This year, my first novel Heartsnare will be published by Lethe Press, and I couldn’t be happier.
It’s been a long road to get to this point. Heartsnare has been with me, in some form, for nearly six years, with elements of it even older than that. To say I’ve been dreaming of this would be an understatement.
When I lived in Bradford I would go to the Waterstones bookshop there nearly every Saturday and look up at the shelf for fantasy fiction.
“One day,” I made that promise to myself. Since then I’ve had many setbacks, some to do with my writing and simply needing to develop my skills further, and others to do with my mental health.
Then in 2012 I practically lost all confidence in my ability to write, and it wasn’t until 2015 when I really started taking my dream of fiction writing seriously again. All the while, when people would ask about the novel, I’d say “It’s coming along. It’s nearly ready.”
What I meant was, “Not quite yet. I’m not ready.”
Now, the day is fast approaching when I will be able to see my book published. Thinking back over the experience, a few things stand out for me, lessons and reflections that might help others on their own writing journey.
Below is what I’ve learned. Obviously, this advice might not be true in every situation, but hopefully it shines a light on some of the issues other writers–and, indeed, people in the creative sphere–deal with.
1. The best book you could write almost certainly isn’t the book you have actually written. Send it out into the world anyway.
We’re told that settling for good enough is lazy, and this, in principle, might be true. We should always want to give our best work. However, it’s important to realise that perfection doesn’t exist. With that realisation comes the freedom to be imperfect, and that is something truly valuable.
When things get messy, when you let yourself be vulnerable, that’s when things can start to get good. I kept a tight grip on Heartsnare for nearly three years after I’d written it back in late 2012. In 2015 though I took a risk and started publishing it on the site Wattpad. It was time, I said to myself. Time to put it out in the world and move on. And then something interesting happened.
Steve Berman of Lethe Press saw it and asked me to submit the full manuscript. Was it in perfect shape? No, not even close. I sometimes flinch thinking about the errors, the typos, the ridiculous number of exclamation points. And would this kind of “found author” story happen for everyone? No, I was incredibly lucky. The point is though, learning to be able to say “I’ve done all that is reasonable for me to do on this project” and letting others judge your work is a big step toward having a health relationship with your creativity. It’s not easy, and part of that is fearing that your work isn’t good enough. Isn’t unique enough. Well, I’ve got something to tell you:
2. You can’t write a wholly original work–sorry!
When I started my book in 2011, I thought it was going to be the most original thing on the market ever. I realise now that was wildly ambitious to the point of being obnoxiously naive.
Back then I’d never heard of a shadow hunter (thanks Cassandra Clare) or considered that this narrow genre I thought I was writing in would explode the way it has and with it bring so much new writing to the market that being completely original would be next to impossible.
There came a point in 2014 when I, fearing I had nothing new to offer, seriously considered scrapping the book entirely. Read for long enough and widely enough though and you realise that at heart every story can be boiled down to just a handful of story points–and no one really cares. What they are looking for are the ways that an author adds little touches to those mechanics that makes them sing for the reader in a new and interesting way. Those little elements, that secret sauce, are things that can be wholly YOU and ultimately that is what people will look for when they buy your book.
3. Your writing voice is your voice.
A personal gripe of mine is the search for “voice”. When I first started I was often told to kick out colloquialism in favour of more widely understood language, and that my local dialect would be a hindrance to my work. To an extent, a writer needs to avoid jargon, but here’s the thing: you need to write in a way that is analogous to how you speak because your language is you. If you use long, flowery speech patterns (I may be guilty of being a tad ornate) then use them. It is you. If you like your sentences short. Choppy. Precise. Then use it. These tell things about your personality, and while your book is a lot more than just the voice, the narrative voice is often where that authenticity starts to bloom.
It’s important, though, that after you’ve written your piece, you give it to a friend who will be honest with you. You want to make sure that your flavour isn’t too overpowering or, worse, annoying. Getting other people to read your work will let you know what works and where to, as they say round these parts, “get rid”.
This brings us neatly to the next point on what I love to refer to as my “Unfolding Ladder of Creative Anxiety”:
4. Criticism of your work is not criticism of you.
Critiques of your work are valuable. Allowing yourself to feel hurt when you’re told parts of your book don’t work, your sentence structure is confused, or that too many bloody people are shouting (yup, that one was personal), that’s fine. If you’ve given your all to writing your book, criticism is probably bound to pinch just a bit. So feel it and then move on.
The goal of constructive criticism, you see, is not to inflict wounds but strengthen your work. This process is good for any creative, so take the lumps and keep your chin up. And while it’s true the sting never goes away, your ability to deal with that criticism gets faster and better, and eventually you may even learn to like the criticism as a chance to show you where your skills are weak and where you need to improve. It is true that you will get the occasional note that is more of a personal attack than it is constructive feedback–in the social media age that’s almost a certainty. Here’s the brilliant thing about those though: those criticisms are more about the person giving them than you or your work.
So just dismiss any blatant attacks and instead focus on what can feed your writing and allow you to grow.
5. Enjoy yourself.
For a good portion of writing Heartsnare I was clinically depressed. I think that somewhat sets the mood for the book–so that was quite handy (I’m trying to make light of something pretty serious but, at the same time, it is true).
There were days when the writing came easy and composition felt like music rather than drudgery. This book taught me the value of discipline, of writing even when I wasn’t enjoying it, but it also taught me that I can enjoy the work even when the actual act of writing isn’t enjoyable.
I found a new respect for hard work, and learning to love that was perhaps the most rewarding part of the entire process. There will be days when you bloody hate the pages you are working on–I did, and sometimes I could barely look at the ruddy book for days at a time. But at the same time you can love the fact that you get to be working on those pages; that you have this privilege to be alive and able to pursue this act of creative fulfillment. That kind of love can sustain you long after the excitement for the work has dimmed.
So there you have it, five things I learned while working (and working and working) on this book. It was not easy, but then the best things in life rarely are.
What are your writing tips? Or do you have any questions? Please let me know in the comments below.