Archive for the 'Self-doubt' Category

The Measure of Your Dreams

How do you measure success? It’s not an easy thing to do. Plus it looks different for everyone. Yet when you’re working really hard at something, like writing and illustrating, it’s really important to know what you’re striving for. Would big book deals and flashy literary parties really make you happy? Would fancy-pants awards and fame make you feel valid? I can’t really say I’d say no to any of this, but it’s important to define what success really means to you.

I was reminded of this recently at a Pogues concert in Sydney, when swaying away to their awesome Celtic punk ballads. While that may sound like the tangent of the century, I wont make you try to follow my mind and will make the link for you: one of their songs, ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’, has the lyric the measure of my dreams

It took me back a few years, to a time when I’d been throwing everything I had into writing and illustrating, yet didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Or at least that’s how it felt. I was incredibly unhappy. This beautiful creative thing that used to make me feel so free was falling flat. I was even starting to begrudge it a little. Embarrassingly enough, it took stumbling across one of those naff kind of sayings (you know the ones that circle facebook) to wake me up. It was typed up on a little cue card and stuck to a friend’s cork board:

It’s not about the destination, but the journey

At the time I’d never seen this saying and for some reason, at that particular moment, it cut through something in me. I realised I had my focus all wrong. I was so focussed on things mostly out of my control – namely getting published – and it was making me miserable. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t enjoy the actual writing (the journey), then nothing that happened from there was going to make me happy. So then I had to redefine what success would actually look like for me. I had to really think about what I was aiming for and what might make me happy.

I came up with the following, which are kind of goals and (for me) a more healthy focus:

  1. Work on the projects I’m called to: I don’t ever want to focus too much on what I think the ‘market’ might want from me. Instead I hope to make the art that calls to me, so I keep enjoying my writing and illustrating and make more honest art (I hope)
  2. Be respected by my peers: I realised I don’t actually need to have my name recognised by the general public, or even book lovers. But having my work respected by other writers / illustrators (especially in my field) does mean something to me
  3. Get to work with those who enjoy me / my work: be they other artists or publishing professionals
  4. Be able to do this as some sort of career: not necessarily live off it (as nice as that would be), but have it as my main focus

These are all things I have more control over, and they’re still true for me today. I’ve had each of them happen for me in different ways, some small and others more obvious. And after shifting my focus I started to find joy in my art once more.

If you’re honest with yourself, what would success look like for you?

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Coping with Bad Reviews (or not)

It was going to happen eventually. You send your first book baby out into the big old world and not everyone will coo over it. I knew it was something I had to prepare for, but in the last few months I have been spoilt with lovely reviews and with reviewers who have clearly connected with my style and fallen for my little bunny.

Then the other day it happened. I got my first negative review. Intellectually I knew it was inevitable, but emotionally it’s never easy.

That said, it was far from a really nasty one. If the review was a crocodile it was at least smiling at me (although that made the teeth easier to see). There were some little positives in amongst it, but there were certainly a couple of statements that were bluntly discouraging. When you first read it you’re hyper-aware that it’s out there for the whole world to see. There’s no hiding from it. So here’s my incredibly serious, no at all tongue-in-cheek guide to how I coped with it…

  1. Give yourself a day: on this day you have permission to feel however you want. Cry, stomp, rant, rage, walk in circles, eat a continent of chocolate, talk to the birds and abandon all plans to do intelligent worthwhile things. I have done all of the above in the past, although this occasion just called for a quiet day and a long walk
  2. Rally the forces: Re-read your good reviews – your favourite ones that made you feel all shiny and proud. Especially those where the reviewer loved all the things the negative review seemed to dislike. Even more so the ones that directly contradict the bad review (take that, bad review!)
  3. Argue with your dog: sit your dog down and tell him all about the bad review. Defend every negative point with awesome counter-arguments. Discuss your artistic intent. Wax lyrical about everything the reviewer missed or overlooked. You’ll find your dog a very understanding ear (and know that when he brings you the tennis ball he’s saying he understands your pain)
  4. Indulge your inner storyteller: look at the reviewer’s name and imagine their backstory and why they might have written such a review. Maybe they’re a disgruntled writer and are jealous of your success. Maybe they have a deeply ingrained fear of rabbits (childhood trauma perhaps?). Maybe they’re the Guinness World Record holder for tallest person and can’t in any way relate to being little. Maybe they just didn’t like the book (hold on – scrap that last one. Too realistic and it won’t make you feel better at all)
  5. Read other authors’ bad reviews: oh this sounds nasty doesn’t it? But it works a treat. Look up your all time favourite books on Goodreads and read their one star reviews. Puts everything into perspective. If there are people in the world who loathe The Book Thief, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, then I can cope with people not liking my bunny. Everyone is different (and clearly some are weird – who doesn’t like Mo Willems?!)

For more ideas, hop on over to Michael Gerard Bauer’s blog. He’s far braver than I am … he even quoted his bad review.

Anyone have any other ideas to share?

Writing to Contract

In late 2009 I signed a two book deal with Viking, Penguin, and I honestly felt like the luckiest little rabbit in the writerly stratosphere. It was the kind of thing I hadn’t even let myself dream about, especially in the years prior where I’d experienced the slew of rejections all writers do. Yet even as I signed the contract I had a nagging voice in the back of my mind wondering about book two – the book they’d contracted based on Squish Rabbit. An undefined book I hadn’t even written yet. But of course this thought was quickly overtaken by everything involved in getting Squish out into the world. And all the excitement. And maybe the champagne.

Flick forward to early this year. Squish Rabbit was but months away from appearing on bookshelves and suddenly my publisher was asking about book two. They wondered whether maybe I’d considered doing another Squish book? Now I had tried to prepare for this moment. I had certainly considered other Squish stories, as he’s so alive to me and I know much about his little life. I had some notes about other possible stories and even some very basic drafts. But nothing I had done really prepared me for my first experience of writing to contract. Cue dramatic music…

Before that point, every story I’d created I had written for myself. Sure, I’d hoped to get published and I certainly had readers in mind, but in real terms I was following my own whims and ideas. No matter how determined or focussed I was in my writing, ultimately I was just chasing around my own muse. And besides the whole ‘not knowing whether I’d ever get published or not’, it was really quite glorious.

Writing to contract was completely different. My first book had a sell-in to bookstores that was encouraging enough for my publisher to ask for a second Squish story. Suddenly I had an editor with hopes and expectations. In fact I had a whole team I’d worked with. What if they didn’t like anything I sent them? If the chances of getting one picture book accepted were so rare, what was the possibility of me writing two they’d love? What if I only had one publishable book in me? What if they began to regret signing me up for two books? Would I have to give back the money? Oh horror of horrors … every iota of self-doubt I’d ever experienced kicked up into a dust storm inside me. So instead of ambling through the creative fields of my mind, I was paralysed. I couldn’t write a word.

Self-doubt always settles in me eventually. And with time, I realised a number of things that helped me push through this:

  1. Always write for yourself first: No matter where the story is going, no matter who it is for, always begin by writing something for yourself. Something that moves you, that pulls at the strings of your mind, that calls to that secret little place where your inner child hides. I honestly believe that if you write something you love, you’re much more likely to write something someone else will too. And besides, editing can come later…
  2. No story is brilliant from the beginning: You have to write crap before your story can get better. I’m sure this is a rule, written somewhere in the vast and dusty annals of ‘The Craft of Writing Awesome’. We can’t help but compare ourselves to all the amazing writers out there, and yet their picture books and novels that we read have often been through years of rewriting. Nothing we write on day dot will ever come close to it. It. Takes. Time
  3. Your publisher is not all seeing: I had this weird and creepy feeling that my editor could see everything I wrote. Every time I tried to write something down, my mind would conjure up how she would respond to it. My poor delightful editor (sorry Tracy!) turned into the voice of my inner writing critic. It was actually a revelation to me that she couldn’t see my first draft! Once I realised this, it freed me up to play again – to try out all sorts of different story options and to toil through many drafts
So I released the pressure valve, took a month or two out to play with story ideas, and finally sent off a manuscript and storyboard to my editor. And the end to this story? She took it to their editorial meeting and the team responded with a delightful ‘We fell in love all over again’ :) Squish’s second story should be on bookshelves late 2012.

The Illustrator who can’t Illustrate

Care to join me while I wallow? The word of the day is Self-Doubt, that wily fog-like creature that creeps in to disrupt all creators’ work. If anyone has a deterrent spray, please let me know…
I’m not sure why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident as an illustrator. There’s something about the process that brings out all my insecurities. Something about putting my work out there that still makes me feel like that ten-year-old who was terrified to show anyone her drawings for fear of rejection. I’m comfortable enough to call myself a writer, but when it comes to the label ‘illustrator’ I’m not always certain I deserve it.
Sound a bit silly for someone who has a picture book coming out next year? Yeah, I know.
It seems to be a cycle I go through. It’s usually triggered when I see other people’s art, especially those who work in different styles to me. I start to worry that I should be able to draw like Shaun Tan or Anne Spudvilas or Aaron Pocock. That unless I can create beautiful, emotional, realistic characters like they do, I’m not a real illustrator. That my own silly, cartoon-like figures just can’t stand up next to their creations. Then I start to worry I’ll be found out to be the fraud that I am – the illustrator who can’t illustrate.
But then the cycle comes around and I realise that I enjoy my own brand of illustrating. That it’s ok to work to my strengths – everyone does. That it’s unreasonable to expect that I could work in every style or that I could illustrate any type of story. Reflecting on this, I now have a song called ‘Clockwork’ stuck in my head, which features a great sample from the ‘Windmills of my Mind’ song. So I’m back at my drawing desk, scribbling and inking in my own silly style, singing:
Life is but a cycle
Round, like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending, nor beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Does anyone else get caught up in a negative spiral?

Training Wheels

Perspective is a funny thing. It twists your viewpoint around, so things you once knew to be true suddenly look very different. I recall many pivotal moments in life when this happened and the world shifted around me into a new shape. And that’s exactly what happened after I signed with my agent and got my first book contract.

Exactly one year ago, before I had either, like many aspiring authors I imagined getting a book contract meant you’d ‘made it’. I looked at published authors with a kind of awe. I imagined them to have answers I didn’t, to know things, to possess a kind of confidence I lacked. I was always surprised to hear when they expressed self-doubt about their work. I’d think: but they’re *insert-name-of-famous/successful-author here*. How could they doubt themselves?

I’m finally where I always wanted to be (and loving it by the way), but the world has shifted around me and suddenly I’ve realised that I’m actually at the very beginning again. It’s like graduating from junior school, feeling incredibly grown up, but then realising that you’re at the bottom of the high school. I still feel uncertain. I still don’t have all the answers. And I still feel just like me – a kind of dorky blonde girl who sits in the back room of her house, playing with words and colours in her PJs.

I may have a book contract, but I feel like I’ve just been handed my first set of training wheels. At first it terrified me – I worried I should have felt more professional and experienced – but I’ve realised it’s actually ok. I’m enjoying learning, figuring things out as I go, listening to more experienced people around me, growing with each step. I’ve recently received my first set of edits from my delightful editor and art director, and they have been so generous with their time and encouragement and feedback.

So I’m using my training wheels, gaining experience with each test ride and slowly learning to coast. Before long I hope to be riding with more confidence, maybe even leaving the safety of the backyard and taking to the roads. Then again, perspective is a fluid and flighty mistress. It’s likely that by then something else will have happened, and the world will have shifted once more…

Writing Mojo

I’ve lost my writing mojo. It’s gone. I’ve looked in all the usual places: under the bed, in the space below the fridge, beneath my pup’s cushion. In fact it’s so far gone, even writing this blog post is hard. But how did I lose my writing mojo, and even tougher, how do I get it back? It’s certainly not as easy as it was for Austin Powers, who only had to fight a few bad guys to win back his glass vial of mojo.

Losing your writing mojo is sadly easy. I’ve talked before about how writing is a rhythm, and anything that interrupts this rhythm can be the cause. For me it was moving interstate, which meant several weeks of having everything packed in boxes, living out of suitcases and being in unfamiliar houses. Finally my new office is set up, my computer is booted up and ready … but still I can’t write.

What I’ve discovered in the last few years is that writing is really about thinking. If you’re not thinking about your story, you wont be able to write about it. So when your rhythm is interrupted, by stress or change, other things fill your head that can evict your story. When your story isn’t in your head, ideas stop bumping into each other, your characters stop speaking to you and your subconscious stops working on those little bursts of inspiration. Knowing this, the answer to getting my writing mojo back is clear:

  1. Get my story back in my head
  2. Get back into my rhythm

To tackle number 1, first I have to decide what project I’d like to work on. Then I read what I’ve got – a first draft, character profiles, even just a few scratchy notes on the back of an envelope. Whatever it is, it gets me thinking about the story again. At first, when I’m just getting back into the flow, I find I have to remind myself to be thinking about the story. But after a few days my subconscious is doing it for me, ticking over characters interactions whenever I have a moment to think or even at night while I’m asleep.

Tackling number 2 is all about routine. I start back into those daily activities that remind my mind and body that I’m getting back into my writing rhythm. For me that’s getting up early and going to the gym, doing a few little chores in the morning, blogging regularly and taking my pup for a walk in the afternoon. These are things that make me feel good and productive, but also give me time and space to be thinking about my story.

Sometimes it can take days. Sometimes it can take a week or so. Either way, I just have to be patient. I know it will come back. Soon ideas will be bursting at the seams and you wont be able to pry me from the computer. But you’ll have to excuse me for now – it’s time to take my pup for a walk…

Editing Roller-Coaster

I’m a logical sort of gal. I don’t like accepting anything ‘just because’. I like to get to the bottom of things – the real reason, the cause, the fault. Why? So I can fix it. I’m like this with writing ups and downs. I’m currently wrangling with the 3rd and final-ish draft of a mid-grade adventure novel and day to day my mood varies widely.

Some days I’m up. I’m positively joyful, loving editing, believing in the story, adoring the characters, daydreaming about this being the next Harry Potter (ok, so I’m never THAT up). I feel like a writer. I feel good at what I do. I feel worthy and productive and like I could do this for the rest of my life.

Other days I’m down. And the downs get pretty deep. I wonder why I’m writing this story when the plot is banal, the characters cliched and the writing woefully unsalvageable. I wonder how on earth I got through two previous drafts without abandoning ship. I daydream about other professions – so when I’m found to be the fraud of a ‘writer’ I am I can make a silent exit. I consider changing my name and skipping town.

The Sherlock in me wants to know the cause of these ups and downs. ‘It’s just a writer thing’ is never enough. So I go through all the possible whys for getting down. It was a chapter that needed more work, so it challenged me more. I got a rejection that day. I had lots of other stressful things on my mind which were the real cause. I needed a day off. I’ve had another story circling my mind, so I couldn’t get into the voice of this one. I had too many e-mails demanding my attention. I had someone asking to see the ms and was feeling the pressure.

So many possible reasons. And you know the conclusion I’ve come to? It’s just a writer thing. Ha (see the humour? Me neither). There’s something about working in creative industries that lead to more self-doubt and ups and downs than other jobs. It’s just the way it is. And although there really are lots of reasons for this, I don’t think there’s a way to fix it. Even in ideal conditions I still get down days. So what can you do?

  1. Accept it: day to day ups and downs are mostly out of your control
  2. Embrace it: gotta love yourself, foibles and all
  3. Give yourself a break: don’t sweat it too much. If it’s a particularly heinous day, take some time off
  4. Bake: scones and cookies will cure what ails you

Sorry. I think that was self therapy more than blogging. If you managed to stick with me to the end then feel free to add your own solutions for dealing with the downs. By the way, is anyone quite as amused by the WordPress snow as I am? Ah, Christmassy happiness.


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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