SPS-199: Stop Worrying and Start Writing – with Sarah Painter
Hybrid author Sarah Painter shares the importance of taking gentle care of ourselves as creative people, and also the value of taking writing and publishing step-by-step to avoid overwhelm. She and James also discuss how brain science can help writers to get past their blocks about writing.
- Getting past unsupportive beliefs about writing in order to write
- How getting published doesn’t validate a writer
- On the uncertainty of the traditional publishing industry
- Recognizing that self-publishing is a series of steps anyone can conquer
- Addressing and naming our fears to move past them
- The importance of finishing the first book so that you know you can do it
- Building solid habits that help us to get words on the page
- The importance of rewarding ourselves and writing from a place of joy
- Seeking out people who lift us up around the subject of our writing
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
SARAH’S PODCAST: The Worried Writer
TRANSCRIPT of interview with Sarah Painter
Narrator: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show…
Sarah Painter: It’s realizing that everything that we do takes a bit of energy and it takes that kind of decision making energy to do it, and then when you add in the fear that you’ve got with the writing, and then if you haven’t set it as a habit, you’re kind of set up to fail. So reverse engineer it and set yourself up to succeed.
Narrator: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers.
Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie best-seller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine the light on the secrets of self-publishing success.
This is the Self-Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. This is me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Show 199.
Mark Dawson: Yes, that’s very true. 199 episodes. Goodness me.
James Blatch: We are slowly building up to 200 because I’m pretty certain that the 100th episode we didn’t notice at the time. It sort of came and went, didn’t it?
Mark Dawson: Didn’t we have streamers and poppers and things? Oh, no poppers, obviously.
James Blatch: People might not know what poppers are. And more nitrate? I think that we talked about having streamers and poppers.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: Which was as close as we got to it but, anyway, that seemed a long time ago. What, it was two years ago, wasn’t it? So, we’ve been going a long time.
200th episode next week and we’ve got a special look back at some of the highs and lows and we’re going to talk about some important things that the modern author, a modern indie author needs to be thinking about to thrive in the future.
Mark Dawson: Absolutely true. Yes, quite. It’s going to be a good one.
James Blatch: Good. And, in this episode, and our interview in a few moments, we’re going to be talking about some of the more personal challenges that authors have to overcome.
Now, we did do this a little bit a couple of weeks ago. We talked about when you’ve got a major issue in your life to overcome. Today’s interview’s really just about that sense of vulnerability that we know a lot of authors have, that’s impostor syndrome or lack of self-worth or slightly … well, more than slightly frightened about putting yourself out there a bit and that level of anxiety.
And I don’t know if it’s just me but it does seem to be higher levels of anxiety around in the modern world than there used to be. It might just be more of us talking about it but we’re going to be talking about that because that can affect writers, I think, as much as anybody else. But, before then, … Yep, go on. You were going to say something.
Mark Dawson: I was going to say, so that’s you, what about me?
James Blatch: Yes. Self-confident, swaggering, arrogant.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that’s me. I do my best. It’s the only way you can manage if you’re going to be doing talks in front of 1200 people in Vegas.
James Blatch: Which, actually, you’re doing today.
Mark Dawson: I’m not doing it today but I’m preparing the slides today.
James Blatch: Well, this is going out on the 8th of November.
Mark Dawson: Oh, I see, yes. In that case-
James Blatch: Or was that the 15th? What date is it? No, it’s the 15th, isn’t it?
Mark Dawson: Yes, that’s right. Yes, the 15th.
James Blatch: Which means we’re haven’t yet had our drinks in Vegas, which I can mention.
Mark Dawson: Well, there we go.
James Blatch: I did mention last week, I think, but it is Wednesday, this Wednesday coming up. It’s the 8th of November this is going out, being released. On the following Wednesday, which I guess is the 13th … How’s your maths? We are going to host some drinks at Sam’s Town Gambling Hall and Resort or something.
Mark Dawson: Here we go again.
James Blatch: I know. Look it up. It’s an old Vegas institution and you’ll see what I mean when you get there.
Mark Dawson: That’s not encouraging. I’ve seen some of the animatronic …
James Blatch: Oh, yes, that’s bizarre.
Mark Dawson: How you’d describe it, I don’t know. We’ll have to do video and then stick it in the podcast.
James Blatch: Yeah, we shared a little bit of it last year, I think, in the interview with Kinga, but there’ll be moments in the evening where you think, how drunk am I? When you’re looking at this bead going-
Mark Dawson: I know the eagle landing is what I look forward to.
James Blatch: Yes. And John Dyer and I have a nice little route worked out beforehand so we’re flying into Phoenix, cheap VA flights into Phoenix. Nice city, I’m sure, that it is. We got two interviews there.
Probably going to go to LA for at least one interview, maybe two there, and then we’ll drive across the desert to Vegas and meet up with you guys on the Monday or Tuesday, I think you’re getting in, I can’t remember.
Mark Dawson: Tuesday.
James Blatch: Monday night.
Mark Dawson: Monday night, yes.
James Blatch: Monday night, yeah. Now, you’re going to Seattle.
Are you going to have a chance to say hello to people in Seattle? I know there’s a couple of people said they would definitely share a drink with you.
Mark Dawson: I don’t know. Possibly. I’ll see. I’ve just got so much on my plate at the moment, I’m kind of dealing one day in advance at a time at the moment. Potentially, yeah.
I’ve got Sunday without too much to do in Seattle. The Seahawks aren’t playing at home unfortunately. I checked the NFL schedule and I think they’re in Oakland possible but I don’t know, they’re not around, so unfortunately I can’t go to the game. I’ll probably be watching the NFL somewhere.
James Blatch: Well, okay, look. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. This is the 8th that this is going out. If you’re in the Seattle area, and I know a couple of people from Vancouver said they would drive down at the possibility of sharing a drink with you. We’ll put something into the Facebook group, the community group, so have a look on that. If there is going to be something over that weekend, if you’ve got time, we’ll organize it. I can find a bar for you and a time for you to be there and get people there.
Mark Dawson: Make sure it has NFL.
James Blatch: Make sure there’s no NFL.
Mark Dawson: No, there is NFL.
James Blatch: Oh, there is NFL. Yes, okay. You’re a Dolphins fan, it’s barely worth watching this year.
Mark Dawson: No, I love it. It’s amazing. They’re tanking. It’s great.
James Blatch: You’ve got this weird thing. Is that to do with the draft next year or something?
Mark Dawson: Is all to do with the draft and Tua Tagovailoa.
James Blatch: And what?
Mark Dawson: Tua Tagovailoa.
James Blatch: Oh, he’s the guy, the Alabama guy.
Mark Dawson: He’s rather good so we’re basically throwing an entire season. And so, first, with Cambridge saying, “We’re not going to win. We don’t want to win any games this year so we can have Christiano Ronaldo playing out front the following year.”
James Blatch: They’ve just started this draft thing with the cricket contest competition in the UK so they have the draft live on Saturday night and, of course, Twitter was full of cynicism about this American way of doing things but it could create a really … I think the test will be in the competition next summer. We’ll see how exciting it is.
Now, some people hate sport but a couple of quick sport things. It is the World Series taking place this week. Do you know who’s in the World Series? You don’t really follow baseball, do you?
Mark Dawson: It’s the Houston Astros and the … I can’t remember. There’s Walk Off Homer, or Walk Off Run, wasn’t it? To get the Astros into the World Series.
James Blatch: Get the Astros in, you saw that one into the stands, yeah.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: The New York Yankees.
Mark Dawson: Yankees, I thought it was, yeah. Who are like Real Madrid.
James Blatch: Who are what?
Mark Dawson: Who are the equivalent of Real Madrid, kind of baseball royalty.
James Blatch: It’s not the New York Yankees, it’s the Washington Nationals.
Mark Dawson: That’s right.
James Blatch: They played the Yankees in that game. Yes, it’s the Washington Nationals. I realize as I said that out loud, that wasn’t right.
Mark Dawson: You looked confused for a moment there, more so than normal.
James Blatch: The Yankees, I know, in my lifetime, whenever you watched The Yankees do anything, they’d tend to win so it was quite unusual to see them struggling against the Astros, although my brother’s in Houston, he’s a big of an Astros fan, so of course they won the World Series not that long ago, two years ago maybe. That’s quite exciting. Not as exciting as it would be if the Mets were in the World Series, of course, but they will come in my lifetime, I’m sure.
And CC Sabathia said goodbye. It’s all quite big stuff in baseball and I can hear lots of people looking for that guy on YouTube at the moment, saying, “When does the actual interview start because enough sport.”
Mark Dawson: Oh, yes, that’s right. The interview starts at 11 minutes, 12 seconds away now.
James Blatch: Did you see the comment this week though?
Mark Dawson: Banter starts at, yes I did.
James Blatch: Yeah, superb.
Mark Dawson: I like that.
James Blatch: My favorite comment so far on the YouTube channel. Okay, look, we’re going to crack on with this one.
Next week’s episode is going to be a lot of me and Mark talking so we’re going to get onto the interview at this moment now. I know I mentioned Sarah Painter.
Sarah Painter’s an excellent writer. She’s based, I think, in Scotland in the UK. She is somebody who, by her own admission, suffers from anxiety and she has her own podcast actually, which she’s started and something I talked about at NINC is one of the reasons you might want to start a podcast isn’t just commercial or building a list, it might be because it’s helpful to you in your career.
I think Sarah has found it helpful to her. I’ve actually been on her podcast and very good and she’s also written a book, a helpful book, for people who suffer from anxiety. Let’s listen to Sarah Painter.
Sarah Painter, do you know I think this is a first for me because I’ve been on your podcast before you’ve been on mine.
Sarah Painter: Excellent. I love to be a first.
James Blatch: It is. It’s a new experience for me because occasionally, when we have a guest on this, I would … Would you like to be in return? But you reached out to us a little while ago and we had a good chat, didn’t we? Probably last year, I think, maybe.
Sarah Painter: I think it was. Time flies.
James Blatch: It does. And I was angst ridden about my writing. I sort of am to an extent. I’ve moved onto the anxieties of revision now from the anxieties of drafting, which we can talk about later, but this is something that you personally experienced, that kind of anxiety. The anxieties that prevent you from writing effectively, or prevent you from writing at all.
This is something you’ve become a bit of an expert at and I think to help your own case, you’ve become an expert at it.
Sarah Painter: I think that’s fair to say. Yes, I like to say that if I can do it, if I can learn to live with my self-doubt in order to write books, finish them, and get them out into the world, then truly, anybody can.
I really am feeble and I can’t overstate it. I know that there will be people listening and they’ll be thinking, “Oh no, she hasn’t met me. She’s not feeble.” Trust me, I’m the worst.
James Blatch: Well, feeble sounds a very harsh word to use but we’ll explore that when we come to it. Let’s, first of all, just introduce, I suppose, who you are, Sarah, and you’ve had a fantastic recent journey, which we’ve just been talking about off air, which is exciting.
Share us a little bit about your writing experience.
Sarah Painter: I’ve got the classic story of being the early bookworm. All I wanted to do was write book and read books and when I was really wee, I wrote a book about a magic cat, very on brand, and all of that.
Then I got to my teens and, I think, probably like a lot of people, my self-confidence took a complete nose dive, really in all areas, but definitely in writing and I absorbed this idea that somehow writers were mythical beasts. They were not like a normal person. They were very glamorous, experienced, they were really clever, they probably went to Oxford or they lived in New York, or they were just a breed apart.
I decided, ‘You can’t be a writer, that’s not something you are. You don’t become that, you either are or you aren’t, and you’re not.’ I decided to go into magazine journalism because that was kind of dream adjacent. You’re writing for a living but it’s kind of achievable somehow so I did that and then, through my 20s, I’m having babies, I’m a freelance journalist.
And all the time, I am writing in my diary, just angst, just non stop angst. It’s all about how I want to write a book, how I want to write fiction, how I start something, I never finish it, I’ve got no ideas, I can’t do it, and so on.
And then, one day, I write things to work out how I feel about them and one day, I was whinging on in my diary and I wrote something like, “I’m scared to really try because if I do try to write and there’s nothing there, I’ll have lost the dream forever.” And I had the kind of moment of really feeling the truth of that, that I was not really trying because I was scared.
As soon as I realized that, I wasn’t going to let that stop me and it was a revelation. But, of course, it didn’t instantly fix everything. I knew that I was really going to try it, I knew that fear was at the root, but then I had to work out lots of strategies and things to kind of get me writing.
It’s been over the years of working with my own self-doubt, developing strategies, learning strategies, doing the podcast, starting my podcast and learning more from other far more productive writers and more experienced writers and, over time, I’ve developed all these different ways of working.
That’s why I started the podcast is I then wanted to then share them with other people and also, selfishly, I wanted to learn some more for myself.
James Blatch: You faced up to your fears. It’s interesting the way you termed how you felt about not wanting to discover a horrible truth that you couldn’t live with, that you couldn’t write or that there’d be nothing there. It’s almost quite a romantic way of describing it, like an unrequited love.
In the end, you’re happy, you’ve become comfortable with it being unrequited and that stops you ever wanting to change that by finding out that you’re never going to be with that person or something.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely. That’s exactly it and the romance of it is so true because it was such a dream, it was such a magical thing, it was the romance of it. And I think that was obscuring the truth of it, which is that I was making a fundamental error, which I think a lot of us do, which is to requite writing as this kind of innate talent, you either are born a writer.
Writer’s write. I was always looking for the magic feather and I was reading interviews and an author would say something about all the ideas they had and I would be plunged into despair because I didn’t have loads of ideas so I clearly wasn’t a writer.
James Blatch: And do you know what? That’s such an easy thing to think about, almost any experts in any field, isn’t it? That you can think about the footballer at the top of his or her game, things come naturally to them. “It’s easy for them, if only I had them.” Without thinking for a second, ‘Well, maybe they’ve worked really hard every day of their life. Maybe Ian McEwen sits there fretting about how bad his ideas are and how bad his draft is and worrying.”
Because, do you know what? I guarantee that’s what it’s like for Ian McEwen writing because it’s like that for everyone writing. The fact that he works really hard at it and eventually slaves and gives birth this amazing novel. It shouldn’t make it appear magical and out of reach for us.
It’s something that you can learn from.
Sarah Painter: That’s it and I was making that mistake because it was something that was so important to me and so magical to me, and I’m sure people in other fields do it. I didn’t pick up a paintbrush and imagine that because I’d once rollered a wall that I should be able to clear a Monet. I didn’t think that. I’m not a complete idiot.
But when it came to writing, I had this idea that because I’d read so much and I could hold a pen, I should be able to wake up in the morning and write a readable novel without all the practice and it was when I fundamentally realized that, “Okay, maybe I’m not a genius, maybe I’m not an exciting glamorous person, but I can work hard at things. If there’s one thing that something I prize in other people and I aspire to, it’s a work ethic.”
When I thought about it in terms of being a craftsperson, somebody who works out how it’s done and then puts the hours in, I thought, “Now, that, I can do or, at least, I can attempt.” And that was another shift.
James Blatch: And so, you did start writing and you got published.
Sarah Painter: Yes. Obviously, that was easy peasy, no bother at all, a couple of months, yeah. Just decided to do it, James, not a problem.
I did the four novels, seven years, five years. I can’t remember. I had one agent and then that didn’t work out. I got rejected at the higher level, very exciting, and then I wrote another book and I did a masters. Then I got my current agent and then fourth novel in, yes, I got the dream, I got the phone call, I got a publishing contract with Carina and it was a digital first deal.
While I had this thing that I had wanted and dreamt about and worked towards for years and for my whole life, I thought that I would magically become a self-confident person. I thought that external validation would kind of fix me and it was very, very upsetting to wake up and discover that I was still me and I still felt just as filled with self-doubt, if not more so.
James Blatch: You probably had more pressure on you at this stage.
Sarah Painter: Yeah.
James Blatch: Because suddenly there’s an agent asking you where the next book is.
Sarah Painter: Yes, exactly. It’s the same fear but with more pressures and without wishing to complain, the whole, my diamond shoes are too tight kind of thing. It was very real and it really knocked me, which was frustrating, and I also had this thing about not being a real author because it’s one thing to intellectually understand that there are all these layers in publishing.
There’s the massive deal that gets reported in the Book Seller and they’re on the three for two on table at Waterstones or they’re in the Richard and Judy Book Club, and you understand that but then, when you’re actually inside of it, and maybe it’s a digital first deal or your paperback comes out but it’s not in Tesco and somebody rings you up, an acquaintance phones you up, and says, “Oh, I couldn’t find your book.”
And, again, this is why I’ve started talking about this so much and trying to help other people because if you don’t sort out your internal landscape, your internal mindset for this stuff, before you’re published, it won’t get any easier.
I was pinning everything on that external validation and then when that didn’t fix things, I was in a bad way. It was really tough, really tough year or so.
James Blatch: Yeah, potentially career stopping and I think that will be the case for some people listening to this podcast. They’ll feel crippled by it.
Let’s pause for a moment on that, moving on to the solution, if you like, things that you’re discovered and you’ve written about that’s going to help people, which is hopefully what we’ll get out of the interview but I’m interested in your story as well because we would like to hear each others journeys, to use that word.
You’d written four novels before that one was picked up. Those three first novels were just unpublished at that stage.
Sarah Painter: That’s right. Yeah, and they will remain so. I think I was learning how to write.
James Blatch: Wow, okay.
Sarah Painter: Close but no cigar but that’s okay.
James Blatch: And you’ve continued to publish, so where are you now? I know you’re now hybrid.
Sarah Painter: Yes. I had my first three books came out with Carina, that was then taken over by Harper Collins, and then had a couple of books out with Lake Union, which are an imprint of Amazon Publishing, which was a fantastic experience.
But this is, again, something related to one of the things I’ll be talking about perhaps as a tip, is that I struggled with the uncertainty in this business. If you are traditionally published, that uncertainty is insane because you could spend a year writing a book and then your agent maybe doesn’t like it or they can’t sell it or whatever. That’s a year of work that there is literally, it’s done, it’s gone.
James Blatch: Not many comparable industries, are there, to that workflow?
Sarah Painter: No. And for me, personally, I couldn’t cope with that. So, I started to look into independent publishing and so on and I went hybrid, first off, with my non-fiction, Stop Worrying, Start Writing.
I followed the SPF101 course for that and it was fantastic. The course if amazing but why it’s relevant to say that is that it gave me a step-by-step thing to follow and one of my techniques, if you are panicking about something, if you’re feeling anxiety and you’re avoiding doing it, there’s breaking it down into steps, that’s obviously just a useful thing when you’re setting goals and so on.
But once you’ve broken it down into steps, you kind of automate it in your mind. You follow those steps, each one. You don’t look at the big scary picture, you just, ‘What’s the next step? What’s the next step?’ And that works for sending out a scary email to publishing a bok or finishing a book and the SPF101 course gave me that set of steps because I did all my research and so I trusted you guys, I trusted Mark, and so I said to myself, “You’ve bought the course, you are going to follow it.” And that, for me, was gold because I did and it worked and I have followed the exact same thing for my other releases and it’s worked every time and so I am delighted.
James Blatch: Which is fantastic and you’ve moved onto fiction self-publishing as well.
Sarah Painter: Yes. Oh, it gave me the bug, that’s it. Yes, once you’ve started down that path. My crime investigation series, I have two books out in that now, and also I have an urban fantasy as a standalone supernatural thriller and I actually got offered a publishing contract for that last year. But having released the first of my Crow books and that was doing really well, I turned down the deal and put The Lost Girls out myself in January.
James Blatch: Just a moment to reflect on the wonderful nature of self-publishing is that you went from desperate wannabe author who would have grabbed any deal given to you a few years ago to somebody turning down a deal from the industry because you’d discovered self-publishing and the financial rewards that come with self-publishing are significantly different.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely and, again, it’s not for everybody. You do have to put the work in. However, I am a very business minded person and to go from that insecure income that was part-time income at best, on a good year, to go from that to earning a definite full-time income and reliably seeing that money coming in month by month and it being under my control, has transformed my working life.
James Blatch: Now, you say that when you first got published, the self-doubt didn’t go away.
Has this success from self-publishing, which is much more earned because you did every little bit of pixel placing in that process, has that validation helped your self-confidence?
Sarah Painter: I think it has and I’m amazed to find myself saying that because it does seem miraculous to me given my low levels of self-confidence. But there is something about the fact that I commissioned that cover and did the design brief and there’s something about, like you say, having that control in all the aspects of it, and also having the more interaction with readers than I had before because of the facet of starting a mailing list and so on means that I get even more than I used to and that really helps because knowing that there are people out there reading and enjoying your work, it does help.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that’s fantastic. We congratulate you, Sarah, on that success. Really happy for you.
It’s very kind of you to mention the 101 course and also to point out key things of doing the course, implementing it, which strangely, a lot of people will buy courses, even ours, and not implement them and not do them, and then wonder why they don’t work. But you do have to, at some point, sit there and methodically work through it and the results, well, I can see the smile on your face so that’s fantastic. Anyway. Right, enough about 101.
Let’s talk then to people who might be listening to this, identifying very strongly with that, and I put myself in that. I’m probably born with a slight edge of confidence that’s not deserved but kind of I know it’s a male thing, the way I’ve been brought up. I probably have a bit of that but, nonetheless, the draft writing stage, many years went by with me just not writing and I didn’t even really resolve why it was I wasn’t pulling it out but I think some of the things you’ve touched on about fear of finding out the truth that you can’t write is probably there.
A lot of people listening to this will have identify with that and you’ve written this book to try and help people through it.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely, and I think, one of the first things to do is to recognize that what you’re doing is hard and scary because that’s not to be depressing. I think it’s helpful to say to yourself, ‘Yeah, that’s why you’re avoiding this, because it’s really hard.’ And there’s that fear of being exposed, of being too clearly understood.
When you’re writing things, it’s not your baby but it does come from your mind and from your soul and there’s this idea of being exposed. What if I put something in by accident that I don’t know about that the rest of the world knows? You don’t know what you don’t know so you could be writing, let’s say, a raunchy scene, just as an example, not that I would-
James Blatch: The ultimate vulnerability, isn’t it, writing?
Sarah Painter: Absolutely. But what if that is how you discover that, actually, that’s not the way everybody does it?
James Blatch: Yeah, and everyone’s laughing at you or that’s your fear at least.
Sarah Painter: Awkward, yeah. There are all of those kinds of fears.
I’m a big fan of journaling so write these things down, write about why you’re not writing, write about what you’re scared of because naming it diffuses the power a wee bit. Some of the things will be a little bit ridiculous.
If you’re a bit further in your career and you’re writing a book and you think, ‘It’s going to kill my career. I’m going to let everybody down.’ This is mine. ‘I’m going to let everybody down. I’ll let the readers down. It’ll kill my career and my dream will be gone forever and I’ll have to get a real job.’ Well, saying that, airing that, we can all hear how ridiculous that it, the hyperbole in that.
If you write that down and you follow logically, it’s just a book. If it’s terrible, people won’t read it. People won’t care, people won’t notice. It feels like the biggest thing in the world to us because we care about it but to the rest of the world, quite rightly,-
James Blatch: It’s not going to be a career ender, it’s just a hurdle in the moving on to the next one where you look back at why did it not work and how can I fix that for the next one?
Sarah Painter: Yeah, it’s just not that powerful. A single book is just not that powerful and the other thing is to think about … Again, this is quite applicable when you’re writing your first book is it feels like the book, the book of your heart, it’s the book. And it is so blinking hard to finish your first book. They get so much easier after that because you know you can do it.
I’m sure you find this, James, now that you’ve finished your first draft, you know you can do it. The whole time through that, it was a test of nerve because it doesn’t matter how many times people say to you, “Oh, you will”, or, “You just have to do this”. Until you have done it, you don’t truly believe or know that you can. It’s recognizing first that all of these things are real fears and they are difficult.
And then, my top tip, is to lie to yourself. This is one of my favorite techniques. I lie to myself all the time, I’m very good at it. When I’m writing a first draft, I say to myself, ‘Nobody is ever going to read this.’ And I will actually say that to myself.
I will leave post it notes about that, to say, ‘No one is going to read this.’ I have even written on the title page, by a different author. I’ll make up a name because it’s not me. Nobody’s going to read it, it’s just private.
James Blatch: You release yourself of any obligations and pressures.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely. And then, another thing that I will do, is focus on the practice and this relates to the craftsperson thing that we were talking about earlier, this whole idea that you wouldn’t expect to pick up a violin, then pop off to the Albert Hall or whatever. You think, ‘Okay, yes, I accept I have to practice so I’m going to set up my practice schedule.’
Every time you sit down to write, you are sitting down to practice. You rewire the way that you talk about it to yourself. If it’s just practice, you’re letting go of the product, you’re practicing writing a scene, you are practicing writing for 20 minutes until the timer goes off, and then when you’ve done that, you celebrate because you have done exactly what you turned up to do.
James Blatch: Regardless of what’s been written, you’ve achieved your objective.
Sarah Painter: The project is completely nothing to do with it. You’re separating that completely. It’s as if you are playing scales on the piano and that can really help because not only are you helping to develop the habit, which is really the thing you need to do, and you’re spending time practicing, which is a thing you need to do, but you are minimizing the importance of that product all the time because that isn’t really up to us.
The end product isn’t up to us. How it’s received is not up to us. We do not get control of any aspect of that. We can do marketing and we can package it, blah, blah, blah. But the actual way it is received by some unknown person, that’s out of our hands.
James Blatch: Yeah. In fact, I’d even go a little bit further than that and say that the work that you produce, and I think I’ve said this before on the podcast, a bit of thesis of mine about any work of art isn’t actually a work of art until it’s consumed by somebody and when it’s consumed by them, they complete that work of art and they make it what it is.
It’s always slightly annoyed me hear J.K. Rowling and one or two other authors tell us about back stories of characters they’ve written because I thought, if it’s not in the book, it’s in the minds of your reader and it’s not our place to argue with them about how they’ve interpreted it. They complete that work in the same way that when you look at a sculpture or something.
Actually, take it even further, you’re only part of the artist here. The other half of it is the consumer, once they’ve read it and they bring their own thoughts. You and I may have the grandiose ideas of the subtext of our story but if they see something else, it’s as valid.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely, I love that so much and I think that’s so helpful and true.
James Blatch: Yeah, because, again, it shows your limited role in the end product and I think the trick about lying to yourself … I remember in my TV days and those early days and you’re doing live news and you’re nervous and someone tells you somewhere, ‘Just pretend no one’s watching’, which is easy to do on TV because you’re just looking at a camera.
Or the old trick if you’ve got a live audience is to imagine them all sitting there vulnerable and naked, which kind of demystifies them and apparently helps you steady your nerves a little bit on that. These tricks, they’ve been around for a while and there’s no reason why writers can’t employ them.
I think that is a bit of a theme from what you’re talking about, demystifying the process is pulling us back from thinking there is some sort of magic source here, that if we tamper with it, it’s going to go away.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely, and it’s that idea that sometimes you might catch yourself thinking, ‘If I was a real writer, I wouldn’t need techniques or strategies. It would just be flowing forth or whatever.’
Or you might catch yourself thinking that real writers do have this other quality but it’s just not the case and the other thing about it is the habit thing.
Another thing, I know quite a few people have talked about habit over the last couple of years and I found it hugely helpful because it’s recognizing that you’re not this inherently lazy person or this person that isn’t meant to be a writer. It’s realizing that everything that we do takes a bit of energy and it takes that decision making energy to do it and then when you add in the fear that you’ve got with the writing, and then if you haven’t set it as a habit, you’re kind of set up to fail. You’re set up to not do it. Reverse engineer it and set yourself up to succeed.
For an example, the night before, I will say to myself that I’m going to write in the morning. I have my computer, I’ll have my laptop right by the bed. I think about it before I go to sleep, that’s what I’m going to do in the morning, so the moment I wake up, I lift my laptop stand onto my lap, open my computer and I start writing because, at that point, the decision would be to not do it.
I have decided in advance that I’m going to do it and I’m sure many people have said this but it doesn’t take very long before that really is quite an ingrained habit. Things like that, choosing something to hook it onto. I do first thing in the morning but you could do, I don’t know, after work, maybe after you’ve eaten dinner rather than going and washing up, you say, “I’m going to spend 20 minutes writing while thinking about my book,’ or whatever, and then you stick to that until it becomes this Pavlovian response where you finish your last mouthful of your dinner and you’re reaching for your laptop.
All of those little things, they don’t make you less of a born writer. They make you a workman, and make you a craftsperson, and they just work.
James Blatch: Yeah. Hemingway must’ve got up and sat down and written everyday. Those books didn’t write themselves so this is not … Again, we put high-faluting ideas in our heads about great writers but they must all have done this.
And goodness knows how many manuscripts never saw the light of day before we saw some of the great novels of the world. What was interesting to me, also, is that I’m just moving onto the revision phase and I’m at a slight sort of hesitant bit at the beginning whilst I’m guessing the program and working with an editor to work out how we’re going to revise the book before, so I’m being guided through it, which is great.
I’ve slightly lost that workflow that I had because I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. For me, this might be important to you, I know it’s very important to me, to have a really clear idea of what I’m doing.
I need to organize that because if that’s not there, that’s a barrier for me doing it.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely, and I struggled with revision for a very long time for exactly that reason because all the methods that I used, to set a word count goal and those kinds of things, and tick off my list, it just suddenly didn’t work because you’re facing this enormous task of revising a whole book and I didn’t know what I was doing and it found insurmountable.
What I do when I go into revision mode is I track time, rather than words, because, of course, you’re not always adding a nice number of words, concurrent with how much work you put in so I track time stamps in little 20 minute blocks, 20 minute editing or 20 minute rewrite blocks, and I mark them up so I can see that I’ve put work in and, again, big gold star.
It could be crap work, James, it could be terrible. I could’ve just ruined the book but I put that work in so I get my gold star, that’s the rule. I do 20 minute blocks.
And the other thing I do is exactly as you just said, over time I’ve developed a list of things to do. I go through the macro stuff first, tackle the big stuff. There’s not point fussing around with little stuff until you’ve done the big stuff.
Then I will go through each of the main character arcs. I will read the manuscript for each of the characters, I will look at these different things. I do a pass for each of these big things and that just helps.
Or if I’ve got an editorial letter from an editor, then I will work through the letter, but maybe probably make myself a sub list of things to tackle because I love a list and I love ticking things off.
James Blatch: Yes.
Sarah Painter: Yes, absolutely, but it did take me a few books to get to that process so I completely understand.
James Blatch: That’s interesting advice I can take directly away from this podcast and start employing.
The book itself, Stop Worrying, Start Writing, which I think we’ll have to use as the podcast title because it’s a great title.
How did you approach that in terms of structure because obviously you want somebody to get the gist of what you’re saying, the theme of what you’re saying, but also I’m imagining have some very practical takeaways as well?
Sarah Painter: Having been a journalist for a long while, I thought, I know how to write non-fiction, I’ll be fine. It did come out quite easily because the stuff I’ve been living and obsessing over for years, so I did try and organize it and hopefully it flows quite well and I have key points at the end of each chapter, a few takeaways.
The other thing that I did was, it’s a wee bit tricky sometimes when you’re talking to a cross section of people. Some people might be trying to write their first book and then you might have somebody who’s multi published who’s been doing it for 10 years and has hit a block because they’ve gone full time and they’re just faffing. Luckily, most things are across the board but what I just did was I separated out a few wee sections that just said, “Please don’t read this if you’re not published yet”, “This bit of advice is for somebody who is on the other side of this”, or whatever.
And the other thing that I did that was really important to me was to focus on the importance of being positive and kind to yourself. You picked me up earlier on calling myself feeble and I say it with great love. I’m feeble and that’s fine.
But you’re right, you have to be careful about how you talk to yourself and something that I did for years, and I still do sometimes, is I will think that I’m kind of inherently lazy.
You know the carrot and the stick? I am the stick all the way, just beating myself up. Give me a hard deadline, bring that deadline forwards, berate myself for my lack of progress, all of that. And I was doing this for years and the thing is it works to a certain extent. You’ve worked in a deadline intensive industry for years, those deadlines, they work. You work to them, you get practiced at it, you hit them.
But the problem with using the stick all the time is that, over time, at some point, it will stop working because it’s negative and what you’re doing all the time, is you’re imbuing your working life or your writing life with this negative stick, with your crap. Get on with it, here’s the deadline.
And eventually, you’re a human being, you are a sensible person, at some point, your physche is going to go, “James, that’s not really fun and yet, that’s pretty negative.” And you’re going to start running away from it, not towards it.
James Blatch: You got to release yourself from that self-composed pressure, yeah.
Sarah Painter: Of course. At some point, you’ll take your hand out of the fire.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Sarah Painter: And it was when I realized that it wasn’t being kind of wishy washy or Californian or too soft on myself, that made a lot of logical sense. I thought, hang on a minute, I can see that so I will start being kind and cheerleading myself through my working day.
And it does sound ridiculous and, look, I’m Scottish, this does not come naturally to me at all but I will spend … Your wrote 200 words, good job, you get a cup of tea. You did your 600 words, yay, you get to watch Netflix over lunchtime. It feels so false but, honestly, it works so well because after a while, you’re writing life or your working life is a place of joy. It is a place of many successes.
For me, it is a place of beautiful stationary covered in nice stickers. It’s all of those good things and, yes, I have days when I don’t want to do it and of course, but generally speaking, I have a far more enjoyable positive writing life than I had five years ago.
James Blatch: That’s fantastic that you’ve got yourself really thinking this through and dealing the issue methodically. Do you think it’s an issue for us … I say ‘us’, I’m probably much older than you, but our generation who were brought up …
My parents were both born in the ’30s and you get brought up with this work ethic, which is not a particularly positive one. It’s a nine to five, you should be putting the hours in, and you shouldn’t necessarily be enjoying it. I can almost hear my parents saying that, especially my dad, saying that, “Well, we all do things we don’t want to do.” As if slaving away at a job you don’t enjoy is part and parcel of the human condition.
I’m always sure I’ve been brought up to think that and it’s taken a long time to shake that off.
Sarah Painter: It’s so true and I think there’s that thing of, like you said, the enjoyment thing. Writing, as well, is something that we generally come to because we’ve loved it so then you do it as a hobby and then, when it becomes your work, it’s that tricky word ‘work’.
You need to use the word ‘work’ so that you give it that gravitas and that importance so that people around you allow you to get on with it, particularly in the early stages, but using that word can then turn round and then bite you in the ass later on because it adds importance to the work, to the writing that you’re doing and it makes it harder to lie to yourself that no one’s going to read it or that it doesn’t matter or that you’re just practicing.
Like so many things, we’re not digging ditches. All this stuff goes on between our ears so you have to play mind games with yourself and to everybody else, it is work, it is hard, it is important, the door is closed, don’t disturb me unless you are on fire. But, in your mind, the moment that door is closed, you’ve got to switch that round and it’s practice, it’s play, it’s just for fun, it’s your hobby, it’s accessing that part of you that fell in love with books, whenever it was that happened for you.
For me, it was as a child and I have to access that part of me that just told stories for fun and that’s … Yeah, it’s a mind game and it’s a trick and it doesn’t always work but when it does, it does help.
James Blatch: Yeah. It’s understanding that we can reprogram ourselves.
Sarah Painter: Yes.
James Blatch: Our brains are malleable and we can reprogram ourselves and there’s a whole field of psychology that they’re waking up to this now and the way, I think, some people are being talked to about their mental health issues is to do with the reprogramming, rewiring their own brains. They’re starting to work out we can do that.
We can do it to a smaller extent, a less serious extent, to allow us to work more efficiently and enjoy it.
Sarah Painter: And I’m so glad you mentioned that because there was something I meant to say at the top of this interview and it’s something that I have at the front of the book, which is to say that sometimes I’ll talk about worries and fears and occasionally, I use the word ‘anxiety’ but I just want to make it clear that I am talking anxiety with a small ‘a’.
I’m not talking clinical anxiety and I do sadly know the difference between those two things so I just wanted to say that I don’t ever want to give the impression that you can just do some positive mindset stuff and sort yourself out.
If you’re having unhelpful thought patterns or panic attacks or sleep issues or really any concerns whatsoever about your mental health, please go and see your professional, your local professional, and you can get help, it will help, you deserve help, and please do that.
We’re not doctors and this is all very much talking about … I hate to use the word ‘normal’ but you’re more everyday fears or anxieties.
James Blatch: Yeah, I know exactly. It’s very, very well put.
Of course, there will be people listening who do have proper anxiety with a capital A and panic attacks and depression and other mental health issues and, of course, for them, there’s no absolute separation between their work life and their writing life, it’s just that, I think, you’re quite right to say that you and I, at this stage, are not the professionals qualified to deal with that level, but for those people, there’ll be a bit of both in helping one will help the other.
Sarah Painter: Yeah, and there’s a lot of stuff in my book that, I know, is based on CBT but, again, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a doctor, I’ve just read a lot about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and had a bit in my time and I’ve taken some of the useful things that are applicable to the writing life.
I know that I’m waffling on so we might be running out of time but there was something along those lines that I wanted to talk about that’s in the book that I’ve had a really positive response to, which was lovely because I did think everyone is going to think I’m completely mad. But that negative voice that you have, which is the self-doubt and it says that you’re rubbish or that what you’re writing is terrible or that you can’t do it or whatever, I’ve got a little technique. Bear with me.
James Blatch: Go ahead.
Sarah Painter: What I do, is I, as someone who has suffered with proper anxiety as well as the normal kind, I’ve learned to accept that anxiety will always be with me, to a certain extent, and accepting that has really helped me cope with it and work alongside it. Whether it’s full blown anxiety or that little voice, what I do is I picture it as what … I chose a little dragon so I’ve got a worry dragon, but picturing it as this separate little critter, this little cute thing, is quite good. Make it a little bit goofy, really picture it in your mind. Give it a silly name, give it a voice that it uses, because then you can start to recognize when you’re saying those negative things in your mind, you can think, ‘Oh, no, that’s my worry dragon.’ And it helps to separate it, just a tiny wee bit.
And the other thing to do about that, I’m going to say, dragon … The other thing about my dragon, that is very important to recognize, is that it loves me very, very much and it wants to protect me from harm so when it is saying, ‘You can’t go on that podcast because everyone will hate you and they’ll laugh at your voice and you’ll say something stupid’, it’s trying to protect me from harm because it recognizes that I feel a bit anxious about it and it immediately wants to take me away from that situation.
But it’s not very bright. It cannot differentiate between a lion that’s going to eat me or the fact that I might walk out into busy traffic and chatting with James on a podcast. It just sees the same things. It sees them as essentially the same. They’re both a danger, they both might harm me, full alert. When you recognize that, I can then say to my worry dragon, ‘Thanks. Cheers. Thanks, buddy. I know you’re on my side but actually, you can stand down. I’m just going to pop you over in the corner.’
And, again, I do realize that this does sound a little bit out there but if I’m having … I don’t use it all the time, as a technique, but if I’m feeling particularly feeble or something is particularly nerveracking for me, I really do picture it and I really will talk to it in my mind and I really will picture popping it over to one side.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that doesn’t sound mad at all. I’ve got to be careful how I use the words like ‘madness’. The English language is complicated.
Now, I have a friend who has very severe depression and she has given it a name and I think very similar to the way … I mention it because she blogs very movingly, actually, about her situation and she has a slightly silly name for her depression as well, which, I guess, is the same process, very important. These are powerful techniques.
I keep mentioning my father. My parent’s generation may not have had quite so much sympathy and rolled their eyes a little bit at the California style hippie nonsense. But the truth is we are more sophisticated now and starting to learn more about how we are and our brains and, for me, it’s been a big revelation that our brains are not this fixed thing that does this thing that we have no control over, but we actually can control them and sometimes it’s as silly as seeing a hypnotist or Darren Brown type person, who’s a stage guy.
The way that he can autosuggest things to people and change their minds about things just goes to show you that you can do it and to a much smaller extent where we can have some control over the way we feel and our actions, as a result of the way we feel, can be altered by positive thought or these changes you’ve talked about.
Sarah Painter: Absolutely and, again, it is that recognition that the work that we do goes on in our brain. If you are an athlete, not that we should ignore our physical health, but if you are an athlete, you wouldn’t think it was weird at all that you were going for physio and doing your warm up exercises and, I don’t know, eating the foods that athletes eat. You see where my area of expertise kind of goes a bit there.
Your brain is where your work is, where your writing is happening, so you have to look after it in the same way. You have to put in what is good for it. Again, it’s the positive self-talk, but there’s also curating what you pay attention to.
One of the other things about going hybrid, that has been massively wonderful, has been spending so much time in groups with empowered writers who are generally more positive because, I think, if you’re empowered, you’re generally more positive.
And so, that’s another tip, is to really … If you chat to someone in your life about your writing and they say things that kind of knock you down a wee bit, they might not mean to, they might not understand, stop talking to them about your writing. You don’t have to cut them out of your life, but just don’t talk to them about that.
Seek out people that lift you up. Seek out those experiences that improve your positivity and your motivation and ruthlessly cull what doesn’t and that goes for all kinds of things. If you’re published and, I, for example, don’t read reviews because I learned very early on that I am just not able for it. I will read a good review and it’s a blip of, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ I will read a bad review and I’m knocked out for days so I just don’t do it.
My husband reads my reviews and he sends me little selected quotes of nice ones. He’ll read out a really good review or he’ll send me Monday motivation with a nice line from a review and I recommend that if you can get a friend or someone to do that for you.
But if you find reviews sap your energy and your motivation and aren’t good for you, just don’t read them, and that goes for that … It’s that self-awareness. Work out what triggers your self-doubt and avoid it if you can. Work out what improves your self-confidence, what motivates you, and run towards that with open arms.
James Blatch: Yeah, and that won’t be the same for everyone.
Sarah Painter: No.
James Blatch: There’ll be somebody who may quite enjoy reading critical reviews and get a bit of focus from it, and other people who just need to keep clear of them.
Sarah Painter: They change over time as well. I might change my mind, I might become more robust in the future, but there’s no right or wrong way to do this and when I got my first deal and I had that ‘I’m not a proper author’ thing, for a wee while, I went into bookshops, which had always been a love, of course, and I felt just drained and miserable. I wasn’t a proper author so, for a wee while, I said, ‘Actually, you don’t have to go in. You don’t have to go to bookshops anymore.’ Now, thankfully, that has passed and I can now enjoy them again and all is well but, for that time, I just stopped doing it.
James Blatch: Yeah. Sarah, time has ripped by. I think we may have been talking for an hour. It’s been absorbing. You better tell us where people can find your book, although I think I know the answer to that.
Sarah Painter: Well, you can find my book in all good bookshops and, of course, on Amazon. It’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing, How to Overcome Fear, Self-Doubt and Procrastination, and I run a free podcast, so on the first of every month, that goes out, it’s completely free. Yes, you can access that too at worriedwriter.com.
James Blatch: Excellent, and I know you’ve been half thinking about potentially an online course at some point but that’s very embryonic at this stage.
Sarah Painter: If you want more of my voice, then I did also narrate the audio book of Stop Worrying, Start Writing, and I also have a Patreon account and I do a mid-month audio extra. There’s plenty more of my waffle.
James Blatch: You have a lovely voice, Sarah. I meant to say that to you and it’s got that very slight Scottish lilt, I think southern Scotland, and I could listen to that on an audio book for a long time.
Sarah Painter: You’re very kind.
James Blatch: Sarah, thank you so much indeed for coming onto the podcast, onto the show, it’s been brilliant.
Sarah Painter: Thank you so much, James.
James Blatch: There you go, as you say, you hide it well, your anxieties.
Mark Dawson: I do. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know my stuff is decent and people enjoy it so I don’t feel anxious at all about publishing stuff because, as I say, I’ve done it for nearly a decade now so I’m fairly comfortable with that and I’m not that nervous about going on stage and doing thing like that.
Although, if you’d said to me five years ago, I would’ve given a very different answer. I wasn’t that confident and, as I mentioned before, I remember when I was younger, not enjoying making telephone calls because I got very anxious doing that kind of stuff.
I completely understand where Sarah’s coming from. From my perspective, it’s just a question of exposure to the thing that bothers you and, eventually, it doesn’t bother you as much.
James Blatch: Yes, I think there are two types of anxiety. There’s the traditional vulnerabilities that you feel about a creative work being put out there and fear of failure, fear of embarrassment and all fear of not being able to do everything you know is on your plate, in terms of your tasks ahead of you.
And then there’s the type of anxieties that just some people live with, that they become anxious about things in their life, things that maybe they shouldn’t be anxious about but you can’t stop those sometimes and an anxious personality can interfere with your ability to do your job, to sit down and get work done if you’re not in the right frame of mind, particularly creative work like writing.
I think it’s really useful that Sarah’s put her own thoughts into this and reached out to help other people so we’re very grateful for her.
Mark Dawson: And also writers are introspective generally so it’s not unusual and can be thin skinned so that’s completely fine, I know, I’ve been there too.
Well, actually, one of the things I wanted to do in Vegas, is I’ve decided for the keynote I’m going to do, is going to be something like the things I’ve learnt over the seven or eight years since I’ve been doing this properly and one of the things will be, you are going to need a thick skin because there will be brick bats and bouquets coming your way and I think one of the things I might do is … You know the Jimmy Kimmel Bad Tweets?
James Blatch: Oh, yes. You going to read some of them out?
Mark Dawson: I’m going to read out some bad reviews. I’m going to find the worst reviews and I’m going to read those out in front of 1200 people.
James Blatch: Yeah, good. It’d be cathartic, I can feel it already.
Mark Dawson: I think so, yeah.
James Blatch: Now, we should mention, people watching on YouTube, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed my eyeshadow.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it’s very impressive.
James Blatch: Yeah, this is … Oh, there it is, that side. What side is it?
Mark Dawson: That side.
James Blatch: It is. It looks like Abba.
Mark Dawson: For those of you who are not watching our YouTube, James has a very impressive black eye, which is basically when he didn’t do what I told him to do.
James Blatch: Sorry, Mr Dawson. Sorry, I won’t do it again, Mr Dawson.
Mark Dawson: What was the real story, James? We don’t advocate interoffice battering.
James Blatch: We don’t. We don’t even joke about that.
I was playing indoor cricket. It’s winter now, or coming into winter now, so cricket’s moved indoors and it’s a faster paced game and a smaller, closer environment, and one of my team mates, very kindly, threw the ball full pace at my face and hit me in the eye.
Mark Dawson: For those who don’t know, cricket balls are very hard.
James Blatch: To be fair, this is not a hard outdoors cricket ball. It’s like a tennis ball wrapped in leather but if someone throws it hard at your eye, it’s hard enough.
Mark Dawson: Clearly, I can see.
James Blatch: It’s come up nice, actually. It didn’t come up at the time, it just screamed and hurt a bit but it’s come up nicely, a proper shiner.
Mark Dawson: Good one.
James Blatch: It’s been a long time since I was a schoolboy and someone hit me and it felt a bit like that. It’s a bit of a shock when you get hit as an adult. There you go. I’m sure you get into fights all the time in Solsbury.
Mark Dawson: Absolutely.
James Blatch: We’ve got loads of good stuff coming up, by the way, on the podcast, in the future. I might preview some of the stuff coming up in the next episode, but the next one is a special one for us, it’s our 200th episode. We’re going to go off, prepare for that.
We may look the same when we come back in our clothing because we’re recording a couple today. Don’t forget, you can see and meet us in Las Vegas, Nevada, this Wednesday night at Sam’s Town, from about five thirty. Five-five thirty on the balcony bar area.
We’re going to record an episode of the podcast live. There’ll be free drinks for as long as our credit card can stand it and we’ll have a fun night so if you can make it, come along and say hello and you might even be able to ask us a question live during the podcast. Right, that’s it. Mark’s Mark, we will say goodbye until episode 200. What do we say?
Mark Dawson: We will say, it’s goodbye from me-
James Blatch: And it’s goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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