Month: May 2017

Stories can be the key to recovery from writer’s block

Stories can be the key to recovery from writer’s block

I wrote a while back about having writer’s block and not realising I did. It’s often hard to see what’s going on when you’re in the middle of it. Things are definitely better now. My first book is coming out in four weeks. A children’s story is going to be in an anthology by Christmas Press. I have appearances lined up at Continuum, the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference and the Bendigo Writers Festival. Best of all, I have many ideas for stories.

A year ago I wasn’t feeling so optimistic. I used the word ‘burnout’ a lot. Someone else looking at it might have called it writer’s block. I didn’t feel like writing. The ideas weren’t there. Partly this was probably an inevitable result of completing a PhD – 4 years of stress and pressure leave you feeling pretty drained.  Most of my fellow students had some kind of emotional, physical or mental crash at the end of the process.

The other issue, though, was that I felt my stories didn’t matter. In my thesis I had argued for the importance of stories in changing how we see and respond to the world, and particularly climate change. One of my examiners completely ridiculed my ideas. I had also written a young adult novel as part of the PhD. This examiner’s entire response to the novel was ‘this novel is of PhD standard’. That was it. Seventy thousand words, years of my life, went into that manuscript, and all he wrote was one sentence, whilst simultaneously spending page after page ripping apart the arguments in the academic component. I was shattered.

It took me a long time to hit upon the solution. I nearly gave up writing altogether. But in the Princess Bride, when things look darkest, the Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, goes back to the beginning. So I did too. I asked myself why I started writing in the first place. The answer lay in the wonderful books that I’d read in primary school, and the incredible authors who had transported me to other worlds. No matter what some jaded academic said, I knew stories matter. They made a difference to me as a child. So I used the healing power of stories to restore my wonder and to reawaken my creative imagination. I visited old friends, like Susan Cooper‘s Dark is Rising series and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I made new friends, like Derek Landy’s brilliant Skulduggery Pleasant series.

When you spend a lot of time studying writing and talking with writers, stories can lose their magic. And they shouldn’t. Stories can transform. By approaching stories with the openness and wonder of a new reader, I found a way to heal and restore myself. And stories re-entered my life.

 

How can you tell if your writers group is toxic?

How can you tell if your writers group is toxic?

For writers, getting feedback is a valuable way of improving what we do. There are different ways to do this. One popular method for novels is to have beta-readers. This is great for checking consistency, readability, plot holes and anything that seems problematical. It’s probably less useful for developing your skills as a writer. Writer’s groups can be great for this though. It can be a case of the sum being greater than the parts. When you get several people together, they will tend to notice different things and have a range of skills that you can learn from to you extend your own.  However, sometimes writers groups can be toxic, by which I mean they can cause damage to one or more of the members. But how can you tell?

Well, first up, how do you feel when you go home? If the answer is ‘great’, then it’s probably not a toxic group. If you go home feeling inspired, energised and ready to get on with some hardcore editing, pat yourself on the back for finding a great group. However, if the answer is ‘ripped to shreds’ or ‘oh, what was I thinking, I’ll never be a writer’, take it from me, that’s a little clue. Likewise, if you dread going, also a sign. If the group session leaves you feeling just a bit icky, continue reading.

Warning Signs of a Toxic Writers Group

Is one of the group games ‘Trash that writer’?

Ok, writers aren’t as bad as actors, but they aren’t lacking in bitchiness when it comes to talking about best-selling authors who appear to be lacking talent, editors or the ability to write a convincing sex scene. Nor are they short on opinions when some great writerly sage (read, writing celebrity) makes huge pronouncements that might just be a little stupid. However, there’s a difference between analytical criticism, which can improve writing skills, and plain old putting the boots in. Especially if the writer is someone people in the group may know. If your instincts are telling you the discussion has tipped over from analysis to envious, it probably has.

Do people in the group play the Monty Python game?

You know the one I mean – ‘well, I used to sleep in shoebox in middle t’road’. ‘Shoebox? You had a shoebox..?!’ If you have achieved something, does someone pull out the tattered memory of their last achievement rather than congratulating you? Whether it’s an up or a down comparison, the effect is still the same – to draw attention away from you and back to them. They may compare your successful funding grant application to the time their grandmother predicted their gift book on chihuahuas in bow ties would be a best seller (hang on, it probably would – give me a minute while I write that in my ideas book…), or they may talk about how your shortlisting for an award reminds them of the time they won first prize in various prestigious literary competitions. A good group is one that allows everyone their chance to shine.

Is everyone expected to play ‘oh great guru’?

Does the group exist to prop up the ego of one person? Do people wait to see what this person’s opinion is before putting forward their own? Does all conversation stop when this person opens their mouth? Sometimes it’s not quite that obvious – sometimes it can be a tug of war where that person believes in their guru-ness a little more than others, but it still makes for a difficult group dynamic. Every member of the group should be equally valued for their contributions and writing ability.

A final word…

Writers groups can be really valuable, if they are supportive and nurturing. Basically, trust your instinct. It can take a few tries to find a group that really gels, and where you can feel safe. Good writing requires a baring of the soul. When you find a group where you can comfortably do that, you will thrive.

* Note to the pedantic – the missing apostrophe is deliberate – it is a group OF writers, not a group belonging to writers!

Be a writing angel, not a demon

Be a writing angel, not a demon

Writers have plenty of demons. They constantly battle the demon of self-doubt. At night they try not to listen to the demon of unfinished projects. Sitting at their computer they try to ignore the more prosaic demon of social media. There are many voices whispering in a writer’s head, sabotaging their efforts. Niggling away at them. They honestly don’t need more. What they need are writing angels, voices that will lift them up and encourage them. With this post I’m hoping to convince you to be an angel to other writers, not a demon.

A Writers’ Mindset Matters

Writers can be exceptionally good at empathy – you have to be to put yourself into the heart and mind of any character that you create. Yet all too often there seems to be a sense of ‘scarcity’, as though providing any level of support to another writer will somehow take away from your chances of getting published or being successful. This mindset can make writers suspicious or jealous of each other, which can then manifest in criticism that is more about their own insecurities.

Even worse, such criticism can take the guise of ‘friendly fire’ – ‘I’m doing this to help you’. I’ve seen and heard of this again and again in writers’ groups.  Writers should feel safe to share their writing babies. These groups can be a great way to develop your skills, but they’re not all constructive. I’ll come back to this in another post. For the moment, my point is, writers that come from this kind of mindset don’t tend to uplift their fellow writers.

Then there are the writers who are self-important or self-absorbed, and the ones who have given up, are bitter about it, and take it out on others. There are a lot of reasons why writers might be less than supportive of others. However, the good news is there are a lot of wonderful writers out there who genuinely hold their fellow writers in high regard. Who support them through kind words, through celebrating their successes with them, through buying and reviewing their books. Small acts of kindness. Larger acts of mentorship. Providing thoughtful, caring, constructive feedback on the writing if they are in a position to do so. Because they know what it is like – how hard it is to expose your writing jugular to others. How much of your soul you have put into it.

Sometimes You Meet a Writing Angel

Over the course of years as a writer, I’ve met all types of writers – the bitter, the self-absorbed, the supportive. But I think I’ve only ever met one genuine, fully fledged writing angel. That’s not to put down many of the other wonderfully supportive, caring writers out there.  But there is one writer that I have been incredibly lucky to meet. She is of the opinion that the writing world is big enough for everyone. She is generous of spirit and has the biggest heart of anyone I know. She informally mentors and supports writers of all ages and stages, from absolute beginners to those who have several books under their belt. She shares her knowledge of the industry, she gives her time to read others’ work and she always, always remembers that someone’s book baby is precious, giving feedback in a careful and caring way.

For me, this is the kind of writer I’d like to become.  We all have enough demons sitting on our shoulders, whispering to us as we plot our novels and write our words and create our worlds. We need more angels, standing on our other side, telling us that we can do it – that our writing is worth something.

 

Are you the boss of social media or is it the boss of you?

Are you the boss of social media or is it the boss of you?

Once upon a time, when a group of writers got together, they would talk about their WIPs (works in progress), or the difficulties with their publisher/not having a publisher, or how good the coffee was. Nowadays, apparently inevitably, the conversation always seems to end up on social media. What’s the best one? What gets the best sales? How do you manage having so many different ones? How often should you blog? And so on.

In the discussions I’ve had with various writers, many feel social media is necessary but a pain. Necessary, because we all want to be noticed in the sea of writers out there. A pain, because they’d rather be writing. As far as I can see, that means there are two challenges to social media:

  1. how to get noticed
  2. how not to give your life over to it

There are lots of posts and training courses out there offering advice on point 1, so I’m not going to answer those questions. Instead I’m going to look at:

How NOT to get stuck on the social media roundabout.

First of all – keep in mind the WHY, not just the HOW. Why are you on social media? It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in all those questions I mentioned, like finding the best platform, how often to post, trying to turn posts into sales etc. Yes, we need to be able to be found, but the reaso

n for that is because we want people to read our writing. If you keep this in mind, it will help you stay motivated to keep your writing as your number one priority, and to make social media a lower priority. Of course, if your aim is to be a social media personality, not a writer, then you can stop reading this post right now.

Next, take an honest look at time versus outcome.  How many sales do you actually get from spending hours on Twitter? How many of your followers are actually buying your books? Each platform has ways you can measure this, such as ‘click throughs’ and other analytics. Work out how to use these! It’s nice to get warm, fuzzy feelings from having lots of followers, but if this isn’t translating into genuine interest in your books then either you’re wasting your time, or you might need a different message. This may mean tweaking what you post, or it may actually mean focusing your energy elsewhere.

Also, find a time management tool that works for you. I use an ap called Writeometer to focus on my writing without distraction. It turns my phone into a timer for 25 minutes. If I try to exit to check social media it asks me sternly if I really need to break my writing time. There are other aps that will lock your access to social media for a set amount of time. Look, social media is addictive. It’s designed to be that way. Which is one of the reasons writers feel it is a pain – because they know it takes away from writing time but they can’t always help themselves. At the end of your life, do you want your Wikipedia entry to have 12 books on it, or 5? Is it worth sacrificing all those unwritten novels to flick through funny cat pictures? Seriously? So if you’re addicted to scrolling, don’t be ashamed to use electronic tools to help break the cycle!

Finally, and most importantly, write good books, or, as Neil Gaiman says, ‘make good art’. There is no magic formula for getting noticed – some of it is luck, some of it is perserverance, but some of it is being good at what you do. You may spend ten hours a week crafting a huge social media presence, but if your writing doesn’t sing, if your story doesn’t excite, you won’t sell books. Ok, I can think of a couple of exceptions to this (terribly written books that have sold very well) but bestselling authors are usually at the top because they are VERY good at what they do, which is write compelling books.

While you’re sitting on the social media roundabout, spinning endlessly, you could be improving your writing craft. You could be catching the fireflies of inspiration, listening to the whispers of stories waiting to be told, crafting characters that want to be in the world. Thanks for reading. Now go write!