Up and down

Up and down; up and down. Writing is hardly an equitable life. It’s a game of swelling emotions, of thrill and grind and anxiety, both in the actual writing process and in the surrounding business. At the moment I’m feeling bruised and battered. But I’ve come through and I find I’m still on my feet. Soon I’ll be back on the march.

I’ve been trying to get published for the last seven years, on and off. Looking back I can see clearly all the mistakes I’ve made, not least in sending out material that wasn’t ready. But I’ve had nearish misses on the way. I’ve had hopes raised only to be toppled onto the harsh rocks of reality. So I’m older and wiser and know that every submission, every letter and email that goes out is dead as soon as it leaves my possession. It’s the only way to survive. Court failure, defy it, dance with it. Shrug your shoulders and let it fly; if it brings back good news… Well, there are still plenty of ways to drop the ball. No sense in getting carried away.

So what am I to do? Well, I’ve got another rewrite on my plate, but I don’t want to get round to that just yet. I think I need a little time to gather myself, to really think about what kind of novel I’m writing and how the archetypes work. I’m going to do a little reading, a bit of concrete planning before I go any further. Maybe you’re saying that I should have done this before I started to write the damn thing, and you might be right. See, I’m still learning. I hope I never stop.

And if nothing else, these ups and downs are telling me more about myself as a writer, my strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue’s getting better but my plots need work. I can create a great setting but still struggle to communicate a character’s depth… And now I know some things aren’t working I can work on them. It’s not enough for me to churn out novel after novel for the few pence I could scrape up through self-publishing (not to diminish self-publishing; see previous posts for my thoughts on that). I want to write well. I want everything I do to be the best that I can do. I want this not just to be a hobby but a profession. That’s a dream, of course; only the very, very best (or luckiest) writers make a living from their books. But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with dreaming.

So for the moment I struggle onwards with Australis; whilst I hit the library and talk to authors and try and grow outside the strictures of my own work. But it won’t be long now, won’t be long, before I’m back scowling at the computer screen and desperately bending Night Shift into even tighter knots.

I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing this. But for sure I’m going to do it and do it to the very best of my ability.

The heartbreak of good news

Today I’m feeling pretty low. I’ve failed. I’ve let people down. To quote Seymour Skinner: ‘I’ve been taken down a peg – a whole peg!’

I’ve read in many an interview that writers have to do rewrites for agents and editors before being accepted, but I never really understood the emotional impact of such a request. In fact, I didn’t even realise that was where I was until yesterday. It was then I received an email from an industry professional who said she was disappointed in my latest draft of Night Shift.

This is hard to take. An author never wants to release a disappointment on the world. There may be reasons why there output is sub-optimal: time pressure is probably the main reason, or misguided enthusiasm; but sometimes these things are only apparent in the cold light of critical reviews. This is obviously the case here. I thought I’d done as I was asked, thought I’d met my targets. It’s a blow to the ego. It’s also embarrassing.

There is obviously good news contained here. A request for a reworking is obviously a step up from a rejection. Something can only be disappointing if you hoped it might be better, and that implies a belief in my work and in me. I can do this better, that’s what I’m being told. And there must be something fundamentally good in my writing or I’d never have got this far.

I’ve had a lot of time invested in me by this person, and that’s a huge compliment in this industry. I’ve said before how much I’ve come to appreciate how hard editors and agents work. If someone’s giving me hours of their time it’s because they want my work to succeed.

But I feel crushed. Today, at least. I can’t pick up the manuscript right now, need time to really take this in and turn it round into determination. Hey, I’m still learning. I’ve got to use this to my advantage. I’ve displayed a lot of naivety, and that’s not so surprising. I’ve got to make sure everything I ever write from now on is up at a higher level.

So yes – I’m feeling pain now, and embarrassment, and I’m feeling low. But that pain will pass and in its place will come an even better novel.

This is a low

I am tremendously lucky. I’ve got it so easy. My fiancée works full-time and pays the rent and the tax whilst I work half her hours and get to write in the gaps. My parents are writers and provide free proofreading services. I’m friends with writers and I can turn to them in hours of creative need.

I’m very lucky. And what it means is that I feel a real pressure to achieve. Because I know I should be spending time looking for better jobs and sending off applications. I have a future to think about, a wedding to plan. There are so many more things to do than write; things more important, more worthwhile. And I waste them doing this damn hobby of mine.

I like writing. I love those precious moments when you get in the zone and there’s no effort, the words just pour onto the page. I like the intellectual challenges where most of the work is done pacing up and down, deciding which leg of the trousers of time you’re going to push your protagonist down.  Somebody shoot me but I even like the editing, going over the same old piece for the umpteenth time.

But how long can I keep doing this for? I mean, it’s not as if one day my ship will come in and I’ll get a six-figure publishing deal. Unless I’m astonishingly lucky I’m going to be raking in pennies, just a little pin money for the end of the month. The most I can hope for (dreams are different) is to make enough to make my total earnings up to full-time equivalent. Why not just skip the writing altogether and try that ‘career’ thing?

Or, alternatively, why don’t I self-publish now? I’ve got product, I’m clued up enough to do a bit of computer-based promotion. If I’m only ever going to get pennies, why not get them now? I seriously wonder if part of the self-publishing boom isn’t generated by an increased awareness of how the publishing industry works. People are less willing to take all the time and effort in getting first an agent and then a deal when they know that it’s almost a closed industry, what with all these celebrities releasing novels. No room for the rest of us. So why not just get those pennies and squeeze out a novel a year?

Isn’t it time I grew up? I want a family, I want to live comfortably and repay my debts to family and friends. I’ve been living this semi-respectable, semi-bohemian lifestyle for over ten years now. Isn’t it time I got my act together and picked up on one of those ‘future’ things?

But I live writing and I want my work to be read by as many people as possible. That’s my ego right there. And I think my ego is best served by taking the traditional publishing route. And I love what I do enough to keep me going every day, despite the uncertainty of the future and despite the doubts about my ability.

Damn it, though, real life can’t be put off forever.

Par for the course

I’ve never had training. Never had any sort of writing teaching since GCSE (I got a B). Now I look at all the adverts for MAs, MSTs and whatever in Creative Writing and I wonder what they could do for me.

Would I learn how to deepen my characters and sharpen my dialogue? I suppose I would. Would I examine classic literature to analyse the techniques used? And of course there’s the one-to-one time with mentors and experts that would always be the most exciting part of any course for me. And finally I might learn what a damn gerund is.

But Hanif Kureshi – himself a professor of creative writing at Kingston University – has said that writing courses are ‘a waste of time’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to teach storytelling. I once applied for a writing fellowship and, whilst with hindsight I’m not surprised at my failure, I do wonder if the fact that I write genre and not literature was part of the problem.

It appears as is there’s a lot of snobbery endemic in university writing departments, as evidenced from the quote on Kent University’s 2013 prospectus. Its teachers ‘love great literature and don’t see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it… We love writing that is full of ideas, but that’s also playful, funny and affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.’

The backlash to this got it quickly removed from KU’s website. But how common is this attitude? That ‘literature’ is the only form of writing that matters? That crime writing, romance and all genre fiction is somehow what those with less ability and less imaginative write because they’re not good enough for ‘proper’ writing?

By way of contrast, City University London offers a specialist MA in crime writing. And University of Central Lancashire offers one in self-publishing (although this has been criticised for going too far the other way, with minimal advice on the actual writing – I quote: ‘the country’s 1st MA in self-publishing to help writers gain the skills they need to “become the next EL James”’. Because that’s really something to aspire to).

Every time I pick up a writing magazine or go to a festival website I’m bombarded by adverts pointing me at creative writing courses. But these can cost up to £9,000 a year. And whilst they may teach excellently, they still don’t result in a guaranteed career as a writer. They omit to teach skills writers need in the modern world; things like self-promotion, networking (although it strikes me that if you can get a recommendation from someone like Hanif Kureshi you’ve got a pretty good start there) or the simple facts of the publishing business.

So should I go on a creative writing course? I’m always tempted. At the very, very least it’d be stimulating, right? To have to write, to be surrounded by other writers, to feed off their enthusiasms, to bounce off their ideas…

There’s no way I could do this, not in my situation and with my complete lack of money. But I’d be interested if anyone out there has any experiences to share.