How can we overcome self-doubt to write the books we really want to? How can we move past writer's block? How can we reshape our definition of success and return to the joy of writing? Dharma Kelleher talks about the author mindset and more.
In the intro, Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter, Bookstore consolidation [The Guardian]; Amazon closes bookstores and a thought experiment about what else they might do [Digital Trends]; Pen-names [6 Figure Authors]; Wise for business multicurrency income [Wise affiliate link];
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Dharma Kelleher is the author of crime and action-adventure thrillers featuring queer women across three different series. She's also the author of Breakthrough, Overcoming Creative Self-Doubt, Writer's Block, and Imposter Syndrome.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- From traditional publishing to indie
- Addressing low self-esteem and imposter syndrome as writers
- Writing with beginner's mind
- Getting past writer’s block
- Learning to accept our imperfections
- Finding the joy in writing again
- Balancing self-care with getting things done
- Writing in an era of ‘cancel culture’
- How to write about characters outside your lived experience
- Is success a delusion?
You can find Dharma Kelleher at DharmaKelleher.com and on Twitter @zenpunkdharma
Transcript of Interview with Dharma Kelleher
Joanna: Dharma Kelleher is the author of crime and action-adventure thrillers featuring queer women across three different series. She's also the author of Breakthrough, Overcoming Creative Self-Doubt, Writer's Block, and Imposter Syndrome. Welcome, Dharma.
Dharma: Thank you so much for having me. I've been a fan of the show almost since the beginning, so, it's such an honor to be here.
Joanna: Oh, thank you. I'm excited to talk to you.
First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and the indie world.
Dharma: I started writing fiction back in the late '70s. I was a teenager at the time, writing on a manual typewriter. I kid you not, it was a manual typewriter. I just played around with it for several years through high school, college.
And then life issues got in the way and I came out as transgender. And so, I spent a few decades, basically, dealing with that and the fallout from that and just trying to rebuild my life.
Then, in 2007, someone mentioned to me something about National Novel Writing Month. And I'm like, ‘What is this?' And, so, I got excited, I was like, ‘Hey, I could start writing again.' Because at the time I had quit my day job to take care of my in-laws, they were elderly and they needed some help. So, I had some extra time on my hands, so I started doing that.
My first two books were published by Random House in 2016. And when they didn't renew the two-book deal…I've been a fan of your show for a few years by that time, and I'm like, ‘Well, maybe Joanna's on to something here.' So, I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to do this myself.' Eight books later, 10 books later…I've lost count at this point, so…
Joanna: That's fantastic. Tell us a bit more about your indie experience then. Because, obviously, you were traditional with those first books and then you had to learn all this new stuff and a lot of people coming out of traditional publishing at the moment really and trying to see what it's like.
Any thoughts on the transition from traditional to indie publishing?
Dharma: My goal was to put out books that were every bit as professional as the ones that Random House published. It's important to get a professional editor and to get a professional book cover designed. But there are so many wonderful tools out there.
I use Scrivener; I use Vellum; I use just all these really great tools. And actually, I've gotten to the point where I'm doing my own covers now just because I have some graphic-design background so I understand the principles and I understand the tropes of my genre, as far as covers go.
Joanna: And then the other thing that I feel people coming from traditional publishing don't quite understand is how the money works. Because, of course, with trad, you (usually) get paid upfront. Or maybe if you don't get paid upfront, you get royalties eventually.
Whereas indie, you have to pay some money upfront and you might get some every month, but it might be really small. How did you adjust to the way the money worked?
Dharma: Well, I wasn't getting a lot of money upfront, anyway. So, at least by doing it this way, I'm getting paid more regularly. Instead of quarterly, I'm getting paid monthly. So, it really wasn't that much of an adjustment.
Joanna: That's great to hear because I do say that to traditionally published authors.
Think of it more like a smaller monthly salary rather than, potentially, a bigger block all at once.
Dharma: Right, exactly. The contract that I signed with Random House, they were doing these ebook-only deals where there's no advance but you get 50% of the royalties. So, that wasn't really that much of an adjustment.
Joanna: Fair enough.
Dharma: It was less of a typical traditional publishing deal.
After so many novels, why did you decide to write Breakthrough, I think it's your first non-fiction, right?
Dharma: Yes, it is my first non-fiction book.
I kept seeing authors who were far more successful than I was struggling with impostor syndrome, they were just so frustrated with writing, they feel like their stuff was crap. And I'm like, ‘Wow, you're best sellers and you're making a living with your writing, you're getting these big publishing deals, and you feel like you're the imposter? Wait a minute.'
I struggled with low self-esteem from an early age, long before I even came out as transgender, so, I totally get that, just this nagging feeling that you're just not enough. When I came out as trans, I dealt with a lot of trauma, PTSD, depression, for a while some substance abuse.
I became a person that really hates to see other people suffering. It's just how I am. Because I know what it's like to deal with these things. It was one of the things that drew me to the practice of Buddhism, which I draw heavily on in the book, the chief tenant being the ending of suffering. And, especially with the pandemic, everybody's feeling it. I just wanted to help people enjoy writing again.
Joanna: Let's talk about that low self-esteem and the feeling of not being enough. And obviously, we'll try and keep it specifically to writing but, as you said, these things can spill over into your life. Or perhaps come from the rest of your life.
In terms of low self-esteem, the feeling of not enough, how do we address that as writers?
Dharma: We build up this sense that, to be a ‘real writer,' air quotes, is we have to be something that we're not, we have to be something different than what we are.
I came across a quote recently basically saying ‘we see our writing and it sounds like us' and it doesn't sound like Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer or whoever our favorite authors are, Elmore Leonard, but it sounds like us. And we feel like, because it sounds like us, it's somehow less than.
And really that's the juice, that's the stuff that makes it great is it's coming from our unique voice. One of the things we have to do is we have to start letting go of these markers of success as our sense of worth. ‘I'll be happy, as an author, my stuff will be good when I sell 100,000 copies or when I can quit my day job or when I win an award,' or whatever it is.
We think that's what makes us valid as authors. And even when we get that, it doesn't make us happy because it's just like, ‘Okay, but what happens next? Is my stuff still going to be good? Do I really deserve this award?' or whatever marker of success.
The joy comes back with really learning to enjoy the process of writing again.
If the other stuff happens, that's great, but we really have to focus on learning to enjoy our process.
Joanna: I totally agree and I feel like sometimes we get so bound up in all the other stuff, the marketing and ads and stuff. It's like, ‘Go back to the writing,' and that's a happy place.
As we're recording this, I'm recently back from New Zealand and I had jet lag and I'm awake at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. It's actually been brilliant because there's nothing else to do at that time of day except go back to the writing.
Dharma: At one time, we enjoyed the writing, no one forced us into it, I'm guessing. We did it because we enjoyed making up stories and making up characters and playing make-believe, playing, ‘What if there was this character who was dealing with this other situation and they needed this but this other thing was standing in their way?'
We had fun doing it before we knew all the rules about info dumps and point of view, and all this stuff. We just enjoyed telling stories. And if we can get back to that joy of, ‘I do care, I want it to succeed, I want the book to sell a lot of things, but more than anything else I just want to enjoy the process of writing.'
Joanna: That's where the self-validation comes from I think. I've actually gone back to sticker charts, which I used to do when I started writing, which is I write on my daily journal what I did and then I get a sticker if I did some actual first draft or editing process on a new book.
I'm really loving it again. Why did I stop doing sticker charts? You get to this point where you think, ‘Oh, that's childish,' or, ‘oh, I don't need that anymore.'
Dharma: You mentioned sometimes about the Clifton Strengths for Writers (episode with Becca Syme). And depending on your CliftonStrengths, that achievement marker or whatever, maybe that's what you need to help. But even just enjoying the process and just finding joy…I mean if the sticker charts help, absolutely, but just getting back to the enjoyment where writing is fun again. I don't know if you're familiar with the late painter Bob Ross?
Dharma: He had a show, here in the States, for a few decades called ‘The Joy of Painting.' And he's been satired and parodied many times but he's a white guy with this big afro, he's a very gentle Mr. Rogers kind of voice, he's always talking about happy mistakes and happy little trees and stuff like that.
He had a series called ‘The Joy of Painting,' it's on YouTube now, and he's says, ‘Don't worry about making the mistakes'.
We get hung up when we're writing a rough draft and it's like, ‘Oh, this is a shitty rough draft and this is garbage and this is…' Our original ideas aren't as refined as our later ideas but, if we just learn to enjoy writing rough drafts that are rough, then it's not as stressful and we can get some joy. Even when the writing doesn't come out perfectly polished in the rough draft.
Joanna: I want to come back, you said ‘things that sound like us,' or ‘our writing that sounds like us…'
Dharma: Yes. I found the quote that I was looking for. This is by an artist I saw on Twitter just the other day, it said, ‘People hate their own art because it looks like they made it. They think if they get better, it will stop looking like they made it, a better person made it. But there's no level of skill beyond which you stop being you. You hate the most valuable thing about your art.'
And that's from a woman named Elicia Donze. I read that just the other day and I'm like, ‘Yes, that is it.'
Joanna: That's absolutely right. I think that one of the problems is, at least in the early stages of writing, is finding what is your voice, what does sound like us versus practicing, and almost learning how to write in general, especially with fiction.
Desecration was my fifth novel but the first book where I really felt like, ‘That sounds like me.' And I'm going back and doing some rewrites, at the moment, of Stone of Fire, and it's so funny. That was my first novel, and I'm reading it going, ‘This doesn't actually sound like me. I can see a little bit of me in this but I know what I sound like now.'
How has your process of finding your voice worked and how can we learn to lean into that?
Dharma: Every book that we start, every book that I start, I don't know how I'm going to write it when I first start it. I'll do a little research on topics that need research but I just start exploring ideas and I brainstorm.
I accept ‘the beginner's mind'. I don't know how to tell this story because no one's told it before. We're not making widgets. So, there's no right or wrong way to do it. I accept what's the Buddhist call ‘the beginner's mind.'
I accept that I will make mistakes and that it is okay, that creativity is an iterative and it's a messy process. I've learned to trust that, ‘Okay, my rough draft will be rough and, when I revise it, it'll be a little bit better. And when I revise it a little bit more, it'll be a little bit better.'
I can accept that that is the process that every one of my stories has taken. And I don't have to beat myself up about any of the imperfections.
Now, at the same time, I hold myself to an editorial standard. I will work on a story until I feel it's a professional story. I hire professional editors to help me with that. But one of the things that I do is I use affirmations or meditations.
If I've got some of the shame, the self-doubt that's creeping up, I say, ‘I'm willing to let this go. I'm willing to see things differently.' And these are some of the things that I share in the book. I don't know how to see it differently, I don't know what seeing it differently will look like or will feel like but I'm willing to see it differently,
I'm willing to see my work differently. I'm willing to see my process differently. And this willingness opens up the door to a new perspective, a new experience of the writing process.
Joanna: I use affirmations too. And one of them on my wall is ‘Trust emergence.' Which it's almost an affirmation, more like a statement.
When you feel like I really don't know what's going on, I trust that something will emerge at some point.
Dharma: Yes. Because no one knows how it's going to turn out.
When Stephen King, or Margaret Atwood, or whoever, Neil Gaiman, when we all start a story, we don't know what it's going to look like because we're not making widgets. The story will emerge. Not fully formed but it will emerge as a process.
It can be different for everybody. Some people are going to be organic writers, some are going to be outliners, and some of us are a hybrid in between. But we have our own process. And if we allow it to evolve, if we allow the story to evolve naturally and emerge, as you say, the process itself becomes more enjoyable and we don't stress ourselves about, ‘What is it? How am I going to make it work?' I just trust that, when I do it, it works.
Joanna: You talk about writer's block in the book, and people have different opinions on writer's block, but let's say we're trying to trust emergence, we're trying to relax into our process and nothing's coming.
How do we know when we are blocked? How does that feel and how can we get past it?
Dharma: I think writer's block generally falls under two categories. One is we're just burned out, we haven't been filling the creative well. We're trying to be one of these rapid-release authors, putting out a book every month.
Some people can do that without getting burned out but sometimes life gets in the way and we don't give ourselves time to relax, we don't give ourselves time to enjoy reading or watching television or movies or just filling up that creative well.
If we keep churning and don't fill up that creative well, it's going to get empty, and then we're going to say, ‘I don't have any more ideas. I have no idea what to write.'
The other type of writer's block is we're just so stressed about getting it wrong. I know writers that really knock it out of the park, right out of the gate, and then they have that sophomore syndrome where, ‘Okay, I was a million-dollar best seller with book number one. Now, what am I going to do?' But even if you weren't, it's just like, ‘Okay, I published a book once, now I'm afraid of getting it wrong.'
We get so worried about, ‘Okay, no info dumps. Okay, this first chapter, this first page, this first paragraph has to be perfect,' and we forget that, when we were writing the first one, it wasn't perfect, we just have to allow the rough drafts to be rough. And we have to allow our stories to be imperfect.
Creation is messy. I'll come along and say, ‘I thought the story was going to go this way but, upon further reflection, as I've gotten further into the story, as I've gotten to know these characters better in this particular situation, I think it would work better…'
Our better ideas usually come a little bit later anyway and we realize it's okay if the not-so-good ideas come first. We can put them on paper and then we can allow ourselves to get better ideas as we go along, and trust emergence, as you say, trust that the better stuff will naturally emerge, as we go along the process of creating the story.
Joanna: And also, across your author career.
I was thinking about sometimes there's a feeling of being blocked because the project is too ambitious or you're not ready for it yet.
Dharma: You're not ready, absolutely. It's funny that you mentioned that because, before I started writing Breakthrough, I was working on the story that I'm working on now. Actually, I was working on the one that I just turned to my editors. And I wasn't feeling it. It wasn't coming, and I'm like, ‘Okay, so, maybe I'll start something else,' because I just wasn't ready, for whatever reason, I wasn't ready to write it.
That's when I got the idea for writing Breakthrough, non-fiction, sort of like, ‘I've never written a non-fiction story or a non-fiction book.' To tackle this topic of dealing with self-doubt…because I'm not a therapist, I'm not a coach, I'm not a guru, I don't have a doctoral degree or a master's degree or anything like that, I'm just a writer in the trenches.
I'm just sharing what's worked for me and what I have found works for other people. And I might have gotten it wrong too. What I share in the book may not work for everybody.
All this self-doubt started coming up when I was writing Breakthrough. And I realized, ‘That's okay, I'm just telling my truth. I'm just sharing what's worked for me. And if it works for you, great. And if it doesn't work for you…heck, if you want a refund, I'll give you a refund.'
I learned to accept the imperfections. And I think that can be a big step for a lot of authors is realize that no book is going to be perfect. There are going to be people that are going to say, ‘I know everybody else likes it but this didn't jazz for me'. And every book gets one-star reviews. Every book.
If you realize that there is no perfect book, there is no perfect way of telling a book, then we can allow ourselves to sit down in the mud and just accept the imperfections of the story and still do our best to make it as professional and as entertaining as we can but realize it doesn't have to be perfect. Because there is no perfect.
Joanna: I think it's interesting because we have to…and this is a very difficult thing that's come up a lot in the pandemic, which is we have to balance our self-care and our mental health.
But we're also writers, we're professional writers or aiming to be professional writers, in that, we want to put out a professional product, even if we don't make a living this way. At some point, there has to be some sort of tough love. Some, ‘Okay, it's all right to feel self-doubt. It's all right to feel that things are difficult but then buck up and do the writing and get the edits and learn these lessons.'
How do we balance that self-care with actually getting on with the writing?
Dharma: I found that there's so many ways that we can work through this. And different tools work for different people.
Affirmations, meditations. Just being in the moment, being present. You share a lot of tools yourself in The Healthy Writer and The Relaxed Author, and we have to become willing to take care of ourselves, to nurture our psyche.
I find that, if we do that, if we find that we're in an okay place, it's easier to tackle the other challenges of dealing with the edits or dealing with, ‘Okay, I've got to meet this deadline'. I was struggling to meet this last deadline but I said, ‘It's okay, I'm going to take care,' and you just make the best choices.
My philosophy is start with love. Start with love and that will give you the stability to tackle the hard things. I know that sounds very woo-woo, very Buddhist, very touchy-feely, but I find that it's true. If we can find that emotional stability, take care of ourselves and start with love, the other stuff…we'll find that strength to tackle the hard stuff.
Joanna: You mean love for ourselves and love for the writing?
Dharma: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Joanna: I guess, in a way, love's a difficult word, but some kind of feeling. And let's use ‘love' for our readers, for those people who receive our work. I feel like it's so important in our writing.
Obviously, we don't need to think about readers when we're writing because we're just writing our thing and we're doing our stuff. But equally, we create a professional finished product and we do marketing because we want readers to enjoy our work or find our work useful.
I like having positive energy throughout the process.
Dharma: Yes, absolutely. Because when we get that one-star review from a reader on Amazon or we get a review from a professional editorial review that calls us out on something…
I remember the first time I got a negative review, when I was with Random House, and I went crying to my agents. The reviewer was saying something stupid, like, ‘Oh, there's just too many gay characters,' or something. ‘Oh my God, did I make a mistake?' And she said, ‘No, it's fine. That just didn't connect with that reader. It's okay, you're doing good stuff.' I'm like, ‘Oh, okay.'
Joanna: People won't always like what we write.
Dharma: Exactly. I take a very serious political stance, a very liberal progressive stance in my writing because that's where I'm coming from. I write about a lot of social-justice issues in my crime thrillers, as do a number of authors. Especially authors of color and LGBT authors because we've had to deal with these issues in our lives. And, so, my books are not for everybody.
Joanna: Let's talk about that then. Because, obviously, you've mentioned you're transgender, you write queer characters. And many authors would like to include more diversity in their books.
I write characters of color, I write characters of different sexualities, but let's face it, right now it's a very difficult culture of offense and cancelling.
And a lot of people are afraid of cancel culture and they feel like maybe it's just better not to say anything or maybe just not get involved, not write it. What should we do?
Dharma: I hear this term about cancel culture and everything like that. And usually, when this canceling occurs, it's when people have intentionally written things that are harmful to marginalized people. There are some other situations of course.
Basically, if we're writing a character that is outside of our lived experience, it's very helpful, first of all, to do some research about people who have that lived experience and to take more than just a token effort in doing it, like, ‘Oh, I'm just going to name this character such and such and I'm going to put in all these stereotypes about what I think people like that do or are.'
We have to be mindful of not causing harm to people in marginalized cultures. I am happy when non-transgender or cisgender authors write trans characters but I encourage them to do some research. There's a documentary, I think it's on HBO or Netflix, called ‘Disclosure' that talks about how transgender characters have been depicted in cinema over the decades. And you can learn a lot from that by becoming aware of what not to do.
Beyond that, making your characters that are outside your lived experience three-dimensional. That one aspect of that character's life, whether they're trans or they're a person of color or they're an immigrant or whatever it is, that shapes their experience but it doesn't define who they are.
One of the things that I came across reading stories about transgender characters is, especially in crime fiction, they're either the sex worker, they're the murder victim, they're the comic relief. And that doesn't describe the lived experience of the vast majority of people who are trans. Most of us are not sex workers and most of us are not murder victims. Although these are issues that we've had to deal with in our community.
If you try to make the characters more three-dimensional, then you run into fewer problems.
Also, once you've written your story, get some input from, what's called, a sensitivity reader. The goal of a sensitivity reader isn't, ‘Don't say anything that'll ruffle feathers,' but it's rather pointing out things that, ‘Okay, this issue could potentially cause harm. This reinforces a harmful stereotype that is not really true, not really authentic to our lived experience,' and making suggestions, like, ‘You might want to try this instead so that it still works in the story but presents a more authentic experience to the reader.'
I've worked as a sensitivity reader for other authors and I've hired sensitivity readers. I wrote a character that turned out to be intersex, in one of my stories, and I hired a couple of sensitivity readers who are intersex to make sure that the experience that I explained came across as authentic.
When we're looking about authenticity, when you write stories about police procedurals, it's a good idea to get input from retired cops or retired FBI agents, or whatever, to make sure that the story that we're telling is authentic, that the characters sound authentic.
Joanna: Where have you hired sensitivity readers from? Have you got any resources you recommend where people can go?
Dharma: I just put it out on, like, social media saying, ‘Hey, I'm an author, I'm writing a character with this lived experience. Can anybody put me in touch with someone that has this lived experience so that I can connect with them and make sure that this works?'
There used to be a website that had a database for sensitivity readers with different experiences, and I don't think that's around anymore.
Joanna: I actually like what you did, I've done that too. And in fact, I normally find readers from my community, people of color, for example. Or I had a Maori guy read Risen Gods. These things where the person reading is not actually a writer because, from that person, you don't necessarily want comments on anything else other than that particular side of things. You don't want proofreading notes or anything, you just want more character notes I guess.
Dharma: Exactly. You can learn a lot from videos on YouTube. There are a lot of people with particular experiences sharing their stories on YouTube. I find that that's a good place to start as well.
Joanna: And let's be clear, we're not just talking about sexuality or gender, it's also religion, it's also the culture you're from, and there are so many ways.
But equally, as writers, especially as fiction writers, we want to write other cultures, other people because it's about empathy and we actually learn by writing other people's experience. We do want more diverse books, don't we?
Dharma: Absolutely. We really do.
Joanna: No, fantastic. All right, changing tack again, I want to come back to something that you said in the book, which is ‘Success is a delusion.'
What do you mean by ‘Success is a delusion,' and how should we be measuring our progress?
Dharma: There's this tendency to think that, ‘I will be a success when I achieve certain markers.' Like, ‘When I sell X number of books, when I make X number of dollars, or pounds or euros in a year, when I win an award, I'll be a ‘real author.'
We think that we'll be happy with ourselves and with our author career when that happens. And there often tends to be a sense of letdown when we get that and then it's like, ‘I don't feel any different.' ‘Well, then maybe I didn't really earn that?'
It's this delusion that, ‘Everything will be okay when I reach these things.' And there's a Buddhist saying that says, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.' Because we're still the same authors, whether we achieve these markers of success or not.
They're great, they're fun. And it's great to be able to quit your day job or to win an award and say, ‘I am an award-winning writer,' or whatever it is. That's fun but it doesn't change your author journey to the extent that we would like it to believe. It won't make us happy if we're not already happy.
That's why I call it a delusion, that's like, ‘I'll be happy when I do this.' Well, here's an idea, be happy now. Enjoy what you're doing. Because nobody's making you do it. No one is forcing you to write stories.
If you're a full-time author and you find that you're getting miserable doing it and you're burned out, maybe it's time to go back to get a day job or something if it's really stressing you out or really burning you out. It's a hard thing to do.
In a few hours, I'm going for a new job interview that I really hope I get. And looking for a job is no fun, I grant you that, especially if you've been writing full time for a while. But, I've read a number of stories about authors who've been full-time for many years and they had to go back to getting a day job because they couldn't afford to do it full-time anymore. And that's okay.
Joanna: And importantly there, and what you're saying is that doesn't make you any less of a success. We mustn't equate full-time writing with success. No, totally. Yes, for me, I hated my day job. And to be honest, I couldn't possibly do what I used to do anymore. I could get a different job but I agree with you.
Also I'm a goal setter. I need to measure success in some way. So, if we accept that the goalpost will always move.
Dharma: Yes, exactly. That's what I was trying to say. We'll always be…'Okay, all right, I quit my day job but I haven't done this thing, I haven't done this other thing,' and we kept pushing the goal post further and further down the line saying, ‘I'll be happy when…'
Joanna: I think on the opposite end of the scale is almost the…my friend Sarah accused me of this the other day, she said, ‘You never stop to celebrate what you have achieved.' But I think because, as indies by the time one book goes out, we're working on the next one. We don't have that launch party that a lot of traditionally-published authors have.
Maybe we need to actually celebrate success more or celebrate our wins along the way.
Dharma: Yes, toot your own horn or someone else will use it for a spittoon. Absolutely.
Joanna: I think we need to do both. Like we need to both not measure success but also celebrate success.
Dharma: Yes, absolutely. Celebrate your successes but don't base your happiness on those.
Joanna: No, that is excellent. And a good way to end.
Where can people find you and all your books online?
Dharma: You can learn more about me and purchase my books at my website, dharmakelleher.com. And my books are also available on most retailers in ebook and print format. You can connect with me on Facebook and on Twitter.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, darling. That was great.
Dharma: Thank you for having me. Thank you.