Small Word Count Goals

Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.

Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:

For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.

Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.

At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which made me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.

Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.

But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.

At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)

On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.

The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.

At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.

What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.

Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.

The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.

Enter Scrivener

I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.

If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:

Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:

ProjectTargets

The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.

The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!

To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.

To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.

You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.

Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.

Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.

Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!

Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.

  1. Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury []
  2. Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were. []
  3. Days I don’t write don’t count. []

Selling Yourself Online

Seems to me to be bleeding obvious that tweeting and facebooking and blogging and whatever other social media is the flavour du jour do not automatically equal vastly increased sales. Of any kind. But I’ll talk about books that being what I am in the business of selling.

So I agree with Nick Earls’ post about how social media works for us author types. Except I don’t have a cat and have never had a cat and will never have a cat.1

Loads of authors are being told that they MUST tweet, blog, facebook, tumblr, whatever. Because if you do not have a social media platform NOT ONE BOOK OF YOURS WILL SELL EVER. And they freak out and do it and notice they have hardly any followers and no one’s clicking on the buy links and it’s not working and clearly their career will be a total failure and AAARRGH.

Here’s everything I know about authors promoting books via social media:2

No one knows how to sell books. Not for sure. Not online and not offline.

Many books have had the full weight of their publisher behind them, big publicity budget, huge tour, saturation marketing online and off—the works—and died on their arse. Or, sold well below expectations.3

It’s really easy to look at, say, Hunger Games and declare, “Of course it did well! Look at the promotional campaign behind it.” Sure. But what about all the other books who got the same or bigger campaigns and haven’t sold anywhere near as well?

Some books catch with the wider reading public. Some don’t. A big campaign behind your book sure does help but guarantees nothing. Unless that good old word of mouth takes off your book is not going to shift many units.4

There are also books that come out of nowhere and do really well. Most recently, Fifty Shade of Grey. When it was a self-published ebook—before mainstream publishers picked it up—there was no huge publicity campaign making it sell like hotcakes. Word of mouth did that magic.

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

Which means that publishers and publicists and authors tend to latch on to whatever they can in the hope that it will generate that blessed word of mouth. Telling authors that they should social media their little hearts out has the virtue of giving them something to do. Something that, occasionally, does work.

I know two authors for whom social media has been crucial to their success as writers: John Scalzi and John Green.

Data point: it helps to make it via social media as an author if your first name is JOHN! *considers changing name to John Larbalestier*

Obviously there are loads of writers who use social media really well who sell loads of books.

However, unlike the two Johns, I see no straight line between their use of social media and their sales. I reckon most of them would sell just as well if they had little online presence. Suzanne Collins certainly does. Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love sold stratospherically without either of them having much of an online presence and much of a publicity campaign on first publication.

And many of these successful authors were selling fabulously before social media existed. Most of their followers follow them because they are fans of their books. Not because they’re good at Twitter.

There are also many authors who are amazing at social media, have loads of followers, but don’t sell stratospherically. For some there seems to be an inverse proportion between their sales and their number of followers.

I follow heaps of writers whose books I’ve never bought. Just because I find their tweets witty and amusing doesn’t mean I’ll find the kinds of book they write appealing.

Plenty of people have told me they’ve bought my books because they’re enjoyed my blog or my tweets. Which is lovely. Yay! But I doubt they’re a big percentage of the people who buy my books. I’ve had many more people tell me they read my blog and/or tweets because they like my books.

I’m not saying having a social media presence doesn’t help. I’m sure it does. I’m just saying that there is not a direct impact on sales of books.

Selling Stratospherically

I think part of the problem is that all too many aspiring authors look at the success of a Suzanne Collins or an E. L. James and think that’s attainable for any author.

Um, no.

The vast majority of published authors do not make a living from writing books. I’m talking about novelists published by mainstream presses.5 Most writers have another job. Or supplement their novel writing income with school visits, teaching, other kinds of writing etc.

Most of us feel like we’re doing well if we can support ourselves from just writing novels. So the idea that if you only devoted more time to online marketing than you do to the actual writing you will become the next E. L. James is nutty.

Becoming an author to make bank is nutty. Social media’s not going to make it happen any more than any other form of marketing will. And the fact that it worked for one in a million6 doesn’t really prove the case.

So why social media?

I am not on Twitter because my publisher told me to be.

Okay, actually, I think I am. I was very resistant to Twitter at first. But a publisher said I should so I did. Even though they also told me I had to myspace7 and I hated it and gave it up pretty quickly. Or, at least, forgot about it. Perhaps that myspace page is still there. Is myspace still around?8

I digress.

I stayed on Twitter because it’s fun. It’s a great way to keep up with sport and politics. Especially women’s sport that mainstream news sources do such a terrible job of covering. I really enjoy tweeting with a wide range of people from all round the world about politics, sport, books, film, TV, publishing, random silly stuff. Worst place to get a mostquito bite? Your eyelids. Clearly.

I have come to love the brevity of Twitter. It certainly is way less tough on my RSI than blogging is.

It’s fun to field questions from fans. It makes my day when someone is excited that I followed them. Hey, I was dead excited when one of my favourite basketball players started following me. I so get it. Though perversely I hate being asked to follow people. I’ll follow you if I want to! Sheesh.

I was offline—not blogging and not tweeting much or anything—for almost a year. I saw no effect on my books sales. I came back to it partly because I had a new book out and felt I should. A lot of the publicity Team Human‘s publishers organised was online.

I found that I’d really missed blogging. Even though hardly anyone comments anymore. *pines for the old days* *is super grateful to those of you who do comment* *realises I don’t comment much on people’s blogs either* *shame spirals*

I digressed again! Sorry.

Has returning to the wonderful online world led to increased sales? I have no idea. Certainly it’s led to some. It’s been a useful way to let people know I have a new book out. Though I suspect my publishers’ efforts in getting advance copies of Team Human to book shops and libraries and other important places all over Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA has been even better at letting people know it exists. Their reach is way bigger than my reach.

Do I think social media is essential?9

If you have a well-known publisher behind you, who can get your book widely distributed and reviewed then, no, I don’t think it’s essential. Do it if you’re good at it and enjoy it. It will lead to some sales.

Don’t do it if it feels like a chore. If you resent it because it takes you away from writing. If you don’t enjoy it people can tell. Especially if your every tweet, blog post, facebook entry is about your book and where to buy it and how good it is and how we should all buy it. Don’t do that.

The audience for my blog before I stopped blogging was much bigger than it is now. You can build up an audience but it will vanish if you don’t keep feeding it. After a month back blogging those numbers are slowly growing again but they’re nowhere near where they used to be.

Those numbers, however, can be misleading. It’s easy to fall into thinking that there’s a correlation between visitors to your blog and sales of your books. Even though I had thousands of people visiting here daily back in 2009 I wasn’t selling thousands of books every day. I was selling around the same number of books per day as I am now with the much diminished blog audience.

Basically all my going away did was reduce the number of people who read my blog. Not the number who read my books.

The big effect of returning to blogging has been reigniting my love affair with blogging. *hugs blog*

In Conclusion

The link between online presence and books sales is a hard to prove. It depends on so much. We are still in the very early days of the online world. We’re all pioneers and early adopters and none of us really know how this is going to transform publishing. It’s like people driving in the 1920s. The new car-centred world hadn’t fully formed yet. Neither has the internet-shaped world of publishing.

Right now the people who are most successful at selling themselves online are the ones who do not seem to be selling themselves online. Neither of the Johns, Scalzi or Green, are standing up shouting BUY MY BOOKS. They’re doing what they do, being themselves, and it works. They’re a natural fit, and they started their mostly inadvertent platform building early on in the truly pioneer days. And it worked.

But there are millions of others who started blogging and youtubing around the same time for whom it has not paid off the way it has for the Johns. Two successes do not a model for success make.

The one true path towards a successful writing career is to write. Write a lot. Write well. Spend at least 80% of that precious writing time on writing, not on marketing. And only do it because you love it. Because you can’t not write.

And try not to freak out too much about social media as book marketing. Try to enjoy it for its, you know, socialness. Follow people outside of your industry, who have nothing to do with selling books or marketing, who aren’t useful to you. Follow fabulous,10 wild,11 interesting people12 and crazy all-caps newspaper feeds. Have fun!

  1. Apparently pets would not be down with the whole going back and forth between Sydney and New York City thing. []
  2. I was very tempted to leave the rest of this post blank. But aren’t you lucky? I’m going to ramble on anecdotally instead. Woo hoo! []
  3. No, I’m not going to name the books. It seems kind of rude. []
  4. “Shift many units.” Tee. I’ve always wanted to say that. I feel like a 1950s A&R man. []
  5. For self-published writers it’s even harder. []
  6. Or is it one in a billion? There are an awful lot of books being published these days. []
  7. Back in the day. []
  8. My experience with myspace is why I’m not on facebook. []
  9. However, for self-publishing I imagine that it is essential. But that’s an area I know very little about. The people I know who self publish, such as Courtney Milan, started out with a mainstream publisher and were well-known before they switched. []
  10. A lawyer from Perth, Australia. She cares passionately about refugees in Australia and cricket and Bollywood. She makes me laugh. No, I’ve never met her. []
  11. She’s an awesomely cranky NYC lawyer who likes to argue about social justice. No, I don’t know her. Discovered her via @sunili. []
  12. He’s tweeting small fates from 1912 culled from NYC newspapers. Some are pure poetry. Though of the limerick variety. []

Getting Started

I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.

I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.

Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.

The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.

The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.

By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.

It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.

I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.

Procrastination is good

The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.

Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.

Research

Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.

Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.

Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.

Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1

Many books at once

I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.

That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.

At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.

Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2

Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.

If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.

If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3

In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.

  1. It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! []
  2. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. []
  3. Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

On Blogging and the Olympics

So here it is the final day of my blogging every day of July effort and I have succeeded!1 And it was fun. So much fun that I’m going to keep on blogging. Not every day but at least once a week. Turns out I missed it way more than I realised. Missed you commenter types both here and on twitter. I think we had some really cool and interesting conversations over this month and I hope we’ll have many more. *hugs blog* *hugs commenters* *cries*

I didn’t do all the posts I promised I would. I know. I am badness. But I will do them. In the future. In the not-too-distant future even. If you ask me to opine on something here or on twitter eventually I will do so.

I did not, in fact, use voice recognition software. I tried and gave up in anger and frustration. But I will do the post I promised @SirTessa in which I use that dread software without correcting any of the mistakes.

However, not using it was really positive because I also finished the first draft of a novel this month2 and thus between that and blogging every day was typing more than I had for ages and doing so in a managed way. Some days, yes, I was very sore. But I never pushed through and typed more than twenty minutes at a time. And the frequent breaks—including at least two days off per week—and stretching and strength work and treatment kept the pain manageable. Turns out I can write more than I think I can. To which, well, YAY + DANCE OF JOY.

And my reward for finishing the first draft of a new novel and blogging every day?

THE OLYMPICS.

So far I have watched, in no particular order:

  • shooting—for the first time and it was way more interesting than I thought it would be
  • hockey—the Aussie men are RIDICULOUSLY good what a pleasure they are to watch
  • basketball—the US women ditto. I mean, they could field an entirely different team from the WNBA and they’d still win gold. Hell, they could go all the way down to, like, the fourth, fifth, and sixth team options and they’d still medal. Depth? Oh, yes, my second nation has it. Total pleasure to watch them play. Especially Seimone Augustus. Oh, how I love her. And yes I adore the Opals and I want them to win but without Penny Taylor? I mean, even with Penny Taylor it was a long long long long shot.
  • badminton—shuttlecocks are freaking awesome, I love how they are at once faster and slower than a tennis ball. I also love that serving has no impact on the game
  • weightlifting—has to be the most stressful sport of all. I am always afraid their eyeballs are going to pop out of their skulls, that muscles will rip from bone, that their heads will explode. I love the slapping and screaming and other weird stuff they do to psych themselves up and how cool is it when they manage to keep that insanely heavy bar above their head and their feet in line and not moving? Very. And some of them are lifting three times their own weight. Let me repeat: THREE TIMES THEIR OWN WEIGHT!
  • gymnastics—you know, every other sport I kind of feel like I can do a much crappier version of it. I could shoot and play hockey. I have played basketball and tennis and table tennis. I’ve lifted weights. I’ve been training at boxing for almost a year now. I have dived into pools. I’ve swum, run, rowed, canoed and jumped. These are all possible things. Admittedly everyone at the Olympics is doing them a gazillion times better than me. But the gymnastics? I cannot do any of those things. Not a one.3 Gymnasts fill me with awe.
  • table tennis—watching high level table tennis is for me like watching high level snooker. I have played this game in friends’ basements, backyards and the pub. The game I play has nothing in common what I see before me on the television machine. Wow.
  • diving—ditto. With even more wow.
  • beach volley ball—anyone who says this is not a real sport deserves a smack. Yes, they’re wearing bikinis so do many of the track and field athletes and no one’s dissing the 100 metre sprint.
  • boxing—I know. I know. It’s brutal and evil and violent and gives people all sorts of horrible brain damage and only barbarians could possibly like it. But, well, colour me barbarian. I’ve always liked boxing but learning how to do it has increased my appreciation and respect for its practitioners a hundred fold. It is so hard and so technical and so much more cerebral than I realised. Can’t wait to catch some of the women’s matches because I’ve never seen one before.
  • canoe slalom—This is CRAZY. I love it.
  • rowing–I have rowed. It is really hard. These athletes are incredible.
  • swimming—I swam with a swimming squad for quite a few years. Getting up at 5AM to train, having the coach go over the finer details of all the strokes with me.4 Doing endless laps with kickboards etc etc. Thus my empathy for what the swimmers put themselves through is very, very, very large indeed. And watching technically perfect swimmers gives me large amounts of joy. Plus underwater cameras? I love you.

The time difference between Sydney and London is kind of perfect. Live coverage starts at 5:30pm in Sydney and the last events are winding up at 9am the next day. So I can watch until I go to bed and then wake up around 7am in time to watch a live game of basketball. Then I can go about my normal day of gym, boxing, writing etc. I admit it, this particular sports lover is in heaven. I kind of wish the Olympics was on every single day of the year.

  1. Weekends do not count. No one is online on Saturdays and Sundays. Scientific fact. []
  2. *bounce* *bounce* *bounce* []
  3. Well, okay, I can do some of the goofy dance moves in the floor routines but other than that? Nope. []
  4. Why does that always sounds so rude? []

State of the RSI

Since so many of you have kindly inquired about how I’m doing1 I figured best to answer you all in a post. Also Sarah Zarr recently posted about her own trials and tribulations, which reminded me yet again of how common these injuries are.

Yes, I am still dealing with pain. My RSI2 has not improved, but it has not gotten worse, and I have learned to manage it by getting strong and fitter, with physical therapy, and by limiting keyboard time and making my work space totally ergonomic. All of that has had all sorts of other health benefits. I am in amazing shape,3 which really does make everything else easier and less stressful. Though the time & money involved in all of that is scary. I recognise that I am very lucky to be able to afford to deal with this. There are plenty who can’t.

However, probably the most important thing for me over the last year or so has been realising that this is forever. That if I don’t maintain my fitness and core strength and manage the pain it will get worse. But even if I do all that it’s not necessarily going away. Accepting that management was the best I could do was really hard and incredibly depressing. But once I did accept that it made everything a lot easier. I stopped waiting for the magic cure, stopping putting stuff on hold, and got on with the rest of my life.

Some days it gets me down. But mostly it doesn’t. I am especially feeling good right now because I am nearing the end of the first draft of my first solo novel4 since Liar which I finished writing in 2008. Long time between drinks, eh?

So that’s where I am at. For those of you who are starting to have the first little twinges of pain from writing—I beg of you—do something about it right now! Actually, for anyone writing long hours every day take frequent breaks,5 make sure you are set up ergonomically, take at least a day off writing a week, though two is better, get fit! Seriously, it will see you through to a long and pain-free writing life.

Which is what we all want, right?

  1. I appreciate it. Thank you. It really makes a difference to know that I’m not alone with this. []
  2. Repetitive strain injury. Basically RSI describes a whole host of different conditions that are caused by a repetitive action such as typing. But many others get RSI too: house painters, factory workers etc. etc. []
  3. If I don’t say so myself. *cough* []
  4. That’s right the real work is about to begin! Can’t wait. []
  5. Drink loads of water so you need to pee a lot. It’s an excellent way of ensuring many breaks. []

Why I Cannot Write a Novel With Voice Recognition Software (Updated x 3)

Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful transformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!

I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.

I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?

I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.

But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:


1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.

Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.

Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”

The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2

2. Flow is incredibly important.

Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.

Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every clause appears I wind up with sentences like this:

    Warm artichoke had an is at orange night light raining when come lit.

Rather than

    When Angel was able to emerge into the orange night Liam’s reign was complete.

Which is a terrible sentence but I can see what I was going for and I’ll be able to fix it. But that first sentence? Leave it for a few minutes and I’ll have no clue what I was trying to say.

However, checking what the VRS has produced after Every Single Clause slows me down and ruins the flow.

3. It’s too slow.

I am medium fast typist. I’ve been typing since I was fourteen. I can get words down way faster and more accurately than VRS.3 Its slowness is very, very frustrating and is yet another factor that messes with my flow when writing.

Obviously, none of this is a huge problem for e-mail. I do persevere with it for blogging too despite the fact that means I am at most blogging once a month. Using VRS for those kinds of writings does save my arms. I’m grateful.

But for my novel writing? It’s a deal breaker. I can’t do it.

VRS is going to have to take giant strides to get to a point where it allows me to write fiction without grief and frustration and the hurling of head sets across the room.

Again, I’m really glad that it has helped so many of you. I have been hearing lots of wonderful stories about the ways VRS has changed lives since I started writing cranky posts about it. That’s all fabulous.

But for me? No, not yet.

Update: I should have also noted that every time I write one of these posts I get lots of people trying to help. That is very sweet of you and I totally get why. I have the same impulse. We all want to make things better.4

But, yes, it is also kind of annoying and overly helpy. This has been going on for years now. You can safely assume that unless you are suggesting a very recent breakthrough or a very left-field obscure idea—WEAR A ROTTEN WOMBAT ON YOUR HEAD—I have heard it all before and tried it all.5

So if you were wondering—everything suggested in the comments?—been there, done that.

Update the Second

Am getting many folks telling me that the error rate in the orange night example above is crazy high. You got me. I deliberately chose a super bad example because it’s funnier. My bad. Next time I rant about this I promise to choose a less crazy and amusing one, okay?

Funny thing, though, even the best VRS error rate I’ve ever managed is incredibly annoying and slows me down.

Update the Third

Thanks so much for all the lovely letters & comments of sympathy, support, me toos, and commiseration. Means the world to me.

  1. Very few humans are one hundred per cent accurate at the task. Even court reporters make occasional mistakes. []
  2. Actually I’m now thinking of all sorts of ways in which it would work for fiction but you get my point, people. []
  3. And, wow, am I not the world’s most accurate typist. []
  4. Unless we have an evil streak a mile wide. Ha! VRS rendered “a mile wide” as “a mild way.” Bless. []
  5. Well, not the wombat thing. But only because I can’t get past the smell of roadkill. And the fear of putrescence dripping down my face. []

Last Day of 2011 (Updated)

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2012. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.)

This was not a fabulous year for me but it was a whole lot worse for so many other people around the world that whingeing would be tacky. I’ll focus on the good:

Finally, finally, finally we were able to announce, Sarah Rees Brennan and I, that we wrote a book together, Team Human, which is all about how having your best friend fall in love with a vampire SUCKS.1 We had to keep that secret for well over a year and it nearly killed us. It comes out in July in Australia (with Allen & Unwin) and in the United States of America (with Harper Collins). Oh, and it’s totally a real book and not a hoax despite what that lying minx Maureen Johnson says. See, actual real people have read it!

Sarah Rees Brennan has been crazy busy. Not only did she write a book with me but she also sold a whole new trilogy. The first book, Unspoken, will be out in September 2012. (Yes, she has two books out within three months of each other. Yes, she has superpowers.)

It’s SRB’s best book so far. I loved her Demon trilogy2 but Unspoken is even better. I cannot wait for more people to read it so we can all talk about the fantastic things she does with all those delicious Gothic tropes. Seriously, it’s wonderful and I’m convinced that SRB is going to start a Gothic revival.3 In fact, SRB’s made me want to write my own Gothic, which obviously I will have to dedicate to her. It will have an insane house that . . . oh, actually, I think Shirley Jackson wrote that book. Hmmm. I guess I should update that list of writing goals to include Gothic.

Books out this year

There were no new books by me in 2011. It was the first time since 2005 that I went book-less. Turns out I am no longer capable of a book a year. And to think I once attempted two books a year. It is to laugh! From now on it’s more likely to be a book every five years. Maybe.

Books out in 2012 and 2013

Well, except that I will have a book a year for the next two years: Team Human and Team Human: The Sequel of Awesomeness.

Thank you, SRB, for being the best and hardest working and paitentest collaborator a writer could hope for. Without you it would have been an eighteen year gap between my last book, Zombies versus Unicorns in 2010—another collaborative book—you do all see how my lovely writer friends are saving my career, right? Thank you, Holly Black—and my next solo book in 2028.4

RSI

Often after a new post from me I get a few people saying, “OMG! You’re writing again! You’re all cured! That’s awesome!”

To which, thanks! It’s really lovely to know that my online jibberings have been missed. But, sadly, no, I am not cured. Still with the RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Alas and alack. I’m pretty much where I was when I wrote about it a year ago.

What I’m doing is managing the RSI. Figuring out how to get the maximum amount of writing done with the minimum amount of pain, which involves a lot of time and money. I swear I practically have my own staff: physiotherapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, masseur, trainer, pilates instructor.5

I am extremely grateful to all of them while also resentful of the time it takes to buy me a few hours of writing. It does get me down. On the days when I don’t type I have virtually no pain at all. On the days I do type, even if only for a short while, there’s pain. For some strange reason feedback like that is more conducive to lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself than it is to writing.6

Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely fortunate. There are plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money to be able to deal with the ailments that are making their life hellish. Whose ailments are far worse than mine, whose symptoms cannot be managed. I know writers who write with multiple sclerosis, while recovering from strokes, with serious heart conditions, with cancer and so forth.

There are people out there getting all sorts of amazing things done despite the most horrendous obstacles in their way. I admire each and every one of them.

Other Things I am Asked About

Q: How’s your 1930s book going?

A: I am still at work on my 1930s novel. Slowly but surely. I even read a small section of it at the lovely Sirens conference I attended this year. The reception was most pleasing. If you ever have an opportunity to go to Sirens—Do. A smarter, more interesting crowd of readers and writers does not exist.

But, no, the 1930s novel is not any closer to being finished. Best, really to forget I ever mentioned it. Instead watch the wonderful new US tv show SRB said I had to see: Revenge. The heroine is a wicked Nancy Drew, who’s in the Hamptons to revenge her unjustly imprisioned father and she has ninja super powers and the people she gets revenge on are, like, hedge fund managers. I love her so much!

Q: How’s your garden?

A: My garden is doing great. Thanks!

Well, there was the small matter of the accidental drought when the battery went on the irrigation system. But most of the plants survived. It was kind of amazing. All the native violets laid down and died and then the second they felt sweet, sweet water they sprang up and were green and flowering again. Life, I tell you, it’s a miracle.

Those few plants that died I replaced with passionfruit. Because, well, yum. Also it turns out that passionfruit are like triffids. They move when you’re not looking and grow REALLY fast. Though, so far they have not attempted to eat me.

And the drought made my poor freaked out where-has-all-the-water-gone Tahitian lime tree fruit for the first time. Fruit! On a tree! In my garden! Um, yes, I am excited.

And I am starting to win my battle against the slugs. Apparently, they love corn meal. EVEN THOUGH IT KILLS THEM. Mwahahahahah!:

What? They totally deserve it. They were killing my basil and my poor benighted flowering eucalyptus! I have to KILL THEM ALL. NO OTHER PUNISHMENT IS ENOUGH. And, no, I’m not channelling Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge because she would think that merely ruining the slugs was sufficient. SHE WOULD BE WRONG. THEY MUST ALL DIE.7

Slugs and accidental droughts aside, my garden is one of the great pleasures in my life. We use the herbs daily. Currently, thyme, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, majoram, oregano, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. There are native bees and rainbow lorikeets sipping from our grevillea flowers. It looks and smells amazing. Every time I get stuck I walk out there breathe deep, kill a few caterpillars, smell a few flowers, chew on some mint and everything is just fine.

Happy new year, everyone! Here’s hoping 2012 will be what you want it to be.

Update: I forgot to put my usual disclaimer at the bottom of this post, which led a few folks to write and suggest I use voice recognition software. So here it is:

This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

  1. Pardon the truly terrible pun. []
  2. Because, well, Sin and Mae and Jamie and Nick. And SRB even got me to start liking Allan by the end of the final book. []
  3. Yes, that was another bad pun. []
  4. Which is when the next total eclipse that can be viewed from Australia takes place. Clearly, it will be the best year ever. []
  5. I will say this: Damn, am I fit! []
  6. Crap. I said I wasn’t going to whinge. Sorry! []
  7. Also, Emily/Amanda is way too classy TO SHOUT IN ALL CAPS. []

Writing Liar with Scrivener

I’ve been promising a post about writing Liar using Scrivener for two years now. It wasn’t a fake promise. I’ve been working on the post. But given my hassles with RSI and othe injuries it’s been slow going.

A friend asked about it recently and I realised that I haven’t touched the post in a year. The odds of my finishing it are low. When I spend my scant few hours at the keyboard I focus on my novels, not blog posts. So here is my unfinished and pretty rough account of writing Liar using Scrivener:

In the acknowledgements of Liar I wrote the following: “Without Scrivener this book would most likely not exist.” Ever since people have been asking me to please explain. Here, at long last, is my explanation.

For those who don’t know Scrivener is novel-writing software. A while back I wrote an overview. If you’re unfamiliar with Scrivener I suggest reading that first.

Scrivener Streamlines

The first words I wrote of the novel were “I’m a liar.” What came after the words “I’m a liar” in my first draft of the opening bears no resemblance to the final novel:

    I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all. Well, okay, there’s also writing, isn’t there? I do that with my mouth closed and there’s just as much bullshit on my blog as there is coming out of my mouth. Like I’m not 30, I’m not blonde and I don’t live in New York City. I am a girl though, and Australian.

That was written in October 2006. By the time the novel was published in 2009 the opening looked like this:

    Promise

    I was born with a light covering of fur.

    After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.

    My father is a liar and so am I.

    But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.

    I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

    That’s my promise.

    This time I truly mean it.

I began writing Liar in Word way back in 2006. I spewed out a bit over 500 words which were mostly notes like this:

    After preamble. First chapter starts with her at a new school in NYC. Preamble can mention that she’s determined not to lie anymore that the new school’s going to give her a new start. And as it’s in a foreign country she’ll be the cool one. So she tells all these outrageous stories such as dropbears and they all buy it and she’s the cool one and there’s this really cute guy.

    Beginning of second chapter she’s all like okay so the last chapter was the total truth except that there was another oz student in the class. So then she tells the story going back a little ways and having the other oz blow her first outrageous story about Australia. And also the other oz likes the boy too (who is now different in this chapter).

As you can see, originally I thought it would be more of a comedy than Liar turned out to be.

I didn’t work on Liar again until 2008. This time I was using Scrivener, not Word. I’d already used Scrivener to write “Thinner than Water” so I was comfortable with the program and very excited about writing my first novel on it.

I plugged in the existing words, quoted above. They looked wrong in Scrivener. It may just be me, but there’s something about Scrivener that makes me want to streamline my words.1 It’s a very clean, uncluttered program. So my extremely cluttered, messy first words of Liar had to go. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have wound up chucking them anyway. See this extremely crappy first draft of the first chapter of Magic or Madness to see that I have never been averse to throwing everything out, even pre-Scrivener.

However, when I resumed writing Liar with Scrivener what came out was more pared down than anything I had ever written before. There are parts of the published version of Liar that are pretty much unmodified from the first version I wrote. That’s untrue of any of my other novels.

Though the majority of Liar was rewritten more times than anything else I’ve written.2

Many Little Pieces

Liar is a novel made up of 138 short pieces. Part I has 60, Part II has 29, and Part III has 59. Some of those pieces are as short as the opening piece, “Promise,” quoted above, which is only 90 words. Some are even shorter. The shortest piece in the book is 41 words. The longest is 1,897. The average length is probably in the 300-500 word range. None of the chapters are longer than 2,000 words which is usually considered to be a shortish chapter.3 That’s part of why I call them “pieces” rather than “chapters.”

As I wrote, those pieces kept having to be moved. I did not begin with a clear three-part structure. That didn’t emerge until I’d written about a third of the novel. But once it did emerge I realised that many of the pieces I’d already written belonged in the third part of the book. So I moved them there, which left gaps in the first part where they’d been. New pieces had to be written.

That kept happening a lot. A piece that I’d written early on turned out to belong much later in the book, which meant that it had to be rewritten to fit into its new location. The pieces around it also had to be rewritten. Every time I moved a piece the same rewriting process would happen, which is why so much of the novel has been rewritten more times than I’ve rewritten anything else.

To be clear: rewriting is not a novelty for me. I’m very big on rewriting in all my books. As someone once said, “There is no writing, only rewriting.”

The Glory of the Corkboard

Scrivener made working with 138 different little pieces of text a cinch because it has a wonderful corkboard function. The corkboard allows you to see your novel as if it were a series of cards pinned to a corkboard. Like so:

Pretty, huh?

At a glance those cards tell me three kinds of info.

First, there’s a brief description of each piece on every card. This saves having to scroll endlessly through the larger document trying to find a particular scene.4

Second, there’s the different coloured pins holding the cards to their virtual corkboard. You can also see the different colours in the left sidebar (the binder). Liar is made up of three different kinds of pieces. There’s Before (purple), After (green) and then what I thought of as Backstory (white). The After pieces go forward in straight chronological order. I determined early on that they would be the most common pieces. Part I has 31 After sections out of 60. Part III has 31 out of 59.

I also determined that I would never have more than one in a row of the Before or Backstory pieces. The colour coding means that I could see at a glance whether I’d violated that.

Um, I did.

Part II turned out to run on its own rules. It’s mostly Backstory with a sprinkling of Before pieces. There are also two places in Part III where there are two Backstory pieces in a row.

What? Rules were made to be broken. Even your own rules that you make up for your own novel. But, trust me, I only broke the rules when it was essential. Like grammar, really.

Third, there’s the diagonal stamp across each index card. Every time I started a new piece I would label it according to what state I thought the writing was in: Incomplete, Rough, Semi-Polished and Polished. (I was going to call them Sketchy, Crappy, Less Crappy and As-Uncrappy-as-I-can-Manage-Right-Now but while accurate that seemed unduly negative.)

Most of the cards in the picture above say Polished. That’s because it’s the final draft. A snapshot of the novel I’m working on now would show a predominance of Incomplete and Rough.5

This is a huge departure from my previous system of writing novels. I used to write the first draft in a mad hurry and then go back and rewrite the whole thing. Thus the whole first (or zero) draft would be labelled as Rough and it would stay pretty rough through several drafts. Usually the first few drafts were all about making the plot and overall structure work. Only once that was working could I do any serious polishing.

With Liar I rewrote as I went along. As a result many of the pieces were what I considered to be polished long before I had a complete draft. It was a very strange way of writing but it was the only thing that worked for Liar.

This labelling system was also really helpful whenever I was stuck on writing new pieces. I’d go into corkboard view and find a piece labelled Incomplete and work on it until I could upgrade it to Rough. If there were no Incompletes, I’d work on a Rough and so on.

Usually in the course of working on one of the rougher pieces I’d realise some other pieces that needed to be written before or after it. I’d write those next. And so it went.

I know it sounds really painstaking but it was a lot of fun. I was never stuck writing Liar, there was always something for me to work on.

The most important glory of the corkboard for Liar was the ease with which it allowed me to move the pieces around. That’s right, every single one of those index cards can be dragged to a new location. Brilliant! I don’t even want to think about what a major pain in the arse it would have been to write it with any other writing software. Like the dreaded Word. I may have had to print it out. Multiple times. *shudder*

Some of my days writing Liar consisted of me doing nothing but shifting index cards around until I was satisfied with the order. Then rewriting to make sure it all flowed right.

Often I’d start the next day’s work by doing the same thing. Fun!6

Notes on Each Piece/Overall Notes

One of the other glories of Scrivener is the Inspector. That’s the thing taking up the right sidebar. It’s where you write your index card description, colour code it and label the state of the draft. It’s also where you can write notes on each piece. Notes such as “This makes no sense at all. Where did the rabbit come from?” Or “Too many knives. Cut them down!”

I got into the habit of striking through each note after I addressed it:

Dunno about you but there’s nothing I find more satisfying than crossing things out. It’s almost as satisfying as deleting whole scenes.

Document notes can toggle over to Project notes. This allows you to write notes on a particular piece/scene/chapter as well as notes on the overall book. Being able to see my micro and macro notes that easily made a huge difference. Simple! Clean!

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about Liar is how on Earth did I manage to outline it. I think everything above makes my answer clear.

I didn’t.

But Scrivener made outlining unnecessary.7 It allowed me to see the structure as it emerged from the various pieces I was writing. I have no idea how I would have kept track of everything without software that’s designed to allow you to manage such a big and complicated text as a novel.

It has both changed how I write as well as what I’m able to write. Scrivener has been a revelation.

  1. You can tell that I didn’t write this post in Scrivener, can’t you? []
  2. I swear there are some sections that were rewritten more than a kajillion times. Honestly. []
  3. To give you a sense of length, this post is more than 2,000 words and is thus longer than any piece of Liar. []
  4. Something that always drove me nuts with Word. []
  5. Also Adequate. While working on novels after Liar I decided the leap from Rough to Semi-Polished was too daunting. Adequate is my intermediate phase. []
  6. I’m not being sarcastic. It really was fun. []
  7. Though there is an outlining function for those who crave such a thing. I’ve never used it. []

Feeling Good

Yesterday’s post on my lack of love for voice recognition software seems to have left some with the impression that I’m doing badly. Not so!

There are many people with RSI or other injuries like carpal tunnel much worse affected then I am. There are some who can no longer hold anything, let alone a pen. My RSI doesn’t impinge on many activities other than writing. Also I have the resources to get the help I need (physiotherapy etc) to manage my condition. I’m extremely lucky.

I am, in fact, in the best shape of my life. Strengthening my core muscles and shoulder girdle (boxing is excellent for that as one of the commenters yesterday noted) has helped a great deal with the RSI. I have abs and arms of steel,1 I tell you!

More importantly, I am writing fiction with my hands the way I like it.2 I love what I have been writing since Liar. I probably shouldn’t say it but I think I’m doing some of the best writing of my life.

I know there’s nothing new from me this year, but I did have a pretty good anthology last year! Also, and this is currently a secret because the deal has not been announced yet, there will be a new novel next year and then another one in 2013. You all promise to tell no one, right? Oh, and before you ask, no, it is not the New York book. I continue to write that book but I will not sell it until I have finished.

I might have been pretty silent here but that is because I have been saving my arms for writing novels.

I might hate voice recognition software but it did allow me to write yesterday’s post—and now this one—without any pain. I could never use it to write a novel but I can use it here. I do not know how often but I hope it will be more than it has been.

Thank you so much for all your kind words and suggestions yesterday. They were very helpful. I sure do miss this blog and all of you.

  1. Well, maybe gold . . . []
  2. I reserve demonic VRS for e-mail and writing posts like this and other non-fiction stuff. []

YA Mafias & Other Things You Don’t Need to Worry About

Holly Black recently posted on the subject of the so-called YA Mafia, which apparently is a “cabal of writers who give one other blurbs, do events with one another, and like each other’s books.” Also if you cross them they can ruin your career.

In her post Holly said such a cabal does not exist. I suspect she’s right. Certainly none of the YA writers I know are involved in such a group. However, there are many YA authors I don’t know. Could be a few of them plot darkly together. Who knows?

Thing is plotting ain’t doing. As Holly points out, YA authors do not have that power. I have recommended twenty or more of my writer friends to my agent so far she’s taken on one. You see? I have her twisted around my little finger! Oh. Wait. And if I told her not to take on so-and-so as a client I shudder to think what she’d say. Probably that I’d lost my mind. Rightly so.

Here’s what I think is going on with the upset over the idea of a YA mafia. As Phoebe North says in an eloquent comment in response to Holly’s post there has been some nastiness online from authors to reviewers and sometimes vice versa:

I’ve seen countless blog posts that purport to be talking up positivity, but also include veiled threats (one post said that an author would ask her agent not to sign a writer who has negatively reviewed her friends books, even if they were fair reviews). I’ve seen authors post comments on negative goodreads reviews (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this go well). I saw someone who had been book blogging for three years–and had hundreds of followers and who genuinely loved book blogging–shut down her blog because an agent said that she’d never sign a book blogger as an author. And this woman wasn’t . . . snarkbaiting, I promise. She wrote great, thoughtful, and generally kind reviews.

What it boils down to, right now, is a lot of reviewers feel threatened. It’s uncomfortable, because they’re readers, too, and they love books, even if they don’t like particular books. But all of this feels silencing, even for reviewers who never want to be authors. There’s this air of intangible hostility around the whole scene. It feels like many authors generally don’t like reviewers or bloggers generally.

That sucks. I hate any kind of silencing. And I hate that there are reviewers and bloggers who think all authors hate them. Not true!

But here’s why I don’t think you should be worried:

  1. I guarantee you that the vast majority of agents or editors seeing their author making veiled threats would be having words with them of the DO NOT DO THAT variety.

    Some authors do go nuts in the face of bad reviews.1 This is why I have long been on the record as advising them to kick their pillow around, or run around the block, or do anything that will keep them from expressing their insanity online.2 Making threats of the YOU WILL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN ilk is definitely in the nutso category. When you see writers do that best to look away and hope it’s temporary. If it’s a continued pattern of behaviour? Don’t buy their books! Authors hate that.

  2. Most of the people making these threats online do not have that power. Very few authors do. Allegedly back in the day Enid Blyton used to threaten her publisher to stop them publishing her enemies. She was her publisher’s biggest seller. Hell, at the time she was one of the biggest selling children’s writers in the universe. Allegedly they did what she said. And more shame on them if true.

    These days, maybe Stephenie Meyer has that clout. But I’ve never seen her online making those threats. Nor are we likely to see her do so—from all accounts she’s lovely. People who threaten to destroy people’s careers are not lovely. They’re nasty and likely delusional.

  3. There are many reputable agents out there who would happily take on a blogger as a client. Jennifer Laughran represents the wonderful book blogger Gwenda Bond. I’m sure there are gazillions of other examples. What one agent says does not hold for all agents. I know agents who won’t represent books where children are killed. Another who can’t stand vampires.3 That’s why there are loads of different agents.
  4. The blogosphere is not as big as you think it is.

    Here’s the thing—and I suspect many of you are going to have trouble believing me—many YA agents and authors and booksellers and librarians and readers do not live their lives online. They’re too busy or oblivious or full of hate for computers to have that kind of active engagement. Yup, I know people who hate going online. I have friends who if you google them you find nothing. Shocking, but true.

    What happens in the blogosphere may seem like the biggest deal in the world but it is a tiny, tiny blip that the vast majority of people interested in YA are unaware of. Indeed many people who are active in your blogosphere also regularly miss the scandal de jour.

Phoebe North continues:

I guess I really wish book bloggers and reviewers and authors could all sit down and share beer or coffee and remind each other that there are people behind the text on the screen.

I think she’s dead on. There’s even a name for what she’s talking about: online disinhibition effect: people being astonishingly rude and cruel online in ways they wouldn’t be offline.

But I can also report that offline me and many other authors regularly share a bevarage with bloggers and reviewers and readers and librarians and booksellers and all sorts of other folks who care as passionately about YA as we do. Why some of my best friends are bloggers and reviewers.

All hope is not lost! Truly.

NOTE: Nope, this is not me returning to regular blogging. Yup, still dealing with RSI. But am getting loads of writing done and am doing well. Also I have been very fortunate to not be directly affected by any of the disasters in Australia or New Zealand though thanks for asking. And if you’ve got any spare money now’s a good time to donate it to the Red Cross in New Zealand and/or Australia.

  1. Including me. []
  2. Letting a reviewer know that they’ve made a factual errors is fine. Though even then I often think it’s better to let it go. I have seen such attempts turn into full on flame wars. Not pretty. []
  3. Well, okay, many agents. []

Last Day of 2010

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2011. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.)

For reasons I’ll explain in more detail below (but are mostly I was not online much) 2010 was ridiculously productive for me. I now have more than 100,000 words of my 1930s novel. Most of it written this year. And I declare those words to be good.1 I have not enjoyed writing a book this much in I do not know how long. I never want to finish. Which is fortunate because I suspect that I’m not even half way finished. Likely not even a quarter. Possibly not even a tenth. Ooops. I may well not EVER finish. But, hey, at least I’m having fun.

For those of you who actually like to read words I write do not fear! I also wrote (with someone sekrit) a whole other sekrit (but hopefully not for much longer) project about which you will hear much next year when we’re allowed to tell you. Writing it was just about the best fun ever. I adore collaborating it turns out. Or maybe I just got lucky with the smartest, wittiest, fastest-writingiest collaborator of all time. Whatever the reason the two of us finished that project and sold it in two different countries.2 And now we get to do it all over again. Colour me, excited.

Such a productive year was particularly wonderful because in 2009 I stopped writing for many months. In that year all I did was rewrite Liar, a few thousand words of the 30s book, and about the same on two other unfinished projects. It was my least productive year since I became a professional writer and it scared me. For a while there I was worried I wouldn’t write again. So, phew! Despite annoying injuries 2010 has been my most happy and productive writing year ever. Here’s hoping 2011 will bring more of the same.

But this is my what-happened-in 2010 report, I shall continue:

Books out in 2010

This year I had only one new book: Zombies Versus Unicorns which I put together with Holly Black. It was published in the US (Simon & Schuster) and Australia (Allen & Unwin) with one of the most perfect and gorgeous covers any book of mine has ever had. I cried tears of joy when I first saw it. Josh Cochran is a genius and so are the design team at Simon & Schuster. The book has had wonderful reviews and even won an award for the audio edition and sold way better than anyone expected.

It’s a publishing truism that anthologies don’t sell.3 Well, this one sure does. Yay! Thank you so much for reading ZvU, buying it, and telling your friends and librarians about it. Much appreciated.

There’s also an audio edition by Brilliance, which features me and Holly reading the introductions. Well, sort of reading, we got more and more ad-libb-y as the day went on. Let’s just say we had a great time. I would happily record audio books with Holly and the Brilliance team whenever they want.

ZvU also sold into France (Pocket Jeunesse), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag) & Brazil (Editora Record).

Liar came out in paperback in North America. It was also published for the first time in Denmark (Hoest), France (Gallimard), Italy (Salani) & the Netherlands (Mynx). I had the great pleasure of meeting the Gallimard Jeunesse team in Paris and they were all wonderful and work in the most gorgeous building complex I’ve ever seen. They even have a sekrit garden!

There will also be editions of Liar in Brazil (Editora Record), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag), Taiwan (Sharp Point Press), Turkey (Artemis, an imprint of Alfa Yayin Grubu) and Spain (Ediciones Versatil).

Reception of Liar

It’s been brought to my attention that some people don’t feel Liar has gotten the recognition it deserves. While it’s lovely that people feel passionately about the book I want to point out that Liar‘s gotten a tonne of recognition. Liar was more widely reviewed than any of my other books and almost all of those reviews were extremely positive. It also made a gazillion different best book of the year lists. Liar was shortlisted for eleven different awards and won four of them:

  • the Davitt Award for best Young Adult Crime Novel 2010, which particularly thrilled me because I deliberately wrote Liar as a crime novel and the Davitt Award people were the first to notice,
  • the WA Premier’s Literary Award, Young Adult Prize 2009. In Australia the Premier’s awards are a huge, huge deal and even come with a big old fat cheque,
  • the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Christina Stead Award 2009, which is an award for best novel of the year regardless of genre—Liar was the first YA novel to win. I could not be prouder,
  • and the fourth award has not yet been officially announced but the 2009 Carl Brandon Kindred Award. When I found out I screamed. I think the wording of the award will explain why this means so much to me: “The Carl Brandon Kindred Award is given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group.”

So there you have it Liar is by a country mile my most successful book by whatever metric of success you want to use. It’s the best reviewed, won the most awards, generated the most fanmail and discussion,4 and has sold better than any of my other novels in Australia and the USA. On top of that it’s a book I’m proud I wrote.5 I’m stoked.

Read These Books!

My favourite YA book of 20106 was Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. Dark, weird, quirky, full of unexpected turns, fabulous world-building, and gorgeous writing. It’s not like anything else I’ve read. Well, other than her second book, A Slice of Cherry, which comes out in 2011. I highly recommend both.

Onto next year:

Books out in 2011

    The paperback edition of Zombies versus Unicorns

7

and, um, nothing else . . .

That’s right for the first time since 2005 I have no new book out. But I promise you there will be something new (see above about my sekrit project) in 2012 and in 2013. Truly.

My Silence this Year

You might have noticed that this is my first post in six months. For someone who used to blog every day that’s a huge change. A weird one. Yes, I do miss blogging. No, this is not the beginning of me blogging frequently again.8 I won’t be blogging much for the foreseeable future. Sorry. But thank you so much all of those who wrote to let me know how much you miss this blog. You made me all teary, you did. As did you lovely people I met at ZvU events this year who told me ditto. Bless!

I spent the year dealing first with an acute injury that kept me from writing but that healed relatively quickly. Then I discovered that I had RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) i.e. shooting pains in my arms and neck because of having typed a vast deal for about thirty years.9 I still have RSI. I cannot type for more than twenty minutes at a time or more than four hours a day without pain. I spent 2010 learning how to deal with it.

I tried many, many, many different things but here’s what worked for me:

RSI management:

  • My computer is for writing novels. I only tweet or blog or IM or email or any other non novel-writing keyboard activity on days when I don’t write. I also make sure I have at least one or two days a week completely away from the computer.
  • Most days the internet is switched off on my computer. Ah. The calm and ease of concentration with it gone. I honestly don’t miss it.
  • I am very strict about writing only in twenty minute bursts with stretching in between and not for more than four hours a day.
  • I use an ergonomic split key board, two trackballs with writst rests—one for my left hand and one for my right, my screen is at eye level, and I sit on an exercise ball forcing me to use my core muscles at all times.
  • Weekly massage and physical therapy. Accupuncture has also helped. I have tried other therapies but those are the ones that have given me the best results.
  • I work out five times a week with a trainer.10
  • I do pilates once or twice a week.

So, yes, I am doing much better than I was—most importantly I’m able to write—but it’s a continuing thing for which there is no magic cure. I hope those of you at the beginning of your writing life pay attention and start developing good habits now before permanent damage is done. I wish I had! /lecture

Being offline a great deal of the time does mean I’m harder to contact than I was. My apologies. If you wish to contact me the best way to do so is still via email. If I don’t get back to you and you deem it urgent contact my agent, Jill Grinberg. (Her details are in the automatic reply.)

In conclusion

This time last year my writing was not going well. I was in a dither about what to write next and was working on four books at once. Obviously, see above, I concentrated on the 30s novel, which is not finished, and the sekrit project, which is.

I said my goal was to be happy writing and I was. That’s my goal for this year too. And for the rest of my life. I declare it to be a most excellent goal. I commend it to you!

Thanks everyone who wrote me letters of support and letters about my writing this year. Those letters were wonderful. I treasure them and I’m very sorry I haven’t been able to respond. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being moved by the different responses people have to my work.11

I hope 2011 shapes up beautifully for all of us.12

Happy new year!

  1. I’m sure when I re-read them I’ll be less thrilled but right now I think they’re fabulous. I’ll stick with that feeling, thanks. []
  2. Well, our agents did. Thank you, Jill! []
  3. Take that, smelly publishing truisms. I bet green covers aren’t the kiss of death either. []
  4. And, no, I’m not counting discussion generated by the cover controversy. []
  5. I don’t care what anyone says I think that’s the most important thing of all. []
  6. Not written by a friend or husband of mine. []
  7. And this was not, in fact, published in 2011. Current rumours are that it will be out April 2012. []
  8. You do not want to know how many days it took me to write this. []
  9. This is a very common condition. I know gazillions of writers in the same boat. []
  10. Yeah, I’m one of those people. Sorry! []
  11. Yes, many of your letters made me all teary. What can I say? I’m a sook. []
  12. Even the Australian cricket team. Not that I’m holding my breath on that one . . . []

Farewell For Now

As some of you may have noticed I’ve not been around much online. Sorry! Thank you so much for all the concerned supportive emails. They are much appreciated. (You made me all teary.)

Here’s where things stand with me:

The good news: The original injury that caused me to cut back on blogging is completely healed. Yay!

The bad news: The RSI in my hands and forearms got worse.

I took four weeks off from the computer entirely. I have reorganised my computer setup. I’ve been doing a vast amount of physical therapy. I’m improving. Slowly and frustratingly but surely.

However, my time at keyboard remains limited and my top priority is my novel. All else—blogging, tweeting, emailing—is on hiatus until I can get through a day’s1 work without pain.

I see that all sounds depressing. But honestly I’m doing great. While I miss being in close contact with all my fabby online friends.2 I’ve been spending more time with friends in the real world. I’ve been reading more than I have in years. Watching lots of crazy good anime. Who recommended Moribito? I LOVE YOU.3 I’ve been cooking up a storm. And immersing myself in the WNBA, NBA, French Open, various cricket series and am ecstatic about the coming World Cup and Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Life is very good.

So this is farewell for now. Thanks for all the support. It means heaps.4

I’ll be back.5

  1. I.e. four hours. []
  2. A LOT. []
  3. Feel free to make more recs in the comments. []
  4. Thanks to the lovely folks who inquired after my health at BEA. Even if most of you were Team Unicorn. What’s up with that? []
  5. But not in a scary way. I swear that I’m not a cyborg from the future hellbent on wiping out humanity. Me, I like humanity. []

Writer as Career v Writer as Identity

Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:

Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naïve.

There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).

That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”

I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.

If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.

Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.

Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.

That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.

If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.

You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.

All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.

  1. Hello, HSC year. []

Why I’ve Not Been Blogging (updated)

(Or answering email or responding to IM requests or to comments or been on Twitter or read many blogs.)

Like almost every writer I know, I have a number of chronic—though not particularly bad1—injuries, that were caused by (or flare up when) I spend a lot of time at my computer. Sitting at a computer for long hours is not good for your body. Which is why so many writers, receptionists, data processors, computer programmers etc etc2 have repetitive strain injuries, headaches, chronic back and neck problems, shooting pains in the arms and hands and so on and so forth.3

Like many of you, I frequently spend more than fourteen hours a day at my computer.4 A recent injury (not sitting-at-computer related) has made that impossible. In order for my injury to heal I have had to drastically reduce my time at the computer, which forced me to prioritise what I do there:

  1. Write novel.
  2. Answer urgent business related email.
  3. Blog.
  4. Answer other emails.
  5. IM with friends.
  6. Read blogs, twitter etc.

Here’s what most days since the injury have looked like:

  1. Write novel.

I no longer spend more than four hours on the computer. If the pain flares before four hours I stop. Four hours is not long so my novel gets my top priority. Many days writing my novel is the only thing I do at the computer. Ironically, I’ve written more in the last month than in the previous six. The book’s going well and I’m loving it. Bless, this injury!5 I have not once gotten past no. 4 on my list. So that is why you have not heard from me.

The acute injury is improving, slowly but surely.6 However, I have decided to stick to the current regime at least until the injury is completely healed and maybe longer because I have experienced less pain with my other chronic injuries as well.

In fact, February has seen me increase the amount of walking I do every day, I’ve taken up Pilates7, and I’ve upped the amount of time I spend at the gym.8 Injury aside, I feel better than I have in a long, long time. I’ve been reading way more books and manga as well.9

Because of this injury I’m fitter than I was, more flexible and, best of all, getting more writing and reading done. All good, right?

Not exactly. The reduced computer time has meant that I have not been communicating regularly with many of my close friends. I’m massively behind on email. I no longer IM.10 I feel like I’m losing touch with my online communities, which may sound trivial, but as Varian pointed out last week that sense of community is very important. It’s a large part of why I blog in the first place. Not blogging and responding to your comments has been difficult.

In fact, that is why this post. I don’t much like whingeing about my health here.11 Boring! But I couldn’t really think of any other way to let people know that even when I’m not responding I’m thinking about them. I feel especially bad about all the lovely fan mail I’m not answering.12 Several of the letters people have written me about Liar and have reduced me to tears.13 Thank you.

Thank you also to all my guest bloggers. You’ve kept this blog alive with entertaining, moving, informative, funny, wonderful posts. Bless you all. And thank you readers for supporting the blog in my absence. I’ve been so delighted to see the continued volume of traffic and comments. Yay!

One last thing: I know a fair number of you are in your teens and twenties and spending a vast amount of time at computers.14 If you’re not already taking care of your body now’s the time to get into good habits. Take frequent breaks, have an ergonomic set up,15 mouse with both hands16, take up yoga/pilates/tai chi/some kind of something that’s all about putting you in touch with the muscles in your body,17 drink gallons of water,18 stay as fit as you can, go outdoors etc etc.

You only get one body. Trust me, it will turn on you if you don’t treat it right.19

Update: You all need to read this beautiful, moving post by Tessa Kum about her struggles with RSI.

  1. I know people who have been crippled by RSIs and now can only write with voice recognition software. []
  2. There are bazillions of jobs that involve long hours sitting in front of a computer. []
  3. Any kind of repetitive movement done day after day can lead to injuries. I know a house painter with carpal tunnel. In fact, almost every profession has occupational hazards. I wish that careers days at school would include a list of the health risks & how to avoid getting them alongside all the other information they give about jobs. []
  4. I have, on occasion, spent fourteen hours straight just IMing. Yeah, I know. []
  5. No, not really. []
  6. To repeat, it’s not a drastic injury. []
  7. On doctor’s rec. I was dubious, but it’s been great. []
  8. While injured I can’t do upper body strength stuff but I can do lots of cardio. []
  9. Pluto is awesome! []
  10. Which I miss so much. It’s such a great way to stay in touch and shoot the fat. It’s also a great way to stay online for hours and hours and destroy all that great rehab work. []
  11. Especially as I know many people who are dealing with much, much worse than I am. []
  12. Once I’m properly healed I’ll be devoting time to answering it. []
  13. In a good way. I am a big sook but that doesn’t mean the letters aren’t beautiful and moving. []
  14. I know several people in their twenties who are already dealing with RSIs. []
  15. Yes, writing hunched over your laptop on a couch is really bad for you. []
  16. I have two mouses attached to my keyboard and alternate between them when I work []
  17. Just to state the obvious: different things work for different people. []
  18. Drink much water = pee much. Which means getting up a lot. Which is a very good thing. []
  19. Not that you aren’t your body. Mind/body split, you are imaginary! []