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.

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Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there

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I’ve been thinking recently about my people-pleasing tendencies when it comes to writing. I find that social media, much as I love it and useful as it is, exacerbates these. It’s easy to absorb too much advice, to alter our work to conform to popular trends, and to compare ourselves to others. To measure our worth in clicks, likes and shares.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek feedback or community online. It’s natural to want validation and approval. To know people enjoy what we do. And constructive criticism is important for helping us learn our craft and improve.

But when we know we’re already technically competent, when we know in our hearts that we’ve found our voice or style, we need to maintain an inner belief in ourselves and our vision, even if we’re not getting the recognition we desire.

The best artists give us the gift of their true selves. They write the stories they want to tell. They portray a landscape the way they experience it, not how they believe everyone else thinks it should look.

Naturally, they also want people to love their art.

If we’re authentic and passionate and we present ourselves well, I believe eventually others will respond. There will be an audience for us, however small. We’re unique, but we’re not so special that no one else can understand or relate to us.

Sometimes we look for attention in the wrong places. We submit to agents who hate our genre. We don’t learn enough about marketing. We turn to those close to us for support, but although they may have our best interests at heart, they’re not the right people to appreciate what we do.

It’s possible too that our sense of isolation is partly an illusion. Someone does care, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to let us know. Statistics aside, we can never truly measure the impact of our message, or know who else we’re inspiring along the way.

We don’t know yet what we’re capable of achieving, which is why we have to keep putting ourselves out in the field. Even on the days when it’s tough as hell. When it feels like we’re the only one who values our work.

But valuing it ourselves is always the best place to start.

The power of vulnerability: why writers don’t need a thick skin

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“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

We’ve all heard it. Almost every writer has been told that if they plan to put their work out for merciless public scrutiny, they must learn to be less sensitive.

It makes sense, but leaves us feeling puzzled and discouraged. How do we develop this tough exterior? Should we give up on our dreams if we can’t, however hard we try? And how come none of the famous authors we love seem to have one?

The confusion, I think, is in the imagery.

“Thick skin” evokes wrinkly hides and reptilian scales. Creatures evolved for protection against savage teeth and claws. In comparison, our skin is tender and vulnerable. When we fall, we end up bruised or bleeding. The briefest contact with a hot surface leaves us blistered and sore.

Our thin skin also allows us to detect the subtlest nuances of texture and temperature. It lets us feel the sensuous embrace of water, the caress of a loved one, the gooseflesh creeping down our arms as we listen to a haunting song.

It’s easy to see how this relates to art and the emotions. The more deeply we experience the influences of the outside world, the more creatively we respond to it. As artists, we neither can be, nor need to be, nor should be armour-plated.

What we need is more faith in the power of our skin to heal.

Rejection and harsh criticism hurt. They pierce our fragile outer layer, and sometimes they live beneath it for a while. Yet we’re more capable than we know of recovering from those wounds and carrying on.

Opening ourselves up to risk comes at a cost. But the scars we bear are a testament to how resilient we really are.

With thanks to Lauren Sapala for her influence on my thinking about this and so much else.

Dealing with writing disappointments

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Last week, I failed to win an award in a writing competition. It didn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s a popular contest, which I’ve entered for the past four years without success.

Yet still, I’d marked the date of the awards ceremony in my diary.

You know, just in case.

I enter a lot of competitions. I believe the reputable ones have real benefits for unpublished writers. The cash prizes, the affirmation of your talent, and the chance to get noticed by literary agents.

There’s the motivation to finish your work to a deadline and practise putting it out there to  be read. And the comradeship of other writers online. I’ve met some lovely people through entering contests.

But for those of us who tend towards the obsessive, there’s a downside. We submit our work with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. We wait impatiently for the results, refreshing the website over and over as the date draws near.

The longlist appears and we scan it, heart-stoppingly nervous, hoping against hope to see our name or story title.

And it’s not there.

We check to make sure. Nope, definitely not on the list. The adrenalin rush fades, replaced by a sinking emptiness. Despite all the truth and the passion we poured into our story, it failed to capture the reader’s imagination.

Like most rejections, it feels personal. And it’s not the first time we’ve been overlooked this way.

Anyone with any measure of self-doubt knows that this is when your inner critical voice speaks up. “You see? I told you your writing was crap, and this proves it.”

Or another voice shifts the blame outwards. “The judges obviously didn’t ‘get’ your story.” It’s easy to feel envious of the winners, or that it’s somehow unfair.

The truth is that in the absence of feedback, we’ll never know why we didn’t make the list, or how close we came. So we can’t treat it as evidence that our work lacked merit, or that it was misunderstood.

What we can do is look back over the piece we sent in, and with outside help if necessary, see if we can improve it. Or put it to one side and start on something new, and try again.

With more writers than ever entering contests, the competition is fierce. Even if we’re at the top of our game, so are a lot of other people. A well-known contest might attract a thousand entries from around the world. Maybe five percent will make the longlist.

That’s 950 not-longlisted writers, heading out to the shops to buy wine or chocolate or whatever numbs the sting. Some of those will be amazing authors who’ll go on to succeed in other contests and/or be published.

Of course no book, however beautifully written, attracts universal acclaim. The judging panel may be professionals, but they still read our work through the lens of their values, tastes and life experiences. Which is why it’s often so hard for them to agree on a winner.

Knowing all this, it’s still okay to feel upset about not making the list. We invested money and time, not to mention hopes and dreams, into the outcome. It’s natural to be disappointed.

When it becomes damaging is if we allow the hurt of rejection to destroy our faith in our writing, or to inhibit our creativity.

Exciting as they may be, contests aren’t the reason why we write. We create art to express ourselves: to share and connect. Not to seek prizes or compete against other artists.

My book may never win awards. But if it strikes a chord with even one reader, if it entertains or inspires or heals, if I feel the emotion as I write it and I’m proud of my work, then it has value.

And no one else’s judgement can take that away.

A leap of faith: why I’m self-publishing my debut novel

gannet“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” —Virginia Woolf

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve completed nearly four adult novels and three children’s books. I’m also one of the thousands of unpublished writers who’ve been submitting their work to literary agents and publishers for years without success.

I’ll happily admit that the first few things I wrote aged 27 weren’t so great (and yes, that is a polite British understatement). It was a classic rookie mistake to send them out so early on. Nevertheless, I received some kind words along with the rejections.

‘I enjoyed the energy of your writing.’ ‘You write well.’ ‘Please send us your work again.’ And I did send it again. And again, and again. And nothing happened.

As agents got busier, the encouraging feedback stopped coming. The last time I submitted my sample chapters, I was greeted mostly with radio silence.

Anyone who’s been through the process knows how frustrating and dispiriting it can be. To be passed over so many times inevitably chips away at your confidence. Especially if you didn’t possess it in spades to start with.

It’s like being picked last for the school netball team all over again, only with something you actually care about.

But because I cared, I wasn’t willing to give up. So I sought out critiques and revised and practised, until somehow I’d written over half a million words. With the result that I’ve improved so much, I cringe when I re-read those early stories.

Like most creative people, I still go through phases of massive self-doubt. But mostly now I believe that my novel-in-progress will be compelling and engaging to its intended audience. And with the help of a professional editor, I know I can get the writing up to a publishable standard.

I haven’t completely lost my faith in the publishing industry. I’d still like to have an agent some day. The odds are tough, sure, but I do believe that with hard work, talent and luck, it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal. I see new writers getting discovered, and almost all have a long history of rejection. It’s this belief that’s kept me persevering all those years.

What’s changed is that I’m not willing to wait indefinitely any more. I recently turned 41. Not old for a writer, but sufficiently advanced in years to be conscious of the clock ticking. I’d like my parents to be alive when I publish my first novel. Frankly, it would be nice not to be dead myself!

With so many options for self-publishing, I no longer have to wait for approval. If I want to be an author, I can become one next week at the press of a button. It’s as simple as that.

And of course, it’s not simple at all. Self-publishing is fraught with challenges. Most new books launched sink without trace. If I want to give my novel any chance of success, there’ll be many new skills for me to master.

But my biggest fear has never been handling the marketing or the formatting or the design of the cover. I know how to find the advice and support I need to do those things. In fact, I’m excited at the prospect.

What held me back from publishing my work in the past was the absence of permission from an authority figure. No one to declare that I’ve made the grade and welcome me to the club. No one to assure me I’ve earned the right to make my voice heard.

The truth is that I already own that right. I live in a country where free speech is allowed. I have access to all the technology required to connect with readers across the world. I have to accept that the only person silencing me is me.

Pressing the publish button is going to be terrifying. I know that. But I’ve reached a mid-life point where I feel the desire to take a leap of faith. To stop seeking reassurance and to trust my instincts.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

I’ll answer that question in another post.