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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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.

The joy of finding a writing mentor

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Some years ago, I reached a low point with my writing. I’d been practising a long time and I still felt I was no good. I was working on a novel that was truer and more self-revealing than anything I’d attempted before. And nobody seemed to like it.

In retrospect, I did some unwise things which contributed to my sense of failure. I entered the story into big contests before it was ready. I shared an unfinished draft with someone I ought to have known was completely the wrong person to read my style of writing.

What they said about it still haunts me.

Self-publishing my book or starting a blog would have been unthinkable then. I was so ashamed of not being a better writer. I rarely told my friends that I wrote at all. If I did, I’d add at once, ‘but it’s only a hobby.’

I never really believed that. Inside I was certain this was what I wanted to do more than anything else. Only I was scared to say it out loud.

I knew what needed to happen if I was to have any chance of being an author. You don’t get far in the business before someone advises you to toughen up. To grow a thicker skin. And when you read the one-star reviews of some published books, you understand why.

But the more I pretended I didn’t care what people thought, the worse I felt. I had to admit that I wasn’t a naturally hard-shelled creature. And I didn’t see how that could change.

I thought about giving up on my goals. Instead, I decided to seek out one more opinion from someone who didn’t know me. That was when I came across Lauren Sapala’s website.

Lauren is a writing coach based in San Francisco. She specialises in working with writers who are afraid, stuck, or battling with self-doubt. She’s interested in creative personalities and how they can work with, rather than fighting against, their temperament.

Reading her articles, I sensed she was someone positive and compassionate who I could trust. So I contacted her, we had a discussion about my situation, and I sent over my first few chapters.

Lauren connected emotionally with my story in every way I’d hoped a reader would. She gave me some very thorough feedback on why that was the case. It was the biggest relief and the most amazing feeling.

Somebody understood what I was trying to achieve. I was no longer alone on the island.

I sent her the whole manuscript, and she returned it with more encouraging comments and suggestions for improvement. As well as being a fantastic motivator, Lauren has a sharp eye for detail and an intuitive grasp of how your characters would speak and behave. The changes she proposed helped me to make the book much stronger.

As a coach, Lauren did so much more than make me feel better about my novel by praising it. Because if she’d done only that, it would have left me still reliant on an external opinion. And I’d be immediately crushed again when someone else disagreed.

By reflecting back with such clarity her reactions to what I’d written, she taught me to see for myself what the strengths of my writing were.

She helped me internalise the belief that my story was worthwhile and important, whatever anyone said. So in future I’d be better equipped to use any constructive criticism to improve the work, while discarding the negativity of people who weren’t its audience.

The change didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still in progress. But it slowly led to where I am today: feeling brave enough to post this in public, and preparing to publish my latest book next year.

As an artist, you can be both strong and vulnerable. If you’re sensitive, and you express yourself freely and authentically in your writing, then the harshly critical responses will probably always hurt.

But an inner core of self-belief and a sense of purpose can help you embrace the pain. To let it flow through you and leave again, without assigning it any permanent power. It can help you find the courage to share your gifts again, accepting you’ll never be universally loved.

If you’re isolated and struggling with self-doubt or fear of criticism, I recommend finding a mentor (whether a coach or a writer friend) who can help you learn to trust your voice. It’ll be amongst the most valuable training you could undertake.