Category: Survival Kit

A slowly-growing survival kit of tips and tools for writers. The focus is on staying healthy, emotionally, physically and mentally. Being a writer can be an isolating business, and surprisingly dangerous – Vitamin D deficiency and various muscular-skeletal problems are par for the course. I will discuss my experiences and ways to make sure that you eat well, don’t over-consume chocolate (although I’m not very successful at this), get some exercise, change out of your pyjamas and occasionally even get out of the house. The survival kit posts will also look at ways of coping with the ups and downs of rejection, unexpected hitches with the publishing process, and even the roller coaster of excitement and post-excitement slumps that writers can experience. I have a background in social work so I have been trained in counselling, burn out, stress and other health issues, so I will bring some of this post-writing life knowledge to my posts.

For the Love of Art

For the Love of Art

art on wall of face with tearsArtists, whether writers, painters, sculptors or any other medium, are generally not paid well. This has been true throughout history. We know the image of the struggling writer starving in a garret so well it is almost a cliche. And the painterly genius who died in poverty. It’s part of the story we tell about artists. To create true art, the idea goes, we need suffering. Hunger is apparently a great motivator.

This story does artists a terrible disservice. No one does their best work when they are living with income security. Having to spend your time searching for income takes away from time making art. For many of the writers I know there is a constant battle in their lives, between time and money. They usually have enough of one, but not of the other. If they are earning money, they don’t have time to make art. If they have the time, they are struggling financially. But isn’t this the way it has always been, and will always be?

Is art worth less?

Meta-narratives are the stories that underpin society. They are big picture stories that shape how we think. The prevailing meta-narrative we live with in Western society is that the economy is more important than anything else. You can’t read the news without finding something about the economy, but what makes it a meta-narrative is the underlying message. In recent years that message has increasingly become that the value of something comes from its ability to generate income. Growing the economy (and making more money) is always put forward as a good thing, if not the ultimate goal.

Those who help grow the economy are rewarded. If they work in the field of finance, or manage a company to maximise its profits, they can receive huge salaries. Their contribution to society is unquestioned. Artists don’t grow the economy*. They often make very little money from their art. And under the current meta-narrative, this means their contribution is not valued.

What art contributes

The truth is somewhat different. Art and culture are enduring pillars of society. Wherever you go, around the world, you can see the art that has survived the centuries. We understand earlier civilisations through their art. Much of what art contributes to the world is intangible; it can’t be reduced to monetary worth. What it does is lift us out of our lives, let us see the world differently. It connects us to others, shows us how humanity. Entertains, provokes, enlightens, awes…  Without art, our lives would be very bleak.

Who does this narrative serve?

There have always been gatekeepers to the creative arts. These were once known as patrons. Now they have many different titles but they are always the ones who decide whether artists will be paid for their work or not. And since the ‘economy’ narrative places a low value on art, the gatekeepers don’t feel the need to pay them very much. In fact, the unspoken argument is often that artists do what they do for the love of it, so reimbursement doesn’t need to be that high.  Their reward is the joy of creating. There is a growing trend of asking creatives to produce something for ‘exposure’ or so they can ‘put it on their CV’.

This is great for those who want to buy the outcomes of creativity. They can get them cheap, but it isn’t great for the artist. What they create is not only the outcome of many hours work to produce that individual novel or painting or song, but also the result of many years of gaining mastery of their form.

So where to from here?

The economy meta-narrative, with its focus on ever-growing profits, has led to endless consumption and pushed us towards environmental disaster. We need to shift society’s values, to re-focus our sense of what is important. A new meta-narrative that valued art and saw that it should have a central place in life and culture, would be a great beginning. Maybe then artists would not be expected to do what they do simply for ‘love’, but would be paid a living wage. Imagine what a rich world we would live in if writers and painters, performers and sculptors, and others who contribute beauty to our world, had both the time and the money to create.

* (This meta-narrative is, by the way, outdated and inaccurate – arts events such as festivals and exhibitions bring significant income, although often the artists see little of it.)

How to pitch to a publisher

How to pitch to a publisher

In recent years there have been great opportunities open up for aspiring authors to present their work to publishers. Most of the big five Australian companies now have one day a week when they accept manuscripts from unagented writers. And there has been a proliferation of festivals, workshops and other events that offer a pitch session. This gives writers the opportunity to meet publishers and pitch their book.

On the weekend I had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table, representing Odyssey Books (my publisher) and hearing writers’ pitches. It was definitely a good way to gain understanding of a publisher’s perspective. Here are some of the things I learned.

Make your pitch sing

You’re a writer, right? So use those skills to prepare. You have very little time to catch the publisher’s attention. You want them to be intrigued so they ask for your manuscript. There are two types of pitches. The first is the ‘elevator pitch’. This is the one you use if you are stuck in an elevator with Steven Spielberg and have one floor to get him interested in your story. It needs to stick to one sentence, but instantly grab the listener. Here’s the one for Harlequin’s Riddle.

A young woman gets caught up with a troupe of travelling actors who steal dreams, and realises she is the only one who can stop the damage they are causing. 

When I did my Masters degree we spent an entire two hour tutorial writing and refining these, with feedback from the rest of the class. Unless you’re a Hollywood copywriter, you won’t get it right first time. But if you put in the effort to get your elevator pitch perfect you may just catch someone’s attention.

Keep it snappy

The second pitch can be longer, but it’s not a synopsis. A synopsis is one to two pages that summarises the plot of the book. I heard several of these in the session, and they were not what I was after. I had other people waiting their turn and after hearing numerous pitches I really, really wanted people to just get to the point.  Dazzle the publisher with your synopsis when they ask you to email it to them.

In the meantime, don’t lose their interest by trying to include too much when they’re busy. Keep your second pitch to one or two paragraphs. These should give an idea of the key characters and what is driving the story – a basic plot outline.  Giving the publisher an idea of theme and the tone of the book is also worthwhile. Definitely don’t get into sub-plots or other fine detail.

Be prepared

You need to show how your book fits in and stands out!

If you’ve caught the publisher’s interest, they will ask you some questions. It’s not hard to work out what these might be – have a look at the publisher’s submission page on the website and they’ll probably all be there. They will be things like:

  • what makes your book unique?
  • why are you the best person to write this books?
  • what other books is yours similar to?
  • are you working on anything else?

While you may think your book is unlike anything else on the market, that’s not actually helpful to the publisher gaining an understanding of your work. By comparing it to other books you are giving them more information. And the point of the pitch session is to give them enough information that they fall in love with your story. Saying there’s nothing like it gives them nothing.

The Tales of Tarya fit in the realm of theatrical and circus fantasy. One of the most well known books in this area is The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. By mentioning that title I give people something familiar that creates a clearer picture of my books. But I also talk about what makes them stand out: they explore what would happen if creativity opened a portal to magic. It’s a balancing act but it’s worth taking the time to work out how your book fits the market and stands out.

Do your research

One of the questions I asked on the weekend was ‘Why do you think your book might be a good fit for Odyssey?’ It quickly became obvious who had done their research and who hadn’t. Some people were pitching to me because I was (representing) a publisher. It didn’t seem to matter which publisher. Others had researched what sort of books Odyssey published and what its mission statement is. They talked about how their work fitted with this, which increased my interest and demonstrated they were organised, committed and serious. Those who hadn’t taken the time to find out about Odyssey created a poor impression. And if their books were not a good fit, they were wasting my time and theirs.

Watch the attitude

In a pitch session you don’t have long to make a good impression. Publishers aren’t just looking for books. They also want people they can work with in the long term. I noticed three kinds of people as I sat on the publisher side of the table:

A professional attitude matters
  • the disorganised hobbyists
  • those who brought an attitude with them
  • those with a professional approach

If you come across as under-prepared and disorganised you give the impression of being a ‘hobbyist’, not a serious writer. Your book might be great, but it’s hard to tell if you don’t get to the point.  And if you can’t articulate the key selling points of your book briefly and in an interesting way, it doesn’t give a good impression of your ability to structure and write an entire novel.

No matter what your background or writing ability, or how great your idea, publishing is a cooperative process. An author and publisher work closely together to create the finished book. If you come across as arrogant, pushy, or unwilling to consider the necessity of rewriting, the publisher may not see a long-term publishing relationship as a viable option.

And if the publisher questions whether you have used sensitivity readers, take them seriously. In the current climate, writing about someone vastly removed from yourself requires empathy and a responsible approach. (I can’t go into the whole debate about cultural appropriation but if you’re writing about someone far removed from you, you need to think about this. Start your reading here.)  Publishers will not want to open themselves up to major controversy.

Being professional

Ultimately, sitting on the publisher’s side of the table, what I noticed was that being professional made all the difference. Yes, you need a great story idea. But then you need to present it in a concise, interesting way. And it helps a lot to show that you take your writing seriously and will be a good person to work with.

 

How to have an amazing book launch

How to have an amazing book launch

cake, launch
It always helps to have an awesome cake.

In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to have not one book launch, but two. The first was during the Bendigo Writers Festival, and the second was this weekend. They were a lot of fun, and bring my launch total to three, making me something of an expert (cough, cough). So I thought I’d write about what makes an amazing book launch.

#1 –  A venue that is enthusiastic about your launch.

I know authors debate about whether a launch works better in a bookshop, or in a bar or some other venue. Personally I think they all have ups and downs. Ultimately what you want is somewhere that will fit the numbers you are expecting, has parking, and allows for food and drink options. Much like planning any other party, these sorts of needs will be dependent on expected crowd, time of day or night and the atmosphere you want to create. (And how much champagne you feel should be drunk.) But having had launches in three entirely different venues, I’ve realised that the most important factor is working with a venue (or event) that will be enthusiastic, excited and supportive. It’s no fun to feel you’re fighting battles or ennui to get the event together. And it’s an exciting moment in your life, so you deserve to have others excited for you.

#2 – Awesome friends.

Any sort of event can be stressful, so it’s great to have friends who step in to help out by washing mugs, set up displays and give great hugs. They can also periscope the event (!), put photos on social media, step in unexpectedly to begin the proceedings and create other miscellaneous moments of magic. It’s not actually possible to control how awesome your friends are, but you can be incredibly grateful for it. I’m not going to name names, because I’ll probably forget someone, but I’m lucky my friends are unbelievably awesome.

#3 – A cake to die for.

No launch would be complete without a gorgeous cake. If you happen to be a brilliant baker as well as a writer, you may be able to organise this yourself. But if cakes are not your strong point, you can get one made. The wonders of modern technology mean you can get your book cover on a cake. This is surprisingly affordable, and looks fabulous. It has the added advantage that people like to take pictures of it and share it around a lot. Plus you get to eat your words, which in this case is not a bad thing.

#4 – A launch special guest who knows what they’re doing and does it beautifully.

After the welcome at a launch there’s a speech, about you and your book. This has the potential to be deeply embarrassing. As someone with social anxiety, I’m not fond of attention pointed in my direction. Luckily, at each of my launches the speech has been so great I’ve forgotten to get anxious. For Harlequin’s Riddle, George Ivanoff performed as one of the characters from my book and was so perfect he’s got the role if there’s ever a movie. For the first launch of Columbine’s Tale Kelly Gardiner was fascinating as she talked about the magic of storytelling. Finally, for the second launch, Laura Goodin gave an impromptu class on creative writing and creativity that had everyone in raptures.

 #5 – Sparkling wine.

Enough said.

 * * * * * *

Huge thanks to everyone involved with the launch of Columbine’s Tale. If you’d like to know more about the book and read a brief excerpt, click this link.

The forgotten secret to being a writer

The forgotten secret to being a writer

I have a confession to make. For the last year I have been suffering from imposter syndrome. Although I have a published book, it’s felt like I was coasting on writing I had done years ago. I finished Harlequin’s Riddle when my son was small. He’s starting uni next year. Columbine’s Tale was finished when my daughter was small. She’s nearly in year ten. With all the responsibilities of life and work I’ve had little time to write for a long time. To be honest, I was really starting to wonder if I could even call myself a writer. How could I be a writer if I wasn’t writing? Turns out I had forgotten something important. Something I knew far better as a child than I do now.

Typical advice for writers

One of the things you’re told often if you are an aspiring writer is to write. Write a lot. I’ve even told emerging writers that myself. It’s good advice. The more you write, the better you get with words. You learn how to say what you want to say concisely. You discover which words you personally overuse. Your vocabulary expands. When you give yourself challenges, you develop your ability to write emotions or fight scenes or whatever it is you need.

The other important piece of advice that’s given often is to learn to edit and to accept editing. This is also important. A first draft is always going to need work. So’s a third or fifth draft. You need to be willing to keep working at your writing until it sings. And nobody can see all the flaws in their own work – when you’ve read it often you become blind to certain problems or repetitions. I think once a writer is able to accept feedback from others and work out what is valuable and what isn’t, they’re well on their way to becoming professional.

What I have and haven’t been doing

I’ve worked as a professional editor for about eight years now, and that has definitely allowed me to develop my writing abilities. My instincts have vastly improved for understanding what the issues are in a piece of writing. The more you analyse and problem solve, the more you can pinpoint what is going wrong and how to improve it. I can absolutely say that being an editor has made me a better writer. And I did do intensive editing of Harlequin’s Riddle and Columbine’s Tale before they were published.

But I still haven’t done much of my own writing.  And it hasn’t just been the last year – it’s been about four years. Probably since I finished my PhD. I’ve written previously about doing a creative PhD (here’s the link).  While I wrote a novel during my candidacy, I struggled with switching between a creative and academic mindset. And once the PhD was over I didn’t feel like a writer any more. I was burned out, heartsick, doubting my abilities. In the next few years we relocated to a new city, moved house twice, had issues with our kids’ school.

I’d forgotten how to be a writer.

A journey to the past

This week a magical confluence of events occurred. I made an unexpected trip to Tasmania at the same time that I was reading Terry Brooks’ (Shannara) book on writing, Sometimes the magic works. I was born and grew up in Hobart but I hadn’t been back in a while. Life moves on, and sometimes you only remember things when you return to the setting where they happened. As we were sorting out what we needed to sort out, we were driving around familiar streets, past familiar landmarks. And I began to see shadows of what I had forgotten.

Terry Brooks has a chapter on the importance of daydreaming for writers. I was reading that around the same time I was revisiting the places I spent so much time in. And I could see the imaginary places that rested alongside them. As I drove past the walk home, along a long road, a forest sprang up. Years ago I had walked that imaginary forest, dressed in a velvet dress and cloak, no longer a school girl but a gypsy. When we stopped to walk through the local park, I saw the castle that had once been there, with its many rooms and fantastic feasts. Driving past our old home, I remembered Helen, my invisible friend who lived under our house.

The forgotten secret

The thing is, Terry Brooks is right. Daydreaming is where it begins. It’s where stories take root and begin to grow. When you daydream, you teach your imagination muscles how to stretch. You begin the slow, sometimes painful but ultimately exhilarating process of growing wings. I spent an awful lot of time daydreaming as a kid. My imagination was well developed from an early age. And imagination is the crucial, forgotten ingredient to being a writer – especially a fantasy writer.

Remembering this, I was able to realise that even in the years when I wasn’t writing, my imagination remained my constant companion. I still wondered, and was curious, and conjured possibilities. I may not have been writing on the page, but I was always, always writing in my head. The stories never left me.

I don’t feel like an imposter any more. The physical act of writing is only part of the process. Whatever else I am doing, my imagination, given life and strength when I was a child, remains active, conjuring stories and characters and settings. As long as I have that, even when I can’t put pen to page, I am a writer.

 

Why we need slow art

Why we need slow art

Living fast – or slow

In the developed world levels of stress and mental illness are rising rapidly. There are various contributors to this: feelings of inadequacy that arise from comparing yourself to others on social media; the unexpressed grief caused by the mammoth in the room that is climate change; and the ever-increasing pace of life that demands everyone do more but get paid less.

In reaction, there has been a growth in social movements that promote a more considered pace of life. The slow food movement encourages the appreciation of real food, cooked in a considered way that takes time to draw out maximum flavour and nutrition. Slow living has come to the fore as part of voluntary simplicity, encouraging a lifestyle based on returning to more traditional ways of doing things, such as baking your own bread or making your clothes. Another movement that could sit side by side with these, that is desperately needed, is a return to slow art.

Churning through life

The pace of life has been carefully sculpted by large societal forces: Capitalism and social media. Social media works on principles identified by Pavlov. Every like and smiley face is positive reinforcement that keeps us scrolling. Each new piece of information keeps us hooked to our feed. We get a little dopamine hit every time we get something new, so we have become attuned to needing constant input. This results in churning. There always has to be something fresh to catch our attention.

Capitalism reinforces this. Capitalism only works if everyone keeps shopping, which requires a constant flow of new products. After all, people won’t buy things they have already bought. This is noticeable in the book industry. The time a book spends in a book shop has been getting less and less over the years. New books now are given very little time to make an impact (ie sales) before they are removed, returned and pulped. When I was told this by a bookseller, that time had shifted from three months to one month. It could be less now. New authors get very little opportunity to be noticed – the briefest window before everyone moves on to the next big thing.

The Netflix effect

The other thing that works against slow is the Netflix effect. Being able to binge-watch a show means people no longer want to wait for the next instalment. This is true of books too. I have spoken to authors who are under pressure (and contract) to get the next book in a series out as quickly as possible. Otherwise the readers’ attention and dollars might go elsewhere. The industry seems to believe readers don’t have the patience to wait, and sometimes they don’t. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicle, a marvellous fantasy series. The third and final book has been a long time coming, and Rothfuss has been subjected to significant online abuse for keeping people waiting.

Why this is a problem for art

Is this just how the world works now? Should we just accept it? I don’t think so. Because art takes time. Art is the expression of a human life. Through art a soul is bared on canvas or on the page or through a dress design. The creative process isn’t just the moment when paint is applied or words are written. It is the research that allows a piece to have depth and substance. It is the many hours spent developing technique. And it is that magical, alchemical time when the creative imagination is allowed to daydream and wander, transforming experiences and inspiration a creation that will reach out to others.

Why slow art matters

According to Celtic tradition, the Poets who guard the fountain of knowledge, known as the Aois Dana, give the gift of insight and creativity to artists, poets, story tellers and bards. These people are chosen so they can imbue their art with the memories and wisdom of their culture*. Artists create works that express the soul, that speak of what it is to be human, that provide connection and meaning to those who experience them. But art that is thoughtful and beautiful, and says important things, takes time. It must be nurtured carefully so that it emerges in the best form to express its truth.

We live in an era where truth is fragile and meaning is reduced to marketing catch-phrases. More than ever we need art that speaks to us, reminding us of the wisdom that is missing from so many public conversations. The greatest gift we can give the artists and creators is time. Time to research, time to dream, and time to create art that will speak to us.

 

* See the wonderful Celtic Folk Soul: Art, Myth and Symbol, by Jen Delyth

A journey into history with Wendy J. Dunn

A journey into history with Wendy J. Dunn

A very special blog post today as I interview historical fiction writer, dear friend and mentor-extraordinaire, Wendy Dunn. Wendy has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction; The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds, the first book in a series about Catalina (Catherine) of Aragon. To read more about Wendy and her books, click here to visit her website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

I fell in love with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series when I was a child of ten. I was one of those children who lived in hope of finding a wardrobe that would take me into a world with fauns, talking animals, centaurs, flying horses, wicked witches, giants – a world where tree spirits danced on moonlit nights. These books showed me how we can escape and experience other worlds through the power of good storytelling.

Rosemary Sutcliff started my passion for historical fiction. Her world building is superb and powerfully take you back in time. But more important than that – her stories speak eloquently about what is to be human and leave the reader with a sense of hope. In dark, despairing moments, when I need comfort, her books are still high amongst my ‘go to’ books.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Stories are part of our DNA, our human experience. Stories teach us that we are not alone. Stories give us a universal language– and have the power of taking us from the chaos of life to a life where we can find meaning. Stories also open the door to the experiences of others and build those important bridges where we can meet one another, learn from one another and return with a deeper sense of empathy.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I persevere. By not giving up in this long writing journey of mine, I have discovered, as a writer, the truth of the saying, ‘Perseverance Furthers’.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

Demeter. From childhood, I have always found something to mother, and I know the power of a mother’s love; my four adult children are the core of my existence. The Demeter’s myth speaks powerfully of a mother’s love and the grief of losing a child, and how a mother would do anything for the return of their child, so that child is safe in their arms again.

When I was writing The Light in the Labyrinth, this myth was very much on my mind. I saw Kate Carey, my main character, as being Persephone, who becomes entrapped in the Hades of the Tudor court. But it was her time there which led her back to her mother as a wiser and empathetic young woman.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Letting go, breaking the circle of the past, the sorrow of unrequited love, the power of forgiveness and the search for identity. Completing my PhD in 2014 also opened my eyes to the fact that my works can be explicated through Feminist Standpoint Theory.

The Light in the Labyrinth was my PhD artefact. Writing that work changed me. As a mother of three sons, I hesitated to call myself a feminist because I did not really understand what the feminist movement was all about. I now understand the feminist movement is all about women and men walking side by side as equals.

By the time I finished my young adult novel, I not only confronted again the societal space I occupy as a woman and the reality of how women’s power is something both given and taken away by patriarchy, but also the simple fact that we all need to be feminists. Our world will not be healed until that happens. This is the beating heart of why I write. I write from my experience as a woman about the experiences of women of the past in hope of empowering women today.

Wendy Dunn is a gifted writer whose work portrays the lives of well-loved historical characters through story telling that resonates with powerful emotions. To read more go to www.wendyjdunn.com.

Hope in Dark Times

Hope in Dark Times

Last week I blogged about why we need fantasy. I largely focused on empathy. Today I’d like to focus on another aspect of stories: hope. I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of comments recently along the lines of ‘given how horrible the world is, we shouldn’t be reading escapist stories’. There seems to be this perception that when the world is dark we should constantly focus on how dark it is. Apparently we have an obligation to be serious all the time right now. Personally, I think the last thing we need at the moment are happiness police.

We live in dark times…

There is definitely a growing sense that the world is becoming a darker place to live in. I’m not going to go into all the details here. It’s happening all around us and everyone I know is very aware of the issues. We’re swimming in them. The media is showing us stories all the time about the disregard for human rights, the perversion of democracy, the creeping loss of civil freedoms. These are real and they are happening. I’m not in any way saying they’re not, or that we should disregard them. What I am saying is that it is not wrong to look for stories that make us feel good, as an antidote to the darkness.  If we are mired in the dark all the time, we will lose something important. Our sense of hope.

Hope matters

During the Great Depression, Shirley Temple movies were hugely popular. People were living in terrible poverty, but for 15 cents they could see a movie that would lift them out of their life for a while. Roosevelt said of Temple, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right”. Sure it was escapism, but it made a difference. It kept peoples’ spirits up. Stories can make us feel good too. They can give us a moment where we’re not weighed down. A story requires forward movement – something has to happen. Otherwise it’s not a story, it’s just a description. Such momentum can remind you of the possibility of change.

As someone who has lived through some very dark times, I’ve realised that one of the strategies I have used throughout my life so I don’t become lost in the dark is to give myself something to look forward to.  It doesn’t matter if it’s something big, or something small. What matters is that it gives me hope. That hope gives me the strength to keep going. Even more importantly – in the face of injustice, hope can give the strength to keep fighting.

Good versus evil

When we’re young, we learn from stories that good triumphs over evil. As adults we discover the world is not that simple. There’s no clear ‘evil’, just as no one person is pure ‘good’. But what we are seeing now is the binary of decency versus corruption. I know I for one have felt despair that our government acts against the best interests of many. Not only that, but they seem to think they are untouchable even as they are clearly going against the will of the majority. This seems to be a growing trend around the world. Now, I’m sure I’m going to be accused of idealism, and it wouldn’t be the first time, for what I’m about to say. But stories show us the bad guy doesn’t win. Stories give us a world where right triumphs.

Yes, I know that’s often not how the world works. I truly do. But sometimes it does. Sometimes regimes are toppled, civil rights are amended to be more inclusive, corrupt leaders are caught out. And the reason that happens is because people say no. They continue to resist – to say no even in the face of apparently overwhelming odds, or leaders who think they are beyond accountability. And the reason they say no is because they have hope. Those who know only despair don’t resist. Hope is a crucial ingredient for change. To quote Les Miserables, we have to believe that:

‘Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise!’

The creative human spirit

do think it’s important for people to be informed in a world that is in desperate need of change. Putting your head in the sand about climate change or politics is definitely not the way to go. But neither is turning away from the creative human spirit. Some of the greatest acts of resistance I’ve seen recently have been funny and immensely creative. Entertainment and laughter are food for the soul. Stories encapsulate the human creative spirit, but they also inspire it.  Sometimes we need to be serious. Sometimes we need to be uplifted, to see that change is possible and that corruption doesn’t always win. Hope can come from many places. Sometimes it can come from stories.

 

Why we need fantasy

Why we need fantasy

One of the uncomfortable aspects of being a published fantasy author has been learning that some people take great delight in saying with disdain ‘I don’t read fantasy’. I’ve been attacked in a public forum by someone who felt anyone over the age of 40 who reads anything other than feminist literary fiction has something wrong with them. Fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction are often dismissed as ‘childish’ or ‘only entertainment’ or worst of all, ‘escapism’ for those people who can’t face reality.

Clearly I don’t hold that opinion. From where I stand, fantasy actively requires readers to stretch their imagination muscles. From imagination comes the ability to put yourself in others shoes, and to see other ways the world could be. Both of these are sorely needed in the present climate.

Luck has a hand in life

When I was a social worker working at a cancer hospital, I had a client who was no longer able to work because of his cancer. On the surface he was wealthy, with multiple houses, cars and employees, but it was all dependent on him continuing to work. Now it was crumbling before him because of circumstances beyond his control. He couldn’t stop the cancer or will away the need to have treatment. Spending money wouldn’t get rid of the terrible side effects of medication. What shocked him the most, he said, was that he had judged others who were poor, thinking it was all their fault for not working hard. To discover that the course of his life was now out of his control was a terrible awakening. He was unlucky to get cancer, but there was nothing he could do about it.

This is the reality of life – the smallest twist of fate can change everything. If you have enough income to feed your family and pay your bills, you are lucky. If you have the money to travel and buy expensive things, you are very lucky. Others are not so lucky. But many can’t see this – they think others deserve the life they have. They’ve never experienced an abusive parent, or poverty, or any of the myriad other disadvantages that derail life. And they can’t put themselves into others’ shoes to understand how these things impact on opportunities.

Lack of imagination and empathy

Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes is crucial to developing empathy. When we can imagine what another person is experiencing, we feel compassion for them. In Buddhist terms, compassion is the wish to free others from suffering. We live in a world with increasing levels of narcissism. Everyone wants to be heard, but few seem to want to listen. People can’t imagine what others are going through. This lack of imagination results in lack of empathy. Many only come to understand others if they suffer some setback themselves. But there is a less painful way.

Books let us immerse ourselves in someone else’s life for a while. They take us deep inside another person’s experiences and possibly even into their mind and emotions. For the duration of the book you can become a homeless young person, and understand that they were forced to leave home to flee abuse. You can become a refugee and realise why making a dangerous journey is better than living under occupation. This sort of immersion can show us that sometimes there is no choice.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the imagination muscles to work harder. If you are reading about someone who lives a life very similar to your own, in a place similar to where you live, connecting with them is easy. Empathy comes more readily. If they live in a very different time or world, or if they are very different to you, what you are connecting to is not surface similarity. It is the spark of humanity that lies deeper within. It helps you see the underlying similarities that are there even when what is difference seems enormous.

Fantasy is also good at asking ‘what if’? The rule of fantasy is that its world needs to be consistent with itself. But it doesn’t need to follow the rules of our world. As long as readers find some things they connect with, fantasy can show readers other ways of living. Social conventions can be challenged. Alternative ways of being in the world can be brought to life.

We need to imagine a better future. To do so, we need to stretch our imagination muscles. Go read a fantasy book!

** If you want something a bit more in-depth about this topic, you can read my thesis, Re-Storying the Earth: Writing a New Meta-Narrative Through Eco-Fiction.

Gratitude for Authors

Gratitude for Authors

Today I’m reflecting on gratitude. It’s almost twelve months since my book came out so I’ve been reflecting on what that year has been like*. Then this morning a friend shared a post on social media that rang about a million bells for me, and obviously for others who read it. It spoke about the experiences of author Tom McAllister, who received a lot of critical attention for his first three books, but still struggled with endless disappointments.

“Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax.”

There is so much in the article that reflects my psychological journey since being published. It’s a great read. But what really struck me was this paragraph:

“Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through … I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.” 

I’ve had a note sitting in my journal for a while to write a blog post about gratitude. Reading this paragraph made me want to do it straight away. Because I am deeply, deeply grateful for the support I’ve had in the last year, sometimes from entirely unexpected quarters, and it’s about time I expressed that. An amazing number of people have ‘come through’ for me in the twelve months since publication. Not always who I expected to either. I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to miss anyone out. I want to express my deep, deep gratitude for:

  • friends and family who have actually bought my book. And those who have bought my book for a family member or friend. 
  • those who have taken the time to post reviews or have shared my book with others. With all my experiments in and reading about social media, it seems to me the only thing that really, really works is word of mouth. So every single person who has done this is worth their weight in titanium, gold and other shiny things. (And anyone who knows me knows how much I love shiny things!)
  • those who have asked libraries or bookshops to get my book in, whether they were successful or not

    Harlequin at Stonehenge
  • fellow authors or bloggers who have hosted me or let me write an article on their website
  • those who are on a similar journey to me who have shared market stalls, war stories, hot tips, and coffee
  • anyone who has retweeted a tweet, shared a blog post or in any way helped my voice go a little further than bouncing around inside my head
  • conference or presentation organisers who’ve booked me to talk or be on panels. Your faith in me matters.
  • every single person who has said to me “when’s the next book coming out?”. Because it makes me feel like I’m doing something right
  • the wonderful people who have been there on the bad days to tell me, “you are a good writer, keep going”
  • anyone who has sent me a photo of my book in an unusual place
  • my family for dealing with my semi-regular writer crazies. And buying me chocolate and shiny things.
  • my publisher for believing in me in the first place. It’s what every writer dreams of.
  • the owner of that resort in Bali who offered me a week’s free accommodation with all meals so I can write in paradise with no distractions … oh wait, that was a dream.

Gratitude is a muscle worth stretching. It can help you shift to a more positive focus. It can make you feel better – and more connected. Being a writer is tough. Being a published author is also tough, in a whole different way. It’s easy to get caught up in the negatives. The lack of attention, the low sales. The feeling that you’re shouting in a very, very large room, while all around you everyone else is shouting too: “notice me”. But the truth is, some people have noticed. Some people have shown their support, in myriad ways. Some people are listening to my stories. And I am so, so grateful.

* You will NOT find me using the term ‘book birthday’. I hate it. Not sure why. Just do.

 

The Introvert Paradox

The Introvert Paradox

When I was a child, I worked out pretty early on that I didn’t relate to the world the way the majority of people did. I didn’t like crowds, or too much noise. While I wanted party invitations so I wouldn’t feel excluded, I didn’t want to actually go. My happy place was at home, reading a book, in the quiet. Big group get-togethers were a nightmare – I much preferred one-on-one conversations. And I wasn’t good at chit chat. I wanted my conversations to be meaningful and authentic. People didn’t seem to want to have discussions at the deep level I wanted. They didn’t seem to notice or think about the same things I did. I felt things ‘too deeply’, strongly affected by what happened to myself and others. People often labelled me shy, but in reality I was highly introverted.

Perhaps if I’d had parents who recognised my fundamental nature and didn’t try to force me to be different, I would have been able to accept who I was. But at home and in the outside world I was constantly told I was ‘too serious’ and ‘too sensitive’. I was often forced into situations that I found deeply uncomfortable. I quickly learned there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

When I went to university I studied social work. I learned I was a very empathic listener, but I hated the role plays that were a big part of my training. Once I started work my sensitivity was valuable in working with people who were at a crisis or low point in their lives. But I would end my workdays completely exhausted, overwhelmed by other people’s emotions. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in the profession long term as the emotional cost was too high.

The book that made a difference

In 2013 I came across a newly published book, Quiet, by Susan Cain. This book was a revelation for me. It grabbed me from the first blurb, when I read:

‘Sensitivity and seriousness are often seen as undesirable. Introverts feel reproached for being the way they are.’

That was me.

Cain’s book outlines how the brain chemistry of an introvert is different to that of an extrovert. Research shows that sensitivity, the tendency to notice more and to feel and think deeply are all hardwired into the introvert brain (p. 103). Yet society does not reward or even cater to introverts. They often feel like fish out of water. Cain made me realise there is nothing ‘wrong’ with having an introvert brain. (If you want to know more, start with her TED talk – follow the link.)

From the age of eight I wanted to be a writer, and the more I understood my nature, the more I thought this was a job that would suit me. (Which is not to say I chose it for that reason – it chose me really, because I always had stories running around inside my head, and I HAD to let them out, but it helps to find work that suits your personality.) Alongside my sensitivity, I was highly imaginative, and could easily work on my own for long periods of time. At school I was always daydreaming, creating places and characters and stories.

I achieved my dream of being a published author in June 2017. And almost immediately descended into a pit of despair. Because somehow being an author now seems to require a high degree of extroversion.

Extroversion Required

I don’t have a problem with giving talks or being on panels. I have a background in improvised theatre, and as someone who thinks deeply about all sorts of things I have a lot of ideas I can talk about. So I actually love that side of being ‘an author’. What I have a problem with is the regular social media socialising and the requirement to be a marketing person.

Authors are constantly told now that they must have a strong social media presence in order to sell their books. They need to join and actively engage in numerous groups and platforms. The risk is, if you do this just to sell books, you’re not being authentic and you are using the people around you.  Social media can allow for authentic and meaningful engagement. I wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. But that takes time. I run my own editing business and parent two teenagers whilst being an author, so time is in short supply. The more time I spend on social media, the less I have to write or be with my family. And as an introvert, I recharge my batteries through time alone. So social media is a constant weight on my shoulders.

As for marketing, this requires an extrovert approach. You need to be willing to draw attention to yourself and talk up your author ‘brand’ and your books. This might be in person, such as at a market stall, on social media, or through writing copy. And I really, really struggle with this, for a range of reasons, but fundamentally because it’s like asking a fish to climb a tree – it goes against my introvert nature to the point where I feel sick and anxious. I am often torn between the expectation that I do ‘marketing’, and my overwhelming need to run screaming in the other direction. I could do a whole other blog post about the damage that is done to introverts by expecting them to behave like extroverts but I’m already over my word count so I’ll come back to that.

So where is the paradox?

Well, the thing is, I think my introvert nature is an asset to my actual writing. My hypersensitivity – my tendency to notice things others don’t and to think and feel deeply about them – all help me paint my stories with vivid colours. I think these personal characteristics make me a better writer.* But in the last year I’ve spent a lot of time sobbing quietly to myself at the realisation that either I have to actively undertake marketing, the mere thought of which escalates my anxiety to ridiculous levels, or come to terms with the fact that my stories won’t be noticed in a book market that is crowded with authors going ‘look at me!’.

I definitely haven’t found any answers to the paradox. All I know is that some days I can live with the tension between who I am as an author and who I’m supposed to be, and other days I can’t. But if you’re an introvert author, please know you’re not alone. Maybe we can have a deep and meaningful chat in a quiet corner at a writers festival some day soon.

 

* I am not comparing myself to anyone else here. Just to myself. I am not in any way putting down extroverts or saying I’m in any way better. And there you have a classic example of the introvert tendency to worry about every single thought that comes out of my brain, and whether I’ve upset anyone and… argh!!! Overthinking is definitely an introvert thing.