Seven ways to stay positive (in the face of dropping advances, ongoing rejection, and an onslaught of articles in the Guardian)

Listen to this as a podcast – http://claire-mcgowan-ink-stains.podomatic.com/entry/2015-04-23T07_00_25-07_00

I had planned this time round to say something about a technical aspect of writing – creating suspense, perhaps, or working with viewpoint. Those are both very important, but lately I’ve come to realise that I still need to say more about the way how you feel affects how you write. I’ve encountered a few people recently who were totally fed up with the process. Sick of rejections, sick of trying and getting nowhere. Sick of putting work out there and not getting read. Sick of the entire business. And it seems every week there’s a new article in the Guardian about how writers can no longer earn a living from it and how we may as well all pack up and get checkout jobs in Tesco (I paraphrase).

I think there is truth in this, and there are important conversations to be had about how the book industry needs to change, but I don’t think it’s helpful to be pessimistic or to lose faith in writing itself. I should say right away that staying positive is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m as prone as anyone to getting into a writing slump or comparing myself to other people. I’m very guilty of not appreciating my successes when they come. I often lose confidence. So I’m writing these suggestions as much for myself as anyone else. I hope they help a bit.

So here’s seven ways to stay positive and not lose your optimism

  1. Have a think about the words you’re using and what they mean. What is ‘failure’? Does it mean, I’ve had some books published, but I’ve not selling as much as I’d hoped? Does it mean, I’ve got an agent but my book didn’t sell yet? Does it mean, I’ve won some competitions and had some short things published but I’m not a novelist…yet? What does ‘rejection’ mean? Does it just mean someone wasn’t the right fit with your book, and didn’t feel they were the right one publish it? These words aren’t helpful. I’m trying to redefine what ‘success’ means to me – for example, I finished a book, I entered a competition, I went to an event, I had a new idea. All of these things are steps to a goal, not a failure to reach it. Try congratulating yourself for any forward steps you take.
  2. One thing I’ve tried to do is understand what a privilege it is to earn any money at all from doing something you love. Yes, advances have dropped and there are issues surrounding royalty rates and ebooks and being asked to write for nothing, but it seems to me writers have always had it easier than other artists. Comedians and actors for example, can expect to work for nothing for years to establish themselves. I’m not saying this is good – just that writing is one area where it’s possible to earn a significant chunk of money at once. If you go freelance, you can’t expect to earn the equivalent of a salary. You trade off all the positive aspects with the uncertainty and the lack of sick and holiday pay. It does seem to be getting harder. But if the money isn’t there, we can’t expect to get some of it.
  3. Remember why you first started this. No one was paying you then. Even if you confidently expected you’d be able to quit your job within the year, it wasn’t certain, so you must have been doing it out of love. Out of sheer enjoyment of putting the words down on paper, creating the world. Your creativity is not defined by whether or not you are currently earning money from your writing. No one can take it away from you – you will always be able to create, and as a writer you don’t need any equipment beyond a pen and paper, or any other audience beyond yourself. The more I think about that, the more amazing it is, that anyone who’s lucky enough to be able to read and write can just start creating something, right here and now. It may be something that earns money, it may not. You still created it, simply because you wanted to.
  4. Try to focus on the transmission of the work- you made it, you’re putting it out there – rather than the reception of it. The chance of any particular person experiencing any piece of art (a book, a film, a song) vary. Someone might not see it. They might see it but not connect because of their own circumstances on that day. Or they might see it and connect and it might change them. It’s been an eye-opener to me how many plays, gigs, and comedy nights are taking place at any given time, often with not that many people in attendance. But perhaps it’s freeing to worry only about what you’re doing as the creator, and not about who is listening or what they think.
  5. Commit to living a creative life, and identify yourself as part of a community of creative people. It’s been useful for me to get to know people from other areas of the arts, and see how different expectations are from those of writers. There’s more than one way to live a creative life. If you see it as a process, a way of life, then it won’t matter so much whether you sometimes have to do other paid work, or whether you have good years and bad ones. So make the commitment. Decide you’re in this for the long haul, even if you have to suffer at times. If an artistic life is really what you want, then nothing else will ever take its place.
  6. Take inspiration! I find it helpful to talk about my worries (so and so is doing better than me, I don’t know if I’m any good, etc etc) with understanding friends (who won’t make you feel bad for it!). This week I’ve also read Very Good Lives by the wonderful J K Rowling, who advocates failing, to find out your own limits and needs. ‘Rock-bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,’ she says. I also read this great piece by the creator of Mad Men (though 30 still seems quite young…no?) http://www.fastcompany.com/3045082/my-creative-life/mad-men-creator-matthew-weiners-reassuring-life-advice-for-struggling-artis
  7. Maybe get off social media? (She says, while talking to you via social media…) I adore connecting with people online, but it’s definitely creating Comparison Anxiety. But everyone curates their lives online. No one Instagrams the bad times. Maybe I just need to ration myself more.

GOOD LUCK. You are brave and brilliant for ever trying to create something at all, and that is something to be proud of.

Just get on with it! How to finish your book

(You can also now listen to this or download it as a podcast! Fancy huh).

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to the London Writers’ Café (a great group, check them out!) about how to finish your book. I think this is an area that gets neglected sometimes. It’s easy to start, in a blaze of ideas and good intentions. You may even get as far as 30,000 words in with that initial burst, before running out of momentum. Before I managed to finish a book myself, I had countless false starts, where I would just give up on the book. I wish I’d known that it’s normal to run into problems at this stage– and also that these are very possible to fix.

I think the main reasons people don’t finish things are these:

  • Lack of time
  • Fear (of rejection, of hard work)
  • ‘Writer’s block’
  • Feeling ill, feeling tired, feeling uninspired
  • Laziness/Distraction
  • ‘I don’t know what happens next!
  • The book isn’t working

Most issues you’ll encounter can fit into one of these categories. But they can be fixed!

Dealing with lack of time

Try the following and see if they work:

Retreats-I’m always amazed by how much I can get done when I’m away, even for just a few days

Writing during lunches/After work/before work-I used to stay in my office for half an hour or so after work to write

Carving out time in your day– write in bed before you get up, at the gym, in a café, on the train…

Short bursts –can you make special arrangements for a month or so? For example free up other work, or get someone to look after your children

Pomodoro technique – this ‘fifteen minute’ approach, and other time management techniques, can really help to cut through distractions. Don’t feel you always need huge chunks of time to get things done. When I’m doing 1,000 words a day, I sometimes get this done in fifteen minutes. It may not be polished, but at least it’s there!

Fear

Some ways to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’:

Get rejected! After the first time you will quickly get used to it. I delayed sending my first book out for about six months for this very reason.

Have lots of things on the go-so you don’t have to worry so much about that one idea

Enter a competition with a closing date- it will focus the mind and help you get over your fear of submission

Join a class or writers’ group – get used to receiving feedback. The first time will probably be terrifying, but you’ll soon feel fine about it. Good preparation for those Amazon reviews that say, ‘this book came with too much packaging. One star’.

Afraid of edits or doing hard work on the novel? Sadly, there is no trick for this. The only way out is through…

Writers’ Block

Basically I don’t think this exists. What does exist is:

  • Writer’s laziness
  • Writer’s burn-out
  • Writer’s fear
  • Writer’s I-wrote-myself-into-a-corner
  • Writer’s I-hate-this-book
  • Writer’s I’m-not-really-a-writer (eg you don’t really get ideas, or you want to have written a book but don’t enjoy the process at all)

Work out if you’re suffering from one of these and figure out how to fix it.

How you feel

I think not enough attention is paid to the fact that creativity isn’t a tap you can turn on and off. It’s inextricably linked to how you feel in yourself, so it may be other factors that are affecting your writing. Why not try:

Get well- rest, eat well, have a break, exercise. Remember writing is still work, however fun it is.

Make time for thinking – staring out the window is fine. So is having a day off.

Recognise when you are burned out, versus when you are lazy. Sometimes you genuinely do need to take some time off.

Fall back in love with your idea (go back to the blurb and story)

Read The Artist’s Way and Writing Down the Bones and On Writing- all fantastic books about living as a writer

Take yourself seriously as a writer – have a desk, chair, etc all properly set up

Spend some money on your writing– a new laptop maybe, or a notebook, courses, books etc. It will help you see it as real work and remind yourself you’ve made a commitment to it.

Make the process pleasant. Have nice pens and paper, surround your desk with flowers and inspiring pictures, wear a ballgown at your desk…And of course always have good tea or coffee and biscuits!

Read the lives of great artists and writers and find yourself some mentors. I’m inspired by pictures of great writers being playful or silly, like in this great picture of Susan Sontag in a bear suit:

Read a briimages (12)lliant book

Read a terrible book- you’ll think, ‘I can do much better than this!’

Get obsessed with an idea (read newspapers? True crime?)

Go to events – meet other writers and realise you’re not alone!

Laziness/Distraction

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting on with things, and one that never gets any better I find! Still, there are some tricks you can learn to

Get away from your desk/house- I find I can’t write any new words in my flat. I don’t know why, but it’s true, and I can often do thousands of words if I just go out to a café. Worth the price of a latte!

Notebook writing- I always write my first drafts longhand. This allows me to see it more as sketching, so I don’t worry about making it perfect, and I can’t keep fiddling with the same bit. It’s also extremely portable and means I can do a bit anywhere

Turning off the internet-there are also apps like Freedom or Write or Die which will turn off your internet. If you need a real boost, you can set Write or Die so it starts to delete your work if you don’t type fast enough!

Interruptions – calls, other people, phone alerts. Try to eliminate these as much as possible. Even a text message can break my focus for a long time.

Essentially I think it’s a process of tricking and treating yourself into finishing, eg….

Daily word counts

Little rewards (like cake!)

Monthly/weekly goals

Working in cafes

Filling a notebook a month

The ‘off my desk’ 85% rule – basically this is that if I think I’ve done what I can for now, and a piece is 85% done, I’ll send it to someone else for feedback. It creates momentum and stops things stagnating on your hard drive while you fiddle endlessly.

Writing the end early on, or writing the fun bits if you have a day when you’re stuck. There’s no need to write chronologically. I often go back and fill in all the ‘connective tissue’ bits on a third draft.

Important things to remember:

  • It is totally normal to hate your book some of the time
  • It’s a process – you have to learn what’s normal for you

If you’re struggling with something, I suggest making a list of all the things that are stopping you from writing, both practical and emotional. Then write a list of the tricks and treats you are going to use to counter each one.

There is also the issue that something may be actually wrong with your book – next time I will talk about this more, and also about the different creative stages of writing a book. Good luck!

March update – listspiration

Happy March! I’m off to Paris tomorrow to see if I really do love it in springtime (if not I shall stay indoors eating pain au chocolat), but before then here’s a quick update of what I’ve been doing.

My first romcom The Thirty List is out in June, and here’s a teaser of the contents. Rachel, heading for divorce and all washed at thirty, makes a list to get her through her ‘disastropiphany’. How many have you done? I reckon I’m at about seven…not saying which ones!

ThirtyList_List1-01

Meanwhile I am working on Paula Maguire 4 (75,000 words and counting) and have been teaching a lot as always. Soon I will upload some audio clips from my talk ‘Getting on with it – how to finish your novel’ for the London Writers’ Cafe. More on that later. In the meantime, what would be on your ‘bucket lists’?