The challenge ahead

So the wheel has turned and another year is upon us. Already 2019 is shaping up to be a busy one: I can see the challenge for me is to be one of balance. Three great gods are jostling for supremacy: the gods of creation, of maintenance, and of prosperity are limbering up as we speak, readying themselves for the unholy smackdown that lyeth within the darkest recesses of my mind.

The need to maintain

Maintain

I can’t track down an artist for this. If it’s you, let me know and I’ll attribute you properly

When I envisioned this answer I was going to write about the pressures of producing this blog. But I realise it’s more than just that; it’s all the background of life. It’s keeping my environment from descending too far into the foetid swamps. It’s about maintaining existence at a basic level of tolerableness.

But yes, mostly it’s about producing my weekly status reports that make up this blog. This matters to me; it’s a constant challenge but also a constant accomplishment.

I’m past thinking I’m going to change the world with it, or suddenly pull in dozens of new readers all eager to get their hands on my writing. It’s just nice to have my own little corner in which to ramble, into which I can pour the whimsy I have to surgically remove from my books.

Any help to anyone, any actual information or practical assistance to you, the reader, is entirely coincidental.

The need to earn

themoneypack_0

Official paid employment takes up a dozen or so hours a week. But I have recently lucked into a potentially long-lasting stream of freelancing work. This is brilliant. The money’s not, in itself, that great but it has the compensation of being a) something I decide when to work on (within deadlines), and b) interesting.

I get to read next year’s novels now. More, I get a (tiny) say in how they appear. I get paid to read, and to learn.

It also helps arrest my descent into primitive barbarism by helping put food on the table, clothes on my back and nappies on the Smolrus. So it’s mostly a win.

The need to create

creation.jpg

St Matthew from the 9th century Ebbo Gospels

Yeah, so there’s this. I need to make sure I can get on with my own writing; if there is such a thing as ‘the point’ it’s this. I’m a writer. I need to write.

I need to please my publishers by giving them a sequel to reject. I have ambition to do something with some of the short stories I’ve scraped together. I have Brave New Ideas to try and corral into a telling.

One should always be writing. I get the feeling like I’m at a juncture where, in some universes, I’m going to abandon my writing career to move firmly into editorial work. I don’t want it to be this one.

————————-

There is, of course, a lot more things going on than this. More opportunities to push Night Shift might arise. There will doubtless be family crises and maybe even holidays. But, writing-wise, these are the three main avenues I’m looking down.

The challenge is to walk down them all at the same time. The need to earn in many ways comes first as I have to hit deadlines and, with the work being unreliable, be prepared to drop everything when a new opportunity arises. I have to build a reputation and that means doing the job well, on time, and to budget.

But coming first isn’t the same as being the most important. What matters to me as a human being is the act of creation and refinement of my own work. I must ensure that the writing I do for myself doesn’t get squeezed out. Time must be ring-fenced.

My challenge for 2019 is to find a way to control my own destiny. To keep all these balls in the air so that none of them get lost down the back of the sofa of life.

And to make sure the gods don’t sort out their differences and decide I’m the real problem.

Signifying nothing

Union Market

Mural at Union Market, Washington DC. Artist, at least by me, unknown

I’m beginning to think I can’t do this any more. The whole writing thing, I mean: I just have no ideas left. Aside from a few unedited short stories I haven’t knocked out anything new for over a year.

This is the 250th post I’ve written for this site. Not all of those have been posted – some, indeed, are files with but a single line in them. But still, 250 posts. Let’s say the average word count is 400. That’s 10,000 words on words, and, at a rough estimate of an hour and a half per post, that’s 16 days solid writing. That’s before we get to the whole stress it provokes.

You gotta ask yourself what the point is, dontcha? My only consistent writing is on a blog about writing.

I‘m not saying this for reasons of moaning, or despair, or to beg attention (though that’s always nice) but because this is something I’m sure most writers experience at some point: that sense that they have nothing, that they’re just going through the motions, that they’re a fraud.

And of course I’m in a privileged position. I’m going to be published (and I rather hope my publisher isn’t reading this right now). I’ve got the whole impostor syndrome thing to look forwards to. Right now, though, I’m in the whole ‘Oh God, I’ve got to do something better for a follow-up,’ hole. And circumstance is making serious brain-work a challenge.

I also compensate myself with the thought that all this blogging must be good for something. True, the edifice is hollow. But all words written are useful – just not as useful as the creation itself.

Hopefully this will be a temporary feeling and I’ll find a way to write what I want to write in the near future. And my post-modern writing about writing with no writing to write about self-reference-o-thon will soon be over. But for now the struggle continues.

On honesty

truth

Mikko Kuorinki: ‘Wall piece with 200 letters.’ Quote from David Foster Wallace

If I have a unique selling point it’s this: I’m honest. This blog isn’t about my perfect world. Writing is hard and I don’t mind sharing my struggles with you, my lovely bloggee.

But honesty isn’t always the best policy. I can’t, for example, tell you of every interaction I have within the publishing industry. It would be unprofessional to discuss current dealings, and to criticise an individual agency or organisation is not only rude but might damage my chances with other bodies in the future. Publishers, agents, editors – they talk. A hastily-worded blog-post may not see me blackballed forevermore but it certainly might flash some red lights somewhere. They’re on social media and they scan the profiles of prospective workees. They don’t have the time or inclination to work with arses.

Similarly I’ve read too many horror-stories of writers popping up to argue with reviewers. Nothing good can come of that. Your comments will only drive off potential readers.

I also can’t tell you every little thing about my past work. My best writing is always in the piece I’m working on*. My earliest works are never going to be as good as the last I did and none will be as good as the Ghost of the Novel Yet-To-Come.

And that’s good – great, in fact – but I still want to publish older novels. I still hope for a publisher and still actively consider self-publishing as an option. So to dissect older works in a public space like this – where I want things to be read – is self-defeating.

Honesty is wonderful but has to be balanced by both self-interest and the interests of others. All the thoughts you read here are self-censored; they’re not the unconscious outpouring of genius. I get things wrong. I misstate. And I’m careful about just what I reveal about what I’m doing or plan to do.

Hopefully a little caution now will allow me to be more open later. Sometimes a hesitant or held-back blog-post (I don’t publish everything I write, sometimes for reasons of quality, sometimes because they cut a little too close to the bone) will help me work out how to make my point later, when the issues are in the rear-view mirror. An example is this recent post, which was very hard for me to share. Also, now I read it back, I can feel myself swerving away from and euphemising some of the real issues.

So my advice to you is to be honest, be open, and share your experiences – just not all of them. And not whilst you have an empty bottle of gin by your side, the last remnants of which are still burning in your gullet. Be honest, but be aware that whilst you’re contemplating the void, the void might just be staring right back at you.

 

 

*This is not necessarily true, but a good enough lie to stand here.

The point of blogging

Blogging for Fiction Writers

I’m curious what fiction writers have found works or doesn’t work in using blogs as part of their platform. It seems far easier for nonfiction writers, especially those who focus on particular subject areas, since they can provide a lot of added value for readers of their books by blogging on their subjects. But what about fiction writers? Thanks in advance for your input!

A question posted on LinkedIn ‘Books & Readers’

 

Kindle

In the best traditions of stealing ideas from other people, the above question got me thinking. And what I was thinking was that the questioner has missed the point.

A lot of you out there are writers. A lot of you are on Twitter, or have blogs of your own, or Facebook pages. How many of you are doing it to raise your profile? To sell books? For some similar purpose?

I’m doing the same myself. No point lying: I started this blog because I was advised that a successful author needs to be on social media, to have a groundswell of interest before publication, whether self- or traditional. To have presence.

Three years in and I can confidently say that hasn’t worked. Not that it’s been a failure either: I have followers, both of this blog (hi!) and on Twitter, that I wouldn’t have had before. But I’ve hardly got the legions of regular contributors that I’d happily dreamt of when I first committed text to internet. By any objective measure it’s been a failure. So why do I keep doing it?

Simple. Because I enjoy it.

And that’s the point. Even though some weeks I struggle to find anything interesting to write about, and some weeks I don’t feel like I’m publishing really quality or insightful posts: sometimes I wish I’d chosen fortnightly updates rather than weekly. But I enjoy it. I like the challenge. I like to have fun with words. I like to think of new angles upon which to focus. It’s one reason I gave myself a broad remit (‘A Writers’ Life’, rather than ‘This Particular Novel’, say).

And I think – although I can give no evidence – that this is truly the answer to the original poster’s question. The best way to ‘build a platform’ is to find something they enjoy and keep at it. I love Twitter. I have nothing to sell or to promote save vague promises for the future, but enough people seem to like my rambly tweets that I’ve a respectable number of followers. I’d like more because ego – and because soon enough I will have something to promote – but at the moment I’m happy with my slow progress.

Similarly this blog. I enjoy doing it. It’s good practice, and when eventually I do self-publish Night Shift and start sending out Oneiromancer to agents I will have that fabled ‘platform’ upon which to fall.

And, in the meantime, I’ve been opened up to other bloggers and writers and artists and I’ve expanded my own tiny perspective into a wider community.

So, Mr Original Poster, my advice to you – should you actually want it – is to relax and have fun. The benefits may come later. But for now, lay back and enjoy the process.

And, if you’re really, really interested, here’s a link to my (considerably longer) post on book promotion.

Night terrors

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder what the hell I’m doing. Trying to write, trying to blog – desperately trying to think of something new to say, or some new way of saying the same old thing.

Technically I’m sure I’m a better writer than I was fifteen months ago, when I first sent Night Shift out to this agent. I can feel my skills developing, my mindset broadening. It’s now a better novel. I’ve slowed things down. I’ve drawn out conversations, hopefully still keeping conflict and plot foremost, to give the characters time to breathe. I’ve added around 7,000 words in total and I obviously think that’s for the best. But when you’re doing this you lose track of the pacing. I worry whether I’m just damping the highs and lows of my set-pieces and the emotional echoes that come in the aftermath of high-impact scenes. What if my new McGuffins don’t carry enough weight and look as if they’ve been inserted by a ham-fisted keyboard-masher?

Self-doubt is a constant in writing, and it’s not a bad thing in itself. It keeps me humble and open to new ideas, keeps me working, keeps me going. But I am the worst judge of my own work there is. What if I’m totally misunderstanding what it takes to improve this damn thing? What if the bits I’m adding are clichés, mis-steps, caricature? I think I’m walking along my original thread of Idea and broadening the plot from a straight line – pitched with peaks and troughs, incidents and investigations but ultimately two-dimensional – and turning it into a more rounded, three dimensional psycho-drama.

What if I’m wrong?

‘…I appreciate the work you’ve done, but ultimately I don’t think I can take this forward…’

That’s my fear. However it’s worded – polite, no doubt, but definitely cutting and absolute – these are the sentiments that I tell myself is the most likely outcome of my year-long dalliance with this agent. I know this: I’m operating in a business and I’ll only be taken on if they feel they can make money out of me. I’m fine with that. Intellectually I know that even after two rewrites at their direction, the most likely outcome is still rejection.

‘….Your writing undoubtedly has potential but their remains too much work to do to make it commercially viable, and so, with regret…’

I’m coming to the end of the work I can usefully do on Night Shift. Just another 90 pages of line-edits then it’s off to the beta readers – if I can find any – and we’re done. That means it’s back to the agent who’s been patiently waiting for the best part of a year. This is my last chance; she won’t give me another go. It’s a risk, putting all your efforts into pleasing one person, and with no guarantees.

‘…I have to say I’m a little disappointed with this rewrite; you’ve not quite got to grips with what I was wanting and so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass…’

And that’s before I even get started on this blog. The times I lie, half-asleep, and worry that I come across like an adolescent assured of his own immortality: patronising, aloof and somehow repulsive.

I still keep going. Night terrors ain’t got nothing on single-minded self-delusion.

And this, ultimately, is a writer’s life.

Confessions of a blogoholic

I’m going to let you into a little secret. Sometimes I post things on this blog that I’m not too happy with. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I can’t think of anything interesting or insightful to share with you. I’m left with a choice of not putting up anything at all or sharing something that I feel is slightly substandard. I try to make up for this by hitting the odd height; by working on my writing and actively hunting and retaining ideas that might later make a column; and hopefully my combined output might be enough to raise this blog to a basic level of readingfulness.

The only problem is that I’m an idiot.

It’s true. I don’t quite understand it. Sometimes the entries that I sweat and slave over and write and rewrite just disappear without trace. No new followers, zero likes, no comments – nothing. Conversely the posts that I toss out in a desperate, sweat-drenched half-hour and I try to sneak out without fanfare can draw me an armful of appreciation.

The moral seems to be this: you are the worst judge of your own work. No matter how good a critic you are, no matter how everyone around you comes to you for advice on matters bibliographic, you are incapable of seeing your own work through the eyes of others. This is why the fine mesh of public opinion is essential for the sieving of your literary lumps. I will always urge prospective writers to join a writing group, or at least to link up with other writers for manuscript exchanges – and to do this before you thrust your quivering, sweat-soaked magnum opus in the direction of the publishers. Hey, you might be a stonking genius and have created a masterpiece – in which case, what does it hurt to be told this? More likely a semi-stranger will be able to see things that you’ve missed.

Learning to listen to and accept criticism is an entirely different skill, by the way. There’s a chap I write with – lovely guy, brilliant prose-ist – who, upon criticism, will say ‘Yes, but what I mean is…’ and will never realise that I don’t give a damn what you were trying to say, that’s not what you actually said! With anger and frustration.

So always listen to what other people say. They’re always right.

Except…

They’re not, are they?

If you listened to other people’s ideas you’d never have written the manuscript that’s currently in front of you. Only you could have written that story (or played that melody, or drawn that landscape) in that way. It’s your combination of ideas, your unique characters, your theme and your universe. When people tell you something’s not working they’re nearly always right. Nearly always. But sometimes you’ve just got to stand up for yourself and your world and tell them to go to hell.

Politely, of course.

But they’re probably right. It probably was just a rubbish bit of writing. I reckon you can do better. And I’d give good money to take back some of my early submissions to publishers.

Hindsight. It’s not quite 20/20, but it’s a lot more accurate than foresight.

A good year

Tomorrow will be This Blog’s first birthday. The internet is a funny thing: words of a single moment become etched into the bloggosphere, forever archived and accessible to all whether you want them there or not. I was thinking of celebrating with a week off; sitting back and putting my feet up, maybe sampling a nice beer and doing – well, not much. But how could I leave my loyal followers blogless? So here I am again, illuminating and warming your lives with the heat of my personality…

It’s been a good year. Yeah, let’s be positive. It’s been a great year. Nothing to show for it, maybe, but still; it’s hardly been unproductive. This, for me, has been The Year of Becoming Professional. I’ve changed from being a writing dilettante to someone who works day in, day out on their craft. I’ve learnt so much and every time I sit at my computer to write – or kick back with a good book – I’m learning more.

So what have I found over the last year? Time, I think, for a quick list:

  • Rightly or wrongly, people take you more seriously if you can act (and write) with confidence. Sometimes personality is more important that ability
  • That said, Twitting and blogging are great places for the shy to learn (and to teach) with minimal human interaction
  • There are some truly wonderful writers and bloggers out there on the internet. It’s worth spending time on Twitter just to find links to these people
  • Writing: you never stop improving. The setbacks – of which there have been many – are helpful in themselves. Rejections may hurt, but any snippets of advice you may receive are there to be acted upon
  • Agents want to find great books. If they take even the vaguest interest in your work that means it’s got something. A rejection doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s good enough to be published
  • A good submission letter is worth its weight in gold. Constant evolution is the way forwards; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – and personalise each letter for its recipient
  • Most people in the world are really quite nice
  • It’s an insanely up-and-down world out there. The highs are utterly euphoric, the lows crushing. Treating those two impostors, success and failure, the same is good advice. But don’t ignore praise (you’ve earned it) and take criticism seriously. The critic is usually right, and you can do it better

More specifically, I’ve learnt that my work is lacking in depth of character. I also miss plotholes and don’t provide sufficient red herrings. So I’m working on these things. Thanks to a fantastic writing group and the interest of an agent I’m growing as an author. It’s wonderful. I urge all aspiring authors to embrace criticism, to actively hunt it down because you won’t get better unless you know what you’re doing wrong.  When I first joined Abingdon Writers I was so self-confident, so sure that my work was worthwhile, that I initially met criticism with a barricade of defensiveness. It’s only when I began to dismantle this wall that I really started to improve.

Every question answered, every skill mastered opens a door to reveal wild expanses of ignorance beyond. The questions never stop coming. There’s also something new to learn, new skills to develop. You never, ever, stop learning. Even the great masters – the Hemingways, the Chandlers, the Steinbecks – they weren’t the complete article. And that’s great. It’s the best thing about humanity, I think – life is never dull because there’s always something new to learn.

Pissing into the void

There comes a time – or many ‘a-time’s – in your life when you wonder whether there’s any point in going on with whatever you’re doing. When you’re striving, putting heart and soul into a project, giving it your all and in return – nothing. Like you’re pissing into the void.

 

That’s how I’m feeling about this blog at the moment. Writers strive, above all, to be read. As I’ve said many a time, it’s a strange schizophrenic experience, writing. The process is a joy, a delight – the truest, most intense pleasure. But once a work is completed the only reward is the feedback we get from readers. No feedback, no payoff. Pissing into the void.

 

There are times when the work I post on here isn’t my best. I know that. Some days the words don’t come easy, or the only subject I can write about isn’t one I feel particularly strongly about. I hold my hands up and confess. But others – well, some posts I’ve posted I’m really quite proud of. Or contain invitations for you, the reader, to contribute. I’d never say I was hurt to be ignored, but it can be disappointing. I set up this blog to be informed by you as much as I did to rant.

 

This isn’t meant to be a downer: I’m not complaining (and certainly not to you, the person who’s actually taking time to read this). Just setting out another aspect of the writer’s life that isn’t really acknowledged. For most writers, published or not, being ignored is as bad as being slated. It takes a particular kind of stubbornness to keep on going when no-one seems to care. Even when you’re at the stage of submitting to publishers/agents, many will simply ignore you, not bother replying even with a no. Most published books go unreviewed; most self-published works slide gently into the ocean without even a ripple.

 

So what can you do about it? Well, I think it helps to acknowledge the truths of the business you’re in: that’s a start. And then? I’d suggest you get good and angry. Self-righteous, even. You have to be a champion of your work. Get pro-active on their asses. Be like the Little Red Hen and make things happen all by yourself. Be persistent. Let’s be honest, if you’re in the position to have work assessed then you’ve done something remarkable, worth being proud of, worth shouting about. This isn’t a world in which merit is trumpeted for its own sake. You have to blow your own trumpet, be bolshy, be assertive.

 

Which isn’t always easy. Even the loudest of us (the biggest blowers) have days when we just want quiet. If you’re anything like me you’ll oscillate between great passion and days of reflection and in these quiet times it’s hard to go push the world. But that’s just what you’ve got to do, unfortunately: go out and meet people, join writing communities, keep on pissing.

 

The void ain’t gonna fill itself, alter all.

 

*          *          *

 

My Mum just sent me this, and I thought it was worth sharing with you. It’s CS Lewis’ thoughts on writing – referring to Spenser in particular, but apposite to all writers. Hope you like it.

ON AUTHORSHIP

There is a stage in the invention of any long story at which the outsider would see nothing but chaos. Numerous alternatives, written, half-written, and unwritten (the latter possibly the most influential of all) ferment together. Passages which no longer fit the main scheme are retained because they seem too good to lose: they will be harmonized somehow later on if the author lives to complete his work. Even a final revision often leaves ragged edges; unnoticed by generations of readers but pointed out in the end by professional scholars. There is a psychological law which makes it harder for the author to detect them than for the scholar. To the scholar the event in fiction is as firm a datum as an event in real life: he did not choose and cannot change it. The author has chosen it and changed it and seen it in its molten condition passing from one shape to another. It has as many rivals for its place in his memory as it had for its place in the final text. This cause of error is of course aggravated if the story is labyrinthine, as Spenser’s was. And it is aggravated still further if his professional duties permit him to work on his story only at rare intervals. Returning to work on an interrupted story is not like returning to work on a scholarly article. Facts, however long the scholar has left them untouched in his notebook, will still prove the same conclusions; he has only to start the engine running again. But the story is an organism: it goes on surreptitiously growing or decaying while your back is turned. If it decays, the resumption of work is like trying to coax back to life an almost extinguished fire, or to recapture the confidence of a shy animal which you had only partially tamed at your last visit. But if (as is far more probable) it grows, proliferates, ‘wantons in its prime’, then you will come back to find it

Changed like a garden in the heat of spring

After an eight-days’ absence.

Fertile chaos has obliterated the paths.

 

 

C S Lewis: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p 379

 

The Problem with Blogs

In my very first post I said that the purpose of this blog was mainly for self-promotion. That’s fine, and true, but it also brings with it certain problems. Or one problem in particular. That problem is called perfection.

 

I was having a chat with some of my colleagues in Abingdon Writers’ Group in a local pub a few nights ago. We were discussing typos, and in particular the difficulty of hunting down typos in self-published work. Tim Arnot has just recently released his first book on FeedARead (http://www.feedaread.com/search/books.aspx?phrase=tim%20arnot) and was going through his proof copy at the time. He said – quite correctly – that the standards expected of a self-published author are actually much higher than that of a traditionally published work.

 

Everybody hates typos. Every author does, especially. And yet I’m willing to bet that you’ve found errors in almost every single book you’ve read. They creep in everywhere, and no matter how thoroughly you trawl your work, there’s almost inevitably a mistake or two that’s going to slip the net. In a traditionally produced book – where they have copy-editors and you can reasonably expect the novel to have been read by dozens of people before it hits the shelves – you might notice these errors, but you barely think of them at all.

 

In a self-published novel, however, these typos seem to be much more important. They become, without any real logic, a sign that the writer is a fool. That the book is hastily produced and thus not worth reading.

 

Why is this? Surely it should be the other way round? A self-published author doesn’t necessarily have the resources to pay a commercial service to proof-read his/her work, and even if they do there’s no guarantee that the manuscript will come back ready to print.

 

It’s especially hard to take when people such as Steve Bohme are saying that the vast majority of self-published books are ‘unutterable rubbish’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/11/self-published-ebooks-20-per-cent-genre?INTCMP=SRCH) and that publishers are needed to act as gatekeepers against the tides of trash that are spreading across the digital waves.

 

The problem with that, of course, is that most writers see publishers and agents not as gatekeepers but as riot police.

 

But I digress.

 

The point is that I have to work very very hard to make this blog perfect. I’ve adopted a policy of writing it a few days before I publish, so I can make sure I’m saying what I actually mean, and that my prose is as clear and error-free as humanly possible. I’m trying to attract agents and publishers to this page, and should they find a single clumsy phrase, a stray Oxford comma (I think there may have been one of those in last week’s post), one measly typo, they will think that I can’t write and will blacklist me forever.

 

That’s the fear, at least. I’m sure that’s not actually really true, but that’s the ever-present fear. I work in words. If I fail to find the right one then I can’t be trusted to write a saleable novel.

 

And that’s a bit of a bugger.