Notebook Nerdery

I posted this image to instagram a little earlier today:

So close…

A photo posted by Peter M Ball (@petermball) on

That’s the notebook I started writing a new novel in, back on August 17, in which I’ve now filled 223 of its 240 pages and begun the process of hurtling myself at the midpoint of the story. There’s a scene or two left to write, in which the worst thing that could happen to our protagonists actually happens, and then I start a new notebook and start figuring out the second half of the novel.

It looks all civilized, when it’s posted in isolation, but the instagram feed also contains photographs of what I’ve lovingly started calling “The Wodge” – at any given point I’m usually carrying around a half-dozen notebooks of various sizes, with various projects in in them. One contains the novel in progress, one or two contain novellete-length projects, one for short stories, one for recording ideas. I’m slowly starting to slim The Wodge down a little, as my focus increasingly slides into the novel, but I’m pretty sure that I’m still going to be carrying around four notebooks at a time.


Tonight also marks the end of the September notebook experiment, where I tested my hypothesis that I’d start getting far more first drafting finished if I stepped away from the computer. Wild success would have been hitting 300 handwritten pages over the month, which meant I’d hit about 50,000 words for the month based on my average word count per page.

I didn’t expect to hit that. September is usually hard on my writing process – the month starts with the Brisbane Writers Festival, which eats a week, and it’s usually the point where shit starts getting real at work (case in point: this is the month we launched the GenreCon program and start doing all the logistical stuff for making the con happen). When I set out to experiment, I figured a positive result, of the this is working, keep doing it type, would be closer to writing 200 notebook pages for the month – that would work out to 35,000 words or so, and be a little more than I was usually hitting at the keyboard during my less-productive months of the year.

Looking at the quantifiable results, I came nowhere near a positive result. I didn’t use the computer for writing at all, outside of a 200-word microfiction I banged out to capture an idea at work. My page-counts, across various September projects, ran like this:

  • Gothic Novel, in progress: 128 pages plus whatever I achieve tonight. Probably another eight or so pages.
  • The Americans, Novelette in progress: 17 pages
  • Scenes for other projects I don’t have time to write yet: 2 pages

Not the 200 pages that would have made it a solid conclusion that notebooks worked better, for me, when it came to getting down words.

On the other hand, this month came with a black swan event: I spent about eight days laid up with the death flu, barely crawling out of bed unless I absolutely needed to. I made a handful of forays into work, when absolutely necessary in order to get the GenreCon program live, but even they were largely a case of being there for a few hours and then heading home to wish for death.

Writing wasn’t really possible, during those eight days. I managed a paragraph here or there, but not a full page.

And if you take that week of illness out of the equation and compare the average page-count I would have needed to hit 200 pages with the average page-count I achieved in the 22 days I had as a healthy person, I was pretty much on-target to hit what I wanted to hit. Possibly a little higher, since the days I was sick meant I lost a weekend, and two write-club days.

Still not enough to call it a positive result success on my end, but interesting enough that I’m going to keep at it – I’ll take a look at how close to the end of the novel I am by time we hit GenreCon and re-evaluate things then.

The Sleep Thing

Sleep CyborgI run into people, from time to time, and they ask: how is the sleep thing? 

Usually, I tell them the sleep thing is fine. Way better than it was back April, when I was falling asleep in front of the computer. Way better than it was back in May, when the diagnosis of chronic sleep apnea became all kinds of official and they sent me off with a machine that’d stop me from asphyxiating while I slept.

This is not a lie. Compared to the state I was in at the start of the year, life is a magical wonderland full of candy unicorns. I sleep better. I concentrate better. I do not feel like I am messing up every aspect of my existence as a default state. I keep discovering all sorts of secondary problems – shoulder pain, neck pain, teeth grinding – that were basically linked to the apnea and have now cleared up.

The sleep thing is fine.

Except it’s not.

When you start on CPAP they make it very clear that it’s a therapy, not a cure. The apnea isn’t going away just ’cause you’ve hooked attached a mask to your face and let it pressurize your respiratory system so your throat doesn’t close up so easily. There’s a whole bunch of things that can make the therapy less effective, on a given evening.

You can pull the mask off in your sleep, for example, ’cause it’s not the most comfortable of things to wear. You can disrupt the fit of your mask while tossing and turning, you can go to bed with hay-fever. You can travel, and discover that the faint differences in the way water tastes from city to city becomes a major problem when you put it into a humidifier.

Stuff happens, is what I’m saying. More often than you’d want them too, all things considered.

And that means some days you wake up feeling like a normal person, happy and productive and able to interact with the world. And, some days, you revert. Not as bad as you were, right at the beginning, bad bad enough that you notice it and feel the difference. Bad enough that you’re aware of the line between treatment and cure.

And that’s cool, ’cause treated is so much better than the alternative. So much goddamn better, believe me, that it’s insane.

But it means re-learning how to live your life. It means, some days, you need to get comfortable with the idea that you’re not going to have the energy for everything you’d like to do. It means you have to re-learn the difference between just a little tired and feeling vaguely exhausted, ’cause your default state has been exhaustion for so long that it’s hard to tell the difference. It means you learn to check a screen every morning and gauge how bad things are going to be based on the apnea index and leak-rate the machine tracked overnight.

It’s not always bad. For example, you also discover that your tendency to do the introverts retreat after social events was exacerbated by the apnea, that teaching courses or doing a festival requires far less recovery time than they once did. And you can read books in bed again, without falling asleep the moment you open to the first page. That you can write for longer than 500 words at a burst, ’cause your attention span has a setting other than “kitten on speed.”

Eventually it sinks in that the sleep thing is a thing – it doesn’t go away, it just gets managed better.

So you set out to re-evaluate every damn thing in your life.

My current notebook fetish? Motivated by the sleep thing, and the attention that’s getting paid to the research around the effects screens are having on our sleep patterns.

My recent realisation that I probably need to give up drinking? Totally linked to the sleep apnea, since muscle relaxants are pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to experience longer, nastier breathing-related incidents.

My increasingly rigid refusal to stay awake past my designated bed-time? Entirely built around managing the apnea as best I can, ’cause every time I’ve broken that rule to hang with friends or go out, I’ve paid for it the next day, and the day after that.

At the same time that you’re evaluating, you fret about things.

Like the ongoing costs of the therapy, which are not prohibitive but are right up there with car maintenance as a thing you need to worry about, ’cause you’re going to be replacing masks, filters, and such for the foreseeable future.

Like, what happens when the power goes on, in a storm, and how you’ll get through the next day.

Like all those things that you fucked up, quite royally, over the last five years, and whether they could have gone better if you’d discovered the real problem years ago and started treating it then. Some days you play what if? and you find yourself getting angry.

And that’s okay. The sleep thing is a thing. It’s complicated and long-term and way bigger than you were expecting.It’s not on your mind all the time, but it is on your mind. It occupies a chunk of your mental real-estate that used to be devoted to other things. The sleep thing is a thing you’re going to think about, talk about, far more than other people want you too, ’cause it defines your life in so many little ways.

But that’s hard to convey, really, so you learn to stop. To say, yeah, better, when people ask, ’cause that’s what it all boils down to: its better than it was.

Not great, not normal, not cured, but you’re figuring it out.

And in the world of polite conversation, that’s close enough to true to count.


Genres That Should Exist, But Don’t: Heyer-Punk

I was walking to work this morning and it occurred to me that Heyer-Punk is a genre that should totally exist. And not Steampunk flavoured books with a Georgette Heyer influence – those, I expect, already exist in some form or another. No, I’m thinking a genre that harkens back to the punk-suffix’s origins and blends Heyer and Gibsonesque cyberpunk to maximum effect.

I’m thinking stories about the young heir of The Rivenhall Corporation, Chuck, forced to care for his wayward siblings ahead of his time. He’s engaged engaged to a cold cyborg countess, Genie Wraxton, and his younger brother is trying to organise some bizarre corporate buyout and his younger sister is throwing away her life with some drug-addled rock star.

Then a young social-engineer named Sophie shows up and changes everyone through the careful application of her coding skills, extracting his younger sister from an unwise romance by manipulating the media, and wins Chuck’s heart through the deployment of freshly genetically re-engineered ducklings that bring the species back from extinction.

This thing should totally exist and it does not play to my strengths as a writer at all, so someone get on all that and make it happen, eh?

New Things

I’ve got an email here from Heather Wood, the editor behind the Gods, Memes, and Monsters anthology, that the books is now out and available for sale at the book-purchasing options of your preference.

I’ve been looking forward to this one coming out. The brief, way back at the start of 2014 when Heather asked if I’d be interesting in taking part, was to create an entry for a 21st Century Bestiary that reinterpreted mythological beasts for the new millennium. And so I went off and wrote about the people who are looking for the Jinn, on the internet (’cause how else would you explain rule 34?), and had probably the most fun writing that out of anything I sat down and worked on last year.


And because I am terrible at email, this all came about the same point I heard from Sarah, the Shadow Minion of the Apocalypse (or, at least, of Apocalypse Ink, who has far better job titles than my workplace), that my guest post about the curse that lay on the Flotsam series is now live at M. Todd Gallowglas’ site.

The whole curse thing started as a joke, way back when I started putting the novellas together. It seemed a lot less funny by the end. I wasn’t really aware how many computers I went through, writing that series, until I sat down and started charting the destruction PC by PC.

And with that, I’m off to write things. Or quibble with co-workers about the final make-up of the GenreCon program, depending on which happens first.

7 Days of Scribbling

Small Brick of Writing NotebooksI really did intend, when writing my last blog post, to keep using my computer for writing purposes right up until I started my writing-in-notebooks experiment on September 1st. I figured I’d finish off the projects I’d started there, keep using the notebooks for notes, ease into the idea of doing everything longhand, you know?

Turns out, not so much. I shut off the computer after my last post and leapt into the notebook world whole hog, only turning the laptop on once in the last seven days (and that was to type up the story I’d written for a friend’s birthday, so I could post it on his Facebook wall).

And now it appears that I can hit 10 pages of handwriting a day – somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 words, depending on the notebook and my handwriting – pretty consistently. Books are taking shape, stories are getting written, my hand is not hurting from the endless scribble. There’s something aesthetically pleasing about writing in notebooks and, well, the portability.

Oh, god, the portability.

Weekends are usually Kryptonite for me and regular writing processes. I wake up on Saturday morning wanting nothing to do with keyboards and computers, preferring to stay in bed and idle the hours away. Sunday is just like Saturday, except I’m even less inclined to work.

When I’m in that kind of mood, any distraction will do. And my house is full of neat distractions.

So, this morning, when I was tired and getting grumpy about how hard it was to write things and starting to consider how much I really didn’t want to spend the entire day in my flat, I picked up my notebooks and caught a train into the city and distracted myself by wandering around after every page or two of writing.

Four hours later I came back with my ten pages of writing done, a page of notes scribbled down about the project I’m going to kick off next, a belly full of Vietnamese take-away, and a substantially better mood (also, books. ‘Cause when you walk past a bunch of book stores…)


I took a bunch of photographs. ‘Cause you don’t notice that Brisbane has some very pretty bits, when you walk through it during the week and you’re primarily interested in dodging your fellow commuters.

Telegraph Newspaper Company

Photograph of a storm rolling in over Brisbane City

And for all that it was always possible to do that with a laptop, in practice it would never happen. The laptop was always heavy to cart around, battery power would be an issue, and it’s hard to be discrete about what you’re doing when you set up a computer in the corner of a cafe after ordering a flat white.

I’m still not sure I’m a permanent convert – I’m well aware that this burst of consistent productivity could just be the novelty – but it’s going well enough that I’m optimistic about the results.

Home. I sleep now.

Home again, after four days of traipsing around northern Queensland. Nowhere near as wrecked as I should be, given I just spent four days delivering workshops and travelling, which may well mean the post-teaching/travel exhaustion I’ve come to expect in recent years is another one of those things that connected to the apnoea.

Still, it is good to be home.

I’m putting serious thought, post-trip, into abandoning the computer as a first-draft tool. A few weeks back I made the decision to abandon all digital screens after ten PM, turning off the computer, the television, and my phone a good two hours before I finally went to bed. This started putting a serious crimp in my productivity, but there was no arguing the fact that I was sleeping better and it stopped bad habit of staying up past bedtime in order to mainline a TV series or play a marathon game of Civilization.

Instead of writing, I’d use those two hours to edit print-outs of existing manuscripts and brainstorming ideas for new work, which meant I started digging out notebooks for the first time in ages. And since I carried all those habits with me, when I went away, the notebooks came along for the ride. Since they were easier to use than the computer in airports and such, I’d occasionally dig them out and scribble away in my scratchy handwriting.

Then the fine folks at iWrite in Townsville gave me a seriously pretty notebook as a thank-you for doing the session. We’re talking hand-stitched binding, lovely paper, one of those things that’s a joy to write in. And then today, when I went to Write Club with Meg Vann, I found myself getting bogged down tinkering with things I’d already written instead of moving forward on the projects I was working on. Not exactly unproductively, but noticeable slow.

Well, I thought, that was all kinds of bullshit. And when I got home I hauled out the notebooks I used while travelling, and proceeded to write another ten pages of stuff in half the time I spent at the computer.

I have some theories about why this was easier than typing, and I clear all the work I owe people by the end of this month, so I think I’m going to test my hypothesis by spending September going analogue. All notebooks and pens, all the time, for thirty days, in what’s easily the most disruptive month of the year I have in terms of writing.

If it works – and by works, I mean clears 30,000 words without feeling unnecessarily arduous – then it may be time to look at making a big change to the way I’m writing stuff. If it doesn’t, well, I haven’t really lost much. September is destined to be a pants month for writing anyway