I never wanted to be a writer. I didn’t fantasise about seeing my words in print or imagine adoring fans hanging on my every word. I believed I was an inarticulate musician and sound engineer. Writing anything would simply confirm my deepest fears: that I was stupid. So it was quite a surprise to find myself, in my early 30s, with a head full of stories all demanding attention and expression.
My first writing experiments were screenplays. I decided, in my ignorance, that writing scripts would be easier than writing novels: there are less words, and so I thought, less work. Yes, I know… did I mention I was stupid?
Anyway, as well as learning how to write, I was going through an awakening and struggling to understand what was happening to me. I searched for stories to help me find a path through the confusion, but nobody seemed to be telling it like it was, at least, not for me. Many of the spiritual stories I found were ultra positive. It was almost like the dark side didn’t exist. But I knew it did because I was having daily fire-fights with my demons.
I realised, with some trepidation, that I would have to write this story myself. And so Addled began to birth itself in my mind. I thought about it for several years before I finally gave in and started to wrangle it into shape.
It was 2010 and I was working full-time, so finding space to think and time to write was challenging, as I’m sure many of you will understand. The job was in the public sector and pressure on resources meant the staff were given the option to reduce their hours to save the council money. I jumped at the chance and shaved off an hour each day. This meant I could get home an hour early and write. Bliss!
Before I started on the book, I wrote an outline. This was just a ‘notes’ version of the novel: a basic breakdown of what happened in each scene, with as much or as little detail as I needed. I simply wrote down everything I had in my head. Not all of it made it into the finished draft, and some of it changed as I wrote. The outline gave me a basic structure for the story and the main plot points so I didn’t get lost and wander off topic.
It took seven months to write the first draft. I chipped away at it, paragraph by paragraph, with occasional splurges of writing when I could take a week off. I set myself a deadline I couldn’t argue with: my 40th birthday. I wanted to feel like I’d accomplished something with my life when I hit the big 4-0, and completing a novel seemed like a good bet. I finished the book two days early.
The first draft was written in the third person, but it didn’t quite work. It jumped between characters and felt disjointed and messy as a result. The story centres around the main character: Zoe Popper, and the sections that worked were the ones written from her perspective. It was obvious I should’ve written the book in the first person. I chose third person because I knew I’d be taking Zoe into some pretty dark places and was worried it might be too much for the reader if the story was in the first person. But the result was disappointing.
Basically, it sucked.
I needed to rethink my approach. The writing felt like I was holding something back, like I was scared to tell the truth. That’s no way to write a novel, or anything else for that matter. So I decided to stop worrying about what others would think and go for it.
The second draft was a straight rewrite from third into first person, with a few tweaks to the story structure to accommodate the new perspective. I added some subplots to bring some of the other characters to life, and changed the way the plot worked for the bits I couldn’t show now I was restricted to first person. Instead of an outline, for this rewrite I created a much simpler document: a plot breakdown. Each scene is described in headlines of the main action points. For a screenplay it would be called a beat sheet, as it shows all the main story beats.
Inevitably, even this basic rendering of the story changed as I rewrote. My crisp and clear plot breakdown ended up covered in scribbles, notes and arrows, asterisks and afterthoughts. Still, I made it to the end. This draft flowed and felt more coherent.
Finally, I had a book.
Which isn’t to say it was perfect. Far from it. I already knew which bits still sucked, without even looking at them. It’s the bits that don’t suck that are often a wonderful surprise.
While all this was going on, life had taken some dramatic and unpleasant turns, and I was battling an almighty Shadow Attack: a time when your darkest and deepest fears rise up from within and start to tear your life to pieces. Literally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. You can read the sorry saga in Shadow Attack: Instant Karma & a Wake-up Call.
In a nutshell, my health collapsed due to repeated death threats from a psychotic neighbour, and then I was made redundant and thrown onto the dole. Although this was a pain financially, it was fantastic for my writing, and my health. Suddenly I had all the time I needed to heal, and finish the book.
I continued to rewrite Addled through all the ups and downs of job hunting, interviews, rejections, and the fortnightly humiliation of attending the job centre. It became clear I wasn’t going to get another job, so I fell back on my savings and registered as self-employed in 2013. I wasn’t earning any money from writing at that point, but with commitment and hard work, that would change over time.
Meanwhile, I sent Addled for feedback and worked through the critiques to produce a finished draft. The book was finally ready. I sent it to a succession of agents, after carefully researching their lists and putting together well-crafted submissions, and achieved nothing. Many of them simply ignored me. Many sent standard rejections. A handful took the time to say encouraging things, but the general consensus was:
It’s not commercial enough. In a competitive market, Addled would sink without trace.
This is always tough to hear, especially when you’ve spent years working on a book. Frankly, I’m amazed Addled exists at all, considering what I went through in the process of writing it. The book stands as a testament to my dedication and sheer single-minded stubbornness to get it finished. I had to prove to myself I could do it, even if nobody else noticed or cared. But, and this is a big but and even harder to hear than the above…
Just because you’ve worked hard on a book and poured your heart and soul into it and suffered through the writing of it, doesn’t mean that work should be rewarded. The fact that you’ve done the work basically doesn’t mean shit – to other people.
It means the world to you, and that’s what counts.
So what to do? Should I continue to pursue traditional publishing or do it myself? If traditional publishers would have a hard time selling Addled, would I fare any better?
I had to look at my situation dispassionately to decide the fate of my first book.
Addled is a niche book aimed at a tiny readership of people who have experienced or are experiencing a spiritual emergency. Anyone can see that’s not an easy sell. Perhaps I should put the book in a drawer and forget about it, put everything I learned in the process into my next book. But that felt like I would be abandoning the book. I wanted to share this story because I knew there were others out there who might enjoy reading it, even if they were few.
So I decided to self-publish Addled and make it available for those who are interested in such things as spiritual emergency and awakening, and the difficulty of embarking on a spiritual path when you’re an atheist and don’t believe in anything.
The kindle version of the book came out in January 2014, and last month I launched the paperback version and started a blog for the book.
It’s been an interesting few years and I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing, but mainly about myself and what I’m capable of. Now, if I’m having an off day, I can look back to when I was happily writing and the psycho-next-door interrupted me mid-sentence to shout abuse and threaten to “rip my skull apart”. I stopped writing to call the police and deal with the situation, and an hour later I was back at the desk.
I simply picked up where I left off.
I thought: Am I going to let this **** stop me doing what I want to do? Am I going to spend the rest of the day freaking out and feeling sorry for myself? Or am I going to write?
So now I have no excuses.
I can write, and I can finish a book.
In fact, since then, I’ve finished my second book. Well, ‘finished’ may not be strictly accurate, but that’s another story for another time…
(Oh, and the psycho making threats made it into the story, but to find out how you’ll have to buy the book!)