London Book Fair: The Writer’s New Year’s Eve

Since Monday I’ve been studiously avoiding my London-based Twitter friends. There’s stacks of unread blog posts in my Google Reader account* including a series from one of my favorite writerly advice sites that under normal circumstances I’d gobble up immediately. And every morning, my ‘Morning Briefing’ e-mail from The Bookseller is getting deleted without being opened.

Why? Because the London Book Fair is on, and I just can’t stand to hear about it.


Not because I don’t like the London Book Fair. On the contrary, I’d love to go. A hall filled with publishers, agents and authors chattering excitedly about books, meeting up with Twitter friends in real life, perhaps even being one of those crazy people who sidle up to agents in the bathrooms and casually slip USB sticks with their manuscript on it into a pocket or a bag… What’s not to like?

The fair itself is not the problem.

I am.

Once upon a time I had never even heard of the LBF, but since I entered the publishing world (through a back gate that Amazon took a crowbar to on my behalf, i.e. self-publishing e-books) four of them have gone by. Four of them! And each one is a reminder that I haven’t got published yet. I realize that I’ve achieved lots of other things, and that’s great, but they don’t add up to getting published. If anything, they make me feel worse, because I look around at all the people I know—and there seems to be lots of them—who are signing with top agents and getting amazing deals and just generally having fantastic publishing-themed things happen to them, and I wonder what the hell I’m doing wrong, because finishing a novel is the only thing on their writing CV while mine, between self-publishing and media appearances and speaking engagements and working with publishers, is running to two pages—

And then the penny drops.

They’ve finished a novel.

I have finished writing one novel in my entire life, and that was back in 2010. It actually coincided with the first LBF I paid any attention to.

I don’t generally talk about my non-self-publishing endeavors on this blog, so here’s a recap: since 2010 there’s been stops and starts, feasts and famines, and two entirely different genres. But due mostly to the fact that self-publishing—and talking about self-publishing—has really taken off for me, I haven’t finished a novel. And because my plan is to use this novel to get an agent, I’m stuck. Stuck and succeeding, at the same time. Amazing things are happening to me because of self-publishing, but my ultimate goal, that of getting a novel published, is getting nowhere.

And every time a LBF comes around it’s a reminder that I’ve somehow let another year go by without finding a way to balance the two. It’s just like New Year’s Eve: a reminder that you haven’t done all the things you said you’d do this year. Only this one is especially for writers, and everyone else at this New Year’s Eve party seems to have just signed a six-figure deal, despite the fact that it wasn’t even on their list of goals this day last year. Hell, they didn’t even make goals last year! This just happened! It all came as a complete surprise!

LBFs past serve as markers in my book deal pursuits. In April 2011, I’d decided to to ditch the new novel I’d started following the ‘we don’t love this but can we see something else?’ feedback that first novel had got, and focus on self-publishing for a few months instead, releasing Self-Printed and Backpacked only a summer apart. In April 2012, I was working on a chapter-by-chapter outline for yet another novel following a meeting with an editor who liked the sound of the idea but wanted to see it worked out, but I was only a few months away from ditching that too in favor of writing something completely different, the thing I (I’d just realized) really wanted to write. And today, April 2013, I’m a third of the way into that Something Completely Different, but busier than ever. I just sent 30,000 words of Travelled: Episode 1 to my copyeditor, I’m doing freelance social media work for a major publisher and ’tis the season of speaking engagements—I’m off to ChipLitFest in the morning and still need to finish my presentation.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. What I’m doing is berating myself for not getting a handle on this. I actually have loads of time. I have oodles of it: I don’t do anything else except this. And all those people I know who’ve signed deals? Almost all of them have full-time jobs. In terms of how much time self-publishing, etc. takes, I work maybe 4 full days a week. That leaves the equivalent of 3 just for writing. So why haven’t I finished? It might be fear, or it might just be plain laziness. It might be all those Scandinavian crime drama box sets. All I know for sure is that I haven’t finished writing a novel I really want to write and am really excited about yet.

I have a drastic plan on the horizon though. And the entire month of May is as yet mercifully free of events. And I’ve watched all three seasons of The Killing, two of Borgen and the only existing one of The Bridge, so I’m out of those for now.

I saw a quote on Pinterest last week: do something today your future self would be proud of. I’ve written it on a Post-It and stuck it to my Mac, and when I read future self I think of me a year from now, and how I’ll feel if I still haven’t finished the novel.

Because I just cannot face another LBF.

What do you think? Are there any milestones that send you hiding under the duvet? Or do you think events like the LBF make good goals to work towards, e.g. by the next LBF, I’ll have finished my novel? Let me know in the comments below…

*I know it’ll be gone soon—I’m moving to Feedly in baby steps.

37 thoughts on “London Book Fair: The Writer’s New Year’s Eve

  1. vegan farm girl in the city says:

    I had to postpone graduating from my master’s program until August because I hadn’t finished my thesis and now I not only avoid all talk of graduating but I haven’t been able to work on the thesis either. Stuck in one place is not a good place to be.

  2. Zig says:

    I can understand the feeling. And I wish I had even half of your energy and drive Catherine.

    I feel that despite a 20+ year career in writing, that includes only one published non-fiction book (so far), I cannot go to any such events because I don’t belong there, that I and my work would be looked down upon as ‘mere hack’, and that my lack of ‘real’ books sneered at as laziness when, in fact, I have been battling the effects of a chronic illness, for many years, one that slashes my ability to work. My professional record is good enough for full membership of the Irish Writers Union, but not even close to making me feel that I have any business showing up at events for ‘real’ writers. The one event for which I finally worked up enough courage to consider attending was the one in Dun Laoghaire in early March. But instead it was that day on which I had to bury a family member. Maybe someone, somewhere, was trying to tell me something.

    I have two novels in progress, along with several short non-fiction texts (one of those is on Amazon), and hate the combination of brain fog, caused by this stupid illness, low self-esteem, and fear of failure that holds me back from finishing everything.

    Race you to getting the novel finished! :p

  3. writerlyderv says:

    Going to be slightly controversial here. Do you think that deep down, all self published authors really want to be published by traditional publishers? Now I’ll stand back and let the fireworks go off. By the way, good luck getting it done. I know you’ll get there.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I read a statistic recently (can’t remember where now) that said something like 60% of self-published authors do want to be published. I’ve always wanted to get published—self-publishing was kind of an accident. But I’m a little different in that I have a very clear delineation between the two: I self-pub non-fiction, and always will, I think, but for fiction, I want to *get* published. Just have to write the darn thing first…! ;-D

    • mandilynnwrites says:

      I’m self-publishing my novel and I love having control over everything, but I’d jump at the opportunity to be published traditionally. I assume the only people who refuse to be published traditionally are stubborn and trying to prove a point.

  4. Frankie Valente says:

    I write around a full time job, as well as writing a regular column for a local paper, and some ad-hoc part-time teaching. I am also a single parent. I am just finishing the first draft of my third novel. But when I was at home all day long, when I lived in Ireland and was unemployed, I hardly managed to write anything of worth, other than work I was doing for my Masters. Now, I seem to be able to achieve much more when I have less time to squeeze it all in. One of my other writer friends is the same. When faced with huge amounts of spare time and no deadlines other than those that are self-imposed, it is hard to get started on a project, and then to find the motivation to finish it. Crazy eh? Before I moved to Ireland I would have given anything to have lots of free time in which to write. The reality did not live up to my dreams. When I moved back to the UK and to full time work, I suddenly had more creative energy. I now write in my lunch breaks, most evenings and at least one full day at the weekend. It is sufficient time to write novels, but time devoted to social media and marketing has diminished, although thankfully sales are still quite good, so I don’t mind so much. I don’t give much thought to getting published properly these days. I quite like my life the way it is.

    I don’t know what the solution is for you Catherine, but I do hope you find a way to make that dream a reality. I want to hear about your exploits at the LBF one day.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It doesn’t sound crazy at all. As they say if you want something done, give it to a busy person. And then there’s that thing about how the time required to complete any given task will expand to the time you have to do for it. I just struggle with structure more than anything, I think, because my days are *so* open it’s easy to wander down a rabbit hole and lose a whole day. Also, I live in a house with four other adults I’m related to… but that’s changing soon, hence the optimism! 😀

      • beautifulorange says:

        This makes absolute sense. I think it’s definitely possible to have to much time to fill… so much time that you end up doing nothing (or very little). I’m a naturally lazy person (if such a thing exists) and sometimes struggle to motivate myself to write even though I want to do it and I love doing it. But the more spare time I have, the less I do!

  5. Rhoda Baxter says:

    Good luck with getting it done by the next LBF. I would love to go to LBF too, but live too far away, haven’t got the budget to spend etc. If writing fiction doesn’t work for you? Why not leave it alone for a while (like a year or something) and give yourself permission to do what you’re already successful at. Then come back to it when it’s a pleasure, not something you beat yourself up about. Writing fiction could be your hobby… just a suggestion.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It does work for me though. That’s what I did a couple of years ago: I took a break and focused on self-publishing, and during that time I realized that the novel I was trying to write wasn’t even in the genre I was interested in: I just thought that since my non-fic was funny and that was working, my fiction should be too. Have since moved on to what I enjoy reading more than anything—psychological thriller—and I really enjoy writing it, once I start. It’s the starting that’s the problem…! 😀

      • Rhoda Baxter says:

        I see. Suddenly the Scandi drama obsession makes sense…
        It’s amazing how your voice changes depending on what you’re writing (not you personally, I mean in general).
        I find it’s not the starting that’s hard. It’s getting past the ‘suckage point’ (Julie Cohen’s technical term).For me, it happens around 20K in when it all looks like a dreadful mess and I just want to throw it all out the window.

        Good luck anyway. Maybe the next LBF will be The One.

  6. David Michael Williams says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Thank you for posting this. I know “misery loves company” is something of a cliche, but it is refreshing to hear someone else express frustration over lack of progress in the traditional publishing arena. I think many of us unpublished authors focus so much on the endgame that we build up to the goal (and expectations) to unrealistic proportions.

    It’s good to have focus, but I also believe it’s important to step away and ask oneself, “What will change if I’m published in the traditional sense? How does not being published (or ‘only’ self-published) affect my worth as a writer and a human being?

    We can control only so much of our literary fates. We can continuously improve, learn new skills, practice ad nauseum, revise, expand our horizons, read more fiction, read nonfiction that tackles the craft, and we can make sacrifices in the real world to make our fake ones better.

    However, it always comes down to fortune — will one’s writing make an impact the one or two editors who happen to read it at a particular time? — which we are powerless to manipulate.

    So we tell ourselves, “It will happen when it happens,” and in the meantime, we work on becoming the best writers we can be so that WHEN we get that fateful call or email, we are ready.

  7. babyfacedpreacher says:

    I feel for you. Usually I don’t feel I can contribute adequately because I don’t really make a proper effort with the self promotion and marketing required for self publishing, but on the fiasco of finishing novels, I think I might be plenty qualified to comment (not sure I can help though).
    I find that the more I have on, the more productive that I am…up to a point…particularly if my productivity is with social media, it is easy to lose days on twitter and facebook without even trying.
    I think having an end goal, of next year’s London Book Festival, is an excellent one…but you kind of need to practice the fiction discipline to go with it, otherwise you’ll be hiding again.
    I have blinked and ‘lost’ 7 years to my first novel…first, second, and third drafts have been finished, but it is not ready…but this year is the year of the Preacher’s Boy (for sure this time). Starting slow, 50 – 100 words a day (in transit to/from work), logging on at night in the hour before bed while the kids are still asleep, to craft it…its so funny, when I tell other folks ‘I’m aiming for 50 to 100 words a day’ they look at me sideways as if to say, that’s nothing…but actually you have to start somewhere, and somewhere regular.
    I’ve gone back to pen and paper (no need for pesky chargers, or space to prop up a device), oooh, and I bought ‘Save the Cat’ thanks for the recommendation…far too easy to lose 20 hour writing a 5 line log line rather than 200 words of chapter 5 though!
    Remember though, you are actually achieving an awful lot, you are building your presence, reinforcing your expertise, contributing to the future of authors, so give yourself a break too!
    Oh yeah, and the need to get a cup coffee (tea for me) before you start, its devestating to productivity!!

  8. David Penny says:

    I’m intrigued by your post because it seems to be saying you still have a belief that the conformation of agent, publisher etc is what a real writer gets.

    I went that route many years ago. In my 20’s I had an agent and four novels published by a real publishing house, but I made hardly any money. When I married I had to go out and work and the writing was put aside.

    Now I’m writing again and have absolutely no intention of going the traditional route at all. I could probably contact my old agent and likely be taken on again, but I won’t do that. I want the complete control over my work self publishing gives me.

    And remember – for every splash we read about some great new writer with a fantastic advance, there are 100 or 1000 other writers sitting behind them earning pennies. I know from experience unless you’re in that top 0.1% a publisher is not going to push you. I’ve done the math and I’ll take my $4 off on a $4.99 Kindle sale any day of the week over the miniscule advance and likely nothing else from the traditional route.

    Keep the faith.

    And see you Saturday. (I’ll be the one with no hair).

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      But I wouldn’t take a miniscule advance. I don’t want just *any* publishing deal, but one that’s worth taking, and I want a publisher who can do something for me that I can’t do alone, which mainly is get books into stores.

      Anyway this is all a moot point until I’ve actually a written a book, and right now talking about this is making me no worse than the self-publishing pushers I give out about who do mythical sums about money made self-publishing Vs money made traditional publishing, when they’ve done/been offered neither, so I’d better stop.

      Anyway, see you Saturday! 😀

  9. Alta Walters says:

    I agree with Mark. I think we all need to look deep into the abyss when it comes to “getting published.” Self publishing IS getting published. If you put the attention towards a quality product then you will have achieved the proper end. Self-publishing gurus (and you should know this) advise us that the publishing world doesn’t provide the goodies of days past, doubly so if you are new and unrecognized. They don’t promote your book, often they don’t even provide an editor. All you get is shelf space, maybe. I think far too many authors believe that big name publishers are the holy grail. You’ve done, on your own, that to which many authors aspire. You have audience, recognition, you even earn a living with your writing and appearances. What special perk, or significance is there in the traditional road? If it’s all that important, why are you selling the rest of us on self-publishing.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It’s important to me, because it’s what I’ve dreamed of since I was a child. I have always, always, always said that at best, I believe self-publishing is a great plan B for certain books. For example, my own travel memoirs would never have got published because the potential audience for them was small, and dotted all over the world. Self-publishing proved to be the perfect path for them. But if you want to be the most successful author you can be, that means print books in brick and mortar bookstores. The self-publishing evangelists can go on about the death of print and the rise of e-book all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that most books — something like 70-80% — are bought in print, and bought from bookstores.

      Second of all, it is just not true that publishers don’t promote your book and I have never met an author who was published who didn’t have editorial input. I just don’t understand where this crap comes from. I can only assume it’s from writers who were published by small, independent presses with no money, because no major publisher behaves this way. Editorial help is a given, and my published author friends cite this as the most valuable aspect of getting published. Furthermore, I work with a major publisher doing some social media promotion for them as a freelancer, and I have a lot of writer friends who got published in the last 1-2 years. I have seen for myself that not only do publishers promote all their books (many of the writers I’ve been employed to work with are debuts and none of them have huge online followings or anything like that — some of them don’t even have blogs or use Twitter) but that publishing houses are stocked with people who genuinely love books and want to help authors, and will do as much as they can to promote their books. Not only do they do this because they want to, because also because publishing is a business and when a publisher prints a book, it’s an investment. So it makes absolutely no sense that they would sink thousands of euro or dollars or pounds into publishing a book, and then sit back and do nothing to promote it. It just is so confusing to me that people — most of whom have never been published — are hell bent on propagating this myth that getting published is a bad thing.

      It’s absolutely true that some publishers are crap at what they do, and that many authors have been published and weren’t impressed by the process. And were a publishing company to offer me a deal with a tiny advance and bad royalties, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to accept it. But if that happens, I’d say no. I want to get published by a publisher who can do for me what I can’t do for myself. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out — but I want to find out for myself.

      Only a tiny, tiny percent of actors win Oscars. Does that mean that they shouldn’t become actors in the first place? Does it mean they should just stay at home and do community theatre or stick to Youtube because some people who have already decided they don’t want to even try winning an Oscar told them it’s the same?

  10. Keri Peardon says:

    You are making a full-time living as a writer. Some people who are traditionally-published can’t even do that.

    I would love to have your success; I would love to be self-supporting from my writing income.

    Yes, I know: you’re not getting to spend much time writing; most of your time is spent marketing what you have published so far and running a blogging business.

    But the day will come when you can turn that over to a marketing company and/or a private assistant. I already dream of the day when I can have an assistant work social media for me, print off only those blogs which are really relevant for me to peruse at my leisure, and otherwise market, book, and promote me, so I can spend my time doing what I like: writing.

    One day you can hire an assistant for yourself–just like you hired an editor, proofreader, and cover designer–and you can spend more time actually writing. And, at the end of the day, you’ll still be making more money per word that you churn out than someone who is traditionally-published. (Most traditionally-published people have to do the same amount of marketing for themselves that you do.)

    You are a successful writer. Don’t let someone else’s way of doing business make you think that you’re not. Do things your own way; make your own business model. You have 1.4 million views of your website. That’s a lot of people looking up to you and your business model. If that doesn’t make you legit, what does? If you’re looking for someone’s approval of what you write, look at those 1.4 million views. Look at the sales you have every month.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It’s not that this isn’t legit. It’s that isn’t getting published. I enjoy self-publishing and I love this blog and I know how lucky I am to be able to make a living doing this. But just because I have success in one area doesn’t mean I stop wanting it in another. It’s like dreaming of being an astronaut. (It always comes back to space with me, of course!) Let’s say I somehow became a popstar. That’s great too, and that’s something that lots of people dream of. And I’d probably make money. But that doesn’t mean I’d stop wanting to be an astronaut. I want both. Does that make sense?

  11. Danielle says:

    I feel like until recently I have been in your position motivation-wise. The veil of laziness/procrastination/fear etc is slowly starting to lift and I really don’t know why. One thing I will say is to not be so hard on yourself. You say your work 4 days per week max, leaving 3 days to write your fiction. Really, you should be telling yourself you have 1-2 days to write your fiction. Everybody needs chill time, buffer time, lazy box set time. If you tell yourself you are wasting three whole days each week you are beating yourself up pointlessly and setting yourself up to ‘fail’ every week. You can afford to easily write fiction for one business day per week, 8 hours. Start there and the goal is more achievable straight up. If you exceed it, bonus yay!

  12. shirleymckinnonS says:

    I used to have the same problem as you Catherine until I started to book my writing into my diary. I would look at the week, pick my writing time and treat it as if it was a client. Do it regardless of what else was waiting. Then I heard a great tip, trying to write something every day. Cross the day off a calendar in red, then try not to break the chain. I still write in my booked times, and am now trying to get those smaller extra times in as well. Have completed two books and am presenting them to agents at Thrillerfest in New York in July. Coming from Australia, you can see how focused and determined I am.

  13. Alison J. McKenzie says:

    I recently attended a convention and expected to feel the same. Though I am a professional writer, my novel projects are still “in progress”. Instead, I found fresh inspiration and even managed to solve a major plot snarl that had been plaguing me for years. Part of me still felt foolish, especially as I’d run into an old colleague who was there to promote his second published novel. But the lessons I learned and the motivation I gained outweighed the pain.
    This may not be your experience, and it may not work for you. But it may not be a bad idea to go and simply keep your eyes open. The frustration will still be there, but you may find something else that makes it worth it. It’s a little late this year, but maybe next year. And by then you may be further along in your project. I’ve got another convention I’m planning to go to in June, and I have a checklist of everything I want to have accomplished by then. It’s certainly got me moving.
    Not living near London, I’ve never been to that particular event, but it sounds lovely.

  14. vanguardone says:

    Wow. Am I feeling this post? Yes, I am and even though I have a mighty checklist that I’m progressing with. I’m currently self publishing because I want to write on my own terms and do what I want to do, before I subject myself to the interests of publishers, editors, agents and all those other must-have accessories. I have a ten novel strategy and at novel the fourth I hope to have learnt everything I really can on my own (I know, I know) and go down the traditional route, just for the support more than anything.

    I guess that sounds very focused and very disciplined and like I’m very together. But I’m about to publish book two and it feels, well, it feels very hard and very lonely and every sighting of #LBF13 is the jab of a hot dagger intimating that I’ve made the wrong decision. And so now I don’t want to go to LBF. Ever.

    – SJ

  15. Brian Finnegan says:

    I have three words for you Catherine: Tyrone Guthrie Centre. If you have cleared the month of May, see if they have a place for you. Last May I wrote 80K words of my second novel there (admittedly very sketchy words, but I had nearly a draft to start polishing). I work full time and write for two hours the mornings, at exactly the same time. I think this is a key – routine. And if you write every day, it keeps your head in the world of the novel, so if you’re doing other stuff, the novel is gestating. My goal is 360 words – a random figure pulled from the sky, but I usually get around 1,000. My other goal is to finish the first draft, so I quickly revise what I wrote the day before at the beginning of my session, and then I get back to the forward motion.

    One more thing – six figure deals don’t come every day, and the author who signs one is under immense pressure. If the books don’t recap the investment, the publisher won’t sign another deal, and neither will any other publisher. I got a deal I was happy with, but nothing like six figures, and I feel my publishers are ‘developing’ me. It’s a less pressurised position to be in.

    Now, teach me all you know about digital marketing! There are a zillion published authors who are tearing their hair out because they can’t figure out the way to the Holy Grail of 50 Shades of Gray cyber-word of mouth.

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