Art and the fear of mediocrity

_mg_7777Perhaps you can relate to this experience. You go along to your writers’ group with a piece of which you’re particularly proud. Something you poured your heart into, and then polished until it shone. You read it out nervously, and after you finish speaking, there’s an excruciating tumbleweed moment, during which you genuinely think your heart might stop.

Finally someone says, in a thoughtful yet non-committal manner, “Hmmmm.”

At last another voice speaks up. “Well, I thought it was quite well-written.”

And there it is. The word we dread so much. Quite.

Why is it so terrible to be damned with faint praise?  Isn’t it preferable to a savaging? Shouldn’t we be grateful anyone complimented us at all?

When our work elicits only tepid reactions, it feels like our poetry or prose has failed to inspire a single emotion. That despite having attained a degree of literary competence, we’re still not “there” yet.

For those of us who’ve been bleeding at our typewriters for a very long time, not being “there” can be especially disheartening to hear. Because the older we get, the more possible it becomes that “quite well-written” is our final destination on this ride.

In the throes of a first draft, we may veer wildly between delighting in our brilliance and castigating ourselves for being the most execrable writer ever to desecrate a blank page. But deep down, I think we recognise these as passing moods. That neither extreme reflects reality.

The most insidious of my critical voices isn’t the one that loudly berates me for being a dreadful writer. It’s the one that steals into my room late at night, settles on my shoulder and whispers in my ear, ‘actually, you’re not bad. But I’m afraid that’s as far it goes.’

I was talking with some friends last week about our fears of being mediocre. We witness every day how mediocrity is rife in our political and entertainment culture, and yet few artists I know would be happy to be assigned the label of “average” in their field.

And it made me wonder: why are we so ashamed of being something which, by definition, most people are? What makes us believe we have the right to be special? Why do I expect, or even want to be anything more than a half-decent writer with a handful of workable novel ideas?

Is it a sense of entitlement or inadequacy (or both) that stems from having had our worth graded ever since we were children? A necessity of capitalism: that competition for resources requires us to measure our progress constantly against that of our peers and strive for superiority?

I prefer to imagine it’s more because we read Keats or Kerouac, and we were so moved and so blown away by their genius that we committed our souls to aspiring to create at that level. Even though it condemned us to live with the torment of knowing we’d probably never produce even the palest of imitations.

During this discussion, someone pointed out that one person’s idea of average is another’s excellence, and vice-versa. For every so-called masterpiece, a thousand critics will shrug their shoulders. Which isn’t to imply that craft and technique and quality don’t matter. But it does mean that the “faint praise” we’re getting may not represent the whole picture.

Because it is as much about others as it is about us. We may not have found an audience we connect with yet. Even if that ends up being just a couple of readers, if our writing brings them joy or recognition or catharsis, if it distracts them from their troubles by luring them into an exciting imaginary world, then wasn’t it worth enduring all those disappointments?

I think so.

Two of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life are that we can’t control what other people think of us, and that we can’t truly be anything other than what we are. Difficult as these ideas may be to accept, they also help to free us from the curse of comparison.

I’d rather be a writer who risks putting her work out there for people to appreciate or otherwise, than a perfectionist who remains in perpetual hiding for fear of not meeting her self-imposed expectations.

And none of us really know what’s going to happen anyway after we hit the publish button.

 

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Winter reflections on a work in progress

winterMany apologies for not updating this site recently. I’ve been busy with various projects, including photography and blogging for another site about mental health, which I’ll share once it’s published.  Before things get too hectic as the year draws to a close, I wanted to give you an idea of where I’m up to with my novel.

My fantastic writing coach Lauren Sapala gave me some detailed and very encouraging feedback on the story.  As always it’s a pleasure to read Lauren’s comments because she totally gets what I’m trying to do and responds emotionally to the characters just as I’d hoped.  She also has great instincts for improving a draft and pointing out where something is unclear or confusing.

After making these initial changes I gave the book to my husband.  Although I’ve been working on it for two years, he didn’t know much about the storyline or what to expect. He hasn’t finished it yet, but it’s been interesting to see his reactions, which so far aren’t that dissimilar from Lauren’s: they mentioned liking the same sections. He’s giving me line-by-line editorial comments which are helping to make the writing stronger and more concise.

Once this second round of amends is complete, which I anticipate will be early next year, I’m going to send it to The Literary Consultancy for a full professional assessment. I’ve paid for similar agency reports in the past, so I know from experience that they don’t hold back in telling you what’s wrong with your manuscript. Which is good, because it’s what you’re paying them for, but it’s not necessarily easy to hear either.  So, that will be January’s challenge.

I have no idea what they’ll say or whether it’ll require a complete rethink or just tweaking, but I’ll deal with that problem when it arrives. If it needs significant rewriting then I’ll ask someone else, maybe a couple of people, to look through the revised version. After that, an amazing friend of mine who is a freelance editor has offered to proofread the final copy.

And then… that’s the text done. The next stage will be to start on the cover artwork, formatting, website, adverts and the film I’m planning to make in place of a book tour. It’s exciting to think about.

Some people have asked if I’m planning to have one last go at submitting to literary agents before I self-publish.  As things stand, I’m not.  The reason is that I see self-publishing nowadays as a positive choice, not a last resort for the rejected. I love the idea of having creative control over the cover design and the marketing. Also, my story addresses several themes that are very current (you’ll see what I mean) and I’m not willing to wait years longer to get it out into the world.

I have been through my 15 years of rejection and while it hasn’t exactly been fun, it may have made me stronger in some ways. It certainly rids you of any lingering sense of entitlement. Nobody owes you a publishing contract because you were a straight-A student or got a literature degree or have written stories since you could hold a pen. And potential isn’t enough: if your work isn’t marketable, the industry can’t afford to support you until you get there. Not when they have a surplus of talented writers to choose from.

Although I’ve abandoned the traditional publishing route, I still get a regular hit of rejection in the form of contests. I scaled back my entries this year as they were becoming unaffordable at up to £25 a go and so I only entered five. Four have been a no, but there’s one more result to go before the year ends.  I’m trying not to read too much into my lack of success. When a longlist only represents around 3% of the entries, I don’t think you can conclude the others lacked merit or might not go on to win other contests.

In all honesty I would still like to have validation from the literary establishment one day, but I recognise that it isn’t necessary any more. Technology is removing those barriers. We get to decide for ourselves when our apprenticeship is over and we’re “good enough” to begin for real.

Three kinds of writing advice I choose to ignore

Being a natural student at heart, I’ve dedicated significant time over the last fifteen years to trawling through books, articles and blogs in order to glean wisdom from more experienced writers and editors.

When published authors are asked in interviews what advice they’d give to beginners, some will set down a list of rigid commandments. Others might say cheerily, ‘oh, don’t listen to anyone’s advice. There are no rules in writing and no one knows what they’re doing anyway.’

I’m not sure either approach is especially helpful. It’s difficult to learn and grow without input from others, and while there may be no rules as such, there are techniques and principles of the craft to master, which help us improve. I’ve also benefited from insight into other authors’ creative processes, particularly the ways they overcome self-doubt.

However, as a learner it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the torrent of do’s and don’ts and musts and shoulds, which can inhibit our creativity and make us discouraged before we even start. Like so much on the internet, writing advice is a useful resource, but it pays to be careful who you listen to, and to be wary of over-consumption.

When sifting through content, to an extent I’ve learned to take what I can use and filter out the rest. I don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they’re a successful writer or well-known agent, but I do try to be open to new suggestions.

I have also identified three types of advice that raise red flags for me.

1.  People who tell me what I can and can’t write about

“Write what you know.” “Write what readers want.” “Write what sells.” “Write something no one else has done before.” “Don’t write about yourself – you’re not that interesting.” “Don’t write outside your own experience of life – you’ll get it wrong.”

We can choose to write on almost any subject, and provided we execute it with enough imagination and flair, we stand a good chance of engaging our target audience. Of course, some concepts will challenge us more than others, which is important to consider when embarking on a new project. But ultimately, I have to pursue whatever idea I feel most passionate about. Other people can help me talk through my plans, but no one gets to decide my limitations for me.

2.  Anyone who claims their writing method is the only correct one

Not long ago I unsubscribed from an account that was emailing me information about self-publishing, because the author told me I should be spending no more than three months on a manuscript. If I was taking a year or longer to write a book, they said, I must be “doing it wrong.”

Conversely I’ve heard people sneering at writers who are able to turn around a novel more quickly than they are, or at those who use plot outlines versus those who don’t. Others insist a specific number of words must be produced or hours committed daily to writing without fail. Even when you’re uninspired or sick or going through a crisis, nothing must ever get in the way of your art.

In the writing community, and of course elsewhere, too many people believe what works for them should apply to everyone, regardless of temperament or circumstances. Sometimes they try to sell their solution accordingly. If I’m going to invest in my writing career, I’d rather work with a mentor who supports my individual needs than buy into a one-size-fits-all formula.

3Anything delivered in an unkind or belittling tone

At some point every writer has to face realistic assessments or criticisms of their work that are difficult to hear. But critique should never be an excuse for mockery or crushing someone’s spirit. I’m sufficiently intelligent to understand feedback without requiring it to be brutal, and there’s already too much negativity in the world for me to give my attention to people who don’t have my best interests at heart. If someone lacks the sensitivity to be encouraging to other artists, I doubt they’ll appreciate my style of fiction anyway.

What do you think about writing advice? Is there anything you’ve found helpful or that really doesn’t work for you?

 

Fictional characters, imperfection and likeability

aphroditeFor many writers, their biggest fear is the blank page. I may be unusual in this regard, because I love the empty whiteness of a new document. The way it appears in front of you, all shining and pure and unspoiled, still full of limitless possibilities.

What absolutely terrifies me is the finished manuscript. Completing a novel should be a cause for celebration, and yet the fact the thing exists at all fills me with dread. Now that it’s in the most polished state I’m capable of achieving without editorial support, the demons of doubt are screaming at full volume.

What if it’s no good? What if people don’t understand or like my characters? And if they don’t, what am I going to do about it?

In any good story, the characters are the driving force of the narrative. So it’s essential that they’re engaging and relatable, or in the case of a villain, sufficiently mesmerising that the reader feels compelled to spend time with them. It’s why so much creative writing advice focuses on character likeability. How to give your protagonist strong and appealing traits, as well as some imperfections to keep them credible. But sympathetic faults, not the serious or repulsive kind that turn people off.

It’s important to learn about character development and to be receptive to editorial feedback on how our characters are coming across. Sometimes there are issues in the manuscript that need fixing: a change of tone in the dialogue or a deeper exploration of a character’s motives to increase empathy for their situation. That said, I do think there’s a danger for writers in attempting to change our protagonists to make them likeable.

I don’t write memoir or autobiographical fiction. My characters are separate beings from me. Nevertheless, their feelings and experiences closely mirror my own, and they tend to be deeply flawed. As a writer, this level of exposure leaves me intensely vulnerable to criticism. If my readers come back and say, ‘I thought your main character was pathetic and needed a slap,’ trust me, I will feel that slap. And yes, it’s happened before, and it will most likely happen again, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it.

Well, in theory there is. To avoid that risk, I could watch some popular movies, decide what is broadly considered attractive in our culture, and develop a protagonist around it. I’m already imagining she’s self-reliant, outgoing, feisty, funny and loyal. She gets in trouble for breaking the rules, while inside she’s suffering because of a past relationship hurt. The problem is that I’m not the least bit invested in her, because I’ve just made her up to be likeable, rather than allowing her essence to emerge naturally from my subconscious. If I forced myself to write a novel about her,  my lack of connection to her would be evident. Because her story isn’t what I wanted to write in the first place.

It’s the same in real life. If we mask too much of our identity by constructing a persona to fit the cultural ideal, far from experiencing a greater sense of belonging in the group, we can end up feeling more alone and adrift than ever. When we try to make people like us by adopting the characteristics we assume they value, frequently they sense it and warm to us less as a result.

Real people can be tough and independent and witty and brash and confident and cool. We can also be anxious and introverted and obsessive and insecure and conflicted and crazy-in-love. I happen to be drawn to exploring the second set of traits. I’m not sure I should or even can change this. After all, isn’t one of the delights of reading that we feel less alone and less self-critical, because we see our so-called “weaknesses” as simply part of the wider human condition? Through fiction, we may even learn how someone similar to us came to accept themselves as they are.

Besides, as anyone who reads reviews knows, readers disagree vociferously over character likeability. I loved Anna Karenina for her complexity, but she often features on the most-hated lists on account of her perceived self-obsession and poor choices. The fictional character I loathed most as a child was Pollyanna. I can’t describe how much it grated on my nerves that she was glad about everything. I felt she was unrealistic and that I was being preached to by adults. Yet other people find her relentless optimism inspirational and charming. We all bring our own perspective to the work.

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Ernest Hemingway’s forthright letter to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He says, “All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”

Not caring about the fate of our work is easier said than done when we’re in the grip of obsessions over critique groups and literary agents and sales figures and Amazon reviews. But I also think it’s the way to produce the most vivid, authentic and powerful writing we’re capable of.

In no way does anything I’ve said above minimise my fear of people reading my manuscript. In fact, I’m not sure anything can, but it’s a fear I’m going to push on through. And hopefully it will be worth it.

 

Inspiration, progress and self-imposed deadlines

20526075_10155453733650833_4314066651167167073_nAfter an extended phase of excruciatingly slow progress with the book, I finally decided what I needed was to be on a tighter schedule. I’m now planning to have a finished draft ready to send to my fantastic writing coach, Lauren Sapala, before I go on holiday at the beginning of September.

Setting deadlines works wonders for my motivation, but there has to be a way in which I can hold myself accountable for sticking to them. The reason I lost momentum with the novel was because everything else I needed or wanted to do over the summer was taking priority. Yet failing to work on it was causing me as much, if not more stress than if I’d been under pressure to finish it. Committing to send it off by a certain date was enough to get me back to the keyboard, and I’m writing in cafes again (buying a laptop that actually functions has helped with that too).

We could all say we’re too busy to write if we want to. I admit I have more free time and flexibility than writers with children do, but I still have a full-time job, as well as other commitments, and low energy on most days. I also fall prey to the distractions of social media and keeping up-to-date with the latest political intrigues.

Choosing to devote a solid amount of time to the writing you’ve neglected can have a snowball effect. It lures back into your imaginary world and you become infatuated with your idea all over again. The high you get from creating makes you want to experience it increasingly often, and soon you’re no longer too busy to write, you’re too busy for the other stuff that seemed so important yesterday.

This has been my experience over the last week or two. I never stopped loving the characters, but the drive and enthusiasm I needed to complete their story had faded. Thankfully, just a little attention has rekindled the fire, and I’m more excited about publishing it than ever. Now the narrative structure is in place, the bit I find hardest, it’s a pleasure to be able to start fine-tuning the language and dialogue.

When I’m struggling with my work, it helps me to dedicate time to reading other people’s writing. I can’t stay up all night to finish a book like I used to, but I can let myself become thoroughly absorbed in a quality novel. I try to read as a writer, noting down beautiful phrases and the techniques authors use to allow us to enter their character’s mind. I tell myself that if they can do it, so can I.

It’s not just writers who help me to persevere. I’m drawn to creative people, whether they’re musicians, actors, photographers or artists who achieve excellence and inspire emotion. I can go to a concert or exhibition and leave buzzing with renewed determination to succeed in my chosen art form.

This won’t be the final draft by a long way, but it’ll be the first time I’ve been ready to ask a trusted reader to share their reactions with me. After that, I should have a better sense of whether I’ve managed to convey my vision and given the characters the unique voices I already know they possess.

On politics, fiction and the fear of speaking out

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So the UK faces more political turmoil and the prospect of another general election, on top of an election, on top of a referendum, on top of an election, and for Labour party members, two leadership elections as well. And that’s all in the last two years…

It’s difficult nowadays to avoid politics on social media, and yet some people still get annoyed by political posts. Many of us were brought up to believe it was impolite to disclose our deeply-held views to others who may not agree. Don’t talk politics at the dinner table, dear. And to be fair, that advice has rescued many an awkward family Christmas.

For those of us promoting our creative work or business, we have to decide to what extent we reveal our opinions. Authenticity is important in self-promotion, but we’re often recommended to keep politics well out of it, since it can alienate potential audiences and distract focus from the product we’re trying to sell.

When I started my blog, I took that on board. I didn’t want to waste my time or emotional energy on political arguments. I didn’t want people contacting me to say they wouldn’t buy a novel written by a snowflake Corbynista if it was the last book on the planet. Instead, I would express gentle thoughts on art and the creative process, reserving my controversial opinions for my personal social media accounts.

I still think that strategy makes sense for some businesses. I also fully respect the choice of artists to keep their voting preferences private. But when I read back over the first chapter of my novel, I realise there isn’t a whole lot of point in hiding my beliefs from my readers.

They are there on every page. And that’s exactly how I want it to be.

Politics to me is so much more than economics or legislation or leaders screwing up on TV debates. Politics is philosophy, psychology, morality and ethics. The stories of human relationships and human societies. In that sense all fiction is political, whether we consciously intended it to be or not.

A novel about sex and dating may not contain a single political comment, and yet is imbued with the author’s worldview. How are the female characters portrayed? Do they have goals or is their role to help the lead male to learn about himself? When we write about people with unfortunate life circumstances, do we hold them responsible or do we choose to examine the inequality and oppression contributing to their situation?

On the first page of my book, my character Kerry is introduced as dealing with unemployment and a mental health issue. In the scene, she stands outside a charity shop on a high street in Manchester, observing and welcoming the diversity of the people passing by. A man sits in a doorway with a cardboard sign: “Homeless and had my benefits sanctioned. Please help me.”

None of my descriptions are deliberately written to make a political point. They’re just the sort of things I notice myself as I wander round the streets, and yet that inevitably reflects my perspective. We all see the world through our own lens, and certain things jump out at us, or don’t.

What I’ve written will not please everyone, and that’s how it should be. And while I don’t want this to become a party political blog, I feel increasingly less desire to conceal my opinions out of politeness or fear.

I’ve been a Corbyn supporter since he emerged on the scene in 2015, and I’ve been deeply inspired by the way he’s risen above the incredible hostility he faces in order to lead his party to an unexpectedly positive election result.

He strikes me as a kind-hearted man and, I imagine, not insensitive. So how does he cope with the pressure? Partly because he’s a seasoned campaigner with a lifetime of experience standing up for unpopular causes. But I also feel he genuinely cares about people and believes in his vision, which matters more to him than ego.

So many of us are understandably anxious about revealing our true selves. Of what our friends, family or colleagues will think of us if we say what we really mean.  What gives us the courage to do it is passion and purpose, whether it’s for revealing our truth in art, helping others or campaigning to change society.

Whenever I get that awful heart-flutter of anxiety before I say or do something which invites criticism, I try to remember that. That it’s absolutely okay to feel the way I do, but sometimes there are bigger things worth fighting for.

Thoughts on ageing, creativity and regret

It’s Easter Day and a wet gloomy day here in Manchester, and frankly I’m half-wishing I was having fun somewhere less rainy, instead of sitting in my room trying to write a one-page synopsis of my novel, which is not going according to plan. But holidays and weekends are my designated writing time, and so I intend to persevere.

Often I wonder where my compulsion to create art comes from, and why it grows stronger and more obsessive with age. I could argue it’s because I haven’t had children, but that seems simplistic – some of the most talented and driven creative people I know are also parents. I suspect in my case it’s a growing awareness of the passing of time and the desire to make the most of my one precious life.

I’m lucky to be in good physical health and I still feel young most of the time, but there are little indications that I’m not in my twenties or thirties any more: a cracked tooth that can’t be fixed, having to dye my hair more frequently,  struggling to hear over loud music. When I walk past the university, no one hands me the nightclub flyers any more.

Here’s a confession: when I was younger, I used to imagine that if I could just become a successful published author, it would solve my feelings of profound unworthiness and failure. At last I’d be worthy of respect, the equal of everyone else at the college reunion or the competitive dinner party, and I could finally lay down my burden of shame.

I realise now that it doesn’t work like that. Achievement and status don’t necessarily fulfil unmet emotional needs. And as I discovered, writing in order to seek validation leads to creative paralysis. The more we yearn for approval, the more it eludes us, as we stifle our authentic voice or are too afraid of judgement to share our work at all.

One of the top regrets of the dying is that they wished they’d had the courage to be themselves and spend less time worrying what people thought. Our culture encourages us to measure and compare ourselves right up to the day when it’s no longer a tooth but a vital organ that can’t be fixed, and only then we see the truth clearly: that we always were equal and we always were worthy of respect, regardless of how others chose to treat us.

I don’t want to be faced with those regrets. I want to be a successful author, but in order to express myself honestly and to create work for others to enjoy.  I’m also determined to travel on the road towards self-acceptance, however hard it gets, and even if I never fully arrive at my destination.

And if anyone knows how to write a one-page novel synopsis without wanting to tear your hair out in despair, do let me know.

Happy Easter to you all x