As some people know, I narrowly avoided a bad flood last month. That said, the leak in the water pipe in my ceiling was enough to cause a lot of damage.
As a result the upstairs ceiling has needed to be replaced, and rooms totally emptied in order to facilitate the work of pulling the old one down.
I am a person who loves their clutter. I’m terrible for holding onto clothes thinking that “one day, I might fit into this”. So this has been a (slightly forced) opportunity to have a bit of a clear out.
I don’t feel I’ve stopped these last few weeks and feel an exhaustion sleep does not seem to be able to cure – a mix of exertion and stress. So much so, I’ve noticed I’ve not really had time to tweet or even update this blog.
Editing work on the novel has pretty much stopped whilst this has been going on. As much as I’d like to do NaNoWriMo this year, I think it will be spent editing.
I’m dieing to get back into it and have to tell myself that it won’t be much longer now. Workmen are here this week but days feel like weeks and as cluttered as it is, I want my house back. Then I think I’m going to sleep for a week!
I received another rejection over the weekend. It was from Clarkesworld, which is an incredibly tough market, and part of me was kinda gearing up for a rejection. Except it never hurts any less. Don’t get me wrong, the whole submission process was as slick and as painless as it possibly could be. But just like dental surgery, it’s always gonna hurt a little.
I think the big problem with rejection (in general) for any writer is that it undermines you. There’s a part of you that tries to remain stoic, says that it’s “just one of those things”. But whispering, deep amongst your fears, is that little voice that asks “perhaps you’re just not any good?”
It’s a cancer that eats away at you, it’s termites chewing through your foundations, it’s poison in your blood. Well, … you get the idea.
I’ve come to the conclusion that always re-evaluating myself and pushing myself to do better is a good thing, even if at times I push myself so hard I turn into a gibbering wreck. In my saner moments I know I’m a decent writer, but when that little voice gets going, sometimes I just listen to it a little too much.
As someone with a Maths and IT background, I’m used to the idea of metrics. I might hate how some managers can spew out graphs for just about everything, but metrics have their place in the world. Except that none exist for writing and there have been times when I’ve found that infuriating. How do I know how well I’m doing, if there’s no yard stick to measure myself against? I need metrics to silence that little voice, goddammit!
And this is where I think the real danger for any writer really comes in: professional envy. Because if there are no metrics to measure how good your work is, the next logical thing is to compare yourself to other writers. We’re all going through this together, aren’t we? So surely we’re all the same?
But that’s the problem. For the record I don’t think there’s anything with looking at another writer’s work and seeing what their strengths and weaknesses are compared to your own. The problem comes when you make the mistake of thinking that everyone’s career is identical. Because if a writer you consider “an equal” got a sale after 8 rejections and you got one after 30, logic then dictates that they are somehow a cheat, that they didn’t deserve that sale.
It’s so, so easy to fall into it. “They’re younger”, “I’m a better writer than them”, “They’re friends with the editor”.
Again I don’t think it’s wrong to look at another’s work with critical eye, providing you look at both sides of the coin. Consequently, I might personally hate Dan Brown, but I respect that he’s sold a lot of books and have spent time trying to understand what his strengths are (short chapters, pacey almost episodic story).
I was lucky in that someone warned me about the dangers of professional envy very early in my career and as a result, I’ve been able to catch myself whenever I start to slip down that treacherous slope. I made a point of making myself congratulate everyone in those early days when I occassionally felt “it should have been me not them”, such that now I’m happy when most people achieve any form of success big or small. Seriously, you have to be a major douche for me not to feel genuinely happy for you.
Everyone’s career is different, as a result, so are the metrics. This can be a difficult lesson to learn, especially when you’ll grasp onto anything as some form of validation to silence that little voice. It sucks, it truly does. But getting envious of others’ success will just feed that voice so that you’ll end up trying chasing another writer’s tail instead of working on your own talent.
So by all means, have sucky days when rejections come through, but don’t let it consume you so much that you try and invalidate others’ success. Loads of popular authors got rejected before they made it. That doesn’t make the process any easier but it does give you an inkling of hope.
I’ll let you into a little secret. One of those ones that will have you rolling your eyes and muttering “oh my heart bleeds for you”. You see, I’ve never properly edited stuff. Sure, I’ve read over pieces a thousand times, fixed the odd gramatical or spelling error and changed a clunky sentence, but never much more than that.
I tend to write non-fiction in three dimensions, writing and revising, the beginning, middle and end simultaneously. I’m literally all over the place, building a framework, making it solid and building it up. The end result is pretty good, good enough that editors have relied on me to pull together an article when a contributor drops out at the last minute.
The trouble is that it’s made me lazy – blog posts, for instance, only get a cursory read – and the process doesn’t seem to work with fiction for me. As I move towards completing the novel, I know I need to raise my game.
So the editing stage of the novel approached with both fear and intrepedation. I know how polished I want this novel, and yet I worried I would get bored and would put up with “make do”. I think, in reality, that fear has made me focused, and once those idiotic, irrational fears of “OMG, I’m not sure I know how to edit” disappeared I sat down to take a close look at the novel.
The start of the novel has been re-written countless times, so technically these should be the easiest chapters, with the least amount of changes. Yet, I was amazed as I got stuck in, just how much I had raised my game.
Every word in a sentence, every sentence in a paragraph, every paragraph in a chapter has a job to do. It would be the easiest thing in the world into falling into the trap of trying to make every sentence glowing purple prose. But I’m more subtle than that. Some sentences do shine, but others, they’re workhorses, getting the job done efficiently. They’re a team, each with their role to play, their mission: to convey the story to the reader as entertaining and efficiently as possible.
So clunky sentences are being reworked (indeed the first night I spent the entire evening working on the second sentence of the novel), I’m ensuring the subject of the sentence isn’t ‘it’ and a million and one other things.
And you know what? I’m really, really enjoying it.
What’s even better is that there’s nothing stopping me going back, and refining if I find something and wonder if I’ve overlooked it elsewhere. Slowly, a style seems to be emerging. I always had this image that editing was about taking stuff out, and there was a danger of editing your polish away. But I’ve found it’s more like trying to bring every sentence into focus. Sometimes that’s removing something, sometimes it’s adding things in.
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m very tough on my writing. I set myself impossible standards and expect myself to reach them. As a result I’m rarely pleased, but even my inner critic can see that I’ve made huge strides in my editing. I was always told I’m a good writer, but I feel I’ve punched it up a gear or two here.
There’s probably things I’m still overlooking, further stuff I need to learn, but you know what? I’m actually really happy with the results so far. I can see the novel coming into focus, and despite readers (including an Arthur C Clarke Nominee) being very positive of weaker drafts of these early chapters, I’m only now starting to feel very happy with this book. I’m frightened to publically say how much for fear of
A) looking a fool
B) jinxing it
There’s still a long way to go, and even then there are no guarantees. But whether this book finally sees print or not, I want something I can truly be proud of. That means a lot more editing. Whether I get it done by the end of the month looks doubtful if I’m honest, but given how I keep dipping into editing without my usual procrastination, who knows?
I’ve met a lot of writers who aren’t great fans of JK Rowling. I think there is something about her amazing, impossible-to-repeat success that worries them. It’s as if it’ll somehow suck them in and they’ll believe their book will sell a million copies and they’ll be super-rich, when the reality is that there is no money in writing. I guess her story does make a lot of people think they’ll write a book and become rich and famous overnight, but for me, what I love about her personal story isn’t the rags-to-riches ‘plotline’, but her story of belief.
If you look into it, you’ll realise that her book was her emotional crutch through her lowest point in her life, a constant in an uncertain world. I’m sure for every JK, there’s a thousand writers whose emotional crutch of a novel never made it to publication.
But if you can take anything away from her story it’s that you have to believe in yourself – not so that you are blinded to realities, but that with hard work and determination you can get there. That sometimes feels like such a crime, doesn’t it? How arrogant to believe in yourself! It feels as indecent as if you had just flashed the Queen.
I’ve had a string of amusing incidents that have brought this home to me recently. First there was my brother telling me I should look at the vanity market. Then there was my mother who told me that because she hates fantasy, she’ll read the novel but “won’t like it”. Then today there were half-joking comments from friends. Jesus, I thought, is there anyone who believes I can write a decent novel?
But then I realised something, something I think is important for writers who lack confidence or don’t get a lot of support. With no belief comes no expectations. And at first, that might seem like a horrible thing, but when you think about it, it’s incredibly freeing.
No expectations means you can take your time, practise your craft, fail and try again. There’s no expectation to write a certain type of story, to get it done by a certain time, or write it in a certain way. The only thing holding you back is your belief in yourself.
That can be difficult – I still have problems describing any of my work as ‘good’; I usually describe myself as a competent writer and leave it at that. I can see so many flaws in my work that it just feels wrong to describe myself as a ‘good’ writer. This comes from someone who has had a load of non-fiction published. But then I think a good writer isn’t necessarily one who gets everything right, but one who constantly evaluates his work and continues to perfect his craft.
I really recommend watching the Oprah interview with JK Rowling. There was a lot of what she said that resonated with me, and whilst I severely doubt any of us will ever see a tenth of her success, you may get something out of it as well. Let’s face it, if we’d wanted to be millionaires, we would have become bankers!