My latest book launched recently. ‘Get Over It’, a self-help book using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). A slight departure from horror and mystery titles, but therapy and thinking better to feel better was my day job for a number of years, and has been a big passion since my counselling training. Soon after finishing the book, though, I found I was strung out and a bit blue myself.
I love writing; creating characters and worlds and formulating stories. I can write all day, and could write every day. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s really liberating, and there’s never a dull moment for me when I write and my stories unfold on the screen in black and white. However, I have noticed that as much as I love writing, there are low periods when I’m creating. Instead of reflecting on the practicalities of writing, editing and marketing as a self-published writer, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the thinking behind my writing that can get me down. In writing ‘Get Over It’ I’ve realised that I have been a bit lax in using CBT myself. In the book I suggest sharing the way we think in blogs, or with friends, as a way to not be on our own with our issues and to reduce the stigma attached to not feeling happy 100% of the time and bring self-help work out into the open. So, I guess it’s only fair that I should show you mine.
Not my penis. Just want to clarify.
Before I get down to it, I’ll just explain that CBT takes the stance that our personal issues are often made worse, or are entirely down to the way that we think about them, and the way we respond to those thoughts. Most of the everyday thoughts we have are usually benign, but there will be particular unhelpful thoughts about ourselves, others and our life, that are triggered at certain times and affect us negatively. So, here are the thoughts I’ve recognised that can turn an experience I usually love into something stressful and unsatisfying.
‘I must do X, Y and Z’. ‘I must get this done.’
This way of thinking can either be supportive, or exhausting. I’m quite a driven guy, and much of that unsurprisingly comes from these thoughts. Thankfully this kind of thinking has turned me around from a teenager starting various projects without finishing them, to an adult who takes one project at a time and gets them done. However, these thoughts, these demands can often lead me to place a lot of pressure on myself. I might set myself unrealistic deadlines, or resize the importance of achieving particular tasks, and will cause me to spend days writing just to get closer to the end of a writing task, or project. Notice that the two types of thinking in italics back there? Well, CBT suggest we categorise thoughts to help us recognise habits in our unhelpful thinking–demanding and resizing are two such habits. The effect these thoughts have on me is that not having new titles out as often as I would want, not making a post to social media related to my writing, not making regular blog posts can actually be something I’ll worry and stress over, and I’ll spend more time writing and on social media than I do relaxing. I have to call myself out on that and recognise the pressure I’m putting myself under. No one is following me to the degree that they’re relying on my opinion of a TV show, movie, or the entertainment of one of my titles, or a funny cat video I might share. I have to remember to turn needs into preferences. I would like to achieve X, Y and Z, but what’s the worst that’ll happen if I don’t? And I make sure I take time out to enjoy myself. 2015 has been about this a lot.
‘I can’t trust myself to spot my mistakes.’ ‘I make stupid mistakes.’
Both are true. They are helpful for me to recognise. I need extra eyes on my work to spot errors. I’ve written my books, rewritten my books, and replay them in my head when I’m not at my keyboard, so I’m often too close to my work to work on it once it’s ‘done’. Paying an editor has been a big expense for me, but worth every penny as it is a safeguard against me putting out something that’s going to be embarrassing. However, I’ve learnt I have to make sure that an editor doesn’t deskill me in the way that autocorrect has. I have been learning from my edits, and I’ve decided that I will take a break between writing and editing to give me the distance that will help me spot more of those mistakes for myself. So, these thoughts don’t have to be a weakness I beat myself up with, they can be inspiration to learn and do things differently. I also have to accept that no one is perfect and mistakes happen.
‘If I get a bad reviews, it will be awful.’ ‘I’ll never live it down.’
It doesn’t feel good. To read a review that says your work ‘sucks’ and is ‘the worst book ever written’ is quite a blow. Those reviews aren’t going to go anywhere, and the person that wrote it is going to cling onto that opinion of me and my work, so I’ve probably lost a reader. Bad reviews suck, but these are catastrophising thoughts–making something worse that it needs to be. I’ve learnt a lot from my mistakes, and while I would prefer all my mistakes to not be before an audience, these bad reviews helped me realise I needed to be better and I needed an editor to help me. I’ve also learnt through my title ‘Ivory’, that books can be like Marmite; it’s had 1 star hate and 5 star love. Go figure?! Enjoyment is always going to be subjective and I have to remember that when I’m reading reviews and not take every opinion to heart as a fact. Something CBT suggests we bear in mind about the very thoughts we have about ourselves, people and life.
‘People don’t take self-publishers seriously.’
This is the thinking habit of predicting, and accepting that prediction as true. This thinking has come from many occasions where I’ve told people I write, and they ask ‘have you got anything published?’. It’s as if this would be the only reason to write. I’ve read similar complaints by other writers, who have questioned why we don’t have such expectations of success of people with sporting hobbies. If someone enjoys cycling or swimming, I don’t expect them to have won a gold medal in the olympics, if someone enjoys baking I don’t expect them to be supplying the local shops, or to be in the running for Mary Berry and ‘The Great British Bake-Off’. I guess it’s a way of questioning how good someone is, but it still baffles me.
My answer that ‘Yes, I self-publish’ is also a source of angst for me, because self-publishing, like the output of a vanity press isn’t a measure of quality. Anyone with a computer can publish anything regardless of how good it is. I’m conscious that my work doesn’t have the validation of the traditional press through it being accepted by an editor and a publisher. My man-wife, and my editor and I are the quality control and validation. And I can be painfully modest.
Writing can also be seen as intellectual and potentially elitist, in that so ‘few’ writers make the grade and the success, and I imagine people questioning me in their heads: ‘you think you’re good enough to write?’, and my own lack of confidence causes me to worry that I’m a pretender to the title of ‘writer’. I always imagine I’m being judged against Stephen King–me who’s working a day job and not got any books on an actual book shelf. Although I’ve had these responses from people, I’ve allowed these experiences to become benchmarks of what to expect from people when I tell them I write in my spare time. I do my best to tell them with the confidence anyone should have in talking about something they enjoy, without making predictions as to how they will respond.
‘People will think I’m weird writing horror.’
Another example of the unhelpful thinking habit of predicting. Sadly, people have actually said as much. A colleague even questioned how I could work in mental health and write horror–as though doing such a thing was the work of a troubled mind. Ignoring the colleague dismissing the benefits of a worker possibly having lived experience of mental health, it implies that a writer lives their work. If that’s the case, I’m turning to writing smut…
I think for many people, as with perceptions of heavy metal fans, horror has negative connotations–that it somehow says something negative about the person. Hell, most book stores don’t even have a dedicated ‘horror’ section–it’s a genre lumped in with and hidden within ‘mystery’ or ‘thriller’. There are people who like thrill rides, or extreme sports, but I don’t presume they take risks in every area of their lives, drinking their livers into mush, smoking their lungs into black gunk, and collecting every STI on their junk. Again, as with the last thought, I have to remember not to predict, or assume what people are going to think about me, but just be myself and let others judge as they see fit. Oh yeah, and stop wearing masks and carrying weapons. That doesn’t help at all. Those that really know me will recognise that what I write is not who I am. And those that really know me, know I’m a softy and more than a tad risk averse…
‘I don’t have enough time to write, engage with readers, promote and market my book.’ ‘It’s too hard.’
That’s basically every blog post I’ve made on writing and self-publishing. It’s also true. I work full time, have been studying part-time, and I’m writing too. Remembering to take time to chill out and be with my husband, to do my own thing, or to do nothing, means that writing will only be something I do in my spare time until it makes me enough money to quit my day job. Which could be never. Finding that negative thoughts are actually a reflection of reality can be a downer, but it’s also a reminder that there are some things we just have to accept. Of all the work that’s involved with writing, writing is the most important to me. These thoughts are an example of generalising though, and while time is limited, I can choose to take time to write and then when a project is done I can do the social media and promotion stuff. Things don’t have to be so black and white, and the only person placing these demands upon my time is me, and I’m in control of me.
‘I’m not good enough.’
There are mundane everyday thoughts, there are varied unhelpful thoughts, and there are specific reoccurring central beliefs–thoughts that are potent influences on the way we think. This idea that ‘I’m not good enough’ lurks behind a lot of things in my life. It has and still does hold me back in many ways. Hell, I didn’t write a self-help book as a model of success and level-headedness, I struggle with things just as anyone else might, and I’m a work in progress as we all are, or at least should be. It doesn’t cripple me, but whenever there’s anxiety, stress, or unhappiness ‘I’m not good enough’ is often lurking nearby. Thankfully, central beliefs, as painful as they can be to recognise, can be the easiest to challenge–after all, it’s essentially a generalisation, and I can find plenty of examples of achievements to know that I have strengths and competencies as well as weaknesses just like anyone and everyone else.
‘What’s the point of writing?’
I don’t need to do a profit and loss statement to know that as a business, my writing is a failing enterprise. As things currently are, ‘What’s the point of writing?’ is a prefix for the following downers: it could take 3-5 years to make a profit; my books aren’t inundated with positive reviews; my social media accounts have very few followers; the majority of them being supportive friends, and other writers networking to promote their own work; it takes a lot of time, commitment and effort. This is me dwelling on not meeting the demanding quantifiers of ‘success’. Without all of the above, I have still written a bunch of books and short stories, which are achievements in themselves, and the more I write, the better I’ll get and the more chance I have of being ‘successful’.
However, I’m asking a question aren’t I? ‘What’s the point?’ Many of our thoughts, especially related to worry and despair, aren’t fully formed, they have these question marks. Typically, we know the answer, we’re just lazy thinkers and don’t complete our thoughts. Thankfully for me though, as much as I can get caught up on wanting my work to be validated through money and regard, the answer to my question of ‘what’s the point of writing?’ is that I enjoy it. Despite editing and promoting being laborious and challenging, and that I’m not a #1 bestseller rolling in cash, writing itself is still immersive and fun. Which for me, is the whole point of doing it. I remind myself that anything else, a sale, a review, contact from a reader, is a bonus, and that while I haven’t been validated by my measure of success yet, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow.
So, there you go. My writing neuroses hanging out in the breeze. I’ve shown you mine, and hopefully, being openly imperfect, will encourage you to consider and share your unhelpful thoughts. Thankfully there’s CBT…