Anxiety lifting

Confidence is the trickiest of tricky buggers. Mine has been oscillating wildly this last few months; I’ve been switching from bold optimism to doom and gloom, turning on a sixpence and making myself – and the people around me – sick in the process.

I can write this now because I had a fillip last night that’s put me on more of an even keel. No, nothing too exciting or remarkable – the Publisher of my Dreams has yet to pass judgement on my magnus opus – but a self-inflicted weight has been lifted from me.

I wrote recently about being too afraid to read at my new writing group because everyone there is simply too good at what they do and I am afraid of appearing silly. Well I sucked it up and I presented an extract from Our Kind of Bastard. And I’m glad I did because, though it was far from plain sailing, I now have a much better idea of what I’m doing and where I’m going and where I’m going wrong.

More importantly, I feel less paralysed, less frozen. I worry far too much about what other people think and about how I’ll react to it. The anxiety I was feeling before reading was making me sick. It’s such a relief to have the weight off my chest.

And the funny thing is that the criticism I received was not light, nor simple. There is learning to be done and improvements to make. I guess it’s just now I think I can see a little clearer, have a greater understanding of where I’m going.

More significant is the personal thing, though. I’m not saying I was especially brave or anything for facing my fears, just that I was caught in a negative loop – I hadn’t realised how negative – and this helped get me out of it.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that I have anxiety. *shrug*

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.

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.

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.

Racist, sexist, homophobic

Note: this post was written at the beginning of 2021 but got delayed because writing about my publishing problems seemed more immediate. Sorry to begin the new year with two fairly downbeat essays, but that’s the writer’s life for you: ups and downs all the way. Hope you get something out of this; hopefully I’ll be able to present more positivity next week.

This isn’t meant as a moan or a whine; apologies if it comes across as one. But I was told at my last writing group meeting that I’d been imbibing – and regurgitating – racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, and… well, it’s been on my mind.

It’s not just one piece; it is, apparently, in my work in general. The accusation was made by the person who accused me of being racist – or at least colonialist – in my treatment of slum clearances, and this scene was certainly in her mind as she, once more, took me to task.

So what do I make of this? Has she got a point? She didn’t directly accuse me of being the ‘ists’ but she might as well have, as I flatter myself that I am a modern, well-balanced human being who is, if not immune to racism and sexism, then at least am aware of my flaws and my ignorances and try to work on them. The accusation stings and I’m not sure what to do about it.

First things first: is she right? This latest criticism came to over a short(ish) story that involves a central female character who is viewed through the lens of a narrator who idolises, almost worships her. My critic says that there is nothing to her but her looks and here she may have a point; I’ve almost deliberately not gone into her spirit and agenda as I want her to be ethereal, almost mesmerising, rather than grounded and gritty.

As for her looks, I wasn’t even aware that I’d portrayed her as good looking (there’s certainly no paragraph of description that could appear in the Men Writing Women twitter feed) but, looking back, I suppose I had managed to give that impression.

So I can just about see where my critic is coming from. I just don’t know if I should make changes based on her opinion.

And now I’m shaken. I have many, many flaws, but I didn’t think I was a bad person. I’ve reviled groups like the Sad Puppies for their right-wing agenda. Am I now to see myself in such company? Hell, have I been lying to myself – and the world – all this time? How do I become the person I imagine myself to be?

Writing is an intensely personal business. That’s why criticism hurts. We lay ourselves out there on the page and receive what slings and arrows come our way. I’m constantly afraid that my Antarctic trilogy, in particular, will fail one of these acid tests because it’s consciously multinational and I’m writing outside of my own experiences.

Now I’m being told that my writing in general fails. And that means I’ve failed as a person.

I don’t think I’m in the best position to evaluate my flaws, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else. If anyone out there feels they’re better placed, I’d love to hear from you.

Slings and arrows

It’s not quite imposter syndrome but it is close. I’m having a crisis of confidence because I fear that I’m the worst writer in my writing group (five people) and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

It doesn’t reflect well on me. I should be grateful for being shown how much I have to improve. I should be proud to have room to grow – and I am, I promise. And that’s good, and humbling, for I am not without ego and it does me no harm to be shown the emptiness of my rhetoric.

But I’m the published author. I should be better than I am; I shouldn’t be an over-writer. I shouldn’t be struggling with quiet scenes. I should be better than what I’m showing.

I should also be better at giving criticism. Lord knows I’ve had enough practice at that, what with being an editor to boot.

It doesn’t help that I’m finding it hard to mesh on a personal level with the other members of the group. Not that there’s any animosity or unpleasantness, but remote meetings make it harder to express empathy or to communicate in any ways other than through direct speech. In such a small group these things seem magnified.

So what do I do? I don’t want to leave because these people are, as I said, damn good writers and I should be learning from them. I’m determined to be as good as I can possibly be.

I guess I just suck it up, grit my teeth and take the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

A necessary break

I had New Gods critiqued last week. It should have been the final stop on its way to submission, nay, publication, and that may still be the truth of it. But I received enough common complaints that I feel a pause might be of benefit.

New Gods, to those not in the know, is the third (and final?) novel in the Antarctic trilogy that began with Night Shift and will be continuing this November with the release of Human Resources. See how I’ve kept the punchy two-word theme throughout? Clever, eh?

I personally think NG is the best – or has the potential to be the best – of the lot. I’m excited about it. I want it to work. I want it to sing, to shine. And I think it can.

But I think I need to hold my horses a little. There are still enough imperfections that I need to address, and those common complaints aren’t going anywhere. The only urgency is self-created. I can afford to take a little time and make it as good as I possibly can.

Specifically, the major complaint is that I haven’t put enough description in, and have left certain things too ambiguous. To some extent that’s a stylistic choice and I don’t want to go overboard to compensate. But clearly there is room for a few more words of explanation.

I also have to address a few plausibility gaps; not that things didn’t work, necessarily, but if they can be tightened it’ll be a better, more absorbing story.

The big thing I have to grapple with at the moment, however, is a question of showing or telling.

The old mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. This is often debated and isn’t always the best advice. But I originally wrote a fairly long scene near the opening of the novel that described a piece of action – specifically, a rescue attempt from a fire in a medical centre.

Then I cut it. I replaced it with a few paragraphs describing what happened instead of showing it live, as it were.

I had good reasons for this. The scene was over-long and, I felt, unbalanced the novel, especially as it occurred so early in the narrative. I just felt uncomfortable with it as it was, and – I think – I managed to sum it up concisely in dialogue as a past event.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Some members of the critique group asked me why I hadn’t shown the event in question and told me to show, not tell.

Now I don’t know what to do. I still have the scene saved and can reinstate it without too much difficulty (it would be edited, of course). But then would I have the pacing problems again? Is it better as is?

I just don’t know what to do.

What I really need, of course, is an agent. Without one I am on my own.

Except for you lot, of course. What would you do?

Must try harder

copyediting (1)

I had my first virtual writing group on Sunday. I read and I’m feeling a little disheartened as I write this.

Reading to a critique group is one thing I never seem to get right. Either one takes something that’s over-edited and thus defeating the purpose of the criticism, or one takes something raw and unrefined that will get too-obvious criticism and there’s not much to be learnt from it.

I chose the second route. Turns out I’m an overwriter. My writing is full of redundancies and repetition – and I’m supposed to be the published author who’s past such silly mistakes (not that anyone in the group knows I’m published).

That’s what gets me. I should be better than this. I’ve done my apprenticeship, logged the hours behind the computer, read the writing instruction books, had the feedback. Why aren’t I a good writer now? Why doesn’t the prose flow error-free? Not perfect, because no-one is, but competent. Surely my editing time should be spent on finding the perfect words, not on hacking and slashing and thrashing around in amateurish prose.

Tom Gauld bad writing

Copyright Tom Gauld

What it means is that, instead of trenchant criticism on individual sticky spots, or where the passage moves too slowly, or some particular imagery doesn’t work, attention was all on the obvious things that I’d like to think I’d have spotted myself on a second pass.

Well, I will do the work. I will do what is necessary and I will strip the beast back to its bare bones if that’s what’s necessary. I never said the WIP was good; not in its current state, at least. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story, after all. There is a good yarn hiding within, that I know.

I’m just feeling a little down. I should be better than this.

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.