Mid-list authors and the curse of invisibility

I was at a conference this week, where I happened to mention I was an author. The person I spoke to immediately asked: ‘Ah, self published?’

Dear reader, this is not the first time this has been said to me, automatically. It also takes a superhuman sort of strength not to deny this vehemently, and try to show off about your achievements as an author.

Which, of course, does nothing but make you feel worse and like you’re a fraud.

But I wanted to unpack that automatic assumption about self publishing.

There is, obviously, nothing wrong with self publishing, and the authors I know who are most financially successful, and most savvy, are self-pubbed. For those in the writing sphere, we know that self publishing is the way to excellent money for those who are smart, hard working and willing to put in all the publishing work on top of the writing work.

But that’s not what people outside the fiction circle think.

When someone’s first response is ‘Oh, you’re self published?’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Well, I haven’t heard of you.’

This is because, dear reader, mid-list authors are invisible. If you have not heard of me, I cannot exist. I cannot possibly have sold tens of thousands of books, I cannot have written multiple novels in the last ten years.

This is because the story of publishing shows us two options: the failed writer, never publishing, sitting amongst their rejection letters and unfinished manuscripts, and the successful author, being part of a six-way auction for their debut novel which goes on to sell millions.

We do not see the mid-list authors, working away year after year, releasing book after book, and doing well! Doing well! You do not need to sell millions to be an author. You do not need to be famous, or a household name. There is a whole wide world of readers out there, and you can have your corner of it.

Mid-list authors are invisible because they don’t appear in books (no, we write ourselves the fiction we want, of fame and fortune) or movies or television. Even the marginally successful authors in TV have book tours, or ridiculous advances.

This industry is a strange one, but I hope that this realisation offers hope and is comforting – there is not simply ‘bestseller’ or ‘never makes it’. There’s a whole group of authors who are selling and writing and making deals and seeing their words in other languages, and finding new readers every day. There are writers who make this their life’s work, without quitting their day job.

They are still writers. They are still doing this wonderful work. Just as there is always room for readers, there is always room for new writers. So whether you’re starting out, or have been doing this a while, whether you’re hoping for a big break or happy with your lot, whether you’re self pubbed or trad pubbed, I want to celebrate mid-list authors.

Because we may not often be seen, we’re trudging on every day, creating worlds and words, and I think there’s something incredibly beautiful about that.

Anxiety, Curiosity and Writing Fiction

I have had this feeling for a while now, that being anxious is actually part of writing. It’s both a cure and a cause.

For me, anxious thoughts start in the same way my ideas do…with ‘what if’. Sometimes those ‘what ifs’ are bad and disturbing and upsetting. What if everyone I love dies? What if I fall off my bike and the glass lense shard goes through my eyeball? What if that child wanders into the road? What if everyone hates me?

You could do it forever, terrifying possibilities splayed out like every fork in every road from here to eternity. But there are other ‘what ifs’.

What if the mother felt responsible for that baby? What if the person who died was lying? What if you discovered a secret much later? What if you couldn’t forgive?

It has been on my mind for a while now that curiosity and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, both coming from this ‘what if’ space. The unknown is anxiety inducing, the black space where our brains have to fill in the blanks. And yet, it’s also the space where brilliance arrives. Because when you start from nothing, you have somewhere to go.

I spend a lot of time writing through those anxious feelings, talking down those voices, shaking them away or outrunning them. Journal pages are the space for reality, for cold hard facts: not everyone you know hates you. It’s incredibly unlikely for A, B or C to happen. Where’s the evidence for that thought? But journals are also the space for possibility, for being the creator of your own reality. So you don’t waste it on the negative. You conjure big dreams and plans to outshine the uncertain greys.

I think anxiety has a big part to play in writing novels. If my brain wasn’t jumping to those ‘what ifs’ I never would have wondered about the girl left behind when her father was dying (Prosecco and Promises), the rockstar mother who wrote her top hit about abandoning her daughter (Cocktails and Dreams) or the girl who disappeared into one night friendships and ecstasy to escape the mundanity of London life and cultural distance (Wine Dark, Sea Blue).

I certainly wouldn’t have wondered what would have happened to two friends with an imbalanced relationship, a terrible betrayal and a final journey together before their thirtieth birthday without those anxious and curious thoughts. (That’s my new one, Before We Part).

What do you think – where do your ideas come from? Anxiety, curiosity, memories, people you know, things you’ve seen?

The unexpected complexity of a perfect romantic comedy

We all know the snobbishness the genre faces. People think romcoms are ‘frothy’, ‘easy’ and ‘all the same’. They make judgements about the readers and their intelligence levels. Even more so, those judgements apply to the writers.

But those of us who love, read and write romantic comedies know just how powerful they can be. Re-reading my favourite romantic comedy is like a comforting hug, taking me back to a different time and reminding me that happy endings exist. They evoke a sigh of contentment. They are infinitely satisfying.

At this moment in time, where politics, environmental issues and disagreements make the world a dark and stressful place, I don’t think it’s at all surprising that people are reaching for books that make them feel good. That let them escape for a few hours with likeable characters, solvable problems and personal growth. Love, as always, conquers all and everyone gets what they deserve.

What’s so wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing! But romantic comedies are so much more than that. In putting together my syllabus for my writing course this autumn in how to write romantic comedies, I was briefly stumped. There wasn’t that much to it, surely? A loveable main character, a strong storyline, a love interest that made you swoon…

But no, I realised as I tried to find a semblance of order, there was so much to it. There was building tension between the couple, and getting the pacing perfect so that readers could gallop through to the conclusion, or pace themselves like nibbling at a delicious cookie, savouring every crumb. There were the sub-genres and the tropes you expected. There are the moments and storylines you can see from a mile off, and the skilful writing that makes them enjoyable and believable. There’s the funny characters and the embarrassing moments. There’s the learning and the journey and walking a fine line between who your characters are and who your reader wants them to be.

It’s easy to write lazy and bad romantic comedies. We see enough of them as failed movies. They fall back on stereotypes without paying homage. They don’t strive to find something new or make anyone lovable. They expect you to accept what’s happening because you like the genre and that’s what you expect.

There is true skill to writing a romantic comedy that makes the characters come alive. That makes a reader feel they have full escaped and replenished whatever part of themselves needed a breather. As Stephen King says, easy reading is hard writing.

My go-to comfort reads, my ‘perfect’ romantic comedies are ‘Faking it‘ by Jennifer Crusie, ‘You don’t have to say you love me‘ by Sarra Manning and pretty much everything by Mhairi Mcfarlane (but particularly ‘Here’s looking at you‘, ‘It’s not me, it’s you‘ and ‘<a href="http://<a href="https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01N3SW6UZ/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&linkCode=li2&tag=almi-21&linkId=4c5928b8b47c1bfec56775e26b2d4686&language=en_GB&quot; target="_blank"><img border="0" src="//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=B01N3SW6UZ&Format=_SL160_&ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=GB&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=almi-21&language=en_GB" ></a>""Don’t you forget about me‘).

So tell me: what are your romcom comfort reads, and what would you say to romcom critics?

The death of the author in a world of influencers

Do you remember the days, before Twitter, Instagram, or even the internet, when the only thing you knew about your favourite author was the list of books they wrote and whatever they had written on the bio inside the book cover?

I didn’t know anything about my favourite authors except how their voices sounded on the page, and that I could trust them with my utter voracity. If they published something, I would buy it and love it and buy the next one and the next.

Perhaps I knew if they were English or American, or those tidbits you immediately forget, like if they lived with a husband, wife, kids, pets. I didn’t know their political leanings, how many selfies they took on a daily basis and what their views on the Great British Bake Off were.

Books used to stand by themselves, existing solely alone, rather than attached to the author. The author name was more of a tag to identify what kind of book it would be, the same way a distinctive cover would do.

Authors now are meant to be building a brand, be online to interact with their readers, to let them know what they’re working on, when the next book is out. Reviewing other books, sharing thoughts, being involved in conversation…engaging.

It’s such a different world now.

I like being online and sharing my thoughts, most of the time. But on the other hand, the internet is a loud, loud place full of angry thoughts and people selling stuff, and shouting and hatefulness and disagreements just for the sake of it. We’ve become accustomed to sharing every single thought we have. And the more I do that, the fewer I have to put in my books.

It’s perhaps different with those authors we studied at school, from a different time and era. Or authors with very interesting lives.

But I don’t have an interesting life. I have an incredibly ordinary, pleasant life. I save the interesting things I think about or notice for my books.

I sometimes miss knowing nothing more about my favourite authors than the fact that I could trust them. That I loved them solely for their books. That I didn’t know what they looked like, how they felt about things or how they spent their days. It was something close to God, I think. Trusting in someone invisible that you somehow felt you knew.

So, what do you think? Do you follow your favourite authors online? Does seeing their normality make you feel closer to them? Do you need to know anything about an author to care about the book?

Toxic relationships in fiction: what’s going on?

Toxic relationship stories are having a bit of a moment, and whether it’s realising that your partner is a gaslighting piece of shit, or coming to terms with life after a controlling ex, the stories to be told are varied and powerful.

The main books I’ve read that have covered this of late can often be dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘chick lit’, neither of which are good enough terms to show the depth and sensitivity they exude when dealing with a really delicate situation.

Toxic relationships can come in all forms (and not just romantic) and there can be relationships so toxic that you’re both bad for each other. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ones that can be qualified as abusive. Where one party wants to control the other. It’s done so subtly in some ways you’d barely notice it – from calling you ‘crazy’ when you show any emotion, to flying off the handle unexpectedly, to punishing you with the silent treatment.

Relationships with a ‘bad ex’ aren’t just about being cheated on or finding yourself unappreciated – they’re experiences that need time and space to heal from. To undo the damage, figure out what’s real and unlearn all those strange behaviours.

In most of the books I’ve read that cover this area, the friends have struggled to deal with the emotionally abusive ex, either stating their dislike outwardly, encouraging her (yes, it’s usually a ‘her’, that’s not to say it always is) to leave him, or waiting around until she finally does (and realising it might take a few tries).

I always really feel for the friends in that situation, because you don’t want to leave your friend isolated, enthralled by someone who is bad to them, but you also can’t get through. You just have to wait.

Some brilliant books that dealt with abusive or toxic exes that I’ve read in the last year included ‘Don’t you forget about me’ by Mhairi Mcfarlane, ‘The Flat Share by Beth O’Leary, ‘How do you like me now?’ by Hollie Bourne and ‘Our Stop’ by Laura Jane Williams.

In my upcoming novel, ‘Before We Part’, there’s no doubt that Loll’s husband Darren is a nasty piece of work (although he’s always capable of sinking lower in people’s estimation – arsehole that he is). He’s never explicitly abusive, and to many readers I’m sure he’ll just look like your standard ex – pretty shit.

What makes the relationship more complex is how Loll feels about it – how she’d built her life around someone else’s opinion of her without even noticing. How she’d forgotten to be herself, because it was easier to be someone who made him happy. When someone chips away at us, day after day, when they identify the things that are ‘wrong’ with us, until we start to believe we really were irrational, or unfair or overreacting…it’s hard to claw your way back to ‘normal’. It’s hard to even see what that is anymore.

My story is not about Darren, and actually, what I love is that he has screwed over two women and neither of them let their story be about him. Because it’s about them – their friendship, their love, their growth, their history. Their adventures. And that takes guts.

So, tell me: have you read a book with a toxic relationship? Have you read a romance where you thought it seemed unhealthy? Have you read any of the wonderful books I’ve listed above, and what did you think?

Satisfying female narratives: do women get what they deserve?

I was having a think about the end of Game of Thrones (again). Now, wherever you stand on the final few episodes of one of the most popular television shows in recent years, I think we can all agree that endings matter.

I’m not sure anything is capable of evoking such disappointment or elation as an ending. And when it comes to Game of Thrones, I just kept thinking about the three main female characters (beware, *spoilers* ahead):

Dani’s ending was the most disappointing for most, mainly because her descent into madness was so far from the place she’d come from, as a kind, caring and balanced leader, focused on freedom from oppression and good lives for her people. She started to believe in her own destiny, her ego overtook her mission. It made sense, it just suddenly all happened very quickly at the end.

Cersei’s storyline, whilst she could be a nasty piece of work, was always motivated by love of her children above all else. She was the quintessential helicopter mother – her children were the priority. They deserved the kingdom, they deserved control, they deserved the best. It was that cut-throat determination that was her downfall. Her ending was probably the one I had the biggest issue with, because they’d tried to humanise her before her ending. She didn’t get what she deserved. She’d always been strong, unyielding and despicable to get what she needed, to survive. Her ending didn’t reflect that.

But Sansa, there was the ending that saved the show for me. A woman who had grown from a selfish young girl who expected nothing beyond being cared for and looking pretty, to a leader who put her people first at every turn. Sansa was for the North, above all. Not ego, not personal gain, but power enough to give her people a voice and a seat at the table.

I was reading about the idea in fiction that women who have dealt with abuse become fighters because of what they’ve dealt with. On the outside, that looks like a sensible argument. After all, when we’ve had to fight to overcome trauma, that strength can push you forward.

But that gives the power to the trauma, or the abuser, not the person. And something about that feels uneasy.

We are all made of what happens to us and what we make happen. We are riding waves and we sink or swim. But in the story of our lives, do we really want to give power to the worst things?

I don’t have an answer to this, I just recognised that in fiction, in order to transition, often some bad shit has to happen. From frothy, joyful romantic comedies that start with being broken up with or cheated on, through to thrillers where mistreatment, alcohol abuse or physical attack occur, women are put through the ringer. We see this as character-building, fighting from victim to hero.

In my upcoming book, Before We Part, each woman is dealing with their own trauma. Loll is dealing with the husband who left her just before Christmas, her best friend Cass is still recovering from the biggest mistake she made years before, the one that left her with her daughter, Veronica. Vee’s trauma is yet to come, losing her mother to cancer.

Are we defined by our trauma? Does how we deal with trauma say something about us? What if you don’t have grace under pressure, what if you respond to pain with cruelty or harshness? I think the best characters, like people, are imperfect.

Characters are going to have to go through awfulness to learn a lesson or grow. That’s just narrative storytelling. But like real people, we need to avoid labelling characters by the shit they’ve gone through. We have to let them grow and be and move beyond what we’ve known them as. In a series like Game of Thrones, where years and years have passed with these characters, it’s natural to put them in boxes, the same way your parent always remembers that disgusting thing you liked to eat as a child.

The important thing to me is that each character doesn’t have to be symbolic of an entire group or a whole situation. They’re just one person.

What do you think? How do you write and read female trauma? Does it ever put you off?

Is being an author bad for your health?

I know, I know, I’ve spent the last five years talking about the health benefits of writing. And I stand by that.

Getting to write, express your feelings, explore ideas and taking the time to create instead of consuming can have huge benefits.

But the actual job of writing a book can have a negative impact on your body and your mind, sometimes.

Here are a few, and the things I’ve found that help!

Aches and pains

I work all day at a computer, and then I write my books in the evenings, at the weekends, even on my lunch breaks! So RSI (repetitive strain injury) is a big one. I also have weak, clicky wrists, so typing can be a pain sometimes.

As with other office/screen workers, sore eyes from the screen, and neck and back pain can be problems.

When you’re on a deadline, sometimes you’ve just got to power on through, despite the pain. A few ways around it are switching to audio, using something like Dragon software to dictate your book. Sadly, my brain doesn’t work that way, I’m better on paper – I just don’t think out loud.

The fix? Taking deadlines into account, lots of stretching, standing up and something like yoga or foam rolling to lengthen those muscles back out again.

‘Writer seeking waistline’

If there is a worse job for weight gain, I have not yet found it. Sedentary, irregular hours and a culture of biscuits, chocolate and alcohol. When you’re on a deadline, you don’t get up unless your bum goes numb. Cooking real dinners goes out the window, along with exercise and seeing the outside world.

The author world is full of ‘just one more bag of chocolate buttons because edit are hard’ or ‘one more glass of wine because I finished the first draft’. There’s also so much tea/coffee that I wonder if I’m ever truly hydrated when I’m working on a book.

I’ve always struggled with my weight, and that’s because my two favourite things (reading books and writing them) are usually done sitting down. I try to walk more, get a workout in or get outside. Thirty minutes out of your day doesn’t take a huge amount from your writing, and I usually find getting out of my own head helps iron out any storyline kinks, or produces some new dialogue when I’m least expecting it.

But a week before submission? Forget it. The best time to exercise is when you’re absolutely procrastinating over starting those line edits!


You know what’s more terrifying than putting your heart and soul into something and releasing it out into the world?

The number of people who will rip the absolute shit out of it for no reason at all.

I’m not just talking about negative reviews (which can be devastating, let’s be honest) but friends and family who dismiss what you do, people on twitter who tag you into negative comments, weird private messages from people who want something from you – the endless stream of feedback on something that is an extension of yourself.

It’s exhausting, being that vulnerable. And in our online world, we open ourselves to that every time we publish a book.

Going offline, avoiding reviews and reminding readers and bloggers to please not tag us in negative reviews where they tell the world that the thing we spent months creating is a completely derivative shit show are ways to balance that vulnerability.

Losing yourself in the story

You know that saying, ‘no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader?’ We have to feel and discover things as we create the story in order for the reader to feel the same. So if you’re shedding a tear for a dead character, think how painful it was for us to kill them off.

Then think about how it feels having to be inside the mind of a psychopath, or a terrified person tortured by them, or a character dealing with trauma…most of us disappear into the world we create. We need to, to make it convincing. We need to inhabit a world, become part of it and the people within it, in order to do our jobs well.

But that can lead to all sorts of depressive moods, irritability, feelings of helplessness and a loss of perspective. We lose connection with our own lives because we’ve reconnected in a new one.

I’m making it sound like psychosis, and that’s not what I mean. But if you think about how much a book can affect your mood when you read it, I’d triple it for the experience of writing it. Especially if you’re on a deadline, and you’ve been through it over and over again, making subtle changes.

In my upcoming book, Before We Part, one of the main characters is very anxious. She always has been – in some ways, it’s more a personality trait than a diagnosis. Writing about her life was a good way to express my own anxious feelings and my experiences of panic attacks. But on the other hand, the more I submerged myself into that world, the more I started having panic attacks again in my own life. Because I was stuck in that character’s mindset, I was carrying around her baggage with me, on top of my own.

The best way out of this for me was exercise (yay, more of that) and writing things about my own life as a sort of ‘fiction palate cleanser’. I’d write about my own (positive) memories, or write gratitude lists. Anything that brought me back to the here-and-now and grounded me.

Negative emotions

I mean, we all have these, but whilst I’m going for it, here are the ugly emotions/experiences that I have as an author:

  • Comparisonitus
  • Jealousy (huge marketing budget/huge advance/huge 5 way auction for book/new very exciting deal)
  • Unrelenting self criticism
  • Fear of being misunderstood
  • Sour grapes at the odd bestseller I didn’t think was that good
  • An unpleasant amount of ambition
  • Moving the goal posts just before you achieve something
  • Belittling any achievement

So why do it, right? You add in the poor sleep schedule because of all the coffee and the characters who wake you up with an idea just before you pass out, only to wake up and find a note on your bedstand that says ‘blind-murder-mice-cheese’, and you’re on your way to some serious problems.

We do it because we love it. I do it literally because I can’t not do it. It’s part of who I am, it’s how I feel most comfortable expressing myself, and if I wasn’t writing stories, my whole flimsy personality would collapse into dust, revealing that I have very few hobbies or interesting things in my life.

So whilst being an author might be unhealthy, there are loads of great things about it:

Being creative, expressing yourself, exploring, playing, completing something, finishing hard things, patching together edits like surgery, rewriting from scratch, getting wonderful messages, seeing positive reviews, feeling like you’ve reached someone.

Writing brings an immense feeling of satisfaction, and if you’ve got a book burning away inside you, then write it.

Just make sure you book into that yoga class, though, okay?