Writing without Fear

by the time December 1st came round I knew I was on a roll. By then I had a story to tell, and I would be damned if niggling doubts, or a crippling fear of failure was going to stop me.

Laziness: this is as good an excuse for not writing, or being creative in general, as any. This was the reason I would give for my procrastination until just over a year ago when I decided if I was ever going to call myself a writer I needed to do it every day. Up until then my writing had been sporadic, punctuated by large periods of inactivity. I put this down to laziness, and while I admit to become a writer it helps to become familiar with discipline and routine, it also takes courage and self-belief.

So, I decided to enter the 2014 nanowrimo event, where for the whole month of November the challenge was to write a 50,000 word novel. I’d been struggling with mine for the last five years and saw this as the nearest thing to motivation as I could manage. I had placed a metaphorical gun to my head, and had a month (in fact less: I didn’t start until the 7th) to finish my novel, or else face seeing my dreams splattered against the wall.

As it turned out by the end of the month I was still short of the 50,000 word mark (even though I had already written 18,000 previous to the challenge), but it didn’t matter, because for 21 days straight I had written daily. Something, in all my years of writing, I had never even come close to. Ah, you may think to yourself, so this is how he cured himself of being such a lazy bastard. No, this was how I cured myself of being fearful. This was how I learned to write without fear. I knew if I was to take on the NANO challenge I would have to write every day, no matter what the voice in my head told me, no matter how cheesy or dreadful my storytelling, character building, or prose seemed to me: I didn’t have time to worry about all that.

So, by the time December 1st came round I knew I was on a roll. By then I had a story to tell, and I would be damned if niggling doubts, or a crippling fear of failure was going to stop me. I simply decided to ignore all the dissent in my mind and just fucking write. Every day. Whether I felt like it or not. But most days I did feel like it. That’s an under-statement: I was chomping at the bit most days.

On April 23rd I sat in my back garden and wrote the final sentence of the first draft of the novel which had been haunting me for the last 6 years. I don’t mind admitting I shed a tear or two. It felt as if I had scaled my own personal Everest.

Now I’m not going to pretend what lay in front of me was a masterpiece, far from it: character names and cities had changed over the course of the first draft, some of the dialogue definitely needed work and the time line of the story wasn’t yet concrete. To make matters worse, I had written entire sections of the book first on my laptop and then by hand, only to keep see-sawing between the two approaches until I was left with a manuscript which existed both in physical and virtual forms. But even that couldn’t diminish my sense of pride.

The main motivating factor which drove me on through those five months were nine little words which became a mantra, it’s alright, I’ll fix it in the second draft. This affirmation helped keep the demons at bay, and day by day I could feel the fear fall away. Laziness had never been the issue.

The thing is, we are imagining that as soon as we sit down at our work space we will be left alone with ourselves and all the voices and people in our lives or past who say we can’t write, writing’s for others, the professionals. We expect because we are writing a short story or novel that the first sentence should be pure gold and a thing of perfection. And when we find ourselves wracking our brains to come up with a Man Booker winning first line or paragraph, and we can’t, we imagine we cannot write, or we imagine the derision if our favourite writer or teacher could see the crap we might produce instead. It’s crazy, but we end up using our imaginations to stop us from doing just that.

Even before sitting down to write my thoughts out for this blog there was still a small, distant voice which doubted whether I would be able to put anything down. Perhaps for some, if not all writers, that will always be the case, but I have found, and maybe I’m pointing out the obvious here, all you have to do, and can do, is simply sit down and write. Write the first thing which comes into your head. If you’re starting a new chapter, but aren’t sure how to kick it off, read through the last one, and then, without any more ado, just carry on the best you can. You may cringe at the words and sentences which appear, you may even hate what you’re putting down, the thing is, you are writing and you are in the act of creating. You are being true to your promise to write, and this is infinitely better than avoiding it.

After a hundred, or several hundred words you will probably find you are starting to fall into a flow, seduced by the process of writing as your mind lets go of the outside world, all the bullshit it entails and fully engages with your emotions and imagination. Your writing, even in this short space of time, will start to improve, and don’t be surprised if you come up with a line or even whole page of pure gold. Then the faltering “crap” which you first produced when you sat down can be edited or changed altogether, because this is a first draft, and the great thing about a first draft is no one will ever see the mess you had to deal with to get to your master piece. And when you finally put your pen down or close your laptop you may well be thinking to yourself, Wow, that was fun. Why aren’t I doing this every day? Easy. Because every time you subsequently come back to write or even think, Well, I suppose I should be doing some writing now, those same fears and excuses will resurface. Even if you had a good writing session last time round, the voice in your head may try and convince you it was just a one-off, beginners luck, you were in a different frame of mind, but this time you might not be so lucky. And yes, it can seem a grind to sit down cold and just write, but the more you do it the more you will come to realise that it’s just the voices talking. Don’t listen to them.

The more you write, the more you will work at your craft and refine what you do. You may always be visited by the same, small feelings of dread, but by then you will know they aren’t real, because after the first few lines or paragraphs it stops being work and becomes play, because that’s what art is, play. Artists are some of the luckiest people in the world simply because the creative process is the same as when you are a kid, playing with your toys, imagining different worlds, situations or people. Most people lose that when they become adults, and look for other avenues to lose themselves in. I suppose that’s why drugs, porn and computer games are so popular. But art is infinitely better than all of that put together. The page is our playground where we get to play God and go on incredible journeys where we find things out about ourselves and the world around and within us.

What we are most afraid of when it comes to sitting down before the great white landscape of nothing is failure. Maybe it’s this society we inhabit where we are constantly fed images and messages of perfection and success, but it seems we are not allowed to fail. The thing is if you have never failed how can you win? There’s nothing wrong with failing. Stephen King’s first two novels were never published because, as he admits himself, they weren’t good enough, and he only got Carrie published because his wife rescued it from the bin. So even the mighty King has known failure, and self-doubt, but did it stop him? No. Did it help him become a better writer? Of course it did. He didn’t stop just because some agent may have laughed at his early manuscripts and thrown them in the bin, he just continued writing because he’s a writer and that’s what writers do. Without this failure and rejection he could never have succeeded.

Post image: https://code.google.com/p/noto

 

 

 

 

The River Now in Paperback

For all of you traditionalists who love the feel of an actual book in their hands you can now own my novel The River through Amazon in Paperback. If you also like to mix up your formats then The River is available on Kindle.

The Process

We’ve all had that moment in our lives. The one where we heard the song, saw the film, watched the sports star, read the book and thought to ourselves; “I want to do that…I want to do what he does…I want to be where she is.”

We’ve all had that moment in our lives. The one where we heard the song, saw the film, watched the sports star, read the book and thought to ourselves; “I want to do that…I want to do what he does…I want to be where she is.” We may even find we are gifted enough to follow in their footsteps, but few of us will succeed. Most of us will flounder and quickly give up. Even if we do stay in the game, we will spend the rest of our lives looking at someone more successful than us and wondering why it’s them up there and not us. We may convince ourselves that this is the year our resolutions will kick in. And in all that time there’s one simple element we have continually failed to grasp…

The Process. I think we’ve all heard this word thrown around when it comes to the creative process: that the real thrill of creativity is not the finished product but the work towards it. The journey, not the destination. I thought I understood this, and yet I didn’t.

I used to be a musician; perhaps I still am, although it feels a long time since I picked up a guitar. Ten years ago, I seemed as wedded to being a musician and songwriter as I now am to being a writer. I wrote song after song and found myself constantly improving my craft, especially my singing. I made frequent solo performances at open mic events and recorded in my spare room where I produced a three-track ep CD which I brought to gigs to flog, and previous to that recorded an album with a friend.

It may sound like I was an archetypal musician, struggling, yet committed, only I wasn’t. I modelled myself in some ways on idols such as Keith Richards, Jeff and Tim Buckley and Nick Cave; all committed musical geniuses. What they also had was a circle of peers and collaborators. Whereas for myself, even though I was surrounded with musicians at these events, I remained insular. I thought I saw myself in my idols and yet I had never even been in a band, yes, I had auditioned for a handful of bands but with little success.

By 2008, I had written another album’s worth of songs that I wanted to record, and so I did, by myself. It was inevitable that I struggled to record these songs I was so proud of. I drowned under the weight of having to act as my backing band; wringing the fun out of what should have been an exciting and rewarding experience. I found myself nervously trying to get the right bass take or wing a keyboard part I just didn’t have the chops for. I toiled over a drum machine program as I tried to bring to life the drummer I imagined playing my songs, you know, the imaginary drummer who played in my imaginary band. Oh yes, and that doesn’t even take into account acting as producer and engineer, moving mics around in my cramped studio, toiling over mixes and tweaking recording software.

The end came soon after. I lost the desire to perform, not out of fear, but because I simply didn’t feel like it. It was around this time I caught the writing bug. For a while, I found myself torn between being a musician and writer, knowing I couldn’t do either one justice without committing to one or the other exclusively.

This conflict went on for the next few years. I attempted a “comeback” in 2011 playing two contrasting gigs; one in a café, the other on the side of a flatbed truck in front of a field of apathetic punters. Both were complete disasters. At the second gig, I hung around feeling more awkward and out of place than I had ever felt during my performing hay day of 2006-2008. When I got on stage, as with the first gig, I had problems with the pickup on my acoustic guitar, and as a result, I had to play the instrument into a mic which I kept catching my strings on.

Even then there was an opportunity ready to fall into my lap: backstage I had heard the promoter talking about how she was booking bands to play places like the Roadhouse and the Academy in Manchester; this was the silver lining of my dark cloud, and yet, I let it float off. It wasn’t my usual social awkwardness around people in the music scene that stopped me from approaching her about future gigs. I think it was apathy.

It was this lack of willingness or desire to make links with musicians and business people that showed I wasn’t in love with the process of being a musician. I held onto it for so long because I thought I was still in the same lineage as my idols. These people, however, had lived and breathed what it meant to follow the path: to know and accept the process. They honed their craft by playing in bands, getting to know other musicians, sitting in on jams and recording sessions; spending hours in a van smelling each other’s farts or lugging gear onto public transport; hanging around in dingy venues waiting to play for a mere 30 minutes if they were lucky. It took me years to realise what the process of being a musician involved, and it wasn’t just writing and practicing alone in my bedroom.

In contrast, as I dove ever deeper into writing I found it was this process which I gave myself over to. Whereas I had struggled to join bands, work with other musicians and become part of my local music scene, I found it easier to interact and network with other writers through courses, workshops, and the internet.

As a musician, I had never felt comfortable or pushed myself when it came to promotion: I never sent a single demo out to a record company or even looked for paid gigs. As a writer, I have since self-published two books, entered numerous competitions and even had a story accepted as part of The Monolith Anthology through Creative Writers’ Press.

This along with the long hours of solitude, the willingness to take and give feedback, disciplining myself to write every day and for the right reasons, is all part of the process.

I think, as a musician, I was seduced by what I saw on the stage or heard coming out of my stereo. While this is how many successful musicians get the bug, I wasn’t willing to accept and give myself over to the rest of it. When it comes to writing, however, I find myself embracing everything about it.

The way I see it, the process is like a circuit board, every part of it linked to the other, every connection essential; it just depends on which process or circuit board one can best interface with.

 

The 365 Writer is Just a Writer

You should treat writing like a job, even if it’s one you don’t get paid for. You clock on and clock off. You put the hours in

Every writer should aim to write every day, if they can, and whether they feel like it or not. I’ve written two novels, plenty of short stories and I also journal, and I rarely feel like writing when I sit down in front of the computer, but I know I will regret it if I don’t. Even if I only manage a few hundred words, it will have been worth it. You should treat writing like a job, even if it’s one you don’t get paid for. You clock on and clock off. You put the hours in. I agree that life sometimes gets in the way, such as Christmas and going away on holiday. It’s easy to think you’re acting like an anti-social freak if you write when you should be “relaxing” (and this is something I struggle with) but if it’s good enough for Stephen King, then it’s good enough for the rest of us. King wrote every day back when he was holding down two jobs and supporting his wife and small children, and he still does that today (the writing that is), and it’s not for the money. He does it because he knows if he stops for even one day, the voice in his head (the one which resides in all of us) will start to make him doubt what he does if he’s any good if the piece he’s working on is all that. This is another reason why you should write every day, especially if you are in the middle of a story. This is because if you stop part way through you will, of course, lose your momentum. By the time you get back to writing, the initial spark, which previously propelled you along, will be gone, and you will instead have become obsessed with the shiny new idea you came up with in the interim. Repeat this enough times, and you will become that person we all know who calls themselves a writer, talks about it ad-nauseam and yet very rarely ventures out into those dark waters. Of course, there are the exceptions who prove the rule about writing every day such as Lee Child and Wilbur Smith who only write for six months of the year. And that’s fine if you can promise yourself to that, but the reality is that the rest of us are mere mortals who must adhere to daily rituals if we are going to get shit done. Yes, life does get in the way. Sometimes you get up meaning to do some writing in the evening, but then it seems your day has become so full that, before you know it, it’s time for bed. In reality, there’s always enough time to get some writing in, even if it’s 20 minutes spent journaling. And this can be achieved through making sacrifices that you might not even be aware you have to make. Such as not watching the sports games you get nothing from, depressing yourself with news and other scripted reality TV shit designed to nullify you and push your anxiety and self-loathing off the chart; staring at your phone and generally looking at crap on the internet. It also means not binge-watching TV series and yes, even selling your Xbox (which is what I did a few years back and I’ve never looked back).

The River

This week I published my debut novel, The River.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01LZPG5TH. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LZPG5TH

“Destbury is the latest destination for 18-year-old loner Patrick and his Mother in an endless trail of towns and false starts since their lives were devastated years earlier. Within weeks, Patrick is experiencing disturbing dreams concerning a reclusive and seemingly doomed musician and Patrick’s first love in the form of a girl called Marisa. Together, these propel him on a journey which will change the course of his life.”

It’s free to download from Amazon, but be quick as this offer ends sometime in the wee hours.

Growing Pains (of an indie author)

In early May 2016, I published my first book Nameless and Other Stories. While I may only have shifted five copies, despite running a few days of paid promotion on Facebook-more of that later on- I can finally say I am a published author. This, however, has left me wondering whether it has been worth it. Some of you may think it has, while others, looking at my slim sales, may disagree.

The book I published is a collection of short stories, which I already knew didn’t sell nearly as well as novels, but the venture was done as more of a learning experience, a chance to make some mistakes which I could hopefully learn from before embarking on the serious business of publishing my novel.

So far, I’ve made plenty of errors which I’d like to think I’ve learnt from, but it was a lot of effort and the time and money it took were, in the case of the former, substantial. I can’t say for sure how long the process took, but it was more than a month, perhaps two, and in all that time I hadn’t written a single word of original prose, so consumed with editing, purchasing software and domain names.

Once I had done the editing and proofreading, which was relatively easy, the next step was formatting the text and building the front of the book. This was particularly time consuming as I found myself messing about with the likes of Scrivener, which is supposed to be easy to use, well maybe if you are familiar with, and are willing to learn how to write code, which I’m not. Although having said that, perhaps this is another skill which the indie author will have to acquire in the future? Never the less, I quickly abandoned this approach and in the end decided to use Kindle’s own software which was what I should have done in the first place.

Next, came the challenge of designing the artwork, for this I found myself using, or should I say floundering about with Photoshop. I managed to cobble together a simple, but I think suitable, cover for the book. It was when I tried using it to design the cover of my novel I realised how desperately out of my depth I was. I quickly became discouraged with this and gave up trying to do something I am no expert in.

Then came the promotion, the posts, and tweets all about how my book was firstly available to pre-order and then out there in the world to buy. I will admit that I’m far from the best when it comes to blowing my own trumpet, but one of the things I do like about the internet is how it can enable anyone to be an actor in the digital domain. So, harnessing my alter-ego, I found myself becoming more and more confident with each post and tweet, even though I still feel a little like a second-hand car salesman when I venture out to bang my own drum. This generated a few likes on Facebook, but virtually no likes or RT’s on Twitter, which I had previously seen as the more writer -friendly tool.

Around this time I met up with an Annie Jai, a successful Amazon author who told me how I should be promoting my book using paid ads if I wanted to generate “organic” sales. So, I tried this out for myself; it took several attempts until I had my own campaign up and running. This was another aspect where I felt as if I had to act like an expert, only this time in marketing and demographics. So I tried my best; I entered that the ad should be targeted at both sexes between the ages of 18-65+. It’s not as if I’m writing YA or a murder series, and therefore would have a clearer idea of the sort of person who would read my work which is hard to pin down. As for the other sections; behaviours(?), politics, etc. I opted, instead, for interests, and that coming under the umbrella of entertainment. I remembered Annie saying it is good to target E-book readers (obviously), so I went with that. Then I added other criteria such as short stories and fiction which I saw gave me a very broad reach, which is good, but also can stop you from more accurately finding your audience. The thing is you don’t want to target an audience which is too wide to pin down, while, at the same time, you don’t want to end up with a niche audience which is going to limit your appeal. Having said that, it would be great just to have any kind of “organic” audience. This, people, is the art of getting complete strangers to pay money for your work. Easier said than done, of course.

So, after a couple of days, I shut the campaign down: I’d had 71 clicks to my website in total. What was I doing wrong? I wondered. Was the cover putting them off, the blurb, or was the link not working? I mean, after all, the book is selling at the lowest price possible ($0.99), and it’s hard to imagine none of those people clicking on my website decided not to purchase it.

So, all is not well in the self-publishing paradise. It was a couple of days after pulling the campaign that I watched a YouTube video hosted by a group of self-published authors, One of them stated the worst thing an aspiring writer could do in terms of promotion is to endlessly post and tweet about their book, especially if they don’t already have some kind of following who know about their upcoming releases. This advice also applied to paid ads. It would seem these are basically useless if no one knows you beforehand. And for all those Facebook friends and Twitter followers you’ve collected in the thousands? They don’t care about your book. Let’s face it, where are they going to find the time to read a book by an author who may well be terrible? I understand where they’re coming from; when I first started on Twitter, I had followers tweeting me about their latest book, or offering it to me for free. Did I attempt to read any of these? Of course not. Sitting down to read a book is a huge commitment. If it’s self-published, it’s less likely to be of high quality, especially if the author decided to forego beta readers and hiring a professional editor and proofreader (yes, despite what people may say, there still persists a stigma when it comes to going down the DIY route). Also, the books sent my way were not the kind I was interested in i.e. Lee Child, E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, etc. genre heavy, commercial wannabes.

Also, there is so much contradictory advice out there: on one hand there are writers who extoll the virtues of marketing and Ad campaigns, as I’ve briefly experimented with. While others such as Hugh Howey say word of mouth worked best for them i.e. giving their work to friends and family to grow an initial fan base (this I’ve tried myself, and while many of them expressed an interest in my writing, few of them ultimately got round to reading/purchasing it.)

I even thought at one point of going down the traditional publishing route. I reasoned to myself at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for editing, proofreading, and cover design, while someone else could concentrate on the marketing side which would free up more writing time. But this, of course, is a fallacy, as I’m sure we all know. It could take years to get an agent and a publisher, and even then one would have to compromise on artistic control, while still having to self-promote online like a Kardashian, and all for a measly 5-15% cut on royalties.

While the tone of this post may be in danger of sounding bitter and self-pitying, what I’m trying to get across is the, at times, frustrating nature of self-publishing and publishing in general. I’m aware of the learning curve required for anything which is worthwhile, and with a novel almost ready to publish, I’m not about to give up and skulk away feeling sorry for myself.