On making time and recognising privilege

no-one-has-timeI posted the meme you see here the other day on Twitter and Facebook, etc. It generated a fair bit of comment, some of it a bit snarky. So I thought maybe I ought to address the concept. Firstly, I stand by the basic premise of the meme, which we’ll look at below. But of course, real life has nuance that a few words on a picture don’t.

So let’s start with privilege. Yes, it’s absolutely true that if you can make time to write you are enjoying a certain level of privilege. If you live in a war torn country or you have to work 18 hours a day just to live, making time to write is not even on your radar. If you’ve had enough education to be able to write at all, let alone create coherent sentences that others might want to read, you are privileged. But in all honesty, a meme like this isn’t directed at people unfortunate enough to have no education or to spend all their waking hours simply not dying. We need to direct aid and care to those people wherever we can, not trite internet memes.

This meme is targeted squarely at the “I’d love to write but I just don’t have time” brigade. No one has time. We’re all busy living life. Unless you are incredibly privileged, and it’s a sad truth that a lot of successful writers are the ones who actually are incredibly privileged. We can’t ignore that truth. The ones who have independent wealth in the form of a trust fund or a partner who’s happy to pay all the bills. They don’t need to fit writing in around work, because they can make writing their work whether it’s actually paying anything or not. This meme is not for them, either. If they can’t find time or motivation to write, then fuck ’em. That’s just lazy or they don’t really want it.

This meme is directed at the regular people. Those folks privileged enough to have an education and a job and a roof over their head and no fear of starving to death in the immediate future. Those people are busy as hell, sure. We have jobs to go to, families to take care of, social engagements to meet, sleep to get somewhere if the kids will let us. But if people in those positions want to write, they absolutely can do so. They have to make the time, that’s all.

Let me use myself as an example. When I wrote RealmShift I was working a nine-to-five office drudge job to pay the bills and I was training and/or teaching six nights a week. I had a wife who wanted to see me sometimes. So I made time in the middle of the day. I used to have a bunch of stuff in the fridge at work and every lunch time I would quickly make a sandwich, then sit at my desk and eat it while I worked on the book. I wrote that entire novel, and a large part of MageSign, during lunch hours, plus any other time at weekends or evenings that I could make a space. Because that’s how badly I wanted to write.

Subsequently, I began building a life that included writing. I retrained to get my full fitness professional qualifications and I went into business for myself as a personal trainer. I had early morning and lunchtime clients, I taught martial arts in the evenings, and I had chunks of time between those things – a few hours mid-morning or mid-afternoon a few days a week – where I wrote. I made writing as important as those other things to make it happen, because that’s how badly I wanted it.

When my son was born, I’d just sold a trilogy to Voyager. I did most of the editing of those books one-handed, with a sleeping newborn cradled in in my left arm. And no, he didn’t sleep like a baby (what a fucking inaccurate piece of garbage that saying is!) But whenever I did get him to sleep, I would sneak into the study and edit. He’s two and a half now, and currently napping. I might get an hour or so to write, so I’m writing this. I’m sacrificing an hour on the current novel because I thought this subject was important.

And that’s the heart of it. Sacrifice. Like the meme says, How much do you want it? If you want it badly enough, you will make time. And if you don’t want to make time, if you don’t actually want to write – need to write – that badly, then that’s okay. Really, it is, there’s no shame in that. But don’t go around acting like anyone who is writing is doing it because they have all these bags of empty time on hand and they’re just having a lark. Those people writing are working fucking hard. They are sacrificing. Because that’s how much they want it.

How badly do you want it?

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CI-A, Me and the Battle of the Worlds

I was looking through some old stuff my mum had saved and discovered a bunch of old exercise books. Most of it is pretty rubbish, appalling “religious education” that was nothing but Christian indoctrination and so on. In truth, I always hated school, never got on well with a classroom environment, with one exception: I loved English. The chance to write stories and read books? That was my kind of schooling. It’s the only thing I was ever good at, academically, so it’s no surprise that these days I’m a writer and a martial artist.

I remember my first ever experience of storytelling. I was about seven years old and we were told to write a story about what we did on the school holidays. Most kids came back with paragraph or two about nanna’s house or whatever. I came back with seven or eight pages about a dude who went back in time and got chased around by dinosaurs. The teacher didn’t believe I’d written it and rang my parents. They said they had no idea about it, I must have done it all in my room. So my teacher, duly impressed, got me to read it to the class. As I stood up there with my knees trembling, reading this thing, I realised all the faces were enraptured. After class, kids were coming up to me saying how great it was and how they wished it wouldn’t end. I was amazed. I had discovered the power of storytelling. I never looked back.

Sadly I can’t find that time travel story I remember so well. Maybe I will one day. But I have found other stuff. One was a story I wrote when I was nine years old, and it shows my influences so clearly already. There’s science-fiction, horror and fantasy, shameless pillages from Star Wars and Doctor Who. It’s classic early Baxter. So I decided to transcribe it for posterity here. Below you’ll find the story, accurately transcribed with all my spelling errors and so on included. But I have added paragraphs. Seems I had a thing about not using them – lots of other stories in big blocks of text with my teacher getting more exasperated about it every time.

After the transcription are scans of the original pages with my teacher’s notes. Perhaps my favourite thing about this story is the teacher’s comment at the end:

very good

“Very good, Alan. I think you enjoyed yourself too. 1 house point.”

You’re right, teacher. I really did enjoy myself. And I still do – nothing is more fun than writing stories. And I scored a house point! That was a big deal back then. Anyway, don’t expect anything brilliant, but here I present to you:

 

CI-A, Me and the Battle of the Worlds

(A story from California)

by Alan Baxter (age 9 ½)

 

“Com’n CI its time to get up.”

“Bleep Bleep Bleep Bloop.”

“No I won’t let you lie in I’ve gotta catch my breakfast.”

“Bleeeeep.”

“bleep bleep or not I want my breakfast. Look CI if you get up you can have some of your favorite drink.”

Bleep bleep bleep.

“Yes oil. Now you get up while I catch my breakfast.”

Bleep bleep bleep sis bloop?

“Yes you can pour your own.”

I caught my breakfast and ate it. Then we got in our spaceship and flew to ALPHA-Z-6 (which was CI-A’s home planet) and landed on the spacestations landing pad and went inside the station. When we got inside the station we found out that it was completely demolished.

“My god CI is this the right planet?”

“bleep bleep athermative.”

“Com’n CI I’m gonna get to the bottom of this.”

“DINCAS APPROCHING.”

“Whats approching”

“DINCAS master”

“What the heck are dincas”

“Those are dincas master”

“Stop calling me master will you. Suffering sausages are they the dincas.”?

“ATHERMATIVE.”

“HECK, their just the daleks CI.”

“Athermative they are the second type of daleks.”

“Second type would they attack us”?

“Athermative. But I could fight back with my lazers beams.”

“What.”

“Lazer beams”

“All right I heard you the first time. But you couldn’t fight all of them theres dozens of them you’ve only got 7 lazers.”

CI gave a loud whistle and hundreds of CI-A’s came zooming in.

“We are going to attack the DINCAS they have completely destroyed our planet so we are going to destroy them! CHARGE.”

All the CI-A’s went zooming off fireing their lazers at the DINCAS. After a long and very noisey fight the DINCAS were all destroyed and not one of the CI-A’s.

“Well thanks CI you and your brothers sure did destroy them.”

We all helped build a new space station and after 2 ½ years the new space station was built. CI interduced me to his best friend. I made friends with him and he was called 8-9-Z CI-A 8-9-Z and I lived on the planet for a couple of years and then we had a spacestorm on the part of the planet where we were. A space storm is very colurful, but very dangeous aswell. It is a storm of colured lazer beams. One of the beams hit our ship so the robots and I could not get home.

When the storm finished we all went out to look at the ship to see weather it was re-buildable or not. We were all dissapointed. “O well you two we’ll have to start building one from scratch. After 6 months we had finished building it and 8-9-Z, CI-A and I flew home only to find that the dreaded wherewolf had attacked the village. There were dead people lying everywhere. O well here we go again another adventure to sort out. Just then CI-A sent up a rocket jet flare and all his brothers came down in their space-ship to help us out again. All CI’s brothers and sisters said that they had brought some equitment for catching wherewolfs. That made me pleased because it would make it easier to catch it. Just then there was a low growl.

“Ut, oh here he comes.”

Cis brothers went forward to attak but they retreated when they saw how huge the monster was.

“Look at the size of it CI is that the one that attaked your planet last month”?

“Athermative it is the one that attaked our planet.”

“Holy mackeral its eating the houses”

“Hang on a minute whats 8-9-Z doing with that spray”?

“He is using the water of life to bring the dead people to life.”

Just then the wherewolf came into full view of us CI-a swung round and fired all 7 lazers at it. It fell down dead and 8-9-Z CI-a and I put it in a little rowing boat and sunk it so all Cis brothers went home and CI 8-9-Z and I could settle down to a happy life again.

THE END

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Motivation and refreshing the well

I spent this past weekend at GenreCon. You can see my previous post for some photos of that fantastic event. As part of his opening speech, con organiser Peter M Ball said the following incredibly true thing:

GOOD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WRITERS TALK TO EACH OTHER.

He later blogged with the follow-up half of that truism:

BETTER THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WRITERS HELP EACH OTHER.

I cannot emphasise just how true these things are. You mix with other writers and you learn all you can. You help other writers, with no view to a reward, but you’ll be rewarded anyway with other writers helping you in turn. You will benefit from friendly and open socialising with your peers, whether they’re streets ahead of you in their career or just starting out. But apart from that, the reason to hang out with other writers is because it is just so fucking motivating.

You talk about writing and publishing, you share successes and failures, you learn things you didn’t know before or you’re reminded of things you’d somehow sort of forgotten. You come away from these events with such a burning desire to work harder and be better and chase success that it makes all the struggle and the default position of rejection so much easier to bear. It reminds you why you do what you do. Other than the old truth that we writers simply couldn’t not write, by going to events like GenreCon we’re reminded that there are so many other people out there who share our particular brand of insanity and that’s incredibly empowering.

It’s also important, however, to remember that you need time and space. Creativity is born in boredom. Brains need downtime, when they’re certainly not switched off, but they’re actively resting. It’s a necessary part of being a writer to get out and do nothing. Since GenreCon, which was only a couple of days ago, I’ve written about 5,000 new words, pitched a non-fiction article to a pro venue, polished a short story and sent it to a wonderful beta reader and more. This is alongside running the kung fu academy and having a two year old son. But that’s my normal. It’s great and I love it.

This morning I woke up with a virtual iron spike through my eye, quivering on the verge of a migraine. I don’t get them often, but when I do they’re utterly debilitating. They happen when I’m too stressed/busy and too tired. The busy-ness or the tiredness on their own are no big deal. When the two line up in force, BOOM! It’s migraine time. Usually I can tell it’s coming and head it off. Today I almost couldn’t.

Wednesday mornings are one of my dedicated writing times, before I go out to teach classes through the afternoon and evening. But with the head I had this morning, I knew I needed some self-care. So I took my dog to the beach and walked in the rain. It was beautiful. Then I went into town with him, got a coffee and just sat on a bench under an awning and watched the world go by for an hour.

Now I’m home, recharged, my potential migraine reduced to a dull ache that will continue to fade. I feel refreshed and enlivened. And the best bit? All that stuff I did this morning is still writing. My brain was actively resting, turning over plot and story in my hindmind. Watching people in town gave me insights into characters. Nothing conscious, no note taking, but it all feeds the beast. It refreshes the creative wells. So now I’m back at my desk, writing up this post about it, then I’ll get back to the novel for an hour or two before I have to go to work. I might only add 1,000 new words, where most Wednesdays I might write up to 5,000, but that doesn’t matter. It’s healthy forward progress, it’s sustainable and enjoyable.

So mix with your peers, online all the time and in person when you can. Be inspired, be motivated, but remember to look after yourself too. There’s an old proverb: Fear not moving slowly. Fear only standing still.

Be well and if you make half a page of progress one week, congratulate yourself. Aim to do more next week. If you don’t, so what? Do more the week after. Just keep going and stay healthy. And yes, in some ways this is a thinly veiled NaNoWriMo post, but it’s more than that. It’s about the importance of interaction and isolation, and recognising when you need both. It applies to everything, not just the writing life. It’s about all of life.

Be well!

A photo from my walk today - Kiama headland from Bombo Beach.
A photo from my walk today – Kiama headland from Bombo Beach.

Rejectomancy in words and numbers

There’s been a lot of talk online lately about rejectomancy. For those who don’t know, rejectomancy is the dark art of turning rejection into motivation and positive reinforcement. It’s a kind of bloody-minded alchemy of will. As Kate Heartfield wrote for the SFWA Facebook page on the subject:

Now I’m a non-fiction editor as well as a fiction writer, and I understand that rejection is the default, as it would be in any other transaction. When a customer walks past a rack of shirts in a store, that is not necessarily an assessment of the store-owner’s abilities. Maybe the customer is looking for pants. Maybe someone else will buy a shirt.

This is a great analogy and the line “rejection is the default” is absolute gold. It’s really worth bearing in mind two things when submitting for publication:

1. There are hundreds of people vying for a handful of spots, so you are much more likely to be rejected than accepted;

2. Rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad – it means your story is not right for that market at that time. You’re selling shirts while that editor is looking for pants.

Now, of course, repeated rejection might well be a sign that your story is bad. That’s what beta-readers, critique groups, editors and so on are for. As a writer, you absolutely must learn from rejection. Every time a story comes back, give it another read, another polish. Always make sure it’s been through the wringer of critique before you send it out in the first place. It’s in your best interests to only send out your best work, and your best work is not a first draft. Or even a second, third or fourth draft. And the better you get, the more likely you are to succeed with submissions.

You will, of course, get better the more you write, the more you submit, the more you learn. You should always be honing your craft. I know that I’m always looking to improve. I always try to learn from rejection. I’m definitely a far better writer now than I was ten years ago – that’s evidenced by the fact that I can make pro sales now where before I was selling into semi-pro markets, and before that token pay markets, or giving stories away to non-paying markets. Incidentally, you should never do that. I should never have done that. No one reads non-paying markets (except for a few notable exceptions) and you’re really just throwing work away. But, of course, we all do it, looking for that early validation of being published. So go for it, do what works, but try to gravitate to paying markets ASAP. Even if it’s a token payment of ten bucks or a bucket of cold fish or a fucking hat. Get something for your work.

But I digress. Back to rejectomancy. When I say there’s been a lot of it about, I’m talking about things that SFWA post I linked above and then Elizabeth Bear tweeting:

And Nalo Hopkinson replying with this:

In fact, those tweets triggered a flood of chat and it’s been Storified here:
https://storify.com/rcloenenruiz/the-writing-life-the-truth-about-rejections

Pretty good reading, right?

You didn’t read it? Go! Read it now, I’ll wait…

*flicks over to the other open tabs*

*makes sure no one is watching*

*giggles*

Oh, you’re back? So, that says it all about about rejection and I don’t need to say more. So why am I crapping on about it here? Because that’s what I do. And I thought I’d add some numbers of my own to the mix. A lot of those folks are talking about novels as well as short stories and the same rules apply to both in terms of submission and rejection. But for the sake of numbers, here are my figures for short fiction.

Out of 56 published short stories for which I have rejection figures, I have a total of 238 rejections. That might seem like a good rate at first glance – after all, an acceptance rate averaging a hit for every 4 or 5 submissions would be fucking great! I’d love to have a strike rate like that. But I don’t.

Some of those early hits were non-paying markets that accepted my story on the first try. Zero rejections for that yarn. Which is good on the face of it, but is actually only because those markets are desperate for anything that’s basically literate and a trained monkey could get published there.

There are also several stories on that list which were accepted with zero rejections because they were written specifically for anthologies after I’d been invited to submit. That happens later in a career when you’ve established yourself and your ability. Sometimes editors come to you. It’s an awesome feeling and one of which I’ll never tire. Of course, even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be accepted, but the chances are obviously much higher than cold subs.

So all those with zero rejections are actually skewing the results a lot.

Looking at cold subs, to paying markets, I have a handful there that landed the right home on the first try, but the vast majority have at least a few rejections first. Among those, I have 24 published stories that collected 5 or more rejections before selling. That’s almost half of my published stories that were rejected five times or more. The rest had 1 to 4 rejections, with the handful of exceptions mentioned earlier. But let’s just look at those with 5 or more rejections before a sale.

Of those 24, the breakdown is like this:

8 stories rejected 5 times before selling.

3 stories rejected 6 times before selling.

2 stories rejected 7 times before selling.

3 stories rejected 9 times before selling.

2 stories rejected 10 times before selling.

1 story rejected 11 times before selling.

1 story rejected 12 times before selling.

3 stories rejected 14 times before selling. (Not sure why 14 is becoming a theme!)

And my current record-holder:

1 story rejected 17 times before selling.

That’s right. I have a story that was rejected 17 times and I didn’t give up on it. You know why? Because I’m a stubborn fucker with a skin thicker than a geriatric rhino. You have to be if you want to be a successful writer. But you know what else? That story changed a lot between submissions. It started out as a sci-fi story and sold as an urban horror story. I realised the SF trappings were wrong for that one. I listened to editorial comments. I made it better. And then I started sending it to the right markets for that kind of story.

Several of the stories with high rejection counts had similar changes – massive cuts, title changes, characters taken out or put in. But not all of them. For many of them, the changes were very small, but I just kept on until I found the right desk at the right time. I used rejectomancy to alchemically change those stories from unpublished to published.

Subsequently, among those stories with 5 or more rejections, one won a competition, several were listed on Recommended Reading lists, and a couple were nominated for awards!

That tweet from Elizabeth Bear above is so true: “Right desk, right day, right story, write better. It never stops being true.”

So good. I might put that on the wall above my desk, in fact.

So there you have it. The dark art of rejectomancy. Embrace it. Use it. Learn to love it. Go and read that Storify about rejection again. And whenever you feel down about it all, just remember that some of the greatest books and stories in the world were rejected numerous times before they sold. There’s nothing different about you. Stay strong, be stubborn, thicken your skin, always hone your craft and never give up.

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Social Media and Book Marketing – Advice from Robert Hoge

Robert Hoge is a good friend of mine, a top bloke and a great writer. We were having a conversation with other friends a little while ago and the subject of social media engagement and book promotion came up. Rob is very savvy about that stuff and he promised to put his thoughts on the subject together. When he did, I found I agreed with him pretty much 100%. So, as I know a lot of writers read my blog, I asked if I could steal his thoughts and spread them out for everyone to consume, like a mass picnic of Rob’s brainmeats. He said yes. I told you he was a top bloke. So here you go:

Robert Hoge’s Social Media and Book Marketing Advice

There are a few simple tips for authors trying to get the best from their social media presence.

There are some good guides out there. I like “Your First 1000 Copies” by Tim Grahl but there’s a lot of stuff available on the web for free. Much of this is geared towards non-fiction writing but with some creativity it can be applied to fiction just as easily. You just need to have something to say.

Tip 1

Have something to say. The most important thing you can do – whatever the channel – is create content that is engaging and adds value. The biggest commitment you’re asking from potential readers is not a commitment of dollars; it’s a commitment of time and attention. Reward their attention with smart, funny, engaging content that adds value to their lives and does more than just ask them to buy your book because it’s cheaper now.

Offer value by talking about stuff that relates to your work but isn’t your work. Establish a relationship with people on social media by consistently being interesting and adding value to their experience. Be real. When the time is right ask them to buy (read) your work. You’re creative people. Be creative.

Tip 2

1908138_871371366267410_6973824597014610978_nBe on Facebook. A lot of readers are on Facebook, as are publishers, reviewers and bookstores. If you want to market yourself to readers through social media, you should have some presence there. When you follow the advice in tip one, the network effects are tremendous.

Understand the Facebook algorithm, then stop worrying about it. The Facebook algorithm helps determine who sees what. For fan (non-personal) pages it initially only serves new content to about one-fifth or less of the people who’ve liked the page. Everyone blames the Facebook algorithm for a post only having eight likes but it’s not to blame. Boring posts are to blame. If you post interesting and engaging content that generates likes, comments and shares, Facebook will reward the post by serving it to more readers. Ask questions, post video, post images. Every time someone comments on your post, like it and reply because Facebook recognises that as engagement.

Tip 3

Be on Twitter. Twitter is a great place to converse and its network effects can sometimes be much greater than Facebook’s. All the points in tip one still apply, plus you get to hone your writing skills by making Tweets sing in 140 characters.

Generally though, Twitter is worse at serving content to all your followers than Facebook. Why is that? Well, Twitter is an ephemeral medium and whether you have 20, 200 or 20,000 followers they’re unlikely to all be online at the same time you post your tweet. Often less than 10% of your followers will see an individual tweet.

Check out www.analytics.twitter.com to start looking at some details of your tweets and what engagement they get. A post on your Facebook fan page remains there for potential new readers to see for quite a while. A tweet will be gone pretty quickly.

Tip 4

If you enjoy other channels, go wild. If you’re great at photos, hang out on Instagram. If you love reviewing, engage an audience on Goodreads. Just be engaging and add value in a way that’s interesting.

I’d discourage you from posting the same content on multiple channels all the time. To me it shows you’re not interested in engaging in a way that suits a particular channel. And if a reader who likes you on Facebook or Twitter decides to checks you out on Instagram hoping to see new content and just sees the same old stuff, do you think they’ll be more or less inclined to follow you on that new channel? By all means, do it sometimes (maybe one post in 10) but doing it all the time is a turn-off. Instead work out how you can leverage different opportunities across channels to serve each other.

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Random point 1

Mobile, mobile, mobile. More and more web content is being served to mobile devices. Facebook knows this and Google knows this and they’re already starting to reward websites that are optimized for mobile. Make sure your website and content is optimized for mobile delivery. Google it. [I’m in the process of updating this website to a mobile friendly format right now. It’s really important these days! – Alan]

Random point 2

Don’t market solely on price drops. This is a really common social media error. If a reader can afford to spend $2.99 on a book, they can probably afford to spend $4.99. When you market solely on price you forget the other thing you’re asking the reader to give you – their time. The value of your work is not in its price. Mention a price drop, by all means, but find something else to talk about too. Why should a potential reader think your 93,000 word novel can hold their attention, when your 18 word tweet barely can?

Random point 3

A lot of writers spend a lot of time on social media talking to other writers about writing (ahem). It’s fine networking and chatting with mates. But don’t confuse that with marketing your books. Readers don’t care. It doesn’t count as reader engagement.

Random point 4

My personal experience is that engaging with potential readers one-on-one, in-person or over email is a really powerful tool. It’s not time effective but for me it has been really rewarding and it has helped convert fans to influencers. Just be careful how you invest your time.

 

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72640_471409952930222_934403925_nRobert Hoge has managed social media for the Queensland Government and Virgin Australia. Mostly though he uses it to talk to people about writing, disability and whatever else takes his fancy. He’s written a memoir, Ugly, about growing up disabled and different. You can find him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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