Accentuate the positive

It was the best of writing groups, it was the worst of writing groups…

Yup, it’s another post where I lament my own inadequacies and generally pour angst upon you, dear reader. See, I have been in my new group for about six weeks and I am struggling not to drown in brilliance.

It’s becoming patently obvious to me that I am not the writer I thought I was. The signs have been there for years, now I stop to examine them, but now they are unignorable. I am getting criticised for things I thought I was beyond – dialogue choices, narrative focus and the like – and I can’t riposte on my detractors because their writing is so damn good. So not only am I not the quality writer, I’m not the critic either.

Ego-bashing is not necessarily a bad thing, and it is always better to look up than to look down. I just wonder how much more I can take before I become too afraid to take my own work to read. I need to have belief in myself, or at least have the right attitude of supplication, before I can advance.

And of course it’s never easy to join a group as a stranger, especially in these strange times when Zoom is your only friend and the human touch is too often missed. I am quieter online because I don’t think I have anything that worthy to contribute; but I would speak up in person, and thus the cycle of not-getting-to-know-anyone-ness is deepened.

There are positive things to take from this. My work is, to all intents and purposes, being almost professionally assessed. I’m getting real solid feedback and learning where I need to improve as a writer. That’s the flip side of all my moaning. I am getting what I need.

Plus the people all seem nice – first impressions and all that – which is a bonus.

It just feels a little overwhelming. I am not without jealousy, and to see other first-time readers getting praise… well, I’ve never claimed to be a good person. And whilst I wish everyone the very best, and I wish to hear top-flight writing, I just wish I could have some of what they’re having, please.

All this says more about me than I’m entirely comfortable with. I like being good at things, that’s the real takeaway here. I need to really get over myself and accentuate the positives, because there are many. I must get my head down, stick at it, and learn.

Optimism/pessimism

So: it’s finally happened. I have started writing a new story. And, unlike my last effort, I even know what this is going to be called, though I’ll save that revelation for another day – when I’m sure that this is actually going to happen and isn’t just a random twitching of the fingers. One session, one thousand words, does not a novel make.

But I have made a start. I won’t be writing every day, especially when the Pandemic work-from-home-ishness of life is over and I have to return to the great wide world. But if I can grind away a bit a week I’ll be happy.

When I was beginning to write seriously I used to be in a rush to get everything done. It was a fear, I think, that I’d ‘lose it’; that I’d grind to a halt and never get the wheels moving again. Now I am much more sanguine. I chip away, a few words at a time, and watch the end slowly, slowly get closer.

Writing is all self-doubt and angst anyway; why add more to the burden?

This is a fine philosophy but it’s hardly how I live. I worried about having lost my imagination in a fallow period from August to yesterday, and I’m still not sure that I have the mental fortitude to carry out a major project like writing a novel. Which is why I spent the time to create something akin to a plan: trying to force my brain to work rather than waiting forever for that bolt of lightning to strike.

Starting something new feels like such a relief. The fear of failure – of having nothing left – is so stultifying that to finally exhale is a joy. But I’m not there yet. I need to know this novel is working, that the words are coming regularly, in order to trust that I am once again free to do the thing I love.

I’ve just realised how contradictory I’m being here. I veer from optimism to pessimism in alternate paragraphs. I worry and then I’m more sanguine. I feel relief and then talk about the anxiety of not writing.

Well, maybe that’s part of the point. Writing often involves – for me at least – holding a lot of contradictory viewpoints at the same time. I’m a good writer and yet I’m nothing special. This novel is the best I’ve written and yet it doesn’t stack up with all the agented reads I see being published.

The fact is that we live in a world of uncertainty, of doubts, of twilights. Writing will never be easy for me but it is what I do. And I think the doubts, the second-guessing, will always be part of it because it is in me.

Buy-in

My reading for pleasure has disintegrated over the last few months. And that’s just a recipe for struggle as, for a fiction writer, there’s little more important than to refresh your well of ideas with plentiful outside influences.

Why it’s gone – well, once upon a time my primary opportunities for reading were work-related: the commute, the job itself (lots of quiet periods sitting with little to do), the coffee breaks.

Since then a change in employment has sabotaged these opportunities – and the pandemic has taken even these. I’m not good at taking time out of my home-day to read; this is, fundamentally, where I’m going wrong.

Fortunately, I’m currently going through one of my busiest periods ever as an editor, and I’m getting plenty of new fiction that way. It’s not the same – as I’ve said before on this blog, I think you consume stories differently when you’re searching out errors as opposed to just going with the flow – but it’s still a damn good way of keeping the inspiration-mines productive.

I’m experiencing the newest fiction and, for the most part, I’m overwhelmed with admiration for the authors, for their creativity, and I’m left wondering if I can ever achieve something that would make over people react the way these authors make me.

I currently have a novel out on submission to a publisher. I just have no idea how to gauge my chances. It’s a good story, I know it is. But it’s not going to win awards for its prose (decent is not the same as lyrical, or heart-rending, or haunting). Nor is the plot particularly original or earth-shattering. A good novel doesn’t have to be one that changes the world.

It might be commercial, but who am I to judge that?

Does it stand up alongside the novels I’ve been editing? Well it’s different, that’s all I can say for sure. Some I feel are better than mine, a (very) few worse. But I know that I’m not capable of reading my own work in the same way that I can read someone else’s. Maybe, one day, some lone proofreader will be reading my work with the same sense of admiration that I feel for other novels. Or maybe they’ll just be slogging their way through an endless slough of despond.

Maybe I’m unique; probably this is universal. I have no idea how my own writing will communicate itself to an outside reader. And it’s because of this that we try and get as much buy-in as possible: we trust beta-readers, we pay for editors; if we’re lucky enough we have agents and the editors are paid by someone else.

All because we haven’t the first idea. I still remember the feeling of being blindsided by the criticism I received the first time I took my work to a writing group. I thought I’d taken a piece that was beyond anything but minor criticism – ah, the arrogance of inexperience! But truly it’s never got any better, not for me, at least.

It’s foolish to put too much store in one person’s opinion, or one publishing house’s commercial judgement, but we do. Which is why it’s important to get as much buy-in as possible, to cast our nets widely.

There is no point to this. Apologies for wasting your time. You, at least, are wonderful.

On beginnings

Sometimes you need to hear something out loud to know what you were thinking all along.

Such is the case in my latest editing project: Our Kind of Bastard (and I still can’t tell if this is a good title or not). Despite this going out to beta-readers I still took the first chapter to my new writing group last week. There it got a very gentle, kindly-meant kicking, for which I am grateful.

The truth which I had not allowed myself to say out loud is that I struggled to start this novel. I have four beginnings, in fact, none of which run entirely sequentially and thus are a confusion for the reader.

The difficulty is that there is merit in all of them. But I know I have to lose at least two of those scenes in order to get a little flow going. It just took someone else saying it out loud for me to accept what at least a part of me knew all along.

This is, of course, another benefit of being in a writers’ group, manuscript exchange circle or the like. You are not always aware of what’s going on in your own subconscious and you need an outside force to bring it home to you.

Doesn’t help that OKOB is a sequel: I need to introduce all the characters and the world I’ve built in book one to remind veteran readers and at the same time give enough to newbies. And I need to crack on with the actual story that makes up book two.

So I have a problem – but then I always did have; the only difference is that now I’m aware of it. And now I know what I have to do: expand one scene to allow it to breathe, cut two others, and see if one of those, at least, can’t be worked back into the text further down the line. And, of course, I have to work out what information I haven’t now given and make sure anything essential gets fed back in somewhere.

This is writing. It’s a bloody difficult gig – don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy ‘cause it ain’t.

And this is only the opening scene.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Seeking progress

Banner concept of innovation, creativity and imagination

How do I write my novels? The answer, of course, is ‘badly’ – but do I plan ahead or do I just start writing and find my path amongst the thickets? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Every time I try and start a book I sit down, hopefully in a coffee shop somewhere (obviously not at the moment) and make a page of illegible notes which I’ll then almost totally ignore. It’s not wonderfully efficient but it’s always worked for me; sketching out the mechanics of an Antarctic research base, for example, and letting the plot flow freely through my subconscious.

Then I say to myself, ‘right, next time I’m going to try and do it properly. I will plan things out. I will, dare I say it, outline.’ And I never do.

My last attempt was for Our Kind of Bastard. I created four different spreadsheets. I had charts saying who was doing what where and when. I was organised – and then I started to write the damn thing and realised that, for all my planning, I’d only plotted about a quarter of the novel and I’d barely kept to that anyway.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Being bound too tight to a map means that there’s no room for a minor character to swoop in and bowl you off your feet. There’s a pressure to keep conformity, even if you find a more interesting trail to follow. The scenic route can be rewarding in itself.

Incidentally, Chuck Wendig’s been giving some Gentle Writing Advice on his Twitter stream recently. The one that caught my eye is this: we are urged to ‘trim the fat’ off our manuscripts, to make every word relevant and apposite. But sometimes fat gives flavour and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

In any case, now I am trying to sketch out a plan for a new novel – a follow-up to OKOB, which is in itself a sequel to Oneiromancer – and I am struggling. Inspiration is sadly lacking. So I’m trying to compensate by working hard.

I am, for the first time ever, writing down what may come to be a whole plot before I start the actual scribbling. It may not be: I reserve the right to start writing before I’ve got all the details locked in. And I reserve the right to deviate horribly before I’ve got to the end of the first chapter.

But I am struggling with my brain at the moment. I want to start something new but am finding it difficult. This is my way of steering around obstacles: I will not wait for a blinding flash of lightning to illuminate my way; I will turn on my pitifully feeble torch and seek out a path yard by yard, bitter inch by bitter inch.

Your method may vary. For me this is currently how I’m seeking progress.

Onwards!

I have taken action. I have left the malfunctioning writing group and have both reconnected with friends at my previous assembly and contacted a new potential group.

It’s for the most horrible of reasons, but it’s incredibly liberating to find that, suddenly, distance doesn’t matter. I’m joining with people I could never hope to reach without the wonders of Zoom, or Skype, or Roll20 come to that (yes, more old friends left long distances away that I’ve reconnected with for the purposes of rolling dice and pretending to be other beings).

As for the writing groups, I now have a choice. I’ve got one novel with the Publishers of my Dreams. Its sequel I’m reserving for my manuscript exchange collective. So what do I present to the new group?

I worry about this sort of thing. What can I bring them? Some self-imposed criteria:

  • It must be new (ish)
  • It must be of a decent standard, but yet…
  • …It must not be perfect (not that I’m capable) as there’s no point bringing something to be polished that’s already road-legal
  • It must be representative of me as a writer
  • It must not be hideously embarrassing

And I find I really don’t have that much to choose from. My novels are out (though if I get rejected by the Publisher of my Dreams I might reopen that previously-sealed container), and though I am fully intending to crank out some more stuff at some point, I’m currently still mulling ideas.

And that leaves my short stories. And those contain problems of their own.

  1. I’m not a short-story writer, not really, thus meaning that it falls foul of the ‘must be representative’ criterium above
  2. I have only two short stories ‘active’ (I have a few discarded ones in the bank, still). One of those is an mm romance and thus entirely unrepresentative (and possibly embarrassing); the other I’ve lost faith in and don’t know if it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time, including my own

I worry too much. It really doesn’t matter. And I have time – I have to attend the new group as a non-reading guest for a week or three anyway, so I can get the measure of the group first.

It is a dilemma. Fortunately it’s a wonderful dilemma to have as it means that I’m getting on with things, that I’m getting feedback on my writing, and generally moving forwards with my writing life.

Huzzah! And a big huzzah for this world of modern wonders!

When writing groups go bad

I have taken a big step and decided to leave my writing group.

I can write this because I know that nobody from said group follows me in any way, shape or form; and, indeed, that’s a small part of the issue. I simply feel like nobody in this (small) group likes me or my writing.

That sounds very self-absorbed but it’s hard to shy from. I don’t feel supported or encouraged in my writing and, no matter how ‘big’ or experienced you get, an atmosphere of encouragement is important to help produce.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I’ve mentioned some issues with this group before. So a fair question would be to ask why I’ve stuck at it so long. Well, this group contains at least two first-rate, better-than-me writers that I’ve wanted to learn from and to gain their advice and criticism. Plus there’s a great deal to say for stability. I’ve had a relationship with these people that I’ve always hoped might develop into familiarity, if not friendship.

That hasn’t happened and I’m left feeling alienated and, to some extent, bullied. Now I know, I know – I’m big enough and ugly enough to take some slings and arrows and not to take every little thing to heart. But I also suffer from depression, and when I’m reduced to tears after a particularly bruising session, it’s time for me to bow out and put my own well-being – and that of my family, who have to put up with me in that state – first.

I also have issues with the quality of criticism. Now I believe that all criticism should be weighted by the needs, level and personality of the recipient. I take heavy criticism; maybe that’s a reflection that the rest of the group feels confident enough in my ability to take it and use it constructively.

And I believe it’s fair that one of the weaker writers in the group should take lesser, more broad critiquing. What I don’t like is for that to become outright misdirection; telling her, for example, that a dream sequence works when I felt clearly that it didn’t. That sort of feedback isn’t gradation – it’s simply wrong and unhelpful.

There is an art to good critiquing. It’s not always easy to judge feedback-level. It’s a skill that can be learnt with experience and practice – and I don’t think my group has that down.

So it’s time for me to move on. I’ve had an offer to join another group – non-local, but in this Zoom-fuelled world, what is local? – and I’m minded to accept it. I owe it to my family – and my craft, and my sanity – to try something new.

Cover issues

Had another battering from writing group yesterday, but I don’t think I need to go into that right now. I need more time to decompress. So instead I shall return to the vexed issue of self-publishing.

Now that I’ve committed – in mind if not in money – to the project, I need to follow through and make sure it happens and that it happens well as I possibly can make it. I’ve been worrying at the issue with a little reading and it seems like the following stages are pretty much nailed down:

  • Writing the damn book
  • Editing the same
  • Get cover designed
  • Format the interior layout
  • Publish
  • Market

But the more you read into it, the more difficult each section seems to become. The big problem I have is that most resources seem to focus intensely on the marketing of the novel and neglect the technical aspect: just how does one prepare a manuscript for publication?

Luckily, this is where the lovely community that I mentioned last week comes in. I’ve been fortunate to get lots of help and advice and I know I can turn to friends for assistance.

As for New Gods, I’ve already completed the first two steps. I have a product ready to publish. Now I need to commit to a cover designer, and this is where all terrors stalk me. I’ve been put on to reedsy.com, which is, apparently, where all editors and designers hang out, just awaiting your special commission.

Unfortunately I’m awful at making big decisions. I’d much rather trust word of mouth that go through a big, impersonal site, even if there are artist’s portfolios just awaiting my attention.

There’s also the question of timescale. Getting a cover takes time – an artist can’t just drop everything to get immediately to your (fairly minor) commission. I’ve been quoted a turnaround of six months, which is probably perfectly reasonable and not atypical but which needs to be accounted for.

Fortunately I have time. Human Resources was only published in November and I figure October/November is not a bad time to aim for to publish its follow-up. I have to think in such terms in order to make this a proper business project.

Project management – another skill that the self-publisher must learn in order to produce a successful project.

I also have to produce something that matches in style the previous two volumes in the trilogy. I need an artist who’s prepared to be constrained by my history, and that (I imagine) is not a little thing in itself.

And that’s it for now – another week, another round of musings. If I actually resolve any of these issues, you’ll be the first to know. Promise.

UPDATE: I have chosen a cover designer. I have been in contact with her and she’s agreed to take on the project. This might actually happen!

Community

are times when it feels like one is totally alone in the world; when one is struggling on, trying to plough your own furrow in the teeth of glorious indifference. Please be reassured: help and advice and friendship is there, should you need it.

This week I find myself overwhelmed by the support I’ve received in my quest for self-publication. A few quick tweets and I found a dozen or so people who were willing and able to give me their valuable time to help me make New Gods the best it can possibly be.

I received links to websites, to authors, to workshops. I got connected with editors. I got quotes for cover art.

All this is useful, but it’s the knowledge that I have a community of friends that is the most important. So I urge you, if you’re struggling with some aspect of writing, of publication, or of any other field, to not agonise in silence. There are people willing to help.

Writers = bloody brilliant. And that goes for you as well, you lovely hunk of humanity, you.