Rejection and Self-doubt

Apparently I’m pretty terrible at sticking to this one-post-per-week thing! This time it’s more down to personal issues than general lack of discipline, but I guess discipline is something that should apply even when you’re feeling crap, so I clearly need to work on that.

Part of the reason for my recent lapse in productivity is that the last few weeks have been marked by several rejections, so I suppose I should write about that, since it’s pretty much been the only thing on my mind.

It was my birthday last week – I’m now decidedly in my mid- rather than early-thirties – and for the first time in my life the day brought with it a sense of falling behind rather than moving forward. I’m an optimist by nature, even when things aren’t going well, and I started this year feeling really positive, like ‘this is the year I’m going to make things happen and everything is going to fall into place’. Of course positive mental attitude is important if you want to achieve significant goals, but that becomes hard to sustain when you keep encountering road blocks, and it’s felt very much like the universe just keeps piling on the challenges over the last month or so, with no sign of any pay-off.

I know that every author has to deal with rejection at some point in their career (if one more person tells me about J K Rowling’s long list of rejections, I might just scream!), but knowing it and experiencing it are very different things.

Writing is usually my primary form of therapy, but the latest run of rejections has left me feeling pretty exhausted, emotionally and physically, and that’s definitely impacted my productivity. When the motivation’s not there, it’s very difficult to force yourself to sit down at a screen and be creative, and unfortunately when your self-esteem is linked so closely to your ability to generate material, it tends to lead to a downward spiral that’s constantly reinforcing itself.

I definitely have a tendency to focus too much on the negatives. I could achieve something really brilliant one day, but the next day I’ll be back to worrying about all the things I haven’t achieved and examining every ‘failure’ under a microscope to figure out where I went wrong.

In the last month I’ve had a story short-listed in an online competition and I’ve been accepted onto a master’s programme, both of which I’m really pleased about, but I also had another story rejected and quite harshly (although not unfairly) critiqued, was rejected as a candidate for a mentoring programme I’d applied for, and thought my novel (baby/ life’s work/ precious outpouring of my soul) had been rejected by a publisher, although it turned out that was down to a fault with the email system and it’s still under consideration – eeeek! (Never underestimate the importance of a follow-up query!)

Anyway, as of yesterday, when I began writing this post, I thought it had been rejected and was accordingly depressed. It wasn’t just a case of figuring out where I’d gone wrong, it was a full-blown existential crisis: maybe I’m just not good enough to be a published author. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’ll never be exceptional at anything. Maybe all my hard work over the years has been a complete waste of time and I should start thinking about a different career plan. Maybe I should just crawl into a hole and stay there.

However, despite being crushed by the weight of my hopes and dreams collapsing around my ears, I still held firm to the belief that the main difference between success and failure is tenacity, and that giving up is the only real way to fail. So after flopping around pathetically for maybe an hour or so, I gave myself a stern talking-to, picked up my copy of the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ and started red-inking agents to submit my work to. There’s always another way forward, and if you can’t see it then you need to look harder.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a certain level of masochism is essential if you want to be successful in any creative industry. You have to be willing and able to take the hits if you’re going to push through to a win, and if you can’t, I suggest you give up now. Getting published is not for the faint-hearted.

Having your work dismissed by people whose opinion really counts is soul-destroying, especially since any long-term creative endeavour requires you to pour your heart into it and expose your deepest vulnerabilities. It feels like your essential self has been rejected, not just ‘something you did’, and that’s a hell of a blow, but it’s vital to keep in mind that there are many, many factors involved in why one particular publisher or agent or competition judge didn’t consider your work up to scratch, and not all of them are that it wasn’t ‘good’. There are market pressures and conflicts of interest to consider, as well as personal tastes, current social trends, blah blah blah.

I do think it’s important to try and be objective about your own work and realistic in your expectations. The fact is, you might not be as good as you wish to be, and you have to take that into consideration if your work is constantly being rejected. In the words of Kipling: ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too’. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Natural talent is often seen as the be-all and end-all of creativity, but in reality hard work counts for a lot; there are a huge number of super-talented people who will never get anywhere because they’re not prepared to put the work in, and conversely there are less-talented people with flourishing careers, who persisted and worked and developed the skills they needed to get where they wanted to go. That capacity shouldn’t be underestimated.

Anyway, that’s the latest update and partial explanation of why I haven’t been keeping up with the posts. I’m still planning to get part two of the structure post up, hopefully over the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some of this stuff because I know everyone struggles with rejection and sometimes it helps to know you’re not the only one.

Fingers crossed I’ll have some more positive news to share soon, but if not soon then hopefully in the future. I’m certainly not going to give up, no matter how much work it takes to get there.

If you want to share any of your experiences or thoughts on this subject, you’re welcome to post in the comments or follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor.

 

Battling with Stagnation

I was having a low day when I started writing this post, and since that’s part of what I want to use the blog for I decided to write about it, although I didn’t get round to finishing it until I started feeling better, which is pretty typical for me.

I was thinking about stagnation, which I’m sure is something every writer has struggled with at some point or another – in fact every creative person, regardless of their medium – and no matter how many times I find myself in the middle of it, it never gets any easier.

I’m not necessarily talking about a lack of productivity, although often the two things are interconnected. I’m talking about a protracted period of general restlessness – the feeling of treading water, having to wait on responses from agents, publishers, universities, competitions and being unable to move forward until The Email arrives.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a patient person. Relying on other people to get things done on my behalf makes me anxious and irritable. I think that’s because I spent most of my twenties working a day-job in customer service (which I hated) and going absolutely nowhere creatively. That was partly down to the fact that I couldn’t settle on an outlet for my creativity – I was in a heavy metal band and that was my Big Life Plan for a few years – so I floundered around instead of focusing my energies on one thing.

I was also tired from working at quite a physically demanding job, and at the same time I was involved in a pretty toxic relationship that ground me down to a nub and hollowed me out from the inside, leaving me very little energy for pursuing my goals and even less confidence that I was capable of achieving anything. Eventually I saw it for what it was and managed to end it, but since then I’ve had this feeling like I’m desperately scrambling to make up for lost time, so anything that puts the brakes on leaves me feeling really agitated.

I wouldn’t say I ‘have’ depression (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all), but I’m definitely prone to depressive moods if I’m not in control of what happens next, not just career-wise but with anything that’s important to me. The only reason I’m reluctant to label it is that I know people with serious depression and it’s completely debilitating, so I don’t want to minimise their struggles by saying my problems are the same as theirs. But the feeling I get when I’m down can leave me both lethargic and restless, and usually affects my sleep, my work and my general outlook on life, so even though I don’t suffer from it constantly I can sympathise with people who have to live with that on a daily basis. My heart goes out to them.

I can’t really say that this post offers any constructive advice for dealing with periods of stagnation or comes to any positive conclusion, other than maybe to say it’s fairly common for creative people and it will pass, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

On my low days I usually get very little achieved, even though I might really be looking forward to starting a new story or editing one I’ve already written. Quite often I’ll sit down at my laptop with the intention of getting something done and then suddenly lose enthusiasm/ energy – which makes me feel even worse because then it’s like I’ve failed at the thing I love to do more than anything – but I’ve learned to be kind to myself and recognise that it’s OK. It’ll pass. I just have to be patient and not beat myself up.

At other times, like yesterday, even though I wasn’t up to writing prose I did get some notes down for a book idea I’ve been chewing over for a while. I gave up pretty quickly and I don’t think I thought up anything new, it was more just writing down ideas that had been in my head already, but it was something.

Working as a freelance writer is something I enjoy and am very proud of, but it gets difficult sometimes to reconcile ‘business’ writing with ‘fun’ writing. Often I’m too worn out from staring at the screen all day to get started on a creative project in the evening, but again, it’s about making time for the things I care about and finding ways to compromise so that I can pay my bills and still pursue my dreams. I count myself very lucky that I’m able to have dreams at all, so I try to remind myself that life could be – and has been – a lot worse.

Periods of stagnation can be paralysing but they can also be opportunities to recharge your batteries and assess where you’re going next. Don’t get me wrong, I hate being in them, but sometimes you just have to shut down for a while and wait for things to get moving again on their own. If you’ve done all you can do then that work will pay off. I’m really not cut out for waiting patiently, but I suppose waiting impatiently has the same effect in the end, so I’ll have to make do with that.

If you want to follow me @RoseJamesAuthor I’m always happy to see what other people are up to and be reminded that the world keeps on turning. That’s usually enough to make me shrug out of my sulks and run to catch up again 🙂

 

Writers be crazy!

This first post is more of an introduction than anything. I want to tell you a bit about myself, just so you know what you’re getting into.

Literature is in my blood – reading it, writing it, studying it, arguing over it, if it involves story-telling, I’m in. My great-grandmother got an English degree from Liverpool University in 1910. She worked as an English teacher before getting married and joining the suffrage movement, where she put her education to good use campaigning for women’s rights. Her own daughter – my grandmother – completed her own English Literature degree with the Open University in 2009, at the age of 93. Yes, I know! How amazing is that?

As a child, my parents read to me all the time – Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, swash-buckling adventures and fairy-tales of all stripes – planting the seed for my profound love of stories that took root and blossomed. Despite that, career-wise I was quite a late-bloomer. I didn’t follow in my foremothers’ footsteps until the age of 27, when I began my OU degree in English Language and Literature. The next year I started working as a freelance writer and eight months after that I left my day-job in retail to write full time.

In 2014 my mum suggested I enter the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition with the novel I was working on at the time – I Am Aphrodite. I ended up on the shortlist of the final seven, and even though I didn’t win I had a tremendous amount of support and guidance from a kind fiction editor at Quercus who took pity on me, thankfully seeing potential in the extremely rough prose I submitted (which was 210,000 words long originally – eek).

I completed my degree in 2017 (with a first – woop woop!) and using the newly minted literary tools I had acquired over two years of creative writing study, I set about hacking my manuscript into some kind of recognisable shape – think Edward Scissorhands.

The picture below is the plot outline I drew up after I finished my degree so I could figure out what I needed to change. This was my guideline for structure, character development, new plot points and themes, none of which I had a clue about when I started writing the book. Every line in black ink is a plot point, and all the red is what I needed to do to fix it. As you can see, there was rather a lot 😀 (Tip – writing/ printing it out and arranging it all in one place like this can help give you a sense of the overall work. It also means when you’re watching telly and you get an idea, you can scribble it down without having to load up your laptop again 😉 )

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I’m now embarking on a magical quest for an agent and hopefully a publishing deal, and one day soon I hope to make another career transition, this time from freelance writer to fully fledged author.

Participating in the OU forum, several Facebook pages for writers and a real-life creative writing group has taught me the value of contact with my peers. I cannot overstate that. It’s so, so important to be able to vent, and not just to your friends and family but to people who get it. We all feel inadequate, isolated, anxious, depressed, unhinged and even borderline-homicidal sometimes, and I want to write a blog that not only offers advice and suggestions on how to develop your writing and your career, but also that reminds you to be a real-life person once in a while – that you’re not alone, that everyone struggles and that there are ways to make life easier on yourself.

Working freelance was something that took a lot of getting used to, and not in the ways I had anticipated. I’ve gone through phases of crippling self-doubt, which have rendered me completely useless at times; I’ve also suffered something bordering on depression several times over the course of my six-year writing career, although I hesitate to categorise it as that since I’ve never had an official diagnosis. Working alone can make your head a breeding ground for negative thoughts, and unfortunately they have nowhere to go but round and round and round. The only way I’ve found to break that pattern is to leave the house, visit friends and tell them how I’m feeling, then use their positive reassurances to get back on the creativity train and reinforce their points by getting something constructive done.

Social media is not a substitute for real-life human interaction. It slyly convinces you that it’s the same thing, but we are social animals and our brains aren’t configured to get the same stimulation from remote communication as from actual face-to-face interaction. Being part of peer groups online is important, but it’s not everything, as I learned after years of trying to keep my head above water. It’s a balance, and a vital one if you’re going to be productive and successful. You can always adjust during those times when you’re obsessing over the latest work-in-progress, but don’t forget to get your fix of human contact as soon as you get the chance.

Despite being solitary beasties on the whole, writers are still people (don’t believe everything you hear) and we still need to have support networks like anybody else. I don’t think this is something that gets talked about enough, so I’m going to talk about it here, along with other (hopefully) useful suggestions and ideas for honing your writing skills.

Some posts will focus on creative writing: exercises, techniques and the process of writing a novel; others on the scary stuff like compiling material for agents, pushing your work and getting out in front of the general public; and the rest will be about the ups and downs we all go through: what to do when you’re feeling low and how to deal with self-doubt and criticism.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor for daily updates and if you want to ask questions about anything I’ve posted. Next Monday I’ll be talking about one of the most exciting aspects of being a writer: the first stages of writing a novel!