I am doing a little event for a local community festival. It is about writing a book, getting started, what you might need. I thought I would summarise it for you here – in case it encourages you.
Here we go.
Morale. I CANNOT DO IT. IT IS FOR OTHER PEOPLE. Yep; that was me too. Who told you who gets to write and who doesn’t? If it was someone else, squish that right down; do the same if it is the voice in your head saying this because I bet you wouldn’t say that to anyone else. Why are you saying it to yourself? Go forth if writing brings you pleasure whether you have hard ambitions bound up with it or not.
Getting started. What do you need? Hmmm. A flat surface. Pens. Some paper. Some form of computer and internet access. A bullish attitude. Joy. Start writing and do not wait for ideal conditions or for inspiration to strike.
Toolsand teachers. A dictionary and thesaurus are grand (obviously you have all that online). There’s your imagination. Trust it. Do you need to have a degree in creative writing, to have done an MA or MFA in Creative Writing? No. If you want to write a good book, you can do it without those things. However, I won’t sniff at them either because doing a course can be a game-changer: community, a new life, guidance. It isn’t just the learning, it is the time and support. Choose wisely. Your greatest teacher is reading: read widely, generously, experiment and go outside your comfort zone. Indie and big press, old and new stuff, genres you think you will not like, don’t sniff at commercial fiction if you think you’re heavy on the literary end; poetry, non-fiction, books in translation and short stories. My favourite book on writing is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781908526076?gC=5a105e8b&gclid=Cj0KCQjwtZH7BRDzARIsAGjbK2anhXBKLcr4m52GBlnPvbByWG2JyJiwa5GUY9CYcJNE8Uu3_Ux_IMUaApb7EALw_wcB Brilliant. If you can afford it, there are a number of literary consultancies and freelance editors who can help and also any number of day and residential courses BUT there is also a great deal of free material placed online. You need spend no money at all.
Say you want to publish, who is it with? Self-published? There are a number of routes so research them. A small press? Research carefully with Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide https://mslexia.co.uk/products/indie-press-guide/indie-press-guide-3/ as a starting point, but look on twitter, read other books by presses and really aim to understand what they publish. A bigger publisher? Although there are some exceptions, you will need a literary agent to approach a big publisher and there is no shame in aiming big. Your writing may be a hobby and that is wonderful because why not? Still, writing is also commerce if you are going to aim to sell it and never ever let anyone make you feel bad about that. I’m just getting down from my soapbox. The literary agent. Research carefully. Your greatest cheerleader, confidante, passionate reader and your business manager. That’s who your agent is. For details on all of this and tips on submission and pitches, The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook is great and also their website. Here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/ Think, also, about who the book is for in terms of audience and try to learn about that. Adults, young adults, early years children?
Editing and proofing. Roll in help if you can. But take your time if it is just you, read your whole work ALOUD ALWAYS AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION because you will spot all kinds of things – errors, glitches, boring bits, problems with pacing. Know that when you have written a first draft, it is there that the hardest work begins. When you are published, I’d say that you might consider your book maybe two thirds done when it goes to the editor appointed to work with you. The editing task is a big one. Be stern and be ready for this.
Submission of a book. To whoever. The odds are against you. You can increase them by doing your submission really, really carefully, but they are still stacked against you. There are helpful notes on this in Writers and Artists, as I mentioned, but also study really carefully the submissions pages of anyone you want to submit to; take advice and follow requirements to the letter. Also, NOW IGNORE THE ODDS.
Network; chat; meet people. Twitter is probably key to this and – curate it carefully – full of information, ideas and advice. I do believe this is a big part of the work: being observant and understanding the industry. Instagram is also full of a lot of engaging content for writers, too.
Be prepared for setbacks at all stages. Rejection is hardwired into the process. Try not to compare with others’ success or perceived success, debuts, overnight amazing and all that. Overnight amazing often means years of manuscripts torn up and a lot of crying that you didn’t see. If you end up with a publisher and/or an agent, even then your experience will not be the same as another person’s. This is why you MUST back yourself and believe in your work – because this will see you through. Remember this, now: nothing will happen unless you BACK YOURSELF.
Make like a favourite bear. You are entirely within your rights to make like Paddington and give a stern look to anyone who says you’re too old, too young, bit poorly, bit tired, or don’t have enough time (for example). You be the judge of that and we can, I believe, always do more than we think we can.
Find your tribe. How may I help? You know; with any of this? Because you need a tribe, online or in person! Other writers and readers to encourage and support as you would do for them.
Famished. Here she is: https://www.influxpress.com/famished You can order from here or any good bookshop or online at you know where but I’d love it if you gave your local independent bookshop a boost or the press itself.
So, Famished is about food. Ordinary food and peculiar food – or rather, peculiar meals and combinations and a strange atmosphere at table. It is also about feasts, grand consumption, being consumed and embraces eating and being eaten in literal and figurative terms. It is gruesome, pretty, ornate (hopefully not too much so for your taste) and potentially a bit shocking. There is nothing here about disordered eating (although the notion of mortality, danger and food is explored in one story, but food is really only the conduit to a longer meditation on safety and lack of it). There is plenty about disordered psychology, unhealthy and unexplored family tension and spite and, more broadly, trauma. However, even there, I have written about what ingredients and food receptacles may give one, when freshly imagined and regarded, as if for the first time; that is how we get from a preserving jar in one story to a flight from the scabrous relatives and their ghosts who so cruelly gaslit. We fill the jar with something else. My experience of coping with long and complex trauma and then dealing with its aftermath is that everything is laden with memory; with a cruel nostalgia that spits at you, even in domestic objects which perhaps you have inherited or been gifted. The answer: spit back and fill that jar with something else.
What will you find in this book? Not in order…and how about playing story snap? Decide which is which when you read the book
How a cult is built on sherbet with a mint-toothed high priestess
How a jar, beautiful but thrumming with judgement and awful memory is filled with sweetness
Why you should not patronise your elders with soft and seasonal buns
However courteous and sexy the vampire, he’s still going to eat you
Why pride might eat you; or rather why apparently inanimate objects might (ra ha ha…)
If you were at a luscious feast that you could never leave, how would that be?
Why is tripe so scary and how about pickled eggs bobbing in a big jar in a damp old larder, huh?
Why would a cherry on a trifle wink at you – and not in a good way?
How you kill people bloodlessly with seaside rock
What shame is. What is your shame? What have restraint or lack of propriety got to do with sex? What has food provenance got to do with coercive control? (I cover a few topics in that one.)
Judgmental mothers and the revenge of melted chocolate and a pickled egg in a bag of salt and vinegar
King Henry was said to have died from a surfeit of lampreys. Well. Lampreys were not amused.
A horrible demented sweetie shop that is not really there
Remember that monsters, beautiful, gracious, are (hungrily, thirstily) all around you
Scared of dolls? If not, you might be. Scared of grace and exquisite manners? That too. Don’t be fooled
Why sandwiches can be fatal and how cucumber is fatal
How do you put souls and bad inanimates into pies?
The key influences in this book are my past and ongoing exploration of some of that, trauma (about which I will write in more detail) and my reading, particularly of Southern Gothic and also Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Shirley Jackson; ALL Shirley Jackson. There are Southern and Welsh elements here, recurring characters and some of those characters have occurred in my other work.
I am so looking forward to reading adventures with you.
Here is what I have for you.If you are a writer of low income or from an underrepresented group in writing and publishing, then I have a four month FREE mentoring slot, starting in September. This is for someone working towards a novel or short story collection and with a body of work already under way. Please dm me on twitter or email@example.com by the end of July. x
Every Thursday on twitter, 6.30-7.30, I am going to be doing an #askbookworm -use the hashtag so everyone can see it – and this is all about writing. Look, I am still a newish writer but I am prolific and have learned a good deal. I get sent a number of messages anyway, so I am formalising it. YOU CAN ASK ME ANYTHING ABOUT WRITING, such as
finding an agent
keeping motivated or finding confidence in the first place
writing with a chronic health condition (in my case mental health stuff)
feeling like an outsider
putting together a short story collection (or novel)
what to do when you are stuck
writing with kids and finding space and time to write (my motto is always to work with what you have)
So, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books) has been out in the world a while and it will be interesting to see how this girl flies. As you can imagine, launching a book during lockdown was not an easy feat – for anyone involved in the process, but we did it!
Next up, is Famished, which is out with Influx Press on September 10th and it is my first short story collection.
Famished Anna Vaught
In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.
In other news, I have two further books waiting on reads and I am rewriting a novel for my literary agency, MW Literary, which is in New York, but also represented in Britain by Kate Johnson, who is the best girl, pal and literary agent you could have and I look forward to lots of adventures with her. What else? I will write separately about weird fiction and essays I have coming out, I think that September will be a bit of a news month one way and another (ooooh) and let me just say again that, if you would like to be mentored, for free, between September and January on a full-length novel or short story collection, please do get in touch by the end of the first week in July. Contact button the site and this is for low income writers only, please.
I have been thinking about a lexical set that I find problematic. That is, food words. Descriptions of food and its eating. Lexis that makes me wince, feel embarrassed or go a bit green. So here we go. Oh these are just for starters (get it?) and to this topic we shall return because I have a first short story collection out this September and it’s all about food, feasts, consuming and being consumed, but we will talk about that nearer the time, yes?
Right. Here we go.
Tasty. That is the worst word, isn’t it? It just sounds vulgar. I mean, I am vulgar but this is a shade too far. It’s also what older blokes say about younger women they think are attractive and it’s creepy. Sometimes the problem with a word is its associations.
Nibbles. It’s not just the sound of it – ugh ugh ugh – but what it connotes. Let me elaborate. Nibbling at something is fey and lacks lust, unless you are a squirrel and even then I don’t like the word. Nibbles – as in something you have with drinks – would make me want to get drunk. I think that ‘ibble’ in the middle is playful but not in a good way. And what is more, I remember going out on a date with a bloke who told me he was tempted to nibble my ears and I could not get out of there fast enough.
Platter. I hate that. If you start combining it with ‘loaded’, succulent’ or ‘luscious’ then I would not be able to eat. Platter just sounds feral to me; like you are face-down in a trough, porcine and unforgiving, with an angry bitey mouth. But this could just be me.
Succulent. Why? Because it’s horrid. It’s sucky, it’s drippy and too much but not in a good way.
Oozing. That is for wounds and pus, not a frigging pudding, please. It’s not even forgiveable for those times when you have an evening of extravagant sex and cheese planned and you heave to with a camenbert which you have cooked in the book so it’s melting and you scoop it mouthwards with bread, a gherkin or your lover’s hand. No – clearly the camenbert has melted inside the box and maybe over you and you can picture its gorgeous viscosity BUT EVEN THEN I cannot allow that golden French round to be oozing.
Atop. I actually don’t know why I hate that. Because it’s twee? Why does your cherry have to be atop your cake?
Open-faced. As in open-faced sandwich. For a start that’s not a sandwich and secondly I would not want to eat anything with a face. I mean, anything with a face that was looking right at me.
Nestled (usually on a bed of). That doesn’t really make sense. Nestled is what the baby Jesus is in the manger, not your aspic on a bed on a bed of lettuce. All too much.
Medallions of…I am being fussy now. I think it’s the meat-massive jewellery mash-up. I imagine you with veal on your chest and maybe running down the beach, looking a bi like David Hassellhoff with your meat medallion swinging as you go.
Moist. It’s an embarrassing word and should not be applied to anything. Not even cake. Or weather. (FYI I am also embarrassed by the word damp.) And NEVER anything to to do with sex through some misguided lunge at the language of the erotic. However, I am not sure what the alternative is since there is nothing as disappointing as a granular and desiccated bastard of a chocolate cake which could have been a transformative moment for you had it been the m word.
Supper. This is a little unfair. To me, supper is a little snack and maybe some milk near to bedtime. If someone invites me over for supper, I am going to find risotto odd. But you are probably posher than me.
Veggies. Why does anyone say this? Vegetables is a perfectly solid and reliable word.
Avo. Why do people abbreviate avocado in this hateful way?
Morsel. It’s not as bad as nibble, but it suggests meanness or maybe restraint that you then draw attention to, passive aggressively. You only had a morsel (unlike lard-arse there who had a slab).
Mouth-feel. You hear this in reviews or from specialists in the higher echelons of food tasting. When I hear it (which is not, admittedly, a lot), I am somehow minded of someone who is incredibly bad in bed but thinks they are textbook superb and a sort of gourmet of the erotic and one way they size you up is by your mouth feel. I’m sorry; am I disturbing you at all?
Jus. I feel there’s just too much of that about and it’s generally written when people mean sauce, though I could be wrong.
Sumptuous. Too many long vowels. If you combine it with feast – ‘a sumptuous feast’ – then you’ve got dyspepsia right there. It’s too much and the soft sounds and that squealing ee in feast are an irritant. It’s just dripping…gushing awfulness. Well, I think. The dyspepsia is also from the fact that it’s excessive in a way that is not pleasing, but suffocating, I think – because it’s about show and conspicuous consumption.
Scrummy. It’s just gross; makes me cringe.
Delish. Same problem as with veggies (above). Perfectly respectable word infantilised.
Nom. Or Nom nom. God, I hope they’re not reading this, but that extremely successful book with this word in its title, well am I the only one cringing? It makes me think of people gluttonously – oh NOM NOM – smacking their lips and banging forks against their teeth and making deathly screeches across their china with a fork. Or someone mumbling through a mouthful of food, unable to speak properly, maybe spraying you with a piece of spaghetti and then trying to get off with you. AND EVEN WORSE saying the same thing to you, OH NOM NOM BABY.
Crispy. What is wrong with crisp? Or do I just have an issue with a ee sound in words?
I think that’s quite enough for now because you might be off to have your tea, but do tell me if any of these bother you and also if you think I have been radically unfair. And I look forward to your company with Famished.
I thought what follows might be informative, seeing some worried comments about and, also, the petition to enlarge GCSE texts selection (the wording for the petition ought to be more focused and informed – there is NO reading list for GCSE and you need to specify that the issue is with GCSE English Literature, I think).
Over twenty odd years, these are the ONLY GCSE English Literature GCSE prose and drama exam texts I have worked on with students.
Wuthering Heights (now on A level spec for a couple of boards)
Anita and Me
Of Mice and Men
A View From the Bridge
Romeo and Juliet
An Inspector Calls
Jekyll and Hyde
The Woman in Black
These are the only exam GCSE texts I have ever done across schools, support teaching and tuition. Of Mice and Men and A View from the Bridge got booted off the GCSE specs by Gove (because they’re American) but it’s still there for me because I also teach IGCSE. In addition to these texts, across GCSE on the four boards I have worked across, Eduqas, WJEC, AQA and OCR plus Edexcel IGCSE, I have also to tackle poetry (which extends into the IGCSE Language syllabus too) where the situation in covering a wider and more representative range of authors is better (see below, for why) but even so…!
As I said, I have been teaching GCSE for twenty years and, until the situation with coursework changed and we went to full exam with the first teaching specs for 2015, you DID have more choice with the coursework texts as long as you satisfied the requirements. I am currently working with AQA, EDUQAS and Edexcel (IGCSE) and for all of these there is an additional poetry anthology, which does cover BAME authors to a small degree, but not a great range and I have been teaching ‘Search for my Tongue’ by Sujatta Bhatt for all those twenty years and John Agard’s ‘Half Caste’ for most of that time because there is a requirement to cover BAME authors in the poetry component, which was put in place twenty odd years ago. At that time a separate poetry and short story component by BAME authors was referred to as ‘Other Cultures’ (the word ‘Other’ tells you much, doesn’t it?) then the wording changed to ‘Different Cultures’, before the wording was dropped altogether and the texts included in the exam canon through a poetry anthology.
There is no ‘reading list’ for GCSE English Literature or English GCSE, but the shake-up that happened when coursework was removed and all GCSEs strengthened for first teaching 2015 was and remains inadequate and for GCSE English Literature, there is a too small selection of exam texts from which you can choose, with some variation across exam boards. If I were queen, I would make that selection of texts much, much wider because OF COURSE this is part of a much bigger issue of dearth of exposure to the brilliance of culture in this country, predicating what we do, instead, mostly on long-dead white folks.
That’s it. And OF COURSE I wrote to complain when the specs changed and it was the same old thing moreorless.
FOR ALLyou can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or dm me on twitter as my butler will send me the messages. (I am away from social media!)
If you are working on a first short story collection or a novel, then I have a spot for free mentoring between September and January. This is for someone who is low income who could not otherwise access mentoring (and I will also annotate your work, suggest edits and proof). It could be for you if you are feeling stuck, unseen or perhaps you are sending out the work and it is not being accepted? If you are sad, bereaved, recovering or managing chronic mental and physical health problems. My darlings, I know first-hand what that is like and how hard it is. I am also happy to look at what you are sending your work out with – such as your agent pitch and covering letter. We will aim to talk twice a month as well as looking at your work. Please note: this is not for MG or YA work and PLEASE consider if it is appropriate for you. That is, you really will engage with what is said even though you don’t readily agree? You might not, at the moment, be in a place where you can do that. x
I thought I would jot down a few resources and ideas for you, if you have concerns about your secondary age and moving on (or trying to) teen. I am not a mental health professional, but my background is in secondary teaching plus tutoring and mentoring with young people, mental health advocacy and, with my own family, I have navigated various parts of the system and continue to do so; my older offspring are teenagers and life certainly has its complications for us at the moment! I have had various conversations with and messages from worried parents and friends over the past few weeks, so this is my response. Of course, I am thinking of the way in which education has been abrupted by Covid, but I hope there might be something here which could help at any time. It may also be applicable to younger ones. I went there too! Finally, services will be stretched and it’s a very busy time, understandably. Make sure you’ve got a cup of a tea and a decent biscuit if you’re going to be waiting on the phone for some time.
If you have been looking after a young person with mental health problems, google and see whether you have a local carers’ group to whom you could talk. I am a member of one. You need care for you as you do the caring. Also, please accept that it is very tiring to be a parent or carer in this capacity; give in to that. Try to take a break from things which rattle you (this is why I need to be away from social media at the moment; there are some ongoing things which damage my well-being in the face of additional demands at home and that’s no good), and, also, if you have other offspring, aim not to make the whole household revolve around the person or people who are struggling. Easier said than done, I know! And take each day in small increments, rather than looking ahead, dreading what mood is going to be like when the kraken awakes. You know! (Again, easier said than done.)
From my heart: if your child or your young person is in a hole, do your level best not to get in the hole with them. Which is to say that you care and you empathise, but you have also to look after you. That’s partly so that you can do a better job of caring, but also because you need and deserve that care, too.
If you are struggling with making comparisons – with families where there is a lot of support from extended family or whatever it is that you feel you do not and cannot have – I urge you to focus on what you DO have. Compare and despair. It serves no purpose other than to make you miserable.
CAMHS is Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Generally this is up to age 18 BUT in your area, there may be extended provision up to the age of 25, so google with your area and see what lies if you are really concerned about your offspring; ask your GP if you can get through! Moreover, while (I know this first hand) the CAMHS wait like the wait for adults is extensive and you would need to be referred by your GP, in some areas, there may be self-referral, which you do via an online form. This provision exists in our area. So, for example, we may have been unable to access ongoing CAMHS support in the end, BUT a psychologist rang us and we had a talk for an hour and she wrote me an extensive letter summarising what we had said and pointers for things to do. I am sure that there will be variation, but I can tell you that this is what happened in Wiltshire, for me.
Young Minds. It’s superb. Here. https://youngminds.org.uk/ There’s a stack of information about mental health and they have a dedicated section on Covid. There is information on a range of mental health problems, on what to do if you are really worried; that is, if it is an emergency or you judge it to be. There is information for you – with a dedicated parents’ helpline – and lots for your offspring to access for themselves. I have found them fantastic and, in the past, have booked an hour long session with one of their team. In its comprehensive information, there is explanation of CAMHS (see above), on hospital (for example, a blog entry by a young person on their experience) and a range of ways in which they can offer support. Do try. And remember it is for you as well as your young person. Young Minds looks after young people up to the age of 25.
MIND. Mind can support you, but they may also operate young people’s services in your area, where, for a suggested donation, a young person can access counselling. There will be a wait, of course; in the case of our family, it was six weeks – which seemed short and support is an hour a week, commuted to a phone call at the moment or a short check-in once a week if things are doing okay. https://www.mind.org.uk/ and here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/ If you click on that, you will see an advisor bubble pop up. Tell them what you are looking for. Mind is now running a text service, too. For some people that might be preferable.
The Samaritans. You do not have to be suicidal to call. This is for you and them. Here: https://www.samaritans.org/ They now have a self care app which might go down well and also if it’s easier to write things down, you can email as well as call.
If your young person is unwell or has been unwell and intends to go to university this year or next, here is some information specific to that. Some of it I knew already with my background, but some I have learned because of what our family has been going through. If you are the parent of an offspring in year 13 and you are concerned about the impact of your young person’s mental health on their grade and can substantiate this, then you may not have been given the opportunity to cascade this information to your school or college exams’ officer in this current strange situation. In our case, we were advised to give statements and information/records directly to the chosen universities (general admissions team and, if you can, the admissions folk for the department your offspring would be studying under). This is so that the university understands that there have been extenuating circumstances. You would do this, perhaps, if your young one were to have been physically ill for an extended period and there is no shame in regarding their mental health in the same way. Your young person can collate information and send it (they are an adult) BUT a university can receive information from you as a parent or carer IF your name is listed as ‘proxy’ on their UCAS form. If your young person rings the UCAS central number, then asks for your name to be registered also on their form, it means the university is able to take into account something that you, as parent, have sent. We have just done this.
If your young one is going to university this year, make contact in advance and ask about their pastoral team and what is in place at the university or nearby in terms of support. Again, this is from the horse’s mouth. It means that something can, hopefully, be in place before term starts. You may well find that any paperwork amassed for point 8, above, does double duty here.
There are many, many more resources; more helplines; lots of fabulous people but I want to end this simply by saying that I wish you all the very best whether as young person or their parent or carer and I send you so much love. Anna xxxx
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.
First of all, it’s really important to state that there is nothing good about the present situation, though I have seen many acts of extraordinary goodness through it. I hope that you have been able to see such things, too. I cry most days because we are all aware what people are going through and how many are grieving. It feels intolerable, doesn’t it? I have strong views on what our government has failed to do and what Trump has enacted in the US – our family is Anglo-American and we worry so. I worry about how people are and how they will be. I am sure we all do. But, still, this piece is about what I have reflected on during this period – and reflected on for us, as family. As I write I am recovering after many, many weeks, from pneumonia. GP thinks it may be a secondary infection after Covid, but we don’t know for sure. It has been a time. I am high risk anyway, so have to continue to isolate.
Anyway, here we go. Ned (husband) and I have both worked at home. He turned our bedroom into an office; I am doing Skype teaching, rewriting another book, editing, getting my new book out and preparing for another one being published in the autumn. Lines are busy at at all times. Most days it has been chaos. One some days I have muddled appointments and the kids’ music stuff or the doctor ringing. But some thoughts. Before those thoughts, let me tell you that I would rather stick pins in my eyes than sound smug or rather be misconstrued as smug. Please forgive me if, at any point, I have the tone wrong. x
I am more grateful than I have ever been in my life that I have a home. To the point that I have sat on the stairs and thought, I HAVE STAIRS and wept and I was weeping partly because I knew other people did not have a home.
There is, for us, some strenuous work here. We are both now self-employed for a start, but we also have three offspring at home and they have had to learn to muck in a lot more. It’s hit and miss, but there has been the odd moment of pure help-joy (I just made that up): our youngest, who’s just turned nine, was out in the garden at six thirty, sorting out the chickens and pegging the laundry out with a huge grin on his face when he saw me notice. That is a moment I will always remember.
Ned and I decided that we wanted, as far as was possible, to make this time feel safe and cosy and, if possible, for the kids to derive good memories from it. That would mean letting some things go and some things slip. Sometimes we have been stressed and shouty. Last night we had an awful row and the neighbours in the terrace were ear-wigging and pretending not to. It was over some stupid thing like I thought he said something in an off sort of tone and it escalated just like that. Me, not him. Overreaction owing to ongoing stress and feeling knackered. BUT what I want to say is that we have tried, notwithstanding intermittent failure, to keep it cosy by being a bit slovenly. I have done some home learning but not a lot with the youngest; partly time, but partly because I could see he was tensing up. There has been a lot of telly and I am pretty sure crisp eating occurring at breakfast. But I have turned a blind eye to the crisp eating and decided not to push it. How people with more than one young school age child and a home learning roster have coped, I cannot imagine. My older ones have been moreorless free-range within the home. I am sure this horrifies some local parents.
We began this period with one exam year offspring out of school long-term with ill health and little or no back-up. It would be inappropriate to detail what happened and what is ongoing, but lock-down means I cannot be helped along as I was by my carers’ support folks and ongoing work for offspring has to continue by phone. There have been some very dark days. Another exam year offspring is SEN and has been badly failed. I feel like I have been battling for absolutely years for the two of them. I would do it again in a heartbeat but, suddenly, the battles had to stop because school suddenly stopped and, aside from admin and new directions, there is nothing I can do. Sometimes it is freeing to know that there is nothing to do. I am all action bias, me. I want to be doing and sorting. I cannot. I appreciate teachers and schools very much; it’s my background too and I love it. But school for my older ones has often been a shitstorm. I had a period of intense anger and grief – at least I think that’s what it was – shortly before lock-down and shortly after it began and allowed myself to feel it fully because these are my kids and time and again I have found myself tacitly blamed for failures in their educational provision. Anyone who’s battled knows how exhausting it is and how you question yourself to a point which is not healthy. Suddenly, it’s over. About the road ahead, in different places, well…can’t worry about that because don’t we know yet that today is all we have? The past is a different country and the future is up ahead, where we cannot ever BE.
Related to those last lines, I have found this has been a seminal lesson in living in the present. We are all scared to some extent. (Clearly some are more insulated than others from the stresses of it all.) We are all mortal and vulnerable. It is well to look about us and appreciate being alive and that we have the capacity to love and be loved.
I am not neurotypical. My brain is bamboozled by a lot of social activity; I have triggers in many situations and suffer from dissociative episodes. I find some situations very hard to deal with and the school run brings me out in hives. I have never, ever liked parties. This does not mean I don’t enjoy other people. I adore them. I am also still – STILL – shit at self acceptance, with the result that I worry about being like this. I love being on my own; I need to be on my own and I’d be really happy if I hibernated for a bit and only saw the postman and had a chat with him or her. Do I love my extended family, friends and people in general? YES. But I start to feel poorly and stressed with a lot of social contact or (it’s all coming out now) certain types of social contact where there is unspoken conflict, oneupmanship and the like. That happens, for example, in parenting situations and it lowers my mood. I know I am not the only parent to feel this way because I have compared notes; sometimes people telling me things weepily in a torrent that were a snap with mine. During this period, I have had a chance – not because of lots of time but because the lack of certain troubling social situations pressed upon me – to reflect upon my need to focus more on certain situations and less on others and to stop ignoring what are very real psychological needs. And however lovely the participants, I am never, ever, joining a whatsapp group again. My brain cannot cope!
You know, I was going to do 10 points.
I could have stopped at 6 because 6 is an even number and, ever since I was tiny and could understand them, odd numbers have unsettled me a little bit when I see them on a page.
But 6 seemed a strange place to stop.
So here. 10. That’s good. Phew. 10 asks you to take as much care of yourself as you can and also, please know – I am saying this to myself but maybe it could comfort you; that would be the best – that weird is good, that you should come as you are and that the sunshine on your back, the smile of a kid who knew you’d be pleased (needn’t be your kid; needn’t be a kid at all, really) and the moment the apple blossom opens are the most precious and decisive moments of your life. They are small, but fancy stuff, big plans – they are infinitesimally unimportant, after all.