. A version of the book was even self-published and released at one point, though that version was never quite “there”, and with the new edition, it feels to me like maybe it’s actually finally finished.
This is my first post resurrecting this old blog. I hope to get fairly active on here again starting right away. Later this year I want to delete all my social media accounts and have this be my online home. I’ve been working on multiple writing projects both for the page and for the screen, and I look forward to writing about all of that stuff, as well as whatever else I feel like at a given moment, in upcoming posts, hopefully at least one a week.
But to open things up, let’s talk about how In Nightmares We’re Alone represents an eight-year journey and why I’m can’t wait for people to see this new edition.
Trilogy of Terror and Pulp Fiction
In July of 2013, fresh off of a nightmare, I posted this on my Facebook fan page:
While I’ve always been over-optimistic in terms of how long creative projects would take, that last sentence — “Wonder if I could get ’em done by Halloween…” — is the most laughably inaccurate prediction I’ve ever made about my own work. That was some George R. R. Martin level shit.
At the time, the idea was for three separate novellas packaged in one book. The first was about a little girl whose mother collects dolls, and who becomes convinced that one of the dolls wants to hurt her for some reason. The second was about a man who finds plants sprouting from under his fingernails and has to tear them out to continue to fit into society as he searches for a reason as to why this is happening to him. The third was about an older woman who keeps finding cryptic messages on an old typewriter and on a chalkboard as, one by one, the people around her become terrified of being left alone even for a second.
It would have been simple enough, but midway through writing the first one, I went for a walk, and started imagining the three stories happening side-by-side, bumping into each other, changing each other’s trajectory in ways the characters couldn’t see for themselves. I thought of a poster at my high school that said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (a poster that makes a key appearance in the book), and I realized this was going to be more complicated than I thought.
I started thinking of the movie Pulp Fiction and watching old interviews with Quentin Tarantino from when it was released. Pulp Fiction is an anthology movie — like Creepshow or Sin City or Trilogy of Terror — it’s one movie composed of four short films (one about a hitman’s date with his boss’s wife, one about a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, one about two guys trying to hide a body after an accidental murder, and a fourth about a coffee shop robbery that’s split in half and bookends the film). But nobody calls Pulp Fiction an anthology. Some people who have seen it five times don’t even realize it’s an anthology. Some might even be reading this right now and going, “No, Greg. I get what you’re saying, but it isn’t an anthology.” The stories in Pulp Fiction influence each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts. You feel like you saw one thing, something bigger than the four things, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it was. And that was what I wanted for In Nightmares We’re Alone. A book that might be a novel, and might be a collection, and neither word felt entirely right.
The first draft only took a little over a month, but when I tried to mesh them together in the rewrites, I nearly drove myself insane.
An Existential Rubik’s Cube
Before In Nightmares We’re Alone, I had self-published each of four novels with gaps of only about nine months. I was in a phase of writing where I was productive, but didn’t have the best understanding of how to improve something once a version of it existed, so rewrites weren’t as heavy as they should have been, and I was churning out one after the other. But I got it into my head somewhere along the way that In Nightmares We’re Alone was a cut above anything else I’d done, and I started chasing perfection.
It is dangerous to chase perfection. Perfection is hypothetical. You’ll never get there. You’ll never write a masterpiece. Even if scholars regard it as a masterpiece, you’ll always see the little failings that couldn’t quite work. I bet William Shakespeare looked at parts of Hamlet and said, “What the fuck was I thinking?”
At the same time, I was on this unlearning kick, trying to shrug off every belief I’d grown up with and decide things for myself, trying to get rid of biases. I had a rather nihilistic worldview and was trying to meditate on certain spiritual ideas. Until then I was always a proud and avowed atheist, but I started to prefer the phrase “not really religious” to avoid the group identity of atheists, and I also had ideas about nature and connection, a tree of life, everything that’s ever lived as one giant organism in which the individuals are essentially cells. I don’t argue with someone today who calls me an atheist, an agnostic, or a nihilist. But I wouldn’t argue with pantheist either.
The philosophical concepts of solipsism and free will were both in my head. I was reading The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (John Koenig’s blog where he makes up words to describe very specific feelings) and obsessing over words like sonder and occhiolism. There was this idea in my head. Each person is alone in their own story, blind to the fact that they are all in the same story. How do you tell that story?
My three protagonists became manifestations of those ideas, but I was struggling to get my head around the ideas themselves, so I kept having to rewrite and rewrite, chasing some profound revelation that always seemed just out of reach. And of course it seemed out of reach. It’s the meaning of life. It’s why are we here? It’s why do these things happen to us and what are we supposed to do with our time? It’s the questions that define much of the human struggle, and which nobody ever answers to much satisfaction.
As though that weren’t enough, its structure — three separate stories told one at a time that occur over the same period, share many of the same key events, and influence each other in ways so subtle they don’t even realize it — is excessively difficult to edit. Making a change to what one character does on Wednesday could easily force a change to what the other two characters do on Wednesday, especially if you’re having to move Protagonist #2’s meeting with Protagonist #3 forward to Tuesday. What does that mean for Protagonist #2’s current Tuesday.
I started picturing a Rubik’s Cube. I couldn’t fix the red without fucking up the blue, and when I fixed the blue, I’d only fuck up the red again. But at least with a Rubik’s Cube, you know what it’s supposed to look like if you solve it. I couldn’t even figure out how this thing was supposed to look in the first place.
A Quiet Self-Publication
After a couple years, In Nightmares We’re Alone became a problem for me. I was destroying myself with it, not enjoying the process of writing, and every time I tried to set it aside, I found that I couldn’t work on anything else without feeling guilty I wasn’t finishing this one. This one that was so much better than anything else I’d written. If I could just fix those last few things. If I could just get the ending to work. If I could just do this and this and that.
So I picked a publication date and announced it, even though it wasn’t done. I just told myself, whatever exists on October 26, 2015, that’s what’s getting published. I can obsess all I want for the next couple months, but on that day, the deadline is up. For better or worse, the book comes out. And if everybody hates it, oh well. At least I can work on the next thing knowing this one is over.
The people who read it mostly seemed to like it, but there weren’t many. I was so exhausted, so eager to stop thinking about it, that self-publishing wasn’t a good idea. It’s hard to promote something when you’re dying to wash your hands of it. I did a few interviews, sent out a few review copies, but mostly I was just happy to go about my day not thinking about it. I took a long time off from novels. I worked on short stories, sending them to anthologies and magazines. I wrote screenplays and sent them to competitions and producers.
I put it in the rearview. But I should have known it wouldn’t stay there.
Samantha Kolesnik and Off Limits Press
I met Samantha Kolesnik at the GenreBlast Film Festival in 2017, where I had a screenplay and she had a short film. We became friends and fans of each other’s work. When she read In Nightmares We’re Alone, she kept telling me how big a fan of it she was and that I should rerelease it because it was a crime that more people hadn’t read it. I considered going back, revisiting it for a new edition, and seeing if I could find a publisher this time around. I played with it in the back of my head, toyed with it as an idea, but didn’t jump at it for a while.
After the success of her own debut novel (the excellent and gut-wrenching True Crime), Sam started Off Limits Press, and before long we started talking about In Nightmares We’re Alone again, now with her as publisher. That prospect seemed too exciting to pass up, so I finally opened up the accursed book again, after years of promising myself it was done. Looking it over, I thought it couldn’t just be a rerelease. It had to be a proper new edition. I’d picked up a few things in terms of how to tell a story over the last few years, and there was stuff in there I wanted to take one more crack at.
As it turned out, I’d learned more than I realized. A few years of distance helped too, a few years of detaching, so that getting it “perfect” didn’t feel so life-and-death. It didn’t take a whole lot of hammering and bending to make it better than it had ever been. I was also excited to find that I still had scenes I’d taken out of the original release, which I had kept in a folder because there were things about them I liked. Back then, I didn’t have the skill (or was too close to it) to isolate what did and didn’t work about those sections, so I took them out entirely. Today, I could spot the problems and solutions, and was able to reinsert them in ways that really worked. I put a few things back in and I tightened up other things. I think I added in about 5,000 words of material but the total word count stayed about the same because of the amount that I tightened. The second story in particular includes new key scenes as well as a newly-restored epilogue that I think makes for a far more satisfying payoff.
And yes, once or twice I felt that old unsolvable Rubik’s Cube rearing its head. Once or twice I caught myself thinking, “Maybe this event should happen on this other day, so that this thing can happen on this day. I’d have to change the plant story so this other thing happens, but I could reconcile that with the typewriter story. I’m just not sure what the girl with the doll would do when she notices the typewriter woman saw the plant guy with the…” But for the most part, when those things happened, I was able to take a breath and walk away. There was a deadline this time. That helps.
And now it’s done.
On March 15, it will be out in the world and people will be reading it. Maybe this time it will find its people, the way it never really did the first time around. And if it does, those people are actually getting a better book than they would have gotten if we’d found each other in 2015. And even if it doesn’t find its people, even if it never does, it’s still a better book now and that counts for something. I really think the new version is almost exactly what I was destroying myself trying to write back in 2014 when I kept getting annoyed with myself for not being good enough. It feels like the finish line at the end of a long voyage.
It’s not too often you get a second chance at a project, and if there was one of mine in particular I would have liked a second shot at, it would’ve been this one. I have Samantha Kolesnik and Off Limits Press to thank for giving me that shot. After the frustrating and difficult process of creating this book, it’s a pretty great feeling to know it is finally the book I wanted it to be, and it’s about to go out into the hands of readers who just might be the right ones to read it. I can’t wait to find out what it does for them.
The new edition of In Nightmares We’re Alone is coming March 15, 2021 from Off Limits Press.