In the end is the beginning

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So I have just now typed THE END for the second time, and soon I’ll be returning to the first page to start all over again on Draft 3. And I have to say, despite the slow progress, I’m pleased and thoroughly relieved to be so much further along than I was.

What I had on my hands last spring was a 120k-word sprawling mess of half-written scenes, sketches and notes, which when patched together, vaguely constituted a story. After nearly a year of work, it can now be classed as a 105k-word complete manuscript. It follows a linear narrative structure, it is organised into 32 chapters, the characters are fully realised, and the various plot threads are resolved by the end.

Is it finished? Am I happy with it yet? Absolutely not. There are sentences and paragraphs in this draft that are so monstrous, I have actual nightmares about someone reading and knowing I wrote them. It needs another four or five redrafts at least before it’s fit to be seen by human eyes.

Yet I love aspects of it too. The characters, for example. I’ve been getting to know my main characters, Kerry and Alex, ever since I first “met” them in the autumn of 2015. I have such a clear sense of them now that sometimes I have to remind myself they’re not real. Despite their flaws and problems, they’re a pleasure to spend time with. I hope they’ll be a pleasure for readers to get to know too.

After a short break from the manuscript,  I’m going to look at the overall structure and see if any significant changes still need to be made (they will). Then I’ll go through each chapter alone and rewrite it. After that, I’ll focus on specifics: characters, dialogue, setting, pacing, accuracy, the weather, etc.

I’m happy to admit that one of my writing weaknesses is describing physical actions. I can imagine scenes, colours, textures and scents, and I can hear the tone of the dialogue as the characters talk. However, I find it hard to visualise changes in posture and facial expression. I don’t know why. (Do any other writers struggle with this?)

My task for the next few weeks is to really observe how people communicate emotions through action. Not just the obvious signs like frowning, nodding or clenching fists, but the little gestures and micro-expressions which betray what they’re feeling. I’ll then use these to help convey my characters’ moods more subtly.

I’ll also be polishing the first 5,000 words (which are already at a better standard than the rest) to enter into a competition, the Bath Novel Award. It’s an extremely competitive international award, so my hopes aren’t high, but I think it’s good for discipline to enter contests now and then, and it will help me to focus on making the opening strong and engaging.

Finally, I’m re-evaluating my schedule for publishing this novel. I was determined at the start of the year to see it in print by December, but I’m increasingly realising a) how much work the book needs, and b) how much I still need to learn about publishing, marketing, and social media strategy.

My aim in 2017 will be to get the text professionally edited and finalised, and perhaps the front cover designed too. Next year I can focus on how to sell it. Of course this may change depending on circumstances, but I don’t want to feel pressured to rush towards an artificially imposed deadline.

It’s going to be a summer of editing then, and thanks to everyone for being so supportive and interested in this process.

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Celebrating first-time authors over 40

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Assuming all goes to plan, I will be 42 when I self-publish my debut novel next year. I’m lucky that my vocation has no real age limits: you can write a good book at 19 or at 90. Creativity follows no predictable schedule – some artists reach their peak early on, but many are late bloomers, producing their greatest works in the latter stages of their lives.

Nevertheless, we live in a culture obsessed by youth and glamour and marketability. We’re also very impressed by precociousness. Publishing may be less influenced by this trend than some creative industries are, but a talented young author with a stunning photograph on the back cover of their book still has an improved chance of becoming a media sensation.

I can never be that young writer now. That ship has sailed. Since there’s no point in regretting the fact I wasn’t able to write an amazing bestseller in my twenties, I had a think instead about the positive aspects of publishing later in life.

Mature novelists are said to have a wider range of life experiences to draw on in their fiction. I’m not convinced that’s always true. There are people half my age who have suffered hardships or embarked on adventures such as parenthood which have given them insights I will never acquire firsthand.

What we older writers have had is the luxury of time to reflect on the events of our lives, whatever they might be. We’ve simply had more years available to us in which to develop our understanding of ourselves and the world, and to learn from our mistakes, should we choose to do so.

Being over 40 and undiscovered has increased my empathy for others who reach midlife with their aspirations unfulfilled. I use this theme in my writing all the time to explore the frustrations of my middle-aged characters and the societal expectations which drive them.

Coming face-to-face with failure has also lessened my fear of it. I know I can deal with chronic disappointment and still appreciate the good things in my life. (This is what I tell myself on the bad days anyway). Seriously though, I’ve learned the value of perseverance, and that some things are worth fighting for.

My extra years of practice have helped me to hone my writing voice, to think more independently, and to be certain of what I stand for. Some writers will have achieved this at a much younger age, and that’s great too. We were never meant to be all the same.

I refuse to read those articles listing ten things you should know, or should own, or should do in your 20s or 30s or beyond. One effect of ageing is that I can’t be bothered with rigid conventional thinking any more. I don’t believe anyone else can set our pace for us or tell us where we ought to be in our lives.

In the time I’ve been writing the self-publishing revolution has arrived, which means I no longer have to wait to be chosen (unless I want to). If I’d been traditionally published a decade ago, I might not have experienced the thrill of gaining the confidence to choose myself. And that in itself is surely worthy of celebration.

Preparing to become an author

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My love of writing stories began a very long time ago. I’m not sure exactly when the photo of me above was taken, but I’d guess around 1981. Since then, I’ve written well over half a million words, as well as working as a copywriter and in communications. However, I haven’t yet managed to publish any of my fiction. I’ve decided this is going to change next year.

A few people have asked me when my novel will be available (thank you!) The short answer is before the end of 2017. I can’t yet commit to a specific month for a launch, as I’m not sure how long the editing will take.

I started writing my latest book in October 2015. What I have now is a mess of a 120,000-word draft. The scenes are in no particular order. Like many authors, I can’t write in a linear way from beginning to end. (I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.) Some of the secondary characters are still sketches, and overall the writing needs a lot more work.

However, the basic elements of the story are in place, the charity shop setting feels authentic and the two main characters are fully alive. I know how they look, speak, think, move and act. They’re utterly real to me and I could spend hours daydreaming about their lives.

I’m now onto the second draft, which involves structuring, rewriting, and cutting the manuscript down to around 100,000 words or less. If I’m honest, this seems quite daunting right now, but I’ve written novels before, so I know the fear is just part of the process.

I don’t generally show anyone a work-in-progress. Some writers like to collaborate in order to shape their raw first drafts, but I prefer to have it as polished as possible before anyone gets to see it. (Just as I’d never leave the house without make up on…)

Once the manuscript is ready, I’ll ask my writing coach if she can give me some initial feedback. She has amazing insight into what makes good fiction, and she’s so lovely and positive, I look forward to receiving her comments.

After that, I’ll open it up to several more views from friends and other writers. This stage is likely to scare me, but it should give me an indication of the strength of the book’s appeal to readers.

When I’ve made changes based on feedback, I’ll hire a copy-editor to go through line by line, pointing out any grammar errors, inconsistencies, and style issues. People with this level of attention to detail are truly amazing.

I’m really looking forward to the cover design. An attractive and professional cover is crucial for selling any book, and I definitely don’t have the skills to do this myself. I’ll be looking for a striking image that reflects the tone and themes of the novel and a designer to create some beautiful artwork.

The next job is to get the text formatted for Amazon and work out how to set it all up. Then comes the marketing phase. I’ve started on that already with this blog and social media.

I love the idea of self-publishing. It’s time-consuming, risky, and not for everyone. But it removes many of the barriers to getting our work in front of an audience, and puts us in control of our writing, finances, marketing, and long-term careers.

People complain that the removal of the ‘gatekeepers’ allows a flood of mediocre books onto the market. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Freelancers can provide all the editing, design and marketing services offered by a traditional publishing house. There are so many brilliant creative people out there to help us. If we’re prepared to invest time and money in our self-published books, there’s no reason why they can’t be as well produced as any we see on the shelves.

For indie authors, there’s no one to grant or deny us permission to publish. That means we get to decide for ourselves when it’s time, which is wonderful, and at the same time, kind of terrifying.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but becoming an author will be a new experience. I suspect when it comes to it, I’ll need someone to talk me into pressing the publish button.

Making peace with self-promotion

_mg_7435For a couple of decades, I hated the idea of self-promotion. Not just because I’m an introvert with anxiety, although that didn’t help. To me, the phrase had so many negative connotations.

I associated ‘selling yourself’ with narcissism. With aggressive sales techniques, or celebrities showing off about their successes, accompanied with an incessant stream of hashtags and selfies.

The prospect of networking made me think of people who’d approach me at conferences, a croissant in one hand and a business card in the other, and pretend to be interested in my life, until the exact moment they established I was no one of any importance, and moved off to make a more useful contact.

Every time I heard that authors were expected to do their own marketing for their books, a sense of dread came over me. Writers aren’t typically skilled self-publicists. Shouldn’t someone else take care of all that while we composed our masterpieces in solitude?

I have to admit over the last year or so, I’ve radically changed my attitude.

I still believe egocentrism is widespread in society. But I’ve also learned that communicating what you’ve got to offer the world doesn’t mean that you have to be pushy, or fake, or boastful, or any of the things people of my personality type fear so much.

It sounds obvious in retrospect, but I realised that all the people I follow and chat to online, whose writing or art or business I’m interested in, are promoting their stuff all the time. And sometimes it’s led to me buying something from them.

But the sale felt natural. I discovered them, or they found me, because we shared a common interest. I got to know them a little and I liked their style and world view. They made me aware that they had a new book out. I suspected I’d enjoy it based on what I knew, and I was right.

In other words, we connected. That’s what good marketing is: not hard-selling, but building lasting relationships. Of course we want to make money. Our time and skills are valuable, and we have bills to pay. But people who are truly passionate about their art or their products don’t want to pressure a customer into buying something that isn’t for them.

If the idea of promoting yourself makes you cringe, the trick in my experience is to do as much of it as you can in a way that feels right for you. Through a medium you already feel comfortable in. For writers and introverts, that will most likely be blogging and posting on social media.

It’s normal to worry about what people will think. I still do all the time. But I also remind myself that everyone has a choice in what they consume online. If someone isn’t interested in what we do or doesn’t relate to us, they’re free to unfollow our account.

For published authors, there are face-to-face obligations such as book signings and events, which are challenging for people who avoid the limelight. I haven’t had to deal with that yet. I hope that I’d try and talk about things that interest me, and reach out to like-minded readers, and be kind to myself if it made me nervous.

Self-promotion is necessary to build a career, but I don’t think it has to be a necessary evil. I’m starting to realise it can even be fun. If we love creating whatever it is we create, we should be proud to share that love around, not keep it to ourselves. Even if that forces us out of our comfort zone for a while.

Finally, I don’t believe the network of relationships you form while promoting yourself has to be in any way cynical. I feel I’ve made a lot of new friends through having an online presence. And I value your companionship and support, whether you ever buy a book from me or not.

 

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.