Author Life, Day 1

by stephenpalmersf

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Being There

Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.

I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.

If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.

As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.

The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.

Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.

David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’

Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.

As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed