Writing Hacks #7: Getting thick-skinned, in conversation with author Shaun Baines

Shaun, on his way to doing some editing

This week I talk with author Shaun Baines. I met Shaun having shared an agent and a publisher and found we had more in common than just writing. We both left the city to live in rural areas to write, tend to our gardens and chickens! Shaun’s author of Peoples Book Prize Nominated book Woodcutter, the first in The Daytons trilogy of gritty, gangster noir set in Newcastle. The second book, Pallbearer is just out this week. Despite the violence he can conjure up on the page, he’s a really nice bloke and a lot of fun to talk to. Today I wanted to chat with him about the psychology of writing, dealing with feedback, rejections and what success means. I really enjoyed our chat and hope you do too.

In Conversation with Shaun Baines

CH: Pallbearer, the second book in the Dayton series has just come out this week, Congratulations! How do you feel it’s going as a writer? 

SB: A second book feels special. I’ve learned how to be a better writer and now I know my first book wasn’t a fluke. I’m not sure I’d call myself a proper writer yet, (maybe when you read Pallbearer, you won’t, either,) but I feel more in control. I’m not free-wheeling down the side of a mountain anymore. I’m half-way to knowing what I’m doing.

CH: I was thinking a bit about how as a writer, you know you’ve proper made it when people refer to other people’s work through the lens of yours; i.e. that novel has a Dickensian feel to it. Could you envisage someone saying in a few years time, talking about a new gritty, gangster noir book that it is positively Bainesian? I mean, how cool would that be?

SB: Bainesian sounds like a disorder of some kind. Like something you’d contract in the tropics. I doubt I’ll ever reach a level where I’m a reference point, but I have worked hard to do things my way. A reader told me she could recognise my writing without my name being attached. It has its own distinctive feel. That’s a huge compliment and something every author should aim for because no-one can take that away from you.

CH: So what is success for you, writing wise?

SB: A gold yacht? Or one that doesn’t sink because it’s way too heavy? I think of success as an end point that can’t be reached because the goal posts are constantly shifting. But there are a lot of milestones to be celebrated on the way. Finishing a novel is the first one, then a publishing contract, holding your first book in your hand. One of my major milestones was being stopped in the street by a postman and being asked to sign a book. He’d been carrying Woodcutter around for weeks, hoping to bump into me. And what’s more, he’d done it as a gift to his wife at Christmas.

CH: And how do you think other people breaking into fiction should set their expectations?

SB: If you said to me, “I have a job for you. You’ll work seven days a week for very little money or thanks. Strangers will happily tear you apart for doing this job. You’ll suffer from a range of anxieties, probably put on weight and you can never, ever quit.” I’d say, “Is there anything going at the sewerage works?”It depends on what a writer’s expectations are. If it is to produce some writing they are happy with, then that boils down to hard work, but it’s achievable. If it’s to make millions of pounds, you better join me down the shit pit because people drop their phones down toilets and we can sell them on.

CH: I know what you mean, royalty cheques sound so glamorous…until you see the actual numbers. I’ll meet you down in the sewer, let me get my gloves!

SB: I actually refer to royalty cheques as ‘my beans.’ As in, how many cans of beans will this buy me? 

CH: At a guess i think i’m good for about four cans of beans. Though if I were to go supermarket brand it’d stretch to seven or eight. In all seriousness though, there’s a nice camaraderie sharing the realities of what it’s like to break into the writing world isn’t there?

SB: Yeah, I have to say the writing community is a really friendly, supportive place, which is unusual in a competitive market place. We’re all in this together and I’ve made some good mates. No matter what your expectations, when they’re not met for whatever reason, there’s always someone around to sympathise. It’s our choice to write and let’s not forget, it’s a great job filled with great people. Do you see other writers as friends or competitors?

CH: I always try and be friendly and supportive and I just assume everyone else is that same: that’s my opening gambit with anyone i meet in the writing world. Inevitably I’ve had a couple of negative experiences among the many, many good ones. It’s usually when someone gets in touch, appears very nice and then after a few interactions the mask slips and its all about what you can do to help them promote their book or who i can introduce them to. So I have no time for users, but I’d give up a lot of time to help people who I think merit it.

SB: Like me!

CH: For sure! Let’s share a little bit about some of our experiences on receiving feedback. I remember having to write a piece for my Creative Writing Masters. I was feeling super confident because i’d had glowing feedback from our (hard-to-please) lecturer on my last piece of work. I remember spending ages on it, and i sent it off feeling really proud of what i’d done. The response was tantamount to ‘You’ve completely missed the point, re-do it.’ Ouch. But what can you do but suck it up, take the advice and have another go? I think it’s better to be challenged, to reassess your own work critically, particularly if it’s someone’s opinion you respect. What’s the worst feedback you’ve ever had and how did you cope with it?

SB: I have really low self-esteem so I don’t think I’ve received bad feedback. I assume that I deserve it somehow. Hand on heart though, I don’t think I’ve had anything cutting. One reviewer couldn’t stomach some of the violence. Her favourite genre was Christian romance fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a hell of a jump from that to Woodcutter. It’s like going from fish fingers to fermented fish. Her taste was out of line with my own and just because you like stories doesn’t mean you’ll like all stories. Giving a book a low rating because of that doesn’t seem fair.

CH: Yeah, that’s just about book fit, but then maybe there’s a sadistic pleasure in reading genres you will automatically hate so you can write searing reviews about them. Speaking of sadism, let’s talk about what sort of feedback works for you. I used to run a writing group in Brighton, and one of the things i noticed is that people are often in different places with the type of response they need, if early in their career and tentative they often need encouragement and support, but others need a ‘pull your finger out, you can do a lot better.’ What sort of feedback do you find most helpful?

SB: I’m into the tough love. Not sure how I’d respond to being told to ‘pull my finger out.’ I’m more of a ‘finger in’ kind of guy. The criticism has to be constructive. If it’s given in a way that improves your writing, it’s nothing but good. Woodcutter wasn’t the first book I wrote. I wrote one in my twenties and paid an editor to give me his thoughts. What I received was a four page rant on how I wasn’t a writer. “Why did you even send this to me? I’m not wasting my time going through this rubbish.” He still cashed the fucking cheque, though. His response crushed me and I didn’t write another word for almost twenty years. Spite like that is damaging and has no place in the writing community. Honestly, if I could remember that guy’s name I would out him to protect other writer’s suffering at his hands. Then I’d go round his house when he was asleep and do things to him.

CH: If that guy’s read any of your books, he’s probably booking himself into Witness Protection right about now. The good news is you don’t need him anymore (and didn’t back then either). Do you think you’re tough on yourself, when redrafting?

SB: I like to think I’m pretty ruthless. I’m certainly not precious about anything I write. If it’s not working, I cut it from the narrative. I’ve never done a creative writing course so I mainly go on instinct. I’ve read lots of books and watched lots of TV. You get a sense of when things need to change. My process, if I can call it that, is write the first draft. Read and make notes for the second. Show my wife for the third. Tidy up writing for the fourth. Send to beta-readers for fifth. Line edit for sixth. Proof read over and over. Send to publisher/agent, take their notes and make final draft.I don’t enjoy the process until I work on the fourth draft and I start to feel I might have something. How many drafts do you do?

CH: Too many to count. There was no set number really, but i think with Orca Rising I probably had about twenty drafts before it was out there in the world. Maybe five or so before I sent it to agents, and then some at the agent’s recommendation, then publishers etc. It’s probably different for each book. With more experience, I suspect–based on what writers like David Mitchell say–that you need to do less redrafting, presumably because you’re just getting more of it right first time round.

SB: Imagine writing a book in one go.

CH: A writer’s aspiration, an editor’s worst nightmare! So, now Let’s talk about getting an agent and/or a publisher interested in your writing. For me, I think the dynamic here is totally fucked by market economies. There are way too many writers, writing too many books to a saturated market, in short it’s super-competitive so what you have is a situation whereby agents and publishers are spoilt for choice and are flooded with manuscripts. Making your work stand out from the crowd is now more important than ever. There’s crafted cover letters and synopses to write and then a 6-8 week wait for an (often) templated reply. I can see why a lot of people get frustrated. But when you take a step back, it’s easy to forget that without you, the writer, agents and publishers have nothing. They cannot exist without us, yet in reality it feels like the opposite is true. What are your thoughts about this, and how can writers keep sane when it’s more than 99% likely that they’ll be looking at a rejection email after a lot of hard work.

SB: You’re always going to have a flooded market when being an author is one of the top jobs to aspire to. People do it out of love rather than money and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Rejection is part of the job. It’s not palatable or easy to swallow, but I think it comes in two forms. Firstly, your book is rejected because it’s not good enough or you haven’t spent enough time on it. Instinctively, we’ll know when this is the case. Secondly, a book is rejected because it doesn’t fit the current market trend. I find this harder to take because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve written the book I want to read and no amount of redrafting is going to change that.I don’t spend much time on cover letters. I make sure they’re professional and polite, but its the book that does the talking. Hitting the zeitgeist is beyond my control, but I hear gangster noir is going to be big this year.

CH: Where do you stand on Self-Publishing?

SB: It’s seen as a last resort when it’s not. It’s just incredibly difficult so some self-published books come out looking amateurish. As always, you need money. An editor costs money. A proofreader costs money. A cover designer costs money and if you don’t have that money, it affects how your book is received costing you more money. A book someone has spent years writing suddenly goes down the tube and that’s not fair. Writers aren’t stupid, but most of us are poor so we’re backed into a corner, forced to pay money we can ill afford to see our dreams come true. You’ve self-published a book. How was the process for you?

CH: It was a last resort really. Kidding! With my first novel, Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, i wrote it for my Masters and it just grew from an exercise I did as part of my coursework. It had no real market or commercial hope so I didn’t even try to get it placed with a publisher or agent. I self-published for two reasons, one because my family and friends asked to read it and wondered what the hell i’d been doing the last few years, did I have anything to show for it? Yes, i could point to this thing and say there, it’s available if you want it. And second, i self-pubbed just to learn and see what the process was like. You have a lot of autonomy of course; creating the cover, the blurb and all that jazz, but there’s also the formatting (yawn) and the marketing. It’s a lot more work but you do get a lot more creative control and more spoils if it comes off. I personally hate self-promotion and I see a lot of authors spamming twitter with their books 8-10 times a day. Why would anyone want that in their feed? Unfollow. So having done both, I prefer having a Publishing House behind me, though i wouldn’t rule out self-publishing again. Alright, so that’s enough writing chat, let’s get the stuff people really want to know about you Sean. We’re both keen gardeners, if your writing were a vegetable, which would it be and why?

SB: You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that. Always with the vegetable questions. Er…I think my writing would be a parsnip; one that hits a stone when its growing and becomes all twisted. And when you pull it out, its formed into a weird face you can’t cut in to because you’re worried it might haunt your dreams. 

CH. I knew you’d go for a root veg. That’s gangster veg! Thanks for hanging out with me today Shaun, I’ve got Pallbearer downloaded and ready to be go and i’m looking forward to it after Woodcutter. What’s next for you?

SB: I’m writing the third Dayton novel for publication next year. Then I’m thinking of doing a series of novellas. I also have a collection of short stories I’d like to self-publish.But right now, I have to go outside and clear up after a two day storm. Living the writer’s dream, eh?

Pallbearer and Shaun’s first book in the trilogy, Woodcutter are available from Sharpe Books.

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