Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Crime Writer's Guide to Being There

By Jay Stringer

It's somewhere about 1986. Possibly 1987. My grandfather, who loved fishing, wanted nothing more from life than for me to share his three passions. Fishing, cricket, and football. In that order. The football thing happened. The others passed me by. He took me carp fishing one weekend, with my own junior rod, and we sat beside the lake. And we sat. And we sat. After a time, I must have been visibly bored, because he started telling me one of his stories. He got so wrapped up in the telling, and I got so absorbed in the listening, that we didn't notice when something came and took the bait from both of our lines. To my grandfather, this was a deep failure. To me, this was a deep revelation. There's something in this whole 'storytelling' thing.

It's somewhere around 2010. I'm working in a call centre, thirty-five hours a week, and leaning hard on my functioning insomnia to get books written in my 'spare time.' My line manager has called me into the board room for a private talk. "How serious are you about this job?" He says. "Because I know you've got your writing thing. But come on, I'd like to play midfield for Rangers, it's not going to happen, is it?"

It's somewhere around 1995. My GCSE History teacher, Mrs Etheridge, makes me stand up in front of the class and tells everyone I'm an example of someone who won't amount to anything, that I'm lazy, and not interested in learning. She tells me to get out of the class. My dyslexia isn't going to be diagnosed for another three years.

It's 2017. It would seem I'm having a good year. I've just been nominated for two Anthony Awards, and I'm attending Bloody Scotland, where I've been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. Everyone greets me with a smile, a handshake, or a hug. Everyone is wishing me well. And they're all genuine. People are happy for me. So why am I not happy? Why is this whole experience draining my battery so rapidly?

It's September 2016. I'm in New Orleans. I should be having a great time. I've just organised a Noir at the Bar from across the Atlantic. I'm in a great city. I'm hanging out with friends. But something's been wrong for a while, a big black pit had been growing. One cross word from the wrong person at the wrong time, and out of nowhere, for the briefest few seconds, I'm thinking about not existing, and then I'm getting blackout drunk as a form of self-defence, to push past that feeling.

You know that bit in Goodfellas, where Henry tells us all he ever wanted to do was be in the mob? Same story, but find/replace 'mob' for 'writer.'  I've had many other dreams along the way, naturally. My first real love was standup comedy. I tried songwriting. I tried screenwriting and making student films. Eventually I came round to realising that all I wanted to do, all I'd ever really wanted to do, was sit and write conversations between interesting characters. Interesting to me, at least.

When we started DoSomeDamage in 2009, I'd taken a few big steps towards my dream job, but I wasn't there yet. I'd been nominated for a Derringer Award, for a story called The Hard Sell published over at BeatToAPulp. I didn't know anything about it until I got an email from Al Guthrie congratulating me. Around this time I landed an agent. Steve Weddle dropped me a line to say we should start a group blog, and we spent a few weeks putting all together. I felt a sense of momentum towards what I wanted. And that was all I was thinking about. Getting there. Because there wasn't here. All of the problems of here would vanish once I got there.

My first book deal came in 2011. That contract led to so many great things. Some of my favourite people are in my life because of those early connections. But at the same time as these things all seem to be going well, I'm having real problems in the here. In the day-job -a shitty call centre full of corporate speak and managers who seem to have no clue or interest in people- I'm starting to unravel. For the first time, finally, in my thirties, I'm admitting how much I struggle with basic tasks, and I'm slowly learning to ask for help. I tell my line manager that I'm making mistakes on their computer system, and that I think it's down to my dyslexia. Really? He says. I haven't noticed anything, but let's have a meeting. We have the meeting. I go seek expert advice and report back. We agree to monitor the situation. A few months later, I'm in a different team, under a different manager, and I'm being disciplined for making mistakes. They put me through the full disciplinary process, resulting in a written warning. At one point during this, a senior manager says to me 'why are you choosing to make these mistakes?' Like you'd ask a blind person why they're choosing not to see. When I appeal the warning, they put me through the process again just to uphold the decision. They have managed to lose any proof of me ever raising the problem with them in advance. No record of the meeting. No proof of me seeking advice. A thirty-something man has finally gotten over his male programming and admitted he needs help, and is kicked in the face repeatedly for doing it. So the writing career starts to become an even more important there. My route out, my way to hold down a job I can live with. The next deal becomes crucial. Everything is riding on it. I'm becoming shitty to live with. I'm not breathing properly when I get back from work. My body is breaking down. I've piled on weight. I'm no fun to be with. And my wife, the only person who ever really gets to see the full real version of me, is saying that I need to go to a doctor.

Finally, I listen, and visit my GP. It only takes him a few seconds to diagnose me, and he tells me I'm not going back to work until I'm healthy. I spend the next four months signed off from the call centre. That part isn't new, I wrote about it on DSD back at the time, summer 2014. (When, oh yeah, I was also campaigning for Scottish Independence in the most heavily unionist part of Glasgow, because I needed a fight to pick.) I discovered cycling. Over the last few years, that's one of the main things people have come to know me for. Fixed-gear cycling. the words Zen and mediation are overused by people who haven't studied Zen and don't meditate. But in my shallow understanding of the terms at the time, I start telling people that's what cycling does for me. When I'm on my bike, I'm not thinking about the past or the future, I'm not thinking all that much at all, I'm just doing. All the worries go away. The thoughts. The conflict between the there and the here. So I figured I was fixed. I'd sorted it out. Just get on a bike when things get too much, and clear out the head.

In late 2015 my book Ways to Die in Glasgow is doing pretty well. After a good couple of months, I'm looking at my incoming royalty cheque and thinking...now. I can do it now. I can get out of the shitty job. Go live the dream. So I take the jump....everything's going to be great, right?


'Living the dream' and going full time didn't solve any of my issues. It just removed the mask placed over them by a shitty day job. All the insecurities, all the doubts, all the fears. They were still there. All the social awkwardness, covered over by booze at festivals and conventions, was still there. Suddenly, being a full time writer was the here, and now I needed something else to be the there. So what's next? The big book. The worst phrase in publishing. I spent two years trying to write something that would sell. Trying to second guess my own voice and find something that was commercial. And I no longer enjoyed writing. The one thing I'd always wanted, and now I hated doing it.

And into that mix you throw the usual career issues. The end of a relationship with a publisher, the time to move on. In New Orleans I went to a dark place, and it showed me I needed to fix something, but I didn't know what it was. And then by 2017 I have three award nominations, and yet Scotland's main arts funding organisation turns me down for support because I'm not established enough.

Somewhere in here you're starting to feel even worse, because you're 'living the dream.' There are people who would kill to have what you have, you remind yourself. And yet you're not enjoying it. And, finally, it's starting to show. People are starting to see your attitude has shifted. People are starting to associate you with bad moods, or snark. You're not that guy, except, you're becoming that guy. Because you've managed to turn the thing you loved into just another version of the call centre job you hated.

I go back to work. Real work. I become a bike courier. Pounding the potholes of Glasgow, fighting with the drivers, for less than minimum wage. And it's fun, I get paid to be outdoors, I get paid to do one of my favourite things, and I don't have any manager calling me into an office to be an asshole. But everything feels like it's getting further away. The brain fizzes. The insecurities bounce around. You walk into Bloody Scotland, being greeted by everybody, and deep down you're thinking, I hate this job, and everything is riding on what happens here, and why does it look like I'm doing well when my credit cards are a month overdue, and I don't know where my share of the mortgage is coming from at the end of the month. Why do people think I'm doing well when I'm loading up on my credit card just to be able to attend Bouchercon?

I don't know what the exact moment was. When I started to figure shit out. Or...I probably do. There have been a few things that have happened in the last six months, off the back of events that happened in the previous year. And some of you know these details, some don't. It would be a whole other story, and I need to save something for DSD's twentieth anniversary. But somewhere in all of this, everything started to make more sense.

Not financially. Shit, you want secure finances, don't be a writer. I'm reaching the end of my run as a bike courier because I'm 39, and earning less than minimum wage isn't sustainable. My bones are tired when I wake up every morning. I'm applying for real jobs again now and it's like getting out of prison after four years, there's no clear way to re-enter the jobs market, and nobody understands what you've been doing in that big gap on your CV. I've already been blanked by one company I applied to, for a job I've done before. There's a whole bunch of questions there yet to be resolved, but you learn to live in the unresolved.

But emotionally, things make more sense. And this is the point of today's blog. After the darker things I've touched on, and the fears, the insecurities that all writers are familiar with, I've come to a place where I'm happy with writing. The thing is, we can't keep pushing our self-worth and happiness into getting there. We have to live in the now. Writing was all I'd ever wanted to do, and somewhere along the way, I'd lost sight of why. In my last year, my thoughts have formed around three rules:

1. Find a thing you love doing
2. Put in the work to get good at it
3. Draw your self-worth from doing it, not from what you think you'll get from having done it. 

It's a long way round to saying be present and live in the moment. If you want to be a writer, do yourself a favour and learn to enjoy writing, not having written. It's a magic trick. We take a blank page, through nothing but out own will and imagination, we start filling it with words. And those words are people, and places, and emotions, and events. How is that not the best thing on the planet? 

And...Thats basically it. Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb dropped last month. It's a book that many people would have told the confused, angry, 2016 version of me not to write. The sequel is written. Immediately after finishing that, I raced through another book, about a Bounty Hunter in Arizona who is hired by criminals to go after a standup comedian. I loved the hell out of the writing of it. I enjoyed listening to the characters, seeing where they went next. I was living the moment, and having blast doing rather than thinking. And since I finished that book? Nothing. I'm letting my mind wander (while busting my ass delivering food.) I'll have edits on the Chase sequel soon from my publisher. And notes back from my agent on the Bounty Hunter book. And both of those steps will make the work better. And meanwhile, I'm not starting anything new until I have an idea that I'll enjoy working on. 

And with this realisation, I started to enjoy the job again. Attending festivals and conventions felt fun, simply hanging out with people, cracking jokes, and not worrying about any of the bullshit. 

Make no mistake, this isn't me giving up on writing a book that sells. I still want that. Of course I do. I can't shake the notion that a writer should be able to make a living from writing. The publishing industry isn't perfect, but it's still the place I want to be. I want you to go buy the hell out of Marah Chase, and the sequel. But I want success as me. I want it to be as a result of enjoying what I do. Whenever I sit down to write, I need to be that kid sitting beside a lake, lost in the art and the joy of storytelling. Chase is part of that, writing those books is about having fun. I'm not planning ahead now. I'm writing the books I want to write in the moment. 

And hey, I'm not total dummy. I have a book to sell. Go buy it. Also, I have a live event tonight at Waterstones Argyle Street, from 7pm. Come along. 


Holly West said...

Much of this is what I was trying to say in my DSD reunion post, but you said it better.

Michael W. Sherer said...

Wow. Just, wow.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thanks for sharing all this Jay. I'm happy you're back enjoying writing. It shows in the Marah Chase book for sure, I'm loving it. A lot of us are struggling in similar ways and thank you for showing your way through it.