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Author Transformations - Battling Through the Hard Times to Find Success

How one Author Overcame his Personal Demons to Find Success

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Author Transformations – Battling Through the Hard Times to Find Success

By Ken Preston

On a Thursday morning in June 2013 I walked into my doctor’s office and sat down. The doctor smiled, and said, “Good morning, what can I do for you?”

I burst into tears.

To be honest, this moment had been a long time coming, maybe my whole life. I had been travelling a slow but inexorable path downward into a pit of self-loathing and depression. For the most part, except for one or two brief blips, I had managed to hide it.

People suffering with depression can be good at that. And now here I was, ready to admit that I needed help, and at rock bottom. Actually, I only thought I had hit rock bottom. I hadn’t.

But I would soon.

 

 

Wait, let’s backtrack a little.

I’ve been writing stories all my life, or at least for as long as I can remember, anyway. You’re probably the same. Short stories, lots of abandoned novels, some poetry.

It was 1996 when I decided to have a serious go at writing a full-length novel. I chose to follow Harry Crews’ model for a first time book: take a favourite novel (Harry Crews: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, Ken Preston: On the Beach by Nevil Shute) and reduce it to facts and figures, to numbers and statistics. How many scenes? How many characters? How many chapters, words, paragraphs? How many scenes set outside? How many in hotel rooms? How many major characters?

You get the picture.

Then, taking the template you now have, you rebuild it with your own story. By Harry Crews’ own admission what you end up with is a terrible novel, but you will have had an invaluable lesson in how to write one.

So that’s what I did, and by the time I had finished I had a novel. And it wasn’t very good. But it was a novel, damn it. And it was mine. Encouraged, I wrote a second one. And that one wasn’t very good either.

[Note from Nick: This is EXACTLY what I did for my first novel. And, yeah, it sucked. But the second, third, and fourth ones got a lot better. For more on “how to write a novel the right way, first time” check out our ultimate guide right here]

 

 

But it was better.

By the time I had finished my third novel (it’s 2003 now and my wife and I have a little baby boy and life is full of nappies and feeds and sterilising bottles and sleeplessness) I felt it was time to approach an agent.

The first agent I sent it out to kept it for a long time, but they were making encouraging noises, so that was good.  Finally they got back to me with a rejection, but possibly the nicest rejection in the world, and certainly the nicest rejection I have ever had. They said it wasn’t right for them but, amongst other nice things, they said it deserves to be published.

Wow. You can probably guess what happened next. I was convinced I would find an agent very soon, probably the very next one I approached, and I would be published and famous and rich in no time at all.

Well, approximately twenty rejection slips later, many of them a badly photocopied pro forma with Dear Author hand scribbled at the top, I’d had that idea knocked out of me for good.

Anyway, let’s fast forward a few years to the arrival of the Kindle and the revolution in publishing that accompanied it. I had continued writing and submitting work and even dabbled in a bit of self-publishing in paperback form. But now, with this new way of publishing, it seemed success might finally be mine. So I signed up to KDP and published a couple of books and stories and waited for the royalties to start flooding in.

 

 

Which, of course, they didn’t.

Late in 2012 I decided to try my hand at writing a romantic thriller for the My Weekly range of Pocket Novels. Printed small they are designed to fit into women’s handbags and are published every two weeks.

Now, I normally write horror, supernatural thrillers and YA. I’m not a natural fit for writing a romance. Or so I thought.

Turns out you can write pretty much anything you want if you work hard enough at it.

January 2013 I received an acceptance email, and I was paid a modest fee for the first publication rights. It wasn’t exactly how I had imagined it, but I was a published author at last! I should have been happy.

I wasn’t.

By this point my mental and emotional deterioration was accelerating. I was still managing to hide it, even from myself to a certain extent, but I was in a bad way.

Let’s flash forward to that doctor’s office again. He asked questions, and he listened. He gently persuaded me to go on antidepressants, registered me for counselling sessions and signed me off work for two weeks.

 

 

Two weeks turned into six months.

Six months in which I could barely function, and I couldn’t write a shopping list let alone a novel. That’s when I hit rock bottom.

I spent my days lying in bed, or sitting in the lounge with my head in my hands, wondering if the multi-story car park in town was high enough to kill me if I stepped off it. I even ran away from my family, booking myself into a youth hostel in Cornwall, believing they would be better off without me.

But, after those first few months when I plummeted so low and deep I thought I would never find my way back again, I started my counselling sessions.

And I started digging into my family history. Turns out it is full of mental illness, drug abuse, suicide, and violence. I’m not going to go into all that here. That’s a post (or even a book) for another day.

What I want to focus on is this: All my childhood I had been raised to believe that ‘people like us’ would never amount to much. That creativity in any form was ‘strange’. That I should simply do my best to fit in, do nothing to stand out, to be noticed, do everything in my power to hide.

And those instructions followed me, even when I became an adult and moved over a hundred miles away from family and started my own life, met a wonderful girl and got married, and had two amazing boys.

 

 

This shit stays with you.

All those rules I had been taught as a child were the exact opposite of what I should be doing. That ‘people like us’ can achieve whatever we put our minds to. That creativity is not ‘strange’ but the norm, and should be encouraged, that in fact it is a vital part of living. And that I should do my best to NOT fit in, that I should do everything I can to stand out, to be noticed, do everything in my power to not hide.

Recovery from depression is a slow, difficult process. It is a rocky path through a land of mountains and valleys, of standing on high peaks bathed in sunshine and the most spectacular view in the world laid out before you, of knowing, really knowing, that everything now makes sense, that you got this.

And then it is days, weeks and months of fighting through stinking swamps in dark valleys with monsters lurking in the shadows, waiting for you to fall so they can pounce and devour you.

And these monsters, they whisper at you, You’re not good enough, You’re a waste of space, Why are you even bothering, you will only fail and embarrass yourself and everybody will laugh at you.

But if you keep going, keep doing the right things, you start frequenting those valleys less, and the higher ground more.

Living with depression and low self-esteem in a creative industry is hard. If you’re going to succeed, you need to be out there, getting noticed, saying this, this is my work and I believe it has value. But for someone with low self-esteem in particular, having the courage to stand up and say ‘Hey, look at me!’ is difficult, if not impossible. And then dealing with the inevitable rejection and whilst creating more work, which will also most likely be rejected, can be one more mountain too many to climb.

It’s far easier to give up at this point than to carry on.

 

 

So how do I do it?

How do I keep going? Well, before I talk about that, the first and most important thing I need to say is this: If you suspect you may be depressed, if you are going through tough emotional times and have been for a while, if life has lost any joy it once had and you are dealing with mental and emotional issues that are affecting your life and your relationships, you need to see a professional. Go to your doctor, talk to someone, someone you trust. Get help.

You are not alone. And you will get better.

Having done that, how do you deal with the day-to-day business of being a writer, of having the confidence to stand up and be noticed, to put yourself in the best place possible to making that dream of a full time writing career possible?

You say ‘Yes.’

You say ‘Yes’ to that idea for a novel you’ve been meaning to work on for the last couple of years. You say ‘Yes’ to doing the work that matters. You say ‘Yes’ to the possibility of failure.

And you will fail. That’s fine. That’s more than fine, it’s good. Failure is to be embraced like a dear friend. Because it is only by failing at something that we will learn how to get back up and try again, but this time do it better.

In the five years since I walked into my doctor’s consulting room and burst into tears, finally ready to ask for help I should have asked for years before, I have written and published fourteen books.

 

 

Some of them even sell.

I have become a regular on the local open mic circuit and co-host one in Birmingham city centre (TILT Cafe/Bar on the first Wednesday of every month, 6:30 start, it would be lovely to see you there!).

I have been into schools and run sessions on creative writing.

I have spoken at a black tie charity dinner on the same bill as Sunday Times best-selling thriller author Gillian McAllister.

I am employed by Writing West Midlands to lead one of their Spark Young Writers’ groups, delivering creative writing sessions once a month to teenagers.

Writing West Midlands also asked me to go on an expense’s paid trip to Italy for a conference, and they paid me a fee for going too.

I lead an after school creative writing club for years five and six at a local primary school every Tuesday during term time.

I have a second creative writing club at a high school starting in September. I have a meeting scheduled this month to talk about leading creative writing groups in a prison.

And on 7th September I will be walking out of my place of work for the final time and earning a living as a full-time writer.

And all this because I continued, and will continue, to say ‘Yes.’

I’ll admit to you now, it’s not easy sometimes, saying ‘Yes.’ Especially at first. It’s scary. Let me tell you something.

 

 

Scary is good.

Those fluttering of nerves mean you’re stepping into deeper water. David Bowie’s advice for making art was, you need to get into the water and keep going until you get to the point where your feet are not quite touching the ground. That’s the point at which you will do the work that matters.

That’s where you learn to swim. Say ‘Yes’ to the things you can’t do yet. That’s the only way you will learn how to do them.

And you will meet people too, online and offline. And as you meet more people, your world will expand and more opportunities will come your way, and you will get to say ‘Yes’ more and more.

Professor Richard Wiseman in his book, The Luck Factor, talks about the science behind being lucky, and how you can increase your own good luck.

It basically boils down to this: People who get out there and create a wide network of friends and contacts are far luckier than people who spend all their time in their own home and know very few people.

[Note from Nick: Building a professional network of authors is one of the most powerful things you can do to build your experience, confidence, and exposure – find out how to build your own “dream team” right here]

Yes, I know, we’re writers. We’re never happier than when we’re inside, on our own, right?

Another book I recommend you check out is Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers. This is where I first truly learnt the concept of the value in saying ‘Yes.’

It’s natural to be scared of the unknown, of taking a risk. All those successful authors you look up to? They had to feel the fear and do it anyway.

 

 

Turns out they are ‘people like us’ too.

I’m going to let you into a secret here. Some days when I wake up my natural response is to say ‘No,’ and pull the bed sheets over my head and hide.

Just as I was taught, all those years ago. Like I said, this shit stays with you. But I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I get up and I say ‘Yes.’

And I’m having the time of my life.

 

Ken Preston is an author, creative writing teacher, speaker and blogger. He is the author of fourteen novels and many short stories, and has been published by DC Thompson and Ulverscroft, two of the biggest publishers in the UK. Ken regularly runs writing workshops for both adults and children, and is employed by Writing West Midlands to run one of their Spark Young Writers’ groups for school years 7 to 12. He is also a creative writing workshop leader at HM Prison Birmingham.

Ken co-hosts a monthly open mic session at TILT Café/Bar in Birmingham and is a regular himself on the open mic scene, and speaks at charity dinners and universities. Ken Preston lives in the West Midlands with his wife, two sons, and their two cats.

For more information on Ken and his books visit – kenpreston.co.uk

For information on Ken’s creative writing workshops, visit – kenprestonpublishing.com

And now we want to hear from you – let us know in the comments: “What obstacles have you overcome to hit your goals? What everyday struggles do you have to face that get in the way of building your business?” Leave a comment below!

 

 

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Ivan BacicKen PrestonHelen T-bUrsula BurgerCatherine Green Recent comment authors
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Zarayna Pradyer
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Zarayna Pradyer

Just a quick thank you, Ken. Always enjoy reading about everyone’s journey – invariably one learns something new, insightful and/or useful.
So glad you have powered through and have found your path which I do hope is more scenic, and a bit smoother, than the one you have already travelled.
Well done you!
I guess we all have a back story but, unfortunately, I am still working on my front one.
Thus, I have nothing to share, but I didn’t want that to stop me from wishing you much further success.
Good writing, my friend.
Zara. xxx

Christine Brooks
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Christine Brooks

Good on you Ken. You’ve dropped odd lines occasionally saying you have problems, but there’s nothing like ‘going for it’ to improve your state of mind. Good luck!

Duncan Ralston
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Duncan Ralston

Hey, Ken! Great article! Glad you pulled yourself out of the muck! And of course you know I love your books. 🙂

Carron
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Carron

Ken, thank you so much for sharing your troughs, marsh, valleys and mountains. I feel so much more encouraged to continue learning this craft of creative writing. Ive been in those suicidal lows and also grown and come up towards the mountains. I’ll keep on writing and learning. One day…

Ken Preston
Guest
Ken Preston

Hi Zara,
Thanks for your comment. You’ll get there, we’re all on the same journey really, not just through writing but through life. 🙂
Do you read James Clear’s blog? He’s got a good one up today about Absolute Success versus Relative Success.
Google him, he’s an interesting guy.
Good luck with all your endeavors!

Lori Lacefield
Guest
Lori Lacefield

Hi Ken, Thank you for sharing your story. I, too, have suffered from depression at different times of my life and the first time I reached out to get help was 20 years ago. She recommended that little book The Artist’s Way, and it really began to change my thinking. Being a creative is OK. Who knew? Certainly not I. I was told you couldn’t make a living doing such things and I’d better get a real job. Except all those real jobs have given me nothing but ensuing bouts of unhappiness and depression. It’s been an up and down… Read more »

Wendy
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Wendy

I’ve been working on a book for two years. First, my first client (he wrote a 914-page novel longhand) died while I was taking time from my book to work on his book. Then my father died. Then my sister had a house fire and lived with us until her insurance found her a temporary home (since I work mostly late at night, this put a crimp into my schedule). Then I screwed up the layout of my book trying to insert a picture, hit “revert” figuring it would go back to the last time I hit “CTRL S,” and… Read more »

Wendy
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Wendy

P.S. I also paint. Partially as illustrations for my books, partially with the intent of being at least semi-pro. Everyone says my work is “so beautiful” but no one has money to spare/space on their walls. So the paintings pile up and my family treats them as a hobby (i.e. something where keeping them from turning into “clutter” is more important than actually making a bit of profit).

Amy Maroney
Guest
Amy Maroney

Thanks so much for your honesty, Ken. Your story is inspiring on many levels. Congratulations on your successes and good luck with all your future endeavors! I enjoyed working with you on our Facebook live experiment — another great example of saying “yes” to something that creates positive new connections.

Jane Ann McLachlan
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Jane Ann McLachlan

Good for you, Ken! I grew up in a supportive family that encouraged my writing but it’s still a hard, and often discouraging path to making a living at it.

Michelle Webb
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Michelle Webb

Thanks for sharing, Ken. The fact you have forced yourself to keep going and to beat ‘this thing’ is remarkable. Congratulations. For me, the timing of this email was perfect. There’s a lot going on in my life at the moment and hearing your story has made a difference. Thank you.

Leanna Englert
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Leanna Englert

Ken, your journey is such a testament to the value of doing the hard work and getting the help you need. I published my debut novel last year, having started it in 1993. I’d been struggling with alcoholism, got sober in 1995, and thought things would look up. But facing reality was like throwing gasoline on the fires of depression and self-loathing. I’ve come through it, and today I’m enjoying writing a new book. Thank you for sharing your story.

Will Patching
Guest
Will Patching

Brilliant, insightful article Ken. Good on you for ploughing through those troughs. I’ve had a rubbish year but things are starting to look up too. Thanks for the excellent words and for sharing your encouraging story.

Barbara
Guest
Barbara

I will agree. Depression is something which can disable you to the point of incapacitating you. Been there. Done that. I discovered the “i think i can” works. Luckily, my depression has been under control for a few years. As to what I have overcome: The ‘I”m not good enough” syndrome. And “Everyone one else is better than me” thoughts. Right now, I’m pushing through those and working on getting my marketing plan together so I can see a few books. I’ve had multiple people who have read them and keep asking when my next one is coming out, so… Read more »

Keshav Sharma
Guest
Keshav Sharma

Thanks for sharing your personal experience. As an author I can relate to it. I, myself, have been through such phase and sometimes I still go through it. But as you said, it’s a rocky path and deep waters. Accepting failure and learning from them, that’s how we grow.

Denise Kawaii
Guest
Denise Kawaii

Thank you so much for sharing this journey. Mine has been difficult in its own way (I think everyone’s is), and it’s encouraging to know that someone out there made it even when battling such stacked odds. I similarly broke down in a doctor’s office two years ago and have been working on building myself back up from rock bottom. It’s been a slow ride, but right now things are looking bright. Keep inspiring!

Ken
Guest
Ken

Hi Christine,
Thanks. 🙂
And yes, positive, forward motion is good for getting out of a rut of negativity. On my bad days (and thankfully they are a lot less now) I just think to myself, ‘Okay, so I feel like crap. Even so I might as well write. Whether I feel happy or bad it doesn’t matter, at least I will have written something.’

Ken
Guest
Ken

Hi Duncan!
Thanks, you’re too kind. 🙂

Ken
Guest
Ken

Hi Carron, yes, keep going!
As a friend of mine once said to me when I was wondering about the validity of what I was doing: Just keep on kicking ass!
Keep writing, keep learning.
Good luck. 🙂

Ken Preston
Guest
Ken Preston

Hi Lori,
I’ve never heard of The Artist’s Way, I will have to look it up. There is a thought now that one of the (many) reasons people can become depressed is through being in an unfulfilling career. I suppose people need meaning in their lives, and pursuing a creative career can be one way of finding that meaning.
Thanks for commenting. 🙂

Catherine Green
Guest
Catherine Green

Hi Ken, thank you for sharing your story. While I have never suffered from depression, I do experience dips in mood, especially since having children. Just last week I was ready to pack in my writing and “get a proper job.” My dad casually told me I should never have quit my proper job several years ago, and you can imagine how helpful that comment was. Anyway, one of your quotes jumped out at me: This is my work and I believe it has value. Yes I do. I am preparing to publish the fifth book in a series, I… Read more »

Ursula Burger
Guest
Ursula Burger

I got fired from a job, after being constantly harrassed for 4 years. During that work time, I quit gardening, riding my horse, or working with my animals. I started sleeping 20 hours a day on my days off. I would get up to feed the animals, grab a bite, and go back to bed. It finally got to the point of spending MONTHS trying to decide where I should drive to blow my brains out. Shit happened and my supervisors were demoted. I wrote my 1st picture book because I started thriving under the new boss. He got fired… Read more »

Ivan Bacic
Guest
Ivan Bacic

Thanks a lot for sharing your story. I’ve been struggling with writing my second novel for 5 years. I think that I was living in fear of failing to deliver something better than the first one, even though the my first novel didn’t have any success.

Ken Preston
Guest
Ken Preston

Hi Ivan. I think it is easy to aim for perfection sometimes because perfection can never be reached, which means we never have to hit publish. Good enough is often the perfect outcome to aim for sometimes. Good luck.

Ivan Bacic
Guest
Ivan Bacic

I think you’re right. I’ve never looked at this issue as a perfectionist’s trap. Thanks

Helen T-b
Guest
Helen T-b

Hi Ken, I love that book, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’. Just the having it on my shelf is a reminder. After my third child I had a brush with depression and my little boy was – just the best. It went undetected for six months, but the fits of laughter and giggling were extreme. (I know – trust me to be different.) Anyhow, I got through it in my own weird way. My GP didn’t know quite what to make of it. Lol! Bless him! I’d lost me, in having kids and as a stay home mum,… Read more »

Ken Preston
Guest
Ken Preston

Hi Helen, thank you for commenting. I used to keep that book by my bedside for years after I first read it and I would dip into it sometimes. I’m so glad you got through to the other side of your depression too. Keep writing, keep learning, keep working on it! 🙂

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