SAS Peterboro 022

When your to-do list is freaking you out

Five posts to publication, five dreams – here’s the second. It came when I’d made some decisions and started the ball rolling with self-publishing Writing in the House of Dreams, and was worried about the enormity of the task I was taking on.

Sat 8th Feb, 2014

I’m in a cafe with my grown-up son. It’s a formica tables and plastic chairs kind of place, and he looks completely incongruous in a wide-shouldered, pale-coloured overcoat which makes him look like a cross between a fat-cat businessman and a mafia godfather.

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Not funny in real life, but a very amusing look for my son in my dream
I’m talking about Writing in the House of Dreams. ‘There have been times,’ I say, ‘when I would have loved to just give up and, if I hadn’t loved it so much, I would have done.’

He says, ‘What you need to do is pray!’ I see he’s also a preacher of some kind now. Before I can say, ‘I do pray. That’s how I’ve got this far,’ he whips a little music machine out of his pocket, puts on some loud gospel music and yells ‘Halleluyah!’ Everyone in the café jumps up and joins in, dancing, clapping and singing along.

This is one of those dreams that feels like a gift when you’ve gone to bed feeling anxious, because it wakes you up in the morning with a smile on your face. That, in itself, puts your anxieties in perspective, even before you get to the sense of the dream.

As an author who has always been traditionally published, one of the things that surprised me about self-publishing was how challenging it could be to keep up my stamina and confidence without the back-up of a hard-working and confident publisher.

Normally, I don’t have to think about the book once it’s with the publisher – I just get on with writing the next thing. But when you’re self-publishing, you have to go on working with the manuscript long after the decision to publish is made. You have a massive to-do list, and doubts can start to set in.

Have you got enough time and energy to see it through? Is the book actually worth all that time and energy? Are you capable anyway of doing a good enough job?

One way to get past worry is by lifting your focus from every individual problem to the bigger picture; from what you’ve got to do to why you want to do it; from yourself to what is bigger than yourself.

You can call it what you like, it doesn’t have to be God. You can call it Love. Whatever you love is bigger than yourself. It lifts you above selfishness and laziness and bends you to its work. The reason I write is because I love writing. I want to be better for writing. I’m willing to give up other things I’d like to do for the love of writing.

Prayer is perspective. My dream reminded me that I couldn’t give up, because of that love.

Laughter is perspective too. My dream told me not to take it all so seriously. I could only do my best, and the rest was down to luck, or grace, and out of my control. O happy day!

What helps you get a sense of perspective when your to-do list is freaking you out?

 

 

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Self-publishing – what are the actual costs?

Five posts to publication, five dreams – here’s the first, which came at the very start of the process, when I’d done some research but was still feeling anxious about committing .

Weds 5th Feb, 2014

I’m lying on the floor in front of the fire, going through my self-publishing lists for Writing in the House of Dreams. I’m going to make some decisions now… None of it feels overwhelming any more…. None of it feels risky. The actual amounts I’ll have to spend are not that big…

2014-09-16 13.36.42yThis is one of those dreams that highlights what matters when you’re floundering in a sea of new information. The bottom line, when it came to worrying about self-publishing, was the actual costs, and my research had shown me that I could choose how much I wanted to spend, starting at zero if I did it all myself. It didn’t have to feel risky!

I’d looked into buying an inclusive package, but none of them seemed to me to offer good value, and I was leaning towards the idea of finding a professional editor and designer myself, and paying one-off fees rather than upfront costs plus a percentage on sales.

I’d discovered that a full edit for 300 pages would cost about £800 but I could get a line edit for around £500 and I felt that would be sufficient as in all my years as a published author I’d never needed more.

I knew I needed a designer for the layouts, because Writing in the House of Dreams is a complicated text with non-fiction features such as bullets and boxes, and I’d found designers who could produce the layouts for both the ebook and the paperback for about £200-300.

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Too complicated for me to format myself – I know my limits!

Finally, I wanted a professional cover, and that would cost around £150 plus the cost of any images I might use.

That meant the cost of producing my book to the standard I wanted would come in around £1000, tax deductible. I might not earn it back, but I would certainly earn something, so my maximum potential losses would be much smaller.

Experienced self-publisher Diana Kimpton’s advice on finance is ‘Don’t spend more than you could afford to lose’ and that seems sound to me.

My dream told me I wasn’t worried about that level of maximum loss, when weighed against the possibility of going into profit and selling on the longer term.

It told me, ‘I’m going to make some decisions now.’ And I did.

I chose an editor I knew personally and she did an amazing job for me, especially in giving instructions for the designer about such things as heading size, italics and indentations, which I’d got into quite a muddle over.

I chose a designer who was recommended to me by a friend, and she was very patient with me, which I needed, being so inexperienced.

I found an artist whose work I really liked, went on her website and discovered she had several linocuts that would be perfect for Writing in the House of Dreams and my follow-up book, When a Writer Isn’t Writing. She gave me permission to use them for a small fee.

By the time I’d done all the research I needed to do, I hadn’t been able to see the wood for the trees. I’d felt overwhelmed, but my dream got straight to the nitty gritty for me. The bottom line is, how much will it actually cost? Now, does that still feel too risky?

Have you ever had a dream which clarified the issue when you were suffering from information-overload?

Next week I’ll tell you about the funny dream that saved me from a confidence dip once the process was underway.

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I do this every year!

Several people have contacted me recently to say they were missing my posts here in the House of Dreams and ask why I haven’t been blogging. Thank-you, bless you – you know who you are. It’s lovely to be missed :)

I always plan to blog throughout the summer but let’s face it, I go off the radar every year because when it’s fine I want to be at the beach. There are three reasons why this year’s break has been longer than usual.

Swimming selfie in Tiree
Swimming selfie in Tiree
  1. The weather’s been amazing, and I’ve had a total of five glorious weeks out and about with my little tent, mostly with no internet or mobile connection.
  2. Before I set off on my travels, I was working with a branding and marketing consultant to try and create a more unified web presence, instead of having a children’s author site and this completely different area for dreams, workshops and writing books. I was holding off until it was up and running, but that’s taking much longer than I hoped and I’ve been missing blogging, so I’m back!
  3. I’ve been super-busy doing last-minute things for Writing in the House of Dreams such as checking proofs, ordering copies, setting up a  Writing in the House of Dreams – the Book page here on the blog and sorting out some publicity before publication day on October 15th.

Yes, it’s that close – five weeks, and that means five posts to publication. What will be in these countdown posts? Dreams! Because I really do ‘write in the House of Dreams,’ I get guidance in my dream-life for all my work, and I’m going to tell you five dreams that have helped me overcome various anxieties I had about self-publishing and really come to love it.

This post is just to say ‘Hello – I’m back – is anyone there?’ My normal posting day is Wednesday, so come back tomorrow for the first of my five pre-publication posts and read about the dream that helped me focus on the money side of self-publishing.

 

Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?

A while ago, I stumbled upon an interesting article by the novelist, Alex Preston Does Prozac help artists be creative? and reading it reminded me of my own experience of prescription drugs in my teens and twenties.

In his article, Alex Preston interviews a number of successful writers about their experience of taking anti-depressants and one thing that comes to light is that although the pills might help people to overcome blocks and inhibitions so that they can start writing again, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily producing very good work.

I first experienced depression as a young child and I was receiving treatment by the time I was twelve. Before I started taking the pills I had always thought of my extremes of emotion as being like the weather, some days dark and overcast, some bright and sunny. Sometimes, with a sense of dread, I could feel the storm clouds gathering; other times I could feel the dark clouds lifting away.

Storm clouds gathering
Storm clouds gathering

How I dealt with the darkness was through drawing, painting and writing poems. One time, I designed the cover of a poetry book which I called ‘Poems of the Darkness and the Light,’ and my teacher didn’t believe I had made the title up. As if children could not feel the darkness as well as the light.

My darkness and light were part of my nature, they were my micro-climate, and after I started taking anti-depressants I stopped feeling like me. It felt as if someone else was living my life, but doing a better job of it than I would have done in terms of passing exams and doing the work at university.

I stopped taking anti-depressants some ten years after I started, because when my older sister killed herself with prescription drugs it seemed clear to me that they weren’t any kind of cure at all. The withdrawal was terrible.

But in time, I started to write again. I learnt to flow with my own rhythm of highs and lows. It felt like the difference between trying to find your way in the dark within the narrow beam of a torch, then switching it off and waiting until your eyes acclimatise and gradually the dark is less dark, there are stars and glimmers, a faint smudge of hedges, a pale ribbon of road.

All these years later, I remember what it felt like to be numbed out of my own life on a diet of pills. If I hadn’t been shocked out of it by my sister’s suicide I probably would have stayed like that, and never discovered the fertile darkness, or come home to myself.

Walking in the dark
Walking in the dark

The Uses of Sorrow – by Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

My feelings about anti-depressants have come out of my personal experience and I’m sure other people will have very different views and stories. Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Did you feel they helped or hindered your creativity?

You and your writing – true love or passing passion?

It’s easy to fall in love with writing, but can you take it to the next level?

A lot of people love the idea of writing, and hold it in their heart for years as ‘a one day when I’ve got  time’ dream. And when they engage, perhaps in workshops or inspired by a book such as Writing down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, writing does not disappoint.

Because it really is exhilarating to discover that all you have to do is open the door, and ideas will come pouring through. Characters, settings, stories… it’s astonishing and wonderful what you find inside that you never even knew was there.

This is the honeymoon period. It’s bright, fun and exciting, but it doesn’t last forever. You can abandon it for a while and then start all over again, with another course, another book, loving the romance but not committing, or you can surrender to it fully, and fall properly in love.

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Love is not easy. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, ‘Even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.’

When you fall in love with writing, just as when you fall in love with another person, your centre of gravity changes. You are not the only important thing. You are willing to learn, to strive and to make sacrifices in the service of your love.

Loving your writing means making yourself the best possible writer that you can be. It means studying and practising all the skills of writing, so that you can properly honour the wonderful flow of ideas you have found.

Sometimes it might mean giving up things you really liked – ‘killing your darlings’ – if a clever image you were pleased with doesn’t sit well in the larger piece, for example, or if a descriptive passage you’ve worked really hard on has got in the way of the action.

It means curbing your annoying habits, such as using too many abstract nouns or adverbs, or peppering your text with a few favourite words. What you like is not important; you want to do what the writing needs.

Writing is a labour of love – labour and love, both. When you have setbacks, as every writer does – a book idea that doesn’t work after months and months of trying, a rejection from a publisher or agent, an e-book that’s barely sold a copy – it’s only your love for the art and craft of writing that stops you walking away and giving up completely.

I’ve had times when I’ve felt like packing it in, but writing always brings me back. It’s part of who I am now, not just a thing I do. As Khalil Gibran says, ‘think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.’

What is your relationship with writing? Would you like to commit yourself more fully? Would you like to be able to walk away?

 

 

I’m giving you four stars, amazon

amazon ****

I’m giving you four stars, amazon. You lose that elusive fifth one because of your  absolute resistance to removing malicious or inaccurate customer reviews, such as the one that appeared in amazon UK on my bullying book for children which called victims ‘pansies’ and said they should get in with the cool kids by smoking and doing whatever it takes.

Or the one you’re currently refusing to take down on the same book in amazon US, which slanders me as an authority on bullying by stating that I advise bullied children to hit back.

Surely this is slander?
Surely this is slander?

But notwithstanding such a serious shortcoming, here’s why this author still thinks you deserve four stars.

* You make all my books readily available

High Street booksellers are great at selling children’s fiction, but before you arrived, I wrote eight fantastically well-reviewed children’s self-help books which proved impossible for them to sell. If they stocked them, they didn’t know where to display them.

There wasn’t such a thing in the UK as a children’s self-help section, indeed in most shops, there wasn’t much children’s non-fiction at all, except school-type books and a handful of tired-looking hard-backs about animals.

Thanks to you, most of my self-help books are still in print and selling well, and they’re finding their way into the hands of children who need them, which is why I wrote them.

* You keep my out-of-print books available too

This is even more important nowadays because the modern publishing world can be brutal, with books going out of print within a few months if they fail to reach their projected sales.

It’s hard to write a book. Not just in terms of work, but in terms of emotional commitment. So it’s simply heart-breaking if the book you’ve taken years to write and months to sell, and then waited eighteen months to see in print, disappears without trace before it’s even had a proper chance, to make way for ever more celebrity memoirs and novelty books.

* You make it possible for me to write what I want to write

When I was first published, authors were barely aware of ‘the market’ at all. Now the decision to publish is made by marketing people who will not even have read the book, so there’s not much point writing anything that hasn’t got a strong ‘hook’ and pound signs all around it.

But what if you want to write the books you want to write, and would be happy with moderate sales so long as you could pay your bills? My most frequent feedback from publishers recently is that the book is ‘too niche for the market’ or ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales.’

This is especially hard when they’re really positive about the quality of the book, like with my most recent submission, which has so far not secured a contract: ‘this is a very fine novel, so subtle, yet sharply observed’, ‘a sensitive subject, delicately and carefully handled’, ‘compelling’, ‘highly readable’, ‘the writing is very strong.’

I would be in despair at this stage if it wasn’t for your kindle and createspace, amazon, which mean that even the most ‘niche’ book can at least find some readers, rather than ending up a typescript on a shelf.

*  You make it easy for me to find any niche or out-of-print book I want to read for research 

I used to rely on the library service years ago. My little local branch sought out all sorts of obscure books on dreaming and psychology for me, but it took a long time and wasn’t always successful. Now, thanks to you, I can get any book I want, delivered to my house the very next day.

I still love High Street booksellers, of course – all authors do. High Street booksellers love and know about books – they are people like us. Whereas you, amazon, love and know about money. I deplore the fact that you don’t pay your fair share of taxes; I’m dismayed by your recently well-publicised poor working conditions.

I hate your attempts to force publishers to accept deep discounting by removing their books from your catalogue, although I don’t think it’s much different from what all the major retailers do.

But I personally forgive you all this, because in a traditional publishing environment that has become increasingly difficult for a non-fiction, non-bestselling, niche author to survive in, you make a creative career feel possible.

How do you feel about amazon and the huge online booksellers? Love, hate… or a bit of both?

 

 

 

The ups and downs of the writing life

The second series of writing workshops I was planning this year didn’t work out because I didn’t get enough interest to make a big enough group. This happens from time to time, and it doesn’t faze me.

The reason why is because I invariably find the timing would have been bad for me, and that life was working in my best interests in overriding what I had planned. On this occasion, I injured my back a few days before the first session would have been and spent the best part or a fortnight laid up in agony. The third session would have clashed with a family get-together; the fourth would have come when I was recovering from a sickness bug we all came down with after we parted.

The course, had it gone ahead, would have been fraught with problems, and that’s the point – we don’t know when we’re making plans what the consequences of success or failure might be.

I need goals to give me a sense of direction, and when I set a goal I go all-out to achieve it. Then, if it doesn’t work out, I know it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part, so it’s easy to let it go and look for the silver lining.

Because there always is a silver lining. Take the three books I completed last year, none of which sold on the first time of offering

  1. ‘The Binding’ is a children’s story set on a remote Scottish island. I wrote the first version fifteen years ago, my agent sent it out, it nearly sold, but not quite. Coming back to it after such a long interval, having a much better grasp of the craft of writing, I loved having the chance to make the story much stronger and more exciting. The book has been accepted for publication in 2015.
  2. ‘Drift’ is a YA novel I also wrote about fifteen years ago – which also came very close to securing a contract at the time, but didn’t. It’s a story about sibling suicide, which is close to my heart – too close, those years ago, for me to be able to fully explore the emotional situation of the protagonist. Writing it again was a deeply satisfying experience which I would not have had if the book had sold in its original version, and the MS is currently out with various publishers.
  3. ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is my child-of-the-heart book. It didn’t find a conventional publisher because it’s ‘too niche’ and if I hadn’t loved it so much I would probably have put the MS in a drawer rather than face the complications of trying to self-publish. Because I love it, I’m going the distance with the publishing, doing it properly, and the surprising upside is that the process feels really enjoyable and creative.

Any freelance life involves plans and goals, setbacks and successes. Being a writer, you have to learn how to go with the flow, or else the extraordinary ups and downs would soon make you go under.

How do you cope with the ups and downs of the writing life?

 

Creative dreaming, creative writing

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