Sophomore Slumps

My first short story was published in a magazine last year (shameless plug), and since then I’ve been working on a follow up. It’s a difficult process, and while there’s plenty of reading material out there about the challenges of creating something good the first time around, we don’t often discuss how to maintain that quality in later attempts.

It’s a very real problem, that after you’ve finished patting yourself on the back and the celebratory drinks have gone flat, you sit down to work on your next piece only to realise that  you have no idea how to proceed. Do you stick to the template that you established last time and risk creating something that feels too familiar, or perhaps branch out into unexplored territory and flirt with the danger of writing a literary turd?

The decision can be overwhelming, and so it’s unsurprising that rather than firing out a second story I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the so-called sophomore slump.

The term was originally used to describe American college students whose second, or sophomore, year failed to live up to the excitement and relative freedom of their first, causing apathy and depression. While the expression still holds, it has since broadened in scope to include arts and media, where a second effort pales in comparison to the first.

You don’t need to look far for examples. TV shows like Heroes or True Detective, where a stellar first season leads to a humdrum, directionless follow up. In the music industry, pressure from record labels or relentless touring caused bands like Weezer, The Strokes or The Darkness to release a poor imitation of their first record. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ topped bestseller lists in 1992, but when her second novel arrived ten years later it was a turgid mess.

The Darkness — Sorry Justin, but ‘One Way Ticket to Hell’ was an apt title for that terrible second album. Source: The Journal

It’s not hard to understand why people have trouble replicating their success, but what’s the best way to avoid a sophomore slump? According to psychologists, it’s all about praise.

In 2011 a study was conducted to monitor student motivation following different methods of praise—the first being person praise (“You’re very intelligent,” “You’re a talented problem solver,” etc.) while the second was process praise (“You followed the right method,” “You used a good system,” etc.). After completing an easy puzzle the students were given one of these types of praise before tackling a much harder variation. The ones who received process praise reported higher levels of motivation when working on the hard puzzle, while the recipients of person praise felt less compelled to finish it.

Positivity is great while things are going well, but the type of positivity we internalise can actually hinder us when we come up against the possibility of failure. If you believe that your previous success was the result of being supremely talented, then for you there can be no such thing as a no-win scenario. That might sound cool when Captain Kirk says it (incidentally, Star Trek: Into Darkness was another sophomore slump), but in reality everyone faces failure at some stage and that’s when it’s most important to understand why you did so well before.

Process praise is central to this understanding, as it encourages critical thinking and, like Han Solo, reminds us not to get cocky. If you think about your successes in terms of the systems and structures you used, it becomes easier to work out which of those are failing you when things go wrong, and helps you keep the motivation to fix them and ultimately come out on top. For writers, as I said in a previous post, that means dissecting your work, analysing plot structure, characters and techniques, so that you’re comfortable with the underlying mechanics and can apply that knowledge in future efforts. For films and television, JJ Abrams’ TED talk covers the mistake many filmmakers stumble on when creating sequels: “You’re not supposed to rip off the shark, or the monster, you’re supposed to rip off the character”.

If you understand what really made your first effort a success, you’ll knock it out of the park the second time around. If you don’t, then you’ll end up with a sophomore slump, a poor imitation.


Sources/Further Reading:

Kyla Haimovitz and Jennifer Henderlong | ‘Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation’ | Educational Psychology

The Guardian | Charlotte Stretch | ‘When good authors write bad books’

The Problem with Paedophilia

In my recently published short story, a character with an indecent past finds himself the victim of blackmail. ‘Someone has to hold up a mirror and show the monsters what they really are,’ he’s told by his extortionist. As a writer, it’s thrilling to explore these immoral deeds through the safety of fiction. There’s an addictive sort of pleasure to be found in inventing warped criminals, and with the evergreen popularity of crime fiction it’s clear that we can’t stop reading about them, either.

But sometimes reality can eclipse the imaginations of even the most depraved authors. In 2012, two such cases graced UK tabloids: the historical allegations against radio DJ and TV personality Jimmy Savile, and the sexual abuse scandal of Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins. The nature of these crimes was shocking — not only were the actions themselves numerous and abhorrent, but the celebrity status of the accused meant that we were complicit in their wrongdoing. We had held up these men, celebrated them, and in doing so had given them the power to act out their darkest fantasies and destroy innocent lives.

Source: Mail Online. Sadly, fashion was just one of his victims.

Since these events came to light we’ve tried to assuage our national guilt through increased efforts to convict child molesters. Operation Yewtree has exposed the historical crimes of Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and countless others, while last year the National Crime Agency arrested 660 suspected paedophiles in an unprecedented nationwide crackdown.

The action hasn’t been  limited to law enforcement agencies, either — vigilantes such as Stinson Hunter seek out paedophiles online and distribute their personal information, while groups under the ‘Communities Against Paedophiles’ banner have formed across the country to warn others about convicted sex offenders in their local area.

Although the risk of sexual abuse is not as widespread as some media outlets would have you believe, a glance at the figures does reveal some unsettling truths. Estimates put the number of paedophiles in the UK between fifty thousand to over a quarter of a million, and almost 85% of those who are convicted had no previous criminal history. With no easy means of identifying these individuals, they’ve become one of modern society’s bogeymen — lurking among us, posing  a threat to the most vulnerable members of our community. A quick google search for ‘paedophile’ returns headlines like ‘evil’ and ‘terrifying’, and it’s understandable that the subject invokes fear or vitriol. But is this response truly an effective means of tackling the problem? Should we re-examine the way we treat paedophilia?

Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between paedophilia and the physical act of child molestation. Classified as a mental disorder, paedophilia is defined as an attraction towards pre-pubescent children — one does not have to act on that desire in order to be considered a paedophile. There is debate among academics as to the root cause of the disorder, with some studies pointing towards environmental factors such as being sexually abused during childhood, while others propose biological causes like abnormal brain development.

Of course, if someone with paedophilia acts upon their desire by molesting a minor or viewing child pornography, then it becomes a criminal act. Convicted sex offenders are given a variety of treatments depending on the nature of their crime and the likelihood that they will reoffend, often involving countless hours of therapy, and for high risk cases, chemical castration. Rehabilitation programmes like Circles UK work with offenders to  help them stay straight after their release, but even though they’ve produced an 80% reduction in re-offence rates since 2007, their success isn’t widely publicised. This is a regrettable consequence of public opinion being heavily skewed against the rehabilitation of paedophiles. Our criminal justice system is predicated on the belief that people can reintegrate with society after serving their sentence, but many community groups actively shun reformed sex offenders, despite the fact that isolation and low self-esteem are key motivators for re-offence. While some may find any association with paedophiles deeply unpalatable, the truth is that depriving them of acceptance and social integration will only create more victims in the long term.

Now I’m not suggesting we welcome sex offenders with open arms, but very rarely is paedophilia given the same consideration as other mental disorders. Media coverage and political debate often centre around those who’ve broken the law, meaning that public discourse is largely concerned with the punishment of those individuals, and in the process conflating paedophilia with criminality. Rarely do we consider those who suffer from the disorder, but have not committed any offence.

The simple reason for this is that it’s incredibly difficult to find any of these people, and so we hear very little about them. News stories like those of Savile or Ian Watkins create a monstrous image of paedophilia, and so it’s unsurprising that people suffering from the disorder rarely come forward. Our health service also provides surprisingly little support — doctors are professionally obligated to report any self-identified paedophiles to the police in cases where that individual either has children, or works with children. While organisations like the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have anonymous phone lines, anyone wishing to meet in person will have to disclose their personal details which, again, will be handed to the police. Although the caution is understandable, it serves only to reinforce the idea that all paedophiles are criminals, and it’s obvious that few will opt to be treated in such a manner.

In order to tackle child molestation effectively, it’s clear that we could do more to prevent paedophiles from offending, rather than punishing and vilifying them after it’s too late. That means making it easier to seek help without fear of judgement or criminal repercussions, and, in this regard, our cousins in mainland Europe may have already found the answer. In Germany, a pioneering programme called Project Dunkelfeld aims to provide free, confidential treatment to anyone who believes that they suffer from paedophilic urges. The comprehensive course combines  group therapy and professional support, and has proved wildly successful. Since opening in 2005, the project has helped over 5,000 people and expanded from one centre in Berlin to eleven throughout the country. National campaigns have raised awareness for the cause, spreading the message that having these urges doesn’t make someone a monster, and that help is available.

While the UK has made some progress with projects like the Safer Living Foundation, we’ve yet to follow Germany’s lead in actively reaching out to paedophiles. The thought might make some people uncomfortable, but unlike crime fiction this isn’t something that exists solely in the imagination. If changing our treatment of paedophilia can prevent another Jimmy Savile, then we have a moral obligation to explore that possibility. Unless we want today’s children to appear in the headlines thirty years from now, asking us why we didn’t do more.

Sources/Further Reading:

BBC News | Dominic Hurst | ‘Can you stop a paedophile before they even start?’

BBC News | Damien McGuinness | ‘Germany urges paedophiles out of the shadows’

John Drury | ‘When the mobs are looking for witches to burn, nobody’s safe: Talking about the reactionary crowd’

Kieran McCartan | Media constructions of, and reactions to, paedophilia in society

The Independent | Steve Humphries | ‘Is our approach to sex offenders creating more victims?’

The Guardian | Kate Connolly | ‘How Germany treats paedophiles before they offend’

The Guardian | Peter Stanford | ‘It is our duty to rehabilitate sex offenders

The Mirror | Olivia Solon | ‘Should we be doing more to rehabilitate paedophiles?’

Writing About Writing

For over two years now I’ve been writing short stories with the aim of getting published. It’s not the easiest of challenges, especially as a hobby, and knowing where to start on your writing journey can be daunting. People can give you advice, but there’s no substitute for experience. You have to be prepared to work on your writing regularly, to submit it, accept failure, and submit it again. There are no get rich quick schemes. No shortcuts. That might sound obtuse, but I just want to stress that no one can sell you a magic formula– all they can do is share their methods.

Reading this won’t make you a success. Hell, it certainly hasn’t made me a success yet. But it has gotten me published. When I first sat down and really decided to do this, I had a lot of questions, some of which I still haven’t found the answers to. But I have learned a few things about writing and submitting short stories since then, so here they are. Read them, heed them, ignore them or deplore them; it’s up to you.

That old ‘persistence’ chestnut…

The very first thing people will tell you is that it takes persistence. In fact I already mentioned it in my opening, but it bears repeating. You’re not going to turn into Stephen King overnight. Yawn, you already knew that. And yet it’s surprising how many people I’ve spoken to who tried their hand at writing fiction and gave up at the first sign of rejection.

The biggest challenge here is to overcome your ego– the part of you that gets excited over a pretty combination of words, that detests all criticism levelled at your work, that keeps you up until 3am worrying that maybe you’re a hack and you’re just not cut out for this whole writing thing. Creativity is great for, you know, creating stuff, but it’s not so hot when it comes to making rational decisions. You have to learn when to switch off that wild part of your brain and cultivate your inner business manager. Accept that you don’t always know what you’re doing, continually evaluate your choices and search for ways to improve. Yes, it’s important to keep submitting your work, but if you’re always getting rejected there’s probably something that you should be doing differently. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

Get used to conducting post-mortems on your stories. Rip those ligaments apart and tear into your writing until you’ve got blood up to your elbows. How did you choose to frame your story? What dialogue or character choices did you make? Could the pacing be improved? Did you go overboard with any styles or techniques? Would your story have benefitted from a different character or perspective? Was there too much or too little description? These are honest questions that you’ll have to ask yourself. Every time a rejection form comes your way– and they will come your way– you need to take out your editor’s cap and your red pen and get busy.

Don’t just shrug and submit it to the next market on your list; give your work the love and respect it deserves and improve it before you send it back into the wild. Then make a note of what you’ve learned and apply it to the next thing you write.

Be smart with your submissions…

Another important part of the evaluative process is to look at where you’re submitting your work. It may sound obvious, but if you send your gritty, sword and sorcery epic to a romance magazine they’re unlikely to take more than a cursory glance before rejecting it. Investigate the markets that you’re writing for– buy a recent issue and analyse the pieces that you find in it. Pay attention to their narrative techniques, description and dialogue. Remember that they have an audience that’s used to reading a certain type of story, and they can’t afford to stray from their house style just to accommodate you. This can be difficult to bear in mind when most places say they want something they’ve never seen before, but this is a relative statement; they want you to do something exciting within the parameters that their audience is used to, not subject them to unfamiliar genres or styles.

Try flipping the creative process around and consider your marketing first. Rather than writing something you’re really passionate about and then scouring different journals and magazines to find the one that matches your style most closely, think about where you want to be published before you pick up your pen. Research the markets in your genre, find the biggest ones and read them. Religiously. Once you’ve got a feel for their style, sit down and work out how to fit your ideas into their template. You might find that this takes your writing in directions you wouldn’t otherwise have considered, and even if it doesn’t pan out, there’s no better exercise for creative growth than forcing yourself to work with limitations.

In order to do this effectively I strongly recommend that you invest in a submission resource such as Duotrope (the Submissions Grinder is a suitable alternative if you don’t want to fork out for a subscription). This will help you identify the right markets to submit to, and if you’re initially unsuccessful, it will help you find smaller places that will still be a good fit for your work.

I’ve known people to insist that you should only submit to the very biggest markets, as being published in small journals or magazines is a waste of time. You should certainly always target the largest places first, but these have the highest volume of submissions and therefore the largest number of rejections. Smaller markets have a lower barrier to entry, and if you’ve already been turned down by your first choices there’s no sense in spurning the opportunity for publishing credits elsewhere. Yes, many of the bigger markets are happy to publish first-time writers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the first thing they’ve ever written. The bones of failed stories litter the path to publishing success, and the most prolific writers are often the most accomplished.

While small markets are useful for publishing credits, you should still hold them to certain standards in return for your work. If you’re submitting somewhere, make sure they offer some level of remuneration. You won’t ever make much money from selling short stories, but you should always conduct yourself professionally, which means you should always get paid. I’ve seen some magazines or e-journals justify not compensating their writers as they’re offering recognition instead. The kudos of being published. In short, fuck those guys. If they don’t respect your craft enough to pay you for it, they don’t deserve your interest, and they sure as shit don’t deserve your work either. As Harlan Ellison says– pay the writer!

But professionalism doesn’t stop at being paid. It means that you need to take each opportunity seriously, treat editors and contacts appropriately and at the very least appear like you know what you’re doing. Don’t be a dick. If you haven’t had a response after a considerable amount of time, send a polite query. If someone rejects your work, don’t send them an angry reply demanding to know their reasons for doing so.

This extends to your cover letter. It’s the first impression an editor will get from you and it’s vital that you put your best foot forward. Take care to address the correct person (many magazines will have multiple editors), check for typos and don’t show off— that’s what your manuscript is for. Brian Klems wrote a fantastic guide on cover letters for the Writer’s Digest, which I always refer to. In essence, keep it brief, keep it simple, mention any previous credits if you have them; if you don’t, then talk about any experience relevant to your writing– jobs, qualifications, etc. Then sign off. Don’t waste anyone’s time with a flashy cover letter when it’s your manuscript that you want them to be reading.

And finally, always, always read the submission guidelines before you send your work somewhere. Always adhere to them. Always. It takes no more than ten minutes to reformat your manuscript, and it ensures that you’ve presented yourself in the best possible light. If you haven’t bothered to format your work for them, why should an editor bother to read it?

Write yourself a bio…

You won’t enjoy this, but it’s good for you. An author’s bio is a valuable marketing tool, and having one will help you to tie your public image into your writing. If you’re stuck for ideas, Heather Hummel wrote some useful tips in the Huffington Post. Much like your cover letter, you’ll need to think about your previous writing, relevant experience and anything that distinguishes you from every other writer out there.

The upshot of going through this unpleasant exercise in narcissism is that you’ll emerge with a better understanding of how to improve your marketability. Yes, marketability– an ugly word, but a necessary one. It would be nice to think that great work will always get the recognition it deserves– even artists who died in obscurity like Vivaldi, William Blake or Vincent van Gogh became popular years later. But you don’t get the luxury of dying in the Renaissance and having three hundred years for your art to gain traction. This is the age of the internet, where an entire world of people fight to be relevant every day, so you’d better bring some weapons before you step into the ring.

Start by writing a blog. Having your own platform on which to publish content is a great remedy for the nail-biting anticipation that comes with waiting months to hear back from editors. The ability to showcase your writing without the hindrance of submission times or gatekeepers is liberating. It also gives you a reliable means of sourcing feedback and acts as a portfolio for your work. Managing web traffic will help you to develop fundamental marketing skills, and you’ll learn to consider the audience that you’re writing for. No one is obligated to give a shit about you, so try to provide content that is interesting, amusing or valuable in some form to ensure that people stay engaged with your site and come back for more. That means no click-bait or vacuous top-ten lists. Once you’ve built your platform, make the most of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr to connect with like-minded individuals, and utilise online communities like Reddit or StumbleUpon to share your work and learn from others.

Extend these connections into the real world. Join a writing group, and you’ll quickly find that your output increases in both quantity and quality– there’s no motivation quite like a room full of people expecting to read your latest piece every week. Meeting with local artists can also open up new avenues for creativity, through events, competitions and collaboration. All of which will give you material to add to your bio. But the biggest benefit of taking steps like these is that they can change the mindset you bring to your writing. If you build these rituals around your work it will begin to feel like more than a hobby, and when you start to take your writing seriously you’ll see that other people do too.

After that you’re on your own. Find the methods that work best for you, develop them and stick with it. Although there are no universal requirements, it’s a safe bet that you’ll need determination, support from friends and family, and a well-stocked supply of coffee. But most importantly, you’ll need to keep evaluating both yourself and your work. The soul of good writing starts with asking questions, and the key to creativity lies in boldly stumbling after the answers.

On Twelve-Step Programs

I’m currently working on a short story about addiction and group therapy. It’s a topic that regularly graces headlines, often for the wrong reasons. When a noted celebrity checks into rehab we sit up and pay attention– will this be the catalyst for their redemption, or just another stop on their journey towards self-destruction?

The media does its best to feed our fascination with addicts– through exhaustive coverage of drug-fuelled meltdowns from the likes of Charlie Sheen or Amy Winehouse– and in a culture that encourages excess it’s no surprise that we’re often confronted with people who have gone too far.

But it’s the methods that we use to treat addiction, rather than the thing itself, which are most revealing. In 1935 Bill Wilson and Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous, the most famous support group network and the originator of twelve-step programs. The idea was to create a fellowship between addicts, who could rely on one another for encouragement as they worked their way through twelve simple steps to sobriety. Humans are social animals and addiction can be an extremely isolating experience, so group therapy makes perfect sense, right?

Studies have put the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs in the region of three to five percent. Others have stated that when it comes to achieving sobriety, there is no discernible difference between people who’ve attended group therapy and those that go it alone. But why is this? And why has an approach with such dubious appraisal remained prominent to this day?

The twelve steps as originally devised for AA emphasise the individual’s powerlessness against their addiction. In order to overcome it, they must place their trust in the hands of God, admit their shortcomings (hence the famous line, “Hi, I’m ___, and I’m an alcoholic.”) and make amends for the damage they’ve caused to themselves and those around them. It’s an appealing path to take– faith, atonement and rectifying old transgressions– but it fails to address the cause of addiction.

People often think addiction is caused by overindulgence– take too much of something, and you’ll find it hard to go without. This is the typical ‘drugs are bad’ rhetoric that we hear from a young age which utterly disregards social and psychological factors. Why don’t people given morphine in hospitals become heroin addicts after they’re discharged? Why did American soldiers in Vietnam stop taking opiates when they returned to the States?

A study of 17,000 adults linked cases of addiction with the presence of childhood trauma. Instances of physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect or mentally ill family members can cause deep-rooted psychological problems which manifest as addictive tendencies in adulthood. The theory goes that traumatic experiences at a young age interfere with the brain’s development, disrupting its ability to regulate emotions. This causes fundamental damage to the brain’s reward system, which, as they grow up, results in people depending on external sources (drugs, alcohol, sex, food, etc.) to provide emotional regulation or stimulation. Because childhood trauma takes place at a young age and can be highly distressing, individuals may even repress these events and be completely unaware of their existence.

Twelve-step programs are unlikely to bring any of these realisations to the fore. In fact, the first three steps require participants to accept their powerlessness towards addiction and submit themselves to God– again, an entity over which they are powerless. Considering that one of the dominant psychological states of childhood trauma and victimisation is powerlessness, it would seem that this approach, far from remedying addiction, serves only to compound and amplify its cause.

But if it’s such a bad idea, why do so many people do it? As it turns out, AA has a phenomenally effective marketing approach. Success is highly celebrated– tokens are famously awarded for staying sober over certain milestones (thirty days, six months, a year, etc.). The twelfth and final step of the program is to spread the word and help other addicts onto the program. Essentially, to evangelise.

Adversely, anyone who falls off the wagon is treated with extreme stigma. They are seen to have ‘dropped out’, failed the program. They weren’t doing it properly. For a network that emphasises social support and the importance of the group, it is telling how quickly they persecute the individual. Add to this the fact that people who did ‘fail’ are unlikely to talk about their experience for fear of reproach, and what you’re left with is a near universal positive press.

So the next time someone famous checks in at Palm Springs, perhaps we should stop to consider that their misfortune is likely the product of psychological wounds, not deep pockets. And if they do quit the program, perhaps we shouldn’t blame them, but look instead at the shortcomings of their treatment. At the very least, Heat magazine could sell a few more copies with an exposé on Justin Bieber’s childhood trauma.

Sources/Further Reading:

“How Effective is AA and 12 Step Treatment?”

“The Origins of Addiction: Evidence from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study”

“Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong | Johann Hari | TED Talks”

“The Science of Addiction | CBS”