I’m coming up to a new book release pretty soon and while I have published before there are a lot of things I want to do differently this time around. I have grand plans for the launch of my latest … Continue reading
Years ago I saw a documentary on SAS training. During the interviews one soldier said when you feel like your body has given absolutely everything it has, you’ve actually only used 30% of its capabilities. That concept has stuck with me, reminding me that most battles are lost within the mind not the body and whenever I feel like I’m ready to give up, I quietly tell myself, I have another 70% to go.
This idea applies to so many things in life but when it comes to writing a novel, you really have to reach within yourself, pull out everything you have to give, and then some.
People often ask about the challenges an author faces. They’re curious about the daily hurdles, the hunt for inspiration and the motivation to continue working on the same project for years. It is hard but sometimes those three words aren’t enough to explain the enormity of the task. So I wanted to give you a snap shot. To show you the true magnitude of how deep we need to dig as authors to make it through some of those last obstacles.
I’m 2 years into my current writing project, The Ninth Hunter. And the truth is, this is the hardest book I’ve ever written. But it’s not the first time I’ve said those words and it certainly won’t be the last. Which is a good thing. It means I’m pushing myself, I’m learning and I’m getting better at this job every day. But momentum is everything in this craft and this is officially the longest time I’ve spent on one novel. Why? Mostly because of challenging and adapting life circumstances that couldn’t be avoided. All those hiccups dragged me away from the book and made it harder to keep my head in the game. And when you’re working slowly, your perspective warps and it’s easy to lose consistency with your characters and plot.
Despite the hardships, I powered through. Over two years, I submitted 24 chapters of this book to my writers group and received detailed critiques from lots of talented people. I went through their suggestions fortnightly and updated my novel every step of the way. I finally completely the draft. I read the book from start to finish and rewrote my female character. TWICE. I sent the book out to 6 beta readers. I evaluated their feedback and edited the book once more. Then I began my last edit. The final step, the search for spelling and grammar mistakes. The sense of completion drew near, and I was more than ready to let this book go. It had been a long journey, but I’d given everything I had.
Then I received final notes from a seventh beta reader and a couple of significant flaws were brought to my attention. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a crushing moment for me. Not because the feedback was harsh—it wasn’t. The review was honest and constructive but experiencing that shift from visible finish line to realising the marathon wasn’t over was a difficult moment.
At first, disappointment took over but within a few minutes I realised how grateful I was to have a friend tell me what was wrong with my book before I published it and got bad reviews. And I had no doubt in my mind where I would go from there. I didn’t work for 2 years only to ignore a problem and release work that could have been better. If I didn’t fix the flaws, all the time I’d already invested in this book would be wasted.
So today, I’m back at the writing desk. I thought I’d reached my limit but now the challenge has kicked in and I know I have another 70% to spare. Ultimately, this is what I love about writing. I love how it replicates life, throwing curve balls and forcing you to push yourself right to the edge. And to the seventh beta reader, if you’re reading this, you already know how grateful I am for your help. It’s too soon to say exactly how long it will take me to patch up the holes, but there’s no doubt this book will be better because of it. Thank you!
I view writing as a little gift to myself and I’d been working on novels for years before I made it public knowledge. Initially I was doing it just for fun and didn’t imagine it going anywhere but it wasn’t long before I fell deeply in love and I realised, if I wanted to be an author, it couldn’t be a secret anymore. If I truly wanted to be happy and satisfied with my purpose in this world, I needed to allow this passion to cross-over into every aspect of my life. It was the only way to become the person I need to be.
So I started telling people and slowly let my writing travel a little further towards friends and eventually strangers. It’s been quite a journey to publication and the response from family, friends and random people I meet day to day, has been positive. In fact, overwhelmingly positive! So why do I still cringe when people ask me about my books and I’m unprepared?
I’m not entirely sure but I guess some part of me will always view writing as a secret just for me. Almost as though indulging in conversation about it somehow subtracts from the reason why I write. It feels a bit like I’m seeking affirmation when in fact, it truly doesn’t matter whether people know about it or not, I’ll always be a writer. I think a contributing factor is the enthusiastic reaction I get when I tell people about my books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely amazing thing, but people tend to get really excited and throw lots of accidental compliments out there. That’s when I get really shy and self-conscious. Consequently, I’m a bit guarded about my real life. When I meet strangers and they ask what I do, I generally tell them about my day job rather than the thing that really fuels my ambition. Eventually I warm up and tell them the truth, but that could be anywhere from minutes to weeks into our friendship.
Maybe you’re reading this and realising it all makes sense. The way I confessed my love for books to you and then turned bright red and quickly tried to deflect the conversation. But maybe it isn’t as bad as it seems. I’m gradually beginning to understand the reaction from strangers actually has very little to do with me. People don’t gush because of my personal story, they gush because everyone can identify with the idea of following a dream. Isn’t that what we all want out of life; to love something so much we’re willing to sacrifice money, sleep, social interaction or whatever else it takes? People are excited because hearing your story makes them realise you don’t have to be extraordinary to follow your passion. All you need is an idea and to take a chance. Committing yourself to a dream is never self-indulgent it’s enriching and there is no reason I should feel self-conscious about that. Sometimes understanding the motivation of others is all it takes to reverse your way of thinking. So here’s my first step.
Now the truth is out there but I don’t want people to think twice about asking for an update on my books because of this post. Once the first conversation is out of the way and someone knows my secret I could talk about writing until you fall asleep! I genuinely appreciate the people who continue to show support and interest, and you should know you’re helping me overcome my internal battle and build my confidence.
It’s no great secret; I’m not particularly good at dealing with stress. But who is? Maybe some people handle it better than others but for me, it’s a weak point that I’m well aware of. That’s why I’ve tailored my life to a point where I can feel both challenged and controlled.
I’m extremely introverted, so pretty much any social situation comes with a degree of challenge. I absolutely love spending time with my friends and family, and I have a pretty active social life which is really important to me. But four hours is pretty much my limit for social interaction. I can certainly stay out longer but once that fourth hour hits my eyes glaze over and I long to be alone.
I do plenty of other things that are outside of my comfort zone and I embrace and enjoy them as a necessary part of my personal development—but that’s a whole other topic.
To keep my stress levels low I like to stick to a good routine. I practice yoga and I meditate, but most importantly—I write. Over the years I’ve wondered why writing helps me so much and while I know it fuels a passion which makes me feel alive, I felt certain there must be more to it and I’ve finally put my finger on it.
Funnily enough it was a yoga teacher who gave me the insight to recognise it.
I generally practice yoga at home but recently I went to a class and found myself subjected to some philosophical wisdom. During the session the teacher guided us into a difficult posture. It was pretty painful and I can’t remember how long we had to hold it but while we were in place the teacher reminded us to think of the posture as a symbol of the challenges we face in life. Often we shy away from the things we find difficult or painful but it’s important we experience them and learnt to deal with them. The posture is uncomfortable and your body is begging for release but you use your breath to acknowledge the difficulty and build confidence that you can progress through it.
Days later I had a particularly tough day at the writing desk. I’d been working really hard to finalise my editing process when I suddenly hit a wall. Nothing seemed to fit and I felt irritable and frustrated. Then the yoga philosophy ran through my head and the two things clicked into place.
While writing a book, there are days when it’s hard and unforgiving, where progress is slow and success seems too far away. There are problems that need to be solved and solutions where you never expect to find them. There are also moments of pure joy and sometimes days of never ending self-doubt. But you keep going, and after days, weeks, months, years … you realise you’re done. Amongst those pages are all your fears, every tough day and all the happiness you experienced in your life as you wrote it.
Writing is a mentor, a place for you to face your demons in a context you can control. It forces you to acknowledge all that you’re afraid of and find a way to live beyond it. Writing is the teacher who works on your own time, harnessing your insecurities until you’re ready to face them. There are times when I’m tense with action or solemn with the despair of my characters but at the end of the day, all of those things have lived inside of me. I can externalise them in my book and look at them objectively. Although it’s taken me a while to understand how this works, my instinct has been right all along. So if you’ve ever thought about writing a book, you should absolutely get started. It will be the most difficult but rewarding thing you can do for yourself and you’ll come out of it a better person.
I’ve said it so many times before, but I’ll say it again—thank god I have this beautiful thing in my life!
It’s my two year blogaversary and I’ve come one hell of a long way! I can see it in my books and I can see it in my blogs. So here’s to ever learning …
If you look anywhere for tips on writing, ‘Learning to Accept Criticism’ is always listed in the top ten. It’s important for writers to understand the role of rejection, because there’s no way to avoid it. If you send your work to publishers, it’s going to be knocked back, if you let the public read it, there will be bad reviews. It is the nature of art, there is no perfect way to do it.
But handling the criticism doesn’t come naturally to writers, we’re often sensitive, thoughtful creatures who need to be handled with care. Everyone is different but I believe new writers in general are not ready to hear it. I wasn’t either. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In order to make it through the thousands of words it takes to finish your manuscript, you need to believe you were born with a natural talent.
You’ve heard about writers being rejected countless times, you know how rare it is for someone to write a best seller first time round, but somewhere deep down, you think you could be one of them. That’s what gets you through. And when people are brave enough to tell you the truth about your book, you justify it in your own mind. They’re not my target audience, they don’t usually read, they aren’t familiar with the genre. Anything to convince yourself their feedback isn’t relevant, or they just didn’t see what you were trying to do.
It’s something we all have to go through. The tip isn’t, ‘Accept Criticism’, it’s ‘LEARN to Accept Criticism’. It takes time, and how ever long that may, be will vary from writer to writer. For a whole bunch of different reasons.
For me, I was afraid the criticism would stop me in my tracks. I didn’t want to hear it because I know I can take things to heart and I was worried the harsh truth would knock me right off my perch. I wrote four books and self published them, I set them free into the world. But the truth was I wasn’t ready to hear the bad news. Which is perfectly okay, the only way to get there is to experience it.
I took that terrifying first step, I revealed myself and all my flaws to the public.
And that’s the point in every writer’s life when they realise they’re not naturally blessed with the skills. They’re blessed with the inspiration and determination—the skills have to be learnt.
That realisation can take years. Only once you have poured your heart and soul into a story and moved on to write something new, can you really look back and see it for what it is. Time and distance shows you that your work is far from perfect. You did your very best, but you’ve learnt enough to understand what’s wrong with it.
And eventually, hearing someone point out your weaknesses is no longer so hard to hear. You know exactly what they’re talking about—you can see it yourself. You look at the standard of your work now, and see how far you’ve come. It’s still not perfect, but if someone points out the flaws, you think, I’ve come so far in the past year, give it one more year and I’ll be even better at this.
It’s a journey. A long one.
I’ve been writing seriously for eight years now, and I can finally say I’m ready. I know my writing isn’t perfect, I mean really know, not just saying the words for the sake of it. The difference now, is that hearing the truth won’t stop me. I’ve realised I’m not defined by my work, but by my ability to learnt from it. I’m not afraid of publishers knocking me back, I won’t bother reading between the lines when someone says my work is good, completely lacking conviction. I can see it for what it is, and it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It means I’ve graduated. I’m ready to call myself a real writer.
I recently watched a movie called Stranger than Fiction. It’s about a man who can hear a voice narrating his life, as though he’s a character in a book. Seeing this idea in action made me realise how familiar the concept was. I live my life just like that, because I’m a writer, and we narrate on instinct. Our lives are always followed by a mysterious voice-over, because the characters in our stories are shaped by our day to day actions. They live with us, and the things they experience are extracts of our real lives.
That’s not to say every moment of every day is lived as a novel. Inside a writer’s mind, sometimes it is quiet, but the story can begin with the most simple catalyst. It could be lying in bed, shopping for groceries, walking the dog or driving the car. It might seem like a menial task, but somewhere inside the author’s imagination, there is a character doing that exact thing. Only their situation might not be as simple as ours.
A car ride might not be a trip home from work—it’s a killer fleeing the scene of a crime, a frightened girl on the way to an orphanage, or the last vehicle with a low fuel tank in the zombie apocalypse. The narrator kicks in, turning the mundane into something magical. The trees arch over the car, the storm clouds turn black with menace. Wind thrashes rain against the windscreen as the wipers creak. And suddenly this simple life becomes a beautiful book scene.
The narrator lays the groundwork in our minds, and sometimes in the car, middle of peak-hour traffic, you fill in the characters’ dialogue (yes I do this, and pretend I’m on a hands-free phone call). The narrator helps us pull pieces of the real world into our stories so our characters have more dimension. And sometimes it’s hard to break away from that imaginary place to face the real world once more. But this world we live in, is an amazing place for a writer, we’re never alone and the narrator can fill us with wonder at any turn. The whole thing might sound a little nuts, but I know all the writers out there will be nodding their heads. It’s just something we do.
Set your narrator free.
Strange creatures, writers. We live half our lives in imaginary worlds, investing our emotions in characters, and devoting long hours to their stories. We work in isolation, sometimes we’re eccentric, occasionally aggressive and always passionate about what we do.
That’s why we have strange little rituals—habits we’ve developed over time—a list of things we require in order to make the magic happen. Force a writer to break a ritual and you will face their wrath!
There’s a reason for it. Writing is hard, it requires a great amount of mental energy to get into the ‘zone’ and stay there. Most rituals are focused around the development and maintenance of this ‘zone’. That’s why sleeping until 11am is a ritual for me. I’m not kidding. It’s really important. If I wake up earlier on a set writing day, I’m too tired to be inspired. And while I may spend the first couple of hours lazing around, I need that time to reach a state of reflection. It’s the warm up, the stretches before the marathon.
Eventually I settle down to write, and the next two hours are the worst. I’m still forcing away random thoughts that pop into my head, repeatedly checking facebook, and casually reading over the last chapter I wrote. For me, this is where the ritual plays the biggest part.
I need to be in a quiet place, it’s seems dramatic but sometimes even hearing footsteps as someone walks past is enough to break my focus. It’s tempting to open the door and scream at them, but I don’t because it’s rude and I’m a rational person—still, it’s frustrating.
Instead, I use my ipod to drown out the sound of voices in the distance. The music has to be the perfect pace, preferably dark, almost depressing. For me violins are a great muse. I can’t explain it, but I love them. TV on the other hand, forget about it. That will take me right back to square one.
It’s also important to have supplies at hand; drinks and snacks, remote controls for anything I might want to turn on or off, and a bed for the dog to sleep by my feet.
Once my surroundings are exactly how I need them, I position my body in the right place. Don’t ask me why, for some reason I write better when I’m lying down. Sure, I can do it sitting if I have to, but head on a pillow and laptop resting against my knees, seems to work the best.
Two hours later, and I’m finally there—the zone. Four o’clock right through to midnight is my prime time. That’s when everything comes together and I’m really glad I slept enough to last until that time of night.
These are things I’ve been doing subconsciously for years and have never given a second thought. Until recently, I always had plenty of writing time, and the ritual was a by-product rather than first step. I used to see posts from other authors talking about how difficult writing was, but I never saw it that way.
These days my life is pretty fast-paced and writing time is always running low. Now when someone asks me if it’s hard to maintain focus, my answer is—absolutely!
Not because I lack inspiration or motivation, but because life is full of distractions, and the less time I spend writing, the harder it is to find the zone. But the love is as strong as ever, and hardship only makes the achievement more satisfying. You just don’t want to be the person who opens my door at 4pm.
In the words of a writing friend, ‘we’re like serial killers, we need rituals.’