Category Archives: Good Advice

Mailing lists: the all embracing panacea or the hamster wheel of doom?

As you know, I’ve been writing books and attempting to sell the results since about 2010. I still think my books are good. I think the books I’m writing at the moment will be good too – or at least as good as I can make them and good by my standards, ie they’ll be more of the kinds of stories I’d like to read but that don’t exist.

However, for all my efforts, I’d be lying if I said I was doing well as an author, but the fact I write the books I want to read, rather than what ‘the market’ is after could be posing a problem there.

Originally, in the absence of a following to ask, my marketing strategy went like this.

‘Hey Sensible M T I’m going to write a book.’
‘Great plan Ditzy M T. What about?’
‘I’m going to write the books that I’ve always wanted to read but no-one has ever written.’
‘Is that a good idea Ditzy M T?’
‘Of course it is Sensible M T.’
‘But, if people wanted to read them, wouldn’t someone else have written them?’
‘No Sensible M T, I believe I have spotted a niche.’
‘Oh yeh?’
‘Yeh. I’m a person, I’m bog standard, so surely whatever I want to read will be something a whole group of other people like me want to read too, right?’
‘You think there are other people like you?’
‘Of course.’

Unfortunately, Sensible M T is correct. People like me are rather rarer than I anticipated so it’s taking me a bit of time to build an audience … and I think a lot of folks are getting mailing list fatigue, which is understandable, but a pity. Although at least, now, there are enough folks following my writing for me to be able to ask them what they’d like: hence the K’Barthan shorts, and there will be some, I promise once I’ve finished the K’Barthan accidentally long I’m working on – that’s hit 50k today, by the way. I have a nice properly short story brewing about how The Pan ended up jumping off the bridge (he mentions it to Ruth in the second book).

We’re on the road to nowhere!

As the Talking Heads said (blimey this is getting a bit Alan Partridge). But I do feel that I am running faster and faster to stay in the same place. Sales are a bit … well

That’s right. Pants.

Looking at my sales spreadsheet over the last umpteen years, I can’t help but notice that I am putting in more and more effort to achieve the same results. This last month, April 2017 if you’re reading this 400 years from now in a post apocalyptic world where electricity and computers have only just been reinvented, was one of the worst on record. It was the first time more than two days passed between book sales, for me, since 2013. Then came this month, gulp. There were several big blocks of four or five days when I didn’t sell a thing. The total earnings are £30. The lowest month for ages. Naturally, I thought I’d see if I could find out why.

First up, I tried a different type of mailing promo last month and it’s too early to tell if it’s worked yet. Second, the month before that, I didn’t do a promo. That’s two very compelling explanations, right there. But is there more.

Looking at onward sales I discovered these lovely factoids:

  • There are 4,247 people on my mailing list.
  • They have bought a maximum of 662 copies of the K’Barthan Series books in a combination of books 3 and 4  at $4.99 a pop (sales are about level pegging which is a good sign) or the box set at $7.99.
  • I’ve sold about 400 copies of book 2 since I started all this free book malarky – even though I give it away free to folks who join my mailing list.
  • That said, about 750 have bought Unlucky Dip, the short story, for 99c.
  • On the day of launch only 14 people bought the K’Barthan Box set.
  • Only 280 have bought Escape From B-Movie Hell.
  • If I take just one group of 1,000 mailing list members, I can see that 280 of them clicked on the links to find out more about the paid books when I emailed them about it. That’s actually not bad.
  • After three quarters of a year, or thereabouts, I survey my mailing list peps. You’d be amazed how many answer the ‘did you enjoy the books’ style question with, ‘I haven’t read them yet.’ Even after eight months or so some of them are clearly a little nettled to be even asked.
  • A couple of folks have joined my mailing list and then emailed me to say they downloaded the book two or three years ago, never got around to reading it and are really glad they have this time – there’s even a review that says that!

What do these pieces of information tell me?

  1. That I should be writing more short stories. Hmm.
  2. That information pages I send them to about each book on my website need an overhaul.
  3. That the books might be too expensive.
  4. Or that people are feeling a bit, what’s the point? about brexit and our impending ecological and nuclear doom and don’t want to shell out for a book any more.
  5. It reinforces the argument that a higher rate of output comprising shorter books at a lower cost is probably the way to go – I’m thinking 50k for $2.99 and 10/20k for 99c/p maybe. At least I have to have something between 99c and $4.99 – currently there’s only the stand alone.
  6. That if I’m smart, some or all of the future books I write should be about K’Barth.
  7. That anyone on my mailing list who is interested in reading the K’Barthan Series had already done so, with knobs on, when the box set came out and that any who might be weren’t ready.
  8. That folks who are interested in reading the second K’Barthan book often buy it straight after reading the first one, they don’t wait four days to get it free. That’s great because clearly they’re into it.
  9. That, in turn, could tell me that people who are less worried about money purchase my books and perhaps this is more evidence for shorter books that I could sell at a more accessible price for folks with less disposable income.
  10. That I need to make it clearer to people that they can borrow my books from libraries – but they have to ask because the librarian won’t have bought them (I’m not famous and not a sure bet). In short, I need to make sure that they realise that they can get access to my books, even if they are cash strapped.
  11. That the average reader has a to-read list that is well over 8 months long and reads the books in order.
  12. That while I have always assumed that a fair few of the people on my mailing list won’t have read my books 7/8ths is quite a lot higher than I expected.
  13. That the read through rate is only as high as 7/8ths if every single person who has bought K’Barthan book 3 and 4 in whatever format is on my mailing list, which I doubt.
  14. That the percentage of people who are actually reading the book I give away is gob smackingly low. Nowhere near the 20% I thought it was (going on Amazon downloads of the free book and totting up subsequent copies of the next books sold in 2015.
  15. That, possibly, the people who do read the book I give away in return for their email address are the ones who read it straight after downloading it. This could explain why they zip through the first book in a couple of days and then get stuck right into the rest of them rather than waiting for the free second book.
  16. That until a couple of years have passed, I won’t really know the results of my efforts to upsell since it will be a very long time before many folks get to the first book.
  17. For the long haul tbr people, at least regular mailings from me will keep them in touch and help them not to forget about my books.

What about the risible rate of earnings?

Hmm… what about it? More factoids.

  • It was 70% down on my £100 monthly average.
  • The worst since February 2015 when I had 70 friends and family on my mailing list and hadn’t worked out about permafrees with optimised listings – which worked then.
  • It is in keeping with the time of year. The worst month for sales always seems to happen in spring: Feb, March, April or May.
  • As I mentioned, it may be down to the choice of giveaway book in April.
  • I didn’t do much in the way of promo in March.
  • There has been no uptick in sales at the beginning of May, usually at the start of a month there is.

What does this tell me?

  1. That net worth of my efforts to upsell my other books from information I give on my mailing list is currently worth £30, or thereabouts, from an average £100. Possibly. But I’ll never really know for sure.
  2. That it’s very important to have a promo planned every month.
  3. That you need to be lot more savvy these days, and do a lot more to get your books in front of people, to achieve the same results you could have done with less effort a year ago. Mwah hahaharhgh so nothing new there!
  4. That promos do drive sales.
  5. That the merit of giving folks a second book as well as the original freebie they downloaded might be debatable. Is it getting read by many folks? Difficult to tell but it looks unlikely. Then again, I won’t really know until the long haul people kick in (if they do).
  6. That if I give the short away as a second book, instead, it might get more people reading because it’s accessible, but it might people off because it’s crap.

It could be that I am gaining a lot of new mailing list followers, but very few readers. But just as easily, it could be that I will need to wait at least a year before a big proportion of the folks on my mailing list get round to reading any of my books. Only time will tell.

So? Patience young paduan?

Yeh, looks like it. It takes a lot of time and effort to sort out my mailings, find interesting things to include or fun stories to tell. But, clearly when I join the right kinds of promos folks are downloading and enjoying the first book in the K’Barthan Series, it’s just catching them while they’re still enthused in a way that doesn’t annoy the ones who don’t want to be reminded for a year or so. It’s also juggling not earning much with the cash. I’m moving my mailing list to another provider but currently it costs me £40 per month to entertain 4,250 folks. If my £30 per month earning streak continues I will need to uncover a way to monetise my list slightly or I’m going to be in certain doo-doo.

Yep. Doo doo. Scary huh?

Mailing list factoids.

  • Open rates have dropped but only a little.
  • Open rates are slower. I would have a decent idea how a mailing had gone down in two or three days a year ago, these days it’s two weeks before the percentage of opens stops creeping up.
  • Click rates are down. A lot. From a fairly reliable 20% – 40% to about 6% -13%.

What do these factoids tell us Noddy?

  1. Perhaps there is a mailing slow down. It’s clear that folks are still reading my emails but taking longer. Also, a couple of unsubscribe comments along the lines of ‘I love your emails but I am on so many authors’ lists and I just don’t have time to read them’ might bear that out.
  2. Many authors are doing giveaways now, or promos, or things where groups of similar books are offered for free to readers in return for them singing up to the authors’ mailing lists. It may simply be that a lot of readers have already heard about the promos I’m taking part in from other authors involved before I tell them.

So what can I do?

Sit tight and keep doing what I do.

Once again, on this one, I am, dangerously, doing what works for me. This does not mean it’s what works, generally or even that it’s what other people like. After all, if I wanted to sell books to the normals I’d have a really attractive thin woman on the covers and they’d be that shade of green, taupe, blue, brown or red.

For the record, what I want to discover, from mailing lists I join is whether I find the author interesting, as well as the stuff they offer. I like to hear about their books, their progress on new work and about any books they’ve read and enjoyed. I also like it if the emails, themselves, are amusing, or chatty, like a letter to a friend rather than a ‘professional’ offering. Furthermore, as my readers will undoubtedly be getting loads of emails from other authors as well as me, I want to make mine stand out, in a good way. I want them to get enough enjoyment and value from the things I send them to make time for them.

So far, the feedback is good. I think it is weeding out the kinds of people who are going to like and enjoy my books from those who’ve downloaded them free but will probably never read them. Hopefully it will. I’d much rather have an engaged list of 500 people, than a list of 4,500 who aren’t interested.

These days, twenty or thirty folks unsubscribe from my list in a month. That would have come as a big surprise a year ago. But people still write back and interact so I must be doing something right.

I have come up with some practical answers for improving the usefulness of my emails and, therefore, open and click rates but when it comes to onward sales, or library borrows, I’m kind of scratching my head. Maybe my books are shite, except if they were, why are the reviews mostly good? And the bad reviews, with a few exceptions, tend to say things that suggest the reader was the complete antithesis of the book’s target market anyway.

Any other cunning plans?

Well … I need to ask folks questions, find out a bit more about what they are after and then give them what they are interested in. If I set this up right, I can send free books to the people who want free, paid books to the people who want paid and can avoid sending amazon offers to readers who use only Kobo or vice versa.

But while that might help me make the information more pertinent and useful, I’m not sure what I can do about the ten thousand free books they need to read before it’s the ‘turn’ of mine. I also wonder about the 19,000 folks who downloaded Few Are Chosen while it was permafree. Six hundred onward sales from those isn’t a very good track record.

But for what it’s worth, here’s my plan.

I have two weapons and two weapons only. I’m weird and sometimes I’m funny. This pertains to everything: my books, who I am and what I do. In all, the weird and the funny are key. Some people find that hard work, others really like it. So hopefully, if I can carry on being the way I am, I will, eventually, build up a group of follows who appreciate the weird and funny of me, at least, even if they haven’t read the damn books. And maybe, eventually, they will find one of my newsletters leaves them wanting more … enough to dig out the K’Barthan Series, Book 1 and start reading.

It’s my only answer. So I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope. I’ll let you know how I get on.

On a final note …

If you’re one of the 3,500 out of 4,247 on my mailing list who hasn’t read my book, I am absolutely agog to know two thing:

  1. What on earth you’re doing there?
  2. What on earth you’re getting from it?
  3. Your reasons for not reading the book yet – i.e. your to read list is too long, the book is too long, you’re a book blogger/reviewer and haven’t got round to it, you’re never going to read the book in a month of Sundays but you love the reviews and special offers on other people’s books etc.

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Filed under General Wittering, Good Advice, Marketing Ideas, self publishing

Can I have fried brains with that? Time management/productivity hacks for writers #amwriting #writingtips #timemanagement

The longest blog post in the world … probably.

This week I will be mostly talking about making something out of nothing, or as that pertains to my world: time management.

As many of you will remember, my lack of minutes in the day to do … well … anything much was a continuing trope in many of my posts last year. The frustration of not producing any meaningful work while any ‘free’ time melted away faster than the polar ice caps was strong, and the whinging on my blog extensive, as a result. Sorry about that.

However, good news, I think. It looks as if I’ve fixed it, possibly, or at least, bodged the problem enough for my writerly mojo to return. And as I bitched and complained my way through last year, I did realise that I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing their duties to others and their requirement to write. So I thought I’d share the stuff that has worked for me in the hope that, perhaps, it will help anyone reading this who has similar struggles. So off we go …

A long time ago in a galaxy far away …

Last November, actually, Mum was in hospital again, and as I tried to sort everything out, and write, and be a mum to my own son, a good daughter, and be happy, burnout loomed.

Once we got her sorted out, and back home with Dad, I knew that if I was going to carry on writing I would have to make changes, even if it was just changes to my attitude. And I was going to have to make them fast. I’m an old hand at this now. The trick is not so much as to solve the problem but to alter my thinking so I see it differently. This time the ‘solution’ I arrived at was twofold:

  1. I couldn’t write the kinds of books I had been writing and deal with the things I needed to do in Real Life. I would therefore write shorter, less complicated books.
  2. It was clear that many folks who read my books enjoyed the K’Barthan stuff best. And I knew K’Barth well. There wasn’t so much time for experimentation right then – so that was easy. I’d write shorter, less complicated stories about K’Barth.

Enter the new series of 99p K’Barthan Shorts. In a bid to discover more details about the ‘market’s’ demands I asked what people would like to see more of. Gladys, Ada and Their Trev was the answer from everyone.

Roughseas asked me to write on about how Betsy, on Turnadot Street, started her Bordello. The answer popped up almost immediately. Meanwhile there was another one about The Pan of Hamgee’s early years on the Blacklist. That popped up reasonably fast too. So I had two ideas for short stories ready to go. All that was left was to write them.

Keenly aware that I can’t actually guarantee myself more than about 40 minutes to write in each day, it occurred to me that one of the problems with my rate of production was that its slowness sapped my morale, resulting in even less speed. So making some steady progress was essential to keep up my spirits and keep going. Obviously, as an authorholic, I am, literally addicted – stopping would have been much more sensible but it wasn’t an option. I decided to try and find a way to write more efficiently. I had a bit of a think and I came up with five ways that I could, possibly, give myself a hand:

  1. There might be some book production tools I could use to speed up and ease the process – such as writing software or text-to-speech software.
  2. Planning and plotting a bit before I start would help if I could tie it into the way I write.
  3. Writing shorter and less complicated stories would reduce the cerebral load (as previously mentioned).
  4. If I could improve my time management I might achieve more in the moments I had,
  5. My brain was fairly porridgey and I needed to find a way to re-enthuse it and sharpen it up while avoiding burnout.

1. Production tools

Yes, I am aware this sounds nuts but it occurred to me that one of the problems I face, writing, is that I usually keep the whole plot in my head. This is fine until I’m sad, or  stressed about other stuff, or my writing routine is constantly interrupted. Then, I can’t do it. I lose track of who is doing what, and with what, and to whom. When I make notes to help myself I still fail to remember, or at least, I fail to visualise what’s happening where, so written notes are unhelpful. So back in November 2016 I was spending three quarters of each writing session working out where I’d got to and catching up, and then about five minutes moving it forward before I had to stop.

As I pondered how to solve this knotty conundrum I saw a free seminar by a bloke called Joseph Michael about using a writing programme called Scriviner. Now, I confess, I’d never thought about using Scriviner, it seemed completely pointless, but I couldn’t help noticing, as I watched this free seminar, that the way you lay out a project in Scrivener appeared to cover a couple of my big writing problems.

  • Finding a way to list major scenes in a memorable way so I can work out a cohesive plot
  • Finding something that can remember what’s happened so far, and where I’ve got to, when my head can’t in a way that’s instinctive and at-a-glance.
  • Being able to put bits I like but can’t use yet somewhere close to hand so I can just nip over and cut and paste them in and out and remember they are there.
  • Being able to flip from my writing to my research easily  if I want to.
  • Being able to fit more writing into a short time.
  • In short, having all the information and prompts I need to write effectively in one place without burying one room of my house in post it notes.

The way Joseph Michael had his demo Scrivener set up, everything was laid out on screen where I could see it. My mental filing system is visual and it works horizontally. My ideal filing system would be a huge long table, with all the work in progress laid out on it. I’d walk up and down the table and see what needs to be done. If I try to file things vertically, in stacked trays or in drawers I forget they are there and cannot visualise what I am supposed to be doing or the shape of my task. I lose things in a pile.

My computer is a drawer – even using WordPerfect to write doesn’t fully ameliorate the impact of that, despite the fact it has its documents in tabs and I can switch from one to another with a single click. Things get lost and forgotten in my computer. Important things. Scrivener looked as if it might be the computer equivalent of a table rather than drawers, and when I found it on sale for  75% off, I decided to try it.

Bonus! Except While it was, indeed, the closest thing a computer can produce, in organising and filing terms, to a table, it was incredibly frustrating to use because it’s very much NOT intuitive in some respects. So I bought the training course for a truckload of money. BUT ONLY because it has a 365 day money back guarantee. No 30 day nonsense. A whole damn year. If I get stuck, I look up the problem on the course site, watch the video, which lasts about 3 minutes and I’m set. I am quite quick to pick up computer stuff but even so this worked very well for me. The way it’s set out is like an encyclopedia you can look things up in, rather than a course of long lessons which you annotate. Thus you sidestep the thing where your mind wanders as you take notes and you leave out a crucial click or step, one that renders your notes worthless and necessitates spending 30 minutes of your 40 minutes’ writing time watching a video, from beginning to end, to sort out where you went wrong. It’s way more useful than I expected, almost indispensable. Indeed, it’s probably paid for itself already to be honest. Bugger. Won’t be getting that refund then.

Around this time, I also saw McOther dictating email replies into his iPad and a light dawned. I could speak my books. However, after discovering that there is no way to teach my iPad how to write ‘eyebombing’ when I say ‘eyebombing’ and having the same experience with many other words like that, I reckoned it would be more trouble than it was worth. Even doing some dictation for my non-fiction book where I used the word, ‘spectacles’ instead of eyebombing – with a view to using search and replace, later – it was, frankly, too much of a ball ache. It occurred to me that the whole process of teaching speech-to-text software to understand my vocabulary, the correct spelling for the word arse and all the rest might take a lot more time than it would save. Doubtless I will give it a go at some point, but for the moment, I think I’ll put it in the someday-my-prince-will-come section of my list.

2. Planning and Plotting

Obviously what I envisioned achieving for myself here is far removed from compiling a comprehensive plot and then sketching the story by numbers.  I am, at heart, a pantser. However, it did occur to me that I could save myself a lot of time if I could kick the habit of developing so much backstory that my first scene ends up being one of the last ones. This is how I write: I get to know my characters, get interested in their pasts and before I know it, a new story has emerged. It’s usually a better one but having it turn up a bit earlier in proceedings would save me … well 60k of wasted words last year so, in short, the entirety of last year’s output (some of those words will be rescued or recycled but not all 60k).

I heard about a free seminar promoting a course called Story Engines. Story Engines sounds brilliant, but I can’t afford it. It didn’t help that there was only a short window, during the zenith – or is that the nadir – of the Christmas and post Christmas bankruptcy period. Why does everyone who runs a $500 closed course think a good time to open it up is December when everyone is skint? Sorry, I digress. The seminar was pretty good and opened my eyes to the kinds of questions I should ask myself. Questions which I thought I was asking already but clearly haven’t been. However, I could only afford one course and I thought that, possibly, I would work out more of the plotting stuff on my own than I would the workings of Scrivener. And the Scrivener course cost less. A lot less.

And I still have about 335 days in which to decide whether or not I like it! So I bought it.

3. Writing shorter

An absolute epic fail. For example, I’ve binned 20k of the ‘short’ about how Betsy’s bordello opened and I’m now just bubbling under 29,000 words into the new one. I think I may squish it into about 40,000 but it could run to 60,000. On the upside, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. Yeh. Thank you, Story Engines free training and lovely easy-to-see-what’s-going-on Scrivener layout. The magic is still happening, the picture is slowly de-pixilating and sliding into focus and the process is fun again. I also have a very much clearer idea of how Space Dustmen, the new series I’m working on, is going to go, and I’m really enjoying making notes and thinking about ideas. The characters are more focussed and yeh, things are happening there, too. Oh and there’s a non-fiction book.

On the writing shorter books front, then, null points. But on the writing, generally, a massive booyacka!

4. Time Management

We talked about the minuscule size of my writing window. How to make those minutes count then?

Scrivener was surprisingly useful and the plotting was helping but it was only a partial success. My efforts to write were still resulting in redundant words. Cf that 20,000 odd I mentioned just now and the other 40,000 from last year. Even though I will probably use three quarters of them, tweaked, a bit later in their prerequisite stories it was fairly essential that I did something to increase my rate of production and increase the suitability for immediate use of the stuff I produced.

So far, I’d some ideas plotted that I was really chuffed with, I’d laid out the basic chapters I thought I was going to write in Scrivener, added some notes, done the cards etc. But I needed more.

Somewhere, I read that comparing notes with other writers and posting your progress daily can really motivate you so I started a thread on a forum I visit. I’d also read that doing sprints works well for many people. You set a timer for twenty minutes and write until it goes off, have a 5 minute break and then rinse and repeat. I thought I’d see what I could do with that. I reckoned if I spent the first twenty minutes planning the scene and maybe writing a bit, and then the next twenty, going for it, I might get somewhere. No distractions, nothing, just writing the rest. So that day, I started my thread and explained what I was going to do. Then I turned off the internet, opened scrivener, sat down with the pinger set to twenty minutes and off I went.

Well.

That was a fucking eye opener I can tell you.

First sprint: 400 words, second 1000. Smecking Norah! Four weeks later, I have 28,800 words down. Even a hard, pulling-teeth-style sprint nets me 400 words. Just three of those sprints, ie an hour and a quarter given over to writing, and we are looking at 1,200 words, minimum. My record in one 20 minutes is 1,700. Typing. Every morning I can wake up knowing that, even if I only have half an hour to work that day, I can get a few hundred words done. Few things boost a writer’s spirits better than being productive.

I love the sprints and I love the camaraderie of chatting on the thread where we encourage each other and compare results. Definitely a really effective strategy, that one.

5. Avoiding staleness: saying, ‘bollocks’ to social media and making it quality time

With the sprints, Scriviner and even the plotting going well. I wondered if I could work on my freshness of approach. What I mean is, trying to persuade my times of  maximum brainpower to coincide with the times I had available to write.

After a lot of head-scratching it occurred to me that this writing game is a bit like a relationship in many respects. Sometimes, with dating, less is more. Three hours of quality time are worth many more hours of half cock time spent not really connecting that just make the whole thing go stale. I realised that, when quality writing time was thin on the ground, I was spending hours on social media while I did other things looking at emails, or generally staring at my iPad and phone to try and keep myself connected to the electronic ether and with that, somehow, to my writing. Even sitting at home in the evening watching tv, or while I was cooking, or some other situation in which I could never hope to produce any meaningful content for my books I would be gazing soulfully at the screen convincing myself it would help.

It didn’t.

While, on one hand, all this screen time made me feel as if I was maintaining the connection, on the other it fogged it, made me feel as if it was sapping my creativity somehow. And the more in touch with it all I tried to be, the more time was sucked into this faux ‘keeping in touch’, and the less time I spent actually writing. Across my wider life, writing was all I was doing … Oh and panicking about having no time. I did a lot of that. So as well allowing my brain to be gloopified by the wrong kind of screen time, I was starving it of stimulation. No fuel. Poor brain. How could I expect inspiration?

More head-scratching, and then I decided to try and make all the time I had count, across the board, not just in writing but in everything. So I limited social media and marketing time and added other things to my day, experiences, like coffee with a friend, a walk, reading, listening to music, shopping, eyebombing, etc. I also tried switching off the computer at six pm and not turning it on again until the next morning. I still checked my emails and social media first thing as I sat in bed with a cup of coffee. However, I started writing a to do list for the day at the same time. Then when I sat down at the computer after the school run it was easy to reorientate myself. I started experimenting with using sprints to write emails and social media posts. I listed things I needed to look at, set up a sprint to do it in and then stopped when the bell rang. I found I could achieve exactly the same amount of interaction in a fraction of the time. In the evenings, in front of the telly, I stopped checking Facebook on my phone and started knitting socks. Um … Yeh.

The results of this have been amazing. I have way more creativity. When I started this, a month or so ago, there was only really room in my head for one project. After a week, I started having ideas about a project I’d shelved because it was too complicated. After two weeks the short had turned into a novel. After three, a non fiction project popped up. It looks as if I may finish a novel this year. One that I only started writing in earnest four weeks ago. It is as if this simple act of giving my brain time to rest has jump-started my creative mojo. Yes I still get tired, I still get sad about my parents, I still have the odd week of PMT when I can’t meaningfully achieve anything but I also feel fulfilled and fantastic because I am creating stuff – and when I feel like that I create more stuff – and even when it’s not books, it’s very comfortable socks!

Conclusion

So what gave I learned here that might help anyone who has waded through to the end of this? D’you know, I think probably this:

  • Being open to new ideas and open-minded about trying new things can result in solutions you never believed possible. I am really surprised at how helpful Scrivener is, for example, and would never have tried it had it not been flagged as a godsend by a couple of the book selling gurus I follow.
  • Looking at problems from different angles can really help to solve them.
  • A writer’s brain is just like a computer, you need to put stuff in to get stuff out – although unlike computers, I find that putting rubbish into a brain doesn’t necessarily diminish output quality. But the biggie is input. Input has to happen for output.
  • Avoid getting stale.
  • Keep trying! I’m beginning to think that the people who achieve stuff are the folks who never give up. And I’ve discovered this by achieving stuff (in my own very small way but it feels big to me) because I can’t give up. So I’m beginning to think that, within reason, if you try to achieve something for long enough, and work hard enough at it, something WILL happen, even if it’s not what you were expecting. Or to put it another way, when life throws you lemons then yes, take time, lick your wounds, nurse your bruises, regroup … and make lemon meringue pie.
20160412_mandslemon

Pie-ify me big boy!

 

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Guest Post. Handy hints on developing a villain over a series.

I am delighted to welcome my cyber buddy Charles Yallowitz, author of the long running fantasy series, Legends of Windemere, to talk about villains. Legends of Windemere is a seriously epic series – 9 books and counting. But as well as writing lots of excellent books Charles runs a great blog; plenty of thought provoking posts, interesting news and lots of chat in the comments. I thoroughly recommend you have a look at it, here. But do read the article first won’t you? Which reminds me… over to you Mr Yallowitz.

The Lich by Jason Pedersen

The Lich by Jason Pedersen

First, thanks to M T McGuire for allowing me to write a guest post. The question posed was about character development over the course of a series. Legends of Windemere, my fantasy adventure series, has six books out with a seventh on the way. So I get asked about this area a lot since I’m also very character driven. I always go on about the heroes, so this time I’m going to give a few tips on how to develop a villain in a long series.

  1. Give them a few scenes in each book, but don’t overuse them. Each appearance should have an impact to either the story or the villain. Appearing too often can weaken their influence over the reader and develop them too quickly. For example, I use my villains at the beginning to set up their end of the story. After that, they appear maybe every 2-3 chapters for brief scenes or confrontations. The latter is typically saved for the second or third act depending on what the outcome will be.
  2. Henchmen and secondary villains help fill out the opposing side of an adventure. These characters can be around for one or two books then be eliminated. You need to give them a reason for being with the bigger enemy, but it can be very simple. Money, bloodlust, fear, or any base wants can be used. A character like this only needs enough personality to do their job and be a threat. Not saying you can’t evolve them in a short time, but keeping it simple prevents them from growing too big. Unless that’s what you want, which means see #1.
  3. Very few villains are pure evil. Those that are have to be used sparingly and will have an issue being in a long-term series. Give your villains some longevity and depth by giving them a ‘good’ trait. It can be a delusion that they are right, a soft spot for something, or a personality trait that one typically finds in heroes. For example, the Lich in my series is an undead necrocaster and definitely a creature of darkness. Yet he demonstrates a loyalty to his master that rivals the heroes of the story. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does make the Lich a deeper villain.
  4. Going too evil can shorten your villain’s lifespan. In a series, the bad guys have to create multiple plans and make several attempts to kill the heroes. Each one has to be either equally or more evil than the last. Otherwise readers might think the bad guys aren’t trying any more. You still have to be careful if you have a few more books to wring out of the character. So if they do something so horrible that it can’t be topped then you will have trouble keeping them going for much longer. For example, I have a villain who starts off pretty bad with wanting to ‘break’ one of the female heroes. He was going to go for a while, but he began as a real monster. As the first few book progressed, he got worse and worse. I tried giving him a time out for a book, but it was too late. This villain had to either be removed for me to keep the story going.
  5. The heroes shouldn’t be the only ones to get new toys and abilities. Villains that run longer than one or two books should get some type of upgrade. New weapons or spells or a powerful new henchman can be introduced at the beginning of a story. After all, if the bad guy keeps losing then it’s a pretty smart bet they’ll try to upgrade themselves to, at the very least, stay on equal footing with the heroes.
  6. If you’re going to have a villain turn good then set the groundwork a book or two beforehand. The intensely loyal henchman shouldn’t have an abrupt change of heart after following orders for several adventures. It’s not realistic and comes off as the author wanting to save the character since most villains are killed by the end. Have your potential turncoats demonstrate the ability to be good just like a traitorous hero will show a sign or two of being bad. Have them doubt their path or reveal that they weren’t always a villain. Plenty of methods to make sure this isn’t a plot twist out of nowhere.
  7. Multiple villains can help flesh out the entire group because they will play off each other like the heroes. You can include scenes where these characters discuss plans or take an interest in the life of their comrades. There should always be an edge to it since these tend to be distrustful people, but they are together. Having everyone in their own corner and planning to betray the other villains can get silly.

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In search of a prince – or the ups and downs of frog kissing…

This week has been rather busy: recovery from half term, the production of the parish magazine which I now edit for my sins and a visit from McOther’s folks. As a result there hasn’t been time for much.

However, this afternoon, I got out into our garden for a spot of metal detecting. Our garden is a bit hit and miss. The first thing I found in it was a clay pipe head; early because it was small, from the period when tobacco was still expensive. The second thing was this.

IMG_2310Yep, believe it or not, that’s a bead which, upon presentation at my metal detecting club, was deemed to be Saxon. Yeh I was pretty gobsmacked and all.

So, this afternoon, I thought I’d go and have a look outside and see what I could find. One hole was left with the ‘treasure’ in situ because Harrison, our nut bar cat, wee-ed in it. Several other holes were left open so Harrison could dig vigorously in them, gnaw at roots and roll in the diggings, leaving me free to find more shite old nails treasure uninterrupted by the constant signal from the identity disk on his collar.

With a LOT of help from the cat, I finally managed to discover that our lawn appears to have been laid on a large piece of crappy 1970s carpet.

I also managed to dig up this impressive collection of total crap.

IMG_2312The nails range from modern to hand made and a couple of hundred years old. The round blob on the right is a lead thing and is… well I’m hoping it came out of a cannon because that would make it interesting to me even if it’s worth jack all and of no interest to anyone else.

So, in summary, metaphorical frogs kissed: 10. Handsome princes found: none.

Meanwhile sometime in the last two years or so, McOther had found a… um… metal thing in the garden. After a great deal of thought and brain wracking he has come to the conclusion that he probably found it while sieving the stones out of the earth for a flowerbed he made. After a few months of it lying about in his office he got round to showing it to me, just before Christmas.

“Can you show this to your metal detecting club,” he says.

“OK,” I look at it and shrug. It looks like a shite bit of faux old metal, the kind of thing that gets imported from China on pretending-to-be-medieval boxes and the like. “What is it?”

“If I knew I wouldn’t need you to ask them.”

“Fair point. Where did you get it?”

“I can’t remember.”

Then you know how it is, I was ill for the November meet, the Christmas one wasn’t really that kind of meeting, I forgot January and I finally remembered it last night.IMG_2309

“What do you reckon this is?” I ask the chairman of the club, who is pretty knowledgeable.

He perks up at once as I hand it over.

“This looks really old, where did you get it?”

“I’m not sure, McOther found it.”

“Hmm, I think it might be part of a Saxon cruciform broach. It’s a horse’s head. It’s got copper bug eyes, a stylised snout and those round things are it’s nostrils. There’s a line across his head where the browband* goes too.”

“Get away!”

“Show it to the FLO.”

* part of a horse’s bridle, brow band above the eyes, nosemband across the nose.

Shit.

“Right.”

So I join the queue for the FLO, that s, the Finds Liaison Officer which is always good because I get to see some of the amazing stuff my fellow club mates have dug up. In this case, highlight is a bronze age axe head, that another member of the club has dug up and he also has a really cool celtic coin.

“What do you think it is?” the FLO asks me when I present him with McOther’s piece of tat.

“I dunno, the Chairman reckons it could be Saxon, and a horse but I thought it was probably an arts and crafts bracket or some bit of Victorian shite.”

“Hmm… what if I told you the Chairman is right and your bit of old shite was actually over a thousand years old?”

“Fuckorama.”

Yes, so it turns out it’s a bit of a 5th Century Saxon cruciform broach and McOther found it on the surface of the soil, the way I found the bead. Yet when I get the detector out and dig, suddenly, I have a garden full of shite. Except that I know I don’t. The stuff is there and I will find it eventually. I just have to perservere… and find the cat something else to do while I’m going about it.

So how is this relevant to writing?

Well, this week, I discovered that, like the second one, the last two books of the K’Barthan Series have failed dismally to make the cut for the Wishing Shelf Awards. I’ve kind of hoped that they might squeak onto the short list. I’ve kind of hoped that with all three because the first one came third, or second, they said third at the time but they say second now… the point is I was expecting it to come nowhere.

However, try as I might, the kids who voted the first one onto the list have not enjoyed the subsequent ones enough. Or maybe there are just a lot more books around that are way better than mine, or at, a lot more of the books that are miles better than mine are being entered. Or maybe I’ve lost my mojo. Or maybe there was a t in the month and an r in the day and I needed it to be the other way around. Who knows? Whatever it is, I have been unable to repeat the feat. Maybe the current work in progress will be good enough to get onto the 2015 short list… maybe but probably not. The thing is, I’ll enter it anyway. The feedback, alone, is worth the price of entry.

You may be wondering how this ties in with finding Saxon stuff when you’re not trying, and a selection of nails, three milk bottle tops, a lead thing and the head of  pitching wedge when you try really hard. Well, I guess my detectoristic plight reflects two tenuous and slightly contradictory lessons.

First thing: don’t force it. Sometimes, if you just relax and go with the flow you’ll hit gold… or at least second/third, or a Saxon copper horse head.

Second thing: keep trying. Because just as any detectorist will tell you, to find your gold stater you will have to dig up a lot of shite. So whatever it is you’re doing, trying to dig up Saxon stuff, trying to write a book – or at least one that you don’t wish someone else had written – or trying to write a book that’s good enough to get onto an award shortlist, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time trying before you get it right. Or, as any fairy godmother will explain, if you want to find your handsome prince, you are going to have to kiss a lot of frogs.

 

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How did it all go? What I learned from doing a #booksigning

A little while back I write this post about my nervousness about taking a stall to flog my books at Bury Christmas Fayre. A week on, let me fill you in on how it went.

Stall with author in situ, yes, I buffed my nose with Mr Sheen.

Stall with author in situ, yes, I buffed my nose with Mr Sheen.

Truth is, I forgot to write down what I sold on day one, going solely on the amount of extra money. Looking back on it that was a Bad Idea. That said, I reckon on it being about 5 copies of book 1, a set of post cards and 4 sets of Christmas cards.

Nuff said, the next day I kept a religious tally of everything I sold: 8 copies of Book 1, 5 Boxed Sets and a copy of books 2, 3 and 4. I also sold 7 lots of art cards which I’d brought along, just in case. On the Sunday morning, one of the people who’d bought a boxed set contacted me by e-mail and bought another one. This netted me total sales of 11 packs of art cards, one pack of post cards and 40 books: enough money to pay for the stall, the banner, the stock and most of my outstanding credit card bill. I just wish I’d done the Sunday, too, and netted a profit!

So what did I learn? Several things. Here they are.

  1. Plan your stall in advance.
    Work out your bulk discounts, special offers, etc and make a price list. Print several copies of the price list, and get them encapsulated if you can, so that customers – or you – can spill coffee on them without fear. A calculator is handy and a cash box and some of those plastic stands you put books on (I got them off ebay too: 10 for £14). Make sure you’ve ordered enough books. Too many is probably better than too few.
  2. Make sure you have everything you need – or at least, the stuff you know you need.
    This can’t be stressed enough. Read the requirements given by the venue. Do they want you to bring your own table and chair? If they provide these remember to bring a table cloth. I used a dark blue cotton single sheet which cost me £7 on ebay. Bring water and some lunch (you will get hungry and thirsty no matter how unlikely it seems with all the adrenaline that is in your system). Write a list of all the things you are taking and tick off each item as you put it in your car.Life saving items for me were: plastic book stands, scissors, sticky tape, blu-tack, food, drink, price lists and a last minute purchase of some wacky sweets (more on that story later).
  3. Pimp your stall.
    Yes, make it pretty, bring a banner print off pictures of your covers so that if you have the good fortune to be in front of a wall you can pin them up – I did this but I didn’t bring enough. Make it striking so people are drawn to come and have a look.
  4. Have something to give away.
    I had two things: bookmarks advertising the series as a whole with blurb and e-mail address, plus sweets. You need the sweets to be wrapped because… well you’ve seen that e-mail that gets sent round every now and again about the wee on the bar nuts, right? So: wrapped sweets are good. It was my extreme good fortune to be in possession of some chocolate brussels sprouts. These were really just those mini chocolate footballs you can get but wrapped in sprouty looking green foil rather than the usual football foil.
  5. Provide something that will make people linger.
    In my case, it was two things. I had a tribble that people could pet – it cost me £10 at LonCon and it’s supposed to squeak but it broke on day two.*
    So I had the tribble for people to pet but what actually worked was the simple premise of providing a bin for the chocolate wrappers – in the form of a K’Barthan Series mug. That meant that the juxtaposition of the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘sprout’ was enough to get most of my potential customers’ attention. They then spent enough time diddling about trying to get the foil wrapper off the sprout for me to bend their ears about my books and cards. I also offered free book marks so if they were interested but not sure they had something to take away. Somebody downloaded a copy of all four books the following day, so I suspect this was one of the ebook users to whom I gave a book mark.Final note: When providing foil wrapped sweets of any description, at least three people an hour will eat the sweet with the foil on.
  6. Bring some bling. I read a post recently which gave excellent counsel against buying too much branded stuff off Vistaprint and the like. So… yes, you will get by on bookmarks and a t-shirt. However, if you do find an offer for reduced fridge magnets, post cards or the like and if your art work is really cool, it’s worth having a few things. One couple were humming and haaing as to whether they should buy the first book or the full set. I had discounted the full set so it was £39.99 instead of £46, which is what it would have been with all the books at full price. I had already added a set of three post cards to make the brown paper parcel more interesting. So I gave them a minute or two and then said, “look, I shouldn’t try to force you one way or another, but if you do buy the full set I’ll throw in a set of fridge magnets worth £3.” They bought the set.
  7. Enjoy yourself. Very important this one. Especially if being yourself, on the stall, is going to give them a sort of mini preview as to what the books are like to read. If you’re smiling and laughing with people and cracking jokes, others will stop to join in or listen. It also helps if you know the people on the tables around you and you can take the rip out of one another or just big up each other’s products.

*Incidentally, despite the fact it broke after two outings the company who sold it to me refused to replace it. Even if I’d used it every day we’re talking about my contacting them in October after purchase in August. Can you believe that? They wouldn’t sell parts for it either. This is another blog post, in itself, but basically, the moral of this story is: avoid giving your custom to http://www.tribbletoys.com or http://www.startrek.com – they are rip off merchants selling shoddy, over priced goods which break straight away and their customer service is piss poor.

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Press and publicity. Could I? Should I? M T’s upcoming stall at #BurySt Edmunds Christmas Fayre.

McMini’s latest, as he looked out at the pouring rain and the dark, sub-aqueous sky this morning.

“Mummy, I think the sun has decided not to get up this morning and it is hiding under the covers with its underpants over its head, refusing to come out.”

Very succinctly put. Naturally a long conversation ensued about the specifications of inter galactic underpants as we discussed size, standard of flame retardancy would be required when constructing (make doesn’t reflect the size of the undertaking) underpants for a star.

To be honest, today, I’m feeling a little bit like the sun, myself. I’m doing an event at the end of the week, so I have been having a go at press stuff. I started yesterday – nice and early natch (not). I’ve got something going that reads a bit like this:

“Hello I’m M T McGuire, an author based in Bury St Edmunds and delighted to be taking part in the Fayre this year at Cornhill Walk Shopping Centre (just behind Moyse’s Hall Museum). Come and visit to see the wonderful crafts and gifts made by local artists and while you’re there, why not say hello to me too? You can pet Bob the voiceless Tribble, pick up a free bookmark, and if you want to sign up for my mailing list, your name will be entered a free draw to win a book related mug (no, I’m not talking about the one behind the table).”

It’s very difficult to market a funny book. It’s difficult to market any book actually and as you know I’d kind of decided to give up on the idea. Indeed, my strategy for all marketing has been this:

Marketing? Pfft, easy. Ignore it until it goes away.

Marketing? Pfft, easy. Ignore it and write books.

However, there are people locally who have actually enjoyed my books and with the Fair, sorry Fayre, looming I thought I should at least make a token effort to tell the local folks I would be there.

In this post, I’m going to give you some advice. I’m also going to share a powerful secret: i.e. the many and varied ways I’ve bollocksed it all up so that you don’t have to.

In theory I’m supposed to be good at this. I was a brand manager for a household name company. But when 98% of the population knows who you are you don’t exactly have to try. Everyone is agog to know what your brand’s view on x, y or z is or what it’s doing next. You are, basically, insanely newsworthy AND not only that, but you have half a million quid to throw at making the 2% of the population living under a rock which is unaware of your brand well… aware.

Interestingly, as the brand manager, representative of the corporate heavyweight, I developed various techniques for putting others at their ease, most of which involved humour. In the bus and coach company, they worked. Unfortunately, public passenger transport is not your usual public relations arena. I found that people wanted you to be able to do your job, but if you could be humorous about it at the same time, they considered this a bonus rather than any lack of professionalism. I remember lengthy conversations with a freelance representative from one magazine about a mythical agency we would found together called “we write shite” you get the picture.

Since then, I have learned – possibly to my detriment – that this is not how the rest of the business world works, indeed, it may be that the transport industry doesn’t work like that any more. It’s been 12 years and one child since; a lot of my brain has gone missing and I couldn’t possibly comment. Coupled with my genuine lack of professionalism (cf 12 years: one child: no brain comment) this has not done me any favours.

Yes people, even if you are marketing a humour book, for God’s sake, don’t try to be funny: not until the interview, anyway, then you can be as funny as you like because you’re talking to your audience. I think, if you are able, it’s worth waiting until there’s some point in the press talking to you, too. Until there’s something in it for them. As a very small time affair, I feel quite arrogant and jumped up approaching them now.

Press coverage will not necessarily win you fans but it will put your name in front of a lot of people. However, if you can win yourself enough fans, it might bring you some press coverage anyway. A lot of fans is reason enough for the press to write about you. And if you have a following, your hopeless ditzyness melds magically from unprofessional conduct to cute eccentricity.

If, like I am this week, you find yourself called upon to abandon your concentrate-on-the-writing-and-wait-until-you’re-established-enough-for-them-to-seek-you press policy, here are a few handy hints.

  1. Make the information as interesting and up beat as possible.
  2. Target it. Use a press guide like Willings (or Pimms Media Guide if it’s still going). You should be able to find one at your library. Obvious suggestions are to try your local press, if you think they will be interested as well as magazines or new sheets aimed at fans of your genre(s). It might also be worth looking into press dealing with any other area in which you have a hook. In my case, magazines for mothers or families might be the way forward because I’m a stay at home mum. If you’ve written a thriller set in the world of competitive hang gliding, then magazines aimed at people who enjoy hang gliding or are fans of hang gliding might be a place to start.
  3. Check it. Make sure all the dates, times etc are correct. If you have discalculia, take extra special care to avoid doing what I did and telling everyone that your event on Friday 28th and Saturday 29th November is on Friday the 29th and Saturday 30th. That doesn’t look cool. However, if you have done that. Accept you’ve stuffed up and move on.
  4. Send it to them. Yes, very obvious this one but you have to be in it to win it. Even if you are pretty sure, in your heart of hearts, that nobody is likely to tell their audience about your event, send in the info because you never know. Let’s face it all they can say is ‘no’… or nothing. But if the information isn’t with them, they can’t magically know about it. Try to imagine ways you can make it useful to them as well as yourself. If they can see an obvious benefit from using it they may be more interested. Avoid doing what I did, though which was suggesting topics I could talk about for a radio interview. I was unsure at the time, because it’s kind of teaching Grandmother to suck eggs, but a day on I am cringing so I reckon it was a bad move. Er hem, there are reasons my publicity for this event hasn’t gone too well and the biggest one, so far is me. Perhaps that could be Thing Five.
  5. Avoid being the thing that holds it back. Ask nicely: be as courteous, cheerful, pleasant and polite about approaching as you can and try not to do anything dumb.
  6. Give them time – I have failed miserably on that score too – remember they plan their stuff in advance and so a couple of weeks’ notice rather then ‘oh tomorrow I am…’ is always going to be more effective.
  7. Be patient. Sure you can follow up (once, possibly twice if they sound interested) but don’t hound them. They’re busy and you are not the centre of their world; they have a lot of other stuff to do, deadlines to meet etc.
  8. Accept their verdict. They know what their audience wants. If they think that news of your stall/book/appearance/existence is unlikely to be of interest, you’re just going to have to suck it up and accept it. They probably have a much better idea of what their audience wants to hear about than you do.
  9. If they do give you some coverage, thank them.

So to sum up:  firstly, if you have an event on, then, obviously, you must tell the local press and anyone else who you think will be interested. After all, all you can do is ask. However, if you’re an obscure nobody, such as myself, accept that your information may not be used.

Secondly, I believe, more and more, is that for obscure and little known writers, our efforts are best put into writing books, good books that people will love. I’m sure there is a tipping point, I’m sure there is a critical mass at which sales suddenly skyrocket and members of the press start calling us. I’m sure that some people hit that tipping point with their first or second book; through luck, hard work, judgement or all three.

However, I’m equally sure that for most of us, that stuff is years in the making. So you and I, how do we go about it? We just keep going. We do stuff, we courteously advise the press it’s happening, we follow up and we carry on. The best products sell themselves, grashopper, but it takes time. And for all the events, appearances, signings and publicity that you do, the place you’ll sell the most copies of your next book is between the pages of your previous one.

—————————————————————————

 

M T McGuire will be at Cornhill Walk Shopping Centre, in Bury St Edmunds, on Friday 28th and Saturday 29th November. That’s the one behind Moyse’s Hall Museum and opposite McDonalds. She will be giving out free book marks and selling copies of books from the K’Barthan Series to anyone who wants to buy them. Should you wish, she can even devalue them by signing them for you. You can also purchase Christmas cards and there’s an alphabet poster on sale. You can pet Bob the voiceless tribble and watch him make a noise like an annoyed lawn mower. If you sign up for the mailing list your name will be entered into a free draw to win a K’Barthan Series mug (not the one who wrote it, obviously, I mean a thing to drink hot bevvies out of).

 

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Shingles anybody? It’ll make you feel better.

I was looking at this post, earlier and a few days before that, this one.

Both are about trying to balance career with other things, in the first being a Mum, in the second illness. So this is not for the people happily churning out a book every month, or painting prolifically. It’s for the people who could but haven’t the time.  My books take about 2 years to write. If I had the glorious luxury of being able to write 9-5, the whole year I reckon each one’d take 6 months, tops. That, right there people, is frustration.

Eyebombing, the only art I have time to do nowadays.

Eyebombing, the only art I have time to do nowadays.

However, these days, I think I’m surprisingly happy with my lot and I’ll tell you the secret. Shingles. run with me on this one, it’s going to take a while.

This isn’t a Mummy Blog but I am a Mum, which is why I thought I’d write this post is for the other Glacier Girls and Guys who are living slowly because they’re parents and they have to. It’s also for anyone who is a Parent who feels that by not enjoying each and every single minute they are somehow betraying their child(ren). In any job there are going to be bits you don’t enjoy. Being a parent is a job and in this respect, it’s like any other.

The other trick, I think is that we all tend to get a bit Monty Python Fork Sketch about being parents. Sometimes, all we see are the bad bits. That’s a habit but it’s not an easy one to shake especially among those of us who tend to be a bit anal about getting everything right. Seriously, though it’s amazing how quickly the good bits become background noise.

McMini goes to school but in the holidays, mostly, it’s just me and him. Sometimes it’s a challenge – usually on days when my energy levels are not quite compatible with his – but mostly we have fun. I think we always  have but it’s only recently I’ve been able to see it like that. Because… well… the truth is, I had a bit of a melt down.

A little while back, three, four years ago? Something like that, the reactor really cracked. The journey down took a year.

My in laws came to live with us for three months, from May to September. I love them dearly and gladly took them in but I found it peculiarly stressful. The fact that I did upset  me. November, the cold set in and my Dad took a real nose dive. My worry about my parents intensified along with me feeling that I was failing them. I crept through the winter, torn between staying at home and looking after my boy and going down to Sussex and looking after my folks.

Meanwhile, I was trying to be a decent Mum, fun to be with, understanding, full of ideas, kind and loving, when I couldn’t remember the last time I’d completed a thought without being interrupted and felt like shit.

Then one of my friends was diagnosed with lung cancer and given 5 weeks to live and  I took stock. I had a loving husband, a lovely little boy, a very dear family, a fantastic group of friends and a car to die for. Hell, I’d even written a book. I knew it was all good but the frustration of caring for a little one and being torn in two different directions at once was beginning to get a bit  much. I knew I was happy ‘on paper’ it was just that in reality I didn’t seem to be able to convince myself. I was perennially angry and mardy and grim and I didn’t like it. Or me.

During this time, I didn’t write or paint. There just wasn’t the slack in the system. The ambient levels of background worry continued to climb into the red zone, my emotional glass was full and the tiniest thing on top would make it brim over and have me in tears. Eventually it all went pop.

It was a Friday, late March or early April and I got home from dropping McMini off at nursery and started to cry. I cried for hours. I mourned for my Dad, for my friend, and for my Mum as she shouldered responsibility for everything my Dad had used to do. I picked up McMini from playgroup puffy eyed and wondered if I was having a nervous breakdown. But I finally understood how it was I could love my life, and the people in it, the way I did and still be sad. And it was OK and it made sense.

The next morning, I woke up feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted, with a new and certain understanding of my world…. and shingles. I’ve never felt so shit and so relieved at the same time. Sure, shingles was bloody painful, but I knew I’d hit the bottom. The only way from here was up, and finally I had some fucking clue which direction up was in. And I felt something else. I felt strong, and solid, and grounded.

Shortly after that, my friend with lung cancer died and in the same week another one did, too, unexpectedly, three days before his 42nd Birthday. I became aware that you can lead a full and happy life, and still find your brain is in a bit of a knot. So, thinking I might need a bit of help I went to the Doctor to see if I could get some counselling on the NHS.  She referred me for something called cognitive behavioural therapy although by the time I got to the top of the waiting list, I’d kind of worked it out for myself, but the basic gist is this:

  1. You cannot do everything you want to do, only what you can do. This is the hardest thing in the world to accept.
  2. Once you’ve understood your limitations, think of ways to work within them and let the other stuff go.
  3. Concentrate on doing things that play to your strengths.
  4. Draw a line under your mistakes. You can’t change them. Move forward and aim to avoid making them again.
  5. Concentrate what you’ve achieved rather than what you’ve failed to do.
  6. If something is wrong, tackle it. Fix it.
  7. Don’t look at other people and compare them to you, they and their circumstances are different.

If you can manage that, you can enjoy and appreciate the things you are able to achieve and you’ll feel less trapped by the stuff you haven’t done. And that will make for an easier going, happier you and perversely, I’ve found I achieve more now that I’ve stopped worrying about it… (mostly). Sure, I am not the daughter I hoped I’d be and probably not the mum, but I know I’m fulfilling both roles about as well as I can and I’ll settle for that.

Yes, is difficult to adjust to the glacially slow process of your own life once there are kids in it – and I’m the queen of the big Jessies there, because I only have one. It’s also difficult to adjust to the fact there are bits of your brain, like your intellect, that you don’t get the chance or just don’t have the energy to use.

However, Amanda Martin’s post (the first link) summed it up perfectly when she said that the whole point is, she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it. I wouldn’t and as for progress on other things. Well, it’s a bit like getting over shingles. When you are chipping away at something day after day, it’s easy to forget what you’ve achieved.

A few years ago, when I was absolutely at the end of my tether, I remember complaining to a friend, in tears, that I’d only written five words that day.

“Well,” he said, “That’s five words that weren’t there yesterday.”

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? Not to look at the oceans of stuff you haven’t done and the stuff you don’t have but to let all that bollocks go and look it the way it really is.

Life hasn’t stopped. It’s just slowed down; and who knows, we may be hankering for this when faster times come.

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