On being a ‘veteran author’

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to teach someone on an Arvon course who, it turned out, was a branding and marketing expert. I needed help with my branding and marketing and she needed help with her writing, so it proved to be the start of a very fruitful friendship.

She helped me to create a new website where I could bring together all the various aspects of my writing and teaching, and develop a much more consistent brand for myself as an author. She’s called Sarah Mackie, and her company is Caxton Bell – I highly recommend her.

It was mostly really interesting and fun working with Sarah, but there were a few sticking points, and the first one for me was her suggestion, when I sent her the draft of my blurb for Writing in the House of Dreams, that rather than describing myself as a ‘much published’, ‘versatile’ or ‘established’ author, I should use the term ‘veteran’.

I argued it. I wasn’t technically a veteran author, as I’d only been published for 23 years and not yet 25. I had had an unusually large number and wide variety of books published in that time, so ‘much published’ and ‘versatile’ were more accurate descriptions. And anyway, I was too young!

She told me of course I was too young, and of course I was prolific and versatile, but the bottom line was there were three kinds of effective author profile, bestselling, award-winning and veteran, and as far as she was aware I hadn’t had a bestseller or won a major award.

So I had to really examine why I’d felt reluctant to acknowledge my age in my professional life, even though in my personal life I celebrate it. I’d never put the year of my birth on my website for example, and had dreaded it appearing somewhere on the net. It has recently done just that, on google search, but according to the bio I’m from the Bronx and was born in 1958, neither of which is the case.

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In our culture, we fear ageing and death and idealise youth. We try to disguise the years and look as young as possible. But that is at odds with my personal values because I’ve always believed that while the energy of youth is essential for social change and regeneration, so is the wisdom of age to temper and direct it.

I feel very grateful to have had more than six whole decades of living and learning. In the fields I’ve been writing about recently – dreaming and writing – I know so much more now in my sixties than I did ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years ago, when I first started to explore them in earnest.

When I thought about the experience I brought to Writing in the House of Dreams and When a Writer Isn’t Writing, and how I should be proud of it, and flag it up, it occurred to me that it’s not just in these books that my main drive has been to share what I’ve learnt from life experience.

I remembered that in an interview in 2007, I was already describing myself as ‘an elder’

I think of myself as an elder in a society which doesn’t really have elders any more, writing the sort of reassuring common sense that grandparents used to be there for when families had more leisure and were less geographically dispersed

So Sarah’s suggestion that I should describe myself as a veteran author, flagging up that the value I bring is experience, didn’t only describe what I was doing in my recent books on dreams and writing, but also caught something of the essence of what I’d always done.

Veteran author… OK, I can live with that!

When a Writer Isn’t Writing… it’s publication day!

Today is the official publication day for When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.

I mentioned in my last post that there will be reviews in awfullybigreviews and The Book Analyst – well the first of these is already up, and here’s a taster.

‘Jenny writes in such an easy, friendly and re-assuring style that it’s tempting, if you are a galumphing reader like me, to speed through the pages. I’d advise reading this book with a pencil in hand, underlining sentences that resonate, and suggestions that require deeper pondering…’ Read more

I’m very happy with that! And the Book Analyst has tweeted that she found the book ‘very informative and useful’ so I’m looking forward to reading her full review too.

This book, coming out almost exactly a year after Writing in the House of Dreams, has been an absolute labour of love, one of those books you simply have to write even though you know you may never even earn back your investment.

I feel happy and privileged just to have been able to do it. Time to crack open the bubbly, I’d say!

A therapist for the non-writing writer

Writing. It’s amazing. It can help us to

  • explore and gain mastery in our inner worlds of emotion and imagination
  • develop, organise and share our ideas
  • satisfy our natural yearning to create beautiful objects
  • make our own entertainment and never get bored

The way children learn to write at school completely ignores all these wonderful benefits and that’s why, ten years ago, I wrote my children’s book, How to be a Brilliant Writer focusing not just on the nuts and bolts of how to do it, but also why you might want to, and what writing can do for you.

I knew I’d want to write some books for adults about writing one day too, because I’m a bit of a maven – when I’ve found something great, I just have to share it.

In the spirit of the maven, I'm sharing the fab book I first found the word in
In the spirit of the maven, I’m sharing the fab book I first found the word in

After Writing in the House of Dreams last year, which is about dreams as much as writing, I started work on a new book just about writing, no dreams – writing as a hobby, a spiritual path, a career – the psychology, the process, the question of publication – a distilling down of what I’ve learned from a lifetime of writing and twenty three years of being published. I called it When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.

I didn’t offer the manuscript to my agent or traditional publishers, but decided instead to go straight to self-publishing. The main reason was that I wanted to get a second book out fairly quickly after Writing in the House of Dreams, as I thought two books on different aspects of the same theme might support each other in the market – if someone read one and liked it, they might take a punt on the other.

Writing my book about writing was relatively easy because I’d been thinking about it for several years before I sat down to start. Sending the manuscript out to beta readers – which is really important when a book isn’t going to go through the traditional agent+publishers vetting process – also felt unchallenging, because I was confident in the material.

Working with the editor and then the designer felt like part of the creative process of the book, so I enjoyed that too, but then I had to get to grips with some promotion and pre-publicity, and that certainly didn’t feel like part of the creative process to me.

When the focus lifts from writing to sales, my interest always dips, and with this book I began to sabotage my promotional efforts by thinking ‘what’s the point anyway?’ which made it even harder to feel motivated.

One of the things that got me thinking that way was that my experience with Writing in the House of Dreams had been mixed. I had struggled to find my elevator pitch, because that book straddled two areas of interest, dream-working and writing, so it didn’t fit neatly into either. (My thanks again to Susan Price, who described the book perfectly in her review of it, and so helped me reframe how I describe it myself)

Not having a clear enough concept, all my efforts to get some pre-publicity for it hadn’t achieved very much, and had felt like a waste of good writing time.

I was on the point of deciding to just press publish and let When a Writer Isn’t Writing sink or swim without a shout, when I had this dream:

I’m thinking about my app Get Writing! and I see that the tasks could be represented by people sitting on a wall, and you could click any one, and they would all take you to a writing task. Just writing, so you could click with confidence, knowing what you were going to get.

When a Writer Isn’t Writing is like that, which means it will be easier to pitch and sell than Writing in the House of Dreams. That book could take a writer places they don’t want to go, but When a Writer Isn’t Writing only takes them into writing. 

In the dream, the people on the wall reminded me of 'ten green bottles'
In the dream, the people on the wall reminded me of ‘ten green bottles’ 

This dream gave me the energy and confidence to stop messing around and do some promoting, and I managed to place articles in Mslexia and The Author. Mslexia have subsequently approached me to ask if I’d like them to feature the book in their October competition. Er… yes please!

There will be reviews on the book analyst and awfullybigreviews, which I’ll link to here when they go up (if you’re a book blogger and would like a review copy, please get in touch!) I’m also organising a launch party in September.

It’s been a tough couple of months, not because self-publishing, writing press releases, pitching articles and organising events is hard and horrible work – I actually quite enjoy it – but because it takes up so much head-space that it stops you getting stuck into new writing.

My daily dose of writing – every stage from pondering and note-taking to drafting and redrafting – is what normally keeps me feeling happy and grounded. Writing isn’t just amazing – it’s addictive.

A non writing writer is a monster courting insanity | Franz Kafka

Dreams are my therapist when not writing makes me feel a bit crazy – what helps you?

‘I feel excited about looking at my dreams in a different way…’

The first time I offered my ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ workshop series I was slightly concerned that several of the people who signed up were therapists who had worked in an interpretative way with clients’ dreams in their professional life.

I wasn’t sure how they would feel about coming at dreams from a completely new angle, as pure imaginative substance, so you can imagine how relieved I was when, at the end of the first session, one of them told me, ‘I feel excited about looking at my dreams is a different way.’

The first 'house of dreams' picture I used on this blog, by course participant, Liz
The first ‘house of dreams’ picture I used on this blog, by course participant, Liz

Dreams can be an invaluable source of insight into waking life, but if you only focus on that you can miss the greater opportunity they offer, to enter and engage with the dreamworld on its own terms and experience it as a completely different kind of reality.

In order to do this, in workshops, we share dreams as simply things we have experienced, and don’t try to interpret them any more than we would try to interpret the events of waking life. It’s a discipline, because in Western culture we are so centred in the material life and our first instinct is to try to analyse and make sense of things. A train going into a tunnel? We know what that means!

It's just a tunnel!
It’s just a tunnel!

But what if it’s just a train going into a tunnel? Then the experience of dreaming is fundamentally changed. Dream-working in this way gradually expands the mind to inhabit wider realities, instead of just shedding light into some of the corners of this one.

When I’m mixing dreaming with writing in workshops, we begin by sharing a dream; we take material from the dream to spark a piece of creative writing, and then we share the writing. The dream-sharing and the writing-sharing feel exactly the same, as in neither case do we try to analyse any connection between the dreamer/writer’s personal life and the stories they bring.

There is a connection, of course. A writer shows the tones and colours of their own personality, experience and ways of being in the world in all their writing, but as with dreams, if we try to extrapolate more than that, we are likely to make mistakes based upon our own experiences and assumptions.

Writing and dreams are creative processes, and that’s both the value and the joy of them. They don’t literally tell our story; they don’t all refer to the narrow facts of our life. They can take us anywhere, if we are ready for the adventure.

Susan Price's 'Nennius' blog
Susan Price’s ‘Nennius’ blog

I was delighted to discover this review by Susan Price on her ‘Nennius’ blog recently, because she totally gets what I was trying to do in the book that relates to the workshops, Writing in the House of Dreams. Actually, she describes it better than I managed to myself and, with her permission, I’ve changed my amazon book description accordingly!

Got 20 minutes a day? Get Writing!

Several months ago, I put a call-out via my newsletter for volunteers to test my new writing app and, having taken their feedback on board and made various adjustments, I’m happy to report that Get Writing! is now available in the Apple store. Woohoo!

The concept is simple. The app takes the traditional method of busting through writer’s block by writing for 20 minutes a day – which you may remember from a previous post Not everyone loves ‘morning pages’ I’m slightly equivocal about – but focuses it so that, after 28 days, instead of a heap of random jottings, you end up with a finished and redrafted story.

There are four sections, each consisting of seven sessions

  1. establishing a daily practice
  2. playing with ideas for characters and settings
  3. writing a short story
  4. crafting and redrafting it

When you have finished, you can go back to the beginning and start again, working your way right through towards a whole new story, or you can use the various sections to dip into as and when you need a nudge with getting going or finding ideas, starting a new story or redrafting one that’s already written.

First review in the Apple store
First review in the Apple store

Depending on sales and reviews, I’d love to develop further writing apps, because the process has been thoroughly enjoyable, and I think an app is a perfect device for delivering daily tasks. As there’s a text box within the app, you don’t even need to be near the computer or have a paper and pen on you – you can dip in any time and anywhere.

Got 20 minutes to spare? Any time, any where!
Any time, anywhere!

Huge thank-you again to all my testers and, if I do develop another one, I’ll be asking for testers via my newsletter again.

Dreams of the places you’ve left

The last time I blogged I was still on holiday in the Northern Isles, and coming home from holidays can be hard, even if you love the place you live.

The first few nights back home, I had strange dreams which were like series of pictures from my holiday, framed as if they were in an exhibition.

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A Shetland sheep on a Shetland beach
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
The flight to North Ronaldsay, Orkney
Croquet in my daughter's Orkney garden - we're so posh!
Croquet in my daughter’s Orkney garden – we’re so posh!

These dreams reminded me of something my friend Anne used to say about depression, that it was ‘a chance for your soul to catch up.’

I was home, but feeling unsettled and wishing I was still on holiday – so my dreams gave me a chance to take a final look back and enjoy the wonderful memories. The fact that the images were framed gave them distance, so they felt like memories rather than events I was still involved in.

I wonder how often we dream about the places we’ve left, sweet dreams that bridge the gap between where we were and where we are now in the physical, like bridges for our soul to cross when it is ready.

Why enthusiasts share their enthusiasms

Driving back to the house I was staying in last week, after an afternoon walking the coastline of Shetland, I was listening to an item on Radio 4 suggesting that the wonderful natural history programmes we have these days are putting people off actually going out into the countryside and exploring nature for themselves. The contention was that the natural world feels disappointing compared with the close-up images we can see on our screens.

Walking the coast in Shetland
Walking the coast in Shetland

Chris Packham, one of the Springwatch presenters, was understandably put out by that argument. He said the motivation behind programmes like his was to inspire people to get out and discover the joy of being in nature, by showing how wonderful the natural world is, and all the plants and animals you might see.

I had just seen an otter walk down to the water across the stony beach right in front of me. I would have seen him better in close-up on TV but, having seen the footage of otters on Simon King’s Shetland Diaries a few years ago, I could fill in the detail for myself. I also knew how lucky I’d been to catch a glimpse of such a shy creature.

Sea otter in Shetland
Sea otter in Shetland

I’d barely started walking again when i came upon a group of seals lying on a small sandy beach. They were less shy, and allowed me to go down onto the sand and sit watching them. Again, in a close-up on TV, I could have seen every detail, but as Chris Packham said, that would not have come anywhere near the excitement I felt at being so close to the animals themselves.

Just as Chris Packham is an enthusiast for the natural world, I am an enthusiast for the inner world of dreams. Like him, when I share my own experiences, I want to inspire other people to make their own explorations, and I would hate to think it could actually be putting them off.

Jacob's numinous dream
Jacob’s numinous dream

Not everyone has the time and dedication to devote to one area of experience and most of us like to dip the toe, as I do with my walks in nature. Devoting time and focus will always reap rewards. When I talk about the faceless ones, or numinous dreams, or lucid dreaming I know some people will not have had those experiences, but I hope that simply knowing they exist might inspire them to go looking, or at least recognise them if they chance upon one, and know what they’re looking at, like me and the otter.

Creative dreaming, creative writing

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