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

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.