It's the pits

If Gustav Dore did photography.

According to Dante, the Great Inferno has nine circles (I checked on Wikipedia - such is my commitment to this blog). 

It's pretty standard fare: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery. Notable residents, of interest to writers, apparently include Homer, Ovid, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Having detoured from that to the awesome artistry of Gustav Dore (have I mentioned that I've been into his work for decades?), I started to ponder what a Hell for writers would consist of.

Here are nine circles of hell that every writer will relate to, to some extent:

1. Writer's Block.
2. The first draft.
3. Editing.
4. Negative feedback.
5. Plagiarism.
6. Rejection.
7. Comparison.
8. Circumstance.
9. Neglect.

Writer's Block
You know you want to write, or even what you want to write. But every time you pick up a pen or face the keyboard, it's all white noise and a blank mind.

The first draft
It's like the muse's way of testing your commitment and stamina. That shitty first draft is a hard won treasure, a holey grail (plot holes, usually) you will overcome monsters and challenges to acquire. And it hurts almost every step of the way, especially at 10,000 words and at the halfway point.

This level of hell has a lot in common with house renovations. Go too far and all the character and charm that first attracted you is destroyed (or covered by MDF - it's the same thing). Too little effort applied, or not enough attention to detail, and the whole thing will look like a rush job. 

Negative feedback
It can mean different things to different writers. For some, it's anything short of high praise and the trumpeting of angels. For others, it's anything that's not actually constructive - i.e. the feedback gives you something to work with. I was recently told by a friend that the published version of my fantasy, Covenant, was much harder to get into than an earlier version. I was pleased with that because he went on to explain why. Any feedback that sounds like it has come put of the mouth of a petulant three year-old probably falls into this hellish category.

Three forms of this one come to mind. One: you inadvertently discover you've closely followed someone else's style, past the point of homage. Two: you've copied parts of the text or an entire plot. Three: someone has copied you. This can happen accidentally in writing groups.

Ah, the bee sting of every writer's existence. Submitting your work is an act of faith and courage. Rejection says that, on this occasion, you wasted your time. It does get easier with time, and these days at least you save on printing, paper and postage, but it's still a door being slammed in your face.

Mostly, this is a self-inflicted hell. You can research the ages that other famous authors either wrote or got a life-changing contract (or any contract!). You can also find out how well your friends are doing. And both Bookseller and The Author are great sources of potential discontent. If the question is, "Why me, Lord?" then the answer is surely, "Why not?" (And vice versa.) However, wherever you are on the writing continuum, someone is doing worse than you. Trust me.

This is a tricky one to define, but essentially it's obstacles and reverses that are totally outside your control. Think along the lines of 'my dog ate my homework' and you'll be getting close. Every writer knows someone with a vignette to share, even if it's a friend of a friend. My own, oft quoted tales of this nature relate to:
1. The editor who died before the contract could be signed (and the replacement editor who then rejected the book instead). A double-whammy of writer hells.
2. The indie publisher who went out of business just before my book was set for launch.
3. The publisher who asked for a full, only for me to find out it had been an over-enthusiastic intern and the package was returned to me two days later.

To my mind, this is the deepest, darkest circle of writerly hell. It's the not knowing and creeping back into the pit of your own self-doubt. It's the publisher who took over a year to respond, and the ones who never did. It's the agents and editors who replied 'very interested - send more', only to be too busy (even for an email) seven months later. And who, when chased, say their books are full for at least the next year. It's the bookshop that happily takes your samples and never calls you. 

Despite all those hellish pitfalls, redemption is available. It's simple, but it's not easy. 

You write until you finish. You edit diligently. You seek out meaningful feedback and you act on it. You target your submissions intelligently, and you don't put all your eggs in one basket. You accept that you're only in competition with yourself, and even then it's about how you grow as a writer. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you don't neglect yourself as a writer. You nurture yourself with inspiration, well-being and perspective. Remember, you're a writer - who said it was supposed to be easy?

Room for a Review

All writers love feedback. Granted, some of those early nuggets of insight may have stung like a somersault into a wasps' nest; and even some of the later, apparently well-meaning critiques were as welcome as a phone call to discuss your gas supplier when you're desperate to reach the loo.

But a review that gets the essence of your novel and still finds positive things to say about it to other people? Well, that's worth its weight in alchemist's gold.

This review for my magical fantasy, Covenant, is from Pentacle - The UK's leading Independent Pagan Magazine. In many ways it marks a milestone for my book and for me.

How so?

Well, it's a review in a respected magazine - with readers who would likely enjoy Covenant. It's also a golden opportunity (there's that metal again) to promote not only those all-important sales links, but Covenant as a contribution to the Western Mysteries.

More importantly, it allows me to stop and reflect back on the work that went into Covenant - both the crafting of the story and the characters,  over many years, and the design of the esoteric elements. 

Sometimes, in the rush to get started on the next book, especially if the previous book has been slow to reach its audience, we can become dismissive of our achievements. I feel fortunate indeed to have received recognition from one of my peers. It feel like a nod from the Unseen for continuing with the book over its many adventures (deceased editor, 15 month wait for a response, publisher going under, etc).

The review pretty much says everything that I would want to say about Covenant. Whatever else happens with the book, I can feel confident that my aim was true. (At least until someone hates it!)

In fairness, there are practical benefits to a review like this as well:

1. My local branch of Waterstones promised to get in some copies, so I can now contact them to make good on their word. I'll keep you posted on how that goes.
2. A couple of independent bookshops have offered to display copies of Covenant alongside the review.
3. I've already had emails and given away review copies. In fact, tell you what, to celebrate the mag review, I'll give a PDF review version to the first five people to email me on asabovesobelow(at), using the title: Covenant blog review.
4. I can add this review to my social media broadcasts.

Now, what was I saying about that next novel...

Son of a Beach

Although, like many writers, creating and reading stories was a passion from a young age, I also had another favourite activity. If we were on holiday in Norfolk, I could happily spend an hour or three on the beach at Cromer, examining stones and looking for something special. Away from Norfolk, I made do with the back garden at home. And, while the geological pickings were slim in East London, I did find interesting things in the garden, but that's another story. (Oh okay then: a rusty bullet, a lead soldier and a City of London Boer War Volunteer Corps badge.)

However, Cromer was the place for me (with East Runton, West Runton and Sheringham as back-up). Soothed by the sea sighing across the shingle, I'd collect different colours and so searching for that elusive magical flint stone with a hole through it. I don't know if other children did this (or writers, come to that), but I'd invent rules. For example, I could only pick up seven stones and so I'd have to compare my new find with my catch. The limitation somehow made me appreciate my selections more. By the time we got back to the tent, there'd be another treasured collection of minerals in the boot of the car. 

I was always fascinated by the way a stone could look bland and ordinary until it was dipped in a rock pool. Then it gleamed and revealed depths of colour I'd only imagined. When I was 13, mum and dad bought me a stone tumble polisher for Christmas. After that, I had a UK minerals poster on my bedroom wall and figured out that Cornwall would be a goldmine (pardon the pun) for rock collecting. Who knows, maybe that was part of the reason I moved there.

It seems to me that writers and their stories are a little like those pebbles on the beach - many are similar but each one is unique. The right environment, opportunity or genre will allow us to show our true colours and, like it or not, the smoothest among us have only been made so by a gradual process of attrition.

So, whether you find yourself and your writing, know that it's all part of a process, a journey of becoming. Right, who's coming to the beach?