Blogger’s Block

Sometimes you just need to start writing. It’s a thing I’m realising more and more, as I try to find ways past writer’s block, or past just not wanting to do my work. You put down words, and they might not be the best words, but at least they get the ideas flowing out of your bain.

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Like today, I couldn’t decide what to blog about. Tor.com had a piece on characters who we love because of how damaged they are, so maybe I could reflect on that. Or there was the larp I ran recently, I could talk about its story or my involvement in it. There’s the incident last night where I spent half an hour chasing down a mouse in my study, because this is what happens when you have a cat. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the problem. When the possibilities are endless, how do you work out which one is good? Which one is relevant to my readers, and might grab attention in search engines, and will be satisfying to write? Because when your blog is part personal venting and part marketing tool, all of those things are relevant.

In the end, I’ve taken a copout path by going meta and writing about how tricky it is to write. Instead of deciding what to discuss, I’m discussing how difficult that decision is. Problem solved.

I mean, not really solved. I’ll be back to it next week. This is a regular blog writing problem.

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, staring at the screen and not knowing what to write. And sometimes the answer is just whatever comes into your head.

Trying to Write Amid the Chaos

Writing is a lot about focus, and that’s hard to find right now. In both Europe and America, politics is going batshit crazy. The extent of our damage to the environment becomes clearer every day, as does our failure to tackle it. The economy has become this crazed web of investment instruments utterly detached from reality, which somehow holds people’s fates in its hands. And that’s just the distant, impersonal stuff.

This shit is not good for your mental health. It weighs down on you like the ocean on a submarine’s hull, a constant pressure that can threaten to split you at the seams.

When that’s happening, it’s OK to feel like crap. It’s a natural response. To quote Christin Slater in Pump Up the Volume, feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a perfectly normal response to a fucked-up situation.

It’s important not to beat yourself up if you find this stuff distracting or you struggle to work through it, if your thoughts are constantly off-kilter or scattered to the wind. Mental health is a societal issue, not just a personal one.

But it’s also a good idea not to let it get to you. Find ways to set the unsettling thoughts aside. Go for a walk. Try some mindfulness. Treat yourself to a massive bar of chocolate and gobble that tasty treat down in front of your favourite sitcom. Whatever takes some pressure off your brain. Then take the few precious minutes of happiness you’ve bought yourself and use them to get something done. Write a page of your novel. Cook a cool new meal. Make that phone call you’ve been putting off. Anything that will make you feel more productive, more in control.

That’s how I approach work at times like this. Just banging my head against the words won’t help. I have to take time, take breaks, and then take care to use the energy I’ve saved. Because if I let this completely stop me writing, if I let it trample me down, then I might never get up again.

It’s OK to feel fucked up. But that doesn’t have to mean letting the fucked up win.

Writing What I Like

I recently spent nearly a whole week writing comics.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written comics. I’ve created quite a few scripts for Commando, not to mention the short I did for Top Cow a few years ago. But this is the first time I’ve had enough of that work, and few enough other urgent work distractions, to make it my main focus for a whole week.

This is one of the things about building up your own business. These moments creep up on you. You’re just trundling along, doing a little more of this, a little more of that, and suddenly you have a week that would make the you of a few years ago sit up and say “damn, that’s great!”

So yeah. I’ve spent a week writing what I like. It was fantastic. Here’s hoping I get more of the same soon.

Time, Money, & Stressing Out

Sometimes, being a freelancer can be stressful.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my biggest ongoing projects ended with about a week and a half’s notice. About the same time, the website that I consider my reliable backup source of income, the one I would have used to fill that gap in the short term, stopped buying articles. Suddenly, my financial position became a lot more precarious.

In theory, I’m in a good position to weather this sort of storm. I don’t have a mortgage or rent to pay. My only dependent is my cat. I banked a bunch of savings last year, partly to see me through moments like this.

And yet, when those two things hit, I felt a sharp twist of panic in my guts. My level of gainful employment was about to plummet. I needed to find more work asap.

So I started looking for that work and I quickly got an offer. The pay was half of what I normally ask, but that wrenching feeling in my guts told me I should accept it. That feeling kept insisting “You need the money!”

Then I took a step back and thought about how my job works.

As a freelancer, the way I value myself isn’t just about how much money I get. It’s about how much money I get relative to the time I put in. If I let myself take this offer, I would be undervaluing myself. I’d lose a lot of time, time I could spend looking for better paid work. It might pay off in the short term, but in the long term, I’d be undermining my own efforts.

So I took a deep breath and said no. Then I got back to bidding on projects, and soon enough, I had offers coming in from other potential clients. Clients who recognised what I was worth and who were willing to pay for that.

It’s easy to give in to stress and take the first way you find out of a situation. But sometimes it’s worth hanging on and waiting until you’ve got an option you actually want.

Making Myself Be Creative

I’ve been struggling with how best to cultivate creativity.

On a day-to-day basis, when I’m writing for clients, it’s something I can essentially force. Deadlines and the need to pay bills focus me on the task in hand. If I need to write a chapter about a shark fight then I’ll damn well write a shark fight, and if it’s not the best shark fight ever, it will at least be competently done and improvable in the edit.

But for my own work it’s different. Sometimes the words that come out match my vision and I get into the flow, creativity coming with ease and more enthusiasm than on other people’s projects. Other times I get stuck, unsure how to turn concept into narrative. Nothing I think of seems right. Without the pressure of deadlines or the distance of knowing that this work isn’t really for me, I struggle to just get something down on the page. I come to a crushing halt.

So how to move on from that? I could force it, as I do with other projects. But this is the time when I want to do better, when I want to present the most dazzling version of my writing, because it really is mine.

I could leave it and hope that, by letting the idea bubble away in my subconscious, I’ll find a way. But that doesn’t feel professional. It doesn’t feel like progress.

The answer may be a compromise. Go work on something else, knowing that at least I’m being productive. Let the thing I’m stuck on bubble away in the background and hope that an answer shakes loose.

Some people say you can’t force creativity, and that’s true in as far as it goes. But you do have to force yourself to be creative, to put in the time and the practice, to work at things until they’re done. Finding the right balance, and doing it without beating yourself up or giving in to laziness, that’s a very difficult thing.

Ghostwriting – How It Is For Me

I recently got to see the cover for a novel I had ghostwritten. This landed in my mailbox around the same time a big controversy broke over an indie author combining ghostwriters and plagiarism to churn out books, leading to lawsuits, scandal, and some not unreasonable outrage. It got me thinking about the strangeness of being a ghostwriter, how ghostwriters fit into modern publishing, and why I do this job.

First up, let’s talk definitions. Ghostwriting is when I get hired to write a book or article that will be published in someone else’s name, on the understanding that I can’t lay claim to it. Plagiarism would be me copying other people’s work without permission. The two are different, but can be combined.

Ghostwriting of novels – my main concern here – happens when someone with an established brand or a head for the business side of writing wants to put books out quicker. It’s a way of keeping the attention of readers and so making both the new and the existing books more profitable. At the moment, this is appealling to indie authors because it lets them game the Kindle algorithms and so increase their sales.

Some people see this as dishonest. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said of politicians and celebrities getting help with their autobiographies, and we’re OK with that. I suspect that what’s really upsetting some people isn’t the dishonesty so much as the breaking of their expectations. We’re socialised to see authorship as a work of solitary creation, when in reality that’s never true. Every book is a collaboration with editors, but their names don’t appear on the cover. We want a name to latch onto, so credit for books is a solo thing. Even when authors collaborate they sometimes adopt a pen name, as with James S. A. Corey, the author of The Expanse – actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. A single author name makes it easier to sell the books, so that’s what they do.

If an indie author wants to create a successful publishing brand, they build it around an author name, because that’s how people identify the fiction they want to consume, not by publisher but by a named author personality, whether that person exists or not. Yes, I’m sure some of these indie book mills are churning out crap, but that can also happen in traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that everything produced this way is garbage.

From my point of view, the process of ghostwriting works something like this. I see a ghostwriting job advertised on a freelancing site or am approached through one of those sites. I apply for the job like I would any other, demonstrating my skills and experience. We agree terms and set up a contract through the site. Then the person hiring me provides me with details of the book they want written – usually a plot outline and character descriptions, sometimes with a style guide. And then I write, producing X thousand words per week for Y dollars a time, providing the best work I can given the timescales and the pay.

That last part is important. Someone who gives me longer to work with and pays for more of my time will get a better result, because I’m not in a rush. But a lot of this work is done for a marketing strategy that relies on speedy releases, and that affects quality no matter who’s writing.

So why would I do work like this? Wouldn’t I rather be writing my own stories with my own name on? Isn’t it weird seeing stories I’ve written and not being able to tell people about it?

Well, yes to both of those last two questions. And in answer to the first one, because it’s a job I enjoy. This doesn’t take the place of my own writing. It takes the place of my day job, meaning that my working hours are more satisfying, more fun, and help me practise my craft. The feedback from clients is useful in sharpening my skills, and believe me, when things aren’t right a ghostwriter definitely gets that feedback.

In the best cases, ghostwriting fiction has let me take part in some marvellous collaborations, producing books that I’m genuinely proud of and would happily stick my name on given half a chance. In the worst cases, I’ve worked to outlines and themes I wasn’t entirely happy with but that the client was determined to have. It got frustrating, but it was still more satisfying than any other job I’ve had. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t the one putting my name to those books, deciding they were good enough to be associated with me. Maybe I was wrong about those plots, themes, and ideas. Maybe readers would love them and they’d become bestsellers. And if not, that’s on the person who hired and briefed me, the one whose business will depend upon these books succeeding.

Where does that leave me, as the interent gets up in arms about ghostwriting? It leaves me with a job I love, despite its lack of security. It leaves me developing my writing skills on a daily basis. It leaves me producing the best work I can in the conditions I’m given. Yes, there are problems with the way that some people use ghostwriters, and the current state of publishing is exaggerating that. But that doesn’t mean that ghostwriters as a group are the problem. Ghostwriting is a logical result of how we currently produce and consume novels. Until those structures change, it’s here to stay. For those of us who get a creative job out of it, and for the readers who get more of the stories they enjoy, that’s surely a good thing.

Writing Space

I’m not the only one who values these bookshelves.

I’ve just spent half a week unable to work in my study, during the gap between painting the walls and waiting for new carpet to arrive. It made me realise just how much I need this space. It’s not just having an ergonomic desk setup and standing desk. It’s not just having my reference books accessible. It’s not just having my calendar and whiteboard up by my desk. Those are practical things and there’s far more to a working space than what’s practical.

Having a room I use specifically for work creates an effective working ritual. When I come in in the morning, I know I’m here to work. My brain shifts into that gear. When I leave at lunchtime or the end of the day, it shifts gear again, letting me relax. It’s something I used to get from a commute, and while I much prefer the speed of this version, the ritual element is important. The physical transition creates a mental transition. The doorway to this room becomes a magical portal that transforms me from ordinary Andy Knighton to Writing Man.

It’s been a tough few days without, but order had been restored. The carpet’s in, the shelves are back up, and the books are in better order than ever.

Writing Man is back.

Facing the Fear

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is committing to something. Whether it’s writing a story, buying a book cover, or submitting a novel to a publisher, I have to force myself to it. Not because I don’t enjoy my work or value what I get out of these activities, but because of The Fear.

The fear of failure.

The fear of rejection.

The fear of getting it wrong.

Sure, succeeding in writing is about skill, imagination, and persistence. But it’s also about facing the fear, day after day, and learning to move past it.

Detachment

One of the weird features of working as a freelance writer is a detachment from my immediate economy.

I’m used to the fact that, in the modern world, we’re often detached from our physically immediate communities. Our jobs are often a commute away. Our social lives come from communities of interest. Our casual socialising is largely online. I chat with a few of my neighbours, but the desire for social contact doesn’t force me to get close to them. I get that elsewhere.

For me, there’s an extra layer to this. I’m increasingly detached from the British economy.

I realised this by considering my financial future. My freelance work is going really well. This August I had my best monthly¬†earnings ever and on average they’re set to keep rising. While people around me are bracing for the economic shock of Brexit, with jobs and wages at risk, I’m not concerned for myself. Most of my customers are outside the UK. If anything, my earnings will improve after Brexit, as a weak pound increases the benefits of being paid in dollars.

It’s a strange experience. Any marginal personal benefits I gain aren’t enough to make up for Brexit, but it’s made me look at my life differently.

There’s something almost cyberpunk about this, existing as a free agent in a world where national boundaries are dissolving. As with anything cyberpunk, there’s a bleak side to it, the erosion of old bonds creating problems as well as opportunities. Those fading national boundaries make it harder for governments to raise taxes and support services people need. Uncertainty is creating a nationalist backlash, not for the first time in recent history.

But for better or for worse, I’m able to watch this with some detachment. My career exists in the ether and it’s likely to survive local shocks. The world is changing and, for once, I’m near the forefront of that change. Safe, comfortable, but increasingly unsettled by what it all represents.

We’ll never reach a point where those local ties don’t matter, whether they’re economic, social, or political. After all, we live in physical bodies within a physical world. But the importance of locality is changing. For better of for worse, maybe we’ll all end up a little more detached.