The Path To Independence

About a year ago I decided to become an independent writer.  For me the word independent has many connotations, both positive and negative.  It makes me think of being alone, an absence of support, a need for resilience and a determination that can only come from me.  But it also makes me think of freedom, being in control, and having an influence over my own creativity.

As with many things in life, you have to face the fear of the negative in order to achieve the positive, and for this project it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other, powering through the fear.  The practical application of this was an elaborately bullet-pointed list using a variety of headings and sub-heading, and included anything from proof-reading and formatting of the manuscript itself, to the marketing aspects, setting up a website, getting author photos, etc.  In short, anything I needed to do to start taking myself seriously as a writer and a business.

I’ve already documented the various wrong paths I’ve traveled down, the time wasted and the sleep-reducing frustrations, but when it came to it, all the months of preparation finally condensed itself into a couple of days last week.  Probably less than that.  Half a day for the website to go live (all the pages had been written and re-written over the past few months, so it was just a case of double checking and smoothing out the aesthetics).  Then it took precisely five and a half hours to upload the book itself onto Kindle.

I sat with The Editor in her attic office, following the instructions on the KDP website and drinking coffee.  The process of uploading and previewing was time consuming and confusing, and much of the time we felt we were only half understanding the process, but once we realised that between our two partially functioning brains we actually had a whole one, things seemed to fall into place.  A quick health warning for anyone interested in doing this themselves — the US tax questionnaire and international banking details aren’t as intimidating as they sound.

Once all the computer work was completed there was nothing else to do but drink a glass of bubbly and wait.  Amazon said it would be twelve hours before the book would go live, but in fact it was only five.  It was quite a thrill seeing The Big Deep image on the website, knowing that readers could download and read with just the click of a button, but in the middle of the night this week that thrill was strangely equaled when I woke up and remembered The List.  I realised that because everything was stored in my head I hadn’t actually looked at it for weeks, possibly months, and all those things to be done were now  things that had been done.  They were things achieved.  So the first thing I did the following morning was go back to The List and cross everything off.  It was as satisfying as a cappuccino and a large slice of carrot cake.

So, my suggestion for anyone considering doing something a little bit scary, something that makes you feel the fear.  Make a list and make it thorough.  Take small steps.  Take your time and prepare.  Find someone who can share not just the burden, but also the sense of adventure.  But most of all believe in yourself and what you can achieve.

Go on, just do it.

When The Cupboards Are Full…

There is an element of feast or famine to the writer’s life that can make even the most resilient lose faith.  Particularly for novelists, there will be many years of writing with blind hope keeping them going and determination that not only will they finish the masterpiece, it will also be published and read by millions.  This obvious success may never happen, and if it doesn’t, it’s on to the next project, the next grand passion and the whole cycle starts again.

Orange Tree MuralI’ve had a lean couple of years.  I’ve been writing, yes, but there have been manuscripts rejected by agents, short stories ignored in competitions, scripts just sitting on my laptop thinking they were invisible.  All this output with so little purpose.

But sometimes, just occasionally, those lean times suddenly become plentiful and your creative tree is full with fruit.  This month I had a short story and a piece of flash fiction accepted (indeed I received a cheque in the post this week, whoop whoop!), then I had a request to submit two radio plays (both works-in-progress with no guarantee of acceptance, but heck, someone want to read them), and I’ve nearly finished a couple of short stories I’ve been working on for the new website.  And finally, next weekend, I’m going to be sitting down with The Editor and an inexhaustible supply of coffee, and we’re going to download The Big Deep to Kindle.  In theory, if the technology is kind to us, it will be available to buy bright and early the following week.

It’s no wonder I had a dream this week that the cupboards in my kitchen were heaving with food, the fridge overflowing with bottles of fruit smoothies and delicious treats, a sudden and unexpected bumper crop.

Of course this rare sense of success isn’t what keeps me going.  The paradox is that the lean times are important, those days when I’m sitting alone in a room and uncovering characters and stories, shaping and cajoling them and helping them on their way.  As lean times go, they’re pretty special and I feel privileged to be able to spend my days this way.

For now though I have to make the most of this feeling that all the hard work is paying me back. This is the writer’s life after all, and you can’t have the feast without the famine, just like you can’t have the cheque without the story, so I’ll be back to the daily grind soon enough, with those radio scripts needing a rewrite, a couple of ideas for short stories that need developing, and oh yes, there’s that other novel waiting for my attention…

The Wisdom of Hunter S. Thompson

UnknownHunter S. Thompson was a successful man.  I say man instead of writer because he lived his life on his own terms, which can best be classified as anti-authoritarian and sometimes downright illegal.  He was a thinker and philosopher, he cared about politics and the world around him, and he’s probably most famous for creating gonzo journalism (as well as being played by Johnny Depp in the quite brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  This was a man who even managed the spectacular in death with his ashes being fired from a cannon.  He was original.  He made his mark on the world and part of his success was not in what he produced, but in the way he lived.

Over the week I’ve been going back repeatedly to an article on Brain Pickings (a website I recommend but not if you’ve got stuff to do), where some of his ideas are explored.  Within the various quotes he talks about how people are formed and changed by experience, and the importance of taking control of your own choices.

What really struck home with me were his thoughts on striving towards a goal, and what a risky endeavour this can be if a person is faced with ‘the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it’.  Anyone who faces professional self-doubt, rejection or just sheer exhaustion from the daily grind of trying to move closer to their goal must have this fear.

So how do you keep going?  A change in approach, that’s how.  Thompson suggests ‘we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL… rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he [must] bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires.

‘In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.’  (I’d like to point out that I’m pretty sure this philosophy works for women too).

I spent many years writing towards the goal of publication.  That was the only thing that mattered to me and as a consequence I rushed my writing, I stopping enjoying the process and it showed in my work.  It has taken me a long time to realise that publication will not make me happy.  Of course I want people to read my work.  Spending years writing a book with no-one to read it at the end is soul-destroying, but I now know that it’s the writing itself, the way of life, that is most meaningful to me.  Those mornings when I’m sitting  on the sofa, a cup of freshly brewed coffee to hand, and I’m writing stories.  It is the experience and the process that equal fulfilment, publication is just a side-effect.

Writers have to define their own understanding of success, whether that means great sales or just finding a way to keep writing.  It’s clear that there is no right or wrong way to live a writer’s life, and in this digital age there are more alternatives than ever to the traditional publishing route.  Social media, collaboration and innovation all have their part to play, not just in the development of individual writers, but also how the written word is going to evolve in the future.  At the heart of this though has to be the work itself.  Strong imaginative storytelling.  Compelling and original characters.  A writer with something to say to the world, something to share.  These are my definitions of success. and while I’m not planning on blowing my ashes out of a cannon anytime soon, I’ll be striving to live my life on my own terms until I do.

Ta da! Finally, ‘The Big Deep’ Has a Cover…

Back in August I posted about my very angst-ridden time trying to get a cover design for my young adult novel, The Big Deep.  Believe it or not this whole project (getting it published on Kindle) was supposed to be done and dusted by September, and the various hitches/bad choices with regard to the cover design were just one aspect of the many hold-ups.  As ever sheer determination (ie. bloody-mindedness) wins the day, and The Designer proved to have insightful clarity when it came to interpreting the story in a visual way.

The Designer is Jade King at BlackInk Communication, and I gave her very little guidance of what I wanted, except that I felt it was important to reflect the dark tone of the story (so no pink and fluffy, no stock-teen-lit images of shoes and dresses) and I was happy to keep it clean and simple as this works best as a thumbnail image (Amazon’s stock-in-trade).

Unknown-3UnknownUnknown-2I also gave her the covers I like; the Gone series by Michael Grant, anything by John Green, and Ketchup Clouds, by Annabel Pitcher.  As you can see it’s all about creating a striking layout by combining colour with an effective font design.

So, after mulling over various ideas and fiddling around with the nitty gritty detail, I finally have my cover…

TheBigDeepWhat I love about this is the simplicity of the image and the suggestion of sinking into darkness, The filled-in letters of the font add a further dark undertone, and there’s not a fluffy pink shoe to be seen.

I’m now in the process of planning a coffee-fuelled weekend with The Editor to bring everything together, and will be wrestling with document formatting, blurb writing, etc over the next couple of weeks.  The process of uploading to Kindle is sure to be a testing few days, but I’ve a feeling that after all the months of angst, wrong paths and uncertainty, there may be a Margarita or two at the end of it…

The Writer’s Retreat… with Anna Freeman

The Writer’s Retreat is a new regular (or possibly irregular) feature.

Photo courtesy of Emma London
Photo courtesy of Emma London

Here is the scenario: You have one month alone on a remote Scottish Island.  You have a comfortable cabin and enough food to last the duration.  The only contact you have with the outside world is a radio.  There is no television, internet access or mobile phone signal.

This month’s Writer’s Retreat Resident is performance poet and novelist, Anna Freeman.

What will you be working on while you are there?
Urgh. That question speaks itself in the sliding tones of my own inner guilt-voice. I have too many projects at once, at the moment. Mostly I’ll be finishing editing my novel and re-writing the show I’m doing with Chris Redmond and The Tongue Fu band, which tours next summer. It’s a comedy thing about how music shapes our identity. I don’t know how much of it I’ll be able to do alone, though. Maybe I need Chris dancing about at me.

How will you structure your days?
Oh, the same as here. Hunt around the cabin for excuses not to write, clean stuff that doesn’t need cleaning, drink too much coffee, write a bit, get twitchy, realise what I’ve written is rubbish, throw myself to the floor in despair etc.

How do you feel about being cut off from human contact as well as the social network? That’s what being a writer feels like anyway, when you really get going. It’s possible that I’ll miss Facebook more than real people. I’m a compulsive FB checker, even though I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for.

What reading will you bring with you?
I’ll bring the to-read stack that sits next to my bookshelf. It’s all the books I’d love to read, but which have no relevance to my own writing, so they tend to get sidelined. At the moment it’s getting a bit tall and precarious, it’s probably time I made an inroad. At the top is The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt and State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.

What essential items will you be packing?
Um… wine? Wine and winegums.

907645_10151661512630881_839239495_nAnna Freeman is a multiple slam champion, novelist, creative writing lecturer at Bath Spa University, and an activist for ginger rights. Her work is often humorous, with a spine of genuine pain and humiliation at the inarguable fact of her own existence.
Anna has performed her poetry in myriad cities including Edinburgh, London, Bristol, Manchester, Vancouver and Seattle, and appeared as part of Radio 4’s Bespoken. Let The Pig Out, Anna’s brand new spoken word/live music collaboration with Chris Redmond and The Tongue Fu Band, is taking bookings to tour through the second half of 2013 and into 2014. Her first poetry collection, Gingering the World from the Inside, is published by Burning Eye Books and her first novel, The Fair Fight, won The Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize 2013 and will be published in 2014 by Orion..
‘A superb act of imaginative ventriloquism’ – James Pusey, Tibor Jones
‘A hearty recommendation for Anna Freeman’ – Guardian Books
‘She twists up the awkward, confusing and the painful into slick balloon animals’ – Buddy Wakefield
‘A rising star’ – Venue

Here here!  Thank you Anna, for being the first guest at The Writer’s Retreat (hopefully you’ll leave some of those winegums behind for the next guest).  Very much looking forward to reading The Fair Fight next year — 18th century women bare-knuckle fighting… what’s not to like?

Rule Follower or Rule Breaker?

Many reports of Elmore Leonard’s recent death included mention of his 10 Rules for Writing.  This list is something I often use as part of a classroom discussion on differing approaches to writing, but it also brings up thoughts on rules, ie, to follow or not to follow.

Following the rules will keep things tidy but...
Following the rules will keep things tidy but…

For some people this is exactly what they’ve been looking for all their writing life.  A fool-proof list of do’s and don’t’s and all they have to do is follow the rules and they have a bestseller on their hands.  Other writers are yelling noooooooooooooo at their screens, you wlll not stifle my creativity… I refuse to live in a dictatorship!

Most writers probably fall somewhere in between, because while some rules may fit into your own ideas of form, structure, characterisation, etc, others may go completely against the grain.

For example, EL’s Rule No. 5. Keep your exclamation points under control.  You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  For me, this makes absolute sense.  Exclamation points are like someone wearing a T-shirt with the word Sexy printed across their back – they’re just trying so hard to convince you that it makes you instantly doubt their claim to said sexiness.

However, EL’s Rule No. 1. Never open a book with weather, seems a little authoritarian, especially when you consider:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid.’  The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’  1984, George Orwell.
‘To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.’  Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
That said, if you are going to open with the weather make sure it’s damn finely written weather, or you’ll end up in dark and stormy night territory.

...sometimes you need a creative break-out
… sometimes you need a creative break-out

One thing I’ve learned as a teacher and as a writer is that following the rules has its place, as does breaking them, but that everyone’s place is different.  I’m only just beginning to get the courage to do some rule breaking myself, and I posted a while ago about my longing for A Satnav To Life, a way of finding the path that’s right for me before I make mistakes.  One good thing about rules is that if you find yourself going down the wrong path, you can use them as signposts to help you find your way back, and this means next time you see one of those smaller pathways that suggest uncharted territory, you won’t be afraid to venture down.  Rule breaking, the unknown, the possibility of failure, these are all conditions where original voices and daring ventures begin, enabling you to imagine stories that you and only you can create.  And this, after all, is why we write in the first place.

Teaching Uncertainty

So here we are, fresh into the new semester at BSU, and this week my students have made me think about the role of uncertainty for teachers in the classroom.  This all started in the module Teaching Writing where I’m teaching students how to teach, a class that can become so self-referential I keep expecting to meet myself at the whiteboard.  We were discussing an academic article by Lee S. Shulman called quite pithily Signature Pedagogies in the Professions which received mixed reviews from the students, but one aspect that created an interesting discussion in one of the classes was how feelings of vulnerability and insecurity can affect not just students, but teachers too.

Uncertainty is something every teacher has to deal with, whatever their level of experience.  Students are peskily unpredictable creatures.  You never know what they are going to say or do, and sometimes you just can’t get them to follow the lesson plan you’ve spent a few coffee-fuelled hours preparing.

One thing I like about delivering a lecture is the feeling of complete control.  Yes, I have a scary sea of faces staring at me expectantly, but I have my material prepared, my Prezi all lined up (if you haven’t used/experienced Prezi before, get with the program people), and I also know that I know my stuff.  These are the security blankets that make that sea of faces a little less daunting, and these are the things that appeal to my inner control freak.

Seminars, however, are a different matter.  I want the teaching to be student-centred, drawing on their experiences and opinions to debate and discuss, and this is where the uncertainty comes in.  You just never know what direction they will take you, and as the teacher you may be responding to points you are uncertain about yourself, and sometimes the discussion goes so off-track that you may as well throw that coffee-stained lesson plan in the bin.

This is exactly what happened in one particular class.  Normally I would be thinking fast, covering my growing panic and putting diversionary tactics in place to get back on message.  But this class was different.  In Teaching Writing I’m not just covering teaching pedagogy and analysing the theory, I also need them to see what teaching is like in real life too.  So instead of covering up the fact that everything was going horribly wrong, I drew attention to it, told the students my thought process, how I should have steered that conversation better, and how I now needed to change the next exercise because the one I  planned didn’t really fit with the discussion we’d just had.  Hopefully, I managed to turn a potential car-crash of a lesson into a demonstration of one of the pitfalls of real teaching practice.

As you can imagine, teaching how to teach ramps up uncertainty to a whole new level.  Recognising your mistakes, being flexible and adapting your lesson in response to the students is good teaching practice, and in this class I have to be transparent too.  I can’t be a control freak about it.  I can’t hide the messy, unpredictable, imperfect side of teaching or the students won’t gain a well-rounded knowledge of what the role requires.  So I just have to let it happen.

I’m sure I’ve blogged the following quote before, but it’s so relevant here I’m happy images-2to repeat myself.  It’s from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, She says perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.  Stop looking at your feet.’

I’m sure I will continue to be a control freak in my other classes, forever in pursuit of The Perfect Lesson, but in the Teaching Writing module, I’ll be trying hard to stop looking at my feet.

The Power to Change

Writing has helped me through many dark times, and so it does again now.  I do write this with trepidation though, not because of what I want to say, but because I’m unsure how to say it in the most appropriate way.  Just words on the screen, I tell myself, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?  Words add themselves together until they mean something, and meaning has the power to heal as well as hurt.  Knowing this means that I don’t write this post lightly.

I haven’t written anything in nearly a month because a tragic event put everything on hold, personally and professionally.   The most important people in that time (and still now) are my family, but just today, in this moment, the emotions are a little less raw so I’m starting to reflect in a more personal way.

Over the past few years I’ve gone through several life changing events, and as a writer this often comes with conflicting emotions.  On the one hand there is a needle prodding my brain telling me I’m using myself and other people as material, I’m feeding on their pain or the events in their lives for something as frivolous as making up stories.  This needle is crippling and destructive, bringing with it guilt and deeply unattractive defensiveness, and it’s invasive enough to stop the creative process at the first hurdle.

But the other feeling is actually to do with understanding myself.  My true self.  I’ve come to recognise that I am a writer because it is my way of making sense of what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, as well as what the people around me are experiencing.  Making up stories is a way of exploring lives, not just the good things that happen to people, but the tragedies too, and in this way I can understand why or how something can happen, and I hope that my readers can too.

This recognition is what moves reading stories from a frivolous activity to something that has the power to change opinion, heal a wound or give strength in dark times.  It’s why people are compelled to write, whether they are published or unpublished, and it is why people read novels or watch TV drama or listen to radio plays.  In understanding another person’s experience, maybe we can come to understand our own.

I still need to take the time to reflect and think through what has happened, and it will be a long and difficult process.  Throughout I will have to tell myself not to be afraid, that my writing will be effected by what has happened and this is okay, because only then can I write in a meaningful way, creating characters and stories that can make a difference, even if it’s just in a small way.

I hope to be back to posting more regularly now, but for anyone who has lost someone they love, I recommend A Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, who asks ‘Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?’.

The New Publishing Dynamic

What on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?

Yes, I know, it’s a question that has no answer so why even bother asking the question, but seriously, what on earth is going on in publishing at the moment?

A-Naked-SingularityThe industry is undoubtedly in a state of flux, with the rise and rise of ebooks and the ability of authors to publish themselves in a variety of forms and media, making traditional publishing look like an old man stuck in a rocking chair.  But my bafflement was increased last week when I read an article by Robert Collins in The Sunday Times about the next great novel on the block, A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

This is a novel that nobody wanted.  De La Pava spent three years sending it out to agents and he either got a straight no or they didn’t even bother replying.  So he self-published in 2008, expecting it to languish in obscurity as many self-published books do, but through the tenacity of his wife sending out copies to the community of on-line reviewers, the book’s profile began to creep up.  One reviewer compared it to Moby Dick, another to Crime and Punishment.  Of course the mainstream publishers can spot a ready-made buck when they see it, so it was finally picked up by Chicago University Press and Quercus, and has now won the PEN prize for a debut novel.  Collins himself writes that it is ‘remarkable’ and ‘unputdownable’.  High praise indeed.

There have always been stories about the problems of getting published, how difficult it is for agents/publishers to spot a really great book, and how even then all the elements have to be perfect with the stars aligned and the perfect combination of cappuccinos and muffins at the acquisition meeting for them to actually say yes.  But it seems to me something else is happening here.  With the option of every author to self-publish this has enabled publishers to absolve themselves of actually having contact with new writers until they have created their own success.  Self-publishing has become the new slush-pile, and all the hard work has been done for them.  The reviews are available to read on-line, the readership is already established, the author’s name can easily be Googled for more information on his/her writing and his/her life.

At the moment, I don’t think anyone knows what this means for books, writers, readers and the publishing industry.  There will inevitably be problems along the way, but as I’m ever the optomist I’m hoping this new dynamic will become a revolution in the variety and depth of literature available, a levelling of the playing field for writers, and it may even make the industry less conservative.  As I said, I am ever the optimist.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear.  All writers need to go out and get themselves a diligent wife, someone to cook the meals while the great masterpiece is being created, and then send it out to the reviewers when the hard work is done.  I’ve started looking for mine already…

A Satnav For Life

The last few months I’ve found myself wishing for some kind of device that will tell me the right path to take, some sort of satnav for life, if you like.

The maze of decision-making.
The maze of decision-making.

Whatever you want to do career-wise there will be decisions to make, moments where the path ahead forks with no way of knowing which one to take, and being a writer is no different.  Sometimes these decisions are small and inconsequential, such as which competition to enter, should you really edit that story after a glass of wine, or how will your character react to her husband’s infidelity?  But there are others you just know are the game changers, the gut-wrenching heart in your mouth while you plunge into the darkness decisions, like can you afford to give up work for a year to concentrate on your writing, should you write that steam-punk sci-fi gangster novel that’s been bothering you for months, or should you go with an agent/publisher or self-publish and become an independent writer?

If you take the self-publishing route the decision-making seems to be constant, often without the necessary knowledge or experience.  At each stage of the process the ramifications of a bad choice is all the more scary because if it goes wrong you only have yourself to blame.  I had all this going on in the back of my mind when I started working with The Illustrator on my book cover.  We developed ideas together, with several drafts before we settled on what the final image would look like.  There were various problems growing along the way, but I’d already started on this path and I was hopeful that we just needed to keep going and things would come right.  But then the whole process faltered and I found myself having to make the decision — keep on this path even though I can see it’s probably not best for the book, or go back, admit defeat and start on a new path?

I make it sound easy, summing up the situation in one paragraph, but it was tough even getting to the point where I acknowledged a decision had to be made.  I also had to face the fact that my expectations were too high, I’d done the wrong thing and most crucially I’d wasted time.  Where was my inner satnav when I needed it?

In the end I called a halt, turned around and trudged back to the starting point, feeling despondent and defeated.  But then I made a few new contacts and had a tentative conversation with a graphic designer.  I love what I’ve seen on her website and started to feel excited about how she would interpret the story.  I realised I’d already started on a new path, my inner satnav rerouting me without me knowing it.

I still feel the loss of that time, and my relationship with The Designer is at an early stage.  I won’t know if this is the right path until I’ve travelled along it for a while, sussed out the scenery, got the vibe of this new journey, and I’m trying to look at my mistakes in a positive way.  Steve Jobs once said, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever…’  And I suppose the way we connect up the dots is by making mistakes, taking time to reflect and then learning from them.  Apple have not (yet) created a device that will tell us the right thing to do, so we just have to have faith and if it feels right in our gut, just do it anyway.