Time Out

I’m going to write a whole post without using a certain 8 letter word describing something short people and aspiring writers can build and climb up on in order to be more visible. That’s not to downplay the value of other contributors’ recent posts about balancing your writing time with your visibility time, or the flurry of responses from the WU community. You folks obviously love to debate this particular issue and are mightily entertained when the monthly columnists start having a (light-hearted) go at one another.

I read the discussion and felt … tired. So much talk, so many quips, so many links! I didn’t click on a single one. But  that wasn’t so surprising. I’ve only just emerged from an extremely intensive working period. On April 30 I submitted my YA novel (second book in the Shadowfell series) to my editors in Sydney and New York, and also returned the copy edit for my adult novel, Flame of Sevenwaters. I came up for breath to realise just how much I hadn’t been doing while consumed by deadline pressure. Over the last couple of days I’ve answered a lot of emails, posted off ARCs and bookplates, caught up with a small mountain of business paperwork and rendered the house slightly less like a hermit’s cave. I’ve been back to the gym after too long an absence. Of course, the dog routine remained constant during those months of immersive writing – the mini-pack made sure of that.

Once I’d restored a bit of order around me, what I wanted to do was read. I didn’t want to read blog posts about writing time vs visibility time, I wanted to immerse myself in a wonderful novel. Here’s my reading list.

Kerry Greenwood: Phryne Fisher novels – detective series set in 1920s Melbourne, currently showing on Australian television as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
I read several of these for light relief during that period of intensive work. They’re stylish and witty, with a magnificent feel for the period. Also, they’re completely unlike my own work, which I find essential for anything I read while in writing mode. How did I find out about them? Word of mouth: the books have been popular with my family and friends since long before the television series was conceived.

Jodi Picoult: Lone Wolf – new release from this internationally popular novelist
I’m a long-term reader of Picoult’s novels. With this author I know I’ll get good tight writing, interesting moral and ethical dilemmas and a fast-paced story. I especially liked Lone Wolf because, being something of a dog nut myself, I was fascinated by the passages on wolf behaviour. I’m sure the fabulously successful Ms Picoult has a website, a blog and numerous fan pages, but I’ve never looked for any of these. I just buy her books. How did I know there was a new release? Via an email newsletter from my local bricks and mortar bookshop.

Barbara O’Neal: The Garden of Happy Endings – new release from one of WU’s own
I’ve loved Barbara’s earlier novels and her wise and warm posts here, so chose this in anticipation of a rewarding and thoughtful story with memorable characters. How did I know there was a new release? Via Writer Unboxed. Do I visit Barbara’s website, forums etc? Yes, but more as fellow writer than fan – I have found her teaching materials valuable.

Iain Banks: Stonemouth – new release from this respected and versatile writer
Another personal favourite. Some of Banks’s novels are a bit too graphic for me, but he’s a fine writer – I love the Scottish settings, the wry, understated humour and the vividly realised characters. How did I know there was a new release? Recommendation via an online retailer. Have I lurked on Iain Banks’ website, online forums, Facebook page, whatever? No. I just buy his books.

I’m also reading a brand new ms for which I’ve promised a cover endorsement. It’s a first novel by someone whose short fiction I admire, to be mainstream published later this year. I’ve recently read another debut novel, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a stunning fairytale-based literary novel set in the Alaskan wilderness. I’ve been recommending this as widely as I can (example of my social media working on behalf of a fellow writer.) This was a serendipitous find at a local bricks and mortar bookshop. One paragraph was enough to hook me in.

What do all these books have in common? Good writing and great stories. Though effective marketing played a part in alerting me to the availability of some, my choice to purchase and read them was based entirely on the quality of the storytelling.

Don’t get lost in the noise, folks. Your first and foremost job is to write a well-crafted and compelling story, the kind of story that brings your readers faithfully back for more.

I’d love to know what you read when you’re writing, and when you’re taking a break from writing. Do you read mostly in your own genre? Far more broadly? Do you challenge yourself? How do you discover new writers?

Photo credit © Dennis Tokarzewski | Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. says

    Juliet, congratulations on your new book and for not mentioning that word. I find out about new books in a variety of ways: reviews, blogs, industry publications and word of mouth. When I’m writing I don’t read any particular genre unless I’m stuck. In those instances I turn to authors whose work I admire in my genre (family sagas) and pay close attention to how they develop the story and craft scenes. Sometimes when I need to do some research for a story I read non fiction books. One of the characters in my WIP is a rapper so I read Jay Z’s biography, for example.

    As for new writers blogs like WU and book review sites are great places to discover new talent.

    Best of luck on your book.

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    • says

      Thanks, CG! Yes, I should have mentioned non-fiction. During the period in question I also read a book called Delinquent Dogs: The Reform School Handbook, which I bought at a fantastic second hand bookshop that is two minutes’ walk away from home. It included the following gem about the Miniature Pinscher: ‘Their defence system is to issue a shrill shrieking whistle’. Now I know my Pip is not a freak, simply true to her breed :)

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  2. says

    How do I find interesting new reads? Just as I’ve found some movie gems by parsing the suggestions that Netflix offers based on my previous selections, I rake through Amazon suggestions for reading material. I don’t blindly take whatever is proffered but do a bit of scanning of the one-star as well as the five-star reviews. But, good stuff is in there and I have been rewarded.

    PS: I also pay attention to WU references and will be tracking down your Phryne Fisher and Ian Banks tips. Tanks.

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    • says

      If you’re trying Iain Banks for the first time, I recommend The Crow Road, Dead Air or The Business. Note, he writes mainstream/literary fiction as Iain Banks, and science fiction as Iain M Banks.

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  3. says

    Juliet-

    You got to the gym? Seriously, I so recognize your post-deadline feeliings. That’s a great reading list, too. (I’ve read ’em or have ’em, except for the Phryne Fisher mysteries. New to me.)

    Congrats on turning in your manuscript. The collapse afterward is a rare pleasure. I love what you wrote:

    > Don’t get lost in the noise, folks. Your first and foremost job is to write a well-crafted and compelling story.

    I think you’ll find most WU folks agree. Enjoy your down time. Revision letter, edited ms, copy edit and pages will arrive all too soon.

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    • says

      Too true, Don (about the revision letter etc.) Actually, after three days off it feels uncomfortable not to be working. Must be my Calvinist Scottish streak coming out.

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  4. says

    All of the noise makes me feel tired, too, Juliet. And I don’t even have the excuse of deadlines (other than self-imposed ones). I honestly try to remain focused on the books–both the ones I’m writing and the ones I’m reading.

    I’m not exactly sure how I came about my favorite books before I started interacting with writing communities like WU online. Mostly a combo of in-store display and word-of-mouth, I suspect, as Donald’s survey last week shows still predominates. But for the past several years I’ve learned of the lion’s share of my reading from my online writing community relationships. Like Alex, I pay close attention to WU recommendations and references. This includes discovering and loving your Sevenwaters books. Another recent gem is Robin LaFevers Grave Mercy, found right here.

    As far as genre, I feel like I need a good historical fantasy at least every three books or so. Sort of like putting on my comfy clothes after being dressed for work for too long. And your work is definitely like donning some of my most comfortable items.

    Thanks for the reality check, and the recommendations!

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  5. Amy Sue Nathan says

    This reminds me of so many writers (and others) who are worried about movie rights and who will feed the dog during their book tour when they haven’t finished a first draft. Some of it is wishful, some is procrastination. It all refocuses our energy away from writing.

    Thank you for the reminder!

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    • says

      I have (twice) taken on a new foster dog at times of extreme deadline pressure. There must be a weird switch in the brain that makes me do this. Either it’s the ultimate act of self-sabotage, or I actually need the intellectual down-time that goes with the fostering job, all physical activity, mess and emotion!

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  6. says

    I always love hearing other writers admit they let their houses go on deadline. We have dust dragons, not bunnies here. As far as finding out about books, one of the upsides to writing a book blog is publishers send me books! I currently have Freedom from Leonard Pitts Jr. that way. Currently reading my friend Kim Reid’s YA Creeping With the Enemy, and I have The Garden of Happy Endings on the shelf waiting too. I happen to be writing a book for writers so I’m reading a lot of books for writers, including The War of Art, which I learned about here on WU.

    Congrats on meeting your deadlines! Enjoy your time back in the “real world” before you go back into another writing mode.

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  7. says

    It’s important to us to remember exactly what you’ve said here, Juliet. It *is* a noisy, sometimes exhausting, online world, and most of our time should be spent in quiet, listening to our characters. It all comes down to balance.

    As for reading, I have The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield waiting for me, along with a thousand other books (including Barbara’s latest!). I buy most of my books after reading about them online, and I read broadly — literary, women’s fiction, YA. I haven’t read a good fantasy in a while, so I’m glad to hear you’ve just finished a new novel!

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  8. says

    Hi Juliet,

    What did it feel like to get back to the gym? Where you able to focus on the working-out or were you thinking of your book that is now with your editors? I sometimes find it hard to focus while I am at the gym, because I just want to get home and write. I need to get better at living in the moment. And better at time management. Of course, reading a book while riding the bike in the gym will kill two birds with one stone.

    I am writing a romantic comedy so I have been searching for more books from that genre to read. I end up, many times, getting the books that were eventually made into movies.

    Congratulations on finishing the novel! Take care.

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    • says

      Rich, when I’m at the gym or walking my dogs my mind is usually far away in the world of the book. The physical activity seems to create space for new ideas. I missed the proper balance between the sedentary part of my writer’s life and the exercise that keeps me physically fit and mentally alert – I tend to eat less healthily when under deadline pressure as well as missing those regular gym trips. Mind you, I was still doing a heap of daily dog walking, that never changes!

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  9. Robin Yaklin says

    Newbie here *again*. This platform stuff bores me. I’m not ready for that. First, I’ve got to finish the darn thing. So, I skim or skip those posts.

    I am curious about one thing. What if you have a, I mean, one manuscript (I write stand-alones) and no blog or webpage? Seems the posts assume you have multiples of these and have some kind of connection to an agent. While skimming, I saw that some writers are turned down because they don’t have a platform to work. Chicken or egg problem! What then?

    I’m a visual person and operate off of ‘what the mind can conceive, you can achieve’. Please tell me what the very, very, beginning of finding an agent looks like.

    Since there is only the sole manuscript revision, I read what urges me to write–Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett, Kathryn Harrison, Maass (Breakout Novelist sits beside me desk), Hillary Mantel. After a page or two, my fingers itch and it’s off to the keyboard or sometimes my green ink pen and notebook.

    So, asking a favor, help me visualize the step after the manuscript.

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    • says

      Robin, I see you’re a member of the WU fb group. I think that is the perfect forum to pose questions like those you ask here. They’re not easily answered here, IMO, and there are others there who would benefit from having the conversation. Just an idea. I wish you all the best as your journey progresses! :-)

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    • says

      Robin, that’s a good suggestion from Vaughn, you will get a range of useful advice on the WU Facebook page. I’m not the best person to advise on agents anyway as I didn’t look for an agent until I’d had several novels mainstream published, so I was able to present a pretty strong track record when I contacted agents. My first published novel was an unsolicited ms that was picked out of the slush pile at Pan Macmillan. That was long ago in around 2003 or 2004 – the business has changed immensely since then.

      One thing I would say – even more important than doing things to increase your public profile is getting on with Project B while approaching agents or publishers with Project A. That’s the case whether A and B are related or stand-alones.

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  10. says

    I read mostly in my own genre. While I’m writing (there are only a few weeks out of the year when I’m not writing) I’ll read historicals set in or around my time period, late 18th century. But the occasional contemporary story gets slipped in too if it comes highly recommended. And right now I’m reading a good Anne Boleyn story, To Die For, by Sandra Byrd. I also read, and reread, historicals by authors that contain passages so inspiring they make me want to try harder to take my own writing to the next level. One of those writers is James Alexander Thom. For comfort reading I listen, and relisten, to books by Alexander McCall Smith, Ellis Peters and Jan Karon.

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    • says

      Lori, I love the comment about re-reading authors who inspire you to take your writing to the next level. I don’t read much in my own genre but when I do, I tend to go to writers from whom I think I can learn, eg Margo Lanagan (brilliant Australian fantasy writer) and Joe Abercrombie (British fantasy writer who is a master of character)

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  11. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Thanks for the advice, and the recommendations. Congratulations on your book!

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  12. says

    As important as that eight-letter word is, I’m a firm believer that sometimes you just need a break from it all. You have to recharge your brain or all of your output is going to get stale.

    I don’t think my reading while writing is too different from my reading while not writing, other than that I get more done when I’m not writing. Most of my reading is in SF and fantasy because that’s what I love best, but I do sneak in literary and/or historical fiction or the occasional pop science book here and there. I read so many blogs and columns that discovering new writers is not an issue for me; getting around to them is. The main difference in my life when I’m not writing is that I have time to sew or play a video game! And even then, I’m usually revising!

    Anyway, congrats on the books!

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  13. says

    Juliet, I love this post! I was discussing this very issue with my husband last night – I am not, by nature, a joiner of things (like many writers, I suspect) and although I’ve tried to tweet and post and blog, I just can’t get the energy. I’d rather spend that time writing. And in the end, frankly, I’m not sure it makes that much difference. If the book’s no good, it won’t sell no matter how wonderful your networking.

    As for what I read while I’m writing – only books I have read before. I am too easily influenced by other writers’ styles to read anything I haven’t already been influenced by, so I read old favourites – Dorothy Sayers, Terry Pratchett, Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer. Or else I read non-fiction.

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    • says

      Pamela, I also go back to old favourites, and my list is similar to yours – Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Daphne du Maurier. Also nonfiction and children’s classics.

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  14. says

    Juliet, this post really resonated with me. I just sent off a complete revision after an intense period of work. Last night I started Elizabeth Loupas’ new historical The Flower Reader and midway through the first chapter I realized that I didn’t have that nagging sensation of guilt lurking in the back of my head over something I didn’t finish, needed to do, had procrastinated. Heaven!

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  15. says

    Dear Juliet,

    AMEN.

    I’m doing final edits on one novel and have a Sept. 1 deadline for another and have been feeling frantic about all the platforming and marketing I feel I ought to be doing. But there is just not enough time in the day (and I don’t even walk Jake)!

    I’m going to take your words to heart. I’m going to ignore those long marketing and platforming to-do lists I made, and also the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen, and after I reach my daily goals for editing and writing, I’m going to read some good fiction!!

    Bless you.

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  16. says

    I hear you on the fatigue, and I’m just a baby in this industry. More of a fetus, actually. I need stretches of time offline to do the real work, and I’m doing better at taking them.

    I can’t not read ever, but my bedside table isn’t going to affirm anyone’s belief that the p-word doesn’t matter. My discoveries used to take place in bookstores and libraries, but of late, almost exclusively, they are via the online grapevine.

    Sailing Alone Around the Room – Billy Collins. I adore his humor, that kick at the end of most poems. I learned of him through Liz Michalski, who I met through a writing forum. I picked him up, finally, after seeing his TED talk.

    Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – by Jenny, Lawson, The Bloggess. Funny, dark, a threat to my ribs, and probably would never have been published without her online presence.

    Steven Pressfield, War of Art – I reread snippets regularly. Learned of him through several writers, bought the book after reading his Writer Wednesday posts on his blog.

    Lastly, The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth. I learned about her through you, actually.

    Anyway, congrats on meeting your deadline. And now I’m off to write.

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  17. says

    Juliet, thank you, thank you for this post! I absolutely could not agree more. As a newbie author when my first book came out I was just absolutely overwhelmed by all the constant shrieks of, PLATFORM! PLATFORM! PLATFORM! I wanted to do what my publishers and everyone else said was essential, so tried, I really did, but . . . I have a five year old and a two year old home with me full time (we homeschool) and I just plain don’t have the time or the emotional energy to both write the kind of books that I’m proud of and relentlessly build my on-line platform. And if it comes to a choice between craft or sales . . . well, I choose craft every time. I just couldn’t live with myself as a writer otherwise.

    However, I’m happy to report that for me, my sales only INCREASED after I gave up 99% of my efforts to be a huge platform-builder. Would I be selling still more books if I did do blogging, facebook, twitter, etc.? I have no idea. But I’m writing stories that I truly love, and I’m with my 2 sweet girls every day. I’m happy and feeling very lucky to be where I am.

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  18. says

    Lovely post. :) And congrats!

    I’m nearing the finish line of the first draft of my fifth novel, and yeah, I’m tired (of a lot of things). Usually when I’m writing a first draft I just write write write until it’s done, then catch up on reading later. But this past week I noticed they had a book at my library that’s on my to-read list, so I picked it up.

    The book is LIFE IS BUT A DREAM by Brian James.

    I ended up devouring the book in a day (unusual for me, I’m a slow reader), and even set aside my writing to finish reading. It was one of those reader/book matches made in library heaven. Perfect book found at the perfect time.

    What amazed me even more than the book itself was that the author is pretty low-profile. I’d never heard of him before seeing this book, even though he is multi-published. But since I loved this book so much, I checked out his website and I’m going to read his other books.

    Because that, more than anything, is what matters. Good books sell more books.

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  19. says

    Here’s where I confess that I did maintain my online presence during the intensive writing period – I still checked my Facebook fan page daily, updated my website, posted a review or two on Goodreads, attempted to answer readers’ emails reasonably promptly and took only one month off posting on WU. I do remain grateful for the opportunities that didn’t exist even five years ago.

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  20. says

    I read all the time – I was a “reader” before I was a novelist. Unless there’s some good reason for it, I read every night, making it a point to go to bed early so I can have some time to myself without any distraction.

    Lately, I’ve found some wonderful books from social media – no, not from someone blasting their stuff all over the airwaves, but from people I’ve found through “community” – made friendships with or whatever. For example, I’ve read Theresa’s and CG’s books – and enjoyed them both very much so.

    I read out of my ‘genre’ – and I’ve read genres I never would have picked up, just to support other writers/colleagues.

    And yeah, all this talk about “what we ought’to be doing” makes me tired to -so I just write the best book I can-that usually calms me down :-D

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  21. says

    Juliet, I’m finding it tiring too…this time a year ago I’d never heard the eight letter word. Now, with my first novel coming out as an e-book next month, I feel as though I’ve stepped into a flurry of pressure to self-promote (and promote fellow authors in the same publishing house) ceaselessly.
    Visibility is important, of course, if my novel is to reach readers. I’ve gone from being computer shy to having a blog, twitter, FB page, opening accounts with Goodreads, Manic Readers, Smashwords…soon Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc, being part of an author loop where emails climb to several hundred if I miss a day or two, being expected to ‘like’, review, tag, blog hop, search out and/or respond to various opportunities as well as becoming educated as to how all of this works and how to do it…and so forth…
    Over the last few months of getting oriented with all this..and deciding what does and doesn’t sit naturally for me, I have observed that some authors who sell well are tireless marketers (who are generally natural extroverts) and that some are also selling well while doing minimal self promotion, but on the strength of a few well-placed good reviews that connect their readerships and start a snowball effect.
    So I have relaxed…and breathed…while also being profoundly grateful that my next novel is already finished. Otherwise I would no doubt be feeling quite stressed with how my writing has fragmented over the last few months. Now I’m getting back to it and dictating my own balance. The whirl is there at the doorstep (or laptop screen), and it’s up to me – and every writer – to decide what is a working balance.
    Interesting times!

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