Saturday, 27 September 2014

Feeling Exposed

I exposed myself this month.

No, I didn't flash anyone in a local park or take my clothes off while driving home (I'm guessing that would just add to the slowdown of traffic on my daily commute, and frankly, I just don't have the time for that). Instead, I exposed myself in the most literary way possible: I gave my first draft to a select few people to peruse, review and critique.

I should begin by saying that this was one the hardest things I've ever done in my life (and I'm including a half marathon with a stress fracture in that). I mean, it's one thing to tell people that you're writing a book and to then receive the admiring looks and gushing praise ("fair play to you", "I could never do that", "I'm so impressed by that"). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a swell of pride or a boost in my confidence when I hear the awe and respect conveyed in some peoples' responses. It genuinely does spur me on to write the book, but that admiration will only take me so far.  It's a whole different experience to actually let someone climb into my head and read the words that I have put on paper.

As the phrase goes "Paper won't refuse ink" and we all know that anyone on earth can say that they are writing a book. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have been saying this for the last 6 years. But the gap between telling someone that I'm writing the book and actually letting them read it is so much bigger than I had anticipated.

After I emailed/posted/hand delivered the first 10,000 words of my manuscript to the small group of potential readers, I tried to forget about their reactions and was pleasantly surprised with my success at this. Sadly it lasted for about five seconds. And then the sense of exposure washed over me, along with the familiar feelings of embarrassment, fear and anxiety.

I remember thinking at one point "Oh my god, what if one of my readers is reading my words right now, at this very moment?" The feeling of discomfort at that thought was unbearable.

It's an interesting dilemma, because on the one hand I want, more than anything, for people to read David's story, follow his journey and feel satisfied at the end of it. I can't imagine myself feeling satisfied until I have written it. But on the other hand, the idea of other people reading my words and scrutinising my ideas is almost intolerable. I do wonder if this is essentially a rite of passage that every aspiring (and possibly published) writer has to go through, particularly for the first few drafts. I hope so.

The concept of criticism and not-altogether-positive feedback (I can't bring myself to write "negative" because I believe all criticism is positive in some way) is a tricky subject and one that I can relate to as a writer and a student. "That essay on Emily Dickinson was not up to your usual standard, Sinead", "You need to put a huge amount of work into your maths theorems, Sinead", "You have to be more assertive in work, Sinead". Etc etc etc.

The easier option (for me) has been to run away from criticism. But as Aristotle said: "To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing," And I'll be honest, that quote scared me more than the idea of receiving criticism.

So I received the criticism from my lovely reviewers (who I must thank for taking time in their personal lives to read my novel and give me feedback on it) and took it all on board. Did I enjoy it? No. Did I feel brilliant afterwards? No. Did it help? Yes. And that's the most important part of receiving any criticism. It's not personal, and if it is, I think that would be a sign that I'm too close to my novel.

They say that the hardest part of writing is the editing and giving oneself permission to "kill your babies." So since my feedback so far (it's still ongoing), I have killed some of my babies (changed some of the plot, altered a lot of sentences and reviewed my characters) and although it hasn't been easy, I know my novel has improved with the feedback and will continue to do so.

And I'm hoping that it gets a little easier to take criticism with each draft, although that may be wishful thinking!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Taking It Seriously

I've read and attended a lot of interviews with published writers and you can probably imagine the variety of questions they get asked: "How often do you write?", "Where do you get your ideas from?", "How much of an advance did you get?" and (the most cringeworthy of all) "I have an idea for a book, what do you think of..."  (Cue awkward silences)

I'm not too bothered about writers' inspirational ideas; I mean no disrespect but the answers are often cliched (it's often beside a beautiful lake or watching someone donate money to a homeless person or people gazing at an airport arrivals hall - bleh!) or their writing schedules (hang on, you're telling me I have to write every day? Who knew?). And I genuinely have no interest in writing advances because I know that all writers, apart from the exceptionally talented, or the exceptionally well-connected, make pittance in their books, particularly their first ones.

No, the question that I would love to ask is different. I often scan through writing magazine interviews or occasionally drop in on book launches to see if it is asked and answered. I often visualise myself asking this question and not feeling afraid/embarrassed/silly (take your pick) for having the courage to do so. Ready? Okay, deep breath.

"When did you start taking your book seriously?"

That's it, that's my question.

That's the one that always grabs my attention instantly, because I genuinely want to know the answer. Because I can relate to it. Because I waited a long time for it to happen to me, in fact I always wondered if it would actually happen for me. But it did, thankfully.

I can recall the exact moment I began to take my book seriously. I remember it vividly, although that may only be because it happened only a few weeks ago.

I was driving home from work and it was a sunny evening. I was stuck in gridlocked, commuter evening traffic (as I regularly am) and I was thinking about my novel (as I regularly do). Okay, this next part may sound a little bit weird but bear with me before judging me (too much). As I straddled between 1st and 2nd gear, while occasionally stretching my left leg so as not to get "clutch foot" (it's a term I've coined to describe the dreaded foot cramp that afflicts many rush hour drivers - I'm working on copyrighting it), I was thinking about one particular twist in my book and I was wondering where to go with it.

I remember staring up at the traffic lights, stuck on red for what seemed like forever. I glanced over at the car to my left, inside which was a man who (I'm guessing) was as equally tired and frustrated as me, just trying to get home from the working day as quickly as possible. I really don't mean to sound like a stalker here but I looked at him for a few minutes and as I did so I started to wonder what he would think of my book if he read it. I wondered what this man, middle aged, driving a silver car, maybe married - I couldn't see a ring (okay now I definitely sound like a stalker!) would like to see happen in my book. Would he be interested in the story? Would he care about David? What would he like to see happen at the end of book one?

And then I had what I can only describe as an epiphany: I realised that he will never get a chance to read it unless I write it.

I know that that sentence sounds so simple that it might be hard to understand how I had never grasped it before. But I hadn't. And at that moment, in the traffic jam on a warm summer evening, a wave of panic washed over me. I remember sitting in the car, amidst my fellow commuters, suddenly aware of the responsibility that I had laid out for myself.

If I don't write it, no one will ever know it.

As I opened the window to let some air in for relief, that thought bounced around my head and continued to do so until the lights turned green. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I was engaged in the task of driving, or because I always feel less stressed when the traffic starts moving, but once I got past the traffic lights, I didn't feel quite as overwhelmed.

But it didn't leave my mind. The whole way home I thought about it and as I sat in my sitting room forty minutes later I still thought about it. It was like seeing my novel and my writing process through a whole new light. Something had shifted in that moment, and now it felt so much more real. Scary, overwhelming, immense - there are dozens of negative connotations that spring to mind but I tried instead to focus on the positive ones: challenging, possibilities, pride. And I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And I continued to do that.

That attitude has stuck with me since then. I know it's only been a few weeks but I've taken it so much more seriously. Even my other half comments on how when he gets home from football he knows he'll find me in the office writing, as opposed to sitting on the couch, watching Friends with a guilty face. Now I know that, not only do I want to, but I have to write this book. And now that that decision has been made, the work and the effort doesn't seem half as difficult.

So when the day comes that I get asked in an interview where I was when I started to take my book seriously, I'll know exactly what to say.


"You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind."
Gordon B Hinckley