Taking Ownership

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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5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing

So you’ve written your thing? Hurrah! Now what? Get feedback, that’s what!

But how can you get it, and how do you decide which would be the best option for you? Let’s take a look at the main routes:

1. Friends & Family

It can be surprisingly difficult to get effective feedback from friends and family; not least because they love and care for you and don’t want to say anything mean…and because you love them back and want them to think well of you. Their good opinion matters. Nobody wants to fall out  or have things taken personally – and writing , however much we like to pretend we’re all dead hard and so A-grade we can take anything, is just so personal. 

This can make things tricky.

Feedback from your friends and family can often be frustratingly vague. Your mum’s  “That was lovely, darling!” is NOT helpful feedback for your work. We’re not doing this for a pat on the head. That said, you don’t want the opposite. If you’re going to share work, you want to ensure you remain on speaking terms with your nearest and dearest.

When Can Friends & Family Help?

I’ve found there definitely are times that it is helpful to get feedback on finished work by someone you are close to. Just an ordinary reader, usually not a writer or armchair critic (definitely avoid those!), but someone interested enough to want the best for you and your work to succeed. After all, especially if it’s a novel you’re writing, it is ordinary readers who are ultimately going to be reading and hopefully buying your work. Your ultimate reader is probably only going to read your novel only the once. If you have someone in your vicinity who is part of your target market and who might be willing to give you a bit of a heads-up on likely reader first impressions, why not ask them very nicely to help?

  • Is your mum perhaps a lover of crime thrillers and detective stories? (mine is!)
  • Your best friend’s kid a devourer of Young Adult sci-fi fantasy?
  • Your colleague a slipstream literary fiction afficionado?

Bear in mind, it’s risky. If you are going to go this route and there is someone willing, make sure you pick your person VERY carefully, and be precise about what you want them to look for. I’d avoid the “well, did you like it, or not?” question. DON’T choose anyone insensitive or who might have a cross to bear, or someone you’re trying to impress. You don’t need to prove your worth to anybody. Make sure it’s someone from whom you could take any honest but less-than-stellar feedback. Criticism, even mild, can often be harder to hear from someone you know than a dispassionate outsider, whom you can curse in the privacy of your own mind, with no  danger of real-life comeback.

2. Beta Readers & Critique Partners

Technically, beta readers are supposed to be a live test audience for your work. In other words, target market readers who read your manuscript as if they are the eventual reader for your book, allowing you to test for likely responses so you can make adjustments and edits as necessary. The friends and family examples I gave above are really beta readers; it’s just the relationship side of things that can make getting useful feedback tricky and has to be carefully managed.

These days, however, you often see the term “beta reader” used interchangeably with what I’d more accurately call “critique partner.”  In practice, these will often be particular writing friends with whom you’ve connected in the past and developed a mutual bond and degree of trust. They tend to know you and your writing style well and understand your writing process. They “get” you and what you are trying to do and are often used to your particular blind-spots and flaws. Often, they will be well-versed in writing craft and techniques, and are usually pretty good at feedback.

A good critique partner is a valuable asset – if you are lucky enough to have found one, look after them and nurture that relationship! Do make sure it’s mutual, and remember your critique partner does not exist merely to service your needs. We are all busy people with lives, and reading takes time. Make sure you regularly swap work and return the favour. Treat their work with the care, thought and attention you’d want for your own. Learn from one other. You’re looking for someone who is sensitive enough not to personalise any criticism but at the same time isn’t afraid to be honest and tell it like it is in a way that helps you improve your work.

Group Beta Readers

You could of course, also set up a group of proper beta readers to test your stuff out. Members of a book group, perhaps, or a mix of writers and non-writers. A good test reader should be specifically from your target market.  Someone who’s not is likely to give you information that is irrelevant and, unless they are truly objective, their personal preferences often get in the way. You don’t want your high literature types sneering at your YA Fantasy; likewise, Fifty Shades fans aren’t going to be interested in your riff on Infinite Jest. Again, be specific about the feedback you want.  Not “I want to know it’s marvellous and going to be a bestseller and how very clever I am.” (Even though that’s what we all want to hear, obvs). Prepare direct, specific questions about the characters, understanding of certain plot points, pacing,  if it was predictable or confusing in places, for example.. What you want to get from your beta readers is a grounded understanding of whether or not your piece is working. Is it doing what you intend or not?

3. Writing Groups

Writing groups are for some people and not for others. And of course it depends on who you get in your group. I’m lucky enough to be a member of two writing groups – sometimes three – and they are great in different ways.

The most important thing when choosing a writing group is whether or not it is a good match for you and your work. Are group members generally at a similar stage in their writing lives? You ideally want a group where people are at a similar stage as you or just a little ahead of you in their writing careers. Is there a variety of genres people tend to write in or is everyone in the group into the same type of work? If the latter, is it your type? How is discussion conducted and how respectful is it of all members? Are there rules about how feedback is given, what sort of feedback is appropriate and what isn’t?

When Writing Groups Go Bad

Horror stories abound, of course. A woman I met at a workshop the other day told me she’d been rounded on by a clique in a new writing group and her worked ripped to shreds with not one word of positivity or constructive criticism. Essentially the leader of the group decided her work was worthless and it went round in a circle with each individual telling her exactly why this was so. Apparently one man put his hand up and said he’d rather liked it, but was shouted down and his views dismissed by the rest. Another friend, writing tentatively about the lesbian family relationships she’d grown up in, was told by the squirming members of her writing group that they didn’t want to hear about things “like that”, and that she was shoving “her politics” down their throats.

Again – you need to pick your people. Groups, especially where there are one or two very dominant personalities, can get very cliquey. (And of course many have the Guy-In-Your-MFA types lurking in their midst. Good for a laugh but can be quite frustrating.) Make sure yours is respectful of all members and their work. A variety of writing styles in evidence is helpful, as are signs that people give each other constructive feedback which gives the writers something to work on.

4. Free Online Critique Sites

What if you want the variety of views that a writing group can bring but don’t have anything local to your area? You could always join an online critiquing circle.

Be prepared to give and take. The best of these sites operate through “karma points” – you feed back on other people’s work, and earn enough karma points for your work to be read and commented on in return. Do note though that often you only get the basic service for free so it can take time to build up points – if you want all bells and whistles on the sites, you’ll sometimes find you have to pay for it.

The advantage of this approach is that it is fantastic practice and highly instructive to have to read a lot of others people’s work as well as writing your own. Seeing other people’s strengths and weaknesses can help make you far more aware of what your own particular talents and blind spots may be. And of course you’ll get a wide range of comments, just like in a writing workshop or group. Disadvantages are that obviously reading others’ work takes time. You’ll probably get a number of comments that don’t seem relevant and that you discard. And there are often limits with regard to how detailed you can be in your feedback, and also on the lengths of the pieces you can post. You need a thick skin, too; but that is something probably worth building up. Join one up for free (see links below) and check out the sort of stuff that gets posted to see if this might be the route for you.

https://www.scribophile.com

https://www.critiquecircle.com

5. Paid Consultancy & Reader Services

Ah, last but not least. And not just a plug for yours truly – these services are not right for everyone, and as with every choice you make as a writer, it should be a case of picking what really works for you. I’d suggest trying the freebies first and then if you want something more, consider paid assessment options such as mine.

Look at what the different services offer, try to see sample reports if you can and think about what you need to take your writing forward. It may be the kudos of having a big-name author read your work (not me, sorry). It may be the window of possibility of having your novel recommended by the service to an agent (nope.) You may be after in-depth editorial  and proofreading services (no); you may be at the stage where you are looking more for a detailed analysis of the big picture structures of the work (hello! *waves*). You may be looking to send a whole novel; you may be wanting in-depth notes on a couple of short stories. Think about where you’re at with your work, and what you’d like to know in terms of moving it forward. Be totally honest with yourself, and you will find you get more out of whatever service it is  you choose. You need to know what you want so that you can ask for – and get – it. Exactly what you need.

 

So there we have it. Five ways of getting feedback on your work. Have I missed anything crucial? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Becoming a Writer: Create Your Own Path

How do you create your own path as a writer?

It is easy to get sucked into the belief that to give yourself permission to call yourself a writer, there is a rigid set of external steps that you have to fulfil. The fiction writing world, at least here in the UK, can be a small one, demographically speaking. Much as I love all the writers I know, it is, in my experience, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated crowd (and yes, that goes for me too). That means that for many writers,  the “officially-sanctioned path” – with its inherent assumptions about cultural background and income – can seem rather limited and exclusionary.

For instance, it is not enough to just sit down every day and write; it has to be literary fiction. It must be in the form of a novel ( you have to pick one form) and has to be traditionally published. You must have done – and paid for – an MA or MFA or one of the publisher courses specifically set up to rival these, or you are “ not doing anything”.  Or you must have studied English Literature at university and have gone to university in the first place. You must be under 40. Blah. Etcetera.

This, of course, is all bollocks. There’s nothing wrong with these things (well, apart from the under 40 focus), they can indeed be helpful for many – but they are categorically not the only ways to develop your writing, nor the only path to follow. It is perfectly possible to “become a writer” while missing any or all of these, and to create your own path yourself.

Five Ways To Create Your Own Writing Path

Know Yourself Well

Be honest. Think about the things you really like reading. What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see your writing dreams? What genres do you love? When push comes to shove, would you rather win the Booker, be a performance poet or make millions with a commercial bestseller? All of these make a difference to the decisions you might make on your writing path. The books to read, the authors to study, the courses to consider.

Learn Your Strengths & Weaknesses

It’s also worth getting clear about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps people have told you you’ve a knack for suspense, or you do a great line in sharp character observation, or your plot twists are sublime and your writing zips along. This is the stuff you champion and build on. On the other hand, your editing might need work, you might be rubbish at endings, you might struggle with structure or story. Nobody likes to be anything other than marvellous, but knowing your weaknesses means you can concentrate your learning efforts on trying to bridge those gaps.

Study The Greats

Your greats and my greats might be different – and that’s fine. I’m a short story writer and lover of dark, off-kilter literary fiction. You might be writing gritty urban YA, century-spanning family dramas, murder mystery spoofs, zombie sci-fi. I’m assuming if you are serious about your writing that you are already a voracious reader. But this isn’t just about reading for pleasure, although that too, of course. You need to actually study the best work in your chosen genre. Read a little around it too, explore the boundaries a bit. Compare and contrast different writers and forms and look at the patterns. Examine how the work is constructed; see how it has been put together, consider what the effects are on you, the reader and how those effects have been achieved. Make notes.

Don’t – ever – copy in the plagiaristic sense, but can you try out some of the structures in your own work? The effects? How might you improve on them?

Find Your People

No writer is an island – even for an activity that tends to involve so much isolation. It’s great to have like-minded people to connect with. I myself found a huge network of short-story lovers, first from joining a small short story book group close to my work, plus independently going to events and running into the same people, from there to a regular spoken-word night and joining a writing group with some of the attendees, connecting with new people over Twitter and by following blogs that interested me. If you take action, such as attending readings based on the stuff you genuinely love, you’ll soon start to connect with others doing the same. And who knows what can follow from there?

Seek Out Resources That Will Help You

 The better you know yourself as a writer, the better you can target the learning experiences you need. You may be someone who works best by yourself, using exercises from books and online and setting your own pace. Or you might benefit from the classroom atmosphere of a good course, or the silence of a writing retreat – or a one-to-one with a supportive mentor. You may want a critique group. You may want writing exercises targeting on one or two of your weaknesses. Personally I’ve done in-depth courses in screenwriting, playwriting, script-reading, short fiction. I’ve been to hundreds of author talks and spoken word nights. I have a ton of online resources I use and shelves full of books, many crossing over between screenwriting and fiction, which I happen to find useful. I’m in two critique groups. I do also have an MA, though seem to do my best work when setting my own pace and supplementing with short, targeted courses when I can afford them. That’s just me. Everyone is different, after all.

Truth is, there is a wealth of information and resource out there for you already – you just have to decide what you need to take your work forward and go out and find it. And yes, you are allowed. You might find that all of the listed “official channels” are right for you, or only some of them are, or only aspects of some of them that you can source yourself. Chances are if you want to, you will be able to find your own alternatives as and when you need to. Creating your own path may well empower you – and improve your writing, too.

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