Yes that's me, I've gone 'up to eleven'!

It’s a thing. Writers and artists suffer from altitude sickness, it’s not just me.

After my last post on some ups and downs in a writer’s life, now I tackle how to deal with the ups. Especially as I’ve had a few since then, my poetry on Radio 4’s The World At One, and, see photo above, my crime novel on sale in WHSmith. I deal better with failure than success, which I guessed was because of the proud endurance of hardship ingrained in me by my poor working class Tyneside background, and the feeling that ‘too good to be true’ was a thing as well for ‘the likes of me’. That might seem an advantage, as most writers see a lot more of the former than the latter, and I’m no exception, but it’s not. My inner Eeyore has sabotaged me, losing fab opportunities out of fear of things going ‘too’ right. It also spoils the enjoyment of those few precious successes which would make a nice break from the steeling of self-esteem to cope with projects crashing and burning or work rejected.

What if every branch of Smith's, & the printer's, is eaten by sharks?
Last time, I mentioned that the whole print run of my crime novel THE OPERATOR had been taken by WHSmith (Travel) for sale in May, an unusual distinction for a small-press-published book. Initial euphoria, pure happiness for a few hours, until that horrible inner voice began to dismantle it - what if it didn’t happen, was some kind of mistake and now I’d look stupid, in any case it would be down at the bottom of the shelf spine-forward and nobody would buy it, and what if...
Then, on my birthday last Friday, well ahead of schedule, my daughter’s boyfriend was in Smiths on Aberdeen station, and looked for my book, and there it was, front forward, and 11 in their chart! Back up to euphoria again, and then my daughter saw it in Newcastle Central Station, ticketed ‘All-time recommended read’.
Woohoo! A whole weekend of woohoo, and I’ve worked hard to stamp hard on that inner voice trying to undermine it. If those two bairns hadn’t seen it, I’d not have even known it was on sale yet. Perhaps it’s done better in other branches: or worse, or perhaps it isn’t in any other branches, perhaps... SHUT UP!

However, speaking to a writer friend from a very different background, who is currently enjoying well-deserved and hard-earned success much greater than mine, gave me new food for thought. They said they’d had the same feeling of panic and shock when it all kicked off, and had heard that many artists and writers had anxiety caused by sudden success after years of struggle and obscurity. My friend suggested that being hard-wired by experience to recognise failure, the adrenaline rush of any kind of success or recognition was interpreted by our brains as a threat, like the sense of rejection or failure. By some strange synchronicity, I saw a facebook link to this article  by the writer of ' Eat, Pray, Love', on how she dealt with sudden massive success and the pressure of following it up. Do read the piece, but if you don’t have time, her basic message is, Stick with what you love to do, or as she puts it, your ‘home’, in her case writing; keep sticking with it, and let the external stuff look after itself. The same advice you’d get for dealing with your nth rejection.

'Come on, chaps, just one more metaphor! You can do it!'
This brings me to Altitude Sickness, my other UP this month. I’m on a shortlist of three to win a prestigious, and large, poetry award, the Hippocrates Prize, for my poem ‘Altitude Sickness: Everest’, and when the news of the shortlist was announced, it was featured on Radio 4’s World At One, which was pretty cool. Logically I should come away with at least third prize, which would be a great boost, not that that’s stopped my inner voice from trying to sabotage this too with increasingly insane scenarios and ‘what ifs’. My poem is about how we deal with going physically too high, the damage to body and brain, the risk, and what it does to people who climb Everest  yet they are driven to try and keep trying despite that. I hadn’t really thought of it as linked in any way to writers who have a whiff of mountain air and a chance at the summit. What is it that makes me and others risk frostbite from cold typing fingers, oxygen starvation from stuffy studies, snow blindness from gazing at computer screens, without even the unmixed joy of achieving some kind of peak however small?
'Almost at the top of this scene...'
 Some are looking for the big publishing deal, the six figure advance, the big sales and royalties. Others are in it because they love to write, love the process of writing, and aren’t that bothered if an audience sees or hears it or not. I think I am most powerfully driven by communicating, connecting with people, either play audiences, performance crowds, an individual who reads my work: I love to hear or see reactions to my words: more than sales as such, getting my work 'out there' matters to me a great deal. I would recommend my AE colleague Dan Holloway's book 'Self-publish With Integrity: Define Success in Your Own Terms and then Achieve it' which tackles success and its desirability with trademark iconoclasm, panache and originality, for anyone who creates, self-pub or not. 

Until then I shall try to stay in a state of WOOHOO!  for as long as possible. And folks, I'll be at Crimefest Bristol in mid-May, including appearing on a panel on Friday 16th at 13.40, 'Narrative, Resolution and Crime Fiction'. Looking forward to meeting friends old and new, including some online chums I will meet in the flesh for the first time - do say hello if you're at this excellent festival for Crime readers and writers.

Visit my website: for my other installations and all my books.
Follow me on Twitter: @ValerieLaws
Find THE OPERATOR in paperback from WHSmith, Amazon UK, or  or from me at readings/signings.


Andrew Crofts said…
Every word here resonates painfully, Valerie. However, even if nothing ever goes right for you again, (which is statistically unlikely), no one can take these recent highs away from you. These achievements are now "in the bank". Enjoy! Many congratulations.

Chris Longmuir said…
Congratulations on getting into such an elevated position in W H Smith. My traditional publisher never put Dead Wood there because they considered W H Smith's discount terms too draconian. Oh, and I'll see you at Crimefest. I have a panel as well and I think mine is at lunchtime on the Friday. I hope folks aren't too busy eating lunch to attend. In any case I'm looking forward to a fab time.
Acornmoon said…
I can identify with everything you have written about here. Congratulations re WH Smith.
Mari Biella said…
Excellent post, Valerie. I think that both success and failure – however we define those terms – hang heavily over writers’ heads. Just doing what you love, and trying not to be swayed by extraneous things, is probably the only cure. That said, congratulations on your recent successes!
Jan Needle said…
Lovely piece, Valerie, thanks. I've always felt that writing is an addiction, much like alcohol but with fewer blinding headaches. I don't want to give it up, though!
Lydia Bennet said…
thank you all, for these kind words, I'm glad it's not just me!
Bill Kirton said…
Congratulations, Valerie, both on the W H Smith success and on such an entertaining post about the perversity of those inner voices. It really is ridiculous, isn't it, that the first reaction to such great news is so often 'There must be some mistake'.
It's really good news about W H Smith. But I know just what you mean about acclimatising. It's like the (Scots?) habit of responding to any comments about how nice the weather is with 'Ay, but we'll pay for it!' You just get into the habit of expecting things to be a switchback and when it goes well, the inner voices get to you!
CallyPhillips said…
Yes, great news.I'm interested in how 'a small press' actually got W.H.Smith to bite? Was it 'indie' published, how small is small - and what was the 'process' of getting them interest (facts and figures if it's not a trade secret!!) Enjoy the virtual sun meanwhile. But if you have to beat yourself up, tell yourself you're not in Tesco's in Turriff yet, now that WOULD be fame (lol!)
Lydia Bennet said…
thanks folks, for your congrats! Cally, The Operator is published in paperback by Red Squirrel Press, a smallish independent press which operates without external funding. I don't know much about how it all works, but I think it was an org the small presses share which distributes their books who got this deal. My publisher was gobsmacked as much if not more than I!
That seems to be the way to go. Saraband who published the Physic Garden do their marketing under the Faber Factory umbrella and it does seem to reach the parts small independents don't reach. (Not that I got a W H Smith deal - that's AMAZING!) But it's certainly very helpful when it comes to tackling the big outlets.
Kathleen Jones said…
The very, very best of luck Val - I hope you win! And that The Operator goes stratospheric. You deserve it all....
Lydia Bennet said…
thank you Kathleen!
julia jones said…
Looking forward to Crimefest. And why the heck shouldn't the Operator make it? It's got at least as much going for it as many of the others who do. The only mistake would be UNDER rating it.
Lydia Bennet said…
aw thank you Julia, very much looking forward to Crimefest too!I'm looking for a bad crowd to get into, if you or Chris Longmuir can oblige...

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