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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Imposter

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I got my first real taste of imposter syndrome this weekend. I was on a train, staring out the window, when it suddenly occurred to me: I’m going to be mixing with some superstar authors in a few months. I was going to be mixing as one of them; I’m doing a workshop and a reading and a panel with some of the biggest names in genre fiction and how arrogant am I to think I could be part of that?

I have nothing. I have a single book out, and that unknown by anyone outside my small circle. I am no-one. I’m the gatecrasher busting the party.

And there’s some truth in this. I’m getting to Edge-Lit (as an author rather than as a punter) because I’ve asked. I’ve poked my publishers and they’ve managed to get me involved. And I’ve done nothing to deserve it other than be one of those pushy little oiks who don’t know their station.

I’m bloody terrified.

What have I done? I’ve put out a single book that no-one has heard of and on the back of it have clawed my way onto a platform with authors who have written series, won multiple awards, have clout and impact that I can only dream of.

Imposter

I’m afraid they’ll see straight away that I’m a gobby little hack with nothing to contribute; who will overcompensate with either ‘unpopular takes’ or bad puns and will add nothing to the debate. That I’ll come away with nothing but shame, a whipped dog slinking to its kennel as the thunder rolls.

I know the likelihood is that it’ll be a good, maybe even great, experience. Maybe I’ll come out with some friends, some new interconnectivities. Hopefully I’ll learn a whole lot, if it’s only to keep my mouth shut and my head down.

But it’s hard to see the brightness in the midst of a thunderstorm; hard to keep dry when the kennel leaks and your bum always sticks out anyway.

All will be fine. All’s fine now, really, about from a wave of rogue emotions.

But by golly this has hit me much harder than I ever imagined it would.

On saying no

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One of the hardest things I’ve had to do recently is turning down work. There is a terrible fear in me; that no once is no forever – that I’ll destroy my reputation by turning round to my putative employer and saying ‘Sorry. Can’t do this.’

The work in question was a piece of emergency proofreading; a short-turnaround job that came with a promised £30 bonus if I were to drop everything – by which I mean cancel family plans – to complete a piece in three days.

I could certainly use the money. It’s been a fallow period for me, earning-wise, over the last month or so and this request was from my one reliable source of income. Not only did I need the cash but I wanted to please: I always want to please, which is perhaps my biggest flaw as a human being.

But a £30 bonus isn’t that much compensation for stress and disruption and a weekend apart from my wife and the tiny monster. So – reluctantly – I turned it down.

And it was fine. I got an understanding response and it turned into a dialogue about my next pieces of work with them. As, intellectually, I knew would happen. Emotionally, though, for a few days, I was a big ball o’ anxious.

Where does this fear come from? It’s nothing but counter-productive. It doesn’t help us do our work, though maybe ensures conscientiousness.

The point, though, is this: it’s okay to say no. It’s much better to say no at the outset then to take on the impossible and fail. And, if you do take on the impossible, tell those who matter that you’ll miss deadlines in good time. These are tricky skills but ones a writer will have to get used to using.

You know all this anyway. You know all this and it makes it absolutely no easier. Well, at the very least, you are not alone. There’s plenty of fools like me around and if I’m surviving, you can too.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been offered another job. And, though it means I have to work like the clappers, I’ve accepted.

Say yes to saying no.

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What’s it all about, Alfie?

Alfie II
I’ve been musing, recently, on something you’d probably think I’d have worked out years ago, and that’s what I write about.

I’m not talking about that complex and ill-defined area of ‘theme’ that writing manuals always go on about – or, at least, not in the way that I interpret it.

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Theme is, I think, what your story is about; what’s the thread that runs through it? They often say that you don’t know until the first draft is finished. Well, Night Shift is a murder mystery set in Antarctica (and is available from at least some good bookshops) and if there’s a theme…

Well, maybe I am talking about theme after all. It’s terribly complicated and, clearly, I don’t understand it at all. But I’m here to talk about two things that I’m slowly realising are significant influences on the novel and the trilogy as a whole. One is poverty. The other is mental illness.

Let’s talk about mental illness first because it’s simpler: I didn’t realise it when I was writing the early drafts at least, but Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, is mentally ill. Childhood trauma leading to long-lasting depression and possible borderline personality disorder or Asperger’s. To what extent he’s a proxy to me you can decide yourself.

As I said, I had no plan to do this. It’s just how he came to be written. What pleases me immensely is that the trilogy in which he stars shows a clear progression in his mental health until, by the end of the third book, we (will) see…

Hold on their, youngster – let’s keep this spoiler-free, shall we?

As I said, that’s simple. It’s a character arc, albeit an inadvertent one. The issue of poverty is harder to explore.

One of the things that interviewers are fond of asking is if I’ve been to Antarctica. My stock answer has been to say that no, I haven’t, but whilst I was writing the first draft I was working in a building that lacked heating. Ah ha ha ha, how funny and disingenuous, let’s move on quickly, right?

But now I’m realising: Antarctica is poverty.

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Antarctica is a character in my novel and I’ve come to believe (not ‘realise’ because even now I’m not 100% on it) that it is based on my experiences of being poor.

Now I should say that I was never truly hungry. I always had a roof over my head. I had family to fall back on, loathe though I was to do that.

But I felt the constant pressure that poverty causes. It’s not necessarily about feeling a physical chill – not in my experience, at least – but it’s about constant stress, of worrying whether or not you can afford any luxuries at all. It’s having to carry a balance-sheet in your head at all times. It’s about being drained. Poverty is a vampire that sucks you dry and leaves a bloodless corpse in its wake.

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@Mark Parisi; OffTheMark.com

And somehow these emotions became embodied within the frozen wastes. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t think it’s obvious in the novel. But that’s what it is to me as I now look back.

Antarctica, in the story, is context. It’s the matrix in which my characters operate; and even when it’s not mentioned it’s implicit within everything every character does. This, is realise now, is exactly how life was for me when I was flat broke.

Again I must say that there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. This probably says as much about me as it does my economic state.

But every day was difficult. Every day was stress.

In Night Shift, when the chill of Antarctica starts to break through the walls and reach its frozen fingers into what was previously held safe, that how I felt when some unexpected expense undid all my hard-worn calculations. The retreat deeper into the bowels of the base was mirrored by my own retreat into home-life and hibernation.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should forget about ‘theme’; maybe instead it’s a perverted version of ‘write what you know’ (and see also here). My subconscious took an innocent story and twisted it into a nightmare of its own neuroses. And by telling you this I wonder if a) I’m putting off potential readers, or b) making everything worse.

But then, isn’t the subconscious responsible for all writing? Doesn’t it drive all our decisions, for better and for worse, and don’t we just try and justify the outcomes? I don’t know. This is all a bit too heavy for me.

So I shall sign off here, leaving only a vague sense of anxiety in my wake. Am I oversharing? Have I alienated you all forever?

I worry about these things. But I also hope. And wish you, as always, happy writing.

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The dread beast nanowrimo

 

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By the time this reaches you NaNoWriMo will be underway. Some of you will be taking part and to you I wish all the goodwill; may the wind forever be in your sales, may your word processor be reliable, may your pen always be full of the most exquisite ink.

For those of you who don’t know (and why should you?) NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a project by which you aim to have written a complete novel – defined arbitrarily as 50,000 words – in thirty days. Although it’s mainly a solo effort there is a website upon which you can sign up and groups around the world (it should really be called InNoWriMo) to meet and write (and console and drink) with.

I’ve never done it myself. I only found out about it after I was already in a regular writing routine and I felt that was a better way to produce the things I wanted to produce. I still do, and that leads me neatly on to this: another caveat scriptor.

I have concerns about NaNoWriMo. I have concerns about anything that puts pressure on you to produce. 1,667 words a day doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it’s a lot. And for what? For the warm glow of having produced something not very good?

I’m not here to bash NaNoWriMo or its participants. Sometimes targets are useful; sometimes we need a push to get going and this can certainly help spur you into action; if you’ve been spending the last five years wishing you had the time to get those burning ideas down on paper then NaNoWriMo might just be for you.

Just be aware. Writing five (typed) pages a day every day for thirty days is a lot to ask of yourself. So, before you start, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you do it? Is this target even theoretically possible?
  • How stressed are you likely to make yourself? How will you respond to the stress? Maybe you’re someone who thrives under pressure: great, I envy you. Go to it. But, if not, maybe this isn’t for you
  • How will you feel if you fail?
  • Are you prepared to get to the end, look at what you’ve done, and realise that the work has only just begun? First because 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, and you’re like as not going to have to keep working to get the novel to its real conclusion; and second because there’s no time for editing on a project like this. Forwards forwards forwards, that’s the NaNoWriMo way. Never look back, never crop out the missteps or the waffle where you weren’t quite sure where you were going.

Are you prepared for this to be a beginning?

If you’re not used to writing you will struggle with NaNoWriMo. I spent months building up the mental muscles to write regularly. I still struggle to string one word after another; I have good days, I have bad days, and to expect to sling nearly 2,000 words down on a page from a standing start is, I fear, a doomed venture.

Ask yourself this: would you be better served in putting yourself under such pressure or would you do better to try and build those writing muscles? By all means use NaNoWriMo as motivation but, instead of aiming for arbitrary targets, why not work on giving yourself a regular writing hour (or whatever) and building it into your life? Instead of leaping into a raging torrent, dip into the shallows and practice so that, when it’s time to throw those water-wings away, you can ride the wild rapids with confidence.

I put How will I feel if I fail in bold because that’s what’d kill me. Mental health is a noisome beast. Make sure it’s one you can handle.

I’m not here to bury NaNoWriMo: I’m more nanambivalent than nanonegative. Let me rebalance the argument by giving some of the positive aspects of the project:

  • A goal is a real motivation
  • You’ll be part of a community; you’ll get help and advice and sympathy if you want it
  • If you’re wanting to really leap into the writing world, doing NaNoWriMo can give you the confidence to say ‘Yes, I am a writer.’
  • You can do a lot of the NaNoPrep before the start on November; indeed, you’re encouraged to start planning months earlier so that, by the start of NaNoWriMo proper, most of the heavy mental lifting has been done
  • It’s easier to edit a bad book than to start one from scratch
  • It gives you an excuse, a reason, to seize precious writing time from friends and (especially) family. You’re doing this specific thing so you need this specific time: this is your hour, and it will remain so henceforth
  • It is, at the end of the day, one hell of an achievement if you can finish…
  • …and even if you don’t get to 50,000 words by the end of the month you’ll have made a great start

So to all you who are embarking on this project, I wish you fair weather and smooth seas. May your characters be verbose and your plots tangle-free. I salute your endeavour.

Remember this, though: no-one will think any less of you if you decide the journey’s not for you. We want you to succeed, and sometimes success takes longer than a month.