Feeling better

In between times, when I need a break from proofreading and can’t face getting any new words down on paper, I’m giving New Gods one last checkover before I format it for self-publishing. And you know what? It’s not bad.

I’ve been on a bit of a downer about my writing recently. I’ve started to worry whether or not I ‘have it’; am capable of writing to the level I want to present to the wider world. It says nothing that I’m published: a book’s publication is a commercial decision, not one based on quality. I’ve been doubting myself.

But now I find myself somewhat reassured. Not that I’m claiming genius, or great profundity, but I’ve been reading my own work and kind of not hating it. And I’ve been remembering how it felt when I was in the midst of writing the piece, remembering that at the time I felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written. And then I felt, yeah, New Gods and Oneiromancer represented a sort of high-water mark for my writing; when it all clicked and I was churning out decent work with ease. And then I thought Well, Our Kind of Bastard is fun too; maybe that sits up there. And then I thought my new thing might not be bad either.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of a trough, it’s a good idea to look at what you’ve achieved. Negativity comes easily – to me, at least. But I am a capable writer, and also the least accurate judge of my own prose. I am as good as many published writers. And you know what? You are too.

Because, as I said, a book is published to make money, not to win awards with its prose (as I understand, publishers enter books in awards-competitions to sell more copies, not to simply celebrate books they think wonderful – though of course they can’t do both).

So, after a rough few months – 2021 has not treated me kindly so far – I now feel a little more stable, a little more confident in my new abilities. I’ve had to take some time off from actual creative writing because I’ve had so many other things on my plate, and maybe this will prove to be long-term beneficial. I still gaze in awe at my contemporaries, still feel too old and a little burnt-out, but now I believe: there is a good writer in me.

I’m not anticipating many sales for New Gods. I’m not interested in doing great amounts of promotion. As I’ve said before, I’m putting it out to complete the Antarctic trilogy for both my few fans and for myself. There is too much competition in the world of indie authors for me to hold great dreams of runaway success.

But I am going to put out a work I believe in. And that means more to me than any number of sales.

No reason I can’t hope for both, I suppose.

Being good

“So what do you want to do in life?”

“Well, writing or music.”

“I don’t know anything about your music, but you write well. You should consider that.”

And that, dear friends, is how I became a writer: a moderately chance conversation with my MA Landscape History supervisor was enough to set me to writing seriously. A long, long time before I became published, of course; well over a decade of practice before I got a sniff of a deal, but it was enough to set me going. As I remember it, I pretty much went home and started writing what would become The Ballad of Lady Grace, my never-to-be-published, unlamented (save by me, a little) first serious completed work.

These things don’t come out of a vacuum, of course. I had writing on my mind before that discussion; I was playing with ideas and rolling them around in search of connection. But that one conversation was the spark, the touchpaper, that was lit to dominate what might be the rest of my life.

No wonder I remember it.

It also says a lot about me. My weakness in life – one of my many weaknesses – is my need to be good at things. It’s very hard for me to do something and be bad – or even average – at it. This goes for things like chess, which I played at a club level at university, and cricket, which I’ve never been very good at, and has ultimately led me to more or less give up on both. It’s hard for me to play for simple enjoyment. It’s not that I’m a bad loser, more that I find personal failure extraordinarily painful.

I took up writing seriously because I was told I could string together the odd sentence in a not-displeasing manner. And that conversation, and my own emotions at the time, have driven me onwards through the years, through peaks and troughs of feedback and criticism, to now. Now, with my greater critical awareness both of other people’s writing and my own, I find myself doubting. I am in awe of my contemporaries’ power of prose; in awe of their abilities to shape a plot.

I’m not sure if I can compete. I’m not sure if I should be trying to compete. (And this competition is very much with myself; I don’t resent other authors for being great. More power, more publishing deals, to them. The struggle is entirely internal.) I wonder if I’m good enough to play anymore. And whilst I truly admire the people who can shrug at their own infelicities and move on ‘because they enjoy it’, I’m not that well-balanced a person.

I need to be good at things. And I sit here doubting whether I can truly call myself good at anything. Competent, yes, but I’m never going to be an award-winner. There’s simply too many wonderful ideas, perfect prose, out there in this golden age of SFF writing.

I can’t quit. I can’t quit now, because I have no alternative, nothing I have a better chance at making my name at. My best chance for happiness is to change myself, to get over this hopeless yearning to be something I’m not and can never be.

So I keep writing, keep striving, keep hoping I’m wrong and that I’m better than I think I am. What else can I do?

So fast, so numb

2021 has been a bruiser of a year so far. An uneven canter through ridge-and-furrow fields of deep loses of confidence mixed with occasional highs of self-determination. I’ve been dropped by my publisher, accused of drawing on racist tropes, pushed my own self-promotion to new heights in approaching a house previously thought unapproachable and resolved to self-publish the culmination of my Antarctic trilogy. I’ve also left one writing group and joined another, only to become overwhelmed by the quality and personalities on display and withdraw back into my shell.

In the middle of this I also received beta-feedback on Our Kind of Bastard and started an entirely new novel.

Now circumstances have forced me to take a break and I am seeing this, for the first time, for what it is: exhausting.

I am always trying to push myself. I am a driven person, though you might not know it by looking at me, and I am always determined to do more and do better. I’m driven by fears of failure and of not achieving, and, though my conscious mind can tell me that I’m being silly, I still feel the lash of passing time and my inability to scale any given mountain.

This is all foolish. I am too often unkind to myself. And I’m beginning to realise that this year so far has been hard and I would benefit from just settling down a little.

I’m not given to holidays, or time off. But I have to take some time away from creative writing to do some editing, and I need to reconnect with the world of front-line paid employment. This may turn out to be a blessing. I’ve paused my new novel, uncoupled my anxiety from the feedback-express of writing groups and beta-readers. Because I was on the cusp of making myself miserable, making myself sick.

To quote REM:

You’re coming onto something so fast, so numb
That you can’t even feel

I should have been a lyricist. Lyrics are what I do best. Much better than I am at this prose malarky.

Have a great day, folks. You, at least, are in all things wonderful. Remember to be kind to yourselves, because you deserve it.

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*

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.

Next up

Manuscript

Next on my to-do list, whilst I wait for my next piece of commercial editing, is to dig up a manuscript I last worked on over a year ago. That’s not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough for me to forget just about every single detail. Long enough, one hopes, to gain a little perspective and to be able to judge the book on its true merits.

Yes, it’s back to the word-mines for me. After complaining, last week, about the need for emotional space after the completion of a big project, I am going straight back to the well. It’s really too soon; I’m not strong enough yet. But I have a bit of time and I need to be doing something to justify my existence. So it’s on with editing.

This particular piece is the third book in the Antarctic trilogy – the finale, at least as it stands. It’s a novel I have fond feelings for. I enjoyed writing it, as far as I can remember, and it gives Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, a measure of closure after the ordeals he’s been through throughout the three books.

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My heart says that this is the best of the trilogy. And right there is something to be fearful of: one can never trust one’s own emotions on such a subject. I’ve been wrong before. When I first wrote what became Human Resources I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. That took a hell of a lot of work to beat into a reputable shape (I think I succeeded, by the way. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come November).

So I am being exceptionally cautious. In my last pass, all those months ago, I excised a large (10kish) section because it interrupted the flow; now I worry that the novel is too short. And while I feel like I have the nucleus of a strong story, it’s just the execution that matters. Ideas are two a penny, but the way the tale is told is what makes it unique.

I am doing my best to not be a fool to myself. Sadly, being a fool is what I do best. And I am terrified: this novel is next up to be sent to my editor; the next with a chance of being rejected, in other words, and one that I really care about being published. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Maybe I’m speaking more of anxiety than I am about writing here, but I’m terrified of the publisher turning round and saying no.

So yes, this matters. Time I got down to it, I guess.

Actually, forget all that: my next commercial job just came in so I guess all this is put on the back-burner, for a little while at least.

Onwards!

Onwards

There are a surprising number of sloth/unicorn artists out there. I believe this copyright is owned by Jez Kemp

No hack

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This week I’m going to talk about something I find difficult, so bear with me if I take my time to get to the point. See, I’ve been thinking about what matters to me, in writing and without, and I’ve come up with this: I want to be thought of as a good writer. I want the respect of my peers. I’d quite like at least a couple of fans, though I realise this makes me shallow and unworthy.

Thing is, I’m just not sure I’m good enough. The longer it goes since I wrote the novels that I’ve got/am getting published, the slighter they seem. That’s the first part of the difficulty, of course, because I still want you to buy them (Night Shift out now; Human Resources out July! Buy buy buy!). I’m also aware that it’s totally natural; indeed, if I still thought they were the pinnacle of what I could achieve it’d be a poor reflection on my development and ambition.

But I also look at what I’m doing now and I worry about that too. Is it good enough? Will I ever be good enough to meet my own standards? Am I, in fact, capable of becoming anything more than a hack?

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These are the doubts that plague me. As I struggle to get anywhere near the end of my WIP (currently about a quarter of the way through) I wonder if I can actually achieve what I’ve envisaged, or is it all some impossible pipe-dream no different from when I was a child and dreamt of being a top-flight footballer.

Will I ever be good enough?

I say ‘will I ever be more than a hack?’ but that’s to disregard the skill involved in being a hack. A hack has to produce copy to order, to keep churning out material even if their heart isn’t absolutely in it; they have to achieve publishable quality again and again and again. It’s a skill, a talent, and I’m not sure I’ve got that in me.

I still aspire to be respected for my writing. I want people to look at my work and say ‘yeah, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’

I’m not there yet. The only thing to do is to keep going. To keep writing, to try and encourage people to read me and to try and make them happy when they do.

Maybe then I’ll feel like I’ve met my own objectives.

Or maybe I’ll grow up and get over myself. Who can say?

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Getting things wrong

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News! Human Resources, the second in the Australis trilogy, is due out July 2020!

That’s the best part of a year away but I’m already getting anxious and wondering if there’s anything I should be doing to promote it. And so I begin to compose an email suggesting a few things that my publisher might like to help me organise: to get on a few convention programmes, maybe a launch event; and to merely put myself at their disposal.

There’s not much I like less than sending emails promoting myself, pushing my agenda or asking for favours. I’ve never learnt the art of the blag. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Couple that with my almost complete ignorance of the way the world works – specifically publishing, conventions and media bookings – and there’s a massive opportunity to get things wrong. But I know that big things are booked way in advance so, at least in theory, now is the perfect time to think about these things. I have about nine months’ grace. Last time, with Night Shift, I missed chances. I should be thinking about this now.

But I agonise over emails; I compose them when I’m in the car, or when I’m lying in bed, and they’re perfect: but get me behind a computer and it all falls apart. Am I asking too much? Am I being cheeky? I lack the necessary arrogance to imagine that people see my emails as anything other than self-serving and grasping. I am an inconvenience, something to be resented.

But the emails have to be sent. I have a book coming out, for goodness’ sake. How wonderful is that?

There is something of imposter syndrome in all this. At least part of me believes that my writing isn’t good enough to be published; that I’ve somehow got away with something. To be asking for more is the height of impertinence, even when our interests collide.

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Besides, I don’t deserve more. Who am I? An end-list nobody, that’s who. Who am I to be asking to be put on convention programmes? They’ve never heard of me. You’ve barely heard of me, and you’re reading this.

But this is where everyone starts from. Everyone feels like this. It’s part of what makes us human and there are a lot of people who get it worse than me. Ha, I’m even an imposter when it comes to imposter syndrome.

Anyway, I have sent the Great Email of Doom. It’s done. It’s off.

Now it’s just a case of waiting for the Great Reply of Terror.

Update

Stigma-Health

Stolen from HourDetroit.com; artist unknown

For the past three years I’ve struggled to get things done. Mechanical acts are fine, but serious creative endeavours have slipped from my grasp to shatter into irretrievable pieces. This is in part because I’ve been ill, something I’ve maybe hinted at through past blog-posts but never actually said out loud.

It’s got to the point where I’ve been advised, in all seriousness, to give up writing for a little while. This is in order to take the pressure off myself, to allow me to recover without torturing myself over what I should be producing.

Instead I will be torturing myself with thoughts of what I should be doing, for endless is the list of tasks I assign myself. Driven might be the word; masochistic is another. But I’m not good at doing nothing.

Whether or not I try for any actual creative writing, there’s still plenty on my plate. I have to prepare a reading and a workshop for Edge-Lit, for one. I have my author questionnaire to finish. I have a novel to edit – unless that counts as creative writing and therefore verboten?

There’s also this blog to maintain. I don’t feel like I’ve been putting out very interesting stuff recently. I’m sorry about that. I’m trying.

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Truth is, my activities firmly walk the line of creative/mechanical so much that there’s not much point even trying to stick to anything. I will write if I feel capable. I will prepare materials if my brain is stuck in that kind of gear.

Perhaps the important thing is to merely acknowledge that I’ve been given advice. I have been ill; I have been struggling. Whether any particular prescription helps or not isn’t, perhaps, as important as it is to stare it in the face and not pretend everything’s as it was before.

Also, maybe I should give myself a little credit. I’ve built an editing career in the midst of deep personal problems. I’ve edited my own work to publishable standards. If I’m feeling unsatisfied or afraid for the future, that’s maybe a symptom of what I’ve been going through.

But I am myself and the truth is that I’m not happy with what I’ve achieved. That’s not all bad as it drives me onwards to – hopefully – greater things.

Just as long as I don’t burn myself to the ground in the process.

UPDATE: I have already started working on my next (old) WIP , which just goes to show.

Today’s fear

Fear - Saeeda Bibi

@ Saeeda Bibi

My career as a writer is just beginning. It’s going well, so far. One novel published and another on the way. But I’m here to confess my biggest fear: that I’m already washed-up and a has-been.

The reason is this: everything I’ve been working on is old. Years old. I have a backlog of writing back from my younger and more vulnerable years: four novels that have required much editing but are good enough to be worth the work.

Now I’m the first to say that editing is part of writing. An essential part, no less, and what I’m doing is as valid as every first draft that proudly gets ‘The End’ inscribed at its end.

But I haven’t written anything new for about three years now. And, for a writer, that feels like a lifetime.

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My greatest fear is that I have nothing left to say; that I’ve lost the discipline and the drive that makes a writer sit in front of a blank page and simply create. Sure, I have ideas – but nothing ready. I’ve been spending so much time buried in old words that I don’t know how to get down the new.

This isn’t imposter syndrome, and it’s my hope that, once I find my way nearer to the end of my back catalogue, that I’ll be able to see a future once again. But right now I feel like I’m already nearing the end.

It doesn’t help that I’m building a career as a freelance editor, so my time is split between editing and editing. Plus I owe friends my opinions (for what it’s worth) on their novels; I can easily see myself working through this block of already-written novels and then settling for a career as an editor.

I don’t want this. I want to be a writer.

I go online and see author after author telling us of their accomplishments; of their new works of wonder and delight, and I have nothing.

I am not a real writer. I’m someone who can edit works until they look like a competent author produced them, but I still need the source material and that I’m fast running out of.

This, at least, is my fear. Whether it turns out to be true or not is yet to be seen.

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