So, a long time ago now, when I was new-born to the heady idea of becoming an author, I wrote a guest blog on a now-defunct self-publishing website. I had enthusiastically gathered advice from near and far, and figured I had enough wisdom to share it back. Among other things, it contained this:
Act like a pro even if you aren’t one.
For me, this means making sure you give the process the time it deserves, as if it were a second job (which, effectively, it is). This means things like setting writing targets by the day or week, and sticking to them. It means working on your blog, twitter, website, etc so that you seem like a real writer rather than an ‘aspiring’ one. Watch how the pros do it, read the advice, and try to live the writing life, because if you want to be a writer, that’s what it takes. Most writers don’t get to do it full time (at least, not on their own books), so don’t wait for your ‘big break’ to give you the free time to write–do it now. Unless you are incredible lucky, you aren’t going to strike gold with your first submission of your first book, or sell a million copies of your self-pub masterpiece overnight with no promotion. (Unless, of course, you story is the autobiography of the secret love-child of David Beckham and Lady Di).
In the past year, I’ve come to realise that was perhaps not the best approach. While I did get a lot of writing done (two and a bit entirely new books, and several editing passes), I hadn’t achieved my goal of becoming a published author (either self or trad, I couldn’t pick). Most of the reasons for that fall on my own insecure shoulders, though I did eventually begin to query one of the books I’d “finished”. However, I’d also reached a point of complete burnout.
Now, that burnout and subsequent depression may have had more than a little to the dumpster-fire raging around us in the wider world, but my plan of “living the writing life” before I was actually seeing any return from it did not help. I’m not sure why I thought I could go on burning the candle at both ends, neglecting almost all other aspects of life – work, family, health – in the meantime. I fought for every hour I could (just like they tell you to) and raged or pouted when I couldn’t get it (not gonna lie), but then found myself staring at the screen without the energy to produce. Or staring at the ceiling, numb.
Would this have been different if I’d self-published, and had a few sales? I don’t know. If I’d queried more persistently and hooked an agent? Maybe. I’m not confident either was ever particularly likely. That’s not (just) self-deprecation, that’s simply knowing the odds. Chasing the almost-impossible dream too hard can crush your soul pretty quickly – though that’s not to say you should give up.
Not writing was even worse than writing, and for a while the only thing that helped was the immersive distraction of a video game or two. Replacing one addiction with another isn’t really self-care, though, and it doesn’t help repair the damage done to the rest of your life. I tried to take a social media break as well, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m not sure I needed a break so much as a re-configuring.
So, what did help?
- Reading, even though it was hard for a while, difficult to stop reading as a writer and remember how to simply enjoy good books.
- Remembering that social media should be about friendships, not about performance. I have met a lot of great people on-line, and I found I just had to interact with them in the right ways. This can be tricky when a lot of them are writers and talking about writing all the time, but the great thing about social media is you can curate your feeds. This is absolutely necessary for mental health, so don’t feel bad about cutting out the posts and posters that are making you feel inadequate. Find your happy place (or, at least, a happier one) if you can.
- Recovering some of the things that you did before you devoted all your time to the word-mines. Even housework made me feel better, knowing that things weren’t being neglected any longer. Listen to music – actively listen, not just for background noise. Spend time with family and friends. Go out for the day, guilt-free. Do fuck-all for an afternoon and don’t feel you’ve wasted the time. Let go of the guilt.
- Rediscover, if possible, why you wanted to write in the first place. It probably wasn’t because you wanted to publish a book as soon as possible. For me, I had some stories to tell, and I think the more I tried to think about making them publishable, the farther they strayed from that. Instead of the stories I wanted to tell, they became the stories I thought people would want to read, and I fell out of love with them – and with writing.
I’m sure there were other things in here – a key ingredient being time – but eventually I had the urge to write again. I also went to a convention and met some of those great friends I’d made, and some authors that I admired, and remembered that they were just all normal* people, too, with real lives and partners and families and jobs. They loved writing, and books, but also other things, and for a lot of that weekend we didn’t talk about writing or even books at all.
And that was great.
So, while writing (and reading, which I can’t really separate from it) remains the all-consuming passion of my life right now (there have been others), it’s not my whole life. I am still working on my stories, still planning to write new things, but I’m not pushing it, not pursuing it to the exclusion of all else.
It turns out it’s okay to write when the inspiration takes you after all.
Until you actually get those deadlines, of course.
* OK, maybe not RJ.