Ignore Imposter Syndrome and Get Going.

Starting is the easy part. How many times have we all started something new with a heart full of giddiness? The thought that we can do it bouncing around our head, the imagined success and the wonder of the completed project a sparkling goal that seems within reach. And how long into a new project do we start to doubt ourselves? Or conveniently schedule other activities during the time we’d set out for this project. You just have to look at the spike in gym attendance every January to know what I’m talking about. A sky scraper of motivation knocked down when life gets in the way. But does life really get in our way, or do we get in our own way?

The two biggest reasons I have for quitting projects are laziness, and self-doubt. Laziness stops me exercising enough, going out in the evening to stimulate my tired brain, painting the shed (two-toned is in…right?). I think, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have more energy, the weather will be better, I’ll make time. Procrastination defines my relationship with writing short stories. I go from writing novel to novel so I don’t have to face the challenge of short stories. I was always better at long-term relationships than flings. I find novels easier, less pressure to get each word right from the start. I can be lazy in my writing, because I’ll do a huge editing haul at the end and the main thing now is achieving my daily word count. It’s also a relief knowing what I’ll be writing for the next few months, because I’m writing a novel. Short stories end too quickly, they need a lot of thought and a big punch. And as soon as it’s written, I’d have to think of something else to write, and what if I can’t think of anything? What if I run out of ideas? What if I forget how to write? Imposter syndrome, anyone?

I don’t just have imposter syndrome with short stories. I always start my novel with more gusto than a Tornado, but by the time I reach the mid-way point, I think it’s utter cow-dung. I suddenly don’t know how I’ve spent so many hours working on this smelly manuscript, and what is there to show other than some mouldy coffee stains? The first time this happened me I was devastated, sitting there watching flies hover around the manuscript, wondering how I ever thought I could pull this whole ‘writer’ thing off. I wanted to just go to bed, without even washing my teeth, so deep was my despair. Instead I printed the thing out, read through the hard copy, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t half as stinky as I thought it was (2 years later, I now know that it was actually dreadful, but that’s beside the point).

I’ve become used to this half-way doubt. And I’ve learnt that even if it is a total stink-bomb of a novel, the sense of achievement at finishing it is always better than quitting. I’ve finished writing projects and never looked at them again, knowing they didn’t work, but still been dead proud of myself for getting through a beginning, middle, and end. And that feeling of pride at the end is what propels me forward to the next project. As a general rule, I keep writing until it’s finished, because I never know until well after the ending whether it’s any good. My inner critic would have me abandon everything I write, because at some point I’ve thought everything was awful.

Laziness, I find, is the easier evil to beat. I just need to be willing, and thankfully I have some serious willpower when it comes to my dream of being a writer (it’s easier to find will-power for a passion, rather than say, jogging, which brings me little more than sweaty armpits). For me, it’s all about making a routine. A commitment, setting an alarm, telling people the resolution so I am held to it.

Getting to the end of your novel is one thing, believing in it is another. It’s hard to believe in your writing when you get rejection after rejection. Each polite ‘this doesn’t fit our list’ another piece of coal for the inner critic burning inside. So once you get to the end of a novel, and edit it, you now need to gather all your willpower. Forget about taking the lazy option and take your head out from under the pillow. Realise that the real imposter here isn’t you, it’s your inner critic. So tell it to go take a hike.


Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.

Why I re-read books.

The first book that I remember re-reading was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was aged 11, and there was no sequel yet. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. I still remember the day I finished it, crying in my bedroom and feeling like I’d just lost one of my best friends. Then the idea hit me: I could just read it again and re-live the entire experience. I read it four times before the second book came out.

Re-reading books starts in infancy, with patient parents repeatedly reading the same books to their children. The more often I read a book to my young daughters, the more they love the book. But I rarely re-read books now as an adult. This is partly because I can’t even get through my reading list of new books, let alone keep going back to ones I’ve read before. But every now and then an old book calls to me, it’s familiar spine almost glowing on my book case. Sometimes it’s when I feel nostalgic, or want to read something that I’m guaranteed to enjoy. Sometimes it’s because I’ve momentarily mislaid the book that I’m in the middle of and don’t want to start something new until I find it. And sometimes it’s because I want to be transported to another place, somewhere comfortable and familiar.

For a few years, the book I re-read was David Copperfield. I think this is Dicken’s masterpiece, and the humour takes the edge off the dark subject. I first read it when I was newly engaged, and liked to compare the similarities and differences between David’s young adult life and mine. I felt that no matter how tough my life got, it was never as hard as David’s. Which was a constant reassurance, even if he was a fictitious character.

But now the book I re-read is Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Admittedly, this started with my love of the BBC television programme, which led to reading the book. But unlike David Copperfield, I don’t read this book for the characters, because the book is more about the times than the individual people. I re-read this book for the feelings it evokes in me.

What’s strange about the fact that I re-read this book, is that it doesn’t necessarily make me feel happier. It makes me feel like I was born in the wrong century, and I feel nostalgic for a life I never had. It is set in a hamlet, in the late 1800s, a time when the roads were only trodden on by horses. When everyone had a role and a purpose, and no family in the hamlet suffered unemployment because machines hadn’t yet taken over farming.

Of course I don’t crave the poverty that existed back then. As Thompson says, “Poverty is no disgrace, but it is a great inconvenience.” But I do crave the simplicity of the times. Life now is so full of choice, that no matter what option we pick, we are always left wondering if we would have been happier with the other option. There was no choice in the hamlet, with every family living the same lives, and only their characters making them different. Their lives were as entwined as the ivy growing up their cottages, with a community unlike any I have ever experienced.

Would I transport myself back to those times? Part of me says yes, I think I would enjoy the life of simplicity, old-fashioned skills and community living. But the woman in me says no, because there is no excuse that can justify gender inequality. In Larkrise, the men went out to work, the women stayed home to raise the family and keep the house. While this would not be a problem for me, it would not suit me to have no choice about it. Choice is a vicious circle, with too much causing havoc, and too little causing despair. The reader and writer in me also says no. Illiteracy was common place, and reading was looked down upon. I cannot imagine a life without they joys of reading, and the release of writing.

And so instead I will keep picking up my tattered copy of Larkrise to Candleford, and dream of the best parts of another world. That’s the joy of a book, you only have to imagine the parts you want to. And escape, just for a little while, into a world without your own problems. Again, and again, and again.