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.

Dealing With Bad Editing

I’ve just had another experience with bad editing. I say “another” because this is a recurring theme for me, working as a freelancer. Clients don’t always have a good regular editor. Sometimes they’re trying someone new and inexperienced, and I end up dealing with the results.

Responding to bad editing is tricky. As a writer, I know that I’m going to make mistakes and get things wrong. Sometimes an edit I don’t like will be the right thing. So it’s only when the mistakes keep piling up, when the misplaced commas and unnecessary changes litter the page, that I let myself believe that I’m right and the editor is wrong.

Dealing with this can be tricky. Sometimes it’s easy to explain why an edit doesn’t seem right to me. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. I’ve lost hours to figuring out what’s wrong with edits and searching for the words to explain it. Because if I’m going to disagree with an editor then I need to be clear on why. I need them to understand my perspectives if we’re to debate a point of language. And I need the client to understand my misgivings if I’m going to suggest that they find a better editor.

It’s frustrating. It’s awkward. It can undermine my faith in myself, as I face changes that don’t fit my idea of good writing, and I wonder which of us is mistaken. But dealing with bad editing is part of being a writer. It makes good editors into prizes worth their weight in gold.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Nothing brings out the impostor syndrome in me like a convention. There I am, sitting on panels with authors I’ve heard of, making out like I have something relevant to say. Telling people that I’m a writer when they’ll never find my books in Waterstones. Seldom do I feel so much like I’m faking it.

Or at least that was the case until last weekend and FantasyCon 2017.

Two things at this convention made me feel more like I was, on some level, the real deal.

One was seeing the successes of my friends. Two people I’ve known since university had book launches. Adrian Tchaikovsky, who I’ve got to know since moving to Leeds, won the annual best fantasy novel award for The Tiger and the Wolf. Though I’ve had moments like this before, this somehow became a tipping point, the moment when “these writers are just people like me” became a solid, emotional reality instead of something I would mutter as a mantra as I hunched over my poor battered manuscripts.

The other was people’s responses to me talking about my work. I was on panels about history, ghostwriting, and steampunk. In between, I had numerous conversations in which I talked about the writing I do for a living.  And people’s responses, the way they treated me like I knew what I was talking about, the occasional impressed reaction at how many books I’ve ghostwritten over the past few years, that made me realise that what I do isn’t a sideshow. Sure, it’s not the same as what the big name authors are doing. It’s not where I want to be eventually. But it’s providing me with experience and expertise that’s actually pretty impressive. I am a writer, even a professional one. And the fact that it’s not what people dream of when they say “I’m a writer”, the reality of it is still pretty cool.

Editing: The Hard Emotional Work of Accepting When You’re Wrong

For me, editing is the hardest part of writing.

I mean sure, it looks like less work than the writing itself. You don’t need to invent the plot or craft whole chapters from scratch. The material’s there on the page and someone else has given you feedback on what to do with it. This should be easy, right?

Wrong.

For two reasons.

The first, and probably the smaller point, is that there’s no flow. When you’re first writing a story, you get into the rhythm of it. One thing naturally leads to another, one piece of action or emotion to the next. Sure, there are scene and chapter breaks, but as long as the ideas keep coming, you can keep going.

Not so with editing. It’s a stop-start process where you keep having to start again on a new comment, a new change, and different piece of the text. It’s bitty work in which you constantly have to will yourself to tackle the next new thing. That’s emotionally draining and it exaggerates the impact of the second issue – the acceptance of criticism.

Editing is about accepting that you were wrong. Every little mark the editor leaves is a sign that they think there’s a better way to do what you’ve done. Every time you change something, you’re conceding what a corner of your mind feels as an error.

That’s hard to do. Our first reaction to any disagreement is to get defensive. It’s the most natural human reaction. Whether it’s in politics or relationship or just opinions on books, we’ll tend to double down and justify ourselves when challenged. Conceding the point to somebody else is tough.

It’s especially tough when it’s about something you’ve created. Even when I’m working collaboratively, ghostwriting somebody else’s plot, I’ll get defensive. My brain sees criticism of me when the editor’s intent is constructive comments to make a story better. I’m not saying it’s healthy. I’m not saying it’s right. But it’s what the brain tends to do. Somebody is attacking your precious creation and by extension you!

Except that they aren’t. It’s not an attack, even though you feel it that way. And so, after the emotional battering of reading the comments there comes the emotional work of changing your perspective, seeing how their way might be better than yours, undoing your own work.

If that doesn’t make some small corner of your mind scream in horror, then you’re a better person than me.

I cope with it all by giving in to that scream before I do anything else. I read through the notes. I yell at the screen about how they’re wrong. I run through my defense of what was there before. I let the defensiveness out.

And then I let it go. Because an editor has a perspective on my writing that I don’t. 99% of the time they’re going to be right. So once I’ve got my raging out of the way, I take a deep breath, come back with a cleansed emotional pallet, and try to see why they might be right. It’s still not easy, but at least I’m no longer fighting myself every step of the way.

Editing, especially responding to the editorial comments of others, is damn hard work. But at least when we acknowledge that we can make it a little easier.

New Office!

I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for over a month, but technical glitches got in the way. That’s all sorted, so now…

Back at the start of November, I moved house. This will hopefully be the last move for a good long time. As a result, I have a new work space. It looks like this:

Moving office was a good way of getting me to think again about how I work and how I organise myself.

At my old house, my bedroom was on the floor between the office and the kitchen and bathroom, creating a huge risk of distraction whenever I went to the loo or to make coffee. This time, I’ve put my bedroom in the attic. Now I emerge each morning like a butterfly from my duvet chrysalis, descend the stairs, and seldom head back up again until the working day’s over.

I’ve also made some other adjustments. To go from sitting to standing work, all I have to do is turn around and place the laptop somewhere different. Relevant books are closer to hand. I’ve got a whiteboard listing the week’s work.

Physical details can make a huge difference to work practices, even when that work’s mostly mental. I’m very glad to have had a reason to rethink mine.

And after three house moves in 18 months, I’ll be even more glad not to go through that again for a good long time.