Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

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Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

All good things must end

Tomorrow, after eighteen months of having as much time as I want to write, read and mess about (I mean, network) on Twitter, I start my new day job. Four days a week for the next couple of years I’ll be commuting again, which at least means guaranteed regular reading time on the train. I guess I’ll be reading more, writing less, maybe submitting fewer stories, and definitely spending less time on Twitter. Seems like a good time to look back over the last 18 months and see if I achieved anything.

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One, from Ellipsis Zine – I’ve got a story in here

I set out with the intention of editing Sunrise Over Centrified City in a proper focused way. Eventually I did (it’s called Lachlane’s Centrified City now) and so far I’ve had it rejected by one indie publisher and entered it for a competition. Along the way, I won a 3-chapter critique from Claire Dyer in a Mslexia Max subscribers’ monologue competition, so having already had a good go myself I sent Claire the first 12,000 words or so of my dystopian detective novel and got loads of helpful advice back, which put me on the right path for another round of editing.

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The novel I started writing on that first day of unemployment is now at around 35,000 words. I’m so determined to get it right that I’ve trashed whole sections of it and had days when my wordcount spreadsheet has a negative total for the day. An extract of it got me selected for the Penguin Random House WriteNow initiative though so clearly someone saw potential, and I got useful feedback from Mikaela Pedlow at the insight day in Newcastle so I hope I’ve strengthened the novel since then, even if I haven’t lengthened it as much as I’d have liked.

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Souvenir of WriteNow

I have written tens of thousands of words of fiction (and a few thousand of non-fiction, not including the blog) but as it’s not all in one project it’s not easy to see how much there is. If you glance down my publications lists, almost everything published between November 2016 and April 2018 was written or heavily redrafted during my – shall we call it a sabbatical? That’s included Twitter fiction (I even won a couple of competitions), flash fiction and short stories which have been published online, in magazines and anthologies, and I recently had my first flash CNF (creative non-fiction) published at Ellipsis Zine.

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The study, decorated with encyclopedia pages

I didn’t just sit in the fully-redecorated study and tap away at the laptop in isolation. All that time on Twitter included getting to know some fabulously supportive writers (the flash fiction crowd in particular are like a big extended family) and I joined the working class writers’ collective set up by Carmen Marcus and wrote her an article about getting comfortable with my accent. I’ve done storytelling with Alice Courvoisier and we’ve got another event planned at this summer’s York Festival of Ideas. I organised my first open mic and the story I wrote to read at it went on to be published at the Fiction Pool. I also read at other people’s events, and at a joint Ilkley Writers and Wharfedale Poets evening at a local pub.

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Me looking pompous in a pub

I made a radio programme last year with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York which sadly isn’t available online any more, then I co-wrote a radio drama called Lavender Ink with Roz this year. I even wrote a blog post for the New Writing North website about how we did that one and I remain highly excited at having my name up there (if not quite as excited about the photo. Must practice looking less gormless in front of cameras).

Script of Lavender Ink by JY Saville and Rosalind Fairclough

It hasn’t been a continuous year and a half of excitement and success. There have been projects that fell through due to funding scarcity, places I never quite felt ready to submit to, people I never quite plucked up the courage to contact, articles I didn’t pitch, stories I didn’t write (or finish redrafting). I had about 150 rejections plus a couple of magazines went silent after I sent them something (next issue failed to appear, tweets dried up – Ligature Works, for instance). As I write this during the week of the 9th April, I’m waiting to hear about more than fifteen submissions.

As I look back over what I’ve done since I quit my last day job, some of it seems so long ago. Real life intervened occasionally: domestic crises, family illness, my dodgy back and related muscular problems (relics of a slipped disc about 4 years ago) but on the whole I did a fair few things I wouldn’t have done if I’d been at work. More to the point, at least I tried it instead of maybe regretting not trying it, later on. Immense thanks to OneMonkey who agreed to a scarily large slump in household income for six months (yes, the timescale grew once I got going) and made me hundreds of cups of tea when he was working from home and I was utterly focused and paying no attention to my surroundings. I wanted the new day job to be less than full-time so I could carry on a bit of this writing life I’ve grown accustomed to, and I’m not saying I definitely won’t take another sabbatical when my two-year contract’s up, but for now I’m reining back.

If you have a passion for writing (or anything else that might benefit from some dedicated time) and you think you can possibly economise, compromise or otherwise rearrange your finances so you can take some time out to focus on it, I can recommend at least having the conversation (with your spouse, your boss, or someone whose advice you trust). If I hadn’t mentioned it to OneMonkey, my sabbatical would never have morphed from an idle dream to eighteen months of reality. And after the tight budget of the last year and a half, the prospect of a second regular income in the house is making us feel filthy rich.

In praise of the second-person narrative

You go into the library and take down a book. The librarian smiles at you as they pass, and you sit down to read. It’s written in second-person, ‘you’ not ‘I’ or ‘they’, and it begins to grate on you. How dare this author tell you what you’re doing? I’m not! you scream, every other line. You put the book back on the shelf and leave.

All the writing advice I’ve read says don’t use the second person. It’s contrived, it’s ‘experimental’ for the sake of it, it gets up people’s noses. For years I didn’t write, wouldn’t have dreamt of writing, fiction in the second person. And then I did, and I quite liked it, and now I can’t get enough of it, both as a writer and a reader.

I understand the feeling some readers have that it’s dictating to them, spying on them, describing them. After all, if a writer says ‘you’, who are they addressing except the reader? Who else is there? And yet…

I had one of those sudden shifts in understanding, like when I saw e-readers as the Walkman for the bus, with books as the LP collection you keep at home. The writer isn’t addressing me as reader, I’m eavesdropping on a conversation they’re having with someone else. I’m reading letters over their shoulder. They don’t know I’m here. Think of it like that and the second-person narrative becomes deliciously intimate, transgressive even. It’s where the reader gets to experience unfiltered lives, not the parts that ‘I’ choose to narrate about myself, or that someone else has observed about ‘them’.

I still wouldn’t overdo it, I’m sure a diet of purely second-person would get wearing, but then I also get sick of first-person and that seems almost prescribed in flash fiction. Reading someone’s early-draft short story recently, they said ‘is it ok in second-person or is it too gimmicky?’, which is sad because the voice fit the story, and assuming they weren’t using second-person to be experimental for the sake of it, then it’s no more of a gimmick than any other choice of tense or narrative voice. If it works for you as a writer, use it. If you’re unsure as a reader, try it again, only this time imagine your ear pressed against a flimsy dividing wall.

But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

Writing a script with a partner

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JY Saville and Rosalind York at Chapel FM

I wrote about writing with a partner, for the New Writing North blog, so if you’re not sick to the back teeth of me banging on about Lavender Ink (the radio drama Roz and I wrote for this year’s Writing On Air), you can read about how we went about writing it, here.

Marvel at our logical approach, learn from our mistakes, celebrate our continued friendship, then listen to Lavender Ink itself (there’s a link at New Writing North or you can go straight to Chapel FM). Feedback, as ever, gratefully received.

Oh, and for those who read last week’s post which mentioned the renewed search for a day job, I’ve found one, so come next month I won’t have to worry about the Earl Grey supply drying up for a while.

A few thoughts on being a low-income writer

I ended 2017 with a stack of books (review copies and competition prizes), a cloth bag from the University of Edinburgh, a lifetime subscription to SciArt magazine, a print copy of an anthology with my work in, and the promise of royalties to come. All very nice but it doesn’t put Earl Grey in the caddy (except the royalties, later). It doesn’t even cover the expenses.

Despite avoiding most of the paid-for competitions (I’ve written about the barrier of fees before) I managed to spend almost £50 on eight flash fiction and short story competitions I didn’t so much as get longlisted for. All the competition successes I had in 2017 came from the ones I didn’t have to pay to enter, and I can’t decide whether or not there’s a lesson in there.

Twice, I forgot about the early-bird prices for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, meaning I missed out on saving £3. I had little runs of entering Ad Hoc Fiction hoping to win a free entry, but then I’d forget about it again after a few weeks, and I haven’t won one yet. There are some competitions that now offer a limited number of free places for low income writers, which is a great initiative. I haven’t taken any of them up because I’m in this position voluntarily, quitting a day job I was frustrated with and dragging our household income well below the UK median again (thanks to the ever-supportive OneMonkey, this has mostly been working out OK). However, anyone unburdened by feelings that it’s meant for people worse off than them can avail themselves of the opportunity.

The Penguin WriteNow insight day in Newcastle was great, and such a confidence-booster, but the train fare wasn’t cheap so I took the edge off it by using some Tesco clubcard vouchers to get credit at Red Spotted Hanky (I felt like such a pleb, like when we celebrated in Wetherspoons the day I got the WriteNow invite). When I got home I covered an old part-used notebook in sections cut out of the paper bag they kindly gave us a pile of books in, so I have a unique souvenir of the day.

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More recently, I’ve been shortlisted for a competition and invited to a prize-giving that would cost almost as much as the third prize for me to attend (and it’s a six-hour round trip). Sadly, I’ve declined (see also my previous post about the cost of winning).

As I said, I quit the day job of my own accord for my own reasons, so I can’t complain about being hard-up (and truthfully I’ve been in way more precarious and penny-pinching situations than this). I should concentrate harder on the paying markets for fiction, and learn to pitch articles to magazines, but a lot of that requires confidence I’m only slowly building up. What I can do is stop allowing other people to make money off the back of my work when I get nothing. A webzine I like is free to read and they’re not paying me – fine, they’re unpaid too. A competition gives cash prizes, I’m not a winner but I’m in the anthology which they’re selling – fine, the money’s probably ploughing back into the prize fund. A commercial organisation is selling (at a standard market rate) a magazine or anthology with my work in it and all I (and all the other contributors) get is a free copy – why haven’t I realised how unfair this is, before now? I’ll try and stop being complicit in my own exploitation, and in the meantime the search is on for a new day job.