Tag Archives: fear of failure

Sisyphus – I Feel your Pain, Man

It’s the twelfth of December. Say what?

Image: funnyjunk.com

Image: funnyjunk.com

Santa is, indeed, coming. So is the end of the year, which is a lot less pleasant to think about.

You may remember – mainly because I went on and on and on about it – that I completed NaNoWriMo this year. That means I wrote 50,000 words in less than 30 days. However, I’m beginning to wonder if I dreamed the whole thing, because it’s now been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo finished, and since then I’ve written about 9,000 words, tops. I sit down at my computer, and open up my document, and I scroll to the spot where I left off last time.

And I feel like this.

Image: scienceblogs.com

Image: scienceblogs.com

Getting through the work, day by day by day, is akin to strapping on a pair of cement boots and taking a brisk walk up the Matterhorn. It’s just so hard, and I don’t understand why.

Consider these points:

1. I have plenty of story left. I am nowhere near the conclusion of this book, and I know (in a broad sense) what I want to happen. It’s just a matter of getting there.

2. This feeling of mental block only happens when I’m actually at my desk. I was out for a walk yesterday, f’rinstance, and found my head filling up with ideas and enthusiasm and sheer delight at the thought of returning to my story, and so I galloped home. All that enthusiasm took a nosedive out the window as soon as the computer was switched back on, though. Does this make sense?

3. I really want to get this draft finished by the end of the year. I just can’t countenance the idea of bringing it over into 2014. Normally, when I am determined like this, I just knuckle down and get it done. Normally. But something – alors! – is not normal, these days.

It seems as though the story has become turgid, and floppy, and bland. It seems like my words are banal and meaningless and ‘seen it all before.’ Perhaps this is a side-effect of having had such a forced intimacy with the work for the past six weeks or so; maybe I simply need a break from it, and a change of focus.

But, at the same time, I don’t want a break from it. I want to finish it. I want to get through it, because I’m afraid that if I leave it alone too long I won’t ever see it through, and that would be breaking the first rule – the most important rule – of writing, which is: Finish Your Work. You can’t do a second draft of an incomplete first draft, so grinding to a halt now would be, in terms of Emmeline and Thing and their story, a disaster.

I believe there’s potential in this story. I really love the characters, and I like how the plot has, to a large extent, woven itself around them. It has taken a few unexpected turns, and ideas have suggested themselves to me as I wrote, which is an exhilarating feeling. But now I’m coming close to the End – I’m within 10,000 words of the conclusion to this story, by any rational calculation – and Endings have always been hard for me.

I read a book recently (a review will be posted in a couple of weeks’ time) which was a flight of extraordinary fancy. It did a few things which irritated me, namely introducing characters at the last minute who happen to have just the right power to get the protagonist out of a sticky situation, relying a little on coincidence and ‘extraordinary strokes of luck’ (my teeth go on edge when I read a phrase like this), but it did one other thing, which taught me – or perhaps, reminded me of – an important lesson. It demonstrated the power of a free and full imagination. This particular book went places which no other children’s book I’ve ever read has gone, and I found that refreshing and exciting.

It made me wonder why I constantly clamp down on my own imagination, telling myself that a scene in whatever I’m working on couldn’t possibly happen – it’s too far-fetched, and not realistic enough, and nobody would ever believe it.

Image: badideatshirts.com

Image: badideatshirts.com

But isn’t that sort of the point?

I’m not saying that child readers will believe any old rubbish, because – of course – I am passionately aware that isn’t true. But what they need are books which explore the limits of what a writer can imagine. They want to read things they’ve never read before, and they want to be surprised, and they want to be gripped, and they want to care about the characters. They want to be amused, probably more than anything else. They want descriptions which are good enough, and clear enough, that they seem effortlessly done; at the same time, these descriptions cannot be allowed to get in the way of their reading enjoyment, or stop them imagining themselves in the place of the hero. They want a world which is internally logical and consistent, which holds together and doesn’t break any of its own rules – but, after that, if you want to bring in talking elephants or pink trees or whatever it is, and they make sense in the world you’ve written, then there’s no reason why you should hesitate. Yet – when it comes to some of my own more ‘out-there’ ideas, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Why is applying the lessons I’ve learned from years of reading, enjoying and dissecting children’s books such a challenging thing?

Every day I sit down at this book, I spend the first hour or two unpicking most of what I wrote the previous day. Progress is painfully slow. I am getting there – and I hope I’ll make it before my ‘deadline’ hits – but I hope I’ll remember to give myself the space I need to let the story live. I’ll have to remind myself not to be afraid of where the story wants to go, and to give it the freedom to do what it wants to do. I have to trust myself to handle it.

Otherwise, I think the boulder’s going to start rolling back so fast that I won’t be able to stop it, and it’ll crush me to a pulp.

And nobody wants to see that, right?

A Little Bit of Kindness

So, I have received another rejection.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Image: dailymail.co.uk

The funny thing is, though, that this time – it’s not so bad.

I mean, yesterday (when I got the word) I felt sad, and disappointed, and upset. I felt angry, but it was at myself – how could I have written something that didn’t fit the bill, for so many reasons? Didn’t I know any better? – and I was glad I was alone when I got the news, because I needed to be. I think the reason I feel a little low, but generally okay, today is because the rejection was done so kindly, and so generously, that it was the next best thing to an acceptance. It was full of praise for my work (except, of course, for the bits that weren’t so strong) and it was full of encouragement and support. It gave me an option to rework and resubmit, and it expressed an interest in seeing more of my writing.

So, really, I couldn’t ask for a better rejection email, if that makes any sense.

Now, however, I have several things I need to do – and, of course, because life is like that, they’re all happening at the same time.

Item the First: Tweak ‘Tider’ – just a little – in order to get it ready to submit. I’m almost happy with it, but there’s just something not quite right about the end of it. This weekend will be partly spent buried in my printout of the text. Yay? Yay.

Item the Second: Get my NaNo project (still nameless) off the ground. I felt so deflated yesterday that – just for a second – I considered pulling out of NaNoWriMo, but luckily I came to my senses and realised that would be stupid. So, I’m still in. Today, I plan to write at least 1500 words, which is slightly under-target, but a good start.

Item the Third: Think about ways to make ‘Eldritch’ right. As hard as it was to hear that my beloved book just isn’t quite good enough, I realised that the person giving me this feedback is a professional in the industry who knows exactly what they’re talking about, and who is, furthermore, completely right. It’s funny how writers just can’t read their own stuff exactly as a reader would; no matter how hard you try to detach, it’s always going to be a different experience for you, the writer, reading your own work as it is for someone coming to it completely fresh. I had always imagined ‘Eldritch’ to be the first part of a trilogy – from its earliest existence in my mind, that’s how I pictured and planned it. Now, I know that the story isn’t enough to sustain a trilogy. And I’m okay with that.

Really. I am. Image: runningofthereeses.com

Really. I am.
Image: runningofthereeses.com

Submitting your work to agents is scary. The idea of a knowledgeable, business-minded, critical (in a good way), and exacting pair of eyes reading your tender words is akin to that feeling we all remember from our teenage years – the terror of trying to impress someone we like, and hoping against hope they like us back. The tension of waiting for replies and praying, every day, for an email or a phonecall with news one way or the other is a major drag on your health, both mental and physical. I personally feel like I could sleep for a year, but I know that’s not an option.

But making a dream come true isn’t something you can leave to your Fairy Godmother. It takes work, and devotion, and sweat, and pain. It takes the bittersweet realisation that you’re almost, but not quite, good enough. It will – hopefully, at least – be lined with the sort of kind, compassionate email that I received yesterday, the type that tells you ‘You’re not ready yet, but very soon, you will be, and I want to be there when you are’; it will be full of days like yesterday. And all you can do is be grateful for the help, smile, and move on to the next step.

Easier said than done, but believe me – it can be done.

Happy Friday, and happy weekend to you all. I hope a restful couple of days are ahead for you. And, while we’re on the subject, happy November! How did that happen?

Image: businessinsider.com

Image: businessinsider.com

Many Ways

Yestereve, as my husband and I sat reading Proust and Kafka side by side on our antique leather sofa, one of us happened to switch on the demonic gogglebox in the corner of the room, purely by accident of course. The programme which appeared on it was entitled something like ‘X-Idol All-Singing All-Dancing Contest Factor’ and it featured several people who were very (very!) young performing popular musical hits in front of a panel of judges.

I’m sure you know the type of show to which I am referring. Don’t pretend you don’t, because – frankly – nobody believes you.

My better half and I looked a little like these two fine gentlemen as we watched... Image: muppets.wikia.com

My better half and I looked a little like these two fine gentlemen as we watched…
Image: muppets.wikia.com

I wasn’t paying full attention to the screen, because I was lost in a book (in fact, this is true, but I don’t expect you to believe it); however, after a while I put down what I was reading and started to focus on the TV. It wasn’t because I was so intrigued by the cutting-edge, brand-new, thrilling format of the show (zzzz….), but because I couldn’t believe the way these young, talented people were talking about themselves.

‘This is my last chance,’ some of them sobbed. ‘I’ll never be able to do this if I don’t get through today.’ ‘My whole life depends on this.’ ‘I don’t know how I’ll go home and face my family if I don’t succeed here today.’ ‘I want my family to be proud of me.’

Image: onesinglevoice.com

Image: onesinglevoice.com

I felt so sorry and sad to hear them talk like this, and I couldn’t understand why they were putting such pressure on themselves. I was horrified most of all by the fact that they were all so young.

I remember being sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I remember how I was desperate for life to start, and how I felt like every second spent not doing what I wanted was a second wasted. I remember having dreams and ambitions and drive, and I remember more than anything wanting to make something of my life, to get away from everything I’d known up to that point and move to another place, begin a new existence, and meet new people. I can completely understand the urge, at that age, to get started, to stop wasting time, to break into the thick of life and immerse yourself in it. It’s an exciting time, for sure. But what you lack at that age is any way of knowing how much time you have, just waiting for you to turn it into something amazing.

I just wish someone would take those young people to one side and remind them that there are a million different ways to reach your goal, and not winning a TV show is not the death of your dream. I also wish they’d try to explain to them that, when you’re sixteen, you can literally do anything you want. Your life is barely begun, you have so much time, and you can shape your future whatever way you choose. I also wish that the young people concerned would listen, and understand – I know, when I was that age, the advice of anyone out of their teens was considered less than worthless. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing, though.

All the contestants on this particular show wanted to be professional recording artists, and all of them were hoping that their individual skills would be good enough to see them advance through the competition to the ultimate prize of a record deal. I’m sure some of them also wanted to take advantage of the expert mentoring offered to them by the established artists who take part in the show, year after year, and – perhaps – some of them just wanted to be on TV. These contestants are not people who have been working for twenty or thirty years in the business, who have struggled to fill venues, who have played in bars to audiences of four or five, who have had to put up with catcalls and abuse, who have lost bookings, put every penny they have into their career, and live their lives on the road. They are not people who have been worn down by the industry, who have had every last drop of their youthful idealism ground into the dirt by the relentless effort of trying to make it, and who have given their music career every ounce of their devotion and effort. Those are the kind of people who might be able to say ‘This is my last chance’ or ‘If I don’t make it on this show, I know the dream is over,’ and from whose lips it might sound legitimate.

For a person of sixteen whose only prior experience is singing in their bedroom into their hairbrush, the concept of ‘last chance’ shouldn’t even come into play.

But then, these young contestants can hardly be blamed for thinking the way they do – all their lives, these shows have been the biggest thing on TV. It’s not surprising that they think entering one and winning it is the ‘only’ path to success. But if someone has every shred of their self-worth and self-belief wrapped up in winning a TV show – which, I’m sure they don’t realise, is primarily a vehicle to make money for its producers, not to make them into stars – and if they’re knocked out of the running, it’s clearly going to have a terrible effect on their mind and their mental health. I find that thought chilling, and very sad.

I know some contestants enter these shows year after year after year, and each time they ‘fail’ their confidence takes another knock. Eventually, they won’t have any self-belief left, because they’re trying to succeed in an environment which is not geared towards helping them to achieve what they want. Not winning a competition like this is not ‘failure.’ Instead of pouring their hearts into entering the same competition again and again, I wish some of these young people would just make music, if that’s what they want to do. Record yourself performing and upload it to YouTube. Set up an artist’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Tumblr blog, whatever it takes – and build an audience. Get gigs. Get paying gigs. Buy more equipment. Put a band together. Go on the road. Find a friend who’s good at computing, and ask them to make you a website. Find a friend who’s arty, and get them to design your merch. All of this can be done – and it’s amazing how much people want to help when they see you chasing your dream, and working for it. When I was a teenager, all of this could be achieved, too – but it was much, much harder. Nowadays, the internet makes all things possible.

Not winning a TV show which is designed to make money for everyone but the artists who pour their hearts into it is not, decidedly not, the only way to make it in the music business. Every single contestant on those shows has it within themselves to make a success of their career, if they’re willing to put in the effort and use a little imagination. It’s never ‘too late’. It’s never their ‘last chance.’ Their families are already proud of them.

All that pressure, all that stress, and all that incredible emotional pain they’re inflicting upon themselves is damaging, horrible to watch and utterly unnecessary. We’re in the middle of Mental Health Week, and so there’s no better time to remind people that there are lots of ways to get there, and they have plenty of time to make the journey.

Also, I’m never watching another TV talent show. I’ll happily stick to Proust and Kafka from now on, thank you very much.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

Some Monday Morning Doggerel

Upon Being Rejected: A Poem

When people just don’t like your work,
Is it all right to say:
‘Well, thank you for your time, I guess,’
And calmly walk away?

Then, when you’ve found a quiet spot
A shady little nook,
It’s good to open up your heart
And gently take a look.

You should let go of the sadness, now,
And all that anger, too.
The only person being harmed
By all of that is – You.

Why not sit down by the river, here,
And let it float downstream,
All that dark and nasty stuff,
The remnants of your dream.

And then lie back and smile a while –
The sun is breaking through!
And finally, eventually,
You will learn to start anew.

Image: publicdomainimages.net

Image: publicdomainimages.net

I know this poem is tripe. That, indeed, is the point. I expended about five minutes’ worth of effort on it, and those five minutes are very much on display in the finished product, I feel. I’ve been reading a book set in the Victorian era over the past few days and I suppose the rhythm of the language has settled into my mind. I keep expecting someone to ring for the butler, or to ‘bring the carriage round’ when I want to go to the shops, or a maid to come fluttering up to me with the smelling salts on a regular basis. ‘Upon Being Rejected’ is the kind of poem they would’ve liked, I think, though I should think they’d feel it was ‘unsuitably modern in its aesthetic’. I’d probably have to throw in at least one or two verses in Latin and/or Greek, and make reference every two lines to some sort of Classical god or goddess, or an event in the ancient past, for it to really pass muster. The whole thing would have to be about twelve hundred times as long, too, and take about a year to get to the point.

Victorians, eh? You’ve gotta love ’em.

So, yes. I have, once again, been unsuccessful at something. A piece of mine, alas, hath been rejected. It’s nothing major, nor even anything terrifically important, but it’s significant enough to make me a little glum this Monday morning. However, as the heroine of our wonderful poem (see above) has learned: ain’t no point in mopin’! Turn that frown upside down and get back on the horse, and all that other stuff people say when they want to encourage you.

Image: funelf.net

Image: funelf.net

In slightly better news, I did manage to get the first draft of ‘Tider’ finished on Friday afternoon last. I took myself for a celebratory cup of tea to mark the occasion, which was splendid. I have since spent the weekend in a fizz of mental activity, thinking of things I want to change and fix and rewrite and undo, and so I’m eager to get started this morning. The plan is to do a draft two of the book on screen, and then print a hard copy, which I’ll leave alone for a few weeks (or, as long as I can force myself); then, I’ll go through the hard copy with my trusty editing pen. Whatever’s left can be examined for signs of life, and then – perhaps – gently kicked out the door into the big bad world.

I think the draft I’ve done is a strong one. It’s certainly not perfect – I haven’t done enough world-building, and I’ve skimmed over the mechanics of some of the important things my heroine can do. But that’s what second and third drafts are for, I think: to put the flesh onto the bones of the first draft.

Without further ado, then, I shall begin. Wish me luck, and please – forgive me for the ‘poem’. I really won’t ever do it again, I promise.

Happy Monday, happy new week. May all your endeavours be successful ones.

Diving Back In

Today, it’s the ninth of April.

Image: howmanyarethere.netEdvard Munch, The Scream

Image: howmanyarethere.net
Edvard Munch, The Scream

You may remember me saying, some time ago, that I planned to get back into my novel(s) at the start of April, and get at least one of them ready to start doing the rounds of submissions before the end of the month. Well, you’d think I’d have started the process by now, then, wouldn’t you?

I haven’t, though. Partly, this is due to being quite busy so far during April, but mainly it’s due to something else entirely. Something to which I am no stranger.

My old nemesis: Fear.

I opened my computer file for ‘Eldritch’ the other day, and began to get that old familiar thrumming in the chest once more, the dead giveaway that all is not well within. I read through the first few pages and realised that there were 150 more to go, and my vision started to blur. I had to close the file and step away from the computer for a while – so far, ‘a while’ has been ‘a week, nearly’. My gaze fell upon my hard copy of ‘Tider’, complete with all its handwritten, sweated-over notations, yesterday, and I couldn’t bring myself to open up my box-file and just deal with it. I know I have to do this work, and I know (or, at least, I’m *fairly* sure) the stories contained in both these files are worth saving – at least, to me. But all of this logic and reason and sensible-ness tends to go out the window when you’re faced with the unenviable reality of writing: it’s hard work, and it may (and indeed probably will) be hard work which will come to nothing.

I know how it feels to put my heart, soul and kitchen sink into a project and watch it vanish without trace. I know how bad that felt at the time, and how it made me slide into a trough of depression that lasted the best part of a year. I don’t want to go through that again. I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, that the same thing will happen with my creative work, but the old fear is there, lurking, waiting to pounce.

But then, I have to realise that this fear isn’t what it seems. It’s definitely there, skulking about like a wolf in the woods, but it’s not necessarily a fear of failure in the eyes of other people. It’s not even a fear of success, as I’ve talked about before here on Blog Central. I have a feeling it’s more of a fear that I’ll fail myself, that I’ll let myself down, that I won’t do a proper job of this work, that I’ll do it ‘wrong’, that it won’t ever be good enough… Paradoxically, of course, the way this fear manifests itself is to paralyse me from taking positive action, and to stop me from opening up my files and getting stuck in. My fear of not doing the work properly is keeping me from doing the work properly. Analyse that!

Yeah, I don't get it either.Image: blogs.babble.com

Yeah, I don’t get it either.
Image: blogs.babble.com

I may not have said this before, but I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist. Like most people with this tendency, if something isn’t 100% correct and exact the first time it’s done, then it’s very difficult to deal with it.  Part of my brain wants to just shut away all my work, lock up all my files and never look at them again, and close the door on all the words that aren’t good enough, that don’t meet the (self-imposed) ‘required standard’. I also tend to be very impatient with myself, and if I can’t pick up a skill or learn something the first time I try it I often feel like a failure. I don’t necessarily give up trying, but somehow the enjoyment is taken out of it for me. So, once again, I find myself wondering why I’m drawn to the life of a writer, which is the sort of life in which tendencies like these are definitely not helpful. In fact, they are the very things you really need to overcome if you’re going to be able to live peacefully in a life which requires you to write, rewrite, draft, redraft, correct yourself, edit and undo lots of your own work, and learn that you can’t write a book perfectly the first time around.

Writing is rewriting. This I know. I don’t tend to write the sort of first drafts I’ve read about on writing websites, or on other writing blogs, which are basically ‘spews’ of emotion and feeling and characterisation and story without any structure or narrative; my first drafts are careful, tentative, over-written and over-complicated. So, necessarily, they aren’t good enough to be exposed to the world. But it’s almost like I’m trying, even from the first draft, to do my absolute best – to make the work ‘perfect’. But, of course, it never is perfect the first time around. This tends to hurt my head a bit. It’s amazing how you can know something with your rational mind, but your more irrational, emotional, instinctive side can be completely unaware of it. No matter how much I know the books I’m writing can’t be perfect the first time they’re written, I still try to do it. And by doing so, I set myself up for ‘failure’, which locks me into the fear, which means diving back into the work of fixing my words is ten times harder than it needs to be.

God, I am a complicated little person.

Perhaps this is why I want to be a writer. What better way is there to face up to these irrational tendencies and deal with my crippling perfectionism than by forcing myself to work through it? I managed to do it before – ‘Tider’ is in its sixth or seventh draft, let’s not forget, and it’s still not right – but because I’ve left it so long, picking it up again now and starting the work again is like starting from scratch.

It’s going to be difficult. Send me your good vibes. I will need them.

This isn't just an excuse to use a picture of Westley. The point is, I'm attacking my problem. Just in case you were going to accuse me of being gratuitous.Image: cinemagogue.com

This isn’t just an excuse to use a picture of Westley. The point is, I’m attacking my problem. Just in case you were going to accuse me of being gratuitous.
Image: cinemagogue.com