So, I am now 30.
It shouldn't mean anything. Yes, I've just entered my fourth decade, but only because I happen to belong to a ten-fingered species who therefore invented a base ten numbering system. If I was one of the twelve-fingered Ka'taan, I'd only be halfway through my third dodecade; whereas if I was one of the arachnoid Zool, my fourth octade would nearly be over by now. Like new year, in which we attach vast and profound significance to the resetting of a calendar we ourselves invented, milestone birthdays are completely arbitrary.
It shouldn't mean anything … and yet I find myself staring at my face in the mirror as if it's going to start decomposing rapidly like a scene from a horror film. Feeling a momentary twinge when I get up and instead of thinking I must have been sitting awkwardly, thinking That'll be my joints deteriorating. Most of all, as is customary in these situations, enumerating the long list of everything I haven't yet achieved in my life.
Age is just a number. But as a company announcing its annual profits or an author anxiously tracking book sales will tell you, numbers measure the difference between success and failure.
When I turned 20, the very existence of 30 was more of a legend than a reality. The fabled continent of Trois-Dix, shimmering in the mist like Atlantis, barely present at all. I had many miles to travel, and many quests to accomplish, before I would reach its shores. But now … now it turns out there was a motorway that would take me there, and I jumped straight on it. All those twisty paths and strange encounters passed me by, and all the things I'd hoped to achieve as a young adventurer were lost in the process of everyday life.
In short, arbitrary or not, reaching 30 without having achieved certain things makes me feel like I've failed. And arbitrary or not, the jump from 29 to 30 seems far, far greater than the one from 28 to 29.
I think, in part, this is down to the prevailing perception – perpetuated by a thousand movies – of what different times in a person's life are 'for'. Your twenties are when you get to be carefree, reckless, irresponsible. They're for pursuing your dreams and taking risks. Whereas your thirties are intended, according to Hollywood's Life Map, for settling down. Becoming a parent. Leaving behind the follies of your youth and accepting your status as an adult with obligations to others. As a newly made 30 year old with a job, a mortgage and a baby, I'm virtually the blueprint for that model. I have officially entered the Age of Responsibility. Which is unfortunate, given that I still feel like a 20 year old inside. I still want to achieve all the things I dreamed of. I still want to embark on something more interesting than a motorway journey. But I feel like I've missed my chance.
In reality, though, life is far more complex than society makes us feel. Life doesn't give you a cut-off point for reaching your goals, after which point it slams the door shut in your face. Life is about growing and learning and changing, redefining what's important to you and getting there when you're ready, not when a number suggests you ought to. And learning to stop being selfish isn't at all the same thing as giving up on your dreams. I may still feel like a 20 year old, but it comes with a hell of a lot more knowledge and experience than I had back then. I haven't missed my opportunity to succeed. Rather, I've gained the opportunity to do it in a different way.
So, screw 30. I'll have my adventures when the time is right – or, if I don't, I'll have different ones. (After all, even the motorway of everyday life is its own adventure.) In the meantime, I've decided that since I have ten fingers and ten toes, I will now be using a base twenty counting system. Which means I'm only halfway through my second icosade. Practically a teenager.
Selling yourself. It sounds bad, doesn't it? It has connotations of selling out, of being all about the money. Of prostituting your art for the sake of a quick buck. But in this digital age, the ability to sell ourselves is one of the key attributes we as authors require.
It is, of course, nothing to do with money – at least, not directly. We aren't simply selling books in exchange for cash, though we hope that will be a consequence of what we do. Rather, we're selling an image. A sexy, knowledgeable and/or witty version of ourselves that the world wants to spend time with. Because when they're interested in us, they'll be interested in our work – and that's how idle browsers become readers and readers become fans.
At least, that's the theory.
I've been dabbling in this process for a while now – dabbling, because as yet I haven't actually made any books available for people to read.* And it has to be said, I'm not finding it easy. I never have. When an interviewer asks me why I'd be the best candidate for the job, I always draw a blank. Not because I don't think I'm a fast learner and a team player and a giver of 110%,** but because I feel so awkward saying so. Yes, I'm clever and creative. Yes, I'm diligent and punctual and an asset to any company. But somehow, those words coming out of my mouth sound lame and unconvincing. It's not that I don't believe I'm good. It's simply that I'm not sure I'm the best.
Something similar happens when it comes to my writing. The internet seems to be full of people shouting look at me!, and I've never been the look-at-me type. More the reading-a-book-in-the-corner type. So although I think I'm a good writer and maybe even an interesting person, I struggle with letting the world know that. With putting my work out there in the confidence that it will be enjoyed. With making myself into a saleable package.
All this is a problem, because in writing as in so many other areas of life, it's often not the most talented people*** who get results but those who can best sell those talents. I always hoped that my work would speak for itself – I always thought that writing was the ideal profession for an introvert like me – but these days, the book itself is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the berg is made up of marketing, self-promotion and online presence: in other words, the sell. And as it turns out, I'm not terribly good at that bit.
Reading back through this, I realise it sounds a bit whiny – as though I'm yearning for the grand old days when writers just, well, wrote. But I'm not complaining, not really. I understand the fault lies with me. If anything, this post is intended as advice to anyone who's thinking about becoming a writer. Learn your craft. Learn how to write. But also learn how to sell yourself. You'll be thankful in the long run. Because great writing without the sell is like standing in the middle of a busy station and whispering announcements: no-one's going to hear you.****
As for me, if anyone has the faintest idea how I can get over my self-promotion phobia then please let me know …
* Though there's always the possibility I might sell myself to an agent or publisher. But that's another story.
** Kill me now.
*** I'm not saying I'm one of them, by the way. Though maybe I should be saying it … Argh. You see why I struggle with this stuff?
**** Conversely, the sell without great writing is like a marvellously enticing billboard that turns out to be promoting a scam. But again, that's another story – though not a very well-written one.
We are sorry to announce that the usual Sunday blog service has been cancelled due to a writing failure. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause you.
Normal Sunday service will resume next week. In the meantime, the A to Z Challenge continues tomorrow.
With a baby on the way, my partner and I are currently trying to declutter our house.
It goes something like this.
Me: OK, this weekend we really have to get this place sorted.
Partner: Yep. I suggest we start with the guest room.
(We stop just inside the door, which is basically as far as we can get without climbing over stuff.)
Partner: Let's just work our way through it one pile at a time. You start with those papers and I'll go through the contents of this box.
(We squeeze into the room and set to work.)
Me: Do we really need these bank statements from ten years ago?
Partner: It's important to keep your financial information in order.
Me: But it's not in order, it's all over the floor.
Partner: Put it in a pile of its own and we'll file it later.
Partner: Do we really need this clump of multi-coloured ribbons?
Me: Ribbons are useful.
Partner: How about these foil wrappings from the chocolates we had three Christmases ago?
Me: They're perfect for making cards.
Partner: But you haven't made any cards since the Great Card Disaster of 2008.
Me: Well, maybe I'll have more time after the baby is born.
Partner: How about –
Me: Hang on a second. I've just found a story idea I wrote on the back of a napkin and it's actually pretty good.
Me: Yeah, turns out it's not so great after all. What were you going to ask me?
Partner: Hmm? Oh, can't remember now. But look! Here's the dinosaur comic I drew when I was twelve! I thought I'd lost this years ago!
Me (catching sight of what was underneath): And there's my first ever diary! Wow, I remember those days … I was so young …
(Longer silence full of companionable reading.)
Partner: Huh. It's getting dark. Better get the dinner on.
(We survey the room.)
Partner: I think we made pretty good progress.
Me (doubtfully): There seem to be more piles than when we started.
Partner: But at least now we know what's in them.
The A to Z Challenge continues tomorrow.
Over the past few weeks, for various reasons, I have been singularly lacking in ideas. And creative drive. And any kind of intelligence at all, really. All I want to do is sleep, or if I can’t do that then curl up under a blanket and watch cookery shows on TV. Which isn’t good when (a) I have three short stories to write before the end of the year and (b) I promised myself I’d finish my current rewrite/edit by then as well. So, to help anyone who is likewise afflicted with the demon Uninspiration, here are a few tips to get those ideas flowing.
1. Do something else. There’s absolutely no point in sitting there staring at a computer screen for hours on end and feeling miserable because you’ve only written two sentences (and you know quite well you’ll delete them the following day). I know some people say you should force yourself to write a certain amount every day, but if you just can’t then there’s no point beating yourself up about it. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Paint the kitchen ceiling. Above all, don’t think obsessively about whatever it is you’re stuck on. Your subconscious will whirr away in the background and by the time you return to your desk, chances are that scene will have coalesced in your mind.
2. Be prepared. This is of course an excellent rule for life in general, but it applies to writing as much as anything else. Ideas tend to pop up when you least expect them: in the bath, on the bus, in the middle of a boring meeting. I often find that when I’ve hit a spell of uninspiration, it’s only when I’m away from my laptop that I can have any ideas at all – because that’s when I relax and stop putting so much pressure on myself. So carry a little notebook around with you, and then when the ideas do show up you’ll be able to capture them. (I realise this may be tricky in the bath; this is where a voice recorder or a willing spouse comes in handy.)
3. Go with the flow. Half the time, what I should be working on isn’t at all what I want to be working on. And usually I find the best way to deal with that is simply to go with it. Write what needs to come out of you, not what you think you ought to be writing. Forcing the issue will only result in something that’s stilted, awkward and/or clunky. I realise this isn’t a great solution when you have deadlines to meet, but even half an hour spent working on your current passion can get you back in the right mindset. Then, once you’ve showed yourself that you aren’t an utter failure who will never string a coherent sentence together again, you can get on with whatever it is that needs doing.
4. Try a new perspective. Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I go back to a scene I’ve already written and write it from a different POV. Or I take a passage of text and switch it from first to third person or vice versa. Or I pick a character, invent a scenario that isn’t going to appear in any book, and walk them through it to see how they’d react. This kind of playing around has a number of benefits. It reassures you that you can still wield your tools. It teaches you things you didn’t know about your characters, and allows you to experiment with different ways of doing things. Best of all, it might even give you a better way of handling a scene or a completely new idea you haven’t considered before. If nothing else, it’s fun.
Anyway, I hope that helps. And if all else fails, you can always write a blog about the issue.
(clears throat, which turns into a small coughing fit)
Sorry. Yeah. Hi. Well, we've been meeting here for several weeks now, and so far we've learned that (1) I'm a terrible procrastinator with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, (2) you guys don't talk much and (3) the tentacles may all be in my head. At least, the dog is the only other person who seems to be able to see them.
Since I'm not feeling up to much today, I'll keep this one – ah – ah – (holds finger up in mute plea for audience patience, before turning away and doubling over)
Short. I'll keep this one short.
Have you ever noticed – and I make this observation with no bitterness at all, mind you – how the protagonists of fantasy fiction almost never seem to catch the common cold? Maimed, stabbed, blinded, hacked and gouged, I grant you, but not once do they have to suffer the special humiliation of a red nose, blocked sinuses and a cough that could cut through a plank of wood. One can only assume that most fantasy worlds have, for whatever reason, failed to evolve a highly adaptable and easily transmittable virus of the kind we are so familiar with ourselves. Really, it's pretty darn lucky that none of the people who have ever found a way through from our world to another had a cold at the time. Think of the havoc that could have been wreaked on the unsuspecting immune systems of the indigenous populations.
Of course, there is another possibility, which is that authors hate making their characters appear undignified. Life-threatening injuries are fine. A few scars or missing limbs just show off how noble and heroic a character is. But there's nothing very noble or heroic about walking around with half a Kleenex stuffed up each nostril.* Because, let's face it, authors want readers to find their characters attractive – not necessarily in a would-love-to-sleep-with-them way (though that always helps), but certainly in a they're-so-goddamn-awesome way. And a cold, my friends, is the very opposite of awesome. A cold is where writerly dedication to making a character 'real' takes a little detour.**
(blows nose defiantly with a sound like a honking goose)
And that's it. In the words of Bilbo Baggins, a notable exception to the no-colds rule, 'thag you very buch' for coming. Please help yourselves to Lemsip and Vicks VapoRub on your way out.
* Believe me.
** This detour also handily avoids questions such as sewage arrangements, the personal hygiene levels of people who have been on the road for days, and the whole issue of toothbrushes in a faux-medieval society. Some things, we just don't want to know about.