Russell Kirkpatrick's Journal
My computer's weather function tells me it's currently 8 degrees celsius in Hamilton. It's a lot colder down here in the gully, I can tell you. We had a frost this morning and it clouded over before the sun could melt it - it's been marrow-jellifyingly cold all day. All the heaters are on and I've got so many layers of clothing on I look more like the Michelin Man than ever.
I've had a discouraging day, reading reviews of my work and of those who, like me, write epic fantasy. So many people out there are comfortable with writing off anything that does not have (in their judgment) originality. But I read the following on the Tor website:
"Epic fantasy ... produces its effects not so much by the novelty of its invention as by its depth of insight and strength of execution."
This makes sense to me. I'm sure I'll rant at some point about originality. Suffice to say at this point that it is possible to entertain, instruct and enrich without being original, even in the narrow sense in which critics often mean it.
So you want to get tips from a published author about writing? All right. But you won’t like it.
No, you really won’t like it.
You’re probably looking for help in being published. The problem is, I can’t help you get published. And if I was honest I’m not sure I want to – more competition, you see. But I can make suggestions about how to make your writing better.
Let’s start with your attitude. Why are you writing?
I’ll tell you why I’m writing. I have this ache in my chest. It makes me want to do things, to express myself, to influence people and make them remember what I have to say. I’ve sung in choirs and led a thousand people in song. I’ve lectured to students, to the public and to members of Parliament. Yesterday I spent the morning speaking to students from the local high school, without payment. Not because it’s a way to promote myself, but because, you see, I have this ache in my chest. I preached to congregations on a regular basis from the time I was seventeen until my mid-thirties. I’ve taught Sunday School and youth groups. I so much want to communicate. I make atlases to get across my particular (slightly twisted and subversive) view of the world. I lecture at University. And I write.
I don’t have to write. I do have many other outlets. But I have always had to do something. After all, I don’t want to explode.
Being published is a way for my writing to be read by many more people, and also means I earn money. But being published doesn’t ease the pressure in my chest. The act of writing does that.
I so enjoy crafting a scene, describing a landscape, getting dialogue to be more than perfunctory, linking the plot to some seemingly insignificant event that happened a hundred pages ago, and writing the moment of revelation when the character realises what’s going on. I wrote two books without any serious consideration of getting them published. I’ll tell you how they ended up being published sometime later. I ached before I wrote them, I enjoyed writing them and I felt better afterwards.
So why are you writing? Have you thought about it? Do you know? If you’re constantly starting and never finishing, if you seem always to lack motivation, chances are you don’t know why you’re writing. When you find out, you’ll be in a position to make some changes and some choices about what you write, when you write, how you write, and what your goals are. Go and have a think about it.
Well, it's finally happened. My wife has mentioned the 'h' word. Not for me, but for her mother, who has lived with us for twenty years.
What a difficult decision. She's been easy to live with, even fun sometimes, but since a stroke and pacemaker about eight years ago we've found her an increasing strain. Dorinda (my wife) and I have not been able to go on holiday together for ten years. Last year Dorinda left her employment of thirty years to care for her. But with advancing alzheimers and loss of bodily function Dorinda's mother is now beyond our ability to care for.
The next few weeks will see us researching, talking to relatives, and trying to help Mother-in-law understand what is happening.
I've read recently somewhere - a couple of places, actually - about authors who have 'sold out'. This is supposed to mean that, rather than writing deathless prose, they are writing what will make them the most money. Dirty sell-outs.
Have you ever written anything with the intention of making money from it? A short story? You dirty sell-out.
Come on. All writers are sell-outs. We all want to get a payoff for our work, whether in coin or in praise. There's no other motivation, surely - all right, altruism, perhaps; but in that case you're a saint and I won't be able to look you in your holy eye. For the rest of us, writing is an activity with definite rewards.
Why does this bother me? Because of the moral dimension. The tag 'sell-out' is used to brand people. It marks some as superior (those who haven't) and others as inferior (those who have). You know what? I smell hypocrisy, that's what I smell. The people who call others 'sell-outs' are those who believe their kind of writing should be getting all the money. You'd sell out if you could.
Here's your guide to sell-outs:
• literary writing: I want the right people to think I'm really clever.
• mass market paperbacks: I want lots of people to think I'm clever, and the money I get will compensate me for the criticism I get from really clever people.
Perhaps it's a matter of degree. If you get more money, you're more of a sell-out. I need someone to explain this to me: if you write for payment, how can you not be a sell-out?
I frequent the ProgArchives website, and the most common discussion there is the way in which progressive rock groups - innovative and alternative musicians from the 1970s - 'sold out' in the 1980s. The example cited is Phil Collins and Genesis.
This makes me laugh. As though it's an easy thing to think 'I know, let's write simple pop music/a bestseller and make millions.' Yeah, it's so simple everyone can do it. That's why we're all millionaires. Come on. If it were simple it would not be so valuable. Much of the value of literary fiction and progressive music is snob value. 'I belong to this exclusive (small) club and only we can understand this stuff. The masses aren't as clever as us.'
Here's a tip. Read and write what you want to, ignore those who would tell you you have bad taste, try new stuff whenever you get the chance - and enjoy yourself. And take whatever payment you're offered without any shame.
I feel better now.