Letting go

I’m a bit frustrated at the moment. I’m working all out – by which I mean I’m sitting on my hands, waiting – on self-publishing (New Gods still planned for an October 26th release, all you people desperate to pre-order) and beyond that…

And that’s the question: what next?

After New Gods, all I have in the bank are the three novels (one complete, one in the factory for a refit, one a fifth of the way written) in the series that begins with Oneiromancer. I’m proud of these books. I think they’re either good or have the potential to be good. Thing is that I’ve already been rejected by all the sci-fi/urban fantasy agents in the country (and some beyond). So I have no idea how I’m going to go about getting them published.

Yes, yes, self-publishing and all that. I know I have that option. But I’m reluctant to go down that route. New Gods is a special case; the finale to a series that I simply want to get out because I’m proud of it and know that no other publisher with the situation as it is.

I am by no means negative about self-publishing. But that’s not how I envisioned my career as going, and I don’t know how to adapt my thinking to make myself embrace that future. I will, of course, if I can’t see any other way forwards – which I can’t at present – because I am, as I said, proud of my work and the books deserve readers.

I don’t believe I’m capable of drumming up those readers. Not on my own.

It’s times like this that ambition gets in the way of productivity. One can spend so much time worrying about whether one will ‘make it’ and less about getting not only this product ready, but that there’s a continued flow of product for the future.

Maybe the best option is simply to let go. To abandon the work I’ve put into this particular stack of world-building and move on to something entirely new. An agent can be tempted to any project, and then they might be interested in promoting a back catalogue too.

But I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve not even finished my trilogy.

No, perhaps I need to abandon my plans for being a successful (however that be defined) author. I can’t see myself ever being an award-winner, like I am in my dreams, and I’m getting too old and too envious – in a benevolent way – of the breakthrough authors I see on Twitter.

What, after all, is success but a false form of happiness? Change my paradigm, let go of dreams that will never come true and work on the things within my control; that’s what I should do.

But letting go is always hard.

Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

On reviews

Night Shift has hit a milestone. We have – at last count – 53 reviews on Amazon. Most are favourable, which is nice. But I wonder, why do we care? Why do authors fret so about words that are often tossed out there without too much consideration or deep thought (with apologies to serious book reviewers and, indeed, anyone who really works out how they want to help others who may be wondering if a certain book is for them)?

Partly, of course, its ego; a desire for one’s work to be appreciated and to reassure them that they can write. More pertinently it’s because we live in fear of the dreaded algorithm.

Some websites begin to promote books that get more reviews higher up on lists; they’re more likely to be shown in ‘Other people read’ screens and similar. The more reviews we get – good or bad – the more visibility our work receives. Success breeds success. It ain’t right, but there it is.

I’m no expert on these things. I just know that it’s nice to find that people are still discovering and reading. After being dropped by the publisher and having abandoned all hope of royalties or a great film/television adaptation bonus, it’s terribly reassuring to find that my little novel still has a life out there. Maybe I’m premature in dismissing my chances of earning out after all.

Human Resources, on the other hand, has only one Amazon review. That seems to have disappeared without trace.

But the thing about modern times – when books can be printed on demand, and e-books exist, and the internet seems both endless and eternal, is that these figures can only ever go up. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly seems that way. I don’t need to fear being remaindered or my work becoming unavailable. Time can bring only more sales.

Because, as I said, it’s always nice to know my stuff is being read and I’m not simply pissing into the void. Money – material reward – is almost irrelevant. I want people to read and enjoy my stuff. And I want my future writings to find a market.

Which leads me onto asking why we do this. I love writing, except when I hate it and will do anything to avoid it, and I’m determined to make everything I do the best it can possibly be. Money, material reward, isn’t what I do this for, though – and don’t get me wrong, here – it is nice.

I digress. The fact is, reviews matter to authors. It (sometimes) makes us feel good. It helps our sales. It gives that word-of-mouth, that we rely on, a little boost. We the majority aren’t backed by great publicity campaigns. It’s generally us on our tod battling various degrees of social anxiety trying to do our best to get books into brains.

And of course they help other readers even more than it helps us.

So: do your good deed for the day. Find a book you’ve loved and tell people about it.

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.