What it’s like to write your first novel: a first hand account

I have just written my first novel. 

Before we continue, I should state: I have half-written fifteen novels in my life so far. Fifteen. There’s a sci-fi MS, an historic thriller MS, a fantasy saga MS, three more horror novels, a VR thriller MS, a dystopian underworld MS…the list goes on and on. 

I’ve never finished a single one of them. I *have* finished a collection of short stories called CRUEL WORKS OF NATURE, a novella called DEAR LAURA, both of which are published and have been well received. I’ve also written numerous audio drama scripts, countless items of marketing copy, am a digital copywriter and have another short story collection called TILL THE SCORE IS PAID that is due out in December from @gilespress. What I’m trying to say is that I am a writer, a published author, I get paid for the craft. My writing chops are chubby and yet. 

Yet. 

I’ve never been able to finish a novel. 

Until now. 

The reason they’re all unfinished is simple: every time I get to the 40k mark, I give up. The story peters out because I didn’t do enough planning. Or, I did the planning and got bored of my own story. Or, I made things too complicated, or the original concept didn’t have enough steam to make a full novel out of. Or, life got in the way: work being the primary culprit. Its insanely hard to write anything as life-sucking as a novel while you also work a job and parent or any of that other adult shit that intrudes on the creative process. This is because novels need momentum. By that I mean you need to pick up where you left off easily. You have to remember every tiny detail about your plot, and write in a way that keeps that momentum and allows for continuity and narrative pacing. Otherwise you end up with a ‘bitty’ book. You write in fits and starts. You lose momentum. You lose enthusiasm, and you give up. Or at least, I did. 

Because when I write, I want to get lost in it. I sink into it like sinking into a warm bath: I’m gone in there for hours, and when I come out I never really come out. I’m thinking about this character or that plot device or this unresolved issue or that location. Its life consuming. But that’s how it should be. When you create something you should sacrifice yourself to it wholly. Give it your full attention. That way, whatever comes out the other end is genuine and worthwhile and has your soul and blood and sweat and life experience in it, and that feels like nectar on the page. 

So I had the will to write, but not the time or motivation. When I quit marketing to become a writer, the time issue resolved itself. But motivation remained the thing. And the only true motivation is accountability. I needed to get it done. 

My way of doing this was crowdfunding. I had an idea in my mind for a novel I wanted to write, about a town that disappears one day, taking all its residents with it. I decided to crowd-fund it so that I knew it would actually get done. 

My kickstarter for White Pines went live in Jan this year. The idea was simple: support the fundraiser, get a book in return. This essentially meant people were pre-ordering the novel. Ergo, accountability. If people had already bought the book, I knew I had to finish it, or risk letting those people down. 

The fundraiser did better than I ever imagined. Within no time at all I had passed the target and then some, and all of a sudden I had 213 people waiting on my new novel. 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whitepines/white-pines-a-novel-and-audiobook-from-author-gemm/description

Enough motivation indeed. And so, buoyed by the support of the wonderful community of horror lovers, I began to write my very first novel. 

The idea was solid. I started with great enthusiasm, building a world in my mind and a plot and attacking it with gusto. I got to 10,000 words with no trouble. And then things started to slow down. I lost a clear image of what I was writing. I fumbled as I wrote. I lost interest in certain scenes. I lost momentum. 

This time, however, I could not quit. I needed to figure out why it was not working. And after walks and chats with friends, I realised the problem was not the idea I had, but the setting. I had set the book in a vague part of america I knew nothing about. I had no real voice as I was writing, or authenticity, because I just didn’t know what I was writing about. The prose was colourless and stodgy as a result. 

I had a think. I needed a new location. One that was isolated, evocative, realistic. My husband suggested a place, and I started to research. 

And the more research I did about the location and the area, the mythology, the geography…the more things began to click into place. I grew inspired again. I got fired up. 

I scrapped 10,000 words and started again. And oh, boy am I glad I did. 

At 20,000 words I hit a new challenge. Pacing. I was trying to fit too much information and back story in at too early a stage. I tried to fill potential plot holes all in one go within the first ten chapters. I did this with dialogue. Clumsy, tedious dialogue between the main characters. It was a way of avoiding exposition, which I struggle with. It made the book heavy and hard work. I couldn’t see a way out of it.

So I did the most significant thing in my novel writing journey so far: I reached out for help. I’m not good at asking for help, but I did, and it changed everything. I sent what I had written to a wonderful developmental editor called Dan Hanks. He told me that what I had was good, but lacked grounding. He told me to add more sense of ‘place’ and atmosphere, and cut down on the dialogue. Pull back on information the overload. I did this. I had fun with the location. I trawled google maps. I sank myself into more research. I added the colour the book needed, and focused less on trying to tie off all the loose ends before the plot was fully established. 

I got to 50k. I sent it to Dan. He loved it. His feedback spurred me on. I would keep going. Even if I wrote one hundred words in a day, it was progress. Little scenes came to me as I did housework, went on the school run, cooked dinner. Things I would see in the news would fire up my imagination, and I found ways to work that into the story. Little by little, my characters developed a real sense of solidarity, and their behaviour became more authentic as a result.  

Then I took a trip. I went to the Scottish Highlands in a little rented car by myself, visited several of the locations from the novel. This trip changed everything for me. I stood in a small cemetery on the shore of a beautiful blue bay and looked out to sea, marveling at how far I’d come. Pinching myself at this surreal journey. I was standing in a location from my book, breathing the same air my characters breathed. I was writing a book, and I was going to fucking finish, come hell or high water. I went back to the hotel I was staying in, ordered room service, wrote three pivotal scenes. The book changed beyond recognition from that point onwards, and became something very, very different to the original concept, but became something I adored. 

My plot, which I had planned three times and scrapped, went in the bin, and instead I just let the book flow. I am a pantser, and always will be, and fighting that was a mistake. Next time I’ll remember this (this is also why I will never be able to write crime, ha ha). 

The research trip gave me insane levels of motivation. I tightened up my prose, and added some lovely details about the area and location that I could only have gotten from being there. An atmosphere built that carried me through the slow writing days. I created a world, and lived in it, and I was happy there. 

I also built a playlist. I am heavily mood-driven and music is essential for that. It gave me the push I needed to write certain scenes and kept me focused. It’s here for anyone interested:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLh8Y5zWxQ6boLcgKak0o7LSi3nd2oIemN

At 57k I hit another wall. I was tired. I was struggling a bit with the concept, which had grown more and more cosmic and wide-reaching and philosophical.

I decided not to let this slump get to me, so I made a call that I needed to pause, jump ahead, and write the ending, so that I knew where I was going. I did just that: I left my MS at 57k, and jumped forward to the end scenes, which were amazing fun to write, as they were climactic and dramatic and fulfilling. Again, the love for the story came flooding back in. Every time I found myself enjoying the process again, I knew I was on the right track. 

Then I went back, and filled in the gaps. illogical, but it worked for me. The book fleshed out, the word count went up every day. I battled fatigue. I battled self doubt. I battled plot holes and challenges. I used white boards, wrote down questions. I spoke to myself a lot, and to others. I walked. I listened to music. I watched movies in a similar genre for inspiration. I took long baths and thought a lot. I filled notebooks with ideas I never used, but it all helped unlock my stiff writing muscles, sore from overuse. 

And then I realised I had only three chapters left to go.

The feeling was terrifying, rather than euphoric. Three chapters, so much riding on those three. 

And today, I finished.

I plugged the gaps. I tied the bow on my FIRST EVER NOVEL.

And I feel so drained its unreal. Like I’ve climbed a mountain and come down, sore and stiff and exhausted. BUT. Also, insanely proud. It still needs editing. It still needs beta reading and formatting and line editing and no doubt will change some more as a result. 

BUT. 

IT IS DONE.

So now, it’s time to think about those other fifteen manuscripts.  

Only kidding. I won’t lie- I’ve nearly burned myself out writing White Pines. It was a worthwhile endeavor, and I shiver with anticipation at the thought of those 214 people receiving their book, a book that they made possible. But after its gone, and the audio book is done, I’ll need a rest. A recharge. Let’s gloss over the next book already jostling for attention in my mind. I will force myself to have some time.

If anyone is struggling through their first novel, please feel free to reach out. I’ve been there, I know how soul crushing it can be. I hope this post has helped you, even if only a little. 

Keep going!

12 Indie and Horror Authors you should be reading in 2019 

Hello! Over on Twitter, it’s #FollowFriday, a weekly game of digital tag that can be a jolly nice way to meet new people and discover new audiences, especially for indie horror authors like me with actual peanuts for a marketing budget. Word of mouth being the most valuable currency of all, the practice of lifting other authors up and singing their praises is one I wholeheartedly agree with. So with that in mind, here’s a short list of some amazing horror writers- some indie, some small press, some big news, all awesome- so that you can buy their books and support them online. I’m proud to be part of this community, the most welcoming, supportive, inclusive and generally brilliant bunch of people in existence. 

A list of indie horror authors to inhale right now

Without further preamble, here she goes:

Kealan Patrick Burke- stories that pack a punch  

we live inside your eyes, by indie horror author Kealan Patrick BurkeKealan Patrick Burke, aka the gentleman of horror fiction, has an impressive collection of books to his name and doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon, thank goodness. 

The thing about Burke’s writing is that he doesn’t mess about. His prose comes at you like bullets fired from a gun: rapid and deadly. An example of this is Sour Candy, his novella about a man who reluctantly adopts a strange young boy. It’s an extremely good illustration of an uncompromising, ‘buckle-up-and-read-bitches’ approach to writing that’ll sweep you off your feet within the first three paragraphs. 

His latest collection is called We Live Inside Your Eyes, and Cemetery Dance wrote a glowing review of it that you can read here. He does have a propensity to take his shirt off every now and then over on Instagram, but I think we can forgive him the odd selfie in exchange for all those lovely books. 

Gabino Iglesias- fighting for indie authors everywhere

Gabino is everywhere these days, and in a very good way. Need a signal boost for your latest book? He’s there. Need someone to fight your corner against trolls, racists, sexists and the like? He’s there. Need a panel speaker with guts and pathos? Yep, Gabino is there. The guy needs a superhero outfit pronto, and also happens to write amazing fiction. Coyote Songs has been on my to-read list for ages, and according to Sci-Fi and Scary, this barrio noir “is a stunning example of a mosaic horror/crime novel that pulls the reader through vastly different, yet similar, experiences.” Go check out his work- you won’t regret it. 

S.H. Cooper – wholesome horror with a heart

Cooper will probably murder me for tagging her with the ‘wholesome horror’ badge, but it’s what she has become known and loved for. A hugely popular writer on the NoSleep subreddit, with tales like ‘The Rosie Hour’ getting legions of fans, she also writes stories for the NoSleep Podcast, which I also write for, and as such is like family. We work together as co-writers for our horror comedy podcast Calling Darkness, which also features Kate Siegel from The Haunting of Hill House, so there’s that too. Whip-smart and a prolific writer, she is currently working on a few novels. You can buy her latest story collection, From Twisted Roots, on amazon.

John F. D. Taff- the ‘King of Pain’

Twice Stoker-nominated, John is a much loved presence on Twitter and his new book, metaphysical apocalyptic serial The Fearing, is making waves already. A recent, extremely fascinating podcast interview on Inkheist reveals the book was seven years in the making. I’d recommend setting aside some time to listen to John talk about his creative process and many literary influences- a green author (like me) can learn a hell of a lot by doing so. 

Check out his website now. 

Gwendolyn Kiste- iconic woman in horror 

When I grow up, I want to be Gwendolyn Kiste. There, I said it. With fifty-six works to her name on Goodreads, accolades heaped to the sky and a string of awards for her beguiling, haunting fiction, Gwendolyn is the writer I aspire to be. One of the hardest working writers in the game, her new book, The Invention of Ghosts, is out soon from Nightscape Press. I will be buying it. 

Sisters of Slaughter- sisters in life and art

What is not to love about a pair of kickass women in horror who also happen to be twins, banging out Stoker-nominated books and doing it with enormous style? Nothing, is what. I am in awe of anyone who manages to collaborate on a writing project, particularly where family is involved. I mean I love my sisters, but I’d rather pull each one of my hairs out individually with blunt tweezers than write a book with any of them. Michelle and Melissa’s first novel, Mayan Blue, won them a coveted Bram Stoker nom, and they haven’t looked back since. Both were interviewed by Gwedolyn Kiste over on her website, so go check it out. They also speak about their books as their ‘children’, which I adore, because books are babies, precious, precious babies, and should be treated as such. 

Chad Lutzke- dark novellas with a heart

Chad Lutzke is one of those authors who keeps himself insanely busy yet always manages to find the time to interact with other writers, support them and generally act as a champion in the community. He is a highly regarded and much-loved author of dark and twisted fiction, and his new book, The Same Deep Water as You, is described as “a parent-less indie yarn with a dark heart”. You can even buy a bookmark of him, for heaven’s sake, that’s how cherished he is. 

Lutzke has just revamped his 2015 story collection Night as a Catalyst, with four new stories and reworked tales, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Tim Meyer interviewed Lutzke over on his website, a read that is well worth saving for your coffee break. 

Linsey Knerl-  freelance writer and business maven 

A fellow content writer as well as an author of dark fiction, like me, Linsey’s new novel, as yet untitled, is coming out in 2020 from Giles Press, which makes us publishing house buddies, and I couldn’t be happier about it! She has a sparkling social media presence and oodles of nous, and I can’t wait to read her work when it comes out next year. She also has one of those trendy blue tick thingies after her name, which I will have to twist her arm about if I ever get the chance- oh, for the coveted blue tick! Find out more on her website

V Castro- lantinx, feminist vampire icons? Yes please 

V is a passionate woman with a passionate story to tell: she writes of the marginalised, the abused, the disenfranchised and the neglected, telling tales of immigration, vampirism and corruption from a mexicana perspective. She also writes dark erotica, if you fancy getting hot under the collar. I’ve met V in person, and adore her to bits: shes an indie horror author with real class. Check out her website here, and buy her book, Maria The Wanted and The Legacy of The Keepers, on amazon. 

Christopher Buehlman- pedigree horror and fantasy

Chris is a horror novelist traditionally published with Penguin Random House, a Bridport Prize winner for his poetry, and a World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Award finalist. I mean come on, do you need anymore credentials? His debut novel Those Across the River is on my to-read list based purely on the synopsis, which pits an old plantation against small-town drama, and that, my friends, is the finest type of strawberry jam to me. He’s also a thoroughly nice chap to boot, and one I enjoy interacting with. Oh, one last thing- Chris is involved in writing for Shudder’s upcoming TV project Creepshow, and if that isn’t exciting enough for you, then I give up, quite frankly. 

Ania Ahlborn- nightmare architect extraordinaire 

I swoon a lot over Ania, who seems to have effortlessly captured the hearts of the horror community with such grace and aplomb that I would be green with envy if I wasn’t so in awe of her talent. Ahlborn began as a purely self-published author (read more on this here) and has since been picked up by Simon and Schuster. If you See Her, a novel about tragedy, grief, memories and a haunted house, is out now. Ania also runs writing workshops, which I have been keeping my beady eye on, and bootcamps in partnership with Litreactor, giving her talent and knowledge back to the community in an invaluable way. Anyone new to the writing community and horror landscape should start by following and reading Ahlborn’s work. 

Georgina Bruce 

I find it very hard not to call Georgina by her twitter handle Wonko, but for the sake of professionalism I shall try. Bruce’s debut short story collection, This House of Wounds, is published by Undertow Books and available on amazon. Publisher’s Weekly says: “Bruce’s knack for ethereal tales that cut straight to the core of what it means to be a human (and specifically a woman) will delight readers who enjoy a smattering of the supernatural and blurred edges of reality.” And that is what I am here for: real women, real stories, real nightmares, glorious prose. More on her work, her reviews and general musings on her website, here. 

And with that, ladies and germs, I’m out. Enjoy this list, enjoy all the new books you’ve now got to read, and enjoy your weekend!

On death: I am no longer afraid

I’m reading a book about death at the moment, the unforgettable memoirs of Sue Black, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist and anatomist who was also the lead anthropologist during the War Crimes investigation in Kosovo. She, more than most, seems qualified to talk about death, but her book deals predominantly with the vital subject of life- who we are when we are alive being something we should focus on more that what happens to our mortal shape after we die.

In particular, there is one chapter that affected me more than I’ve been affected for a while upon reading. In it, Black talks about the death of her beloved Uncle Willy, and how she was tasked with the undesirable job of making sure Uncle Willy was fit for burial on the day of his funeral. She talks at length of the elaborate ritual she undertook to ensure Willy was, in fact, deceased and ready for his grave, a ritual that was both ridiculous and overzealous even by Black’s own admittance. But, she did it anyway, because she considered it her duty and because grief does funny things to the mind.  

This moved me because of my own experience of death. It moved me because Black lays the details out for us to read in a plain, simple manner, without hyperbole or tragic prose, and it is incredibly refreshing. It moves me because it is brave, although Black may not see it as brave, she may just see it as a fact of existence: people die, and this is something we should be able to talk about. And it occurs to me, that, as a writer, and a writer of horror fiction, I have never, not even once, come close to dealing with this in any of my work. I have never written the truth of death, only the imaginary version. I have never written about what I experienced.

Why is that? Why can I write about monsters and shadows and murder and the shapeless, nameless terrors that lie submerged in the layers of our imagination, but not about the real things?

Why not write about the funeral?

Why not write about holding the hand of someone who was no longer alive?

Why not write about the things that shape us?

Ironically, for me at least, the deaths of those people we love the most go on to mould the lives of those left behind into new, profoundly different lives. Death can be a catalyst, leaving us changed beyond measure. Death, and the act of dying, is such an enormous concept, the biggest story of all, and here I am, a cowardly, cowardly writer, who has never, not once, taken the black bull by the horns and described how it felt to be in a room with a person I loved more than I knew how to express, and that person to be dead.

That person was my Granddad. He was, essentially, my surrogate father. My real Dad skipped out when I was a toddler, remarried several times, and was a stranger to me until I arranged to meet with him at the age of seventeen, which is also something I should probably write about, and don’t.

My Granddad did all those things a good Dad should do: disciplined me when I misbehaved, picked me up when I fell over, threw me into piles of dead leaves in the autumn, let me ride upon his shoulders, watched movies with me, pulled funny faces, went for long walks, taught me how to use a lathe and turn wood, explored abandoned castles and fortresses with me, skipped stones across the surface of the sea, watched the sun sink low beneath the Norfolk skyline and told me that if I listened hard enough, I could hear the great orange ball of fire hiss as it hit the water (a line he pinched from the movie Blue Lagoon, and my love for that film now knows no bounds). He was by intervals taciturn, in that uniquely Norfolk way, and extremely, if privately, expressive (after he died, I found a notebook of his filled with transcribed poetry, and I didn’t even know that he’d read poetry). He loved nature and Pavarotti and being outdoors. He hated spaghetti (“who the bloody hell has time to eat this stuff?”) and cities made him bad-tempered, because, he said, it was impossible to walk anywhere- he would quote a line from a James Herriot book, where a hardened country bloke of the same ilk moaned about only being able to take “big steps, and little uns” instead of walk properly, because there were “too many bloody people everywhere”. He was a stickler for rules and an avid respecter of authority, lover of giant ice cream cones and jacket potatoes, and die hard Morecambe and Wise fan, as am I. He is the reason I adore films the way I do: his eighties VHS library was a thing of beauty: Costner, Schwarzenegger, Connery, Seagal, Ford…he would watch my face to see my expression as we came to his favourite part of any film, and then gleefully rewind that section over and over until the tape became fuzzy with use. He never smoked, and hardly ever drank anything more than a shandy, unless it was Christmas. The only time I ever saw him with a hard spirit in his hand was immediately after he put our gorgeous English Setter Sam to sleep and buried him in the back garden.

Because my Granddad never went to school, he entered into trade after a short stint in the army. He became a builder and engineer, later going on to found his own engineering business, which my Uncle still runs (my Uncle, by the way, being part of a team responsible for the gorgeous copper petals that made up the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony). What I’m trying to say is that he was healthy, and worked a physical, hard job. A job which also left him exposed to the sun and, lethally as it turned out, a lot of asbestos, over the years.

And, because Fenland folk are unfailingly stoic and enormously uncommunicative, when a small lump appeared on his chest and continued to grow in mass and severity, he did nothing about it for five years, until, at last, he burst into tears in front of my Nan who marched him straight to the Doctor. The Doctor examined it half-seriously, told him he was more likely to die with it than because of it, and the mass continued to expand. Eventually, a diagnosis of cancer was made, by which point it had spread aggressively across his skin and around his body and attacked his lungs, those clean, brilliant lungs that had never sucked on nicotine but had, most likely, been harbouring the toxic dust from previous building projects and exposure to asbestos.

And so it was that my vital, healthy hero became a diminished, sick man, ravaged by chemotherapy. I do not want to talk much about that, because I prefer to remember him before this: striding through the banks of sea holly at Holkham, dogs running free at his heels, army cap low over his eyes, peacock tattoo proud on his strong, freckled arm.

What I should talk about is the day he died. I should talk about the call I got from my Mother, telling me to get in a car and make the journey cross country from Bristol. I should talk about the hushed hospital room he was in on the geriatric ward, a room which I now know to be a bad sign- you only get private rooms that are quiet when you are truly, truly ill in most British hospitals. I remember the gas mask over his face, his eyes half-closed in pain, the fumbling awkwardness of those that gathered around him. I remembered, vividly, being too afraid to tell him I loved him, because if I did, he would know how sick I thought he really was, and would think that I had no hope.

Hours later, he died, quietly, in his sleep. My husband thinks he waited for me. I have no idea if this is possible when a person is so close to death, but I like to think that maybe, he did.

I had a choice, when confronted with the horrible announcement of his passing. I could choose to see him, or not. I chose to see him. I suppose it was an important part of the grieving process for me, and subconsciously, I knew this. At the time, I don’t remember what I thought. I only remember free falling down a huge, endless chasm of loss.

For years after, I wiped the next ten minutes of my life from my memory. I wiped going into the room, the same room I hadn’t told him I’d loved him in, hours before.

I forgot about sitting on the edge of the bed next to him, carefully, in case I disturbed something.

I blanked out his tattooed arm, that faded peacock now bloated and swollen from the cannula and medication.

I forgot his face, slack and motionless, but, thankfully, no longer in pain.

I forgot how still he was, and the absence of him.

Because this is the thing about death: it renders those you love unrecognisable. So much of who we are physically is made up of our unique expressions and reactions to things. Our animation is intrinsically linked to our personality, and if you remove that, then all that is left is the housing for it, the case, discarded like the skin of a snake. We take so much stock in what our bodies look like and how they behave when the true essence of us lies in our brains and our thoughts and our feelings, and how we portray those. I knew, then, as I sat there and tentatively held his hand, which was cold, and shiny, and most definitely devoid of life; I knew that this was not him. I knew that he was there in my mind in all the ways I wrote about at the start of this essay. This was not him. This was just the part, the necessary part, that was left behind. He was the love he bore me, the lessons he taught me about living. He was the sun and the sky and the salty sea breeze and the smell of wood chippings and steel shavings. He was the taste of icecream and frost on an autumn day. He was the notebook filled with scribbled poetry, the sound of the sun hissing as it hit the sea at sunset.  

I say I knew: in reality, my brain struggled to process this information for many, many years. But looking back at it now, twelve years later, I can accept it for what it was: a confrontation with death that became the single most defining thing in my existence until my son was born. Then, because all we are really is life and death, the act of giving birth reset my boundaries and understanding of myself and my place in all of… ‘this’.

I never wrote about any of this in my books or my stories because I was afraid. Exposing a personal tragedy in this way and using it as a literary device is tantamount to telling a perfect stranger all of your deepest, darkest secrets within moments of meeting them, or so I used to think.

But I’m reading this book, and in this book a brave, incredible woman is painting a different picture of death, a picture that we should hang upon the wall proudly instead of shutting it away in the attic, and I, for one, think I need to change how I write about the dead and the dying.

How, I am not quite sure yet.

But I have an idea. It starts, as most things should start, with celebrating life.

Trauma as fuel: writing through pain, and why I became an author

People often ask me why I decided to change my career in my thirties and become a writer. They ask, and I laugh it off, shrug and say ‘Now seemed as good a time as any to change my life!’

But this is not how it happened, not really. There was no light-bulb moment, no sudden conscious decision to reorient my life towards one filled with words. It was, rather, a question of survival, pure and simple. If this sounds dramatic, I suppose it was. Let me paint a picture for you, because that is, after all, what I do, now.

Imagine, if you will, a room, in a house. The room is dark, and hot, stuffy. The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the door is closed firmly against a dreadful sound: the sound of a small child, screaming. The screaming is a relentless, savage dirge that has been escalating in volume and intensity for a full hour. It is coming from the mouth of a confused, angry toddler, whose tiny fists beat against the door, demanding attention and reassurance, and getting neither.

Inside the room, her back to the other side of the door, braced against the screaming assault, a woman sits alone on the floor, her head resting heavily on her drawn-up knees. The woman is not crying, or covering her ears against the sound of her child’s inconsolable tears. Nor is she angry, or panicked, or scared. The woman is nothing. She is just sitting there, barely existing, letting the odd tear leak halfheartedly down her cheek, eyes wide, staring into the distance. The screaming and banging ramps up: the child is getting desperate now. The door thumps into the woman’s spine as the child kicks against it, demanding to be let in.

The woman is me, and the child is my son. I am in the full grip of postnatal depression, and my poor kid, my darling boy, my life and soul, who has no idea what postnatal depression is, is having a full-scale toddler tantrum, which is actually a very normal, healthy developmental thing. I am not having a healthy, normal reaction to it, however. I should be consoling him, cuddling him, or at the very least cautioning him with that ancient, somehow successful threat: the time-out step. He is still young enough that the time-out step carries some weight and significance. But because I have not managed this, we have moved beyond the point of return. No amount of cautioning or counting to three will help, here. All the kid needs is his Mother. All the kid needs is a hug, and probably a snack, and to have his snotty face washed clean with kisses.  

But, alas, the kid’s Mother is not home right now. She has retreated inside of herself, and the shutters have crashed down, an instinctual, self-preservation response that she has little control over.

Eventually, the kid’s screams die down, dissolve into choked little hiccups and sad, horribly sad little murmurs. There is movement as he sits on the floor by the door, and slides a chubby hand underneath to see if he can reach me. As the noise diminishes, I very gradually recover a degree of awareness, swimming up from the depths of the blackness like bubbles of air rising to the surface of a stagnant pond.

Ten minutes later, I stand up, a little wobbly on my numb legs, and undo the door. The kid, exhausted, has fallen asleep on the carpet outside. I watch him, so peaceful, his chubby cheeks stained red with exertion, and my heart breaks into a thousand tiny pieces right then and there on the spot. But instead of getting the help I need, instead of calling someone, instead of accepting that it is not normal to feel this way, I scoop him up gently in my arms, lay him in his cot bed, and move to the kitchen, because there are piles of laundry to navigate and meals to prepare and work diaries to plan and nursery bills to pay.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it? It was, and it got worse. My trauma played out in private, never in plain sight, never in front of my nearest and dearest. It manifested in alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, insomnia, mania, obsessive behaviour, other things. I won’t dwell on those, although it is worth mentioning that eventually, I began taking long walks to places I shouldn’t: bridges, tall things, things with an edge. Precipitous, dangerous places. I was drawn to them like a sleepy moth to a flame, in a trance, often. But people didn’t know about this, any of this. I led a dual life: a dedicated working Mother, who, when questioned as to her state of wellbeing, would always say ‘Oh me? I’m fine, thanks for asking!’ brightly and breezily.

It was hell. But, like a lot of mental health conditions, it was a type of hell that was somehow, ridiculously manageable. I am the duck paddling furiously beneath the surface of a smooth and glassy pond: a high-functioning personality type, a person who likes to achieve. It was entirely possible for me to get promoted to the senior management team in my telecoms marketing job whilst slowly killing myself. Entirely possible to climb a mountain whilst struggling to remember what my legs were even for (I did, incidentally- I climbed Mount Toubkal in Morocco when the kid was two years old. After that I set myself an arbitrary target of a mountain a year, because I was an idiot. I didn’t need mountains, I needed therapy). Entirely possible to read and re-read The Gruffalo four hundred times in a day without faltering whilst wanting to claw my own brain out of my skull. I tried to protect my child from as much of it as possible, but the poison always leaks out, in the end. My depression mutated into a huge, all-consuming anxiety that had horrible side effects: panic attacks where I would rage and beat myself around the head with my fists, throw things, then collapse and shut down into a stony, muted state of non-existence that left everyone around me stunned and shell-shocked. I tried everything to control this anxiety: long walks, drugs, booze, weight-lifting. At one point I was deadlifting my own bodyweight, laughing hysterically at the roaring hypocrisy at being strong enough to lift a grown human being but not strong enough to handle a small child’s temper tantrum.

None of these things worked. What worked eventually, were four things:

Time.

Therapy.

Medication (SSRI and Hormonal).

Writing.

‘You’re so brave!’ people say to me when I tell them I became a full-time writer. But I wasn’t brave, not one bit. My career shift was a natural byproduct of being made redundant twice, because, suffice to say, my work began to suffer beyond the point at which my employers could tolerate. I found myself suddenly with a lot of time on my hands. To a person with severe mental health considerations, time is lethal. I needed to fill it, somehow. I’d been writing for years, but never with much intent, focus, or intent.

Now, I was presented with an opportunity: time, and necessity. I bought a used laptop. I found a seat in a cafe, so I was surrounded by people.

I began to type.

I found a podcast I loved, listened to a lot of audio fiction, to quell the disquiet in my mind. It was soothing, and short stories suddenly presented a path to something hitherto denied me: completion. I was a starter, but never a finisher. I had no less than ten unfinished novels lurking in hard drives around the house. Short stories broke the back of my inability to finish. I wrote a story, submitted it to my favourite podcast. Miraculously, they accepted it, straight off the bat. I wrote some more. I began to form a routine: my kid started school. I dropped him off, walked to my cafe, wrote from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon. The words escaped from me in a trickle at first, and then, as I became used to the act, in great, cathartic torrents. They say you should write what you know, and so I did: I wrote pain, and sorrow, and joy, and love, and betrayal, and lust, and loss, and death, and life. The words wrote themselves, really, and I simply allowed myself to be swept along. Then, I published a book of short stories, and realised that other people actually enjoyed my words, a thing that still astounds me a year later, and probably will as long as I live.

And now, I have a total of four books in development, which is not bad for a woman once caught with her leg all the way over the chain-link fence near a certain famous suspension bridge.

So I suppose you could say I write to survive. I am, indeed, a full-time writer, now, and I have worked harder at this than anything else in my life before, aside from being a parent- because that is a type of work and responsibility that never abates. And, more than anything, more than happy pills and therapy and healthy living, it works. It works so well I am now utterly dependent on it, but this is an addiction I can bear. The words will always be there, won’t they?

I’m much better these days, for those wondering. The fog has dispersed, mostly, with occasional relapses. I have management strategies in place, a good doctor, loving friends and family, a brilliant relationship with a brilliant little boy, who thankfully, still loves me, and, behind and around all of this, I have words. Wonderful, healing, terrible, brutal, fantastic words. Liberating words, words that heal and rend and seal everything tight once again. With my words I can deconstruct and rebuild my entire being, time after time.

I am truly rich, for I have words.

And I always will.

How to accept a compliment (or at least put on a convincing performance)

An uncomfortable person’s guide to accepting praise

Yay, compliments (groan)

Hideous, isn’t it

It’s going to happen again, I know it. I just know it.

I’m standing in a crowded room on a Friday night in a busy pub, unwinding after a frenetic week where I pretended to be an adult (and almost succeeded in fooling everyone). A person I know is leaning in, a bit drunk, which is fine I guess, and I am slowly trying to inch backwards, because my usually expansive personal space bubble is feeling a little threatened.

I can feel it brewing in the air, this thing I dread. I see the person’s mouth beginning to shape into the introductory moue that signals only one thing: another compliment.

Fuck, what do I do?!

The person’s mouth continues to work. Oh, God. Christ. Here it comes. The person takes another big swig of their drink, and regurgitates it in verbal form, thwarting my subtle attempts at escape by stepping forward every time I step back. It’s like we’re dancing, only instead of a waltz, it’s an interpretive allegory for prison.

‘Your hair looks GREAT’, the person says.

There it is! Compliment claxon!!

The person waits to see the effect of their words have on me, running a thick index finger through my hair, uninvited, to reinforce the point. My smile, in response, grows wider. I can feel my lips straining against my teeth, which are tightly clenched. The person continues, the booze in their glass quickly disappearing and turning into a pink flush on the person’s face. I have been smiling this weird, fixed smile for so long and so hard now I can feel my jaw creaking. Anyone who truly knows me will see that my eyes are wide, dark and brimming with awkwardness. It never used to be this way, but for various different reasons, I find people and social situations rather draining these days. But still here I am, working through it, enjoying the mental break from my own imagination and feeling at least half-way human now that I’ve let myself out of the writing dungeon for a bit.

At least, I was. Until the compliments came.

The person continues, and imagine, if you will, tense, strings-only background music building subtly as they speak:

‘And I LOVE what you’ve done with your eye make-up,’ they say, and it’s as if they can sense my discomfort, like a terrier sniffing around at a rabbit hole, they can sense it, and are reveling in it, a bit like the aforementioned terrier then rolling around in freshly laid rabbit droppings.

How long can this go on for? I think, eyeing the fire exit desperately. A long time, it seems: the compliments keep coming, and I keep smiling, and smiling, and smiling, until I feel like my entire face will split in two, and all the skin will roll back like a pair of stockings rolling down a chubby thigh, and my whole skull will soon be on display for all and sundry to see, and all this person will do is say ‘OH MY GOD I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH YOUR EYE SOCKETS’ and this is hell for me, pure, actual hell.

Okay, so I think I have effectively established, in suitably dramatic form, that I am not good at or comfortable with accepting compliments. I love dishing them out, I am an enthusiastic person and love to offer praise where praise is due, but, I am also British. And we don’t, as a nation, do well with compliments. Why? Who knows. It’s ingrained in us, self-deprecation, avoidance, concentration on one’s flaws. All of my true friends are the same. We never throw compliments at each other, and if one does happen to squeak out, like a sneaky fart, we roll our eyes, throw things at each other, mutter ‘stop being a twat’, and move on as if it’s never happened.

From experience, compliments and our collective phobia of them starts becoming a thing during childhood, and somehow, it feels as if it is worse for girls. As a child, I remember a relentless string of comments along the following lines: ‘Oh, what a beautiful bag!’, ‘Oh, how pretty you look today!’, and ‘Oh, isn’t your hair adorable?’ and ‘look at those sparkly shoes!’  

As the mother of a boy, I can tell you that small man-kids rarely get such a concentrated appraisal of their looks from such a young age. People don’t say ‘Oh, look at how blue that t-shirt is!’, they say instead ‘Look how hard working you are!’ and ‘Look how clever that Lego model is!’ and so on. You get the idea, without wishing to sink into a study on gender issues- from the word go, we are forced to confront other people’s ideas of our self-worth. Some of us, like me, are deeply uncomfortable with this. Others are taught to accept these verbal bouquets with alacrity and grace. Either way, our attitudes to this can be compounded by our parents: my mother is famously sparing with compliments, whereas my grandmother overcompensated as a result. The balance was not a good one: I developed a healthy skepticism and conviction that each and every compliment was an empty statement designed to make you feel better, and not actually reflective of any real beauty, or cleverness, or talent, or other personality trait.

And so I’m here, in this pub, and this person is raining nice words down on my head, and all I can think of is to run away, but I can’t.

So I do something I’ve decided is better than my usual response, which historically has been to gurn, blow out my cheeks, mumble ‘Cheers, now fuck off’ under my breath or, in extreme cases, throw myself out of the window and into the path of oncoming traffic.

No, I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I keep that smile where it is (by this point it is the only adhesive keeping my head from tumbling off my shoulders) and say two simple, life changing words:

‘Thankyou.’

And it works. The person nods, duty dispatched, and moves onto aggressively complimenting someone else. I sigh, and relax. Another mate of mine, who has been half-listening in amusement, winks at me from across the pub. ‘Well done,’ they mouth, chuckling, and I jam my middle finger up at them.  

But here’s the thing I’ve realised about compliments. Sometimes, the compliment isn’t about you. It really isn’t. I find this to be the case particularly with writers. It’s a perverse truth that the very nature of our career now revolves around putting our work out there for others to scrutinise. Our immediate assumption is that people will critique and not compliment, so when kind words do come your way, it’s a bit of a shock. And this is why I’ve had to readdress my approach to accepting praise. Because not acknowledging it alienates your readers massively.

See, sometimes, a person has read your work and wants to talk about it, to reach out, to engage with what you’ve done. This person (and I have done this many times myself with writers I admire) has been moved by what you have written, and just needs to let that out somehow. The most logical way of imparting this enthusiasm is via a compliment, whether it’s a review, or a tweet, or whatever. And doing so makes that person feel more connected to you, like they are part of your story somehow, and they are simply sharing their love of your work with other people, as well as signalling to you that you have touched them in some way (no, not like that, you mucky devil). This is very different to the kind of compliment that was the subject of our opening scene in the pub, or the type of compliment a child typically receives-these are not people who are uncomfortable with silence, filling it with meaningless plaudits. These are real advocates of the things that matter to you, and as such, you should probably learn how to embrace this.

So here’s what I’ve learned, after a year of putting myself out there for people to comment upon, and listen up, because it’s quite simple really.

THE ONLY WAY TO RESPOND TO A COMPLIMENT, EVEN IF IT MAKES YOUR SKIN CRAWL TO DO SO, IS TO SMILE AND SAY ‘THANK YOU’.

Always. Tattoo it onto the palms of your hands if you have to. Eventually, it will come naturally to you, and guess what happens as a result? You start to have a little faith in yourself. Its a positive reinforcement cycle that miraculously, despite your own self-awareness, does work.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about pervy, uninvited remarks about your tits or smile or hair or anything else that is actually irrelevant to what you’re about as a creator (unless, of course, you want that kind of attention, each to their own). I’m talking about the compliments that actually add something to your life. It’s important to remember that you are not an object, and there is more to life than slavishly trying to gain approval from others.

BUT: this does not mean that you can’t school yourself to handle that approval when it does come your way. I see so many talented people who are deeply uncomfortable accepting praise about the thing over which they have worked so hard, and truly, it’s got to stop. And I say this as the worst type of hypocrite, a woman notorious for running away from compliments.

Take it from me, dearest readers, life is better if you let the good words in, and attach some value to them.

And, may I say: I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH YOUR HAIR TODAY.

 

xxx

Imposter Syndrome and authors: how being so hard on yourself is hurting your writing  

At some point, these people are going to realise I am a phoney, I thought sadly, as I flipped back through the pages of my newly published short story collection. The cover shone with that new book sheen, the pages were crisp and the spine bore my name. All of my lifelong desires sat there in my hands, dreams manifested into reality, metaphysical to physical via one papery oblong form: my book. I was finally a published author!  

And yet.

And yet, all I could do at that moment in time was leaf through the pages with a heart heavy as a stone, desperately scanning the words for errors, wincing at phrases I suddenly found uncomfortable or clumsy, and squirming as I thought of a better way to write this sentence, or that paragraph. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps, just perhaps, I did not deserve this book. That my hard work was misplaced, and somehow inauthentic. The thought became a certainty, and the certainty gestated, morphed, split the sheath of its skin, emerged, larger, hungrier, and slowly became a huge, terrifying beast that chewed hungrily at the back of my mind: you aren’t good enough, it said, as it ate, ravenous. Give up now. Everyone will laugh at you.

You will fail.

I overcame it, went on to write a whole lot more. But gosh, it was difficult, that first imposter attack.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am sending a brand new novel out to literary agents and publishers for consideration. This is something I have not done before, having been quite happy to just publish my own work or work with smaller presses. When I have worked with indie presses, they have invariably approached me, which takes my own doubt about whether or not they think my stuff is any good out of the equation.

But this? Sending my scrappy little weird genre-blender manuscript off to big, important agents? Yikes. Yiiiiiiikkkkkeeees. Surely they will say no (one already has, although they were incredibly supportive and courteous about it).

This, my friends, is called Imposter Syndrome, and boy, it’s a stone cold bitch.

How do you know if you have Imposter Syndrome?  

A caveat (everything I write is riddled with caveats, this post is no exception): I am not a psychologist or mental health expert, I am a writer with an interest in the topic. So the following is a personal take on a commonly spoken about psychological phenomena that affects writers, and is not intended to sound official, or to be grounded in anything other than anecdote.

So, with this aside, how do you know if you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome?

Let me tell you how it feels from this end. There is an amazing scene in an episode of Family guy where Peter Griffin finds himself in front of an electric keyboard in a music shop.

imposter syndrome is a bitchThe keyboard comes with a pre-loaded demo mode (remember those? Oh, Casio). He presses the button, and mimes playing a happy tune. He’s enjoying himself, having fun, no harm done. A guy wanders up, watches him, impressed, and then collapses into self-righteous anger as he realises Peter is not, in fact, playing the keyboard, only miming. This guy then becomes a running joke, following Peter around all episode, shouting ‘Hey, you’re a phoney! This guy’s a GREAT BIG FAT PHONEY!’

Questionable use of pop-culture to illustrate my point aside, this is what imposter syndrome feels like, to me. It feels like an angry, disappointed dude with a megaphone trailing around after you, shouting about your failures to anyone who will hear. That guy is, in reality, your subconscious, I think, working through the fear that inevitably comes with being a creative person who gives birth to things out in public, onto the big wide world stage, the logical progression of which is critique, both good and bad.

But don’t let my take on this lead you in anyway. I asked my friends, peers and followers on Twitter to describe how it felt in a single sentence,

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

and this is what they said:

imposter syndrome explained

Now, just read through all of those. It’s utterly heartbreaking, isn’t it?

(FYI, if you’ve gotten this far in the post and are having any thoughts along the lines of ‘oh cheer up,’ or ‘oh my god these people are just snowflakes’ or ‘fuck sake, aren’t there more important things going on in the world?’ then you can gladly leave the room, the door is over there, watch it doesn’t hit you on the arse as you go. Seriously. Go on. ‘Bye.)

The full tweet is here, if you want to read all of the responses, as there were too many to show in this post .

The point I’m trying to make is that Imposter Syndrome affects everyone differently, and also: you are not alone. This is very important, because sometimes, the act of discussing how you feel with others who feel the same is hugely cathartic and helpful. Some of the tweets above are from writers and creators in my circle that I admire enormously, and even the big hitters, the literary megastars, the celebrities and Moghuls experience these feelings, as so eloquently described by the mighty Neil Gaiman himself.

Understanding that you aren’t alone is, and can be, very useful in tackling Imposter Syndrome.

Putting yourself on the page: why imposter syndrome stalks writers

So why do we seem to get it so bad? Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why. The very nature of being a writer is that you open yourself up to critique. That in itself makes your chances of becoming overwhelmed with these feelings much more likely. Combine this with the ready-made pressures of our digital society, where carefully crafted social media personalities are our new currency, and the constant strain of living up to that hype is exhausting. You are essentially opening the door for anxiety just by trying to be who you want to be. Add to this the immediate cruelty of others, who can, with a casually composed tweet, tear down a person’s confidence in seconds, and it’s understandable why those in creative industries sometimes buckle under the weight of everything.

There is a flipside to this, however, which helps me sometimes, and that is this: if I don’t put myself out there, then I don’t even get to feel like an imposter, because I have created nothing around which this feeling can feed.

To break it down even further :

If I do nothing, take no risks at all, then sure- I might feel ‘safe’ from the fear of failure. But my burning desire to write or draw or sing or act or cook or create anything at all just cannot be squashed, and this is something that I forget, all the time. I need to write, and that is BRILLIANT. Why don’t I appreciate this, more? I fucking wrote something! I put it out there, for people to see! That is a wonderful, sparkling, nuclear flash of brilliance and it should be enjoyed for what it is- creativity spreading its wings. Regardless of how it feels, afterwards, the important thing is that I did it in the first place. Many others, don’t. I force myself to remember that, as often as I can.

This is all well and good, but Imposter Syndrome is a complicated demon. For writers, it presents itself in a number of ways that really fuck with our actual, you know, writing:

  • Procrastination
  • Obsessive self-editing and critique
  • Writing yourself into a loop
  • Abandoning projects
  • Having difficulty plotting
  • Losing a character’s ‘voice’
  • Continually comparing your work to your contemporaries
  • Chastising yourself for being unoriginal
  • Eating too many biscuits
  • Drinking gin angrily (to be honest, I know no other way)

So how do you defeat imposter syndrome? Killing the monster in your brain

Have you seen the Babadook? If not, the film is about a small boy and his mother battling with grief. They are terrorised by the Babadook, a horrifying fictional boogeyman that eats away at their sanity and reason, ruins their day to day lives, their relationship with others, and stops them from moving forward. Sound familiar?

the babadook as a metaphor for grief The Babadook, in this instance, is a metaphor for grief and trauma, but what interests me about this example is how the Mother character, Amelia, defeats the beast destroying her future (spoiler alert).

She doesn’t.

What? I hear you think? What are you blithering on about now, Amor? (Blither is a grossly underused non-word and I love it).

What happens at the end is a dramatic confrontation, sure. Amelia faces the Babadook head on, and her fear and trauma turns to rage, and a desperate need for survival. After this, however, there is a plot-twist. We see Amelia and her son Samuel happy once again, healing, going on with their lives. And then we see that Amelia has not banished the Babadook from her life, but rather, it now lives, locked in the basement, where she visits it, feeds it, and there is a truce, a bit like Simon Pegg playing video games with Nick Frost at the end of Shaun of the Dead (we were getting a little serious, after all).

I guess what I am trying to say is that this feeling will probably, for many of us, never go away. Every success will feed it further, and every failure validate it thus.

But, it is possible to acknowledge this as part of the life-cycle of a writer. It’s possible to acknowledge that it comes with the territory, is part of the day job, and may never ever go away. So, with that realisation, comes the next stage: if I can’t defeat the monster in my brain, can I at least lock him away, out of sight, in the basement? Might that be enough to get me through?

Still with me? Good, in that case, I’ll finish this existential ramble by listing my ways of tackling Imposter Syndrome in the hope that they might help you, too:

  • Go and find your champions.

I don’t mean your Nan. My Nan is my biggest champion, but I’ve been trained from birth to roll my eyes every time she throws praise my way (I’m British, afterall, we don’t do compliments very well, which I guess is part of the problem). BUT there will be a core team of people who are on your side, and who think you are great, so go and find them and get that ego massaged a little. Explain the predicament you are in, and try and enjoy their support for what it is: they think you rock, so that’s good, isn’t it?

  • Take a break

There is no point trying to continue on through intense feelings of fraudulence and confusion. So, take a break. Step away for a while, go for a walk, listen to some good music, watch a movie, maybe even read an old, favourite book and try to recapture that love and magic that you have for the craft, just a little- not by comparing yourself to others, but by simply enjoying something for what it is. The world will not end if you do not finish your word-count for the day. Maybe even have a gin and tonic, but not too many- take it from me.

  • DON’T READ REVIEWS

Good reviews, or bad reviews. Just don’t. I don’t mean ever. I just mean when you are wracked with self-doubt. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF? It’s like texting that person you know you shouldn’t text, it’s like rubbing acid into an open wound- stop it! Immediately! Don’t make me come over there, or I will put you over my knee, I swear. Put the reviews down.

  • Consider taking a social media break

You’re an adult, you know why. Social media is poison, sometimes- cut it out of your life for a while, and let your poor, tired, over-stimulated brain rest a bit.

  • Find a beta-reader and/or a mentor

You know that person whose work you really admire? They had to start somewhere too, and the chances are, they will be sympathetic to your plight. Maybe they can critique something you wrote. This can be a great confidence booster but also just REALLY helpful in making you a better writer. In all likelihood, they have also experienced feelings of Imposterhood (I’m going to start a new society, the Imposterhood, sticker designs welcome) and can also talk to you about it in helpful ways. (Another caveat: don’t take it to heart if that person has too much on to critique your work. There will always be someone else.)

  • KEEP GOING (ONCE YOU’VE HAD A REST)

This goes back to my Babadook point above. So you feel like you don’t deserve any of this?

So what?

Fuck it, keep going anyway! I know I’m shit at running, but it doesn’t stop me from putting on my trainers and my too-tight leggings and going for a jog, because I want to stay fit, not win the Olympics. So you might not win a literary prize or sell millions of copies of your books, but who cares? You write because you love to. Don’t let anything interfere with that, not least, yourself, or the monster in your brain.

I hope some of this has been helpful to at least a few of you. For my part, I am a reluctantly proud member of the Imposterhood, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. And, as a friend of mine said when he read my new book, the one I had been so convinced was a sham, ‘It isn’t shit, Gemma!’, and so, with that, I crack on with the next.

If I can do it, you sure as shit can too.

Writers and Twitter: how to get noticed for all the right reasons (and not be a dick)

writers and twitter: how the twain should meetHere’s the thing: I joined Twitter many, many years ago, and never really got the hang of it. The site seemed rather cryptic and pointless, and the concept was lost on me. I was always a fan of long, emotive ramblings online, so short and random strings of characters, a seemingly complicated interface and a distinct absence of my personal friends on the platform were the final nails in the coffin- in those days, we all used to enjoy hanging out on Facebook, or *GASP* in real life places, like the pub (oh, how times have changed).

So my little Twitter account lay neglected and abandoned in the back of my priority list until roughly one year ago, when this humble indie author decided she needed to put her marketing nous into play and invest a bit more time on social media in her writer capacity.

And in doing so, I have learned two things:

  • Twitter for writers can be a marvellous, rewarding place that helps you to sell books, build brand awareness and become part of a wonderful, friendly and supportive community
  • Twitter is also full of people who, quite frankly, need to read this blog post.

I don’t say this out of arrogance. I still have a long way to go to to be an ‘influencer’, whatever that is. But I say this in a state of sheer frustration as I observe behaviour in others that makes me want to curl up in a cringe ball and die. These people tend to be repeat offenders, too, the social media equivalent to repeatedly trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, only to eventually mutilate the hole so much the peg eventually fits- the end result being a highly uncomfortable experience for everyone involved.

So here, dear readers, are my heart-felt tips to help you ‘win’ at Twitter instead of being THAT PERSON.

Practical Tips for Authors on how to succeed at Twitter

  1. Stop trying to sell your book.

Tips for writers on TwitterI know, right? Rubbish marketing advice, straight from the outset. Pfft, what kind of Author are you if you aren’t trying to sell your own stuff?

Well, here’s the thing. From experience, people are much, much more likely to buy your book if they have first bought into you who are as a person.

Let’s use the pub as an analogy, as I like the pub.

Let’s imagine you’re in the pub, sat next to a roaring fire, sipping the finest ale, lovely warm dog curled at your feet, and all of your friends are sitting around you, laughing, joking, having the very best of times.

A stranger approaches. They look friendly. ‘Mind if I sit here?’ they say.

‘Sure,’ you reply, because, you’re a friendly person too. The stranger sits, and smiles at you.

You open your mouth to ask them what their name is, and try to get to know them. Before you can get even one word out, the stranger leans forward, whips a copy of their new book out of a pocket on the inside lining of their jacket, and starts beating you around the face with it.

‘BUY MY BOOK!’ the stranger screeches, over and over again. ‘BUY IT! JUST BUY IT! BOOK! BUY MY BOOK!’

Your friends sit, horrified, as the stranger beats you unconscious with their latest literary offering and then leaves, disgruntled, because guess what: you didn’t buy the book.

Then, you never hear from them again.

This has happened to me multiple times in the Twittersphere. Aggressive, boring and sometimes maniacal self-promotion. That person has no interest in me, only how much money I spend buying their shit.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use Twitter to try and sell your latest novel, collection, anthology, whatever.

Now, let’s imagine this differently. The same person approaches you in the pub. They sit, and you chat for a while. During the course of conversation, you learn things about each other. Chatting is fun, humorous. Other people get involved in the conversation. By the end of the evening, you have both had fun.

And guess what? You just put the stranger’s book into your shopping cart. Because the chances are, if you enjoyed conversation with them that much, you might enjoy their writing. Might- this is no guarantee of an enjoyable book-reading experience, but you are a damn sight more likely to give it a go as a result.

So, in short, don’t be a dick about selling your book. Relax, connect with like-minded writers and readers and enthusiasts, get involved in conversations, have fun, tag each other in silly twitter challenges, share GIFS, and ALSO promote your book, in a friendly, non-aggressive way.

It’s worked a lot better for me so far than the other method.

2. Stop hijacking other writer’s tweets to sell your own shit (unless they ask you to)

Hijacking other's tweets is just not cool. Oh, man, I hate this one.

So let’s go back to the pub. You’re in the pub, and your friends have asked you about your latest book. So, you start talking about it. ‘Okay, since you asked, this is my book,’ you say, ‘And this is….’

Without warning, a stranger jumps up from nowhere, whips a copy of their book out from that inside jacket pocket, leaps in front of you, and starts waving their own book around.

‘LOOK!’ they say, ‘I WROTE A BOOK TOO! LOOK! YOUR CONVERSATION ABOUT YOUR BOOK IS A LEGITIMATE PLACE FOR ME TO INTERRUPT AND START TELLING YOU ABOUT MINE! LOOK AT IT! BOOK BOOK BOOK BOOK! HERE’S A LINK TOO IN CASE THE POINT ISN’T COMPLETELY CLEAR. I WROTE A BOOK! ’

Now, there is a time and a place for posting links to your own works on someone else’s tweets. And that is when a person has SPECIFICALLY ASKED YOU TO DO SO.

Like this:

https://twitter.com/PartyFreckle/status/1085701570229137408

OR LIKE THIS:

https://twitter.com/LordSteerpike/status/1090106987302522880

NOT ON A TWEET LIKE THIS:

https://twitter.com/NickSetchfield/status/1090203051221286912

He’s trying to announce the launch of his new book guys! DON’T POST ABOUT YOUR OWN GRAND WORKS OF FICTION IN THE COMMENTS THEN!

So we clear? Good. Use a little common sense, feel the mood, figure out when it is appropriate to post about your stuff on other’s tweets. DON’T hijack another person’s tweet to promote your own shit unless they have specifically asked you to do so.

3. Stop sending female Authors pictures of your junk

Seriously, stop it. If I wanted to see those parts of your anatomy that you are clearly proud of, there are websites where I could no doubt look for it, or another tiny penis clones exactly like it.

I’m not interested.

And no, I don’t want to hear about your stinky foot fetish either. Piss off.

I’m not changing my profile picture to something gender-neutral to avoid perverts, either.

Come on, guys.

4. Use Direct Messaging responsibly

This is a continuation of the post above. Unfortunately, unless I have interacted with you in some way, or you have a genuine query, writing proposal or are answering a question directly, I’m unlikely to answer out of the blue messages asking me personal questions. My writer twitter account is professional, I treat it like a more casual version of LinkedIn, really. I do not answer personal questions via DM unless I feel that I know and trust that person. Think about what you send people before you hit that send button. Is it a question you can ask that person out in public? Is it really necessary? What is your agenda?

5. If you don’t like something, DON’T TAG THE AUTHOR IN YOUR CRITIQUE

I mean, come on.

Let’s work this into the pub analogy, once more.

So, you’re in the pub, and you’re talking about the latest Stephen King book. And, let’s say, for the sake of the visualisation, that you aren’t a big fan, you’re disappointed, it didn’t float your boat, whatever.

In the old days, when this happened, people kept these discussions where they belonged: IN THE PUB. Or, they posted an honest review to their website, blog, a book review site, whatever. There was no expectation that the author would see this review, but if they did, it was something they had control over. Choose to read, or not.

And guess what? If Stephen King were ever to one day physically walk into that pub, not a single person would rush up to him immediately to tell him how much they hated his latest work.

Not a single person, unless that person were truly awful.

They would probably swallow that opinion, smile, shake his hand, and maybe talk about, to his face, the stuff they DID like. Or just maintain a polite silence. After all, no one is saying we all have to like the same stuff, and that’s cool and fair.

And everyone came out of the encounter happy.

THIS DOESN’T MEAN YOU CANNOT HAVE AN OPINION. Opinions and critiques are what makes creators better at their craft.

But.

Writers do not want to wake up in the morning and find themselves tagged in a tweet like this:

‘@Writerdude’s latest book is the pits. Can’t believe I wasted my money on this rubbish tbh. This book sux’

This is the online equivalent to opening your door on a sunny morning only to find a rude, belligerent person standing there holding your latest book and saying ‘I came here to tell you this was shit.’

I mean, really…what am I supposed to do with that? Oh, wait! Let me rush indoors and rewrite my entire novel to accommodate this opinion: that it’s a bit shit. Phew, thanks for that- you’ve saved me from a career filled with mediocrity and failure.

This goes for all creations really, not just books- films, art, whatever. And, sadly, it’s really common these days, and after a while, it probably becomes like water off a duck’s back, and ninety percent of these miserable tweets will get lost in the twittersphere anyway.

But, still, just to be clear on Twitter etiquette: this is not okay behaviour. It is rude, and disrespectful. And totally unnecessary. Why do you think you have a right to bring your opinions to this person’s attention in this way? You don’t.

And the absolute worst thing is that I have seen WRITERS DOING THIS TO OTHER WRITERS.

I mean, come on, my dudes.

If you wouldn’t say it to a person in real-life, face to face, then you probably shouldn’t say it to them on Twitter.

Don’t tag creators in your shit-shoving rants about their work.

6. Support other writers, authors and creators.

support other creators on twitter This is how we end: on a positive note. Support other writers in your space. They are not the competition, they are part of the same wonderful creative community that you belong to. Promote their stuff, leave a review, alert your own followers to their promotions, get involved. Help spread the word, organically, lovingly, without malice.

Those creators will, in turn, do the same with you and your work.

Over and out, Twitterers. I’m off to the pub.

Listen to the prologue to my new novel White Pines

Twenty years ago, the town of White Pines vanished into thin air, taking each and every one of the 1,346 inhabitants with it. Now, journalist Megan Douglas is on a crusade to find out exactly what happened, and how. Her journey will take her on a nightmarish tour of the surreal, the impossible, and the terrifying, whilst all around, the pine trees watch everything. 

Click on the media player above to hear me narrate the prologue to my forthcoming novel White Pines

‘I am Ghost’ on the NoSleep Podcast Halloween Special 2018

Halloween may be over now (for this year, at any rate), but I am still thrilled that my story I am Ghost was produced by the NoSleep Podcast team as part of their 2018 Halloween special episode. The horror anthology show is renowned for its Halloween Episodes, which bring you over two hours of fully immersive creepy tales …completely free. These special episodes and their phenomenal production standards are what brought me to the podcast in the first place, and once I was hooked, the rest is history, as they say.

I am Ghost was brought to life expertly, as always, by the remarkable voice talents of David Ault, Erika Sanderson, and Erin Lillis. It tells the story of Max (or is that Ghost?) on the night of Halloween. Max likes to trick or treat just like any other boy, but his tastes have moved beyond gummy bears and lollipops. In fact, he prefers more… mature treats, these days. It’s my favourite David Ault story yet, and he may as well have written it himself for how well he realised my devious little creation.

You can listen using the audio player below, on any podcast app, or anywhere else where podcasts can be found. My story starts around 1:15:10.

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The Trees Have Eyes- a new horror anthology (and I’m in it)

New horror anthology from the best selling NoSleep author alliance

new horror anthology out now on AmazonA while ago, I wrote a campfire story called ‘The Little Man’,which was produced by the No Sleep podcast early on in Season 10. Now I’m thrilled to announce that the story has been released in print as part of brand new horror anthology ‘The Trees Have Eyes’.

You can pre order the e-book on Kindle, and buy the paperback version here. (This is obviously the UK link. For US copies simply search for the title in the .com version of the site).

This collection is brought to you by the No Sleep Author Alliance,  a very active group of writers from both reddit and the NoSleep podcast. You’ll find a wealth of styles and approaches to the theme of ‘things you see in the forest’ and ‘campfires’.  It makes for perfect holiday reading, as each short story is self-contained and bite-sized.

The Kindle version is due for release on July 1st. In the meantime, advanced review copies will be available for certain subscribers. If you’d like one of those, please contact me and I’ll get you on the list.

I’m proud to be featured alongside a whole host of well-known online writers including David Clark, Tobias Wade (who is also publishing the collection under his specialised publishing house, Haunted House Press), and many more. The No Sleep Author Alliance is a hugely proactive group of writers who support each other’s work, and idea share, critique and collaborate freely. The end result is plain to see: anthologies, novels and projects galore.

Haunted House press have a track record of publishing horror fiction stalwarts like S.H.Cooper and many more. These books often dominate amazon and kindle rankings for their chosen categories, so fingers crossed ‘Trees’ does as well as it deserves to.

And don’t forget, if you like the book, please leave a review! (You’ll need to be logged into your personal amazon account). Reviews are life to authors like us, so don’t hesitate to spread the word if you like what you read.