Rising from the Ashes

Dad told me I should write more. At the very least some updates on my blog. His dream of having an award-winning novelist of a daughter seems to be dying by the day. And, yet, from the glowing embers of this dream a phoenix (of sorts) is rising. It’s small and scraggy now, stumbling on Bambi-esque legs amongst the ashes, coughing and shielding its eyes from the light. But it exists, this spectre of old, only now coming into being after years of steady manifestation.

By ‘It’ I am referring to my venture back into the world of psychology, and, simultaneously, my journey into the unknown-and-terrifying-yet-also-exciting world of coaching – in the form of a combined Master’s degree.

It’s not exactly how I’d planned it. We thought we’d be in New York City by spring. I’d envisaged endless cups of coffee, walks in Central Park with a new puppy; days stretching out with nothing but study and writing and play. But life doesn’t always work out how you planned. Which means that sometimes you just have to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

We’re not going to New York anymore. Already it feels like a pipe dream blowing in the wind. At first I shed a lot of tears, and then berated myself for mourning a life that never was. The tears dried up. Reality bit. I’d signed up for this Master’s safe in the knowledge I’d have ample time to devote to it. At most I’d have been working on a part time basis. Now, things have changed. We’re still in Brussels, and will be for the foreseeable future. I still have a full time job (really a full-and-then-some time job). Suddenly the very thought of finding more than twelve hours a week to do my course work has me coming out in hives. Right now I’m barely managing six.

I am exhausted. There have been more tears, for this and other – more personal – reasons that I won’t go into here. I am struggling to find my equilibrium. I tell myself that I should meditate and then remember that ‘should’ is a performance inhibiting thought; a thinking error. I’m learning all kinds of new things like this, even though I make such errors daily, sometimes hourly. I tell myself I’m not good enough on a constant repetition loop in my head. Compare myself to others. Panic. I do a LOT of panicking.

And then I switch on my computer, turn on Skype and I become a coach. I listen attentively and empathetically. I silence my inner chatter and focus on another person for a whole hour. And I take them through a process, and share with them what little I know of concepts like self-limiting beliefs. And, like magic, almost always there’s a moment when their faces light up and they get it, really get it. And in that moment I’m suffused with so much joy and energy. Which is how I know that even though it’s hard, and will likely get harder, and even though I don’t know where I’m going to end up, I’m on the right path.

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Eight Weeks to Wed: An Update

Last weekend I went to Las Vegas for my hen party with six close friends. It was predictably fabulous. We crammed an enormous amount of fun into a short space of time and did ourselves – and Vegas – proud. Wild, unbridled hedonism like that is harder to come by as you march inexorably further into adulthood, which is why it’s so important to appreciate it when you have it. The same applies to friendships. Whilst they should be nurtured throughout life, opportunities to  celebrate them become fewer and farther between as the myriad demands of life creep into our daily existence. And so the memories of last weekend and all the laughs we shared will stay with me forever. I am truly grateful.

And now it’s time to look ahead. Eight weeks ahead, in fact, to my wedding day. As a child I always dreamed of this occasion, wondering who I would marry (or, more specifically, who would want to marry me!) Now it’s nearly here it feels surreal, like a dream. The organisation has been a  challenge, but I know it will be worth it when we look around at the hundred or so loved ones who are so generously travelling to Austria to share it with us. I feel so blessed not only to have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and to be so utterly confident in that statement, but also to have such wonderful and supportive people in my life.

Getting married feels like such a grown up thing to do. I feel ready for it, yet at the same time the little girl in me is tugging at my sleeve, chewing her nails down to the stub with worry. Will I be a good wife? A good mother? Am I actually mature enough to take this step? I have always felt a dichotomy within me. On the one hand there is the dreamer, the thinker, the artist; the one who likes to party and who yearns to travel, to explore, to be free. And on the other is the planner, the matriarch-in-waiting who wants nothing more than to care for others, to have a family and thrive on being responsible for others, instead of being concerned only with myself.

In some respects I suppose I’ve always felt that having a family would save me from myself, and stop me from pursuing the relentless search for meaning that drives my every waking moment. But now I’m on the cusp of that I’m filled with fear; of all that I ‘should’ have done up to this point in my life, and of all I will not be able to do if and when I take that next step. I suppose these worries are normal, and that everyone has them at some point in the run up to making such a big commitment to another person.

I don’t expect for one moment that getting married will mean a life free of worry and drama; far from it. But what it will do is cement our partnership in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God, in whom I do believe, at least in some form. It is a statement of intent on both our parts that we are prepared to put each other first, to work through all our issues together, and to co-create a stable and loving environment for our future children. The divorce rates reported so gleefully in the news don’t bother me at all. Marriage has always been important to me, and I am entering into it with my eyes and heart wide open.

The fun-loving, free-spirited party girl will always be a part of me, I have no intention of shunning her or locking her away. But despite my fears what is becoming ever clearer to me is that I owe it to myself to explore the other side of who I am, to get to know the girl who wants so desperately to help, to make a difference, to put love above all else.

This is a new chapter in the story of my life. And I am ready to turn the page.

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Tales from Elsewhere

Today is the launch day of Tales from Elsewhere, a collection of short stories which includes Hanuman, one of mine. Naturally I am excited that one of my stories has finally made it into print, especially as it’s probably the best one I have written to date. Beyond that, though, the anthology has a special place in my heart because it was conceived as the result of a wonderful weekend in the idyllic British countryside with a number of writerly friends. Prior to that weekend most of us had been only online acquaintances, but the stories we shared and the fun we had (trampolining and ghost stories, anyone?) ensured we would forever after share a special bond. Some of us are published, some of us not, but all have been part of a Facebook group for quite some years now, following each other’s progress and offering words of consolation and encouragement. It feels somehow fitting that the existence of our group has now taken a physical form, even if it only represents a handful of the fabulously talented folk who comprise the group as a whole. So anyway, that’s it really. A little yay to coax my writerly ambitions out of hiding and prod them back onto the path to success. If anyone is interested in buying a copy they can do so here. We also have a Facebook page and blog!

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For Fellow Aspiring Writers: Advice from the Writers’ & Artists’ Conference

On Saturday I went along to the Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference in Euston. Given my aversion to early rising it was quite a commitment for me to show up at 9.45am on a weekend, but by the end of the day I was so glad I had. I live-tweeted throughout the event but it has since dawned on me that advice drip-fed through Twitter isn’t that easy to come back to afterwards. So for all my fellow aspiring writers I thought I would encapsulate the key learnings in this blog post for reference purposes.

Tom Tivnan from the Bookseller, on self-publishing:

  • 86% of those who have self-published would do so again
  • The print self-publishing market is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction
  • Most self-published e-books retail at around £1
  • 69% of e-books are bought by women and only 11% by men
  • 58% are published by women
  • Crime makes up 50% of the e-book market
  • Amazon controls 75% of the e-book market in the UK
  • The royalty rate of self-published books decreases considerably when the retail price is below £2.49
  • When self-publishing, tweak the price of your book often
  • Remember that people buy e-books for price not content
  • Design matters – it’s all about your brand
  • It’s difficult to get into the print market through self-publishing (Amazon has 20% share)

Stefan Tobler, CEO of And Other Stories, an “unashamedly literary” publishing house:

  • “Think of the publisher as the donkey who will get your riches to the reader”
  • The literary fiction market is in decline

John Mitchinson, founder of Unbound, a ‘new way of bringing authors and readers together’: 

  • The concept of Unbound is “about sharing an idea, sharing the potential of the story and, if there is enough critical mass, it will take off”
  • “Publishing is like agriculture. Retailers want the crops with the highest yield and won’t look at anything else”
  • Authors have a 1 in 5,000 chance of getting in with a big publishing house – but there are other ways to get published
  • It’s been in the news recently that the average author’s salary is as little as £11k per year but, f you take the top 10% of authors out of that, the average author makes less than £3k per year.
  • “We’re fighting to keep people reading”
  • Unbound chooses the projects with the best chance of funding
  • People can then make pledges against a particular project. The average pledge value is £35
  • 92 projects have been launched to date. Of those, only 16 failed to achieve funding
  • Unbound has 48k registered users

Polly Courtney, Author, on self-publishing to a traditional deal – and back again:

  • “Everyone’s got a book inside them, but not everyone should publish it”
  • “Whatever way you’re publishing, be sure to build up your own direct fan base.” e.g. by capturing email addresses through cards slipped into the back of your book at a launch event
  • Re-write extensively
  • Never scrimp on cover design
  • Self-publishing CAN work – but it’s all about collaboration
  • For a lot of people the first book is semi-autobiographical. Once you’ve got that off your chest you’re free to write about something else e.g. a theme you particularly care about
  • “If you do get into a conversation with an agent or publisher, ask what their long-term vision is for you and your book. Make sure you understand one another – it’s not arrogant, it’s sensible. Take control of your destiny”

Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, on traditional publishing:

  • “Finding an agent or publisher is like buying a car – you wouldn’t buy one without finding out about it first”
  • “Be yourself and write the book you want to write”
  • Good things CAN happen to first time writers
  • Identify the market and identify your niche
  • If you can’t encapsulate your story in a 200 word pitch, why should anyone else look at it
  • Self-publishing has gone up by 25% but the lion’s share of the (admittedly plateaued) market are traditionally published books
  • Rejection is not an uncommon thing – all the best authors have been rejected (William Golding 21 times!)
  • Things to do to improve your chances:- Read, Read, Read
    – Research / know your competition
    – Join a writer’s group / attend events
    – Practice e.g. by entering competitions
    – Promote yourself e.g. on Twitter, a blog etc.
    – Be patient
    – Be ambitious

Charlie Campbell, Agent:

  • Agents can tell if they’re the first or two hundredth you’ve submitted to, so research carefully before submitting
  • The bar has been raised, so these days agents need to put more editorial work in
  • Having to do too much editorial work limits how much work you can take on
  • When working in a big publishing house out of thousands of submissions each year, only one or two would be taken on
  • “Sending a partial manuscript is almost never the right thing to do”
  • Writers get rejected by agents, agents by publishers, publishers by supermarkets. If Amazon rejects a book, the reader rejects it
  • Successful stories are imitated until they dwindle into nothing. Do what you want but don’t be too out there. It’s the role of the publisher/agent to talk to you about how you can progress

Jo Unwin, Agent:

  • Take care to read submission guidelines and be targeted
  • “You can only be a debut novelist once in your life, so your manuscript needs to be as good as it can be”
  • “I would strongly recommend getting the whole book as perfect as you can before submitting your opening chapters. It’s a different trajectory if you submit a partial manuscript and don’t complete it for another 18 months. The market will be different and the mood of the agent will be different”
  • Whether an agent likes your book or not is a chemical thing. Writing is a craft you have to work on
  • What an agent does in building a writer’s career outside of the UK market is not to be underestimated
  • “In a synopsis I’m looking for storytelling ability, so tell me everything – including the ending”
  • Don’t use the agent as a sounding board – think of them as sales people

Cressida Downing, Editor:

  • Just because you can hit submit doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should doesn’t mean you should now
  • Whether sending to agents or self-publishing make your work the best it can be. People should find your writing frustrating
  • You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader
  • “I read non-stop, all day, every day – and so should you”
  • Self-publishing is ideally suited to people with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Novels go through 17 edits, on average, before they are successful in being published
  • Good presentation is crucial – get advice but don’t get someone else to re-write it or it will be their work and not yours
  • If you’re interested in money don’t be an author or work in publishing!
  • If you’re self-publishing and can only afford to invest in one thing, make it the cover design
  • When choosing an editor consider their track record, whether you would prefer to be edited by a well-known author or not, whether their style will fit your work, whether they offer a clear explanation of the service they provide, their costs and timings
  • Tips for going it alone: Never publish your first draft, always get someone to have a look, read it out loud and find a peer group
  • Self-publishing is about far more than writing a book and hitting ‘publish’
  • As long as you know what you’re asking and they tell you exactly what they’re providing, paying an editor can be useful
  • If everything in your story is doing it’s job, great. If not, cut it
  • There are four types of edit:

1. Read and Review

“If you pay one industry expert once in your life make it for this.”

Not a line by line edit, help with grammar/spelling or re-write (though they will say if it needs work in those areas).

Does give advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, how well your book is working and what to do to improve it.

2. Deep Structural

Most similar to advice from an agent or editor in a publishing house.

Doesn’t give line by line re-write and won’t correct spelling/grammar.

Does break down and re-build novel – sometimes to extent of changing genre or structure.

3. Copy

Line by line edit looking for continuity and what works to best show off your prose.

Doesn’t look at structural/major changes.

4. Proof

Picks up errors, typos etc. in spelling/grammar.

Doesn’t give advice on writing.

Preena Gadher, Publicist:

  • A publicist’s job is to make your book stand out from the crowd
  • Once you’re published by a house they’re invested in you and can afford a dedicated PR person. That’s the big difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing
  • Promote yourself with a website, on Twitter etc. Always keep sites up to date
  • Read the paper and magazines you want to appear in
  • Work out who your audience is, and what you have to say that would be interesting/relevant to them
  • The relationship with the publicist works both ways
  • It helps to be shortlisted for / win prizes

Laurie Penny, Blogger:

  • Being time-rich and cash-poor is how a lot of creativity comes about
  • Keeping a blog is good training for editing your work

Hope you will find this as useful as I did.

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No Pressure

It’s day 23 of National Novel Writing Month and, despite a flash stint this afternoon where I somehow managed to write two thousand words in about an hour, I’m still a rather woeful 5,165 words behind target. For some reason, however, I’m not feeling all that worried. I’ve got the best part of tomorrow and all of Monday to put the time in and, as I know from past experience, I work best under pressure so I’m confident I’ll manage to ‘win’ at NaNo once again and make it to 50,000 words before midnight on the 30th. The most encouraging thing is that despite struggling to find the time to get my word count up, I haven’t had a single moment of writer’s block since I started, which must surely be a good sign…?

In other news (yes, this is a boring update post – apologies to anyone who had grander designs in mind for today’s blog), the marathon training is coming on nicely. If – or should that be when – I complete tomorrow’s 105 minute run (gulp) I will have managed to tick off every session on this week’s plan, including a rather savage speed session on the treadmill this morning which I’m glad to have behind me. It’s still a long way off (this is only week three of a twenty week training plan) but my theory is if I put the ground work in now it’ll be a hell of a lot easier come the big day. Though something tells me when it comes to running a marathon there’s nothing ‘easy’ about it…

To write or not to write (not really a question)

Day twelve of NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to announce I’m three hundred and fifty five whole words ahead of schedule, having managed a short but intense stint of writing over the past hour and a half. It’s funny how sometimes the words flow like honey and other times they stick like mud. I can’t say I’m doing the best job of sticking to the story skeleton, or that in recent chapters I haven’t strayed somewhat off the writing piste where my chapter plan is concerned, but right now none of that matters – because right now those glorious words are tumbling out one after the other, like parachutists leaping from an aeroplane.

In recent days my inner critic’s been leaping around in my mind like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, brandishing its creativity-severing axe and wailing like a banshee. At times it’s been so hard to drown it out that I’ve been tempted to succumb, not just to this writing challenge but to the challenge of writing altogether. I’ve compared myself to others – the kiss of death for any aspiring author – and concluded my writing doesn’t make the grade. I’ve even questioned just how much I want to be a writer – if it’s worth the sacrifices and the pain I know I need to endure to get to where I want to be.

But then I’ve realised (as I always do) that it doesn’t matter if I’m not as good a writer as other people. It doesn’t really even matter if I ‘make it’ as a writer or not. What matters is that writing is a part of who I am – it’s what makes me tick. And until my dying day I will keep doing it – whether there’s gold at the end of the rainbow or not.

Nurturing the garden of the soul

Discipline with writing (amongst other things) is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life, which is the very reason for my setting up this daily blog nine months ago. I’ll admit the quality of the posts has varied wildly depending on my state of mind and situation but, irrespective of that and in spite of some close calls, I’m proud to be more than two thirds of the way through the year and to have, thus far at least, fulfilled my challenge of posting something every day.

Whilst I can’t say I feel all that different, per se, as a result of my writing challenge to date, I am starting to notice a quiet confidence building inside me, a sense of inevitability as, dare I say it, I inch closer to fulfilling my writing ambition. I’m not sure I can even now surmise what the depths of that ‘ambition’ might be. All I know is that the need to write is as much a part of me as my limbs, my synapses and my brain cells, and even if I never reach the heady heights of success as a published author I will at least have always stayed true to what I am.

I still have moments of gross and almost paralysing self-doubt, and I still kick myself daily for not trying harder, writing smarter, being better. But the fact is this: I DO write every day, and that’s more than many self-proclaimed writers can claim. And, slowly but surely, I’m beginning to understand the importance of nurturing the seed of potential with self-belief, rather than letting it wither and die among the weeds of doubt and disappointment.