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





Like Attracts Like (A Cautionary Tale)

The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.

Steven Pressfield
If you want to succeed, go straight to the source and by that, I mean work only with professionals. Avoid the amateurs at all costs. If you want to be perceived as a professional, then act like one. Professionals attract professionals and likewise with amateurs. I’m not saying all start-up ventures are deluded and unreliable, just that most of them are. And even the few that become successful will have a professional mind set and will most probably already have professional contacts, or if not, they soon will, because you know what? Professionals attract professions.

I’ve been guilty of this more than a few times in the past and I never really learned from it until recently when I was told about a budding publishing company which was putting together an anthology of short stories. The company was run through a group on Facebook and seemed to be focused and ambitious with plans for more releases. So, I wrote the best story I could and after careful crafting and feedback I submitted my story. They said they liked it and had only a few reservations as to how it could be better. I was flattered that they liked it and was only too pleased to take their suggestions on board. The company appeared to demonstrate that they had high standards. I was impressed when I was informed by email that my story had been accepted for the anthology. As you can imagine I was proud of my achievement and proudly told people around me that my work was soon to appear in a collection by an actual publisher. I also wasted no time in broadcasting my success on social media. I was walking on clouds for a few days.

There even followed a launch party on Facebook which I was more than happy to attend. Again, this impressed me: the company seemed to really know what they were doing. They had drive, energy and a confidence about what they were doing and where they were going.

It was announced that the anthology would be published in early 2018. I found it hard to believe that in only a few months I would be holding a professionally published hard back copy of the anthology which included my story. I felt as if I was making inroads towards becoming a professional.

Then alarm bells began to ring (if I’m honest I had a vague feeling of suspicion from the start but decided to bury it). First the publishers asked if the writers in the anthology would offer to proof read each other’s work to make sure that the quality of the stories was as good as possible. At first, I liked this approach, as the company appeared to have high standards (although it only occurs to me now that a publisher would hire their own proof reader and editor). I agreed and waited for the stories. Things went quiet, so I messaged the guy who seemed to be the face and leader of the operation, asking how I could receive the other writers’ work. He replied that the company hadn’t gotten around to sending the stories out yet but would be sending them out soon, although he sounded a little vague as to how soon. I assumed it would be sooner than later given that the publication of the anthology would only be a few months away.

Then more silence. In the interim, I was also working on a story for a second anthology (see they had a five-year plan and vision, clearly) which had been announced at the launch party. Now I had my foot in the door I wanted to make sure I could produce more work which would be picked up for the second book as it seemed that this publishing house was going places, and if it was I wanted to be part of it. In addition to this they were even asking for submissions for Halloween stories, the funds of which would go to a charity, and on top of this they were looking for novels to be submitted. They clearly had a vision and I saw how I could publish not only short stories but a novel through them.

So, I waited patiently and carried on writing the story for the second anthology. Soon after I began seeing Facebook posts from the guy in charge about a story he had published through KDP. I was a little taken aback, firstly if he wanted to publish something why do it through KDP when he apparently had his own publishing press at his disposal? Secondly, I couldn’t help feeling he had taken his eye off the ball, or had become distracted or bored with the anthology. Distant but distinct alarm bells where chiming now. Soon almost every post was about his book and its modest sales and asking for the people in the group to buy the thing as if it was suddenly the top priority and the anthology and his publishing business an afterthought.

Now, prior to this, he had posted about how he was on the brink of winning investment for the project through a third party, only for him to submit a post a day later saying that he had been scammed. Going back to the book he had self-published I had a quick glance on Amazon: the blurb started off by admitting that the story within the book hadn’t been good enough for acceptance by other publishers, so he had done it himself anyway. Now, I’m no expert in marketing but even I know that saying your product wasn’t good enough to be published is a no-no. I was starting to smell a rat.

A day later I went onto the Facebook group meaning to ask again if the guy had a more concrete idea on when the anthology would be published (and not expecting a positive or clear answer). It was with a mixture of resignation and annoyance that I saw a post from him saying the anthology had been halted for the foreseeable future. He initially put it down to things getting on top of him and seemed to lead members of the group through their sympathetic posts to believe he was struggling with depression. Which was fair enough, only for him to tell me in a private message that the anthology had come to a stop as the rest of the people in his team had pulled the plug. So, what was it? Was he pushed, or did he jump?

While I tried to be understanding and didn’t want to tear him down about the whole thing going tits up, I was still annoyed and had my doubts about his reasons for shelving the project. I decided to send him a balanced but honest message expressing sympathy for his condition but also my disappointment that the project had been shelved, especially given the time and effort myself and others had put into it along with writing another story for the next anthology. I also advised him that in future he consider the people he is working with before he commits to another large-scale venture.

I don’t know whether I was the only person to be so honest with him, but there certainly was no evidence of that in the comments to his post. Each one was full of sympathy and platitudes in the vein of oh never mind or don’t worry about it. In short, the theme was one of indifference. There seemed to be no anger or resentment or real disappointment to be found between the lines of these comments. Then it hit me, if this was how these people really felt, then they clearly had never been serious about being published in the first place; just like the publishers.

It turned out in the end that the publishers had been amateurs, dreamers and had attracted the same in writers, who when the project sank under the weight of its own delusion just went back to whatever it was they had been doing before. But possibly the biggest fool in all this has been me. It seems I may be the only person involved with the project who genuinely wants to be published. I’ve no appetite for platitudes, but what I do have in abundance is anger, resentment and regret, mostly reserved for myself for having acted in an amateurish and deluded mind set. More fool me: I should know an ego-led bullshitter by now, but this is the spark which has lit the fire under my arse and lead me to the conclusion that like attracts like.

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).

Keeping Sight of Your Goals

Once again I have found myself stuck between two stools in my quest to become a full-time writer. I had previously been torn between the artistic freedom of self-publishing and the time liberating experience of the traditional route. In the end, I saw sense and decided to stick with the former approach given all the videos, podcasts, and literature which provided a persuasive argument for being one’s boss. And the more I think about this, the more it makes sense to be an indie, in fact after observing the e-book revolution, it would now seem to be only a matter of time before musicians, songwriters, and filmmakers follow suit.

So, I am resolved to riding the wave of Kindle, etc. and yet, with this comes the quest for knowledge of how to work the system. The hard part is not the writing of the book but the marketing; getting “eyeballs,” one may as will be the invisible man having to resort to pouring ink on himself to be seen, to take shape.

And so I have entered my email address into more correspondence boxes than I can recall. I open my inbox every morning to find myself snowed under by some blog posts and videos showing the secrets to author success, warning me of the pitfalls and mistakes made by so many other writers who failed to put various marketing strategies into place. Now, I want to be as successful as the next aspiring writer, or at least be able to make a living from it, and while not being naïve enough to think my books are going to sell themselves, it’s only in the last couple of days where it seems I have finally woken up to the realisation I am chasing the crowd. Trying to work the system and, worst of all-something I should know better about-second guessing the market.

I seem to have forgotten my original reason for writing: the love of flow and creativity. It appears I am running off fear; fear of failure, of poverty, not being able to provide for my family. I seem to fear this even more than critical rejection. It’s the marketing world which has, until recently, filled me with some dread. While I like the idea of building a “Team” around me of cover artists, typographers, editors, proofreaders, beta readers and reviewers, I also have found myself doing ridiculous things such as scrolling through examples of successful Facebook ads and newsletters which tend to contradict each other’s advice. I suppose it’s ultimately a process if trial and error by which I will find my route to success, in whatever form it decides to reveal itself to me.

So, yes, there are pros and cons of going down the indie route, and for someone like me who is relatively new to it, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming. One thing which has helped keep my head above the waters of madness is the idea of being my boss, and after 20-odd years of working for other people with very little to show in return,  I’ve become very attracted to this idea indie publishing affords. In fact, everything seems to point to the direction of self-publishing, self-sufficiency, the DIY, punk rock school of thought and action which time and time again sprout so much trail-blazing and original ideas. But, of course, being your boss means you have to put in the work yourself, you have to get to know the business, the pitfalls, and goldmines, this is where the e-book gurus come hunting, each one guaranteeing you Hugh Howey-esque success if only you will slavishly follow their rules. Hugh Howey didn’t achieve his success through algorithms and hashtags; he did it through word of mouth and because he loves writing enough to put out something he and millions of others wanted to read. Perhaps the best advice to take is your own