A necessary delusion

I believe in myself. I have to have some sense of self-worth to show the public my face each week, writing and publishing this blog; I have to have some sense of self-belief to submit my writing to publishing houses and agents across the world. Each attempt is a little part of me craving for attention. ‘Look at me! I can do this – in a way that no-one else can.’

Every writer that puts their work out there is the same, and that’s no bad thing. You need a little ego to survive, to push yourself onwards; it’s a bold step, trying to get yourself published, and you need to be bold to make the attempt. But I’m worse.

I read a lot of proofs of novels that are about to hit bookshops. Some of them take my breath away, are so accomplished, so innovative, that I’m in awe of the authors. I read these. I work on them, try and give them that final spit-and-polish so the final product is as perfect as perfect can be. I go through all this, I see all these wonders, and I still think I’m good enough to sit on the bookshelves alongside.

Problem is that self-belief and self-delusion are very hard to distinguish between. I do believe in myself. But I’ve got to weigh that against the fact that I’ve been rejected by hundreds of agents over the years. I just can’t cut it, on that front at least.

So maybe I am delusional.

As time goes by it seems to me that my chances of being taken on by either the publisher of my dreams (to whom I submitted Oneiromancer in their yearly open-submissions period), or the agent with whom I got a personal recommendation, are inexorably slipping away. The former has silence equating failure; the latter… well, no news is bad news?

So: I am delusional. And that’s fine. I will take that delusion and use it for the betterment of mankind. Or at least it’ll make me persist, to keep thrashing on, to keep sending my work out into the world.

The problem is that I believe. I believe in Oneiromancer, even if it has a shonky title, even if it turns out to need a good editing. It’s better than anything I wrote before. And in my belief – in my arrogance – I want it to be read.

I just don’t know how to help that come to pass.

The publisher of my dreams achieved that status by having a great network of nice writers and an excellent social media team. I want desperately to be part of that world. Ego again?

I just want to be read. I desperately wish I could do something to make that happen – something that, hopefully, involves other people doing the marketing work. I’m just no good at it, as can be evidenced by the lack of sales of the otherwise excellent New Gods.

I believe in myself. I am delusional. I just need someone in the business to take a risk on me.

All these things can simultaneously be true.

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.

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.

Beset by doubts

Doubt 2

I am beset by doubts.

I am adrift upon a sea of words and I don’t know if they form the complete works of Shakespeare or are a monkey-typist’s random gibberish.

I have a novel that I know not what to do with.

It’s like this: I have raced through Draft 6 of New Gods, the (probably) last in the Antarctica series of novels. I have made minor alterations, mostly tinkering around the edges after last draft’s heavy rewrite. Now I have to decide whether it’s good enough to send in to my editor at Flame Tree Press, who have published or are publishing the first two books.

And I have doubts.

Following the excision of a nearly 10k section (the pacing was wrong), the novel is on the short side at 75k. The central twist is perhaps too on the nose (or is that a good thing?). I’m relying on character interactions and motivations that may only exist in my head. The central mystery might be too obvious, the culprit too easily guessable.

All this and more.

One thing I am happy about is the writing. It’s fluent and clear, with very occasional poetic flights to break up the monotony. I think it stands up. As I said last week, I think I drafted this with a degree of confidence and fluidity that I lacked previously; it feels to me like a ‘level up’ novel.

Doubt 3

Ironically, it’s the fluency of this that makes me agonise over my most recent work. I haven’t felt this – and certainly haven’t achieved this – when working on Our Kind of Bastard. That was a slog and I don’t feel the writing stands up, though the plot might. I feel I’ve gone backwards with the actual craft. Which is okay, it just means I have to work harder with the editing pencil sledgehammer.

But that’s by the by. I have this novel that I think is well written and I enjoyed creating, but now I don’t have faith in it to send out just yet. I need an agent (though then I’d be worried about sending it to them, of course) – an intermediary to rate my work and tell me if it works or not on a fundamental level.

Without an agent, I have no choice but to turn to beta-readers. These glorious people have saved my skin before and hopefully will do it again – if I can find any.

What I want is for them to say that everything’s okay and boost my ego enough to survive the transmission of the manuscript. Failing that, I want to know what doesn’t work so I can fix it – though of course I will lament the effort and mental gymnastics that such an edit would require.

And then, of course, it would take another round of confidenceless and recriminations and maybe even a further hunt for beta-readers before I was ready to send that out.

The circle of manuscript-production never seems to end.

Second guessing

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

A writer is the most doubting person in the world. No other area that I know if is so filled with uncertainty. Is this project any good? Can it be made better? Will anyone get what I’m trying to do?

There are rules. There are guides to grammar, to structure, to character. But, at the end of the day, the only way a writer can tell if he’s done something worth sharing is to share it. This makes a writer horribly vulnerable – not only to mortifying mockery but also to the extremes of ego. He lives by the judgement of others in a way that very few other fields do (I can think only of other arts) and that can lead to unwarranted cockiness before the inevitable backlash.

Even stranger is the fact that a writer only finds his own voice when he breaks those rules. Mine comes from the way I omit words and write sentences with a word order that’s technically less than optimal. Much of my editing in fact, actually takes the form of removing these tics. Other authors make their reputations by playing with structure and with genre. In the process they create something that’s uniquely ‘them’.

All of which means that no writer is ever sure, when they get words on paper, if what they’ve written is any good. Sure, experience helps – every first-time novelist will think that their first draft is perfect and inviolate. Experience teaches you that that’s only a starting point and most of the work is still to come. It also tells you what you should be looking out for in your own work, if you’ve got your beats in the right place, if the dialogue is to be worked on, if there’s anything you know isn’t quite right.

But it also means that the doubt never quite goes away. You’re never sure you’ve got it right. You constantly second-guess yourself, can’t tell if you’re making substantive improvements or if you’re just tinkering at the margins.

Which is why we need beta-readers. It’s why we need editors, why we need reviews and sales. To tell us that we’ve not been wasting our time, that there is actually something worthwhile in our brains, something that someone else actually enjoys like you do. It’s not about money or status: it’s about the sense of self.

Because when we send that manuscript out to be read we have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.

Just keep swimming

‘Are you waiting for the world to get it?’ Swervedriver sang on their last album.


The satisfaction writing can provide is amazing. The highs can be tremendous. Just the sheer pleasure of achievement, to have a passage down, locked, ready for the tinkering; it can be a fantastic feeling. But most authors write to be read, and that’s where the fragile nature of our egos is revealed in all its primitive antiglory. We’re like jack russells yapping at your feet, desperate for any scraps of praise that may fall from the table. And should the rolled-up newspaper of criticism come down instead…


This is never felt more keenly then when we’re submitting our work – to publishers, agents, magazines, whatever. We read the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook carefully, draw up our shortlists and check our targets on the internet. We make careful note of just what material they request (and God forbid that you stray even a single character from their demands) and collate it – careful, of course, that not a single typo remains, that we’ve got the date right, that our personal details are present and correct.


And then off the package goes, either in the post (expensive) or via email.


At first, when it vanishes from our sweaty grasp, we are filled with hope and optimism. Of course Publishgasm will love my work. I was made to be with them! See, their website says that their commissioning editor loves {insert genre here} – bingo!


Time passes. Maybe, like me, you’ve sent out a dozen submissions; at any moment, any one could get in touch; an eager phone-call, an email, even a letter. An invitation to meet up at their offices, an expenses-paid lunch. But nothing comes. Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. Okay, you know the odds are against you. You know – you’ve read all the books on getting published, the writers’ guides, all the advice in the W&AY – you know that the chance of getting a positive result is tiny. But the heart doesn’t. The heart is still full of passions, of songs, of dreams.


But as the days pass, something strange happens. You stop wanting responses to arrive. Instead of the postman bringing good news, you fear his arrival as each day the horrible, incriminating, malevolent package that is your self-addressed envelope might drop on your doormat. Another rejection.


And the email. That’s even worse because you have hope until the very, very last second. The envelope is obvious – as soon as you catch sight of it you know it’s your sample chapters returned with an ultra-brief note telling you that your work isn’t quite right for Publishgasm after all. Email… emails are sneaky. For a start, it’s not always easy to see who they’re from. You sent off your work months ago – can you remember which individual company-person you addressed it to? And it might not be them replying anyway. They have People for that sort of thing.


And the subject line gives you no indication. They just reply to your message, meaning, in my case, that such things are usually titled ‘RE: Night Shift – fiction submission’.


Again, you know that the odds are weighted heavily against you. You know that it’s almost certainly a ‘thanks but no thanks’. But you hope, you hope, you hope. Because you believe in what you’ve done. You believe, and you know that it only takes one person to get what you’re saying, for your work to cross the desk of the right person at the right time and your career’s underway. Because writing’s about being read: the arrogance of us to think that strangers want to read our work.


So why even open the message? Why not just let it sit there? It’ll become Schrödinger’s Email, full of mystery and potential. In fact, isn’t it better for people not to reply so you can keep the beautiful Hope alive?


This, of course, is stupid. I still do it, though, sometimes – wait until I feel I have the mental strength to deal with it.


Because I’m getting rejected a lot at the moment. This is partly because I’m sending in a lot of submissions and I guess partly because these things come in fits and spurts. Most of the time I manage to be philosophical and take what I can from the rejections (you can read a lot into the way an email is worded; my ironic favourite came from a grammar-starved obviously work-experiencing bod). Quite often the commissioner will squeeze in a little almost-compliment to sugar the pill. So far I’ve garnered a ‘not right but we’ll see any more work you have’ and a ‘your work shows intelligence and imagination’. Mostly you’ve got to look pretty hard to find these markers, though. ‘Don’t take this rejection as a reflection on your writing’ and its variants are common.


But they’re still rejections. So how does one cope? Well, you just have to keep going. ‘Keep on swimming’, as my lovely fiancée sang to me recently. Because no matter how many rejections you get, you have to believe that someone out their in publishingland will get you. You have to believe this. And whilst you’re sending out the finely-whittled samples, keep working on new stuff. After all, no-one’s ever said that your work has to be published in the order it’s written.


UPDATE: Just returned from work to find the Envelope of Doom on my hall carpet. Inside was not even a note: the agent had simply written ‘no thanks’ in red pen on the bottom of my covering letter.


Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…