Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Week Thirty-Eight: On Staying Energised as a Writer

Sometimes being a writer feels like the hardest thing in the world.

'What chance have I got among all these?'

It isn't, of course.

But that doesn't mean we don't become tired, getting up in the morning and seeing either that nothing has changed or life just got a little harder than the day before.

This isn't Novel Avoidance Syndrome, though it shares symptoms with that condition.

This isn't fear of success, though others may dismiss it as such.

This isn't even fear of failure. It can strike long-established writers as much as newbies. Perhaps more so, as we no longer have that starry-eyed 'anything could happen' vision to fuel our dreams.

It's about feeling swamped in an overcrowded marketplace teeming with other talented writers. Thrown in with your heavy books to sink or swim, while publishers mostly keep their dainty toes out of the water and direct from the poolside instead.

'Backstroke now. That's the spirit. No resting!'

It's about having great ideas and not being able to act on them. Like we're all on some vast synchronised swimming team.

'I said, backstroke! Not butterfly. Same as everyone else, please.'

It's about not having the publisher that's right for you, or not having a publisher at all and having to carve out your own path as an independent. How to rise above the crowd as an indie? How to successfully promote a book on your own while not spamming people with links and alongside so many hundreds of thousands of other, possibly similar books?

It's about not being able to get reviews without crawling through mud and barbed wire for them. Or increasingly getting clusters of one star reviews, often for reasons that hurt the soul. 'Didn't download properly.' 'I hate romcoms but this one was free.' 'Haven't read it yet.'

It's about things that ought to be simple going wrong, often insanely wrong, and not feeling able to complain or say anything about it in public, in case we lose our jobs.

'Another thirty lengths, please!'

It's about approaching other writers covertly for advice, and getting the door slammed in our faces for the same reasons as above.

'Stay at the correct distance! No whispering in the ranks!'

Sometimes it seems as though all the joy and excitement and the sheer drama of writing and publishing a novel is being sucked out of the process, to be replaced by emptiness and the steady creaking of some invisible conveyor-belt.

Factory Hen Novelists

So how do we get past this feeling of being jaded or washed-up, as professional novelists? How do we recapture our enthusiasm not only powerfully enough to finish our novels, but to write bestsellers, and to keep on writing bestsellers?

Here are a few thoughts:


If the world out there is getting you down, if your reviews are crap or non-existent, or your ranking is in the toilet, or that wet-behind-the-ears new MA course writer gets asked for her 'expert' opinion on how-to-pen-a-novel while nobody gives a flying crap what you, veteran of dozens of bloody published novels, think about writing, if you're beginning to hate everything about this process ... try not to look up quite so often from your keyboard.

In days of yore, before the internet made us all so paranoid, novelists wrote books and had very little feedback - except for scattered reviews at publication and the occasional letter. They didn't have to worry about rankings outside the top few writers on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Publishers took much longer to dump new writers, so that fear too was less extreme.

Nowadays, you can get dumped almost as soon as your first book is out, if initial sales aren't strong enough. (They just won't tell you until you start innocently asking about your next title.) Meanwhile you still have to write. Because you're a writer and that's what you do. Because however shit things are for writers, everything else is shittier. Or words to that effect.

So if the noise and the trumpeting and the sheer BLAH of the publishing world is driving you crazy, pretend like you've been spirited back to the 1950s. Shut off from the internet and trade magazines as far as possible and do nothing but write, write, write.

Put your fingers in your ears and just write ...


As writers, we need to stop making career assumptions based on what used to work in publishing or what used to be the norm for authors in our position, whatever that happens to be. The world is moving so rapidly, what is the case now may already have changed in six months, and many situations we took for granted, say, five or ten years ago, may soon look like something from the Dark Ages.

Why is this? Well, much of the current instability seems to date back to the demise of the Net Book Agreement in the mid-late 90s. It was trumpeted as a time of free marketeering, but the lack of protection over retail prices means books have gradually become cheaper while midlist authors have earned less and less every year. Add to that the rise of the ebook market, where many traditionally published bestsellers are only 99p and some indie authors can't even give away their books for free, and you have a very volatile, uncertain industry.

So there's no point trying to second guess where we're heading or to control that trajectory in any meaningful way. This means developing a flexible approach to writing. Perhaps accepting that some books will need to be self-published, perhaps under a new name, or that you may need to move from one publisher to another with little warning. Only the biggest brand names are insulated from such shifts these days, it seems to me.

Though such challenges can feel like the end of the world, they can also be liberating for writers. They can provide opportunities to learn new skills as a self-publisher or experiment with new genres in a way that might not have been possible on a traditional writing path. This freedom to experiment can reinvigorate a tired or depressed author, demonstrating that her writing career is only limited by her own ambition.

Old writer, new tricks


If all else fails, reconnect with your primary impulse to write. The excitement that drove you to become a writer in the first place, that had you rushing to your book every morning. Sounds great, huh? Reinitiation as a writer, especially when you're older and have been round the block so many times you're dizzy, is what every true creative seeks.

But how to achieve it?

Well, in my opinion, there are two key paths to reinitiation. To recapturing your original drive, inspiration and creative vision as a writer before reality painted your world grey.

For the first way, you need a muse or mentor who will act as a guide back to your creative impulse. A Virgil to your Dante, in other words. (Best to seek that muse in artistic terms though, not run off with the milkman/woman, though many great writers have restarted their creative engines through sex!) For this way, look for another writer whose work you always read with the greatest possible excitement - living or dead, either should work fine - and study them, emulate them, be inspired by them, and write with them in mind until you've regained enough momentum to trundle off on your own again. Like bump-starting a car with a dead battery!

What would Hemingway have written here?

The second way to achieve reinitiation is to do something hugely dangerous as a writer, for instance by scaring yourself into a new dynamic approach. Hugely dangerous things for a novelist include suddenly starting to write a book in a style or genre or on a topic you know nothing about and/or have never attempted before. Or changing your pseudonym and writing as that person, i.e. in a completely new way. Like being a method actor, you do everything in that new idiom until every cell of your creative being has been renewed and is stamped with this fresh style.

But don't do any of this reinitiation process secretly. Do it openly so that you burn your bridges. Tell people what you're attempting. Even boast about it. This will be so frightening, especially if you're already established in one particular genre or style, that you will hopefully end up feeling - and writing - like an entirely new author, with increased vigour and commitment.

That's the theory anyway. Good luck!

Oh, and if doing something reckless with your career, be sure not to spend your last advance too quickly. You'll need it soon enough to pay your tax bill.

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Many thanks, Jane Holland