Author Life, Day 5

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. The Art Of Authoring

So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?

For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.

For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.

For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…

So, what is art?

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:

“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”

And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.

All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this week’s blogs I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.

Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.

And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.

An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.

So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.

Enjoy your creativity!