Writing a book is like having a baby

This is a light-hearted piece about the possible parallels between writing a book and having a baby. It’s adapted from Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, a short guide full of practical tips about finding fulfilment and enjoyment through a writing career.

Although the time it takes to write a book can vary from a few weeks to many years, it is said that the average is about nine months – the same as a full term human pregnancy. But just as some babies are delivered prematurely, some books are submitted for publication too soon, because their writers are so impatient to see them in print. It would have been better to take more time to check for typos in the manuscript and flaws in the plot and generally polish up the finished product. At the other extreme some books, like some babies, become overdue. Maybe the writers are continually revising them in a futile quest for perfection. Or maybe, as first-time authors, they are afraid to take the step of putting their work out to the world.

Of course many pregnancies end in miscarriage. Similarly, many manuscripts are abandoned before they have developed into a complete book. This may not be a bad thing. Writers often need to experiment with different styles, genres and themes and it may become clear that some early drafts are not going to work out well and the best policy is to give up and make a new start.

Just as good care for mothers and babies before the birth is important, writers working on new books need to avoid the physical and mental health hazards associated with their occupation. There’s a chapter in Wellbeing for Writers about how to avoid problems like these.

Publication, like giving birth, is both exciting and stressful. Although writers are spared the physical pain of labor, they may experience acute complications such as discovering a last-minute problem with the proofs, or technical difficulties when uploading their files.

It’s not uncommon for new mothers to develop post-natal depression, due to the huge hormonal and social changes they are experiencing. And writers often feel low after finishing a book, though for different reasons. There is a sense of anticlimax, and sometimes the best treatment is starting to write another one. But inspiration does not come to order, and the equivalent of infertility is writer’s block.

Just as children need care from their parents for many years after they are born, writers need to keep on looking after their books after publication if they hope for ongoing sales, by continuing with marketing and by updating the content if required.

Both having children and writing books represent ways of expressing creativity and leaving a legacy for the future. Just as your children contain some of your genes, your books contain some part of yourself – yet they also have separate lives of their own and you cannot predict or control just how they are going to turn out.

Wellbeing for Writers is available in Kindle or paperback format from your local Amazon website.

“Wellbeing for Writers” revisited

Five years ago I wrote a short ebook called Wellbeing for Writers, based on my experience of having writers as clients in my life coaching and Bach flower practice, and on the rewards and challenges of my own writing career. It contains practical tips about technical and commercial aspects for those new to the field, but is mainly focused on psychological ones that may also be relevant for experienced authors. Why do you write, and is it primarily for yourself or for your readers? How to protect time for writing when working from home with family responsibilities? How to respond to rejection and criticism? How to overcome a phobia of marketing? How to avoid the physical and mental health problems that particularly affect writers? What personal qualities and values are relevant to fulfilment and success?

Wellbeing for Writers had sales and positive reviews to begin with, but then lapsed into obscurity like so many of the other books on Amazon (according to one unofficial estimate, there are over 48 million of them now). I had more or less forgotten about it myself until an email inquiry prompted me to read it again and make a few updates.

Revising an older book can be a rather tedious task and is often neglected, though with non-fiction topics for which new knowledge and information frequently become available, it really ought to be done every few years. The content of Wellbeing for Writers required little change apart from a few corrections. Some of the website links had become invalid and, to my embarrassment, I found that Virginia Woolf’s name had been wrongly spelled in the original version.

Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, ASIN B00YWEK97Y, is available from your local Amazon store in Kindle format (if you don’t have a Kindle you can read it with the Kindle App on another device).

Coping with rejections, criticisms and bad reviews

Unless they are either outstandingly good or remarkably thick-skinned, most writers will find themselves disappointed by rejection or hurt by adverse criticism from time to time. The challenge is to learn from these experiences without being overwhelmed by their emotional impact.

It can be helpful to realise that negative responses are seldom just about you or your book. Rejection from traditional publishers does not always reflect badly on the quality of your work, because firms only have the capacity to take on a limited number of new books each year and will tend to select the ones considered most likely to be a commercial success. So they have to reject the majority of submissions they receive, including ones which are well written as well as those which are not. Occasionally they get it wrong – Gone with the Wind, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Catch 22 and Moby Dick are examples of books which were rejected many times before becoming classic best-sellers, perhaps because they did not fit into a standard genre or were ‘before their time’. Now that self-publishing has become so much easier, cheaper and more acceptable than in the past, many writers are going straight for this option rather than risk the rejections and delays which are so often encountered on the traditional route.

Similarly, negative criticisms and reviews should not necessarily be taken too much to heart. Some critics base their judgements largely on their own personal taste, so the same book will be praised by one but reviled by another. Some do not take the trouble to phrase their comments in a sympathetic and constructive way, and perhaps a few of them gain sadistic pleasure from condemning a book they dislike. If you have faith in your own judgement you do not have to accept an outside verdict which does not ring true, especially if finding personal satisfaction through writing is more important to you than rapid publication and high sales.

On the other hand there is usually something worthwhile to be learned from rejections, criticisms and bad reviews, however unfair and unkind they first seem. If you can swallow your pride, and try to take a detached look at your work from the reader’s point of view, you may realise that your critics had some valid points. If you are feeling so upset that you cannot move forward, perhaps consider a course of Bach flower remedies; there’s a forthcoming post on my other blog about how these can help with ‘life event stress’.

I remember from years ago how dispiriting it was to have my first novel repeatedly rejected, and feeling devastated when one assessor described its heroine as ‘not a very nice girl’. Nowadays I am more philosophical; after all, you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. And, if a book gets thoroughly slated following its publication, some people may actually buy it to see just how awful it is. Any review, whether favourable or not, will make your book more likely to be noticed than those many others which are not reviewed at all.

Setting personal boundaries: or, writers who never say no

 

I had several writers as clients in my life coaching practice. They often raised questions about how to find enough time and energy for writing amid the other demands and distractions of life. They might have agreed to take on extra responsibilities and activities, whether work- or family-related, because they felt obliged to accept or did not know how to refuse without causing offence or risking disapproval. Many were women working from home,  and I could empathise when they described feeling tense and frustrated about having their creative flow interrupted when husband or children wanted something, a visitor came to call or it was time to get the dinner ready. Writing, more than most other activities, requires sustained periods of solitary concentration.

The answers sound simple in theory:  Reserve a dedicated space to write in, preferably a room which is not shared with anyone else. Close the door when you are working. Switch off the phone. Reserve set times for writing each day. If there is too much else happening during normal waking hours, consider getting up earlier or staying up later, though without losing too much sleep. Say no to unwelcome requests.

Before putting such new strategies into practice it is advisable to have a friendly conversation explaining them to other household members, and asking them to respect your privacy by not interrupting unnecessarily or making a lot of noise. If all goes well they may even suggest helping in other ways, perhaps by taking over some of your usual tasks at times.

Many people find it difficult to follow these recommendations because they have been taught always to put others before themselves, and never to refuse when asked to do something however unreasonable or inconvenient it may be.  As a result they may become overworked, tired and resentful, and are unable to pursue their own wishes or develop their full potential.  If they ever do decline a request, they feel guilty about it. But:

If you never say No, what is your Yes worth? Tony Neate

Overcoming this ‘people-pleasing’ mindset is not about going to the opposite extreme of ruthless selfishness, but finding a balance between the best interests of others and yourself.

Many of the Bach flower remedies, selected alone or in combination on an individual basis, can be helpful here. For example Centaury is for those who are over-eager to serve others, and Walnut for those who are being distracted from their chosen path by outside influences.  For details about these and other remedies please visit the Bach centre website.

Not all distractions from writing are external ones. If you are finding it hard to focus because of intrusive worries or wandering thoughts, or are continually being tempted to check your emails or get another cup of coffee, you need to set firmer boundaries for yourself.