I was never a Completer-Finisher

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Lovely friends, this morning I’m supposed to be doing my Final Final Christmas Food Shop. I even have a list, because as we all know, to go into a supermarket in the days before Christmas without a list is foolhardy.

You may be able to sense my reluctance, given that I could have had it all done by now, and it’s 11:49 and I’m still farting about on my laptop (I AM dressed though, which let’s face it is a win). I’ve just been working on a guest post for the Author Advice section of my friend and fellow NaNoWriMo winner Donna-Louise’s fabulous blog Newshound to Novelist and I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard to finish writing a novel. Without giving away anything too much from my post, I think it has a lot to do with confidence and being able to bring something to an end without knowing what it will lead to. Ending the first draft is tricky enough, imagine what it’s like making the final edits to a book just before publication? The pressure of having missed something (and the resulting shame when someone points it out in a review) is quite scary.

It’s the same with the infernal shopping. Anyone else get quite anxious about it at this time of year? I’ve never once run out of anything, or not had enough food, or forgotten something which led to the world coming to an end, and yet every year I go through this state of panic. It’s partly because trying to get your normal groceries at the end of December has become something of an ordeal… even though I think it might not be quite so bad now I’m in Norfolk. It feels so much less stressful here. I read online that shoppers were trapped for hours trying to get out of Bluewater at the weekend and, having spent many a grim hour trying to escape from that place, I can well believe it. In Kent I seem to remember supermarkets opening 24 hours a day for the final week. Here in Norfolk, the local Sainsbury’s is open from 0600 till 2200 today, it’s closed on Christmas Day and then open again on Boxing Day. What’s the worst that can happen?

I saw this piece in the Guardian at the weekend and it made me smile…

Wish me luck – I’m off to get my Christmas shop.

Wherever you are, I wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas, and lots of love for the end of the year. We’ve nearly made it – and we have so much to look forward to, my dears.

 

 

On feeling like a fraud and fighting it

Morning!

Thank you for all your kind thoughts on my last post. I’m going to try and write more often, here, which of course means that this will be my last post for quite some time.

……

That last sentence tripped out so easily and funnily enough the sentiment that lies behind it – that my efforts, whatever they are, are absolutely bound to fail – is exactly what I wanted to write about today.

A wise woman who I’m lucky to call a friend, Nike Lawal, told me about Impostor Syndrome a couple of years ago. If you’ve not come across this particular phrase before, let me explain: it’s the feeling that, despite cold hard evidence of success, you are actually a failure. That at any moment someone is going to find you out and reveal you to be a fraud. That your success is down to luck, or accident, or something other than your own capability and hard work.

I’ve felt this all through my life although I never had a name for it. Today, having read a particularly brilliant article that Nike shared on Facebook, I’ve been wondering in an oblique sort of way where it comes from. Without wishing to get into an intense debate about feminism because men suffer Impostor Syndrome as well as women, in my own case as a girl I know I was brought up to believe that certain attributes were preferable to others. Bragging about your achievements is bad. Being modest about your success is good. I don’t think the boys at school had quite the same pressure to keep their feelings about their success to themselves, but then I’m not a boy – I’m basing my opinion there on how they behaved, not how they felt. The external manifestations of the way you deal with success (by bragging or being modest) are all fine as long as, inside, you’re still able to celebrate and be proud of yourself and give yourself a little fistbump…. or is it? If your face says one thing and your heart is saying another, then that’s what the world considers ‘fake’, right? And that particular word feels to me like one that is used, in this context, primarily by women about other women.

In other words, our society sets you up to fail at every possible turn; if you’re female and successful, you can’t brag about it and you can’t keep your pride to yourself without being ‘fake’. In other words, Impostor Syndrome – genuinely believing that you are not as good as you appear to be – is the only way you can be successful and still be acceptable to society.

Small wonder it’s such a battle.

I’ve written about writerly jealousy and my own struggles with that before, but again Impostor Syndrome is something to which writers – male and female – are particularly susceptible. This is largely because the industry we are in sets us up in competition with each other. We are individuals, writing unique books, and yet pegged into a system that tries to get us to fit into slots – genres, sections of bookstores, publishing schedules – and then compares us endlessly to other individual writers, as if trying to establish a giant hierarchical list in which one of us is a better writer than another, or one book is better than another. We compete daily on bestseller lists, Amazon rankings, review space in newspapers, book club recommendations; for agency representation, publication contracts, marketing spend.

We – as writers – try to find our own place in this hierarchy and inevitably feel awkward about it. Placed where we are by circumstances utterly beyond our control, we can’t help but compare ourselves to our competitors peers. Those who are ‘above’ us (who are getting a bigger slice of the marketing budget, or who are top of the charts, or whatever) are subject to our envy, if our book feels better than theirs; those who are ‘below’ us, whose book feels better, make us feel like we are a big old fraud. If we happen to be – however briefly – the top of a heirarchical List, that’s when we get hit by Impostor Syndrome harder than ever before, because it can’t possibly be true that all the books below us in the List are worse than ours. Someone is going to notice, and then we’ll have to admit to being a failure after all – right?

(Note: It’s not about how good your book is. The List is generated by hugely complicated algorithm involving such random things as marketing, word of mouth, little editorial decisions, supermarket buyers, sales reps, Twitter, reviewers, the weather, the economy, Amazon’s internal algorithms which are something else entirely, whether you’ve accidentally tapped into a zeitgeist thing… the variables are endless, and utterly uncontrollable or definable).

What’s even worse is that NOTHING we do as writers can control it. The only result from all of this comparison is that we end up feeling bad (and that stress makes being creative really, really hard – see my last entry).

None of it is real. It’s all a big cardboard cut out, a stage set, a performance, designed to sell books. Once you’ve realised how, actually, no book is really any better or worse than any other book, all that’s left is for you to get on and write the next one, and try not to worry about it.

Yesterday

Now you may think that I’m spouting a whole lot of nonsense given my own unwavering support for NaNoWriMo, which as we all know is all about the competition. You even get a little chart! You compete in Word Wars! If you don’t hit 50,000 words you’re a failure, right? So how’s that supposed to help with Impostor Syndrome?

I’ve been mulling this over this morning and I realised something interesting.

Years ago, one of the ‘tips and tricks’ I used to use during November was to use the ‘search’ function on the NaNoWriMo site, pull up the list for EVERY SINGLE PARTICIPANT, sort by word count, and then find myself on the list. Let’s say I was at number 29,432. I’d then find someone else (randomly, but often I’d choose someone in my country, or writing in my genre, or my age) who was maybe 200 places above me in the chart, and I would make it a goal to try and get above them in the list. The person concerned was never any the wiser, but my competitive streak was fired up, and then determination would kick in, and so the word count would rise. Next time I’d log in, no doubt the person had overtaken me again, and so I had a new target to aim for.

A few years ago the option to do this – to pull up the list of every participant – was removed from the site. I’m guessing this had more to do with the logistics of managing that ever-increasing amount of data with servers that were run by a non-profit organisation than the need to remove the competitive element to the challenge, but even so it feels interesting to note that it’s now much harder to compete with others. The ‘word war’ and ‘sprint’ challenges SOUND like they are competitive, but really they aren’t. You are only ever competing with yourself. You get a cheer if you beat your last count, or your personal best. There is no point really competing against the person sitting next to you, because they may be faster at typing, or they might be handwriting, and in any case you’re writing your own novel, not theirs.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that realising that a thing exists – in this case, feeling like a fraud – and it’s not a good thing, is the starting point for no longer caring about it. Things get so much easier when you begin to stop caring what other people think, and concentrate instead on what YOU feel. (It’s like make up and skin care. About ten years ago I would not have put the bins out without having make up on. These days I often don’t bother, and to my initial surprise nobody has run screaming from my naked face, nor has the world fallen apart.)

I’ve rambled on for a long time and I’d like to come up with a really pithy conclusion… but all I can do is urge you to read that original article, and if any of it rings true for you, follow the advice contained therein.

So, my lovelies. Spread your wings. Be proud of yourself and everything you’ve achieved.

Celebrate the beauty of your words, knowing they are yours and only yours.

Your book is beautiful because you wrote it.

Good writing day

 

Sometimes it’s hard to write, right?

Hello my lovely friends, I hope you are well?

It’s been a long time since I wrote, and until quite recently, that applied to my fiction writing too. I might have mentioned that we were planning to move house, and this year we did just that – we moved from our little 1980s house in Kent to a bigger house, with an annexe for my mum and a big garden, in beautiful north Norfolk. They say that house moves are one of the most stressful things you can go through, but I’m usually pretty good at dealing with stress so I thought I would be okay. After all, moving to a wonderful place can only be a good thing, right?

My lovely writing shed was sold to a really nice family and was dismantled and taken away to a new life as a summerhouse in an orchard – that happened back in April.

Despite having no real reason not to write – I wasn’t packing the whole time, after all – I just couldn’t do it. For once I had no deadlines, no writing pressures, so really if we were going to move house at all, it was the perfect time to do it. But the trouble is I think I need a deadline to write, and as I didn’t have one, my time evaporated into other things.

In July we moved house, and in October my mum moved here too. We had a fabulous summer exploring this beautiful area, the house was and is fantastic – my son had two weeks at his new school and then the whole summer to enjoy. We are just a couple of miles away from a sandy beach, and even closer to a tranquil woodland for long walks with Bea. It really did feel like being on holiday, so when I still didn’t manage to write anything, I blamed it on that; I thought when the weather turned, I would get back to work. I have a lovely study set up (indoors this time! Yay central heating!) with a view over the garden. Even the wifi worked eventually… so there was nothing to stop me.

And yet I still couldn’t write.

It began to get quite worrying. What if I’d lost the ability to write completely? What if it never came back? I mean, the mortgage is now pretty scary… I was still doing events, talking about writing, and I felt like a complete fraud. I wanted to preface every introduction with ‘well, yes, technically I AM a writer, but I’m suffering from writer’s block at the moment…’ And I have to say, up to this year, I don’t think I really understood what writer’s block was or felt like. I mean, we’ve all had days where we’d rather do something else than write, but what happens is you eventually sit down and get on with it, and you’re fine. That ‘eventually’ didn’t seem to be happening for me.  The more time that passed, the more worrying it became.

The one hope on the horizon was NaNoWriMo, heading towards me at a rate of knots. As you know, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, and the only time I didn’t win was in 2009 when I switched writing Human Remains (at 12k words) to editing Into the Darkest Corner. So NaNoWriMo is like a touchstone for me, my magic charm, and if I couldn’t write then – in my tenth anniversary year! – well I would know I was in serious trouble. But this year’s NaNoWriMo was always going to be different, hundreds of miles away from all my writing buddies and my favourite writing haunts… I had no idea what would happen, and I have never been more scared heading into what’s usually my favourite month of all.

Just before NaNoWriMo kicked off, two things happened that made a whole world of difference.

The first thing was that someone shared this blog post with me on Twitter. In case the link doesn’t work, or you’re too busy to click through to it (do it when you have more time, I guarantee it’s worth it), it’s by Mary Robinette Kowal and it’s called Sometimes Writer’s Block is Really Depression.

Well, my lovelies, I cried when I read it.

I’ve had depression before but one of the few positives is that I’ve always been able to name it, and tackle it when I felt strong enough. Such a large part of my issue this year has been that I didn’t understand what was happening to me and therefore I had no way of fixing it. In this case I don’t think it was a serious bout of depression, but it WAS stress from the move and it was spiralling because the fear of not being able to write anymore was feeding it. By recognising this and naming it, it instantly became less scary and then it was something I could tackle; and that simple fact made me a whole lot better. I hadn’t lost my writing mojo permanently! It was stress! And once I dealt with the stress, my writing mojo would come back.

Well HELLO November, I thought, I’m ready for you now.

On Halloween, or as I prefer to call it now Nano Eve, my favourite night of the year in which stories dance in my head and words fidget on the starting line, I remembered the Neill Technique, which my dear friend (and fellow NaNoWriMo author) Barbara Neill had developed last year. I had tested it out at the time and thought it was great, but I had no real need of it when I was already writing quite happily. Now was the perfect time to put it to the REAL test… and so I found my copy and gave it a whirl. The Neill Technique is designed to get you writing, no matter what it is that’s holding you back. If you need a boost at any time, or if you think that you might have writer’s block or whatever might lie behind it, I highly recommend you give it a try.

I listened to it (it’s an MP3) the next day, and the next day, and maybe a couple more times at the start of the month and then I forgot all about it because by then I was FLYING.

My dear friends, it may sound silly but this is my LIFE, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and to suddenly NOT be able to do it any more is quite a horrible thing. So to find the words flying out of you more than they EVER have before, despite the worries, was just an incredible relief.

Here is my happy ending to this sorry tale:

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Last day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was my best year ever. I wrote 111,415 words in thirty days. I wrote 60,578 words of a new Briarstone novel, and then I switched mid-month and wrote over 50,000 words of a Victorian psycho-drama which might turn out to be a thriller after all (mine always seem to end up that way). So – not one novel but two, in two different genres, neither of them finished yet BUT the good news is that I’m still writing. The further good news is that, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I have found some new writing buddies here and made some really good friends too.

I’m hoping I’ll have something new for you all very soon, but in the mean time, thank you for your patience with me. I hope your own writing, if that’s what you love, is going well – and if it isn’t, give the Neill Technique a try. I can highly recommend it.

xx