Some general thoughts. These may be used when you are first querying – that is, sending agents or indie presses your work – or perhaps they may comfort as you go further along and have found an agent or a publisher and…in comes the doubt. Or perhaps your agent has your book out on submission and back comes that creeping feeling of…what if/they don’t really like me/eeee this is tough/holy actual shit, am I good enough? Well then, you are going to tough this out. I absolutely promise you you are not the only one feeling this way and, if you thought you were super-amazing and considered yourself gifted PLUS the very thing that publishing needs, and that you know things no-one else does, then you’d be an arrogant twat and, ultimately, would you rather be that? I am sure you have seen the odd person like this on twitter – SCANDAL! NO? YES! – but it’s blather and hogwash because we are all ignorant and broken, however hard we try, so pah.
Anyway, here are some thoughts for when you are waiting, sad and slumping. Below them, I am going to add some specific tips about mental health – IN MY OPINION – and guarding it at specific times and in specific situations.
- Back yourself. You may have felt crushed, had imposter syndrome (everyone does, I bet, unless they are super-arrogant and probably less talented than you: THAT’S MY THEORY AND I AM STICKING TO IT), compared yourself with others and beaten yourself up over that. Take a step back. Truly, what do you think? Have you forgotten to look after yourself and, self-reflection always at hand, of course, berated yourself and got in a knot? You must aim to think your work is worth it, whatever that means to you; measure success in your own terms: BACK YOURSELF – because that is where it all starts. Feeling knocked down because someone told you you were a bit difficult? Well, we’re not all going to get on and you cannot legislate for people’s reactions. Let that go once you’ve given it some thought and put it down. DID YOU PUT IT DOWN? Sometimes, the people who tell you you are difficult are the people you had no choice but to challenge and you’re not a weed so you did.
- Play. If you are stuck, doodle, draw and just let your brain relax and, you never know, from there some ideas may emerge. Also, remember that this, and the thinking you do when you’re in a bubble bath, are also work and also part of the process. Don’t underestimate the value of imaginative freewheeling, either.
- Inspiration not coming so you can’t write, huh? I think this is back to front: start writing and trust that inspiration may well follow from there. (Also, see point two.)
- Try a different genre. Novelist? Try some flash or a narrative poem. It might work wonders. Example: this is what I did with short stories. I’d played around before but never thought, ‘Oh I will spend some good time on this now’ – until I did. WHOAH. I didn’t see that coming. Lightbulb moment. I wrote stories and felt more confident and, I think, that – the confidence and the discipline of short story writing – fed into my long-form work.
- I’ve banged on about this before, but I know some people have a dedicated room of one’s own, or a special shed or an office. Well, I have written everything at the kitchen table with various offspring wandering in. I am writing this with the washing machine on next to me (no utility room, see) and a stew cooking; I can hear one of the cats going OW OW OW because it’s a bit senile and two of my kids are arguing and the other is in an absolutely foul temper. I am still writing this, though, aren’t I? I truly didn’t realise before that you just work with what you have. That was a revelation. I was waiting, I think, for perfect circumstances to evolve, but that’s deferring your happiness and your fulfilment in writing to fate, don’t you think? You could buy noise-cancelling headphones but here, if things get difficult, I just wear earplugs. I buy them in job lots.
- Find your tribe. Online or in person. Can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t have to be a big old tribe; it might be very few people. But I promise they are out there.
- Reading. All kinds. Indies and big publishers. A genre you have never tried. I read everything from Mills and Boon (I like the hospital settings) to early Medieval poetry and it’s great. I adore our indie presses, but I also don’t sniff at commercial fiction. If you’ve never read short stories or flash, then now’s a great time to start and PLEASE read books in translations, by people from all walks of life, from lots of writers of colour, fiction and non-fiction. In other words, improve your diet.
- Remember to be amazed. Inspiration and ideas will strike or you will see something, quite by chance, that lights a fire and prompts some writing. I PROMISE YOU.
- Never forget that your first draft of something is going to be shit. It’s your shit first draft.
- Get out into the world by whatever routes you can. I mean, online if it’s not possible in person. Diversify your reading, as I said, but also curate some things on YouTube and choose some wonderful podcasts to listen to. There is so much stimulation to be found and, if you are stuck, had the misfortune to work with someone who has turned being wanky into an art (it happens; be patient), have hit a slump or you are repeatedly having your work rejected, kick back just a little and find some time to tune in. How about that?
Now some specifics for what to do to look after your mental health at specific points. I need to say, I think, that I do have specific mental health challenges. Telling you this may, I hope, help what I write here to be a little more resonant and make a little more sense.
Querying – when you are first sending work to agents and small pubishers (presses) – and a side note: some quite big publishers DO, still, accept unsolicted manuscripts. (Serpent’s Tail, for example.)
- Compare and despair. This MIGHT mean you have to get off social media, or just do some hefty curating (through your settings, mute accounts, but also words and phrases). You have sent out a partial and you wait and you get rejected or wait and no reply (which happens a lot even with those who say they WILL reply, sometimes). During those times, others will get picked up and celebrate. Celebrate with them; that the best way. It’s generous and, frankly, better for you, too. Yes I know you see ‘hotly contested’ and ‘six figure deal’ but you cannot control that. Focus on you. A lot is also not what you think. Overnight success is rarely that! Also, life is not fair and it is not exactly a meritocracy out there.
- Be working on something else. Always. It makes you feel productive, it’s professional and it’s a feeling of productive and good energy, if that’s not too woo for you. If you are starting to feel shaky, pouring yourself into something else can be wonderfully good for you. This is my opinion; also consider whether you need just need to take yourself off for a while.
- Note the tribe in the general pointers above. Tell those people how you are feeling if you feel exposed or vulnerable.
- Focus on your reading. It’s your best teacher. See also the general list above for thoughts on expanding that reading.
- This is competitive and tough. You have (forgive me) to be prepared to work your tits off. There is no way round it. Rejection is hard-wired into every stage of the process. Get used to it. Okay, that sounded too hard? Weeeeell now; think of it another way. This is training. You are learning about waiting, and passion and rejection and you are still doing it. This is GOOD. You are on your way. Also, really try to reflect on the fact that it takes courage to send your work out in the first place and you did it. That’s pretty amazing, if you ask me.
THE OTHER SIDE? Looking after yourself when you have work coming out, out or maybe a book out on submission from your agent to editors at publishing houses. I am going to roll into this the idea of what to do if things are going wrong. That is, you are not being treated kindly. I don’t mean to make the industry sound brutal…but…brutal things do happen. To your self-worth, to your belief in your work and – I talk to A LOT – of people, if your published work is not looked after, it will hurt because this was your dream, right? If someone is rude to you, tells you you’re lucky to get published in the first place, won’t have dialogue, listen to you or prepare you in any way which shows that they value you and your work, then it is frustrating, sad and painful. But there are things you can do because you’re tough and resourceful. Read on.
1. I know I blathered on about it above, but once you are published – a first book or collection – you are still likely to get rejected. Some people have an easier time than others in this respect, but you cannot legislate for that so onward. I think, though, it helps to be prepared. What forms could rejection take? Foreign and translation rights don’t sell, readers hate your book (call a spade a spade!), the timing is bad for some reason, it doesn’t get reviewed. Also, you may write a second book for the same publisher and they don’t want to publish it or, in fact, decline further work from you. All of these things hurt, but this is why you are working on more and maybe diverse things. Allow yourself to be upset, but then burrow into the work. Also, tell your tribe! If it triggering and you actually feel unwell, it’s time to take a break, unplug from publishing and writing news and read! You WILL recover.
2. What if you are treated badly or misrepresented and it makes you feel vulnerable? Tell your tribe and, if it’s really bad, it’s an idea to have a conversation with The Society of Authors and do please work on your self respect. In any line of work, there could be bullies, and raving egotists and gaslighters. There will, I am afraid, be people who are publicly feted and congratulated for how wonderful and generous they are, but you KNOW they have been belittling and demeaning to you. The bottom line is that this irks, but spend half an hour talking to experienced writers, and see you are not alone. Knowing you are not makes you feel stronger and also, frankly, better to be you than an epic duplicitous twat who on some level knows they’re duplicitous. That’s not nice for them, either.
3. Going out to be a more public person. This is potentially part of the deal, right? Well, you can choose whether to read your reviews and actually, you get told not to look on Amazon or Goodreads, but if you do, some of them are gold. I mean, one of mine said I was clearly the sort of woman who wore a pashmina. I am trying to say, guard yourself, don’t look, don’t take it personally but also have a sense of humour. If you are very anxious about being more public by having a book out and then, perhaps, doing events, tell your agent and your publishers – the publicist, editor (take advice at the time on who’s the best person to have a chat with). I don’t want to share confidences I have had with my own agent, but I have had to be honest not only about my own challenges – some of which were made temporarily worse by a few tricky events since I got started in writing five or so years ago – but also about the level of significant challenge involved in being mum to young people with additional needs. I have been entirely upfront about my complex history and explained what the current situation is. Snowflake? Too confessional? RUBBISH. This is called being trusting and I want you to regard it as part of a professional relationship. I hope you find this encouraging. Think details, too. Tell someone if you think you might panic at an event. You might not, but be prepared and have a written plan B. A list. I LOVE a list.
4. Learn to wait and that there will be periods when you are between books, or are starting a new book after one tanked, or didn’t get placed, or the editing is taking longer than everyone thought, or you have a book on submission and are a bit nervous. To everything there is a season and there will be fallow periods; there will be times of feeling rootless. A suggestion: try writing something different for a while, just for fun. In an entirely different genre. It may be that something amazing comes of it.
5. I have said compare and despair before. Yes, at the initial querying stage, but also once you are published. No two people have the same experience as far as I can see and, anyway, you cannot see all of it. Each time in publishing will be new and different because of a combination of interpersonal factors, timing, all sorts. People in your publishing house will be way more successful than you (well not everyone, obviously), but even then, you don’t know what those guys worry about. Focus on you and your work, your route. Don’t expend precious energy on this or you will end up feeling persecuted too.
I hope this lot helps. Write and tell me if you like.