In case you’re wondering…

In case anyone’s wondering, writing for the moment is going slowly and painfully, vanquished as it has been by the demands of work and of editing and It Being Bloody Hard.

My creative muscles seem to have atrophied. After a good, fast start to my new novel, I’ve run into the first real speed-mountain on my way to Completionsville. Creative decisions have stymied me and I’ve found it hard to focus, to put in the real brain-work needed to get over the hump.

This obstruction came just at a time when I found lots of other stuff on my plate; a return to frontline employment, a bevy of editing jobs and suchlike. Thus I allowed momentum to slip away and – though long-term an enforced break may prove beneficial – I have been unable to really get going again.

This is entirely my fault. Or the fault of my stupid brain.

Recently, external pressures have relented a little – or I’ve managed to find a little more balance in all my doings – and I’ve found myself with the odd hour or so here and there. I’ve allowed myself a final check-through of New Gods prior to typesetting as my Adventures in Self-Publishing continue. But I’ve been cutting that with a return to original writing. Or at least I’ve been trying to.

It’s really not going well. Typically I’ll manage to scrape only 100 words or so in a session, which is absolute peanuts. And I’m entirely unconvinced that they’re a good 100 words either.

That’s the negative way of looking at things. The positive is that I’m working through a really difficult section at the moment, and any progress at all is good. I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, to train myself back into the habit of writing and I have plenty of distractions, of other things to do, along the way.

There is no pressure on me to complete other than that I put upon myself. There’s no deadline, no quality control I have to meet. I’m doing this because I want to bring this idea (or set of ideas) to completion. And to prove that I still have what it takes to be a writer.

That pressure I put myself under is real, though. I still doubt, no matter what positive words I can wheel out; I still doubt I have what it takes to make a long-term career as a creative mind. That’s one reason this is so important to me.

In the meantime, I have paying jobs to work through and self-editing to achieve. So my creative time is limited (not that my other tasks don’t involve creativity) and I want to make the most of it. That’s why it hurts to be scratching around the floor for inspiration and motivation. I feel like I need a reboot, a hard reset, to get myself back in the groove.

Or maybe I just need more of a holiday. I’m actually going away – today, in fact – for a week’s ill-deserved vacation in the south-west. Maybe that’s what I need to reignite the touchpaper of writing rehabilitation. Or maybe just dealing with the little one intensively will make me more in need than ever.

We shall see.

It also means there may not be a blog next week, unless something especially grabs me – and I grab time – whilst I’m away. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Happy writing, y’all!

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?

Holding pattern

I am in a holding pattern, just waiting until I find the courage to return to my literary endeavours.

Life is often like this, for me. The pressure has built up, the self-imposed pressure that keeps us focussed and driven and on alert – it takes its toll, and so you enter a sort of levelled-off state that isn’t quite rest but just acts as a necessary break. Stopping things escalating as much as alleviating the situation. Like a kettle permanently just below the boil.

I am not writing right now. I wasn’t quite as ready as I thought I was – which is not to say that starting a new novel, or getting my beta-feedback, was a mistake – sometimes you have to try to find out just where you are. But I am taking a break whilst editorial work fills my horizon. Yes, I’m keeping busy with the world of writing, it’s just not my own right now. I still have so much to do; I have a whole novel to rewrite, another to create from nothing, another to self-publish.

But right now I am just keeping things ticking over, not pushing myself too hard, not blaming myself (too much) when I slack.

Writing is an activity where sometimes doing nothing is the most sensible option. To merely keep things turning over in the mind is progress; this business of word-counts doesn’t measure the intangible acts of creation that can occur anyplace, at any time.

And, also, it’s sometimes important to pause and work on things totally disconnected with the world of writing. Life is demanding, life can be hard; blaming yourself for just getting through is a road destined for burnout.

There’s also a lot of waiting and lean times ahead. I have a manuscript out with the Publisher of my Dreams and I don’t dare prod them as proddage may lead to a negative outcome. So I wait. And, if they do come back with a ‘no’, I’m not sure what then to do. I feel like I’ve exhausted all my options.

So I am in a holding pattern, circling the landing, afraid to commit and unable to move away.

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.

Optimism/pessimism

So: it’s finally happened. I have started writing a new story. And, unlike my last effort, I even know what this is going to be called, though I’ll save that revelation for another day – when I’m sure that this is actually going to happen and isn’t just a random twitching of the fingers. One session, one thousand words, does not a novel make.

But I have made a start. I won’t be writing every day, especially when the Pandemic work-from-home-ishness of life is over and I have to return to the great wide world. But if I can grind away a bit a week I’ll be happy.

When I was beginning to write seriously I used to be in a rush to get everything done. It was a fear, I think, that I’d ‘lose it’; that I’d grind to a halt and never get the wheels moving again. Now I am much more sanguine. I chip away, a few words at a time, and watch the end slowly, slowly get closer.

Writing is all self-doubt and angst anyway; why add more to the burden?

This is a fine philosophy but it’s hardly how I live. I worried about having lost my imagination in a fallow period from August to yesterday, and I’m still not sure that I have the mental fortitude to carry out a major project like writing a novel. Which is why I spent the time to create something akin to a plan: trying to force my brain to work rather than waiting forever for that bolt of lightning to strike.

Starting something new feels like such a relief. The fear of failure – of having nothing left – is so stultifying that to finally exhale is a joy. But I’m not there yet. I need to know this novel is working, that the words are coming regularly, in order to trust that I am once again free to do the thing I love.

I’ve just realised how contradictory I’m being here. I veer from optimism to pessimism in alternate paragraphs. I worry and then I’m more sanguine. I feel relief and then talk about the anxiety of not writing.

Well, maybe that’s part of the point. Writing often involves – for me at least – holding a lot of contradictory viewpoints at the same time. I’m a good writer and yet I’m nothing special. This novel is the best I’ve written and yet it doesn’t stack up with all the agented reads I see being published.

The fact is that we live in a world of uncertainty, of doubts, of twilights. Writing will never be easy for me but it is what I do. And I think the doubts, the second-guessing, will always be part of it because it is in me.

Buy-in

My reading for pleasure has disintegrated over the last few months. And that’s just a recipe for struggle as, for a fiction writer, there’s little more important than to refresh your well of ideas with plentiful outside influences.

Why it’s gone – well, once upon a time my primary opportunities for reading were work-related: the commute, the job itself (lots of quiet periods sitting with little to do), the coffee breaks.

Since then a change in employment has sabotaged these opportunities – and the pandemic has taken even these. I’m not good at taking time out of my home-day to read; this is, fundamentally, where I’m going wrong.

Fortunately, I’m currently going through one of my busiest periods ever as an editor, and I’m getting plenty of new fiction that way. It’s not the same – as I’ve said before on this blog, I think you consume stories differently when you’re searching out errors as opposed to just going with the flow – but it’s still a damn good way of keeping the inspiration-mines productive.

I’m experiencing the newest fiction and, for the most part, I’m overwhelmed with admiration for the authors, for their creativity, and I’m left wondering if I can ever achieve something that would make over people react the way these authors make me.

I currently have a novel out on submission to a publisher. I just have no idea how to gauge my chances. It’s a good story, I know it is. But it’s not going to win awards for its prose (decent is not the same as lyrical, or heart-rending, or haunting). Nor is the plot particularly original or earth-shattering. A good novel doesn’t have to be one that changes the world.

It might be commercial, but who am I to judge that?

Does it stand up alongside the novels I’ve been editing? Well it’s different, that’s all I can say for sure. Some I feel are better than mine, a (very) few worse. But I know that I’m not capable of reading my own work in the same way that I can read someone else’s. Maybe, one day, some lone proofreader will be reading my work with the same sense of admiration that I feel for other novels. Or maybe they’ll just be slogging their way through an endless slough of despond.

Maybe I’m unique; probably this is universal. I have no idea how my own writing will communicate itself to an outside reader. And it’s because of this that we try and get as much buy-in as possible: we trust beta-readers, we pay for editors; if we’re lucky enough we have agents and the editors are paid by someone else.

All because we haven’t the first idea. I still remember the feeling of being blindsided by the criticism I received the first time I took my work to a writing group. I thought I’d taken a piece that was beyond anything but minor criticism – ah, the arrogance of inexperience! But truly it’s never got any better, not for me, at least.

It’s foolish to put too much store in one person’s opinion, or one publishing house’s commercial judgement, but we do. Which is why it’s important to get as much buy-in as possible, to cast our nets widely.

There is no point to this. Apologies for wasting your time. You, at least, are wonderful.

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.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?

Re-proof

I’m taking it easy this week. After all I’ve posted about in the last few weeks, it’s time for me to take some pressure off myself.

I have finished the final final proofs of Human Resources, finding a mighty total of two errors (one typesetting, one artistic). It’s a hard process, finishing a book. As well as around nine drafts – I lost count somewhere along the way – of the damn novel, I have had to answer to my copy edits. Then, over the last month, I’ve gone through pre- and post-proofread drafts to ensure the product is as good as it can possibly be, given the massive drag factor of my brain.

That’s a lot of reading in not much time. And it aint what you call fun reading, either: not only is it your own stuff but it’s stuff that you’ve already moved on from, mentally. It’s like you’re being called back to court to answer to charges you’d thought had been heard long years ago.

Which is why I’m having a rest this week. I shall return to my Old Testament intergenerational epic of an edit with something of a sense of relief: at least here is something new, a sort of mental palate-cleanser.

And as for this blog? Well, much as I love you, I’m not going to break my back with a search for something new to say. No, you can make do with this and be happy.

I do love you, though. Never think otherwise