Grow Up and Get Back to Work

Back to work (crochet away!)

Back to work (crochet away!)

I’ve really struggled to get back into writing this January. After six weeks of Christmas planning and the children being home for the holidays, my brain is foggier than the dull winter skies outside.

I have started several blog posts in my head in the last week or two, but none have made it further than that. They’ve had titles like “Christmas Chaos and Crochet Stole My Voice” and “Farmville Is Evil”. But that’s same ol same ol.

I’ve written before about how my addiction to knitting and Farmville has derailed my writing, how having the children home from school causes me to sleep non-stop (I was asleep at 4pm on Christmas Day) and how hard it is to get the balance between Writer and Mummy. It’s time to stop making excuses and get back to work.

Another post that floated in the unwritten ether of my mind at 3am, as is often the case, was a review of 2014, and how I found inner peace.

Happy children

Happy children

It’s a bit late for end-of-year reviews and, anyway, my new year starts in September, not January. But it is true nonetheless. I might still struggle with depression and the more negative aspects of being HSP. I might have struggled with having hubbie home for four months while he found a new job (he did, hurrah). I might have realised that being self published, self employed, is harder than even my pessimistic view of the world could have predicted. But still, peace was found.

Somewhere between Sertraline, Mindfulness and Good Enough Parenting, somewhere between my children telling me they love me All The Time and being able to be at home with my husband for four months and still look forward to retirement, somewhere between five-star reviews and knitted toys, I found me.

I’m reading a children’s book called Winterling by Sarah Prineas at the moment, and the main protagonist finally finds a place where she fits, where she feels she belongs. This year, especially this Christmas holiday, between making bread from scratch, hosting Christmas play dates for nine and five children, learning to crochet, and being there for my children, I realised I have found where I belong.

Parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. My family and I thought I’d be a terrible parent. Turns out we were all wrong. For all my doubt and shoutiness and crying and constant need to hide, I am a great parent. My children are kind and happy, healthy and full of love.

Writing didn’t come naturally to me. My parents and my tutors at university said my writing was dull. But hard work beats genius every time, and six years in to my writing journey some people (not all!) love my stories. I began to doubt my writing after Class Act and Alfie and the Magic Arch but I need to realise I’m still learning, and not give up.

Huggable creativity

Huggable creativity

My writer’s blues, my lost voice, came from doubt and impatience. Knitting and Farmville are far more instant. I can make a toy in a few days, I can make cakes on my farm in minutes.

Writing is invisible and definitely the long climb to creativity. It’s intangible. At the end of each day I can’t measure my progress with a ruler, or gets oohs of delight from my friends. Just like parenting (my children thank me for working on their Farms, they never thank me for clean clothes or floors), you have to accept the results are a long way off and keep slogging anyway.

I reread a post from this time last year, and discovered I felt exactly the same. Lost, melancholy, restless. It’s January, dark, rainy, and exhaustion is rife after Christmas. Time to take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other.

So today my laptop is charged, my crochet bagged (except for the photo!), the farms switched off. Today I will return to Lucy and Edan, Andrew and Graham, and I will find their story. I will write until they find their happy ending and, in doing do, I will find mine.

A Ramble About Life

Kids and their new go-kart

Kids and their new go-kart

I’m sorry about my recent silence; I’ve been in a strange world where I’m actually enjoying editing. What’s more amazing is that I’m editing Dragon Wraiths. You’d think that finding anything wrong with a book that’s been published for eighteen months would send me into a spiral of despair. Especially finding grammar mistakes and typos, rather than just poorly worded sentences. But surprisingly it hasn’t. I knew there would be some errors, especially as it’s the only book that I haven’t paid someone to edit, relying instead on family and friends.

(That said, my mum found a few glaring typos in Class Act and that was edited, so you can’t catch everything.)

I think I’m enjoying it because I know the book has received great reviews (and awful ones!) so I can read it knowing at least some people like it. But the main reason I’m enjoying it is because I can see how much I’ve learned about writing in the past year or two. I’m not changing the story but I am tightening the prose and it’s surprisingly empowering.

My original intention was to try and cut 35,000 words (30%) from the story so I could enter it in the Chicken House children’s novel competition. So far I’m only cutting 8-10% from each chapter. Unless I find half a dozen chapters that are redundant it isn’t going to happen. But I’ve decided that’s okay. Instead I’m going to try and get the book below 100,000 words and resubmit to agents. Who knows, I might have more success this time.

The nice thing about editing is that it structures my day. Aside from the two hours of school run mayhem in the morning, and the four hours of whining, crying, shouting and chaos from pick up to bed time, my days are calm and focussed. I carry my manuscript round and edit at the school gate and waiting for my coffee. Having a deadline of the end of term really helps keep me working. My only distraction is constantly checking for Class Act reviews!

On the trampoline

On the trampoline

This morning I wrote a response to a post on Helen Yendall’s blog about having too much to do and how much harder it can be to manage your time when you don’t go into an office to work. This was my (edited) response:

This is how my boss used to tell me to do to prioritise work: categorise things into ‘what will get me fired if I don’t do’, ‘what will get me promoted if I do it,’ ‘what do I enjoy?’ and everything else. It’s tough to do that when you’re self-employed, but for me I’ve roughly translated it as, ‘what has an immoveable deadline that will either make or cost guaranteed money’, ‘what will clear the biggest headspace most easily (usually niggly admin),’ ‘what will make me happy and therefore make everything easier’ and everything else.

Of course stuff like school run, cooking, dog walking, kids’ homework have to happen. But non-essential ironing, cleaning, Facebook, even the blog, go by the wayside in peak times. I’ve also found the routine of the school run and walking the dog can help. I constantly feel overwhelmed by stuff, too. Getting diagnosed with depression taught me to take better care of myself for everyone’s sake.

Writing it made me realise that it’s all true. Life has been tough recently, for me and for hubbie, and the routine hell of the school run that tops and tails my day makes me yearn for twelve-hour office shifts and getting paid. But I’m learning not to compare myself to others, or even to who I was before kids, and get on with it. My struggles are mine, no one else’s, and I’m certainly not the only person fighting to survive (as hubbie pointed out this week). Life is what it is and you have to make the most of it. If that means watching Queens tennis or drinking too much Waitrose coffee (it’s free! I come four days a week to work…) then why not?

As Lauren wrote recently on her blog BetweenFearAndLove, feeling guilty that you haven’t got it as hard as others is a useless emotion. I haven’t learnt that lesson yet but I’m working on it.

Ebook Formatting Rant

Out now!

Out now!

Self-publishing is meant to be about control: you choose the cover, the content, the marketing and the final product. And mostly that’s true. But, when you publish ebooks, you have very little control over the finished article. Even with print on demand paperbacks you get some variances – I’ve had some printed beautifully and others not so hot. But at least the layout and pagination doesn’t change.

But today I spent eight hours fixing something – across all my kindle books – that possibly wasn’t even broken. I forgot to feed the kids and walk the dog. I was grumpy and horrible and teary. All because the books I downloaded to my iPad from Amazon kept losing their formatting, despite looking fine in the ‘look inside’.

I tried crazy things to fix it, like uploading the files to Smashwords and copying their mobi version to upload to KDP, rather than using an html file (Amazon’s recommendation), but that didn’t really work as Amazon and Smashwords have different formatting criteria.

It isn’t the first trauma I’ve had with formatting, particularly with my latest novel Class Act. It took 27 versions (that’s the actual number, not my usual hyperbole) before I got rid of a loose link in the epub version of Class Act which would then allow Smashwords to approve it for Premium distribution. It was a puzzle that even their tech guys couldn’t fix. And that’s just for one device. I can’t check Kindle or Kobo or Sony because I don’t have those devices. I preview online and it bears no resemblance to the downloaded version or the original.

I even bought copies of my own books today to see if that made a difference (At least I made one sale on Class Act! 🙂 ). One of them still had ‘draft’ on page one, despite the update going through days ago. Terrifying.

The worst part is the not knowing. Did 3,000 people download a free copy of Baby Blues  & Wedding Shoes and not read it because the text is all left justified and spaced out like in the version I see? When I use Kindle for PC it looks okay but how many people read on iPads like I do?

I try so hard to look professional without forking out money that I don’t have. I’d rather pay for structural editing than formatting. But if the formatting prevents people from reading, maybe that’s the wrong choice.

Anyway, I don’t know the answer, I just know it’s dampening my Hurrah that Class Act is finally live. It’s more a harrump! Now as well as praying for sales, dreading reviews and stressing over typos I have a whole new thing to worry about. Still, no one said self-publishing would be easy!

Reasons to Smile

Smiling Knight

Smiling Knight

The blog has dried up since I started on my SSRI medication. Not only have I spent the last week feeling sick (and now have another bloomin cold. Grrr) I’ve found that I don’t have the constant stream of voices in my head, worrying, analysing, stressing, debating random subjects. I walked the dog yesterday and all I thought about was racing the large rain cloud that was hiding behind the house when I ventured out without a coat. Normally my brain switches into ‘blog-writing mode’ as soon as I start walking. Now? Nothing.

I have wondered whether to force myself to think of something to write, like I did last year when I was keeping up with the daily blogging challenge but, having decided not to worry so much about it this year, it feels foolish to write rubbish just to tick a box.

But today I have something to share. Following on from my free promotion for Baby Blues, I have sold some books. That deserves being in bold: I’ve never sold more than a few books a month since starting on my self-publishing journey. I don’t do enough marketing or work hard enough to get reviews. I know this. In my mind I’ve decided to get three or four books under my belt, pay someone to design me a gorgeous set of matching covers, and then go large on marketing and promotion (as both children will be at school).

So, waking up this morning to have sales of Baby Blues in double-figures over night, to have reached #2794 in PAID ranking on Amazon.co.uk, is like winning the Pulitzer Prize. The book is only £1.54 in the UK – you can’t buy a coffee for that – so it isn’t about the money. The ranking, though? That feels great. I don’t know what happened, whether I made it onto an Amazon email or something, but it shows that visibility is the key.

The writing blogs tell you the importance of spending thousands on structural edits and line edits, but I’m starting to think a decent cover and some marketing is probably a better use of cash! Mind you, when I start getting terrible reviews I might change my mind… For now I’m enjoying my reason to smile.

Dear World; SAHMs and Writers Still Work, You Know

Reminding myself that I do work

Reminding myself that I do work

I took my children to a play date this morning and had a fabulous few hours watching them enjoy new toys, sunshine and company while I enjoyed a comfortable chat and plenty of hot tea. The talk, as often happens with parents you don’t know very well, turned to work.

The other three were teachers and when I explained that I was at home writing I got the dreaded response, “So you don’t work then?” followed by the embarrassed proviso of the working mum: “Except of course looking after these,” with a smile towards the children.

The funny thing was I was more bothered by writing not being considered a proper job than being a SAHM, even though looking after the children is much harder and takes up more of my time. There was another comment later, along the lines of, “You’re doing what we’d all love to be doing,” and again I wasn’t sure whether it referred to being able to pick my kids up from school, being about to do my hobby as a job or having endless free time to do laundry or, you know, drink coffee and paint my nails. 😉

I don’t know the other parents very well but I know they’re lovely people and it was clear that nothing was intended maliciously or even said with a great deal of thought. Much as I used to think being a teacher must be easy – short days, long holidays – before I spent any time with teachers and realised it’s the hardest job in the world and you couldn’t pay me enough to do it: we none of us have a blinking clue what’s really involved until it’s our job. And even then we all approach life differently.

Some of my light reading

Some of my light reading

I have to be working; I feel guilty if I don’t. So if I’m not writing I must either be cleaning, doing social media (which I don’t love) or reading (which I’m only just accepting as training for writers). It doesn’t feel like a hobby, but of course I do have a choice whether to work or be a housewife, which many don’t. I know I’m extremely fortunate.

Equally when I said to them that I loathed the school run (their children aren’t yet at school so they have that joy to look forward to) I’m sure they were envious that I have the luxury of doing it, as their children are in childcare all week. We all want what we can’t have.

There’s a lovely post on Facebook – two letters from a Stay at Home Mum and a working mum – which actually sympathises with the differences rather than finding reasons to hate. I’ve done a bit of both and I know they each suck in some way. (Incidentally, for a completely different take on the Facebook post, and why we parents should all STFU and stop moaning, read this). I preferred working (or, I should say, I preferred being employed, getting paid and knowing what I was meant to be doing from one minute to the next and not feeling guilty) but I only did it for a short time and before I had a child at school, so childcare was easier. Writing is a lot less stressful in many ways, of course, but it’s not always an easy way to spend your day. And the pay is lousy 😉

There’s another meme on Facebook – a quote from Katrina Monroe – that sums it up:

“Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day, for the rest of your life. You want glamorous? Throw glitter at the computer screen.”

Amen to that. You don’t get a day off, even when – like today – the only writing that gets done is on a phone in the dark while walking the dog at 6.15pm after hubbie gets home. You lie awake at 2am wondering what your character should do next or – as I have been lately after reading too many blog posts about how self-published authors are a scourge on decent literature – whether you should even be a writer. Can you call yourself a writer with a hundred sales to your name and more one star reviews than fives? (Well, almost. Hyperbole is accepted to make a point.) You’re never an aspiring teacher, no one ever called a teacher at home marking books ‘not working’. (Well, not to their face anyway!) I choose to be a writer, and to take all that entails, but it’s not a walk in the park (even when you’re walking in the park).

So, next time you’re chatting to a writer, or a SAHM, just nod and smile and maybe keep the phrase “So you don’t work then?” to share with your husband once you get home and vent on how the others have it easy. Much appreciated! 😀

2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

Start as You Mean to Go On

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

There’s nothing like starting the year as you mean to go on! Publishing a book on Amazon on day four of the year, even if it is one I wrote last year, and one that probably should be proofread first, feels good. You can find it here: Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey.

I have added the disclaimers and hopefully no one will buy it and trash me for finding the odd inconsistency or typo (of which I’m sure there are plenty). I am fixing the typos as they’re discovered (thank you hubbie, and anyone else letting me know about them) but a writing challenge is a writing challenge: I didn’t set out to write a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013, just a novel that people might enjoy reading. Which, from the reviews I’ve had, it seems they did.

My only dilemma now is whether to take down the first volume from Amazon. It gets the occasional sale, but when you search for ‘Two-Hundred Steps Home’ it presents both books as versions of the same work, even though they have different ASIN numbers. Ah well. A small dilemma.

I’m also enjoying my new resolution to read more, both books and blogs, and write more comments (although I’m not sure I’m keeping up with that target quite as I should. I still feel jetlagged from holiday, illness and Claire!)

I’m reading The Radleys by Matt Haig at present and really enjoying it. I won’t divulge anything about the story, as I’ll write a review post when I’ve finished it. What I am enjoying is how Matt Haig breaks the rules in his writing: there is plenty of head-hopping and change of perspective. I think there’s even a change from writing in the past to the present tense, but I’m trying not to analyse, just get swept up in the story. It might be hard to write a review without spoilers, which I hate, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe read some reviews on other blogs and see how it’s done. What’s your view on reviews? Spoilers or no spoilers? Where do you draw the line?