Finishing The Lucky Escape ... or ... how to write a novel in 5.5 weeks with graphs and stuff

Thirty-eight days ago, I started the draft of "The Lucky Escape", which is due out in about 15 months (timelines are longish in publishing, so I'm usually working on something that won't be out for months, for good reasons, like editing ;)). Writers come in all flavours and I'm the type who does "project-orientated" writing - bursts of intense activity that achieves a particular milestone. I can't hold the story in my mind if I write it slowly over a long period, so I write fast over a short time, and then I edit later when I can see the whole story as it is.

I also like to keep track of what I do. Having data on what I've done before helps me for future deadlines (like, can I do an edit in four weeks? Can I write a book in two months?). I find that very necessary if I'm trying to juggle writing with other activities (let's face it, most of us writers are). So, here's some essential information about writing "The Lucky Escape".

Note: Often before, I've made a higher weekday target but taken the weekends off writing. But I've found those higher word goals stressful. So this time, I made a target of 2000 words per day, every day. I'm shooting for 90,000 words for the final book, but I tend to add words when I edit, so I write the draft short (closer to 80k) so that I don't panic at the rising wordcount when I edit.

  • Total days to write: 38 (5.5 weeks)
  • Most number of words per day: 3800
  • Fewest words per day: 500
  • Average words per day: 2131
  • Average words per day in first half of the book: 2368
  • Average words per day in the second half: 1894
Writing progress of "The Lucky Escape" - red dashed line was the required rate of 2000 words per day. Blue solid line is my actual progress (plotted on the left axis). The green line (plotted on the right axis) is how my words per day varied.

Writing progress of "The Lucky Escape" - red dashed line was the required rate of 2000 words per day. Blue solid line is my actual progress (plotted on the left axis). The green line (plotted on the right axis) is how my words per day varied.

What's the point of all this?

A few things. Firstly, that big things are accomplished in writing (like in all things) little by little (basically the point of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird). Motivation is often high early in the book when I'm playing with the bright shiny new idea. That enthusiasm often comes to a crashing halt in the middle. You can see that in the much higher average daily word counts in the first half of the book (they're higher again in the first quarter, 2570 per day, compared to the third quarter, 1800 per day). What carries through those hard slog parts are the habit and discipline of the work, and having a clear plan and goal in mind. I can't work without that.

Secondly, that writing (again, like all things) has bad days. Very bad days. You can write even when that's happening. My extremely difficult PhD confirmation process happened during the writing of this book, and a conference trip with the toddler to Melbourne. I referenced the plan. I didn't have to worry about when I'd be done, because I knew what I had to do today. One day at a time can be really powerful. I got ahead when I could, and used up the credit when I had to. If you want to write (or anything) don't be waiting to be in the mood. The mood is fickle. Some days, you get shit sandwichs to eat.

Finally, first drafts are not the end of the process. Like all books, this book needs editing. Now that it's a complete manuscript, however, I know exactly what I'm working with.

That's it for this! Whatever you're doing today, if it's a bad day, remember little by little, and work out what you have to do today to survive. I'm now going to celebrate by pausing to do some cathartic cleaning before planning the next thing. Onward :)

Driving across a continent

Even as I'm finishing the copy edits for The Paris Wedding (have you seen the cover??), I'm planning the research trip for my next novel (working title, The Lucky Escape). This is a story that takes place on an unlikely road trip, and so naturally I'm doing one of my own.

My planning map. The first pin the coast (a bit faint) is LA. The second-last pin on the right (the last yellow one) is Nashville!

My planning map. The first pin the coast (a bit faint) is LA. The second-last pin on the right (the last yellow one) is Nashville!

The plan is to land in LA and, having familiarised myself with right-hand driving over a whole day and night (what could go wrong?) I'll take to the highway and drive east to Nashville. In four days. Now, if you're not familiar with US geography, that's a fair way. It's the equivalent of driving further than Brisbane to Rockhampton every day. The route crosses seven states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oaklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee) and takes me through or past many famous places. Places that I only know from movies, history, or legend. Once I arrive in Nashville, I'll fly to New York for the last part of the research, before flying back to LA and home. All in all, away less than 10 days.

It's a big thing, necessitated by being away from certain little person at this end and the pressure of the story itself. But Hopefully in all those "what could go wrong" moments I'll find research gold. I'll try (connection committing) to blog and post photos about the whole experience. So, stay tuned in early May next year.

Mudgee Readers Festival - an awesome weekend

Cherry blossoms just coming out in Mudgee

Cherry blossoms just coming out in Mudgee

Me with Amy Andrews, Alissa Callen, and Jenn J McLeod after our Books With Heart panel.

Me with Amy Andrews, Alissa Callen, and Jenn J McLeod after our Books With Heart panel.

Custom choccies! The Horseman's is a chocolate whip, haha!

Custom choccies! The Horseman's is a chocolate whip, haha!

I have to write a special blog about the last weekend where I was privileged to be invited to Mudgee Readers Festival. Despite coming down with "festpox" from Byron and having a squeaky or non-existent voice for the whole weekend, it was a wonderful time. Mudgee is a gorgeous town and the festival was so well organised, the events well attended. I met many local readers and writers, and made new friends. 

On Saturday morning, the funny and generous Summer Land hosted a book club session for The Horseman where we discussed all things about the book (sans spoilers) and romance with a group of festival-goers. Then, on Saturday night, the Rant! entertained a huge dinner crowd at the golf club.

I was somewhat intimidated to be up with some very big names ranting about the perception of romance, but it was a great evening and everyone was encouraging. Luke Carman was superb as MC, and Fiona WrightJane CaroDavid Henley and Alison Whittaker gave funny, powerful and passionate rants on subjects from quitting sugar and the nanny state, to knocking public schools and the apology to Indigenous Australians. David Burton, ranting about men, was hilarious in advocating for manhood to mean more than blokey things, and Sami Shah brought the house down at the end with pointed and accurate comedic rant about the state of Australian racism. A fantastic night. 

This was backed up on Sunday with a Books with Heart panel with fellow romance writers Amy AndrewsJenn J McLeod, and Alissa Callen. Books with Heart even gave out chocolates themed on current books, including mine - how cool!

All in all, Mudgee was a special festival and I'd love to go again. I encourage everyone to check it out.

The Horseman's first fortnight - charts, reprint, reviews and messages

The Horseman's now been out for two weeks, and they've been amazing days. iBooks chose it as a best book of July, and gave it an amazing review, as did ScandaliciousTalking Books and even the staff at Dymocks Sydney. Equally amazing was then to see it reach 12th on the top Australian iBooks, and within the top ten in romance. Readers around Australia have been sending me "shelfies" (pics of the cover in their local store!) and lovely review of their own. I was particularly touched when one reader wrote to tell me that the story had provided some much needed escape at a time of grief. If I'd had no other feedback on any of my writing, ever, that would have been enough. My goal is to write good stories. Knowing The Horseman has been read an enjoyed is the ultimate fulfillment. And to cap the marvelous fortnight, this week The Horseman went to re-print. Thank you, everyone. I'll be working on the next one :)

Editing The Paris Wedding, The Horseman launch, and other stuff in June

I can't believe that it's been nearly two months since I wrote a blog, especially as that last blog post was in Paris. It feels too long ago! (or maybe that's the awful jet lag talking ... the ten days after we got back were pretty brutal). Anyway, this morning I'm sitting down to edit The Paris Wedding, which I have been resting for these past two months and which I now have my trusted friend/editor/beta-reader's notes on. The cold snap here in Brisbane is the perfect reminder of that glorious Paris trip; trying to resist leafing through photos instead of editing!

Ah, a sunny day, just cruising the Seine ...

Ah, a sunny day, just cruising the Seine ...

Other than that, there's lots of things happening. As I think I've posted on before, I started my PhD this year so I had assessment to hand in (done, fortunately), and The Horseman will be out in only a few weeks! We are having a launch at Avid Reader in Brisbane in July, so click on over to the books page if you want to see the details.

The box of books arrived on my birthday - nice timing!

The box of books arrived on my birthday - nice timing!

I've been doing so much reading lately I haven't seen many movies, but the movie adaptation of Jo Jo Moyes's Me Before You is almost out ... I'm not sure whether to see it. The book was fabulous and I have my mental images of Will and Lou - not sure I want them replaced with the cast actors, which always happens. Anyone else have that problem? All right, enough rambling and editing avoidance. Onwards!

The Horseman - Cover Reveal!

Landing in my inbox today, what did I find? Only the fabulously sexy cover for my next book! 

Loving the fresh look and the atmosphere in this cover - oh, and don't mind the hero either, ahem :)

Can't wait for release day, only a few months to go (which sounds like ages but really isn't - where did January go?). Of course, you can pre-order to get it as fast as possible. Will keep this space posted with news.

Horseman Giveaway Winner!

Thanks for your patience as I took a few days to get to randomly selecting winner - thanks to everyone who signed up for the newsletter to enter (and those existing receivers who were also in the draw). I'm happy to announce now that the winner of a personally signed copy of The Horseman is Sharyn Williams - congratulations! Look out for an email from me with all the details.

Why my mum is the best

I'm the type of person pretty used to doing everything myself, and I tend to need to get everything done before I can relax. It's probably driven by internal guilt, but if I'm applying for jobs I call it "work ethic" because that sounds more positive. Anyway, this is great for a writer as my procrastination time is minimal. Terrible, however, for keeping blood pressure at healthy levels, because sometimes perfect storms happen and a la Sheldon Cooper, I can't let it go. I'm getting to my Mum. Bear with me.

So, anyway, we moved house in the last week, and if that wasn't enough, leaving a rental property means the usual clean-all-the-things. Except of course that even declaring I would pay professionals can't get all the things cleaned, not at this time of year. Exit cleaners won't do blinds or curtains. The blind cleaners are on holiday. The dry cleaners have a backlog on curtains until the end of January, and of course we have to have everything sorted before the official end of lease just after new year. Which means, basically, now.

So, me being me I go look at the curtains. Their labels say they can be handwashed, so I drag them to the cottage laundry and do said washing. Hang them, dry them. And then they were crumpled as week old bedsheets. I tried to iron them according to instructions, but those creases were burned in there. Nothing was shifting them. Plus, Master A is trying to crawl under the ironing board, pulling on the enormous curtains or the iron cord, which must look like great toys. Put him in the other room, and, well, screaming.

It took me an hour to realise I was in over my head. The curtains might be clean, but they looked awful, and two of them were bigger than bed sheets - impossible to tackle in a cottage with what felt like a Barbie-sized ironing board. I called professional ironing people, who refused to do curtains. And finally, I tearily called my mum.

Fast forward an hour and a half and my mum and step dad were at my house. They drove 45 minutes across town the day before Christmas eve with a car full of equipment, borrowed my ironing board and iron, and told me not to worry. Two hours later and mum had not only made the curtains look AMAZING (ironing damp was the secret - mum's a fab seamstress and knows these things) but my step dad had cleaned all the blinds, something I hadn't even contemplated yet because ... well, the horror. Mum said she was happy to do it, enjoyed doing it (I don't believe that for a second, but I appreciate trying to make me feel better). 

It was such a relief to have them take that pressure off, at short notice with zero fuss. Not everyone is fortunate to have wonderful parents, but I wish for everyone to have someone in their life who they can turn to when everything is too much. And I wanted to put this up as a tribute to my Mum and step dad - you're wonderful people. Thankyou, and all my love. xxx

December News - The Horseman cover, writing with a baby, and other stuff.

So, yesterday I saw my first glimpse of The Horseman's cover. It looks mad (in the brilliant sense) and I'm itching to show it to you all. I will be giving my newsletter subscribers a sneak preview as soon as the final res comes through, so sign up if you haven't already. The next newsletter will also have a giveaway, some stuff about thus-far unpublished projects, and some useful Christmas-y stuff.

So that's that. Now, to the nuts and bolts of what I do each day, which is write. I'm currently writing the first draft of my next project, which involves the recent research trip to Parkes and a trip to Paris next year (so you can imagine how excited I am about it). I'm just under 30k in, which I've written since the start of December. That's not bad going, given I get about 2-3 work hours a day, and I've moved house in that time. This past few weeks (and months) has taught me a few things about writing:

  1. I work much better with time pressure. When the window is narrow, and I'm desperate to get those words out, procrastination has to bugger off. There's no time to stuff around. This is much like I used to write when I worked full-time. A few precious house in the evening and weekend was all there was, and I was incredibly productive.
  2. Staying in the chair ups the word count. Most of the time, I'm back to writing with the baby sleeping on my lap. Then, I can't get up. So the washing, the cleaning, the whatever else also must bugger off. There's no time for that.
  3. Social media has to bugger off too. This is my first blog in a while. I haven't been on facebook more than a handful of minutes. Nor twitter. Pinterest only for research board. There is zero time to spend chatting, commenting or engaging when you're writing a book.

My goal before Master A was to write 3000 words a day for first drafts. Now I aim for 2000, and most days I'm hitting it; some I do more, some a little less, and I don't expect words on the weekend. What's to learn from this? If you're writing and you can't get words done (and I see the problem a lot in my teaching), maybe ask yourself what else is occupying your time, and why that's so much more damn important than your book. Or ask if maybe someone needs to be figuratively standing over you with a whip - making a deadline could make a difference. Or are you saying to yourself that your writing doesn't matter as much as all this other stuff? (it does, by the way, your need to write is not mutually exclusive with other responsibilities, even parenthood - if this is you, you might be interested in this - I don't like everything about it but the spirit is good). Maybe another blog a later time on the real nuts and bolts of how I'm doing this (writing 2k a day while full-time caring for a nearly 9-month old). But for now ...

... I'll just end in saying, from amidst the pile of boxes in my house, best wishes to all for the upcoming festiveness, whichever variety of it you celebrate. Love and safety for everyone, and I hope Santa brings you good books :)

Research Bound to Parkes

So, assuming there's no disasters between now and Monday, I'll be heading off with Master A on the first of two research trips for the next project. The trip will begin in Sydney but rapidly head west through the Blue Mountains and then hopefully end up in Parkes, which I've only ever waved at from the car on the way through before. I'm looking forward to it. Travelling with Master A means I haven't committed to be in any particular place at specific times, but you can be sure I'll plan to drop into any libraries and see all I can while I'm there. Of course I'm nerdily looking forward to seeing "The Dish", but if anyone else is from that neck of the woods and has any recommendations (8-month old friendly!) I'd love to hear them, and I'll try to post a photo or two of us on the road if I can.

Update November 2015 - The Horseman, the next project, and stuff

I've been pretty quiet these last couple of months, mostly because I've been feverishly working on a few things. Firstly, there's The Horseman, whose copyedit I've just sent back to my lovely publishing team at Hachette. I'm really happy with it, and that's the last big hurdle - I always brush a hand across my brow and think, there, that's really done now! every time the copyedit is sorted. It's due out next year, but in the interim we'll have the cover reveal, which I'll probably do first in my newsletter (so sign up if you haven't already :). Secondly, there's the book after The Horseman. In the writerly world we're always working 12-18 months ahead of what's already out, and so I've just started on the next and very exciting project, on which I can't reveal much yet but the research trip alone is bonkers exciting (and has also consumed a fair bit of time in the planning). Again, I should have some details very soon.

Lastly, of course it's the time of the year when I'm also marking student assignments. All this means that I'm quiet on blogging and social media - with a 7 month old in the house, I'm down to 2-3 hours work time a day, if I'm lucky, so I just can't afford time to blog/facebook/twit and still also write books. Such is the way of it at the moment. I still love receiving questions and messages, however, and I will always respond to those via Facebook or email. That's a promise.

So, that's it for now. Happy reading.

The Horseman is submitted!

So, a little news is that yesterday I submitted the manuscript of The Horseman (due out March/April next year) to my publisher. It's always wonderful to pass this milestone. Of course, there's work to come yet as edits are completed through the back end of the year, and I get started on the next project. In the meantime, here's a couple of photos from my research trip to the high country - it's a place of spectacular scenery, especially in summer. IMG_1503

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Struggling with time to read? Some life hacks to turn more pages.

IMG_5511As a writer, the adage goes read read read. That was what a kindly publisher wrote to me when, age 7 or so, I sent a short story off hoping to be published. Oh, haha, the blind hopes of youth (it was a blatant rip-off of Cinderella, but modified to be about dental health - clearly the dentist had exerted her influence). Anyway, the point (or theory) is that to be any good as a writer, you need to read a lot - to absorb the mechanics of story, the zeitgeist, maybe even the magical new book smell needs to be transferred to the blood by obsessive reading. Now, I'll be honest and say I'm struggling. Since some adverse experiences in primary school, I've had a difficult relationship with reading, but I can conquer that with a good deal of self-talk and good recommendations. But now being more or less a full-time writer, I find reading time hard to come by. Oh, I read a lot, but much of it is manuscripts, student papers, non-fiction research. I want to read more fiction. More than that, I need to.

So, here's some ideas I'm implementing to tip more pages into my day:

  1. Social media apps off the phone. Full credit for this suggestion to Peter M Ball, who pointed out the habit of using "The House of Zuckerberg" as a way of passing time. Guilty of that here, too, despite loathing myself every time I log on and just look at stuff I've seen before. The solution? Uninstall the app and put a reading app in its place, whether that's Kindle or whatever platform you use. Hell, do it for Twitter too if the Twitface sinks your time. Look at Facebook when you're on an actual computer, but don't use it to fill in your mental space when you're waiting for a bus/appointment/whatever. On a recent trip to the shops, I sat in a couch area where four other people were also sitting - everyone was on their phone, so this one is rampant. This has put so much more reading into my day already. Brilliant.
  2. Make use of your recorder. Am I the last person watching commercial TV? Perhaps. But if you're in the nigel-without-pay-TV club too, then make use of a recorder. I've often struggled to turn off a program once it's rolling, but if I do manage it, I've forgotten pretty quickly why I cared about who slagged off who on Ink Master this week. A few minutes setting up recordings ahead of the evening, and I can happily shut off the TV, and use the extra minutes to read. The evening consumed by TV is such a deep sink of time, this one is gold. I wind down better that way, the baby can't see any screens so he does too. Everybody wins. Sometimes I watch the recordings later, sometimes not. But recording means I get around the panic of thinking I'll miss something important, even if it's a doco I want for research. And if you're on a streaming service, or pay TV, great for you. You know your shows are going to be there for later anyway.
  3. E-reader lives in bag. I still read print books, but I have an e-reader, too. Keeping the e-reader in my bag means I never get caught without something to read when I'm out. Like the apps swap of no.1, that means if I'm stuck in a parents room at the shops, miss a train, or whatever, it's books instead of apps.
  4. Use devices to extend reading time. I can be an insomniac, even when (or perhaps because of being) extremely tired. It's an issue I've had since childhood in switching off mental traffic, and even sleep dep with a tiny baby hasn't cured me of it (I won't dwell on the injustice that with only a 3-hour window to sleep, I can sometimes sleep NONE of it). Perhaps I should meditate more. But! The point is that frequent advice for people like me is not to pressure yourself to sleep. If it's not working in 10-20 mins, then do something else and try again in a bit. An e-reader with a light is a lifesaver here (or a tiny book reading light), because it won't disturb the other half and lets me read while keeping lights low and restful. It also feels less brain stimulating than watching TV (don't recommend iPads to read here and other LED based screens). It works at 3:30 am, too.
  5. Audiobooks and podcasts. When I was doing a lot of travel for work, I frequently took the train instead of cabs because I wanted to be free to write or read without the pressure to make conversation. But many people don't have the option and commute long hours in the car, or spend long hours there because they drive for work. In that environment, there's heaps of great titles on audiobook, and podcasts of some short fiction if you like that, too. Also fantastic if you don't have your hands free, but aren't mentally occupied - a friend who worked as a cleaner used podcasts at work, and I find them great if baby has hands tied up. If you're into music while exercising, you could also contemplate switching in some podcasts instead, although music + exercise for me is idea generation territory and probably not to be mucked with.

In all these things, of course, the idea is to make room for reading pleasurably - reading is never a place for martyrdom. But if you really would like to read more, perhaps some of the above will help. Do you have other suggestions? Would love to hear about them in the comments.

Aussie novels on the map!

So, this morning I came across a link to this fantastic map that pins the settings of favourite books on a world map. It's a great idea, the literary variation on the similarly cool American states by movie that's been around for a while (there was a better one for TV shows, but google isn't helping me find it again ... ). I get excited by things like this because I (like so many of us) am a highly visual person. (And I like maps. There's that too.) In fact, when I teach creative writing in workshops and lectures, I use a lot of examples from TV and film. I find it brilliant for engaging everyone, getting across narrative principles in shorter time spaces than reading text, and speaks to love of cinematic style writing.

The book map has one big flaw though - there's only two entries for all of Australia! So, for a bit of fun, I've pinned my book locations on a map of Oz through mapcustomizer.com - you can click on it to go to an interactive version that shows all the books. And if you've got favourite stories set in our great land, why not go and nominate them on the lovereading site? Put our stories literally on the map!

Ozmap