Measures of success

Sometimes it is important to stand back and look at your achievements with fresh eyes.

Self-doubt

The idea for this piece has been brewing for a while, and I think today is a particularly good day to get down to writing it. Why? Because, after a few weeks of travelling to various different events, I’m home again with nothing in the diary and I’m suddenly filled with Monday doubts and anxieties.

It is all too easy to flick through a Twitter or Instagram feed and measure yourself against others and find yourself lacking. Whether it is how you look, where you go on holiday, which parties you’re invited to. For me at the moment, it is all about book reviews. I feel like I’m yelling into a void, desperately trying — but failing — to attract attention for my novel, while at the same time succeeding in winding up everyone who is in earshot because of the racket I am making.

Photo of a seagull squawking against a blue-grey sky (by Anthony Robson, Flickr)

It’s hard. My publisher has a press department and sent out press releases for The Backstreets of Purgatory but apparently no one was biting. A debut novel by a total unknown? Little to no chance. Apart from the odd notable exception, it seems that the novels which get national press coverage are ones written by well-known writers, prize winners or journalists with contacts to the papers. However, not prepared to be so readily defeated, I have taken it upon myself to attempt to get some coverage. With that aim, I have sent out about a zillion emails to magazines and papers and potential reviewers (actually that isn’t true; it feels like a lot but they are targeted, not indiscriminate), torn between the knowledge that, on the one hand, journalists and books editors are swamped with unsolicited approaches every day and the last thing they probably want is me harping on about my book, and, on the other, that no one else is going to do this for me and I refuse to let this opportunity pass without giving my novel the best chance of success that I can. That said, I’m very aware (and not surprised) that most of my emails probably get deleted without being read.

So, Monday morning, sifting through the junk in my email with no sign of messages from magazine editors or reviewers, it is very easy to get demoralised. Failure feels like it is hiding around the corner, ready to stamp on my hopes and squash the life out of the brilliant moments of success that I’ve had so far.

How do you measure success?

The weird thing about success, though, is that you can always do better. You could always write more books, sell more copies, win more prizes, win a more prestigious prize, have a bigger audience. However successful a writer is, I  imagine that there are very few who feel absolutely secure in their success. Few earn enough to support themselves by writing alone. Few are celebrities (if that is your measure of success). Critical acclaim is seldom universal. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean critical success. You get my drift.

However…

It is also worth remembering how far you’ve come (and I’m talking to myself here obviously). To curb a display of intemperate Pollyanna-style melodrama, I won’t actually list all the things I should be glad about. But loads has happened this year that has been utterly and completely fantastic and way beyond my expectations (I’ll give the edited highlights).

Pollyanna Statue
Pollyanna (never knowingly underemotional)

Like getting The Backstreets of Purgatory published in the first place. I mean, come on. That was the dream.

And having an amazing — and I mean like totally amazing, couldn’t have dreamed of anything better type of thing — launch party with old and new friends. And getting some stunning reviews. And receiving hand written letters from readers. And travelling to New York to do a reading. Being invited to Cambridge to speak to Anglia Ruskin’s Women’s group; being invited to be a panelist at the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair, doing a Skype lecture/tutorial for an Italian studies class at Hull University. Honestly, these things had me buzzing with joy.

A montage of photos of The Backstreets of Purgatory and reviews

It is important to stand back sometimes. To not dwell on the fact that perhaps I don’t know all the right people, that I haven’t succeeded in persuading certain newspapers or whoever to take the novel for review, or whatever else I’m beating myself up about. Because there are lots of things that have gone brilliantly, including a great blog tour and some really generous reviews from plenty of other magazines and websites with many more offers in the pipeline. And of course, I have to make sure I remind myself that far more important events have happened this year — both personally and out there in the world — than the publication of my novel.

Goals achieved

When I set out to write my novel I had two real goals.

  1. To get it published and into bookshops.
  2. To affect readers with my writing in the way that I have been affected by books that I have read.

The evidence for the first is in bookshops all over the country, from Waterstones to Blackwells, the British Library shop to fabulous independents like Golden Hare in Edinburgh. The evidence for the second is in the letters, messages and reader reviews that I’ve had. And it is properly touching.

Therefore, by my own measures, I declare The Backstreets of Purgatory a success!!

Everything beyond this is a bonus.

(And, anyway, my real daily success is persuading the cat to give me a cuddle.)

Photo of Helen Taylor (author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) getting a cuddle from her cat.

 

Image credits

Mountain photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Seagull shouting by Anthony Robson, Flickr

Pollyanna statue from Wikimedia

 

 

Life Lessons: Not everyone has the same taste in books

I’ve got lockjaw. Ok, slight exaggeration but several weeks of teeth clenching anxiety has left me with muscle spasm and a clicky TMJ. What’s the problem? Book reviews!

The Backstreets of Purgatory in 17 Degrees Magazine

First thing to say is that I’ve had some absolutely phenomenal reviews for The Backstreets of Purgatory. It started with a fabulous review from Zerofiltersaurus (‘unbelievable, incredible and all those other words that meant the same thing’), followed by a great blog tour where the words ‘audacious’ and ‘original’ were freely bandied about. And I’m still buzzing from the brilliant reception Backstreets received from Alistair Braidwood of Scots Whay Hae (‘She has written a Scottish novel of significance and I cannot recommend it enough’). Then the lovely folk at Undiscovered Scotland described the novel as excellent (‘the ideal book for someone looking for something just a little bit out of the ordinary’) and most recently it was chosen as one of 17 Degrees Magazine‘s Autumn Reads and described by the magazine’s books editor, Jill Adams, as ‘The One That I Can’t Stop Talking About’ (‘Fascinating and incredibly funny — this is a bold new voice is Scottish fiction’). To read that was thrilling beyond thrilling.

17 Degrees Magazine review of The Backstreets of Purgatory
Excerpt from 17 Degrees Magazine

Why the teeth clenching? Because for weeks now I’ve been writing emails to magazine and website editors asking if they would consider taking The Backstreets of Purgatory for review. Teeth clenching because I might not get any response. Teeth clenching because I might get a response and it might be no. Teeth clenching because I might get a response and it might be yes. All that teeth clenching and I haven’t even got to the bit where I continually refresh web pages to see if the review is live.

By the time I’d worked myself up into this frenzy of panic, I’d actually forgotten to worry about what the review might say. It wasn’t that I was so conceited as to think that everyone would love my book, but my stress had become simply about getting noticed in the first place. And if an editor agreed to take it, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude it didn’t occur to me to worry that they wouldn’t like it. My adrenalin-primed brain cells would probably have exploded if I’d given myself leave to take that on too. Plus, as I mentioned above, I was on a roll of absolute blinder reviews. So it was a bit of a shock to me at the weekend when Backstreets didn’t get the wholehearted endorsement of the reviewer from The Fountain. Understatement. Darn. (I sound casual. I was actually nearly sick.)

There are still several reviews in the pipeline. At this rate (and with this concern now at the forefront of my addled mind) I’ll have ground my teeth to paste before any of them are published.

Today however, I gave myself a good talking to (while massaging the muscle spasm out of my masseter muscle (try saying that with your finger in your mouth)). The main points of which were as follows (I’ve removed most of the offensive language):

  • Not everyone has the same taste in books.
  • There are loads of books that I love that my friends dislike.
  • There are loads of books that have had brilliant reviews that I didn’t take to.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory has had some excellent reviews.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory has had one not as excellent review.
  • It is The Backstreets of Purgatory that is being reviewed, not me. Emphasise. Not ME.
  • This is NOT a matter of life and death. It is a book review.
  • I have had messages, emails and letters from readers telling me how much the book meant to them, how beautifully written it is, how they couldn’t put it down, how it made them laugh and made them cry (and how it makes a great prop to keep their new baby’s Moses basket at a wee incline).
  • I have not heard from some people who bought the book, which might mean they hate it or think that it is crap but they are too polite to tell me (or perhaps that they just haven’t read it and maybe don’t intend to read it).
  • With the help of mentors and writing friends, I wrote, rewrote, rewrote and rewrote the novel.
  • With the help of Unbound’s editors, I edited and edited.
  • At the end of it all, I had the novel I had hoped to write.
  • At the end of it all, I had the type of novel I would choose to read.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory might be the centre of my world at the moment, but it isn’t the centre of everyone else’s.
  • Get over yourself, H.
  • Not everyone has the same taste in books.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

There will be another one shortly about measures of success.