Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ten Things

Ten things I have learned about writing -- a la Elizabeth Bear and Ben Peek. This can also be read as a Stages of Writing thing, as these are largely consecutive "steps", to my mind. So:

1. Don't eat the crayons, even if "purple tastes gooooood". No, really. Put that down; it's not meant for that.*

2. Young talent must be nurtured. A child who has a certain knack for, say, writing stories in English class needs to be taken aside and told it in order to make them realise that they're special, to encourage them and (more importantly) alienate them from the dickwad jocks around, breeding a seething resentment of their low status in the high school pecking order. Compensatory arrogance and narcissistic rage are the powerhouse of the creative impetus.

3. Writing is 100% inspiration and 100% perspiration. It's what you breathe and what you sweat, all of it, equally. It often stinks for that reason, but not devouring shit will usually improve this state of affairs.

4. Flattery is for fuckwits; ruthless critique is the only critique of any value. Workshops can be valuable then, but if a workshop session doesn't make you want to kill someone** it's not worth shit. Even if it does you probably won't listen to the content and rewrite your crappy mood-piece / novel fragment / background summary so it's an actual fucking story. You will however want to a) get your own back on the bastards b) show these fuckers that you really are a genius, so there. In attempting to achieve the first you will hone your critical skills. In attempting to achieve the latter you will apply those skills to your own writing.

5. Learn to kill your darlings. But torture them first. And after you've killed them, strip the meat from their bones, take them apart and build them into one motherfucking huge serial-killer-style shrine. Alternatively, put them back together and reflesh them with muscle and sinew sliced from your own naked body (or neighbourhood pets) and vat-grown in your underground laboratory; raise them from the dead as a glorious army of skeletal warriors, unquestioning servants in your plan for world domination.

6. Shoeboxes full of adolescent scribblings make pretty fire. Should your army of undead sentences rise up against you, ceasing to obey your every whim and becoming instead an unruly mob seeking equal rights and inclusion in every story or novel you try to write, putting all of them -- every last motherfucking one of them -- to the torch will liberate you to start anew, utilising the skills acquired over five-ten years of twiddling and tweaking. As a wise man once said: exterminate all the brutes.

7. There is really only one way to be a writer: start writing, carry on writing, and keep on writing until it's five in the morning. A mix of uppers (e.g coffee) and downers (e.g. cigarettes) can keep you balanced for an indefinite period on the knife-edge between consciousness and complete collapse. This is known as "the Zone". Remember: sleep-deprivation is the poor man's hallucinogen.

8. Bad writers burrow; good writers steel themselves and face the fucking consequences when the monster they've created gets loose and runs amok inside their heads, raping innocent memories and pillaging knowledge, growing in might and violence until the landscape of the mind is all but consumed in chaos. Fear not. Once you have tamed the monster it will be a loyal friend and ally, demanding only the occassional virgin sacrifice. And that's what virgins are for.

9. "Art" is a poncy term for craft combined with flair. What distinguishes the talented writer from the good writer (c.f. Delany) is having the audacity to take on an insanely difficult project and the panache to fail gloriously, shrug it off and start on another even more insanely difficult project. Pretentious writing is only pretentious because it is not ambitious enough. Your detractors will not make this distinction, but what do they know? Bastards.

10. Fuck that shit.

* 1a. This simple childhood rule applies also in adult life to: playing computer Solitaire; browsing the interweb; checking email; surfing for p0rn. If you are doing any of this you are eating the crayons. Stop it now.

** 4a. If the someone that ruthless critique makes you want to kill is yourself then you are not a writer and never will be. You are a delicate flower... to be snipped off and worn as a buttonhole by men of cruel wit and savage passions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aye...7. Ain't that the fucking truth.

5:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#2: Beautiful and true. #7: Even more beautiful and true.

I just got here off the turnip truck. This is now my favorite blog.

9:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love #8 and adore #4a. :-)

3:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I am not the only person to appreciate the full glories of two days' worth of sleep-dep spent entirely in front of a keyboard. My carpal tunnel salutes you, sir, and my hat is off.

Or it would be, if I owned one.

10:40 pm  
Blogger LauraT said...

I love # 6!

1:57 am  
Blogger Silma said...

Amen to #3! *lol*

3:47 am  
Blogger AbbotOfUnreason said...

#4 is great as long as it's tempered with a little #2, even for the not-so-young.

6:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking at no 5 - now we know why you are so skinny and your books aren't!

(Mandy in case you're wondering - I switched allegiance to LJ!)

7:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>* 1a. This simple childhood rule applies also in adult life to: playing computer Solitaire; browsing the interweb; checking email; surfing for p0rn. If you are doing any of this you are eating the crayons. Stop it now.

*cough cough* compulsively completeing blog entries *cough cough*


>men of cruel wit and savage passions.

why do I never meet any of them, eh?

1:37 pm  
Blogger inkgrrl said...

Some of the best writing advice I've ever read. Beautiful.

11:25 pm  
Blogger Diana Hunter said...

Yes to #2. If it weren't for a 3rd grade teacher who, when handing back a creative writing assignment on bears, made an offhand comment to me that I should be a writer, the thought never would have entered my head.

But she said it (cursed me?) and here I am.

3:31 pm  
Blogger jallen said...

You're my fucking hero. I was diagnosed with depressive insomnia around the same time I was writing the rough draft of my first novel. I've nurtured my insomnia since then. It has become one of the greatest tools in my writing arsenal.

9:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love what you say about critique and flattery man. Right on. If people can't take it, don't shake it.

7:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But how do you know if you have potential, or should just give up and quit?

I do agree that criticism, is the only way to know how you're doing, but what if you've gotten some positive feedback, but you still think what you wrote is total shit.....????

3:33 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

"But how do you know if you have potential, or should just give up and quit?"

Everyone starts with potential. If you have the imagination to play make-believe as a five year old and the ability to write a sentence, you have potential. Some show more of this potential, some show less. By the time you're seven, or eight, or nine, it's usually pretty obvious if you have a vivid imagination and can write a decent grammatical sentence. You get marked on the latter through most of your school life, and often on the former too, in creative compositions in English class.

The likelihood of you *realising* that potential could be seen as another level of potential. If playing make-believe sucks you in such that the more you do it, the more you *want* to do it, if you picked up those grammar skills without difficulty, seemingly quicker and easier than those around you, then you're not just at a higher level, you're aimed on a steeper gradiant. Again, that should be obvious. By the time you reach your teens, you ought to know fine well if you have that sort of potential relative to your peers.

If you not only can't see that for yourself but refuse to accept when others tell you to your face, then you have a self-confidence problem that will hamstring you until it's dealt with. You're playing a game of doublethink, disacknowledging your potential in a chronic devaluation of your own judgement relative to those you turn to for feedback, (because you're just this newbie, this amateur, this wannabe,) but sneakily, in self-contradiction, devaluing their positive judgements relative to your own (because *you* still think it's shit.) You can't simultaneously not know shit and yet know better than those you turn to for objectivity.

You need to face that, ask yourself if you're locked into the vicious cycle pathology of the delicate flower, where you turn to exterior authorities for a quick fix of validation only to ultimately reject it, forcing you to go back for more, which you reject, forcing you to go back for more, which you reject, and so on until you've developed a nice easy defeatism to excuse the lack of skill, which is born of lack of commitment, with essentialist bollocks casting it as a lack of talent (which isn't your fault.) Of course, part of you does still feel the passion, feel the sense that maybe possibly you *could* do it. There's a part of you sneakily reassuring you that, yes, you do have that precious gift, so you get to have it both ways. That's the part of you sparked by the initial validation, and as long as you can live with the angst that returns, you can enjoy the backslapping then sink back into the cosy defeatism that stops you from progressing.

If you want a sense of conviction to sustain you, the only way to get that is to merit it and accept that you do.

8:23 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The bottom line:

You're not going to get magically anointed as a Darling of Destiny. Nobody can give you a prophetic reassurance that your raw creative drive and skills will build to the phase change where, often suddenly, everything crystallises and you achieve the level of actually-really-pretty-damn-readable. And you will not have the sense of conviction you're looking for until that moment.

The one thing that can be said for sure is that if you're operating on a mindset in which that wholesale validation is the requisite justification for continuing while you're still essentially unskilled, any temporary benefit of egoboost from qualified validations will be outweighed by the underlying reinforcement of a sense of inadequacy, the underlying reinforcement of an impetus to throw in the towel.

If you're going to override the positive feedback with your value judgement(s) that the work is shit, you need to own that, latch onto *that* conviction and make that the basis of confidence. Hey, you know what's shit. That's a pretty solid foundation for the requisite skills. If you know what's shit, then you know what's good because it's *the stuff that isn't shit.*

If you have the ability to identify what's shit on the page, you have the ability to *kill it with fire*. The more you hone that ability, the more it doesn't have to be on the page before you kill it with fire, the more you wouldn't even dream of smearing that sort of shit on the page. And at some point, as you become able to put words on the page in confidence that they're not shit, you'll know you have potential because you're realising it.

8:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading this really made me laugh out loud! It is so uplifting and is bursting with so much energy, that it burns a little. I am no writer but I can certainly take this advice and make it work for the other kinds of hell I need to deal with in my life. Thank you for sharing some very important things, Mr duncan. I needed to hear sth like this right now.

6:25 pm  

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