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23 April 2014

Finding a new kind of normal

The last two years have been a time of huge change in my life. Those of you who listen to the podcast or follow me on Twitter will know that most of it has been absorbed and illuminated by Seth and Jasper, my twin boys, now 18 months old.

I hope that from the snippets of family life that I post online, you’ll have seen how much love and laughter they’ve brought us. They’re funny, adventurous and completely in love with the world. Being a first-time parent to twins has been and continues to be, despite its logistical challenges, a wonderful experience.

However, in being a first-time parent, you can easily forget that you are anything else, like someone with interests, hobbies and friends. In a world of nappies, bottles and intense purée production, it’s a challenge just being a normal person.

And while I think I’ve made a good fist of being a normal person, it’s important to remember that being a normal person to me means something different to being a normal person for a lot of other people.

What is normal?

It’s a crude generalisation, but I think for many people, normal is to get up, go to work, come home, eat, watch TV, maybe enjoy a hobby, then go to bed.

I don’t mean that to be as derogatory as it perhaps sounds. To put it another way, I don’t think it’s normal at all for someone to get up, go to work, come home, eat, then spend their evenings – pretty much every evening – writing fiction, writing blog posts, recording podcast episodes and generally pursuing various creative avenues.

Yet that’s what I’ve done for the last 10 years and I dare say that if you’re reading this, you might be in a similar position. Certainly, I know I’m not unique and as I’ve said many times before, if you want to create anything of worth and significance, you need to make sacrifices.

That’s what creative people do. We say no to friends and family so that we can take ourselves away and make things. However, as a parent to twins, I’ve come to realise that a) some sacrifices are easier than others, and b) some sacrifices are simply not acceptable at all, no matter what.

For a long time, it was normal for me to spend my evenings and weekends writing and working on my creative projects. I now find that impossible. My normal has changed.

Writers write (when they can)

Writers write. Bum in chair. 1000 words a day. If you’ve ever sought any kind of writing advice, especially from the internet, you’ll have heard these mantras a million times. I’m sick and tired of them.

First of all, how stupid are we supposed to be? Anyone who has any real interest in writing is keenly aware that the words don’t magically appear on the page. We also know that to write every day would likely lead to better work and a healthy routine.

As advice, these mantras are not only obvious, they are patronising and unhelpful. Writers are human beings with jobs to hold down, children to raise and a whole host of other life commitments.

I’d like anyone planning to write yet another blog post in which they lecture to the rest of us from the perceived sanctuary of some unpaid-for high-horse, insisting that to write a bestselling anything we must get our good-for-nothing arses in our chairs, buckle the hell down and stop complaining, to think about whether they could be doing something more useful instead.

Is their idealistic badgering really going to help a teenager working two or three jobs to fund their college course? A single parent with mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay? Unless it comes with practical steps that will help people fit their writing into their lives, this ‘advice’ is little more than thoughtless guilt-mongering.

Certainly, as a first-time parent to twins and with a full-time job, anyone who tells me to just write can, frankly, shove it up their arse. I write when I can. I’m doing my best.

Sleepy time

The biggest change to my normal is that, like all parents to toddlers, I now function on far less sleep than I did before. That’s an appropriate word because it’s how sleep deprivation makes you feel, actually. That you are merely functioning.

Strangely, when you are expecting a baby (or two), people make jokes about this problem. They offer helpful advice and anecdotes on all manner of parenting problems, but the sleep issue seems to be the one thing that, apparently, new parents must experience without any preparation.

“You’ll not be getting much sleep,” they snigger. “You’ll not know what day it is,” they chortle. “And you’ll have two of them!” they used to add, delighted, especially for us.

I’ve since found that being a parent involves a number of learnable tasks that you improve at with practise and the more you know your baby. The challenge is doing so while operating – physically and emotionally – several notches below what you have previously been able to.

No one prepares you for that. There is no class to attend or back of a box to read. All you can do – you and your partner, if you’re fortunate to have one – is stick together and try not to drown.

That’s why whenever me and my wife have had any free time since the boys came along, we’ve largely spent it together. Before, I might’ve used it to work on my first novel or some other creative project. Now there’s no contest. That time has more value. It’s so precious.

Not being there

So yes, my normal has changed. Being a dad is the best thing in the world, but not having the time to do the things that come natural to me has been difficult.

I’ve never believed in the idea of a muse, and now more than ever I think having ideas and inspiration is all about being in the right frame of mind. It’s hard to be in the right frame of mind though when you’re consumed by parenthood and deprived of sleep.

That’s been the hardest part. Being there at my desk, but not being there. Being unable to switch from twin dad to published author. Being willing to work but unable to muster the strength to make something happen.

However, things are changing. I’m beginning to forge a new normal.

In the last few months, instead of panicking because I’m not able to lead the creative life I once did, I’ve started finding ways to live the life I have now. It’s an infinitely better life, just one that needs a little more planning and organisation.

My new normal

First, I’ve been a parent 18 months and while having twins has its challenges, I more or less know what I’m doing now. We have our routines. We’ve reclaimed our evenings. I get far more sleep.

Second, I no longer wait until I’m at home and on computer before I get things done. Instead, I fill any natural gaps that might arise throughout the day. For example, most of my second novel so far has been written on my iPad mini in a coffee shop on my lunch break. And many link posts on this blog are found, read, arranged and published via my iPhone. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Third, I take far less interest in how other people approach their writing. While knowing how others work can be interesting and useful, it was getting me down. It only emphasised my own struggle to find the time and energy to write. I still read and keep track of a few favourite sites, but I don’t check my RSS reader with the same kind of verve.

Fourth and finally, you may or may not have noticed that I don’t post to social media as much as I used to. There was a time when I used Twitter an awful lot. For conversations. For finding news and links. For flogging my wares. Now I post more infrequently and there’s been no negative impact. I don’t have a lot of extra time, but I do seem to have more space to think and focus.

Not the same, but better

For some people, writing is a hobby that they can dip in and out of. If they don’t do it for a while, it’s no big deal. But for many others, writing is a fundamental part of who they are. Take it away or make it difficult and in time, it will affect their general wellbeing.

There have been times in the last couple of years when, despite having my first novel out in the world and doing well, I’ve not felt like a writer at all. Now I see an altogether different future, where the sheer joy of being Seth and Jasper’s dad sits perfectly with me being me, that author chap with the blog and podcast.

Sometimes when you’re finding things difficult or you’re going through a life-changing event, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. You only understand what’s happening to you once it’s been and gone.

But remember that what was normal for you before may not be normal for you again. We are pliable beings that can be moulded and changed. Eventually, through patience and persistence, a new normal will emerge. And more often than not, you’ll be all the better for it.

6 February 2014

Do we need a postgraduate self-publishing degree?

The University of Central Lancashire in England has launched a new postgraduate course, simply titled, Self-publishing MA. Apparently, it’s the first of its kind.

Taken from the the course information, here’s what you get:

This course will equip you with all of the necessary skills you will need to be a self-published author including how to edit your book, how to lay it out, how to monitor sales, how to manage yourself and your finances, marketing yourself and your book and how to create an eBook. The final part of the course will give you the opportunity to complete a finished copy of your book.

I must admit, I can’t work this one out.

I understand that the skills required to self-publish a book might not come easy to everyone, and I know that some people will appreciate the opportunity to learn those skills in a closed, taught environment. But I’m not sure what advice an MA could provide that isn’t free and easy to find via a quick Google search.

The cost issue is important. For some reason, the course information doesn’t currently include fees, but the University’s other postgraduate writing courses, such as its Writing For Children MA, cost £5,000 a year.

I happily admit that I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that forking out that kind of money is the opposite of what the self-publishing movement has been about these last few years.

Perhaps the only way a fee of that size can be justified is if it includes access to professional editors, cover designers and proofreaders. But that’s not what the course information says. It talks about learning ‘how to edit’, but not direct support on getting your manuscript into shape.

I’m sure that this is just the first of what will likely be a wave of postgraduate courses on self-publishing. But if you ask me, you might as well explore the archives of sites like The Creative Penn, where you’ll find all you need to know.

Part of self-publishing’s allure is the satisfaction of doing it yourself – of being in control of the process from start to finish. I’m not sure that paying thousands of pounds to achieve the same end has quite the same appeal or ethos.

15 July 2013

Learn something old

How many times have you thought or said, ‘I’m going to learn something new,’ but then got so far into that learning and either given up or realised you weren’t quite cut out for it?

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11 July 2013

When is it okay to stop reading a book?

It’s always okay to stop reading a book. For some reason, we often feel obliged to carry on, even when we’re not enjoying it, but there really is no obligation. I’ve abandoned three books already this year and I’m about to do so again. Here’s when I think it’s okay to jump ship.

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19 June 2013

Favourites as likes

How do you use Twitter favourites? I’ve never been sure what to do with them. I tried favouriting tweets that contain interesting links, like a built-in bookmarking system, but I never went back to check those tweets, because I have Pinboard and Instapaper for that kind of thing.

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23 January 2013

Keep your writing app open

There are many techniques and methodologies and goodness knows what else that claim to help you with your productivity. For writers, there is often a battle to get started, but the keeping going, that’s also tough, what with all those pesky distractions. This year, I’m trying a new approach to writing fiction and it goes against everything I’ve ever done. But it works.

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21 January 2013

Picking the right idea for your novel

Writing on her blog for writers, Writability, Ava Jae today asked the question: where do your novel ideas come from? It’s a good question and one that writers will answer differently, I’m sure.

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16 January 2013

Poster, the perfect app for blogging from your iPhone or iPad

If you’re anything like me, you’ve long wondered why there is no sensible iOS app for publishing new posts to your WordPress blog. Well wonder no more, because today I discovered Poster, and it’s brilliant.

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8 January 2013

7 splendid articles on using Goodreads as an author

Goodreads is the social reading platform that allows people to track their reading habits, review books they’ve read and interact with likeminded folks. However, it’s a site for authors too.

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1 January 2013

What to do with your unfinished manuscript in 2013

It’s a new year and everyone is making resolutions and predictions. When it comes to writing, there are three main options, especially if you’re halfway through a major project and wondering what will happen to it in the coming months.

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26 November 2012

Entry for the 2013 Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize is now open

Entry for the 2013 Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize is now open and if you’re an unpublished writer with a finished (or nearly finished) novel, I highly recommend that you enter.

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30 October 2012

How to write about controversial subjects

I didn’t really consider, when I was writing my debut novel, A is for Angelica, which is available from all good book shops, that I might be tackling a controversial subject. It was only when I started sharing it with other people that I though, ‘Okay, maybe some of this is a little close to the bone, I need to get it right.’

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25 October 2012

3 text-expanding tools that will speed up your writing

I don’t believe in taking shortcuts when it comes to writing. I think quality work comes from time, attention and plenty of editing. However, if there’s a way to reduce how long I spend on repetitive tasks, I’m all for it. And that’s what this post is all about.

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A is for Angelica reviewed in Time Out
13 September 2012

Is traditional publishing worth the wait?

Those of you who’ve followed this site and the podcast for a while will know that it took some time for me to first write, then publish my first novel, A is for Angelica. Like every other author, I had to deal with life getting in the way and make a number of sacrifices. Nothing unusual about that.

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Some dos and don’ts for hosting your book launch

Last week I launched the paperback version of my debut novel, A is for Angelica, at the delightful Lantern Theatre in my home town, Sheffield. It was a smashing evening and I loved every second. You can see all the pictures over on my Facebook page. While you’re there, feel free to like me, if you know what I mean.

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7 September 2012

Listen to me on BBC Radio Sheffield

Yesterday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield, where I talked about my novel, A is for Angelica. It’s the first time I’ve been on a show with such a large listenership. I felt like I was a little slow to get going, but it was good fun and great to talk about the book.

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4 September 2012

Sock-puppeting is as grim as it gets for authors

You’ve probably heard about all this sock-puppeting business that’s been in the media this week. You can read a good summary in this article on the Guardian website, but the gist of it is as follows.

Award-winning crime writer RJ Ellory, like self-published authors John Locke and Stephen Leather before him, has been caught out (by the ever-intrepid Jeremy Duns) writing glowing reviews of his own work on Amazon, using various alias accounts. Oh, and then he used those accounts to rubbish his ‘competitors’.

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16 August 2012

Writing and publishing is all about teamwork

Stephanie Thwaites, children’s agent at Curtis Brown in the UK, published a lovely post about rejection this week on her blog.

It begins:

It’s all about rejection. No, not online dating, but publishing: according to an editor I was chatting to last week, it’s an industry of rejection.

Personally, I’m a little tired of all the negativity around publishing. I think it’s time we all pulled together and tried to do things differently and push things forward. So I confess to letting out a gentle sigh when I read that first paragraph.

But I needn’t have worried, because Stephanie’s post isn’t really about rejection at all. Instead, it’s a great reminder that, for every book that gets published, there is a team of hardcore fans behind it, willing it on and making it happen.

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31 July 2012

I was supposed to be a professional footballer

I played my first competitive, 11-a-side football match when I was seven years old. It was on a full-size pitch and my team needed special permission from the league, because the minimum age was eight. The age limit was there for my safety, but I didn’t care because I was big and tall and really good at football.

Two years later, I was playing competitively twice a weekend. On Saturdays, I played for one team, on Sundays another. A scout from Notts County, a professional football club here in England, came to watch one of our games. He asked 10 of us to attend trials the following week.

Aged nine, I went to the trials, where there were more than 1000 other children. After two days, there were just 24 of us left. I made the cut, abandoned my previous Sunday team and became part of Notts County’s first ever squad for under 10s.

Many kids have trials with professional clubs and some stay with the team for a couple of years. I played for Notts County until I was 16. I was team captain three out of the seven years I was there. I won trophies. I travelled the country. It was both a pre- and post-pubescent sporting career.

But something happened in that final year. When asked about it, I’ve sometimes said that the problem was that I’d become more interested, like most teenagers, in girls and underage drinking. But that was never the truth.

The real problem was that I was supposed to be a professional footballer, but being a professional footballer was not what I wanted to be.

After playing competitively throughout my childhood, sometimes four or five times a week, by the time I was 15, the magic had worn off. I didn’t want to do it any more. I didn’t care if it didn’t happen. Being a professional footballer.

And so, of course, things went wrong. I stopped putting the effort in and fell behind my teammates. They all wanted it far more than I did. It was still their dream.

Then, on one blustery Nottingham evening after training, I was taken to one side, along with my Dad, and told that, unfortunately, I wasn’t going to make it.

It was hard to hear. But also a blessed relief.

By no chance or coincidence, roughly a year before I left Notts County, I wrote my first batch of poetry. It was nothing special, and it was part of my regular schoolwork, but the feedback I received lit something inside me.

A new, entirely different dream began to emerge. I wanted to be a published author.

I wrote more poetry and soon persuaded my far-more-talented-than-me friends to let me join their band. I was the singer, of sorts. I did my best to write lyrics, hold a tune and avoid complete embarrassment.

But it wasn’t until I moved to sixth form college and studied English literature that the dream began to take shape. Most authors remember the book that made them want to write and I’m no different, although it may seem an odd choice.

It was Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and I can still remember, not the reading of the book itself, but the way I read it. For the first time, I analysed every sentence like a writer. If a particular passage dazzled me, I wanted to know why. So I read it again and again until I thought I’d figured it out.

That change in mindset was profound. I stopped reading for pure enjoyment and started learning my craft. I wanted to one day write a book that other people would read and be moved by.

Because that, for me, is what writing is all about. It’s not about the thrills, spills and turning pages. It’s about creating a world, having something to say, and telling a story. It’s making people laugh. Making people cry.

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted. To move people by creating something that no one else has ever created and by putting words in an order that no one has or ever will again. That’s the crux of all of it.

The digital version of A is for Angelica is published tomorrow. I was supposed to be a footballer. But I’m not, I’m an author. That was and is my dream. Until a few hours time. When it comes true.

23 July 2012

First impressions on the internet

You might think me mad, but I’ve been thinking a lot about first impressions and the way things appear right now.

In the always-on world of social media and running a website like this, I’m meeting new people all the time. And mostly without knowing it.

Take Twitter, for example.

Permanent, but temporary

Twitter is the ultimate throwaway medium, where 140-character sentences come, go and turn to history in the blink of an eye.

Conversations, links and self-promotions. They are permanent, but somehow temporary. No one deletes your tweets, but barely anyone remembers them either. Which is fine. They’re not supposed to remember. Not really.

And yet, new people are finding me (and you) all of the time. And what do they have to go on? Our profile photos and biographies, sure. But then what? What are we really like? What do we tweet about?

On a platform like Twitter, you have very little control over first impressions. You don’t know who’s looking at your tweets and you don’t know what they’re looking for. Really, the only thing that you can guarantee is that the first thing they’ll look at is your most recent messages.

Because that’s how Twitter works. It’s about the here and now.

Stand by your words

But what if the last thing you tweeted was part of a conversation about something completely different to whatever your thing is? How will it look if the last time you posted it was in frustration, weather-related or, heaven forbid, a description of your last meal? What sort of first impression is that?

The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t really matter. Those tweets are part of whoever you are. Or whoever you are online, at least. So why worry about it? Who cares what people see first? If they’re worth their salt, they’ll look beyond a handful of short internet messages. Won’t they?

Well yes, probably.

However, I do have this thing about being able to stand by everything I write. Not in terms of quality, necessarily, but certainly in tone.

It’s why I almost never swear on the internet. Not because I don’t swear in real life (I do), or because I object to other people swearing (I don’t). It’s because I want to make a good impression. And I’ve no idea who might be reading.

Consistency is key

Again, you never know when people are going to check your Twitter profile, Facebook page or blog for the first time.

You can’t control it and I can’t think of anything worse than micromanaging your online profiles in a way that means you only ever have your most brilliant tweets, status updates and posts at the top of the pile. That would be illogical, antisocial media.

If you care about first impressions, the one thing you can achieve is consistency. You can aim to always meet your own idea of what’s appropriate. It may be that someone stumbles across your writing, wherever it may be, and the first thing they read is far from ideal.

If you’re consistent, it won’t be the end of the world.

Who’d have thought?

This is what I’ve been thinking about. First impressions and consistency. I’ve also been thinking about why I’ve been thinking about it so much. And it’s because, I’ve decided, it’s important to me. I care what people think. It’s been a tiny revelation.