Category Archives: Morale

Gauging Progress

We’ve looked at what constitutes success in a few old threads, including these:

But, I was recently reading an article by writing guru Jane Friedman, where she said that “The only true measure of a book’s success is sales”.

Strictly speaking, she’s correct, for any artist creating a piece of work to be sold to the public is entering commerce. Films are judged by their box office receipts, paintings become treasures by reaching stratospheric auction prices, a musician’s sales are proof of their talent (or their publicist’s marketing skills), so why shouldn’t a writer’s progress as a writer be measured by sales?

But, that ignores the writer’s relationship with their stories, the struggle they went through to get the ideas onto the page. It’s an achievement to write a book. Many say that they want to, but do nothing about it. We work alone, though the support of friends, family and writing group members is a comfort. But, we’re still alone, unsure of where we’re going, so how do we gauge our progress?

Looking at my efforts since I returned to creative writing in 2013, I’ve typed about 2,000,000 words, some of which worked as story-telling. I’ve self-published 48 titles of short stories, novellas, poetry and song lyrics, arousing little interest in readers. I’ve completed five novels in my Cornish Detective series, querying agents 750 times, which has increased the depth of my hide. I may finally have piqued the interest of a publisher, who asked for a full manuscript this summer. I’m waiting on them. I’m ready to self-publish on Amazon’s KDP Select should they say ‘No’.

I’ve also started this writing blog and a website devoted to my Cornish Detective. Somehow, that didn’t feel like progress, more like putting scaffolding into place for a house of stories that few may visit.

I’m not sure if I’m sanguine or cynical about the business of publishing. I do know that it’s best not to take myself too seriously when receiving rejections.

I love writing stories. It’s joyful for me. In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about technique and punctuation, which is progress, but for me, it’s the reactions of readers that show how I’ve improved.

Three of my friends offered to be beta readers of a novella about assisted suicide, and all cried at the same point (Yes!), which made me tear-up too and I knew what was going to happen!

I wrote humorous poetry for infants, which made the daughters of a friend laugh and start writing their own poems. Blimey, I’m influential! A short story I wrote was satisfying to one reader, as it ended exactly as she hoped, which was my intention. It’s great to surprise readers, but there are times when they crave the predictable.

Not to forget, that writing stories creates a fresh identity for you, which is real progress keeping you interested in who you are and arousing curiosity in others. Anyone who produces a book is infinitely more intelligent and sexier than they were before!

Huge sales of your books would be fantastic, but it’s the human reactions that really matter. Isn’t it?

How do you gauge your progress as a writer?

By blogging or communicating on social media?

By contributing to a writing group?

By typing 5,000 words daily?

By getting a response from readers?

Resilience from Rejection

This article in The Guardian is worth a read:

Rejection is the norm for authors. So why do we hide it? | Sophie Mackintosh

Sophie Mackintosh mentions “steadily getting rejected from every creative writing MFA (master of fine arts) I applied to, and then by dozens of agents,” but doesn’t specify how many times.

Her one published novel is The Water Cure:

The Water Cure

I was rejected (or ignored) 750 times from 2013-2019, before attracting the interest of Hodder & Stoughton’s The Future Bookshelf submission scheme in July. I’m still waiting to hear back from them. I have a feeling that I won’t!

I’ll be slightly disappointed if they reject me, but not destroyed, for after so many rejections, I’m as resilient as a rhinoceros wearing Kevlar armour! I’m ready to self-publish on KDP Select, which will at least offer immediate feedback on the worth of my Cornish Detective series.

There’s more than one way to climb the publishing mountain, so don’t be discouraged.

Real Books Have Curves

As I continue my rambling way towards self-publishing my series of crime novels this summer, I had the alarming thought last night, that I hadn’t yet uploaded my first two stories to my WordPress Cornish Detective website to make them available to readers as downloads.

How to do that? Should they be in MS Word (.doc) format or as a PDF…or, both? And, how does the book cover fit into all of this? I found two helpful articles about both formats, then spent three hours faffing around attempting to get the Word (.doc) version to appear on my site. I’ve moaned about the complexity of WordPress before on this blog, so I won’t go on. One of the problems with WordPress is that it’s regularly updated, as are the plug-in widgets that operate it, meaning that online advice about how to do things is quickly outdated.

Getting a blog about writing and a website on my books up and running has felt like the Labours of Hercules.

I’ve spent most of my time in the Augean Stables!

Image result for augean stables

None of this activity feels like being a writer. And, anything I’ve read about WordPress hasn’t been reading for pleasure. As for my novels, they exist as intransigent digital files—it’s hard to think of them as books.

Weary with frustration, I shut down my laptop and went to bed with five books…I’m a promiscuous reader! 

Laying there in the company of real books, that I could feel, smell and move around wherever I wanted them, I enjoyed the sensuality of the experience.

I’m dedicated to self-publishing eBooks this summer, with POD to follow if readers ask for it, but as an activity it feels as sexy as scrubbing bathroom grouting clean!

For the reader, Kindles and other eBook reading devices have advantages, such as anonymity and being able to store many titles, but they’re not alluring or likely to encourage conversation. These are paranoid times, with mass surveillance of the population, meaning we seek ways to preserve whatever privacy we can—including stealth reading.

What do you think?

Endoscopy & Colonoscopy

It’s a good idea to use your family’s medical history as a guide to what problems may await you; there’s no escaping genetics.

At the age of 54, I realised that I’d outlived the age my father reached by one year, and that it might pay to check for signs of what killed him—bowel cancer. He knew he had problems for twenty years, but being of a generation embarrassed about anything to do with his bum, he did nothing about it. Had he gone to the doctor, he might well have lived for another twenty years. Bowel cancer is highly treatable, if caught in the early stages.

I had experience of what might be involved in a colonoscopy, as I’d had an endoscopy two years before. This was a precautionary procedure, recommended by my doctor after I visited her on returning from America. I’d shown symptoms of stomach ulcers, while still living stateside, like a hot iron had been pressed to my tummy. It was probably caused by stress from a toxic marriage.

Back in my beloved Cornwall, the attacks diminished, but for some reason, I felt compelled to eat porridge oats and muesli of an evening, lifting pinchfuls into my mouth. I mentioned this to a hedge witch friend, who said it was a folk medicine remedy for ulcers, so perhaps my gut knew something I didn’t.

The endoscopy procedure was simple, though I’d been anxious about having a gag reflex when the cable carrying the camera was inserted down my gullet. I’d obeyed instructions not to eat anything for twelve hours beforehand, and the surgeon numbed my throat with a spray anaesthetic (that tasted of pears!) which made threading the device into my throat easy. I was laying down, unable to see the monitor screen, listening to him say “You’ve had two large ulcers, but they healed themselves really well…I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Cable removed from my throat, I told him about eating oats, which made him look at me like I was a medieval yokel who’d gone to see the medicine woman, before muttering “I’ve heard of that, but didn’t think it would work.”

Relieved at the all-clear, I decided some probing in a northerly direction was in order. My GP was delighted at my sensible decision. I duly received instructions of how to prepare for a colonoscopy. For the surgeon to see the colon, it has to be cleared of what’s lingering there…This meant not eating for a couple of days beforehand and taking purgative salts in water to act as an enema. These worked alarmingly well—inducing shit through the eye of a needle wateriness—I was afraid to cough, taking time off work to stay near the toilet.

I understand that things are easier these days, but in 2008 I felt like I’d been scraped hollow.

Not eating for a couple of days made me giddy, eager to get the procedure completed, so I could have a meal. I turned up at the hospital, where I had to sign waiver forms in case something went wrong. I changed into a hospital gown, exposing my buttocks for access, and padded through to the operating theatre. Where a dozen medical students stood waiting for the show!

Introduced to the surgeon, a shy Indian doctor who asked my permission to be a teaching aid, I went horizontal laying on my side on the operating table. This time, I could see what was happening to my innards, as a large LED monitor screen was in front of me, which I shared with the trainee doctors. Topical anaesthetic cream numbed my anus, so I didn’t feel much as I was probed.

Seeing what I looked like inside was surprisingly beautiful, for the image showing was tinted emerald green as the light shone on the folds of my inner tubes. It reminded me of footage shot by spelunkers who swim through flooded caverns. Occasionally, the surgeon paused to examine a section of colon, but the whole procedure was over in ten minutes. He removed the endoscope, thanking me for my cooperation, whereupon the students gave me a round of applause!

Had he found irregularities, he’d have removed tissue to biopsy, but I was given the all-clear. The worst part of the whole thing was the purging. The procedure itself was a doddle.

On returning to work the next day, I told colleagues what happened, including two middle-aged men who decided to have an endoscopy. They’d been nervous about doing so, but had similar experiences to mine.

If you’re over fifty, it makes sense to have a colonoscopy.


The Pleasures of Pooping!

After my previous recommendations about the healing qualities of urine, I’m in danger of receiving accusations that I’m obsessed with bathroom activities!

I’m not, but peeing and pooping are something we all do, and as it’s not often spoken of, we miss out on learning about some fascinating things.

Image result for outhouse door eyes look

I came across this information in a roundabout way, while researching the vagus nerve, which will feature in my next Cornish Detective novel as a target for a torturer.

The vagus nerve is hugely influential in how the brain, lungs, heart, digestive and excretory systems work.

This fascinating answer on Quora explains why taking a poop can feel euphoric or at least like “that’s a weight off”:

(click on more to read the whole article)

It’s amazing how much the neurons lining our gut act as a second brain—surely the source of the expression ‘gut feeling’.

At the very least, stimulating the vagus nerve by having a poop might remove your writer’s block!

I might be gone for some time.

Feeling inadequate? Here’s why….

Of all the things I’ve ever done, that required learning new skills, I think that writing is the most neurotic. Whatever you do, it’s not good enough, but if you just read this article or attend this course or pay this editor to knock your manuscript into shape, then you’ll be a better writer.

As examples of what I mean, here are the titles of emails on writing sent to me today:

*Authors You Need To Follow On Social Media

*What’s the point of Blogging?

*Secrets to help your Content go Viral

*Ten Reasons You Book Is Not Ready To Publish

*Beginners Guide: 26 Most Common WordPress Mistakes To Avoid

The stance of the writers of these helpful articles is that I’m making mistakes that need rectifying, that they know things I don’t. Of course, some of these experts are selling their services in direct ways, while others earn funds through the ads on their websites and blogs. That’s fair enough, and they’re doing nothing different to what anyone advertising a product or service does—trading on buyer’s insecurities—they’ll be better people if they only buy this.

It’s worth remembering, that the stores selling food and equipment to gold rush prospectors made more loot that the miners digging for gold.

The thing is, creativity is dependent on free thought, the spark of originality that attracts the interest of the writer first of all and then the reader. Literary agents say things like:We are always on the lookout for new writing talent who see things in a different way, producing great stories to share with the world.What they don’t say is: “We’re looking for adequate authors who produce stories we know will sell, because they’re the sort of humdrum thing that’s sold before.”

I sometimes wonder about the worth of following advice designed to make me feel inadequate. Certainly, there are useful tips and tricks to learn to create an appealing manuscript which seduces the reader, but following advice too closely may produce cookie-cutter writing that is technically correct, but which reads just like everything else churned out by authors who subscribed to that course.

It’s hard enough to get noticed from writing the mountain that is a book, but if you’re following the same route to the summit, you’re joining a queue, as shown by this tragic story about the deaths of mountaineers attempting to scale Mount Everest:

Writing a book should be hard work, but it should be enjoyable, a journey of discovery in which you’re surprised. If that happens to you, it may well happen to the reader.

Remember Sturgeon’s Law which advises that 90% of anything is crap—and that includes advice about how to write.

I think I need to unsubscribe from many of my newsletters. It’s not that I think I know it all, but I do know enough to get through without having so-called experts tell me I’m going the wrong way. It makes for a lousy start to the day.

What drives you mad about writing gurus?

Have you ever paid for training or editing which was beneficial…or, which was a waste of money?

(Happy Birthday, Bob, who is 78 today)

How Gritty are You?

To succeed at writing, you need patience and perseverance. As James Baldwin said:

Image result for writer james baldwin Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

If you don’t dig in to pursue your long-term writing goal, then your manuscript will become another dust gatherer.

Angela Duckworth is a psychologist, academic and popular science author who’s studied grit—which she defines as  passion and perseverance for long-term goals.

Image result for psychologist Angela Duckworth

She’s devised a test to measure your grit:

Click on MORE ABOUT GRIT for information about what this means.

I scored 4.59 out of 5—higher than about 95% of American adults in a recent studyproving what my mother used to say about me, that I‘m mule-headed!

How did you do?

Writing for Myself

If a writer wants to keep their sanity, it’s best to enjoy the process of creating stories, at the very least. How you cope with editing and querying literary agents is another matter.

Image result for writer losing temper gif

At the moment, I’m preparing to enter the fray of social media posting and will be running two blogs—one on writing and publishing, the other more of a static website for my Cornish Detective series of novels. The first quarter of the year was eaten up with querying and editing posts I’ve made on The Colony in the last four years, which I’ll use as a basis for this Paul Pens blog.

It was repetitive work, but to provide some thrills, I began a short story that’s ballooned into a novella. I did little preparation for where the plot would go, simply starting with the premise of a widow observing an unknown male stranger dancing naked in a field on a summer day. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, but I’ve never begun a story before without any structure at all. I feel a bit like a bird returning to its nest, from time to time, as I add some more chapters. I may be travelling hopefully, with no destination in mind, but I love the journey.

Controlling the fates of characters is thrilling.

As Anita Brookner admitted: You never know what you will learn ’til you start writing. Then you discover truths you never knew existed.

That’s what I’m finding, as I add to my novella, that is branching out in unexpected directions. While preoccupied with learning about themes, plug-ins, categories, posts and pages on my WordPress blog, I’m delighted that the creative part of my brain is quietly working away, gently nudging me with suggestions for my neglected tale of a hedge witch meeting a paranoid man with arcane knowledge that he won’t admit to.

Stories can be lifebuoys in the maelstrom of life—both in the reading and writing of them.

Recently, I read Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Music, which compiles many of his published poems and song lyrics. I liked this poem about the creative process, which gels with how I feel about why I’m writing:

The Only Poem

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

Leonard Cohen

If you’re not writing for yourself it won’t ring true.

We’re writer and reader combined.

Aren’t we?

Neurotic Writing

A while ago, I posted on Turning Suffering Into Writing, but everyday neuroticism is a tool authors can use to good effect. Try to think of a writer or any creative artist who stimulates you, that sees things in what would be deemed a conventional way. It’s often a skewed viewpoint that captivates.

Neurosis is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as:

‘A mental illness resulting in high levels of anxiety, unreasonable fears and behaviour and, often, a need to repeat actions for no reason’

It’s easy to see how such symptoms afflict writers. After all, much of what we do is speculative, flights of fancy that our family and friends may view as delusional.

‘The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.’

William Styron

Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness is a moving chronicle of his own descent into depression and his triumphant recovery.

While writing a story, then editing it and creating a synopsis, followed by querying agents with a view to selling, it’s likely that an author will ask themselves many times, “Why am I doing this?”

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” 
Sylvia Plath, from The Bell Jar.

I’ve often contemplated my manuscripts, after reading them in as detached a way as possible, wondering if my theme worked, does the story arc ring true within this story and across the series and what would a reader take away from the story?

That way madness lies! Trying to guess what readers will notice is a form of fortune-telling. My beta-readers pointed out things to me which they liked, that I hadn’t considered.

Telling someone that you’re a writer produces mixed reactions, I think. Some people will admire you, while others will be intimidated. You may be thought of as wealthy, in a J.K. Rowling way, or as a total loser who can’t write well, as you’re not a household name. Most people will give you leeway to be just a bit weird!

Research has shown, that highly creative people are often neurotic:

To throw a reinterpretation on Robert A. Heinlein’s book title Stranger In A Strange Land, authors are among the strangest folk in society, telling tales to entertain, inform and which reveal truths.

Have you embraced your neuroticism?

Jerome Lawrence

Take It Easy On Yourself

By writing a book, you’re tackling a challenge that many people talk about but never get around to doing.

Some of them buy the equipment and do the training—books on writing and attending courses—but you’re actually climbing the mountain of creating a story. There are a thousand ways to reach the peak, and nothing to prevent you backtracking to try a different route. To get to the top, you’ll need determination and self-belief to the point of arrogance; the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up. If you do that, you’ll stop climbing, crawl into a crevasse and freeze to death.

Our greatest weakness is in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always try one more time.

Thomas A. Edison

It could be that no one much will care that you make a successful ascent—that’s what literary agents are for, to bring you down to earth—but, you’ll know you did it and that’s what’s crucial. You’ll feel better for it:

“We write to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely…When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in prison. I feel I lose my fire and my colour. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.”

Anaïs Nin

So, enjoy what you’re doing. Writing will always be hard work, but it shouldn’t be excruciating. You need to get on your own side.

When your book is written, you’re marked out as different—to be admired and, of course, criticised. But, you did it. Don’t be denied!

Benjamin Jowett