Three years ago this month – yesterday, in fact – Beaufort Scales ambled out into the world with a cup of tea in one paw and a deeply nervous writer hanging from the other.
(Insert my normal astonishment about the fact that time passes here.)
I don’t really know what I expected from that first book. I was still planning to traditionally publish at the time, and Baking Bad was just a fun thing that I decided to do after a particularly bruising period of submissions, rejections, and stressful complications with my ‘proper’ book. And, I figured, no one would really be that interested in a cake-loving, crime-solving dragon, so why not just self-publish it for fun?
Six Beaufort books (and four snarky feline and scruffy human PI adventures) later, I stand corrected. Crime-solving dragons are a deeply serious business.
And this is only one of the many lessons I’ve learned since hitting publish that first time back in 2018 (such innocent, pre-pandemic days!).
Many of these lessons, are, of course, quite boring, if important, such as: Scrivener (writing software) needs to be backed up manually while you’re working, as it only backs up automatically on exit, which is a Bad Thing to discover when it crashes just as you’re in the final stages of a ten-hour, four-chapter marathon session.
And yes, you can get by with formatting in Microsoft Word, but the sheer frustration of it will probably shorten your lifespan – or at least that of your laptop, when page breaks appear out of nowhere and text centres to some mysterious alignment that bears no semblance to the reality of the page, and you mash the keys in a blind rage and threaten bodily violence to software.
And no, you don’t need to buy another marketing course, because you already have three you haven’t finished, and none of them are buying you the confidence you need. But yes, you do need to learn marketing, so why don’t you go and finish those courses rather than staring at the ads dashboard in horror and chain-eating a packet of dark chocolate digestives?
Also, bulk-buy tea and said digestives. They’re not an indulgence. They’re pure necessity.
Those lessons were important, but not hugely interesting. Other lessons, however, have had repercussions beyond my writing and biscuit-consuming life, so I thought I’d share a couple with you here. Because I sometimes think writing teaches you as much about life as it does about the skill of putting one word in front of another. Because, in the end, writing isn’t really about the words. It’s about the life in them.
Your people are out there. I will admit, I had already discovered through Twitter that, while I may not know many cat-loving, bad joke telling, terrible horror movie viewing, delightfully odd people in the non-online world, they are out there. Or in there, on my laptop, as the case may be. Which is quite a wonderful place to have your friends when you’re an introvert with a good dose of social anxiety.
But what putting Baking Bad out in the world showed me is that, whatever your weird thing is – be it tea-drinking dragons, or snarky investigative cats, or chickens saving the universe – your stories will find someone. And then they’ll tell other people who share your weird thing, and they’ll tell still more, and next thing you know there are a whole load of people who think that what you’re writing is exactly what they’re looking for, and that’s the sort of thing writer dreams are made of.
Not everyone is your people, and that’s okay. I admit, my first batch of bad reviews (and they all came at once, in a massive pile on), were pretty devastating. But I had just weathered a year or so of publishing rejections, so that might have built some callouses up a bit. Although rejections tend to be impersonal, and a lot of the reviews I got edged into personal territory, so that sucked. But after the initial shock and stomach-twisting shame wore off, I realised that all those reviews by readers who weren’t my people simply told others who also weren’t my people not to pick the book up. And that’s more than okay – that’s perfect. None of us are meant for everyone. We’re only meant for the people who share – or at least understand – the strange little quirks of our hearts.
Write what you love. Or create, or paint, or build, or whatever your thing is. This is linked so closely to the other two points that it’s not really a point three – these are actually more like points 1A, 1B and 1C, I guess. But create what brings you joy, what brings you back to the page or the studio or the workbench every day with excitement, what makes you smile to yourself when you think about it, even in the supermarket when you know someone’s going to think you’re suspiciously delighted by the baked beans or something. Then take that thing you love and offer it to the world, and some people will throw rotten vegetables at you, but others will cheer and say, “Hey – that’s exactly what I was looking for!”
And you only need one of those to make a whole truck of rotten veggies worth it.
Don’t compare. Thief of joy and all that. But seriously – everyone’s at a different place in their life and work. Everyone’s skills are different. What’s easy to you is hard to someone else, and vice versa. I still spend far too much time shouting at myself why can’t you write faster, and looking glumly at the rapidly expanding bookshelves of authors I love and admire. But my pace is my pace, and that is all it can be. Maybe I’ll get quicker as time goes on, maybe this is my max speed. But either way, all comparing does is make me so stressed that I try new techniques that simply slow me down, or I end up reading so many books and articles on how to go faster that I write less, so … yeah. I shall potter along and be happy about it, dammit.
And probably eat a few extra digestives, just to soothe the sharp edges. Medicinal, you know.
People are more wonderful than you realise. I think I’m back to point 1D now, but anyway. People are. Whether it’s other writers who offer advice, and sympathy, and feedback on your work, and truly terrible jokes, or readers who send unexpected and wholly wonderful emails, or postcards, or dragons – people are wonderful. I think it’s really easy to forget that, when the news is constantly full of people being rather less than wonderful, and our own interactions, online and off, don’t always fill us with confidence in humanity. But people really are wonderful. They’re funnier, and kinder, and more delightful than I think most of us have come to anticipate.
So that needed an extra point all of its own.
No matter what, there’s always time for tea and cake. Murder investigation stalled? Bring out the cake. Office destroyed by pixies? Put the kettle on. Slightly tense encounter with untrustworthy journalists or creatures who may or may not want to snack on you? A cuppa’ll put you right.
While we may not have too many of the above situations to worry about in everyday life, we’ve all got more than enough other stressors to go around, and it’s easy to get caught up in them, rushing from one mini (or not so mini) crisis to the next, never stopping long enough to shake off the tension of one before picking up another. But nothing forces us to slow down and take a breath quite like the ritual of boiling the kettle, steeping the tea, and waiting for that first sip to be ready. We could all do with that reminder to slow down sometimes.
And the cake? Well, the cake is just – ahem – the icing on the top. Sorry.
I’m sure I’ve learned many other things along the way, too – things about patience, and persistence, and practice, and other p-words, and also not leaving your tea right next to the keyboard when the cat’s liable to make her presence felt at any moment. But if I could sum up everything I’ve learned over the past three years since Baking Bad came out, and all the years of writing before then?
People are wonderful.
You are wonderful.
And without you, the stories wouldn’t be stories. They’d just be words on a page.
So thank you so much, lovely people. Thank you for reading, and listening, and believing in dragons.
And cats, obviously, but they basically insist on being believed in. We have no choice in the matter.
Now over to you, lovely people – what’s one thing that you’ve learned from books over the years (whether reading them or writing them)? Let me know below!
(And, of course, the link to buy Baking Bad in ebook, paperback, or audio is here. If you haven’t already got your Christmas presents sorted 😉)