What can you do with your English degree?

Oh, you poor bastard. You majored in English, in an English-speaking world. Me too. Shame they didn’t teach us about supply and demand.

Well. Generally speaking, you can teach or you can write. Personally, I’d recommend that you write.

There’s no one particular way to kick off a writing career… but you can bet there may be some unpaid writing involved to get it started. I can tell you what I did, at least, and maybe something in the ramblings below might give you an idea to start your writing career. Or at least give you a poke in the right direction.

Me? I’m a free-market person. I’ve never liked the idea of teaching. After graduating with my English degree I really just wanted to put my senseless obsession heartwarming passion for writing to good use.

I’d tried contributing blog articles, and a bit of spoken word, but you ain’t gonna see a penny there. Scriptwriting was a drawn-out lottery, and poets die poor for a reason. The only real practical avenue was copywriting, or content writing as it’s more widely known.

(Because everyone assumes that a “copywriter” has something to do with legal and copyright. Calling yourself a content writer will make you more friends.)

Alongside a few menial jobs to pay the bills, my ceaseless pestering eventually bagged me a snip of work experience with a radio station, scripting ads. Following countless job applications and some freebie articles in the meantime, this was enough to persuade another company to give me a three-month contract as a full-time writer.

With some hard work and study on the company merch, along with a good few books on copywriting to learn more about the trade, I stretched out this short-term contract to a few more months. (It’s really just about getting more experience on the clock.)

Balancing perilously on a couple of months’ savings, I landed another job as a copywriter and proofreader. Then another job a couple of years later, where I could dedicate all my time to copywriting in sales. And another content writing job twelve months after that, which I left last year to work for myself.

Because every night since I’d graduated, I was writing stories as well. The vast majority got binned; they were shit. But getting gradually less shit every time. The way I saw it, the day jobs were paying me to hone my skills. Paid training all week, and unpaid fiction training during evenings and weekends. Now, thankfully, I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do since my student days: writing fiction full-time. I just self-publish on Kindle; no middle man.

I’m not saying that to brag, but to tell you that it’s absolutely possible if that’s your dream as well. I know, for me, that it’s always been the ultimate end goal of my writing career.

It’ll take a lot of late nights, but you’ll get there too if you really want it. But the first step is to get your writing out there.

Don’t be afraid of critique and rejection – it shows you the boundaries and tells you how to improve. The more criticism you can take, and the more time you put into your writing, the better you’ll become. With enough time and willpower, you can make any career in writing that you like.

But you have to start now.

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Why didn’t they use the eagles in the first place?

It’s a classic question asked of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As storytellers, we should be thinking about this kind of hole-poking in our own plots too.

If old Ganders was best mates with those great big eagles, majestic lords of the sky and all that – and knowing full well that they were only ever a mothmail away – then why didn’t he use them to carry Middle-Earth’s greatest heroes straight over Mount Doom in the first place? Like, straight from Rivendell?

They could’ve dropped The One Ring into that fiery chasm on the first day and had done with it, and been back home in time for mystical Elven slow-motion tea. Maybe some orc-slaying action for Aragorn & Co. in the middle, to cover their backs while our brave hobbits cast the ring into the fire… but all completely Gollum-free. Saving thousands of lives, two war-torn realms and Frodo’s best writing finger in the process.

But nooooo.

Instead, Gandalf – the wizened, scheming, arch-sadist that he is – sees fit to wander our heroes all across pretty New Zealand enchanting Middle-Earth, getting his “pals” into all manner of scraps and scarytimes.

He gets them chased. He gets Frodo stabbed. He leads them up a deadly mountain in a snowstorm, and back down again. He gets them captured by Cate Blanchett and her crazy forest people, and he gets himself killed when he pits his own outsized ego against a frickin’ Balrog.

Why would you do that Ganders. Why.

Ohhh yeah. You wanted the upgrade to Gandalf White Version, didn’t ya? Always just thinking about you, eh Gandalf? Looking out for number one?

He also makes Christopher Lee so upset that he unleashes a horde of genetically-engineered super-orcs to chase them down and kill them. (Do you know how upset a man has to be to do that?) Said super-orcs capture two of his most vulnerable friends, drive the band of buddies apart and even kill Ned Stark – the greatest military leader that Gondor has known in centuries. Gandalf then takes control of Theoden-King’s mind for his own agenda, positions himself as the saviour of Rohan, and tries to topple the steadfast (and understandably cynical) steward of Minas Tirith to take control of the city himself. Oh yeah, and sent Frodo to his death. He admitted that much.

You get the point. All because good old Gando wouldn’t MothsApp his giant eagles from the start, when life was easy and Ned Stark didn’t have all arrows in him.

If we accept this theory, then from a realistic, strategic point of view the story has flaws. But it’s a fable. It was never meant to be an extended treatise on the wartime strategies of Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings isn’t a military campaign. Of course, some people are all for the military campaigns of Middle Earth. There are boardgames for all that. But as storytellers, we need to be more concerned about the people involved. Their fears; their passions. Their lives. We can write about ranks of warriors, but readers have to know them and care about them too. They need to feel like real people – not just pieces on a chessboard. (Yeah, Gandalf.)

We know, instinctively, that the story’s ruined when “the eagles are coming”. It’s cool for all of two seconds, before we feel cheated out of the whole bloody tale. Because now we know, the eagles were always an option. The eagles remove all the hardship that causes our heroes to grow. Without that hardship, they aren’t really heroes. Suddenly, they’re just passengers. They could’ve been passengers from the start.

Ha! What were you thinking, Tolkien? What a cop-out. Guess he wasn’t that great after all.

But ego is a fragile, and often ugly, influence. It makes critics of us all. We could be the kind of people who look out for movie mistakes. Who search for flaws in paintings, to make ourselves feel better. Sneering at plot holes in every book there is, seated atop our mountains of all the great things we never achieved.

The Lord of the Rings isn’t about orcs, monsters, dark lords or the races of Men. It isn’t about eagles, or how best to dispose of a ring. The ring’s just a token; a signifier for the frightening potential in all of us to commit ungodly acts of evil. One look at the century those books came out of should be enough to tell us that. Gulags, death camps, atom bombs… Sauron’s soft in comparison.

LOTR is a story about human beings, with human whims and fears and emotions, being called upon to do the impossible to protect all that’s good and growing in their world. They mess up, and come back stronger, and learn that “in the caves they fear to enter lie the treasures they seek”. (Read more about the Hero’s Journey here).

Yes, Gandalf’s plan might be flawed, but what plan isn’t? Anyone who’s ever done anything knows that reality isn’t kind to our best-laid plans. Maybe the entire scheme was wrong from the start. People get hurt; friends are lost. For all the joys, death’s a constant shadow. But given the choice between an epic odyssey and an avian airstrike, I know which story I’d read.

We read Tolkien’s books for the characters’ journeys. We want to see how hardship hardens them; how love enriches them. How our unassuming selves could rise to great heroism, if what we believe and fight for is virtuous. We read to train ourselves, subconsciously, for life’s slings and arrows and ends.

It’s easy for us to heckle and find fault from the side lines. It’s hard to hear about our own faults when we try.

We could slip through life on the wings of a plot device, safe and protected from the orcs and monsters below. We’d land unscarred on that final mountain, and see our death staring back from the fires. And we’d tremble. We’d wail, that our end had come and we’d done nothing we wanted to do. And we’d ask ourselves, whether the life we’d lived was truly lived at all. We’d done nothing; suffered nothing. We’d existed. A robot, just dropping the ring.

Things would stay as they were. Fools of Tooks wouldn’t show their great worth. Striders wouldn’t become kings. Elf-Dwarf foreign relations would remain at an all-time low. Shieldmaidens wouldn’t drive their swords through the hooded spectre of death itself. Gorgeous Arwen Evenstars would remain unsmooched. Once-mighty Theodens would wither on their thrones. Sams wouldn’t know that a wife and family is all that counts. And the restless Frodos of the world wouldn’t realise, that there is no place called home. That to sit and hurt and remember is no life for them, and the next adventure is all that would give them peace.

That’s one way to live our lives. A life of absence, and regret.

Or, we could take a risk. And another. Take that first step out of our door. Home is behind, the world ahead; there are many paths to tread. We’d face fears, and forge friendships, in the fires where friendships really come from: hard fucking times. Simply put, we’d live a real life.

We’d take scars that haunt us, and we’d learn how to fight, until all those caves and spectres and spiders didn’t scare us. We all hold the potential for so much evil in the palm of our hand – or the power to vanish completely from the world. It’s up to us, to resist those temptations. It’s up to us, not to hand our power to someone else. Someone wiser, or stronger. It’s our burden to bear.

We come to recognise great evil by the sight of it, and by doing so we truly recognise the good. We didn’t see our home for what it was before; an uneventful place that might’ve held us in low regard. Until we face life’s horrors, and come back all the stronger, when we realise how rare and precious a peaceful life really is. Food and drink; friends and family. Contentment in the small things, and good long stories to tell. No great lord or leader in their halls could ask for more. Truth is, they often have it much worse.

After hardships, normal life seems so much sweeter; we never saw that before. We were just missing the context. We found out what was at stake.

You don’t gain life’s great insights from staying put in the same old Shire. Or travelling safe on some giant bird. You have to laugh and journey and sometimes suffer through life – your own epic story – for it to be a story at all.

 

“You’re very stubborn, aren’t you?”

Show me a better quality in someone than pure rock-headed stubbornness.

I like stubborn people. They give me faith in humanity. They make things happen, and they won’t listen to a damn word otherwise.

It’s the movie underdog who takes a royal beating, over and over,  and won’t stay down. It’s the artist who hangs from ceilings, until the damn church is painted. The musician who plays ’til their fingers bleed, just to be better.

Life hardens these people. When anyone tries to change them, they dig their heels in more. They’re doing what they’re doing, regardless. Even if it seems like they’re bashing their head against a wall. But guess what? The wall’s going down before they do. Brick and mortar’s got nothing on will.

It’s that industrial grit my forefathers were made of, who fought back the Romans and the Vikings. And the Normans. And the Saxons. And the Spaniards. And the Nazis. Wherever death and tyranny tried its luck, my nation was up in its face.

I mean, my own gramps fixed Spitfires in the Saudi desert. A German bullet cut across his throat. An inch to the right, and it could’ve killed him. He never said a word about it, and he wasn’t the fighting type. He just wanted to run his shop. For the rest of his life, I think he was just sad that the whole bloody war had to happen. That so many people could lose sight of common virtue.

He was stubborn.

There’s no glory in war, and I thank god my generation hasn’t been drafted into one. Me? I’m living in luxury – I’ve got food and a safe home. There’s hot running water. On tap. There’s no ruler I have to kneel down to. I don’t even farm my own grub.

It’s said that we should know our history, and it’s true. Even just to remind us of how good we really have it. So we have to work a little, safe and warm by our computer screens? Poor us. Our ancestors would wonder how we cope.

We may not be the generations before us, but we’re still their children. We’re the descendants of soldiers, and nurses, and pioneers. The sons and daughters, way down the line, of ordinary people who built this world and defended it. They did all the hard work for us. They fought and died for us.

These days, all we have to do is maintain the machine. Keep the pistons oiled, and keep the cogs from falling out. We just have to pay attention, and stop people pissing all over what our ancestors built.

But, who cares about that. I wonder what’s on TV.

There’s a streak of stubbornness in all of us. It’s our wealth, our inheritance, built up over thousands of years. To make the world better, whatever our talents and whatever we do. To be god-damned hard-headed buggers, if we know what we’re doing is right.

Yes, some people are stubborn. We’re the children of proud stubborn bastards, and we’ve never been more free to spread their virtue to the world.

I’d say it’s our duty, our obligation, to put that great heritage to use.

Obsession

You’ve never slept well. Me neither.

Maybe one evening, you try to be good. Switch all the screens off and chill the heck out, and commit yourself to a good early night. Maybe half past ten.

…And you’re wide awake by three.

Trying to get back to sleep? It’s like holding down a spring. A huge, powerful, very insistent spring, like the kind in a car suspension. Your mind knows all too well that there’s stuff you need to make. Like, right now. At three in the morning. Grunting, hateful, you crawl downstairs for coffee. And so it goes.

There’s a frantic mental energy in us. If you don’t get busy and make something, it’ll come knocking. It’ll knock harder, and harder, until you let it out. It tends to happen every day, and it tends to take over when it comes. Nothing else really matters all that much, until the words are down or the brush is in hand, or the statue’s peering out from that stone.

Strange? Of course it is. Most people really aren’t wired this way. From an outside perspective, it might look like madness. But what do you care? You’ve got things to create. And it really won’t wait until you feel like it.

My advice is: go with it. If you’re up all night to sift through your mind, so be it. It’s the day job that should suffer – not your ideas.

Write those words that are gnawing at you. Paint what’s swirling in your soul. Carve it out or stitch it together, or play it all out on the strings. God knows, you can’t explain it in conversation. It has to grow, to explain itself.

It’s not some strange burden, this obsession to create things. You’re wrangling with a constellation. When you grasp it, and act on it, it’s a joy. If it comes along at three in the morning, so be it. That’s when you’re obliged to act.

Maybe some people think obsession’s unhealthy. For you and me though? It’s a blessing. It’s the greatest tool there is.

 

Clutter

Writing stories requires us to build worlds. It’s a conjuring spell; a kind of alchemy.

For the spell to work, we have to make this other world feel real. Play tricks on our readers’ minds and immerse them in it, even just for a moment.

But first we need to understand how people actually see the real world around them. How we see it ourselves. Once we can do that, we can replicate this “way of seeing” in the way we write fictional worlds too. This is how we suspend disbelief.

Think about it: we’re myopic creatures. Our brains are short-sighted. While we’re capable of big ideas and long-term thinking, it’s the small thoughts and short-term matters that make up the vast majority of our lives.

We think of the world as a vast endless place. But in reality, it’s six feet across. The few feet around ourself. In reality, life is lived one moment at a time.

Our real world exists at arm’s length. It’s made up of what we can taste and feel, then reach, then smell, then hear, then see. Maybe a sixth sense too, if our tangible world gets too boring. Each sense detects the world a little further, but everything extends and returns to the centre. Our higher brain, then our primal brain, but most of all our gut feelings. We are, first and foremost, an elaborate digestive system in search of food. That’s the primary reason that we sense the world around us. Our world is whatever’s within reach – and whether we can eat or drink it to stay alive.

But how does this relate to storytelling? Well, the real world, the world within reach, also possesses a pervading sense of the mundane. Most of the things around us don’t shock or excite us. We aren’t thrilled by the novelty of a pen we’ve owned for years. We can use this mundane quality to make our fictional worlds feel real as well, and relax our readers into strange places that are still somehow familiar. We can weave in the boring and everyday with the spectacular, to strengthen that spell. A fantastical world, but one we can relate to through its sights, sounds, smells, and objects. We add clutter.

Most of the time, we don’t see the world as a vast landscape. It’s one room, then another, then maybe a wide open space. While we’re entirely capable of big ideas and huge achievements, most of the time we’re living from task to task. Chore to chore, and person to person. And, crucially, from object to object.

We don’t just “cook dinner”. That’s the wider process. In reality, we wash vegetables. We use a knife. We turn the gas on, and boil it up, and stare out the window, and wonder about our life for a while. Maybe see a small dead fly on the sill or something. Then the dust on the frame. Then decide the window’s due for a clean. Grumble at the ads on the radio. Wonder why gas flames are blue. Hope the meal’s going to taste alright when it’s done. Use a pinch of salt, or a spoon.

The point is, we move through a world of fragmented thoughts and objects. Life’s a constant string of microscopic events. A smell, a sound, a thought. One after one after one. It’s only by building up these tiny events over time that we have what we think of as “life” or “the world”. It’s not one monolithic entity, a single slab of stone, but layers and layers of experiential sediment. To make our stories feel more real, we can use words to build up this sensory sediment of its own.

The more you can focus a reader’s attention, the more you’ll suspend their disbelief. To build a convincing world, try to clutter it up with tons of tiny things that the reader, through the character, can interact with. A tool, or a passing bug; maybe an ornament over a fireplace. A cough, a scratch, a sneeze while someone’s talking. The feel of itchy robes. Tons and tons of tiny things.

Building a world isn’t just about vast landscapes. Paint the trees or buildings in the middle ground too. Make them feel real with cracks and weeds, as if we could walk up and touch them, and bring all that huge world into short focus too. The stuff we know, and see, and could touch up-close.

Our minds are hungry, and they came into your story to eat. Lay out the whole fantasy banquet, but also give us the reward of that first bite. Lay out the wider meal, then zoom us in on the main platter. Cut us a slice. Tell us about the slight steam on that glazed roasted meat. The homely smell of it, warm and welcoming while the snow falls outside. Tell us how it’s dripping with a rich gleaming sauce. Give our senses the payoff, for paying attention to your words.

As writers it’s our job to present meaning through story. That’s why people read, because it’s also why people think. But let’s not beat our readers over the head with just the big ideas; the big meanings. Present the huge landscapes in passing, then give people a closer look. Present the whole banquet of meanings, then give them a small single taste.

Walk with them slowly, right up close to the whole vast painting, and point out just one cherry in a bowl. That’s when we switch on their senses.

That’s when the fiction feels real.

 

I’ve been trying to achieve this with my own science fiction. If you need a new read, try it out here. Let me know if I’ve managed to do this, with the clutter in my stories – or what I should do to improve.

How to business

No one cares about your personal journey.

People are indifferent to the company vision. They don’t give a flaming heck about the brand story. We’re people too, and we care about contrived corporate mission statements as much as anyone else.

Most people don’t care how a tech brand started, or how the gadgetry works inside. They just want a phone. It makes life better. Faster, and prettier. Maybe it makes their jobs and lives easier. It just delivers results that people like.

Be in the business of pleasing people. Not with smiles and platitudes, but by producing the things they like. They’ll buy those things, just like you do. You pay for things you like. Things that mean something to you; that please you.

Stop telling people how great you are, and let your customers speak for you. Be useful. Deliver more value than people can handle. Be of service to them.

So that’s the customer taken care of, and the customer is always right. What do you get out of it? You get the C word. You get cash.

Cash is this giant dirty secret. People pretend that they’re never really out to make it. Like it shouldn’t be talked about in polite conversation, and that money isn’t our breath and lifeblood, and what makes the world go round.

But I’m a writer, of course. I work in the arts, and such talk should be beneath me. Well, I like to not starve. I like a home to live in. I like to grow my business, to write more books, to make readers happy and grow my business some more. There’s no special funding, and I don’t deal in hope. I make money.

When I got my first job, in a supermarket, they asked us new recruits why we wanted it. Other people said they wanted to be on board and that they were people people, and that they just wanted to make a difference and help. I said I wanted the money. The interviewers were horrified, and I still got the job. I worked hard and treated every customer like a five-star guest, but I never wanted to stay in that job. I wanted to write stories. I wanted people to really enjoy what I wrote, so much so that I could do it full-time.

I wanted to go into business, and Kindle arrived at the perfect time. It took a few years of trial and error, but it happened. I don’t know exactly how a Kindle works; I just know that I enjoy using it. It’s a tool for my education, and my entertainment. It’s how I published myself and make a living.

No one cares about the corporate vision. A business earns cash, or it doesn’t. It produces things that people like and need, or it doesn’t.

The next time you take a job interview, or if you go into business for yourself, just cut straight through all the questions to what actually counts. Does this business serve people, and give them good results? Does it make more cash than it spends? How could you really improve things, for your customers and for your growth?

Maybe you don’t get the job. That’ll tell you the job was a waste of your time. If money and sales are dirty words to them, they’re allergic to running a business. That job was a waste of your time.

If that seems aggressive or shallow, there’s an issue in facing the truth. A business makes money. That’s what it’s there to do. Customers buy what they like or need, and that’s why they come to your door. It’s not ugly; it’s a transaction. The same way you pay for things yourself. Does it hurt your own feelings, to know that the people you buy from want your money for themselves? Do you think they hoard it, and don’t spend it on what they need too?

If a business isn’t growing, it isn’t making enough money. If it isn’t making money, it’s not giving paying customers what they really want.

You don’t need to choose between passion and profit. You can choose both. Love what you do, love the art and the craft of it, and make a livelihood from the money that the market deems your efforts to be worth.

 

If you’re looking for a new read on that Kindle, or on your shiny new phone, click here and try a free sample of my sci-fi action books in the Amazon store. 

Debunking writer’s block

Ah, humans. We can complicate simple things to the point of insanity. Being crazy talking monkeys with obscenely large brains, maybe that’s kind of our thing.

But maybe writer’s block isn’t a thing. Maybe it’s just a lack of ideas going in. Perhaps our monkey minds are just hungry for art and new things.

I don’t like to believe in the idea of writer’s block, because it feels like an indulgent myth. When my livelihood depends on writing every day, and writing the best stuff I can, being the boy who cried “writer’s block!” seems like a luxury I can’t afford.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it’s a struggle. Fresh ideas and frantic typing aren’t always forthcoming. But maybe we’re missing out a bit of key thinking around the whole topic of creative block: the idea of the simple machine.

We’re probably all familiar with the basic concept of a machine. It’s input, process, output. Familiar in the realms of computing, tech and production lines, but maybe less applicable in the creative world. Or is it?

We could think of our bodies as the Soft Machine. We need all manner of fuels, inputs, nutrients and lubricants to keep us thinking, talking and moving around. All those processes we’re going through, constantly: respiration, digestion, metabolism, thought. It’s the same principle: input, process, output. Calories, respiration, life. Can’t we think of our creative mind in the same way?

The brain obeys this machine principle, and the mind is a process of the brain. As well as food and water, the brain needs information to keep us alive – like learning that if you walk off that cliff over there, you may end up slightly dead. Part of the brain’s many processes takes in novel experiences and valuable lessons, to build up our experience of the environment we need to survive in. To live an enjoyable life.

In terms of evolution, we’ve never had the speed and strength of the big cats, or spines or venom to keep us from being eaten. We’ve never had claws, fangs, camouflage or safety in vast herds. But what we do have is the greatest bio-software in existence. The brain’s squishy computer is our natural defence.

Our mind, our imagination, has so much massive processing power that we can simulate deadly situations and avoid them. We developed better outcomes for the tribe, by avoiding a dangerous territory or shaping a certain tool. And we passed that knowledge on, over thousands of years. Building and refining that knowledge constantly. Until, finally, we now live in comfortable multi-caves of our own making. There’s farmed food handy, in a storing-box that makes its own ice. There’s hot running water and wired lightning in the walls. Wheels and engines, and horseless carts. There’s a mystic web of runes and pictures, the whole damn history of our shared human experience, collected from the world and beamed right into this screen you’re reading. It’s magic; it’s better than magic. All a wizard can do is taser you with a stick.

Everything we’ve imagined and achieved has relied on prior information. Some kind of input for our brain to process and improve on, and produce a better output on the other side. Put simply, our brains are improvement machines. Improving is what humans do.

In some roundabout way, and ironically proving the point about human complication that I started with, the idea I’m getting at is this: our minds can’t produce fresh improved output without the input first. If there’s no ideas going into that mind machine to process, then we don’t have any output either. Without enough fuel going in to that creative engine in your head, your creative output might just be running on the last fumes. Stretch out that scenario over hours, days, weeks and months, and what we get is the myth of writer’s block.

Maybe it’s not a blockage, but an empty pipe. A creative fuel tank that we haven’t filled up with fresh ideas in weeks.

We aren’t tortured artists. We’re imagination monkeys. And we’re hungry.

So try some unknown fuels and flavours. New music, and unfamiliar experiences; untraveled locations and fresh ways of producing art. If you’ve never trawled the online galleries of digital artists, take a look at them. If you’d never thought to write fiction to the sound of film scores, give it a try. There aren’t any limitations or conventions any more. No one’s stopping you from taking any hybrid mix of input or inspiration you like. Try a new show, or a graphic novel. Try a videogame. Or just get drunk and dance to a hardcore medieval party mix, if it helps put you in that high-fantasy frame of mind. All just new ideas.

This is the greatest time in human history for creative people to take it all in and produce fresh, exciting new art. To claim a flimsy excuse like “writer’s block”, amid a whole damn world that’s bursting with ideas like never before, just seems like a terrible waste of great talent.

How about we move past the writer’s block myth, and just feed our starving minds with all the fresh creative calories they can take?

 

If you like these kinds of ideas, maybe you’ll like my Kindle ebooks too. Sci-fi, fantasy, gothicness and horror. They’re cheap n’ meaty, and I’m working on more.

“Just believe in yourself.”

….Come on.

Let’s not keep crippling our ambitions with that kind of magical thinking.

It takes no work whatsoever to just believe in ourselves. It’s lazy. It’s a feel-good shortcut around the fact that we’re terrible at something. And guess what? We’ll always be terrible at it, unless we face the truth and practise.

Forget you ever heard the words “just believe in yourself”. If you want to make anything of yourself, you need to work harder. You need to impress people with the concrete results you can produce. You need commitment, discipline and rigorous practise in your chosen trade. You need to know your tools.

We also need the right attitude. People won’t buy your books just because you’ve written them. Those books need to be competently written. They need to inform, or entertain, or both. You need basic ability with spelling, grammar and good pace. None of which will be perfect in your first few books.

No one knows this stuff instinctively – it takes repetition and a great deal of learning from your mistakes. Best of all if you can self-publish, and learn from negative reviews, and see those reviewers as teachers rather than haters.

There’s no shortage of self-belief in the world. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But if that’s all you’ve got, don’t expect to be successful at anything. Why? Because there’s nothing easier than just believing in yourself. Who couldn’t do that? There’s no effort or sacrifice involved whatsoever. There’s no practise or rigour. There’s no commitment.

Instead of just believing in ourselves, and waiting for the world to finally recognise our innate genius (and we’d be waiting a long time for something like that)… No. Just no. We need to stop telling ourselves that shit.

Stop telling yourself things. Ask questions of yourself instead. Was that the best I could do? What do readers want? Why should people pay their hard-earned money for my writing? What makes a bestseller sell? Since people absolutely judge books by their covers, because we’re all busy people and that’s what book covers are for… how can I make my book cover less shitty?

None of this happens right away. It’s a gradual process, and it happens on the job. I’m not right, or wise, or an expert, but I know more now than I did. If you want to be a full-time writer, you need to write full-time. Maybe around a day job too, because life’s hard and sometimes it sucks. (Take a job as a writer. That way you’re getting paid to practise all day.)

But when it all pays off, and you learn stuff, and you can watch your readers enjoy your writing and see your writing improve each time… and maybe even start to build your own business with it… there’s no better feeling in the world.

Stop believing in yourself, and I will too. Let’s admit that we suck at writing, and don’t know anything, and just work hard to improve.

 

Dealing with fear

Fear paralyses. The solution is certainty. You focus instead on what you know already – and expand your knowledge from there.

We all get nervous sometimes. Life throws big decisions at you, and there’s often no way around them. Just through.

Maybe you’re itching to quit the rat race, and tap into that well of creative energy that’s always been boiling and bubbling in the back of your mind. To make a go of it, and even forge your own creative career. But it’s a hell of a jump, to quit the safety of that day job. How do you even know you’ll succeed?

That’s where you develop your convictions. Yes, it’s a big leap to quit your day job and be a full-time creator. But it doesn’t need to be scary. Not if you’ve done some prior homework, and you’re already certain.

Certainty is worth more than gold. There’s a lot going on in this world, and there’s an awful lot of things we’re unsure of. No one has all the answers. But the ones with an answer, of any kind, are often the ones who get ahead.

Certainty, confidence, experience… it’s all pretty much the same thing. The more you know, the more certain you can be. And for certain people, life has a strange tendency to get out of the way. You just have to know a little more.

It’s like building up a mental toolkit, and keeping those tools clean, sharp and up to date. You develop certain skills and approaches. You keep a close eye on your industry. You have the right information to hand, like a tool, to handle what comes your way. It’s as simple as knowing more.

Take the study of business, for example. Watch enough speakers, gurus, experts and millionaires and you’ll find that the same patterns emerge: that while education punishes us for failing, it can be a badge of honour in the entrepreneurial world. It’s a valuable lesson, priceless experience, and often the springboard to try another venture and get it right. Since no one has a crystal ball, failure is kind of just there anyway.

It’s ok to fail – as long as you learn from it and try another way.

We may delegate our woes to the experts; to the ones who know. Or at least, the ones who appear to know. But qualifications aren’t a guarantee. Experience counts for far more. Are we judging these experts on their results, and the hours they’ve put in to getting them? Or do we believe them because they tell us to?

There are no sacred experts any more. Anyone can be an expert in anything. In our age of information, you could know more about the car you’re buying than the salesman trying to sell it. You could know more about his sales techniques than he does – and watch him using them too. You could know exactly what makes you want that car, and exactly what it’ll take to make you buy it. You could be the most certain person in that dealership… and you could walk away. Maybe you know you could buy it cheaper elsewhere. Maybe you don’t need the car at all. The point is, either way, you’re certain.

It’s the same if you want to make that jump into self-employment. You realise that some people know a lot, and you learn from them. But no one has all the answers, and there’s nothing to stop you knowing as much as anyone else.

There’s a fine line between confidence and ego, but it’s a very solid line too: it’s objective fact. Does your self-employment make enough money for you to live on? Do you sell your works for what they’re worth? Do you have the social proof (reviews, customer feedback) to demonstrate your ability, and point out where you need to improve? Subjective opinion and artistic passions aside, the numbers don’t lie – your work either sells in the marketplace, or it doesn’t.

If you commit to learning everything there is to learn about your art form, and the business, and (crucially) how to make that sale to support yourself, then there’s nothing to stop you from making the leap to self-employment.

To deal with fear, educate yourself. Strive to know more than the average bear. Get certain.

Now buy my books.

“I want to write books too.”

“That’s great!” I’d reply eagerly, once upon a time. Now, my response is an eyelid twitch. A grind of the teeth, and a thought:

Please tell me what I’m supposed to do with your statement. Please tell me what to tell you, to make this conversation end. My imaginary friends need me.

One does not simply want books into existence. There’s a long part in the middle, with tapping sounds. And coffee, and sighs. And rage. At stupid o’clock in the morning, through to headache o’clock at night. And repeat.

Writers aren’t special. They’re not tortured artists, and they’re not some ethereal class of people doing the work of the gods. We’re a keyboard peripheral, made of bones and tendons and squishy staring brains. We’re strange and often alone, and may well tick the boxes on the crazy test. But we work. We read, watch, listen, learn. Until we can never really switch off.

I want to write books too, or the closely related I really want to be an author, are fantastic aspirations. But if that’s all you’ve got in that bag of ambitions, expect people to get real tired, real quick.

An aspiring painter can want to beat the sistine chapel. The working painters of the world won’t fall prostrate before them, and wonder starry-eyed at their grand ambitions. That painter learns the sistine chapel in detail, and works.

Wanting things to happen is bullshit. We get to work like everyone else, or we don’t eat. If we don’t have the time, then we make time. There’s no easy way.

So here it is: the truth we should be told in college. There is no creative community. It’s pure meritocracy, and we’re largely in it alone. We’re in this for a love of the work itself, and for the fans we might attract along the way. There’s plenty of guidance out there, to encourage us and point us in the right direction. But when it comes down to it, you’re on your own. You work, and work bloody hard.

You don’t tell anyone that you want to write a book. It fools you into thinking that it’s already well underway. You keep your mouth firmly shut, and let your keyboard do the talking. You publish something crappy, and improve next time. That’s the only way it’s done.

Anyone can want to write a book. Anyone can want to do anything.

Be the one who stops talking about it, and do it.