Writing Tips

Should You Consider Self-Publishing?

For many writers, the idea of self-publishing at all fills them with horror. “Oh, no, no, no,” they’ll say, aghast. “I only want to be PROPERLY published.” Which, in many circumstances,  when you’re a writer of literary fiction novels especially, is absolutely the right approach.

But having experimented myself (and succeeded, generating myself a regular, if small, income from a non-fiction series based on a blog I run), and knowing what I do from experience in both traditional publishing  and on self-publishing platforms, I know that the answer to the question “Should I consider self-publishing?” is actually: Sometimes

What Does It Depend On?

Whether you should or not depends on three main factors:

  • What you’re writing
  • Who you are
  • What you want

There are many circumstances where the traditional publishing route—agent, traditional publisher, bookstores— is absolutely the best and only one to give serious consideration to. There are others where I think if you’re NOT considering self-publishing and are still hopefully clinging to the traditional pathway, you’re missing a trick (and the chance to make yourself some money). There are times, too, where the jury is out: where it totally depends on what you are after and what your personal circumstances are.

Below is my quick guide to when self-publishing should definitely be considered as an option—and when it’s likely not going to be for you at all. So:

YES. Self-publishing is well worth considering if…

1. You Mainly Want To Produce E-Books Rather Than Print

No, not everything has to be produced in print form. Print books and pamphlets are relatively costly to produce, even print-on-demand, which is one of the reasons short fiction authors and poets in particular have a hard time getting publishing deals.

But e-books can be widely distributed to multiple channels at very little cost to yourself. I currently have non-fiction e-books distributed to Kindle, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd and a number of others, as well as as downloads on my own website. Plenty of people no longer read print books. (If you publish with Amazon, you can also get the option to offer e-books in paperback format via Amazon’s print on demand service, although they are a lot less profitable.)

Some examples of where JUST an e-book might be a legitimate option:

  • Informational & How-To Books
  • Books based primarily on blog content
  • A well-advertised collective or experimental short fiction or other anthology

2. You Are Publishing Non-Fiction, ESPECIALLY How-To Books

Now, I usually prefer to buy my fiction books in print (although as a e-book reader and highly impatient person, I sometimes can’t wait and download fiction e-books onto my e-reader and THEN purchase the print copy if it’s something I want to keep).

But I honestly can’t remember the last time I bought a non-literary non-fiction book in print form. And yes, that includes writing How-To books. Usually, it’s because if I want some information, I want it NOW, and what’s the easiest way to get it right away? After Googling, I mean?

Get an e-version. 2 minutes and it’s in your hands. And what I care about is what the information is and if it gives me what I want, not whether it was published by Mr Big Name Publisher.

Think on. Especially if you’ve something to teach (so yes, this does include writers of all types) and your knowledge is already respected or sought after in some way.

3. You Already Have a Platform & Are Known

One of the big advantages of the traditional publishing route is that once you are accepted, the marketing work is, at least in theory, done for you (and paid for) by the publisher. Sure, you’ll be expected to involve yourself in publicity and do a lot of work yourself, readings, interviews, appearances, social media etc. But the whole point of that is to generate your author platform for you and to basically tell the world, “This person is legit.”

But what if you’ve already got a platform, generated by your own efforts? What if you already are a known person, author or authority on something? What if your blog already gets loads of traffic, or you’re a familiar, respected face on whatever circuit you’re in? You ALREADY have reach. Do you need the legitimacy of a “known” publisher to get your book out there? You have an audience. You’ve already demonstrated your legitimacy. You may even have fans. Why let someone else take a cut for something you are already doing yourself when you can bring it direct to your audience yourself?

4. You Publish Genre Fiction and LOTS of it.

I’m not talking about sensitive literary whimsy here, or the novel that wins the Booker. The self-publishing route is DEFINITELY not for those, unless you are already a big name . No, I’m talking hard-boiled genre. Horror, Thriller, Mystery, Romance, those kinds of things.

Of course, trends come and go as far as genre is concerned, so you need to be prepared and realistic.. I’m also talking situations where you produce a lot of books so not a once-every-two-years kind of effort. Series, for example, even story collections (although these are less popular). And you WILL still need to create a platform for it, and it’s hard work and competitive. But plenty of people read genre fiction and a lot of it, and, yes,  a lot of it is also sold in e-format rather than print.

5. You Have Experience in Publishing, Editorial and/or Design

To be fair, you don’t actually need a lot, especially if you’re only publishing ebooks, but be aware that if you don’t have these experience or skills, you may well have to pay someone who does. I’m lucky enough to have had many years of experience in publishing and book production. I’ve certainly found it helps, and managed to produce all my ebooks to a good quality without spending anything. Otherwise, your main production outlays would most likely be on:

  • Editorial (copyediting, proofreading)
  • Cover design and creation

But it isn’t difficult these days, for instance, to find free programmes (such as Canva) to design beautiful professional-looking covers for e-books, although the file quality is not usually not adequate for print. If you are publishing ebooks and using either Amazon KDP or an aggregator (such as my favourite, Draft2Digital or Smashwords), you also don’t need typesetting or layout skills or anything more than an understanding of formatting in Word; ebooks produced through these systems work best when you upload a Word file and let the system format it for you. Editorial and proofreading skills, particularly for fiction, are a must, however, and if you don’t have them, you will need to pay for them.

 

NO. The traditional route is better than self-publishing if…

1. You Want Your Books To Appear In Traditional Bookshops

Even if you do produce print versions of your books, self-published books are not going to be appearing in your local Waterstones or independent bookshop. Ever. They’re just not. Bookshops buy from publishers, not self-publishers. So if you have dreams of your masterpiece appearing in the window of your favourite bookshop, or being discovered by someone browsing the bookshelves, self-publishing is not for you (or this piece of work, in any case).

2. You’re ONLY Writing Literary Fiction, Especially Novels

Self-publishing success is generally directed by popular interest. The more popular, the better, the more interest you’re likely to generate, and the more sales you are likely to make. In a nutshell, self-publishing success tends to be more about quantity and popularity than quality per se. And you’ll be doing your own marketing.

This is why things like genre fiction and how-to books (and books by known writers) sell . A much broader range of people are going to be interested in them than will be in literary fiction, particularly by unknown authors with no platform. You need a publisher, a known publisher, to have success with literary fiction. For most literary fiction readers, the publisher IS part of a guarantee of quality. You wont get anywhere without it.

3. Literary Kudos Is Important To Your Fiction Success

Connected to the above. Literary fiction success means reviews, bookshops, prizes. It is all about quality and receiving critical respect and kudos for the work that you do. This means where and how your work appears is important.

If kudos for the brilliance of your work is your ultimate aim, especially if you’re in the early stages of your career or previously unpublished, then the traditional publishing route is for you. The much-maligned “gatekeeping”, I’m afraid, is there for a reason.

4. You Don’t Want To Work With Amazon or Produce E-Books 

Understandably, many writers feel uncomfortable working with Amazon these days for ethical reasons. Amazon Kindle of course, is not the only e-book provider and there are plenty of other platforms you can publish on, but it IS one of the biggest markets. Additionally, it offers a print-on-demand service, meaning that you can offer customers paperback versions of any  e-book you publish (printing a single copy and sending direct to customers,  no warehousing required). Sadly, most of the aggregator services don’t offer print.

If you’re wedded to print, self-publishing may not be not the best route for you. You would have to pay for all the printing yourself as well as do all and any marketing, and you won’t get self-published books into bookshops in any case. In the traditional route, this is all handled and paid for by the publisher. Vanity publishers, of course, will charge you for the privilege. I wouldn’t even consider going down that route.

E-books are the single easiest way of self-publishing and doing so cheaply, at least at first, when you are testing the water. Print is costly, and no-one wants piles of unsold books lying around at home.

5. You Don’t Have A Platform Already, & Aren’t Ready To Create One

It’s going to be hard to sell books if you don’t have a platform or aren’t drumming up interest. I only started self-publishing AFTER my blog (not this one) was getting a lot of traction and traffic independently. Again, although publishers are interested in authors who already have platforms, if your work is accepted by a publisher, it will be they who helps with your platform and with marketing your book

6. You Don’t Have Access To Editing Services

Traditional publishers, of course, will edit your work thoroughly in-house; this ensures a quality product. If you don’t go the traditional route, then unless you are an exceptional editor, bear in mind that you will usually need to pay for this yourself or at least find someone who can help you with it. One of the biggest complaints about self-published books is poor quality editing and “no wonder no proper publisher took this on,” so it’s essential that your book does not fall into that category.

Decided To Explore Further?

For those who’ve decided self-publishing MIGHT be worth exploring, I’m putting together a practical guide to the ins and outs of this route. It will be available here soon.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Writing Tips

Want feedback on your writing? Check out the feedback service I offer here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Key Features of Short Story Structure

Key Features of Short Story Structure post header

One of the main story elements I analyse here at Feedback For Writers is story structure. Short stories, due to the very nature of the form, have particular requirements, and  I’d like to examine these so I can give you  guidance on some of the main pitfalls I see when reading other people’s work.

What structural elements need to appear in all stories?

First off, I should point out that you need to be telling a whole story.

A short story isn’t like a compressed novel. A short story is not “part of a novel”  or a first chapter; neither is it simply a vignette or a character description . It’s not the introduction to the real deal—the short story is the real deal.

A short story is a complete entity, which should be able to stand and survive alone.  It has the usual story beats but they might be implied or ‘felt’ rather than detailed. Some of the story might appear in the gaps, in what is not said, as much as what is.

Should A Short Story Have All the Same Features As Classic Three Act Structure?

Well, a short story should contain within it a beginning, a middle and an end, and the key narrative beats of those, so in many ways, yes, it should. In other words:

  • We have to introduce our character or characters. Our character needs a problem or situation. We need to be immediately clear about the world they are in and the main conflict they’re facing. Your reader needs to know who your protagonist is, where and when they are, their problem, their desire, their main antagonist & problem. The reader needs to know this quickly.
  • Then, we need to maximise the conflict inherent in that situation. “Put your character in a tree, and throw stones at them,” before getting them down again. We need to throw the stones. We need perhaps a twist in the middle that turns things on their head and that they react to, while things get worse and worse. From there, we need the story to reach a climax somehow. The worst of all worse situations for our character where they confront “The Thing” that we’ve known they needed to confront all along. They’ll most likely realise something – or purposefully ignore it, depending on what our view of life is like but it will be the whole point of our story.
  • Then we need to end our story, a sense of moving into the future at the end, although you don’t need everything tied up nicely with a bow around it. In short stories, what often is most effective is the  possibility of a new story beginning at the end,  a future emerging, like a new creature, hitherto buried under sand.

What Structural Problems Are Specific To Short Stories?

The single biggest problem is not having enough room to tell the story you wish to tell.

Timeframe is a key issue. And focus. You simply don’t have time to spend pages going into this or that backstory or exploring some irrelevance, or putting half a page of beautiful description of setting just to build up the background scenery when you’ve said nothing about the situation your character is in. You have to find a way to keep it spare.

Short stories are usually about one thing. One or two characters, and one moment; the reason you’re telling this story in the first place, so you need to make it a doozy.

And one of the biggest— and I think most fun— challenges  is to find a way to compress the story into a single timeframe.  This is one of the reasons why short stories are often experimental. To compress the whole story into a single timeframe while still making sure you hit the key narrative (and emotional) story beats; the exposition, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the denouement. You may have all the beats, but they might be in a different order. It’s not always possible, but try if you can you fit the entire story into a timeframe of 24 hours or less. Also, make sure the story is being conveyed scenes and you are showing not telling.

Be brutal with this, and getting it as spare as you can. Ask yourself what’s the minimum information you need to convey in a scene in order to give the reader what they need? Can some things be implied in the gaps, in what is said and not said, shown and not shown? What events happen off-stage? Might some gaps between scenes draw the reader in more from an emotional perspective? What’s the minimum number of scenes you need to have to convey to your reader just what you need them to know?

In my next post, I’ll be looking at the specific problems I see most often with short story structure – and the actions we might take to resolve them.

 

Check out one of my Sample reader’s reports to see the kinds of feedback on your work that I provide here.

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When’s The Right Time To Get Feedback On Your Writing?

Something that can be hard to remember, especially when we are busy comparing ourselves with others, competing, wondering why we are not Hemingway or whoever, is that NOT EVERY WRITER IS THE SAME. 

We don’t all work in the same ways. We don’t all write the same things. We don’t all use an identical writing process in order to get our best work out. Not every trick or method that works for us will work for everyone else, and vice versa. Nor does it have to.

Not a revelation, huh? Well, you’d think  (and btw, if you don’t believe me, check out the Paris Review for hundreds of interviews with famous authors where you can see the vast array of approaches to the writing life and getting work done. Or not).

I’ve been quite surprised at times, to find a certain rigidity in approach, especially on advanced writing courses or in online advice, which can give the impression that there is only One True Way of Working for writers serious about their craft . This in turn leads to unrealistic expectations, can sometimes seem artificial, and can push writers into methodologies that simply aren’t the right fit for them. Planners get forced into pantsing and end up staring at blank pages. Pantsers feel constrained and frustrated by the rigidities of planning. Deadline-lovers find time-based targets keep them going; task-focused writers hate that and prefer to go for next-step-completion in their project as a goal.

And the question of when in our writing process we find it best to show our work to others and get feedback is one of the differences I see between the many writers I know.

A Look At The Different Approaches

Some people find it most helpful  to get feedback during the drafting of the work, particularly when working on big projects like novels. This, they feel, ensures they are taking their work in the right direction and are not sending themselves off on wild goose chases that they’ll have to clear up later.

Others – myself included – prefer to share their work only after they have got as far as they can possibly get with drafting by themselves. I personally hate sharing very early drafts, and not without reason – but a lot of this has to do with how I work and what does and doesn’t get the best results for me.

So here are some of the pointers about both approaches. Neither is right or wrong as such but are just different ways of working.

Early-Stage Feedback

 It helps to be confident and fairly thick-skinned for this – after all, the looser your draft is, the more is likely to be wrong with it, so the more “development areas” you are likely to hear about. You may be happy with that, you may be a bit more sensitive to criticism. If that’s the case, you need to think if this would be the right approach for you.

It can also depend on your reader or group. Some readers are very open to both approaches, with an awareness that feedback style might need to be tailored to the situation; others – college workshops, for example – can be more absolute, feeding back on everything in the same way, regardless of where the draft or writer is at.

The rougher the work, the more the focus is  likely to be on the potential, rather than perfection of execution; although it does depend on how solid the writer’s early drafting is. Some writers, as I say, produce great-quality drafts on the first or second pass, so it probably isn’t going to be a problem for them.

I’d suggest being VERY clear with your reader or readers before you let them read about where you are at, and what in particular you’d like them to look at if you’re sharing in the early stages. Someone nit-picking your punctuation when you really need to know if your overall story or a particular character is working is not especially useful . For some writers, this sort of thing too early can kill a draft completely

Early Stage/Mid-Draft Feedback can be useful for:
  • Writers who produce solid drafts very quickly
  • A stage you’ve reached where you’re more interested in understanding the story potential of an overall idea than the nitty gritty of your execution
  • Times when there’s a particular feature of the work you are experimenting with. For instance, you might be trying out different narrative points of view, or structures in which to tell the story, and you might be unsure what the ‘live’ effects of those decisions may be. Before devoting months of your time going down one route or the other, it can be worth testing out with some readers
  • The point where have got up to a certain stage in a large project  like a novel, and are not sure how best to continue. Or, are at a crossroads where there are multiple directions in which you could take the work
  • Writers who carefully craft and edit each individual chapter before moving on.
  • Thick-skinned writers who are happy to share rougher drafts and  more interested in their story’s potential

NB one thing to bear in mind about “potential”  though. It is never your readers’ (or tutor’s or group’s or friend’s) job to decide on or write your final story for you! If the key story elements aren’t in there, it’s going to be hard for people to work it out.

If the bare bones are really all you have, it might be worth waiting until the work is a little more developed.. Even so, the views of others and an understanding of overall impact if you’re completely stuck  in the woods can give perspective that is incredibly helpful.

Later-Draft/Late Stage Feedback

 I know several writers who rarely show their work at all, or at least do only with one or two very select people. Often just before the point of submission. Personally, I get that. I find it more helpful to get feedback only AFTER I know I’ve done everything I can possibly do with the draft. I rarely share initial drafts, given mine tend to be a) rough as hell and b) when I am still working out or vague about the story.

Partly, it’s because I prefer the discipline of stepping back and self-editing, which for me is an intrinsic part of the process. I don’t like feeling I’ve wasted people’s time and efforts telling me the stuff I could have already worked out by myself given a bit more time

Also I am a pretty slow writer – not in terms of getting words down, but I tend to do at least two Zero drafts to get to one that I consider readable by the outside world – my “proper” first draft. Whereas some writers can knock out a decent, readable first draft in a matter of days or even hours.

Probably most crucially, I prefer later-stage feedback because it seems to show me any real blind spots I have. And we do all have them – we tend to pick up on different things. Sometimes this can be scales-from-the-eyes stuff that I’d never spot, no matter how adept I was at self-editing.

Late-Stage Feedback Can Be Useful For:
  • Writers who like to multi-draft before they share their “public” version
  • Pantsers who write terrible or extremely rough draft zeros in order to work out the story
  • Zero-drafters in general – particularly if you like to get the whole thing out in a rough form BEFORE you even think about editing or redrafting
  • Those who are good at self-editing and prefer to step back and do that in depth before sharing work with readers
  • Thin-skinned writers who are over-sensitive to criticism or have any kind of writing performance anxiety or block. Let yourself write and create freely first without worrying anyone else is going to see it.
  • Those who need work to be brilliant before they share, or whose readers are very critical. I’d wait until it’s in as good a state as you can get it to build confidence. Just don’t leave it for ever. It is never going to be totally perfect, and that way, never-ending tinkering can lie.
  • Writers who’ve reached the point of feeling they cannot do anything more with this story. You’ve probably spent so long with it now that you cannot be objective with it at all.
  • A time you are about to submit it but no-one yet has seen it. Other people can pick up much more easily on things that a person closest to it simply cannot. At least let someone you trust give it the once-over, especially if you’re subbing to an agent. You really do only get one shot at these.

It’s worth experimenting, of course, to see which approach works best for you and for which types of project. 

So – which methods and processes work the best for you?

 

If you are thinking about getting feedback on your work, check out my 5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing post  on the different sources of feedback and where you might find them.

Happy writing!

 

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Genre And Why It Matters

Genre is a key element I look at when I am feeding back on a story.

“Huh,” you may say. “Well, I am a Literary Writer. I do not “do” Genre.”

Uhhh, well, yes and no. Genre matters. Your work may well not fit into any of the main genre categories. It may be a more literary version of one of them – and there are plenty of big-name literary writers who lean towards certain genres. Or it might be a “pure” literary story. If that’s the case, the story will still have enough hallmarks of being literary for your readers to know that this is the type of story they are reading . From that, we can surmise some of the expectations both for and from the reader, and from that,  if anything in your story feels “off”.

Genre Is About More Than Marketing

Why do human beings tell stories? We’ve done so now for thousands and thousands of years.

When I talk about genre and kinds  of story, I don’t necessarily mean “templated” or “formulaic” or even highly commercial. Genre in practice is far more than a matter of the marketing categories that are used by commercial publishers or film producers.

That said, the lasting commercial categories – Romance, Horror, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Thriller, Mystery, Fantasy, Sci Fi, Crime, and all their subcategories –  have lasted because people like them. And people like them because they have strong emotions at their core.

Some readers want a story that reminds them true love exists, and to invest in the will-they won’t-they of a couple. Or to have their deepest terrors presented to them, where they can safely experience the adrenaline of fear. Perhaps they like to accompany a protagonist on some wild adventure, or explore the wonder of alternate worlds. To experience where our current world may take us in future, or to imagine what our own lives in a past one might have been. Readers might enjoy working alongside a detective in solving a murder. Relating to a family saga, or laughing at familiar absurdities in life.

Other readers enjoy “difficult” books which make them think. Complex stories that that involve challenging assumptions, thinking deeply about philosophical questions, or exploring universal human truths. They might want a story told in a way that’s as structurally satisfying as the words are beautiful; they may experience what they read as a form of art.

Genre Tells Us How You Want The Reader To Feel

It’s worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of story am I telling?
  • Why have I decided to tell it this way?
  • What impact do I want this to have on my reader?
  • How would I like them to respond?

There’s a link between your work as it appears on the page and the reader you are hoping to engage. Your story is is a two-way interaction between you and them

Clear intent here is crucial. What do we want our story to do? Do we want to delight our readers with our cleverness and artistry? Skewer them with our insight and the beauty of our prose? Fool them with our dastardly red herrings? Make them cry or fill them with terror? Double them up with laughter? What?

Genre Sets Up Reader Expectations

It’s important to understand the expectations our readers might have when they read our work and if there is anything that will jar or spoil the experience we want them to have. All types of stories have expectations attached and certain conventions. We live in a world where we are surrounded by stories – we all know a lot about them, even if we don’t write them ourselves. We tend to know if something doesn’t quite work.

It can be good to subvert expectations where you can to avoid making your story boring or predictable. But some reader expectations based on our genre must be fulfilled for the story to work fully. Also our genres should be internally consistent. Vampire Horror Romance is fine. A vampire horror romance that turns into a crime caper halfway through, not so much.

A lot of the expectations are about how the reader should be feeling – a horror story should be scary, a thriller thrilling, and so on – but there are other elements at play.

Such As?

There has to be a point in a crime mystery where the villain is revealed, or all our guessing as readers will be in vain. We need to know if our adventure’s fighter wins or loses in the end, or returns home triumphant with their treasure. The lovers need obstacles between them and we want to know if they get together at the end. We must build up our glimpses of the monster in our horror and reveal it somehow in the end.  With regard to endings,  I would expect the more commercial stories to be tied up clearly in their closing scenes. With literary stories, that’s not the case. The key here is often to raise the right questions with the reader, not necessarily to give them answers. You want people to be thinking long after they’ve reached the end.

It’s worth studying the wider examples of the genre of stories you most like writing. Which conventions appear in your favourites time and time again?

Genre Affects Key Writing Decisions 

The genre we choose, including hybrids and sub-genres, impacts every story decision. The story’s style, its narrative point of view. The characters – right down to character names. (Did you ever notice how many lead male protagonists in films are called Jack? Nigel doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Why is that?)  The dialogue, the settings, the way the story is structured. The conventional plot points that your reader will expect – or that you might  purposely subvert to lead your reader astray.

Take a ghost story, for example:

  • It is often most effective to tell the story from the point of view of the haunting’s victim. It quite often connects with something about their character psychology or something in their past. However, there’s also another entire story running in the background – that of the ghost themselves and how they came to be. You may only give brief glimpses of that second story – but to make the story effective, as the writer, you need to know it. That way, you can drop those glimpses or clues in for the scares and to make sure they lead to the reveal at the end.
  • A ghost story should be scary, or at the very least unsettling for the reader, as otherwise it will fail. You might use suspense techniques when you structure it in order to achieve this.
  • It’s best not to make it gory –  because grossing out your reader in a story like this is probably not your intended effect.
  • You may well focus on a universal fear likely to be familiar to your reader, and will probably try to make your setting somehow off-kilter.
  • Some of your characters might be odd, so we can’t be sure if our protagonist can trust them.
  • You’ll probably build up the clues and tension until your reader finds out towards the end in the most dreadful way possible, what the ghost was all about.
  • The protagonist might win or lose the battle. There needs to be a sense of peril and for the stakes to be high. You want these readers’ hearts to be thumping. You want to leave them lying awake at night.

 

Know Your Genre, Know Where Your Work Will Fit

No, it’s not all about the market – but some of it certainly is. Once you’re done, it’s good to know just where your work might fit in terms of getting it published.

Genres and particularly sub-genres and hybrids get added to and adapt all the time, depending on what’s going on in wider culture. Remember the crazes for YA Vampire Romances? BDSM erotica? Psychological domestic noirs with female protagonists and “Girl” in the title? Suspenseful mysteries with memory-addled protagonists? Trends change of course, and I wouldn’t advocate writing to a trend, but it helps to be aware of the work that is or isn’t similar to your own. That way you’ll know where to target your submissions and queries.

Over at writer subbing tracker Duotrope, for instance, there’s a huge range of genres you can filter by when you’re choosing where to send your work. I may not agree with all of the categories – I personally find a category of “Women’s Fiction” patronising – but it gives you a good idea of possibilities. For example, under the category of General Fiction, we have sub-genres like Bizarro, Gothic, Urban and Magical Realism. The Horror genre includes a huge list of sub-genres, like Vampire, Shapeshifter, Serial Killer and Supernatural, among many many others.

 

I hope I’ve convinced you that I consider a story’s genre for good reason. It tells me a heap of things when I’m thinking about how well a story’s working and what the cause of some problems may be. That said, I don’t believe in writers shoe-horning what they do naturally into overly rigid frameworks or writing in ways that are over formulaic. Balance is always needed. And make sure any genre you choose is the one that showcases your strengths as a writer. Any genre you write in should be mixed with your own personal quirks and ways of writing so you make sure you produce something truly unique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing, Pressure, And The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Since I’ve updated my competition and subbings list I’ve been musing on a few things.

A few weeks back, I attended a workshop about resilience in the writing life. It was packed, and most of the attendees were women.  I got chatting to some of the other writers about the fact that difficulties  – emotional challenges due to the highs and lows – in the writing life are part and parcel of the whole thing. We all know it’s true. But somehow, we agreed,  these are things we don’t seem to talk about openly enough .

Then, the other day, someone I know shared a great list on twitter of self-care tips for writers that really hit home (I shared them on my timeline). It started me thinking about the deep-seated issues and beliefs that were driving this  and realized just how many self-defeating myths we subject ourselves to.

Often, I think, it’s because writing is so personal. In fact, the better we are doing it, and the more honest we are, the closer to ourselves it will seem. But at the same time, the writing world is not an easy one. Writing, particularly when you are starting to get published and get your work out there, can be incredibly competitive. It can be harsh and unforgiving, and we can be overly hard on ourselves.

Here are some of the pernicious myths that can get under our skin as writers and do damage if we don’t take steps to question them, and give ourselves a little bit of self-care.

 

Myth 1: Our Writing is Us and We Are Our Writing

Because writing is so personal, and often what we write about is in some ways a reflection of ourselves, it can be very hard to separate ourselves as people from the work. Now, when we are actually writing, and digging deep for our truths, this is often an advantage. When we send our writing out into the world, however, it is a different tale.

It’s important to try to detach ourselves from the work.

A story is not “us” – it is merely from us and is ultimately, just a piece of writing.  It is part of our artistic development, whatever happens. The truth is, it may do well out there in the world; equally, it may not. Yes, we can do what we can to prepare it as best we can, but it is no reflection on our worth as people if it does eitherwell or badly.  Set too much store by it, invest too much of your ego in a piece of work and you can end up either a raving egomaniac, or a quavering fruit-loop. I’ve certainly done both. Easier said than done, I know, but best to aim for neither.

Send work out, and once that’s done, try to forget it – and work on something else as soon as you can.

 

Myth 2: Our Value as a Person = Our External Success as a Writer

 “Who are you? Are you an important writer? Are you someone I should’ve heard of?”

You may know this drill, or have seen it happen to others

And then there’s  “Ahh, you’re THAT person who did that great thing! I’ve heard of you!”

No pressure, then!

It follows from what I was saying above, really. Of course recognition of our achievement is great. We should be proud when it happens and own it. But don’t let it take over. Don’t become a legend in your own lifetime. (That said,  isn’t it a satisfying feeling to reveal oneself after a very obvious underestimation?  I’ve seen it happen to women writers a lot, especially the older ones.)

I really do think it’s important not to come to rely too hard on getting that external approval. You need to be able to carry on without it. And trust me, a bad review can crumple anyone to the floor, including bestselling authors. Times change; writers have their peaks and troughs. We have to find a way of keeping on whatever happens and remind ourselves we’re playing the long game.

Likewise, what if we worked really hard on something that didn’t get anywhere – have we failed as a person? No. We live to write another day. We tweak it, perhaps, and see if we can send it somewhere else. We rest it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. And you know that old thing about  your last minute emergency back up being “the one that brings it home?” – well. Think on. So no, your value as a person does not rest on your external success as a writer.

We are not in charge of the outside world. We can’t control others’ opinions or preferences. We are not what other people think. We are not in control of Acts of God or the bizarre quirks of fate that get in everybody’s way sometimes.  All we can do is keep the focus on what we’re doing. The work itself is the bit that’s up to us.

 

Myth 3: Our Writing’s External Value Is Its Only True Value

A writing tutor I know of apparently told their students that if their writing wasn’t published, then the writing didn’t mean anything. As if it was only “real’” when others – him, presumably, or someone he deemed sufficiently important – saw and approved its existence.

I hate stuff like this. Such bullshit.

I understand and agree that the world won’t know us if we don’t share our work, and so we should, when we decide we are ready. But you can’t rely on other people to tell you your work is Important. And should you stop writing completely if you and your work are never going to be deemed Important by some arbitrary measure or decree? Should you give it all up if you never win the Booker, or don’t become a millionaire?

Of course not.

It’s that external validation thing again.

I’ve always cringed when I hear that word “important” being referred to either work, or artists, of any stripe. It smacks of pomposity to me.  “Interesting” yes. “Groundbreaking” yes. And it’s good to have ambition – the ones we set for ourselves, although as I said above, we should avoid having ambitions where we have no control over the outcome.

Written work in all its stages has value. We may not even send it out into the world, but creating it, shaping it, making it something we want it to be, can still be profoundly satisfying. I’d think less about “out there”. I’d think more about “here, this, now.”

 

Myth 4: Productivity is Everything

Look, some people are designed to churn out thousands of words at a rate of knots. And some people aren’t. Don’t beat yourself up. I know loads of slow but excellent and careful writers. I know highly talented writers who send out two stories a year. And then there are writers who whip out book after book after book super-quickly and I’m amazed at their efficiency. Not to mention jealous.

Also – it’s not all about wordcount. I appreciate that sometimes we get held up by procrastination, but there is nothing wrong with projects that you just noodle along with for the love of them and that you just do for you. You don’t have to do the Protestant-work-ethic whip-whip-whip thing.

We are allowed to play sometimes. We are allowed to take a break. We are allowed to do things just for fun. Everything doesn’t have to be professional,  everything doesn’t have to be published. And remember we’re allowed to give ourselves a rest.

 

Myth 5: Perfection is Everything

 As above. Everything can’t be perfect all the time. It doesn’t have to be. A need for perfection is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block. What we do doesn’t have to be perfect. The first draft of anything is shit, as Hemingway said. Don’t get it right, get it written. Have fun. Lose yourself in the project itself, not where it might be going and who might eventually be looking at it.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to be good.

 

Myth 6: Write Every Day

OK, so in fairness, I do prefer to do this. And I often feel tetchy if I don’t, although my “writing” doesn’t have to be wordcount-increasing necessarily. I just like to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – on a daily basis, or I feel like it’s all building up and I find myself annoyed.

But it’s one of those ‘”rules” that gets decreed everywhere and honestly – we don’t have to. Some people write every day. Some people a bit here and there on the train, or at the weekend or on their days off from work. Yes, time can be a factor.  You’re not a useless failure if sometimes life gets in the way.

Nor if we get stuck. There are various ways to get around this, but you are not a quitter if you give it a rest for a few days. Sometimes – and you will know what your own patterns are – it helps to consciously do no writing at all for a day or so. Stick your story or novel or project under the bed, go and have a few days of life and see people and do things. Forget the pressure you put yourself under. Leave it for a bit. Return to it when you are fresh with your batteries and creativity recharged.

 

I hate Decrees-From-On-High about how we should think and feel,  and it’s pernicious myths like these that we internalise and allow to stop us in our tracks. But we can make our own writing lives by noticing when these kinds of myths come up for us, challenging them, and creating a writing life that works for us.

 

 

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