The Honest Writer

This blog is an open and honest account of what it’s like to be an author, in the hope it helps others on the same journey feel less alone. I change my mind, I babble, and I occasionally over-share. Please ignore any advice I give (except the advice about ignoring the advice). 

Paws Aff

So, I was at a social function (gasp) last weekend. I knew very few people, and my anxiety was running high. Unavoidably, I got into a conversation with a man about writing. It actually turned out okay; we spoke about the craft of writing, and I talked about why I like to keep my writing separate from the rest of my life, and he was totally cool with it (because why wouldn’t he be?). 

Then, later in the afternoon, I got talking with another man. And this guy, in front of a room of people, literally demanded to know how many books I’d published – in a borderline aggressive tone – and then asked about my income. This was the first conversation I’d ever had with him. But sadly, it was not the first conversation I’d had of this ilk. 

WHY do some people think it’s appropriate to ask writers about their sales or earnings? And why do some people get so offended if I choose to keep my work private? Is it because they can’t comprehend someone who wouldn’t brag and show off at every available moment? I write for me, not for fame and adoration. This is MY career, MY choice, and anyone who can’t handle that can sling their ‘ook. 

I chose to move to a pseudonym because I was sick of certain people acting like they had a stake in my career, offering conditional support and ‘advice’, and basically sticking their neb in where it didn’t belong. I felt owned, like my success was their success too. Even when I explained that publishing in private removed a lot of pressure and stress, and helped me write more freely, people still couldn’t hack it. One even admitted to trying to FIND me. They had no respect for me whatsoever. I was nothing but a pawn, or a trophy. None of my friends acted this way – they didn’t take it personally when I chose to go private – but others? It was like I’d betrayed them. Like I’m supposed to make career choices FOR them, rather than for myself. 

Sometimes I wonder if I were male would I have to put up with this shit? Some folk can’t help but try and control women, especially when they’re off on their own, doing their own thing. Well, to these people:

over it GIF by STARZ

P.S. Isn’t Michelle Fairley the best?

New Beginnings

Today I started a new book. 

studying hand-made GIF by Philippa Rice

It’s a pretty grand statement, and already I’m thinking nah, you’ll never finish it, but I’m going to drown out those nasty critical voices and push on regardless. 

In the end, with no good ideas coming to mind, I decided to go with the flow and make it all up as I go along. I love planning, but I’ve found that if I plan in advance, I suck all the joy out of writing, get bored, and give up. So, I think the best way for me to work is to plan a TEENY bit in advance – like, the next scene and nothing more – and then do loads of planning/musing in the revision stages, after the first ropey draft is complete. 

The hardest thing (apart from actually writing the bugger) will be ignoring word counts. I can’t allow myself to get drawn back into the mental torture of fixating on word counts, so I’ll need to stay vigilant. I do want to check in every day though, so I never lose the thread of the narrative. It’s especially important when there’s no plan to fall back on…

I also need to sketch out a rough schedule, but I’m a little nervous to do so given my abusive history with deadlines.

Why is writing so bloomin’ hard?

Day 1: Decent bit (half a scene); 10 miles (I’m nearly at Rivendell in my Walk to Mordor!).

Writing Roundup 10th May

I couldn’t think of an interesting title.

Anyhoo, I haven’t been blogging much because everything’s been pretty groovy. However, I have had a few changes I thought I’d share.

1 – Not writing-related, but I’ve decided to finally stop restricting food and drink. No more ‘No sugar, No alcohol, 300 calorie treat per day’ etc. I can consume what I want, when I want it (so long as I can afford it!). I was sick of feeling deprived all the time, and of my thoughts being dominated by weight, dieting and food. I’ve got more important things to be thinking about. I trust my body to warn me if something is wrong, and to tell me what it wants; all I have to do is listen. And I fully believe and accept that my self-worth is not determined by my appearance – despite what society has tried to teach me my whole life. It’s a work-in-progress to let go of all the toxic thoughts, but I’m getting there. I feel free at last. I no longer think along the lines of, ‘I’ll be/buy/feel/do X when I’m at Y weight’. Now, I just do it. I almost feel like life has properly begun – it’s that liberating. 

2 – I’m practising yoga again, every day. (I usually do Yoga With Adriene.) But this time, I’m not bothered about strength, calories, core… My only concern is doing what I want to do – and most times that’s restorative, gentle yoga. I’m here for self love and care, not toned arms. Peace, folks.

3 – I’m currently revising The Night Mage (more on that in another post).

4 – I’m not sure what to work on next. The project I dusted down last month doesn’t appeal to me anymore. It draws on very personal issues, but since banishing my Fear, I don’t feel the need to keep exploring them. I want to move on and put it all behind me… Problem is, I have no other contenders at the moment. 

So, despite a mild worry about what to write next, I’m feeling great overall. Since understanding my fear, things have really turned around. I’m more relaxed, more chilled out, more my true self. 

It’s all good. 

I Feel Pretty Pissed

Today I went to see I Feel Pretty. The film wasn’t perfect, but I had a jolly time. I laughed when it was funny, and cried when it was heartbreaking and true. I related to the film in many ways, and left the cinema feeling good about myself. When I came home, I looked up its critical reception. I told myself I was doing it out of interest – when really, I knew what I’d find. And that it would make me angry. 

The film was heavily criticised, which isn’t surprising given it has a female lead who isn’t there simply to be a sex object for men (see similar responses to A Wrinkle in Time and Tomb Raider). I read a few reviews and wondered if the writers had watched the whole film – not because I disagreed with their opinion, but because their take of the film felt so inaccurate. Some made me wonder if the reviewer had simply watched the trailer, or the first hour.  Some of the comments were also quite troubling, such as:

‘This movie [is] premised on the idea that self-esteem trumps physical beauty’. 

To me, this comment implies that the reverse might be true; that there is an argument against self-esteem trumping physical beauty. This is a destructive, toxic, and unfortunately common mindset. I used to think along the same lines, and I’m far, far happier now I’ve seen through this great lie. 

Amy Schumer is also analysed and judged to an inch of her life. She’s too pretty; she’s not funny… Basically, she can’t win. Like most women, she comes under much stronger scrutiny than her male counterparts.

Yes, the film has flaws (as all films do) and can certainly be criticised*, but the criticism is grossly enlarged, revealing how many people cannot accept women who don’t meet male-defined standards of beauty, women who dare to challenge said standards, or anything that is designed to empower women and make them feel good about themselves (whether the film is successful is irrelevant; it’s the intention that counts here).

Now, I know it’s easy to attack genuine criticism with the accusation of sexism. However, compare I Feel Pretty to the recent Avengers film, which is riddled with flaws. Avengers was received positively. It is no coincidence that Infinity War is filled, for the most part, with a bunch of heterosexual white men flexing their muscles and getting/rescuing/escaping from their girl. 

We’re making progress, but we still have a long way to go.

 

*This is a good review, IMO. 

When Not Writing is Writing

My lack of blogging recently means all’s been good. I’ve been plugging away at a couple of different projects, sticking to my qualitative approach to recording my days, and generally being a happy writer bunny. 

There have been times, however, when dodgy thoughts have crept into my head. One such thought appeared last week, when I was redoing the outline for my main WIP. A voice in my head said, “This isn’t really work.” 

And at first I believed it. After all, I’d done the outline the previous week. So this meant I was messing about, procrastinating, not really putting in any effort. 

But then I thought, “Hey. That’s crap. I am thinking; I am focused. I’m not on the internet, or daydreaming about nothing. I’m working on this bloody book. So it counts, Other Voice, and nothing you can say will make me change my mind!”

(Cue me fist-pumping the air in a busy Starbucks.)

This wee exchange got me thinking about work and writing. I think it’s problematic that one part of the process is actually writing, yet we call all of it writing. It’s also problematic when huge pressure to produce twists writers into thinking they can’t redo anything. In other words, they can’t make mistakes. 

I’m recovering from these toxic thoughts (only typing counts as work/every task must be completed only once), so now’s a good time to present the alternative. My current working model is this: choose the aspect of writing you enjoy most, and do as much learning there as you can. 

So, there are three parts to writing a novel: planning, drafting and revising. My approach now is to spend as much time in my favourite bit (planning), in the hope it reduces my time in the other two. Now, focusing on one area does not mean I’ll not make mistakes in the others. Every single part of the process will incur wrong-turns, errors, and realisations that the current stuff isn’t good enough. But hopefully by putting a lot of leg-work into the planning phase, it should reduce – not eliminate – the time spent in drafting and revising. 

As a thought experiment I worked through what my process would look like if I favoured any of the three parts.

Planning: I spend a lot of time refining outlines, building the world, checking the underlying structure, and fixing the foundations as much as I can, until I reach the natural point where I should begin drafting. Whenever I hit a snag in the drafting or revision phase, I immediately stop and go back to planning, and then continue where I left off. In theory, I shouldn’t draft too many wasted words, and revision shouldn’t be too hefty – dealing more with words and sentences than the underlying story.

Drafting: I spend a minimal amount of prep (if any) before diving into my story. I draft far more words than I need for manuscript, and learn about the story by writing it out. I read back every day, checking where the story has gone stale or off-course, and needs to be rewritten. By the time I reach The End, I’ve got a decent draft, thanks to all my rewriting along the way. Revision will be focused on little details. 

Revising: The typical Nano method. I spend a short amount of time on a plan, enough to get a general feel for the book, and then I vomit out a draft, not reading back, not correcting, but simply getting to The End no matter how hard it is. I turn off my inner editor and fly on momentum. Then, the hard work begins. I spend a large amount of time pulling the book apart and fixing it through revision. New scenes will need to be written, but drafting will be kept to a minimum. My job here is to fix what I have already. 

I favour planning, so my method looks more like the top description. I wish I favoured drafting, because I think that’s the best way to learn about your story. However, it doesn’t fit with my process. I certainly tried for a lot of the last couple of years to be the writer who explores everything through drafting, but I get stressed when I know I’m writing a mess, and then I get so deep into the book I can’t see where it’s gone wrong. I need to see the structure of a book from up high, usually in the form of many (many) spreadsheets. 

The point of all this is to demonstrate that every stage counts, and even if you’re not a lover of drafting, there are ways to get around it. Doesn’t make you any less of a storyteller. 

Fear

Nazgul. These dudes always scared the crap out of me. It was the idea of always being hunted, always being chased… I remember watching Fellowship for the first time (seriously the day my life changed) and being utterly terrified throughout as old memories stirred up (I started LOTR when I was a bit too young and stopped at the Prancing Pony). 

On a related note, I’m at 33 miles in my Walk to Mordor challenge, which means I encountered my first Black Rider yesterday. Think I might run today… Get them off my tail. 

Yesterday was an important day for Fear; not only did I brush past one of those scary mofos, but I also had a major breakthrough in understanding my own fear. I decoupled, at long last, the childhood survival-mode Fear from the adult me. Childhood Fear (which I picture living on the back of my neck at the base of my brain) was formed at a time when I was alone, afraid and unsure of my surroundings and relationships with others. It is terrified of failure for reasons that are no longer relevant. It’s terrified of dependency, not knowing that I need never be dependent again. I’m an adult now, and I can look after myself and my Childhood Fear. If we fall, I will catch us – no need for anyone else. 

This is relevant to writing because my Fear had latched onto writing, wrongly assuming that writing was associated with survival. It believed that if I fail at writing, we will Fail, and therefore have to rely on other people – people we can’t trust, or rely on to be kind and gentle and unconditionally loving. When in reality, my goal of becoming a successful writer is a privileged, top-of-the-pyramid dream, akin to attempting to become an astronaut or leader of a country. If it happens, awesome; if it doesn’t, well, it was a lofty goal to begin with, and I’ll learn to enjoy another path. But my Childhood Fear didn’t know the difference, therefore wreaking havoc on my mental health and leaving me in an almost-permanent state of stress, anxiety, fear and panic. It left me feeling like a child. 

But now I’ve cut the connection. I recognise the base Fear, and appreciate its role and the good things it’s given me (hey there, creativity, autonomy and tenacity!), and I’ve also gently removed its fingers from issues it’s not concerned with. If I don’t make it as a writer, then that’ll suck, but I’ll survive. I’ll find a way to make the most of life through other means. I’m an adult, and now it is my choice whether I rely on others or not. Childhood Fear can relax knowing I’m in charge, not other people, and that I have its back always. Unconditionally.

I can’t tell you how liberating this is. 

(But now, I must flee the Black Riders. Engage, Childhood Fear – you’re on!)

Walking to Mordor

No, not a euphemism for mental illness; I’m genuinely walking to Mordor. And back. Wanna walk it too? Scroll down to the bottom of this post.

I’ve decided that walking is going to be my exercise of choice because a) I like it, b) I have time to do it, c) I can take my dictaphone and Muse. Also, fresh air is supposed to be good for humans. Or so I’ve heard.

Anyway, I’ve been preoccupied with walking the last few days, so I’ve not been getting heaps of work done. I did outline two books yesterday, but that’s the most I’ve done this week. I have, however, figured out a way to track my productivity without being too tracky. Instead of counting time, pages or words, I’m simply rating myself out of four. 

My Scientific Ratings

1 – I did a wee bit of work

2 – I did a decent bit of work

3 – I did a big bit of work

4 – I did a bloody awesome amount of work and now I’ve sprouted rainbow wings

There are no official guidelines; I’m simply using my intuition. Using quantitative data with regards to writing MESSES ME UP. It’s cool for something like miles walked to Mordor, because you add to it every single day and you know you’re on the right track. But writing doesn’t work like that. It’s not as simple as putting your foot out the door and then one after the other. It’s back and forward, right, left, up and down, all over the bloody place. So, flying unicorns it is. 

Schedules and Word Counts

There was a happy time when I did not care about word counts. My goal was to write a chapter a week, or to fix X problem by March, or write a first draft during Camp Nano. And then I got sucked in by word counts, and the daily targets of different writers. My mind has been a mess ever since. 

My obsession with word counts also mucked up my planning and scheduling. I went from being a sensible, organised planner, to an obsessive one, constantly tweaking and amending, aiming too high, then freaking out if I aimed too low (I can do more than this, surely?). My diary became a stream of times (for a daily plan) and my hard drive became a graveyard of abandoned yearly spreadsheets. Looking back, I think I crept onto the spectrum of OCD. It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t helpful. 

My solution to stop this has been to abandon plans altogether. I’m afraid to put a deadline on a book, or to set a daily word count. Yet, I still track my words. I’m not sure why, but I can’t seem to let it go. I feel like I’m losing some vital piece of information if I stop tracking. 

Which is nonsense. And I know it is when I write it out like that. 

(So why won’t I let it go?)

I don’t think either extreme is useful; it’s good to have a schedule, to have deadlines to meet. But I’m still learning how to find balance.

Another problem comes from being an indie author. The only deadlines I have are ones I set myself, which can be AWESOME, but also TERRIBLE. Because, how do I decide when to publish?  Many indies can produce at lightning speed, but I’m not one of them. Yet the established wisdom is you need to publish frequently to survive, and this is also seeping into the traditional side of publishing. A book a year is becoming standard, especially for new authors, and some are publishing two, even three a year. 

When you have all the control, you have to think about your own mental health, and about your work-life balance. You also have to think about your career, obviously, and how hard you’re willing to work. But the quality of the book can’t be compromised, and neither should the quality of your life. (Empty lives can lead to empty novels.) This is an awful lot to take into consideration, and it becomes very difficult when all the decisions land at your own feet. 

The question ultimately boils down to this: how many books do I want to publish a year? Because once I have that number, I can figure out my schedule. 

I have a lot of thinking to do.

Refining Realisations

I wrote 1000 words yesterday, which was a nice start to the week. I haven’t set myself a word target for April – I don’t think it would be helpful given my delicate recovery from the Block – but my goal is to write something every day. Saying that, I would like to get at least another thousand in today. 

As I’ve been refining my overall creative vision the last couple of days, I’ve realised that I was almost right when I thought I wanted to write fairytales, but I needed to drill down deeper into the genre. So, in the corner of fairytale fiction, I like to write fantasy that has a fairy tale feel (ala Night Mage), or I like to retell Scottish folk stories. I don’t actually like to write retellings of the big Grimm tales or other well-known western stories (mostly, I’ve come to realise, because those are not my stories to tell. I am not German or Danish or French); my interest lies in Scotland. As it should. Cultural appropriation is something I take very seriously. Scottish culture is appropriated all the time and it is annoying at best and offensive at worst.

Retellings aside, I also don’t like stories that involve lots of ballgowns and princes. Neither appeal to me. Instead, I like mysterious magic; dark, wintry woods; brave heroines; dangerous fairies and ill-advised wishes. That’s the sort of story I like – not pumpkins, wicked stepmothers and glittery frocks. 

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that it’s okay to change your mind, or to refine your ideas. Understanding the kind of stories I like to write is an ongoing learning curve, and no doubt my preference in stories will change as I grow older. But for now, I feel like I know where my little nook in the storyworld is, and I’m pretty damn happy to be here.

WIP: 1544.

Trusting the Gut Part 2

In light of my recent realisation regarding the book I had to be working on, I had another wee revelation…

The book is a standalone. The magic is low-fi. The biggest emphasis is on character, not world-building. It’s the kind of book I realised I wanted to write sometime in 2016. Before, I thought my heart lay in (typically 3rd person) big ole fantasy. But now I know that my favourite books and films don’t necessarily align to the type of story I want to write. 

The Night Mage was a pivotal book in my final realisation and acceptance of the sort of stories I want to tell – at this point in my life, anyway. After The Night Mage, I started a few other stories that never got anywhere, and then I landed on The Forest King. I wrote 30k or so, then read it through, declared it a disaster and decided to write three traditional retellings (think girls in sparkly dresses) over the summer. Why? Because I thought it would make financial sense. 

Yeeaaah. You can maybe see just how messed up my thought process was back then, and how much pressure I was putting on myself. What followed was nine months of battling Beauty and the BLOODY BEAST, when what I should have done was realised my mistake, accepted that books can’t be rushed and need many drafts, and gone back to the stories I like best (i.e. The Forest King). My ideas petered out, then dried up completely. The Block hit. And my mental health – on a downward trend for a couple of years – struck a frightening low.

What’s kind of annoying is I made a similar mistake the year before, pursuing a book for months and months when it was clear I didn’t want to write it. Yes, books are hard, but if a book is giving you endless pushback, then I believe that book isn’t meant to be written. I should have learned my lesson and given up on B&B, but sadly, I kept going. Sometimes tenacity can be a flaw.

Anyhoo, as I said, my ideas gradually shrivelled up during my months of chasing Beauty and the Beast. Well, in the few days that have passed since my relearning of an old lesson, I’ve had four ideas spring up. These ideas will probably amount to nothing, BUT, it’s like the good old days, when I had bolts of inspiration on a regular basis.

The lesson I must learn is this, folks:

DO NOT write a story because I think it will be commercially viable.

DO NOT pursue a story that is fighting me every inch of the way and giving me nothing in return.

DO stop and think about what’s wrong if I feel myself becoming blocked.

DO pursue the kind of stories I love to WRITE, which might not be identical to those I love to READ and WATCH. 

I’m determined not to make these mistakes again. Always, always listen to the gut.*

 

*Ever read GUT by Giuilia Enders? I recommend it. Makes you think twice about where the centre of yourself lies… (And about the junk food you inflict on your poor digestive system.)