Success, Finally?

Imagine. You’ve been used to failing for such a long time. Then success, finally! That day when you can go out and celebrate, and all your friends and family (who, frankly, doubted you could achieve such greatness) will congratulate your marvellous achievement.

But what does it mean to have made it? Finding an agent? Getting that publishing contract? Those first four-figure sales? The good reviews?

Perhaps there is no point where you think I’ve made it! And in any case there is something in my British psyche that would tell me: now hang on just a minute. You’ve been making it clear, at least to anyone who cared to ask, that writing is what you do. But haven’t you implied to them: “I am special, I have talent, I was born to write novels, that is what sets me apart (from you no less); and now that declaration (however subtly I implied it) is going to be rubbed in your face – because you doubted me and I’ve proved you wrong.”

So there is something in my psyche that fears the downside of success. That the possible sacrifices I have made – the relationships never pursued, the work (employment) never sought – cannot be enough to make it worth while. After all, success means exposure, the spotlight of scrutiny with the inevitable criticism it brings. Sure, everyone, however acclaimed, has to be prepared for the dissenting voices; you are told as a writer how important it is to develop a thick skin. But many of us writers are naturally sensitive creatures.

I wonder if fear is holding me back somehow. Stuck in a certain belief because of bad experiences or just bad luck.

Failure is familiar, an old friend unafraid to dish out a harsh dose of reality – to keep you grounded. Success is the exciting stranger, promising to take you to incredible heights. But one day that stranger will tire of you, and leave you precariously on the mountain ledge.

Finally, I wanted to come up with some definitive advice – to others, and hopefully to myself. But all I could think of was the following. Don’t let that old friend failure drag you down; overcome the fear of success.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)





The Function of Fiction

…is to make my life better.

At least I look for a novel to make me feel better. But maybe of late my demands have become unreasonable. Should its purpose be to solve my problems, to find answers to unresolved (if not unresolvable) issues?

A good story is no longer enough. Now it’s difficult to find a book to fill that void; reading the blurb, the first few pages, or even the reviews may only give a clue in my search. Just as well, then, I’m not a literary agent!

So my own work should be aiming for such an exemplary standard, right? The only problem is, if you use your novel for laying out a psychological fix it can come across as indulgent. It shouldn’t be therapy. But that’s how it can feel. There’s only the hope that others will relate to the protagonist’s issues. Of course sometimes that happens – and you’re on to a winner! Some of my most inspired writing has come from a dark place.

I’ve never been sure if fiction should always have a function beyond entertainment. If its enjoyable then that’s a lot; humorous or just fun – it’s a big achievement by the author!

Yet I can’t seem to pin down the ultimate value of fiction. In a novel you can be in another person’s shoes – they don’t have to be the hero or even relatable – and understand their thoughts and feelings in a way that’s usually only hinted at in movies. A novel gives you knowledge interwoven in the narrative rather than merely dry facts; though so much of mainstream [so-called] Science Fiction has steered away from the scientific, of late. Well maybe that’s fine if it’s entertaining, if it makes you feel better.

Since I am writing the kind of books I like to read it’s impossible to be sure if I am writing for anyone other than myself.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Can you try too hard?

To not give maximum effort goes against conventional wisdom. To try your best, fail, and try again, and only give up when there’s nothing left – maybe at the point of death. But what does that mean in the process? Perhaps it means living with an obsession, letting it rule your life if not your time; shaping you into someone who, while viewing yourself as focused on a goal, is seen by others as self-isolating, or maybe even selfish (or likewise self+ words). Anyone who is trying to make it as a successful writer will understand this single-minded drive. It is your life’s purpose, everything you do, hear, read and experience in whatever way can surely feed The Writer, influencing all future creative endeavours.

But how about simply letting go?

I tend to obsess about things as a matter of course. Often trivial, it might be something I’ve lost: such as a door key I was certain had to be somewhere nearby in the house, or that pocket radio I lost in my back garden. And then only recently when for no particular reason glancing down on the ivy-covered end of lawn just behind that chair I last remembered seeing it on, there it was! So obvious – its little white plastic case and headphones in tact. But surely I’d already looked there? Had looked everywhere else; had put way too much time and effort into finding this old radio I could easily live without. The same kind of thing happened with the key: only after I’d finally resigned myself to not finding it, even got another one cut, suddenly – of course it had to be there!

So perhaps you can focus too hard or too narrowly on a goal.

Trying for perfection was what ultimately put me off art: the painting/drawing was never finished. The same is near enough true for my novels. And also thinking I’d never put enough work into selling them to an agent, despite that in-depth synopsis and overall summary and theme, expounding my grand scale ambition and inspiration behind it all; how what they’re getting is the complete package – the novel, me and the irrefutable potential therein. I mean, how could they possibly reject me after all that?

I don’t want to make an argument for being careless or mediocre (though so much mediocrity has been successful) or not giving your best. I just think there’s something to be said for taking a step back and seeing it’s not so vitally important; or just getting away from it, maybe when the work is becoming frustrating. Easier said than done though, from my experience! But that is accepted advice in the creative stage of writing – ideas often coming when you’re not trying to think them up.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Cover Design Quandary

How much difference does a front cover make to sales of a novel? Given the volume of new books published, combined with the millions of existing titles, I would say a big difference. If the author is not famous or lacks a dedicated online following you’ve got to try every trick in the, em, book to catch the attention of the time-poor viewer. In my own case about a second.

I’ve been troubling with the challenge of grabbing attention for my own novel, The Captured. The first cover design – by myself – I grew to hate: It somehow looked simultaneously clever and amateurish, suggesting “this is not your conventional presentation of a Science fiction novel.” Not that even I’m sure what the conventional standard is, let alone what’s appropriate. So I changed it but kept a minimalist design. Changed it within the constraints of using free software. But I’m still not entirely happy with it – not professional enough. Then it has to be worth considering getting a professional to design it.

Subgenre-ization (if that can be a word) should make front cover design easy for SF. Except mine doesn’t easily fit into any of those. Can we blame Amazon for such pigeon-holing? I’m sure that works fine for most authors and readers. I guess there’s no perfect solution. For a start you can often guess the demographic the novel is aimed at within a second, though it can all become homogenized (dystopian SF anyone?) where you might wonder about its originality.

In the last decade literary novels have tended more to use ultra minimalist front covers, whereas genre fiction more commonly features fine artwork and detailed illustrations. Taking the minimalist approach, then, might seem pretentious; but going for the elaborate, and highly descriptive, artwork is a time – and possibly money – consuming exercise, which can give a false impression if it’s not judged just right.

So how much does a front cover matter? Well, if you’re already a famous author, not all that much – as your books are far less likely to be merely stumbled upon. For the 99.9etc percent of us writers it is the quickest portal to our undiscovered masterpiece work.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

When and where to finish

At the start the thought of reaching 100,000+ words seemed like the equivalent of scaling one of the higher Himalayan mountains; a mind-boggling feat that was best not contemplated. Just one step at a time. A slow journey for me with so many distractions if not setbacks. But no excuses, because no one asked me to do this. So if I failed it was only me to be disappointed.

To extend the mountain analogy (perhaps to excess): I mostly seemed to be wading through low clouds and finding myself lost. But occasionally they would clear to reveal a landscape that while unfamiliar had features I could pick out, which combined to be something meaningful. Then finally reaching what seemed like the top but under a misty haze, though still seeing way below and feeling I could go no farther. Still, the happy relief of a load removed and a kind of jadedness from struggling my way through the difficult bits (of which there were many) impaired any perception of reality. So it’s better leaving time to recover before coming back down. Before attempting that second draft.

It’s not uncommon to write a third or fourth draft. Somehow details are missed, inconsistencies. (Funny how glaringly obvious errors have escaped my attention even after 3-4 read-throughs!) I’ve been accused of writing disjointed chapters, so am careful now to keep everything tied into as tight a narrative as the story allows. But there’s always the chance of some fundamental flaw which makes that impossible. Too early to tell. This is still the time to have – faith. Meanwhile: take a break of at least a month, maybe another project, and then face the sobering reality of how this latest novel fails.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Finally Submitting

…that precious manuscript to an agent is probably the most delayed action in every writer’s life. At least once you’ve had the experience of rejection. You never feel adequately prepared, remembering – in my case – more than one example when I sent an MS off to an agent only to later bitterly regret it. Oh, no wonder they rejected it, it was inevitable, I think to myself with typical 20/20 hindsight. And yet at the time my novel seemed perfectly honed, that covering letter just right. But if only I’d given it a bit more time. So won’t be rushing to send it off now, whether post or email.

Not that rejection could definitely have been avoided. I might be fooling myself into thinking the work had commercial potential if only I’d got the presentation right – the pitch, or made that change to the first page and chapter. Fact is, there are always things you think could have been done better, but you have to eventually move on to the next one. Science fiction is especially tricky when you’re pitching it through a synopsis; it can seem to get bogged down in fantastical-seeming detail which requires too many words to explain why in fact it’s not so fantastical.

I don’t think any author can really know what will meet with wider approval. Even those who are supposed to be objective about these things can often get it wrong. And usually their default judgment is negative.

Here’s an extract from a Guardian interview with this year’s Booker winner Marlon James, who had one novel rejected 78 times.

“No! No,” he says, shaking his head, as if it is the question that is mystifying. “This is why I tell students when they ask for advice, if you’re a writer, you have to believe in yourself.” He bangs accompaniment to the last three words with his hand on the table. “Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does.” He sounds freshly disappointed when he adds: “And I failed that test.”

Synopsis Hell!

The best way to put readers off your novel is to write a scene-by-scene synopsis. Or so it can feel. Prose is replaced by dry description. It’s like looking at an image of your most precious one rendered as an x-ray skeleton; the bare bones revealing nothing of what made them special.

Yes, I’m in the midst of writing a synopsis for a potential literary agent … and not managing it very well … and feeling that because of it i will fail, facing a winter of rejections. I don’t know if this is a common feeling. But it’s when the doubt creeps in – going over the whole thing again and finding yet more careless errors.

The main problem: how do you compress 100,000+ words into less than a thousand? Whole scenes have to be omitted. Which ones?  This is where it’s so easy to become lost; not able to see the wood for the trees. The funny thing is, writing a blurb-style teaser précis hasn’t been a problem – you give an impression, set up the tension (must stop rhyming now). But by the same token that can build false expectations in much the way advertising often does.

I’m certainly not expecting much sympathy from anyone in the publishing industry. They’d probably tell me: “If you can’t manage to sum up your novel in less than a thousand words then maybe there is something wrong with the book itself.”