Accidental holiday

I have become becalmed, lost in the doldrums, unable to advance or to reverse course; awaiting only a fair wind to ease me back into port.

Life has delivered unto me a change in routine, and now I can no longer get behind my keyboard, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for 08:30: instead I have to wait until the afternoon to return to my computer and I am not, as yet, psychically ready to create at that ungodly hour. I just want to fire up Civilization and listen to audiobooks; I don’t want to tangle with the world-weaving or the word-wrangling. I’m struggling even to go and talk to my friends on Twitter. Apologies to all of you, my friends, for being quiet of late.

I need to adapt. I need to embrace change and find a new way of going forwards. Which I will, I’m sure. But recently – this week at least – feels a little like I’ve been taking an accidental holiday.

There are things happening, however. I’m continuing busy with commercial editing (which makes creative writing-time even harder to find, but no matter). I am returning to self-publishing plans; I have begun the final proofread/last tinker/anxiety run of New Gods in preparation for formatting into an actual book-shaped thing. I have been in touch with the cover-artist, trying to work out exactly how a great piece of art is produced – which is to say that the roughs look wonderful, I’m just not sure what to do next.

And amidst all this I have a new novel some 18k words in existence. I have not forgotten you, dear yarn. I’m just leaving you aside for the moment whilst I work on other things. And I have Our Kind of Bastard to rewrite; that too is on one side whilst I try and recover some sense of writing identity. And anyway, I’m stuck with that. My beta-readers identified weaknesses that I don’t know how to solve.

Anyone knows what kind of oil is used on central heating, and whether that could become flammable if spilled on a troll? Cause a reader said that ‘heating oil’ wouldn’t work that way. I am stuck on that, and on the big McGuffin, that feedback has does not excite the reader.

I am letting it simmer as my brain does not seem up to do the heavy lifting at the moment. Partly, I feel, I need to retrain the muscles. Partly I need a break. Either way, this certainly feels like one of the busiest holidays I’ve ever been on.

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.

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.

Back to the real world

It’s a source of great frustration – and yet it is but life – that almost as soon as I get into a project I have to down tools and return to the real world.

I have knocked out some 15,000 words of a new novel, balancing that with reworking Our Kind of Bastard, but now I am sidetracked – or maybe main-lined – by two things. One is an urgent proofreading job: hopefully this will not delay me too long. The other is a return to what we laughingly call normality.

Since Christmas I have been off work – or, rather, I’ve been working from home – due to the general state of the world and my particular vulnerability to it. I had a routine: Monday, Tuesday and Friday, when the Smolrus is at nursery, I would spend all day working, both day-job and writing/editing stuff intertwined, whilst carving maybe a little time on other days as circumstances allowed.

Now my confinement is over and I am returning to front-line regular-houred employment. This is how it goes: there is nothing special about my situation. And yet I am going to have to begin again; I must relearn how to squeeze in regular writing time.

I am a very lucky person in so many ways. I have all boons in life and have always found time to write. The fact that I am tremulous about returning to outside-work is nothing compared to the trials that many go through to get time for themselves.

And it’s not like I’ve not had big changes to undergo before. I started writing this blog nearly eight years ago (tempus fugit and all that) and in that time I’ve had five jobs, all with different working hours, and three houses in different parts of the country. Oh, and one child. One could almost say that change is normal, were that not an insult to the people who’ve had real changes in their life.

But personally I am about to go through a big shift that I can only see as negatively affecting my writing. And I am afeared, because writing is important to me, as is my second job as an editor, and I still have parenting to do, and quality time to spend with my partner, and time to kick back and chill, and I must balance these things.

You know. Like we all have to do every day.

Because what is life but a series of temporary measures?

Character flaw

One of the biggest, most consistent criticisms from my recent beta-readings of Our Kind of Bastard was that my characters were too sketchy. Too hard to really get to grips with, to really feel for; to make matter. This I put down to the complications of writing a sequel. It’s a lot easier to blame that then it is to blame my shortcomings as a writer, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Sequel-writing is difficult. You have to assume the reader has either not read the previous or has read it and then forgotten all they learnt. No spoilers are allowed, nor can you repeat what has gone before. When I was drafting OKOB I chose semi-consciously to ignore backstory, to just forge ahead and let my character’s personalities come out with actions rather than explanations.

This obviously hasn’t worked. So now one of my most pressing jobs is to go back and insert individuality into the gaps I left.

Except I didn’t leave any obvious gaps. There are very few ‘insert backstory here’ places that leap out at me as I reread. Instead I must seek out opportunities to crowbar in the requisite information.

And sometimes it means telling, not showing. Perhaps that’s the hardest thing of all – to drop my demonstrative principles and simply announce how people are feeling, and why they’re feeling it, is tough. I don’t know how far I can go before it becomes too much, too obvious.

This isn’t my first sequel, but it does seem like the first time I’ve had this particular problem. With Human Resources I had to add the happenings of the first novel without being too explicit, and that was difficult enough. But I didn’t have the issues of character.

I think that’s because HR was written in 1st person, and so we constantly had telling – protagonist Anders’ thoughts were always front and foremost and so we had access to how he felt about the people around him – an extra layer to reinforce their actions.

Our Kind of Bastard is not only 3rd person but freely hops from character to character. That means we share less intimacy with each person. I’m thinking it gives a more nuanced perspective of how events unfold, and allows me, the author, to show the reader just what I want them to see. Hopefully this will make a rounded, cinematic experience. But, as I’m learning, there are perils.

So what do I do? Well, I guess I wield my crowbar and my hammer with gleeful abandon. I say more what people are thinking. I share more with the reader, especially early in the novel when they’re still forming their perspectives.

Apart from that, I guess the onus is on me to become a better writer.

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*

Onwards (again)

Our Kind of Bastard has had its beta readings (or possibly alpha readings; the terminology is beyond me) and the feedback is in. There is much work to be done. There are flaws with just about every single aspect of the novel: its characters, plot, dialogue, setting – all need work.

But it’s not all bad. There is a good story hiding in there. It just needs more. More backstory, more development, more atmosphere, more time spent on characters. Just more.

Aside from the bits that need less, of course. Fewer distracting digressions and parenthesised asides.

Writing is a tricky business, and this is perhaps the hardest thing to drag yourself to: to take a work out of the ‘completed’ siding of the mind and disassemble the train, adding in new coaches, new trucks, repainting and getting it ready to run the Submissions Express.

Visual representation of my brain

Except that, as a sequel, this train is going nowhere for some time yet, even should it be made all gleaming-squeaky clean.

The work must still be done, however.

Getting feedback is perhaps the hardest – and most necessary part of writing a novel. The mental adjustment involved in hacking off the first two chapters, for example, or removing a character, or simply adding in a scene, is out of proportion to the actual work involved. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it can be a whole lot of chopping, of typing, of tying together. But the mental effort involved – not in simply coming up with new ideas but with cracking open a ‘perfect’ capsule of a novel and rearranging the innards – far outweighs that. To me at least.

So I gird my loins and put the kettle on, select the writing music of choice, and get down to it. This thing ain’t gonna write itself.

En avant

It feels like this year has been mostly taken up with insecurity and moaning. Apologies for that, and thank you for sticking with me. Now it’s time to push that all aside – for now at least – and look at the more positive things I’m doing.

At the moment I’m balancing three major projects:

Self-publishing New Gods. This is in train – I’ve commissioned my cover art and now I’m being fairly inactive in getting the final text together. That’s the problem with a long deadline (I’m aiming for publication late October/early November, a year on from the release of Human Resources) – the sense of urgency is lacking. But this is obviously a significant enterprise and I’m determined to put out the best product I possibly can.

Exposing Our Kind of Bastard to the world – or at least to significant parts of it. By the time you read this I’ll have had my major beta-read feedback and I’ll have a better idea of where I’m going and just what is and isn’t working in what I’ve done so far. I am, alongside that, putting it piece-by-piece to my spanking new writing group, where it’s getting the micro-kicking it needs. This also involves very much revising my conversational French, of which I speak almost none. See, OKOB is set in Brittany and thus features la langue de la France. This is clearly a very stupid idea and I urge you not to follow my folly.

Writing a novel. I am also follyitious enough to have started a new novel. It’s still in its infancy so I don’t want to talk too much about it for fear of cursing the whole project. But I have finally, after what seems like forever stuck in Editsville, got back to creating original words – or at least rearranging old ones into a hopefully satisfying new pattern.

May contain Bradford.

And that’s it: aside from that it’s a case of balancing all this work with the demands of the day job, to which I will be returning to (as opposed to working from home) in the terrifyingly near future. All will change again when I do go back as I will lose a lot of flexibility and writing hours will be severely constrained.

But that’s a problem for another day. I will work out a way to keep going creatively. Almost all authors have day-jobs these days – it is merely how life works in this late-stage capitalist paradise in which we live.

So: write on, my friends. Here’s to a better future for us all.

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.