I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been neglecting my blog. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I’ve been writing my fourth and fifth novels, and a short story. The second is that I’ve been in existential crisis. Again. Then, last night I watched Dinosaurs: The Final Day; today I’m compelled to write a post.
I guess the definition of ‘success’ is a moveable feast. My ambition for my whole life has been to write a book. I wrote a book. Then I had to be published. I found the brilliant darkstroke books, and got published. Then, to be able to actually call myself a ‘writer’, I had to write more books. I did, and they were published. Brilliant, right? I’m ‘successful’. Living the dream.
Nope. The trouble with trying to be a writer – or, rather, a novelist, as your job – is that millions of other people are also trying to be writers as their job, and millions of other people are already ‘successful’ writers. By which I mean, it’s their main/only job, and people have heard of them. Their books are in high street bookshops, supermarkets, and all over the internet. Many of them are making a living wage from writing. A few are making millions.
The internet has opened up everything – anyone can write and publish a book. That’s great. It’s freedom. It’s wonderful. And sometimes you’ll find an indie author you fall in book-love with. But there are many more out there who you won’t find, because of the sheer number of people doing it. Information overload.
When I first went on Facebook in the early 2000s, it was as a means to connect with my friends and family. Photos taken on the spur of the moment. A kind of online diary (well, the bits I choose to share). Yes, including photos of meals out, culinary disasters, and drunk people. I could keep in touch, or reconnect, with friends who live hundreds or thousands of miles away. They could see pictures of my little boy, and vice versa. It was great.
Things changed, as they do. I stopped posting photos of my child. I began asking my husband if he minded me posting certain things. Fair enough. And then I became a published author, and suddenly – in the attempt to have the vital ‘online presence’ that helps you find a keep a readership – I was on pretty much every social media platform going, I was ‘following’ people, and had ‘friends’ I didn’t really know. I had to post regularly to make the algorithm work for me; or, rather, the algorithm had me working for it.
And that’s when the crisis started. How do you make a name for yourself? The problem with not being famous, is that you have to try to become famous to become a ‘successful’ author. That’s how it seemed to me. Which is why – I guess – there are so many ‘one-hit-wonders’ in the world. Establishing yourself as an ‘Artist’ is hard, and frequently not enjoyable.
On my Instagram feed, ads keep appearing about the relationship between social media and mental health. You should take a break from social media if you’re feeling ‘overwhelmed’, they say. I felt overwhelmed; also my little boy had a serious eye infection and chicken pox at the same time, we had to go to hospital, and when I came out, I tested positive for covid. I was quite unwell. There were strains in my relationships with those close to me. I tried to ‘take a break’. I contacted my publisher, and they were very understanding and supportive. The trouble is, when you are in sole charge of your publicity, and in spite of your best efforts, sales of your third novel have not been great, you can’t afford – in any sense of the word – take a break from social media. Especially when the pot of money you had for direct marketing – blog tours, adverts on book promotion sites, giveaways, and the online advert-maker I use, ad infinitum – is empty. I’ve found that trying to set myself up as a writer has been expensive. This website costs money. My Society of Authors membership costs money. It is vital to get your work professionally edited before you submit it to a publisher or click ‘publish’ on KDP: a massive necessary expenditure. For my ‘real’ job, I work in an animal rescue centre. The only way I was able to afford to pursue my dream of becoming a successful writer, is because I inherited some money when my beloved mum died. And now the money’s gone. Social media is my lifeline. And I find myself overwhelmed.
My husband is an incredibly kind, empathetic, supportive and patient man. When the rescue centre I work at closed for a rebuild, he was okay with me taking a sabbatical so I could write. However, I seem to have spent more time trying to promote my work, than actually write. My husband suggested I shelve everything else and just write.
It made sense, but I can’t ‘just write’ when I’m trying to reach readers and make a go of this. And then Putin declares war on Ukraine. The cost of living is soaring. I’m still driving my non-hybrid car, and buying strawberries in plastic punnets from supermarkets, because it’s a cheap and easier option, and climate change hasn’t gone away. Covid hasn’t gone away – I got it and I’m double-jabbed and boosted. And my little boy – who goes to a C of E school because it’s the only one in the village, sat up in his bath the other night and told me that we have to make the best of it, Mum, because once we’re dead, we’re gone. And there I was thinking about the next TikTok video I was going to make. I thought, who cares where I went today? Who wants to see another unprofessionally-taken photo of a beach? People are fleeing their homes with their lives in rucksacks, their pets in their arms. Why am I stressing about book sales and social media?
When I was a child and a teenager, I idolised musicians and writers. They were special. Gifted. I thought of them almost a superior species; in the same way that I thought my parents were all-powerful, all-knowing rocks.
Then I had my little boy, and it was like I’d been slapped in the face with a wet fish. Or, like a planet that had just been hit by a seven-mile wide asteroid. We are all just trying to survive, do the best we can, enjoy what we can. We’re all just humans, muddling along.
I fell in love with dinosaurs when we did a school project on them. I’d been about seven or eight at the time. It stayed with me. And fairly recently I saw a kind of joke on social media: The horrible thing about being a grown-up, is that people stop asking what your favourite dinosaur is – it’s like they don’t even care. I shared he joke, used the laughing emoji. But really I was thinking, I know, right?! Richard, the antagonist in my Glasshouse series of novels, has always wanted to be a palaeontologist. In my WIP, which is set in the present day, against all the odds, he’s become a professor of palaeontology. Kayleigh’s baby son, Liam, from The (D)Evolution of Us is studying palaeontology at Manchester University. I finished the first draft last week. I called it Skin and Bone. And then I saw that Sir David Attenborough had made a new documentary: Dinosaurs: The Final Day. It was on last night. And it had a profound effect upon me.
It wasn’t just the evocative nature of a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. It wasn’t just the climate-change message he slipped in at the end. It wasn’t just the sheer tenacity and dedication of a painstaking, decade-long archaeological dig and the following analysis. It wasn’t just because we found out about the way, for example, pterosaurs laid eggs that had soft shells, which meant they needed to be buried for protection, so although they flew, they were more like turtles than birds. And when their offspring hatched, their bones were already solid enough for them to fly. I mean, wow. It wasn’t just because we finally had a snapshot of the last day of the Cretaceous period. The thing that touched me the most was the stories they’d created about the individual dinosaurs and pterosaurs whose fossils they’d unearthed: the injured and starving triceratops; the pterosaur hatchlings; the thescelosaurus who’s severed leg was the key evidence of a dinosaur dying on that fateful day, who’s first line of defence was to run and to swim; the turtle who was impaled upon a branch during a water surge on the day the asteroid hit (the image of its blood infusing into the water will never leave me, not if I live for 66 million years) …
How many times have I read variations of the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, to my little boy? How many times have I read about it for my own curiosity? Hundreds? Thousands? And yet I’d never felt it before, on a personal level, until I watched that documentary. Which, I guess, was one of the points of making it in the first place.
What’s that quote? Something like, ‘one thousand people dead is a statistic; a seven-year-old girl in a unicorn dress dead is a tragedy.’ We do care about the minutiae of people’s lives. I do laugh at the blurry pictures of pints of cider one of my Facebook friends posts on a night out, because I like to see them! I do like seeing pictures and videos other Musers have taken at gigs, or of themselves playing the riff to Plug In Baby. It’s these things that touch us, that we relate to. That inspire me, as a writer.And if I take a break from the internet, how on earth will I know what’s going on in the world?! I just need to find a balance, and not get sucked in by my ever-changing definition of ‘success’, and algorithms. I need to spend more time writing and less time worrying. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep calm and carry on. After all, you only live once.
Life could be snuffed out in myriad ways – including the planet being hit by another asteroid – in forty minutes, in two hours, in an instant. And if my notebooks, novels, memory sticks or laptop are destroyed, maybe my bones will be preserved in the mud. Maybe the next dominant species on earth will be able to discover the truth about me and my life through my fossilised bones, in the same way scientists can detect the pigments in a triceratops’ fossilised skin today. Maybe I’ll be cremated, and maybe my ‘vibes’ will resonate, and it will turn out that the world was more spiritual than I believed. Who knows? Who cares? And does any of it matter anyway? Well, yes, it does, because I cried when I saw that T Rex staggering with the heat, and finally burning in a wildfire. Maybe my ‘job’ here on earth is simply to live, and to do what I am compelled to do – write.
They made a model from taking casts – or whatever they did – of the fossilised bones of an unhatched pterosaur. They constructed it into what would have been its flying pose. It never got to fly, because its life was extinguished by the effects of an asteroid hitting two thousand miles away. Get on with it, Morwenna. You only live once.
#WIP #amwriting #DinosaursTheFinalDay #ExistentialCrisis #writerslife