(Bleed for the reader and kill the ego)
Hal Duncan

I’ve known Hal Duncan for about five years now and been aware of his work for years prior to taht–I’d read his début tome, ‘Velum’, long before we became friends.

In fact, it was my fan-mail to him which initiated dialogue (which is kind of embarrassing to read back to myself now). Since that cheesy, gushing letter to my idol all those years ago, Hal has written stories for my Dog Horn magazine, Imperial Youth Review, contributed to my shared world collection Slave Stories – Scenes from the Slave State, and we’ve even edited a beautiful anthology together called Caledonia Dreamin’ (published by Eibonvale). It’s kind of a surreal experience and i’m grateful for his friendship and guidance to this day, but why did Hal bother replying to my fan-mail? I was an unpublished and insecure nobody. If you ever meet the man himself, Hal’s most attractive feature, outside of his remarkable prose – is his complete lack of ego. He’s won the Tähtivaeltaja Award, Gaylactic Spectrum Award For Best Novel and been nominated for the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel,World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Locus Award for Best First Novel. Still no ego.

Here’s Hal…

The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”

HD – To turn Freud on his head: Where ego is, there id must be.

halOK, so we’re starting with the assumption that this young author isn’t just pottering away, making shit up for the fun of it, not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. They have their ego invested in their work and want to see it actually published, but they’re acutely aware that they’re unpublished and unskilled–in some way, shape or form. You’re not intimidated by the publishing industry unless you’re desperate for that validation. And you’re not insecure about your writing unless you’re at very least missing the skill of judging it objectively. Both of these are ego problems, issues of insecure stance.

Our young author is presumably seeing a lack of publication as a lack of legitimacy, regardless of the fact that e.g. Kafka was never in print until after he died while innumerable piles of crap hit the bestseller lists daily. And they’re presumably angsting over quality, torn between the buzz they get from rereading what works, recognising its power, and second-guessing themselves based on the fact they know fine well they were blind to flaws in early writing which they can now see to be shite. In either case, without a specific problem in this or that domain (Which agent would be most sympathetic to my writing? What do you mean my omniscient PoV is crumbling into muddled third person limited?) it seems to me that our hypothetical young author is looking to me as a figure of perceived legitimacy and confidence, asking a question broad as can be:

How do I get to where you’re at?

Unpack that question to the core desire: a secure stance. If you want legitimacy, validation by publication, you can get any old shite into print via any vanity press, or by self-publishing, right? But is that going to really satisfy you? Is it going to be a legitimate feeling of legitimacy? No? Strip away the shallow lust for cash and/or kudos, and what you’re really yearning for is to know that someone got it. That someone clicked with your writing. That it mattered to them–really, seriously, as much as it matters to you, maybe even more. That’s a desire straight out of the id, a desire for communion, masked by the ego casting it in terms of bestseller lists and award nominations. You want to sate that desire, the only way to do so is listen to it, obey it by opening yourself up to write what matters to you. Commit to the stance of seeking communion.

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Open up and bleed for the reader and you’ll get that sense of legitimacy no matter if you’re languishing in small print runs and being overlooked for awards. Someone, somewhere will come back to you and say, This blew me away; and the only thing that will stop you hearing them and knowing that you made the connection, that the communion happened for them, is ego lying to you. The damnable self-sabotaging ego of a quasi-depressive outlook, a nagging voice in your head, shit-tinted glasses filtering out the truth. That ego needs to be taken out into the desert, shot and buried in a shallow grave.

Fuck the ego. Nothing will ever be enough if you listen to that bastard. Let that reader give you the confirmation of communion having happened, let the id be sated, and knowing that honesty works, your id will double-down on it. Poverty and obscurity will be only a pragmatic concern, inconveniences to a writing identity invested in communion and so taking that whole industry with its print runs and trophies as… means to an end. Side-effects and distractions, nuisances to be negotiated. Are you eating? Do you have a roof over your head? Are you making sweet sweet love to your reader(s) with your words? Well then, job done. In all the trials tribulations of unpaid bill and Amazon reviews, this is a stance to keep you steady: the communion is what matters.

That confirmation may not come back to you any time soon, to be sure. All the more reason to kill the ego, because if all you have to go on while you’re struggling to make the connection is the hope that you’re not pissing in the wind, then until such time as you get that payoff–not in cash or kudos but in a reader telling you how well it clicked for them–you need objectivity in reckoning your own work to underpin that hope with confidence. If you’ve passed the point where you think everything you write is awesome, if your eyes have opened up to the deficiencies in your craft, you can master this skill or that, grasp this or that technique, but there’s one craft skill that is fucking crucial, that will level you up, and that’s the skill of recognising what works and what doesn’t without ego interfering–preening over plus points to distract you from flaws or latching onto flaws as an excuse to throw in the towel.

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Pretending you didn’t clumsily stumble, crumbling in defeat because agility takes work–these are the stances ego will hoodwink you into thereby hamstring your development as a writer. Trusting the id is something you have to learn, I think. Inculcated with ego’s strategies of denial and defensiveness, shame and self-flagellation, we’re wired with this lying obfuscating fucker that serves only as an obstacle to self-improvement. Ego is bad stance out to perpetuate itself with fuckery and warp. Kill it with fire. No fucking mercy.

That’s my two cents worth, for any young author coming to me as some sort of figure of legitimacy and confidence, if they’re essentially seeing themself as on some sort of lower tier, unworthy by dint of a lesser publishing history (as if that was really an indicator) and/or inadequacies in their craft skills (in their opinion.) That part of yourself that’s on your knees as supplicant to the wise elder? That part of yourself looking for a received wisdom to resolve insecurities, to reveal the path by which you might ascend to “proper author” status? You want to leave that ego kneeling on the ground as you step up and back out of it, put a gun to the back of its head, and kill it execution-style. I mean the “want” part literally. Look inside yourself, and I’ll lay odds your id is yearning to be shot of this insecure bullshit. Go for it, I say. You know you wanna. Kill your ego.

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If you can do that, and thereby look at your writing from there on in with ruthless honesty, it’ll stand you in better stead, I think, than any sage advice I can dispense about dealing with the industry and/or perfecting one’s craft. I’m crap when it comes to the pragmatics of publishing as a profession, and distilling all the technical skills down to pithy axioms would be superficial. All I can really do, if you come to me as some sort of authority on this shit, asking me how you achieve the same, is tell you that I learned to trust my id’s judgement by learning when not to trust my ego’s. Stance seeks its own stability. Id, like water finding its own level, drives toward the resolution of niggles and irks. The more you trust it, the more you’ll have grounds to, as with each satiation you savvy a bit more of the craft that achieved it, your ego’s lies ever more transparent, your stance ever more secure.