Why it's okay to leave home without your notebook
Writers are a funny bunch. We can usually be found bemoaning the difficulties bestowed upon us by this vocation we are compelled to honour; difficulties such as the cost of coffee, the long hours without daylight, and the pressure to produce something worthy of those long hours which can't ever be lived again. We are quick to verify the divide that exists between non-writers (those not driven to put thoughts into words on paper) and the rest of us (who are), and we do so with an air of having experienced something the former never will – thankfully for them.
Yet for all this moaning – sorry, bemoaning – we never think about leaving our desk behind and just quitting writing for a while. And that’s because writers have heard the horror stories. We know that not writing will either destroy our career or bring out the Edward Hyde in us, and the only way to steer clear of this is to write or think about writing almost every waking hour of every day (and some non-waking ones too). But could we be missing a trick?
Having just returned from a one-week road trip around the lochs, glens and coast of Scotland, the North Coast 500 route, in an old, slow (but thankfully reliable) camper van, I’ve discovered something very useful. Whilst it had been my intention to consciously be alert to anything that would spark my creativity (settings, characters, themes, plots), so lost was I in the moment of the trip, all thoughts of writing and editing left me easily and completely.
Back at my desk on Monday morning, I felt well rested... and, yes okay, a little brain-fogged. But I was also slightly disappointed I perhaps hadn’t made the most of the opportunity I’d been given. Many successful writers extol the virtues of travel, of leaving the desk behind and wandering to pastures new in order to garner new experiences and knowledge with which to enrich their writing. Had I been having such a great time that I had dismissed my responsibilities like an unwelcome guest?
Well, as it turns out, no. As I reflected on the road trip, I realised I had absorbed more data for the writing banks than I had been aware of. I may not have scribbled copious notes in my bumper notebook (wishful thinking!), and I may have been so busy mesmerised by the blue/green hue of the sea along the Highland coast that I failed to spot the significance of the historic building of interest inland, but I did return with a clear head (a slate as blank as my notebook) and a shedload of experiences... oh, and photos too.
In fact, some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve returned with are not what I would have expected at all. For instance, I can now better imagine what it feels like to not know where you might be sleeping from one night to the next; I also know the bizarre and unsettling sensation of half-waking in the night with no idea where you are or where you are supposed to be (home? bedroom? camper van? lakeside? mountains?); I know what it’s like to live only for the present day – to ensure you and your family have all the basics covered (food, water, toilet), to only think about your journey for that day (not what you’re doing next week or next month) and how strangely refreshing and exhilarating that ‘simple’ day-to-day living is.
Perhaps less unexpected, I now know there are areas in Scotland that bring to mind Canada, Alaska, and – yes – Route 66: images imprinted in my mind which would no doubt serve either a Scottish or North American setting for a novel very well. I know how the clarity of the water gives it its beautiful shades, how the sunset can give a warm red glow to the side of an otherwise grey and ominous-looking mountain, and how close to nature you feel when you are separated from it only by pieces of thin metal and glass.
Most of all, I know that we writers don’t have to record everything we see: we don’t even have to constantly be looking. If something catches our imagination and sparks ideas, then fine, but otherwise it is life’s experiences themselves – those that enter the memory banks rather than the notebooks – that will some day emerge in our writing. And probably when we least expect it.
Non-writers may be forgiven for thinking that to sit at one’s desk in one’s pyjamas tapping out novels for a living sounds like a breeze. Of course, they know full well there’s more to the writer’s life than that; good range of vocabulary for a start, a bottomless imagination, and an enjoyment or at least tolerance of solitude and coffee. Writers themselves may recognise some or all of these factors and reflect, yes indeed, it is a dream job because of these things and more, much more. But surprisingly, little is mentioned amongst writers of their vocation’s considerable emotional expenditure.
A construction worker may return home after a twelve-hour shift, only to nod off the moment his head hits the sofa or dinner plate – physically and mentally exhausted from the strains of the day. Likewise, the writer also arrives home – okay, emerges from the writing cave – with the same dishevelled look and mashed-up brain, and this sometimes after only a fraction of the construction worker’s shift. Though the writer holds scant argument in the physicality stakes (apart from bleary eyes, numb buttocks and a crick in the back), their potential for mental fatigue is, at the very least, on a par with those with more ‘normal’ full-time careers.
Writing fiction has always put me in mind of acting. These two professions share an extraordinarily similar purpose in that they both require the individual to mentally become someone else, and – done well – this can be emotionally draining. Add to this the fact that the writer must become not just one but several characters all at the same time, and you begin to get a sense of how all-consuming writing can be (aside from the finding-the-right-words-and-putting-them-in-the-right-order thing).
Watching me write (type) is not a pretty sight. To assist visualisation, I will often ‘act out’ the emotions, mannerisms or gestures my characters are portraying. This could be something as simple as the motion involved in peering through a hole in a fence, or stroking the mouth in a nervous gesture. Physically performing these elements helps me to be accurate about what my character feels and what I need to convey to the reader. Other times, I may sit immobile, gazing redundantly out the window for indefinite periods, while in my head... well, anything could be happening. Either way, the objective is to immerse myself entirely in the world I’m creating.
Part of writing fiction is organising and presenting the events, settings and characters in a way that’s ‘real’ enough to hold the reader within that world until they finish the story. During construction of this other world, the writer runs the gamut of emotions of every character in every situation – feeling them keenly if they are to be passed on to the reader (‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ Robert Frost). Such a feat takes a tremendous amount of time, patience, research, skill and, above all, thought. It takes bursts of wild creativity and periods of controlled problem-solving. It takes persistence and it takes passion. And it’s mentally exhausting…
...But fun! Because a writer writes for the same reason a reader reads – to escape their own world for a while and explore another’s; to experience life in all its forms (good and bad) and learn of its potential. Hence, the occupational hazard of the mental wringer is perhaps little alluded to simply because it is far outweighed by the emotional rewards – the ‘experiences’, knowledge, understanding and, subsequently, job satisfaction – that this simple and tortuous profession provides.
Having recently read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I was struck by the fine line a writer must tread between establishing a first-person narrator’s mental instability and holding the reader’s attention. It would not do to simply plunge the narrator into a cesspit of bewilderment and despair from which the reader struggles to see the light of day or grapples for sense and meaning. A grasp of mental illness, its various symptoms, diagnoses and causes, may be a useful starting point for some readers, but what of those for whom the narrator’s circumstances are entirely unknown? After all, it is quickly emerging that mental health issues are not easily contained in labelled boxes, but are largely subjective – unique to each individual.
Fear of not being understood, though, does not have to restrict the writer from broaching difficult subjects. Aren’t the greatest works of literature those that de-familiarise the familiar and familiarise the unfamiliar? And this is precisely what Plath achieves with Esther Greenwood’s narration.
Greenwood is a young girl on the cusp of a successful career in New York, when everything she has been – and is expected to be – begins slipping from her grasp. Losing reason and losing control, Greenwood is shepherded by Plath through a frank and remarkably vivid depiction of nervous breakdown, accentuating the ease with which mental despair takes the place of ‘normality’, and often lives alongside it.
Yet, how does the writer manage such a feat without losing or confusing readers?
Warning: Spoilers Alert
The Sliding Scale into Mental Illness
Often an unstable narrator will begin with at least a modicum of sanity, even if the story begins at the very start of the character’s demise. This allows the reader a chance to connect with the character, so that when the narrative begins to move in another direction, the reader can both recognise and empathise with what is happening. The reader is more likely to follow the story through to its conclusion if it is seen as a journey, with the character’s ‘normal’ life being the beginning of that journey.
Though Esther admits in the opening chapter of The Bell Jar that something isn’t right, she is at this point only bewildered that she is not as enthusiastic about her summer posting at a top fashion magazine in New York as she should be: I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
After gaining the reader’s trust, it’s important to maintain it. With the narrator becoming increasingly unreliable, potentially detached from reality, the narrative should become a form of cryptic crossword where clues are left to anchor the reader to the ‘actual’ reality (the narrative is, in effect, depicting a dual reality). This allows the reader greater involvement with the text as they work to understand both what is happening to the narrator and how the narrator is being perceived by other characters in the story. Often the anchoring points will come in the form of the narrator’s perception of other characters and/or other characters’ reactions to the narrator.
Plath signals her readers in many ways:
Vivid and Unusual Descriptions
For an individual suffering mental trauma of one kind or another, life isn’t ‘normal’ in the balanced and happy sense, and so ‘normal’ descriptions won’t do the topic justice. Mental illness often derives from, or becomes, a magnification of things – of emotions, pressures, experiences – and in turn the senses become either heightened or dulled. This gives the writer scope for vivid and/or intense descriptive writing. The unstable narrator looks more closely, notices more, and experiences deeper – and this can be best reflected in inventive and unique descriptions.
On arrival at Doctor Gordon’s private hospital: Then my gaze slid over the people to the blaze of green beyond the diaphanous curtains, and I felt as if I were sitting in the window of an enormous department store. The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.
Concluding the Inconclusive
Tying everything up with a neat bow is rarely recommended in any story, but to do so here would undermine the narrative that has gone before. ‘I’m cured’ endings would not only cheat the reader and the characters, but would present an idealistic and detrimental view of mental illness. So, how to wrap up a story in which the narrator’s mental health journey will perhaps never end? Some possibilities are: acceptance – of one’s condition and circumstances; recovery – setting out on a new journey of recovery and re-discovery; connections – made with a person or place or thing, where once there was only disconnection; a passing over of the narration to a third party – where a complete breakdown or lack of coherent voice has occurred.
On appearing before the board of dismissals at the asylum: I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead – after all, I had been 'analyzed’. Instead, all I could see were question marks… The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
Plath, S. (1963), The Bell Jar, 2005 ed., Faber and Faber Limited, London.
When The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) released their predictions for 2017*, I was absolutely thrilled to see one particular prophecy in the crystal ball. Long have I been cautioning writers about the hard slog that awaits, beyond typing those final words (often 'The End'; how cruel). Most gratefully accept the warning, but it would seem the many hordes who resist such wisdom – blinded by dreams of smoking cigarettes and 'creating art' whilst the rain teems against the window and the money rolls in (...or something like that) – may very soon find themselves dropping by the wayside.
Instead, Orna Ross, Founder-Director of ALLi, envisages for the coming months a greater emphasis on self-publishing as a 'profession', a career only for those serious about educating themselves on what publishing actually entails. As Orna says, 'Writing is a craft, [but] publishing is a business', and as a business it requires access to a broad set of skills in order for it to survive and thrive. If your intention is merely to get that thing you wanted to say down in print, then you need not worry about your publishing acumen. But if your goal is to build success in terms of recognition of your work and – well, it would be nice – monetary gain, then the path ahead is long and intense and only for those passionate, determined and in it for the long haul.
If you are in it for the long haul, read on...
Orna identifies the seven stages of publishing as editorial, design, production, rights sales, distribution, marketing and promotion. It's a hefty list and one which self-publishing authors need to be familiar with... but don't necessarily have to take on entirely by themselves. After all, whilst these seven departments in a publishing house are expected to collaborate with one another to create the best possible final product, they are not usually expected to undertake one another's roles, as each is a specialism. You, the self-publishing author/business owner, thus find yourself deliberating whether to don a colourful array of hats – editor, designer, salesperson, etc – or whether to outsource some of these tasks elsewhere. And here's where you may get nervous.
Firstly, you'll need to pay to outsource – it's not always cheap and will it be worth it? Secondly, you don't want someone else's ideas running all over the work you've spent months/years manipulating into shape; I mean, what if they don't like it, tell you it's rubbish, change it, tell you you're rubbish?
Okay, now that's out of your system, let's talk rationally.
On the first point: remember, self-publishing is a business and all businesses encounter risk and particularly the risk of investment, the outcome of which is never certain. Start by drawing up a list of the actual benefits ('a professional book designer knows more about colour and impact than I do'), and possible benefits ('the design might be better than I could ever imagine'); then draw up a list of actual downsides ('it's a lot of money with no guarantee of return'), and possible downsides ('they fail to understand my vision or my book at all'). Listing the benefits against the potential pitfalls, evaluating, and ultimately making an informed decision for every aspect of your self-publishing business will put you on a par with any other business owner. Some things may work, others may not. It's never failure; it's always learning.
Tip: Always record decisions you make so you can evaluate their effectiveness later.
Now that we've discussed the practical, it's time to broach the emotional. In my experience, all the best professionals (ahem... myself included) will be sensitive not only to your work but also to your goals for that work. For example, a book cover designer should take the time to get to know your book and what its message is, and should ask what you envisage for its cover. If they disagree with your ideas, they should respectfully explain why and offer alternative suggestions. And if you still prefer your own version, they should agree to carry out your wishes regardless (as long as it's technically possible, of course).
As a proofreader and copy-editor, I am in the unenviable position of being loathed and feared, but in truth I'm neither loathable nor fearable, as proved by my willingness to make up these two words on a whim (on a website offering proofreading services, no less) whilst stubbornly resisting the autocorrect which is screaming at me to go back and reword.
A good editor (ahem...) is not here to gleefully point out all the bits you get wrong, but to help you reach the goals you have set for your book, and thus your writing and your business (with a heavy emphasis on your; your work and goals will be different from the previous client's and from the next). So this does not mean beating strict spelling, grammar and punctuation rules into your manuscript with an iron bar. It means getting to know what your work is trying to say and then gently nudging it to speak in the clearest and most effective way, so that the message translates to the reader.
For peace of mind, should your business calculations and deliberations lead you to outsource, take time to get to know the service provider before agreeing to proceed. Outsourcing only works when you find a professional you are comfortable with and who you are certain understands your intentions; it is much easier to work with someone you can freely communicate with. Most professionals will happily provide samples of how they work so you'll know what to expect. Even then, you don't have to commit at this point; be confident enough in your work and your self-publishing business to shop around for just the right person.
Remember, a professional will not tell you what you absolutely have to do; their role is to work with your ideas. Though they should offer advice and suggestions, ultimately all final decisions belong to you... as does your work, your final product and your self-publishing business. Good Luck.
* Read more about ALLi's predictions for the year ahead here.
And follow ALLi on Twitter or Facebook.
That there are several different categories of editing required at various stages in the writing process, and that each editor uses a different terminology to define these categories, means that the whole process of working out what sort of attention your manuscript really needs becomes a little foggy, to say the least.
With this handy graphic, however, I hope to help make matters a little clearer. Not all editors offer all of these services and certainly their remits may alter slightly, but I'm sure all would agree this basic summarisation adequately covers the three fundamental editorial stages.
Currently, my own services extend to the Sculpt and Polish stages, but I do however provide manuscript reviews - also known as critiques or evaluations - which can help to uncover some of the areas a Build-stage editor would attend to.
Most editors will provide a free sample appraisal in order to help you make a final decision. If your manuscript is nearing - or has reached - completion and you'd like me to take a look at a sample, please forward it via my Contact Page and I'll get back to you within 48 hours with my thoughts and guidance.
How to stay motivated to write your book
Indie authors & the power of speech
The five senses of setting
How to self-edit: Common issues & solutions
Rejection, like failure, is often misinterpreted when it comes to being a writer. Not a word that inspires confidence, ‘rejection’ is laden with negative connotations that yell unpleasant things like INCAPABLE at us in bold capitals. Of course, we all know there are many books out there that have seen the light of day before they were ready to open their eyes. But for the writers who have followed the guidelines and ticked all the boxes and can’t see any other way in which their work could be improved, ‘rejection’ may not necessarily be the right word to beat yourself up with.
As a short-story writer, I know that disappointing feeling when a story you’ve worked tirelessly on – and thought was, quite frankly, brilliant – gets turned down. I’m also familiar with that feeling as an editor. When I first receive an enquiry from a potential new client who I’m confident I could work well with, I put in a lot of time to showcase how I can help improve that client’s work – providing a sample edit/proofread, compiling quotations and discussing terms. If the client doesn’t wish to proceed, I will very often receive no response at all, and this can be disappointing and frustrating after so much effort. Around this time, the word ‘rejection’ begins to lurk ominously.
But, as a short-story writer, I also know that uplifting feeling when the story you’ve attempted to place on six different occasions finally gets accepted on the seventh. Likewise, as an editor, I may field ten enquiries before the next one proves successful and the client agrees to proceed. Ah, that joyous feeling! It’s well worth the wait.
Prior to these celebrations, though, it’s very easy to get downhearted and despondent – and that can have a knock-on effect on our work. But it’s crucial that writers (and editors) remember that 'rejection' doesn’t necessarily mean rejection in the personal sense. There are a list of reasons why our work might not be accepted, many of which bear no reflection of the quality of our work or our capabilities. Here are just a few:
Some of these matters can be acted upon and some can’t. For example, you can make sure that you are directing your submissions to the agents/publishers who clearly work within your genre; but you can’t do anything about those whose lists for the coming year(s) include one or more of your style of story and who are not budgeting for any more. Likewise, from an editor’s point of view, I can gain more training and experience in a specialist genre (such as historical fiction) which will make me more appealing to those writers, but I can’t do anything about my location in relation to every client. This means I should concentrate my efforts on the things that are within my control, and accept those that aren’t, without taking it personally.
It’s particularly crucial that, as an editor, I am a good match for the client and their manuscript in every way – that I understand the genre, I can relate to the client and I am clear about their goals. If this is not the case, then I am the wrong person for the job and it could end badly. As I’m running a business, ‘badly’ is not how I want the client to perceive me. So rather than take a risk on a project I have doubts about, I would rather express these doubts to the client and refer them to another editor who may ‘fit’ better. Likewise, when trying to place your novel, you need to bear in mind you are entering into a business proposal – agents need to know they can sell your book to publishers, and publishers need to know they can sell it (in great quantities) to readers. For your part, you can ensure the business proposal is accurate and submitted to realistic potential buyers – a ‘hit and miss’ approach will only generate ‘rejection’ and subsequent disillusionment.
There are a great many articles and books about how best to submit your novel to literary agents and traditional publishers, and these will help you to work on those things that you can control. I’m currently reading one such book and it is already my personal favourite. I recommend it to one and all, for its no-messing advice and the author’s wealth of experience:
So perhaps between us writers and editors then, we can agree not to perceive rejection as a bad reflection on us or our work, but merely a process of finding the best possible place for that work.