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Wednesday Writers: Joanne Anderton

The author of an extremely well received, and award nominated, first novel (with an equally strong follow up!), and a writer of delightfully crafted short fiction, Jo Anderton could be forgiven for letting things go to her head a little – especially after walking away with a well deserved Ditmar for Best New Talent. Instead, she remains one of the nicest and humblest people imaginable. I was fortunate enough to have Jo appear on my blog earlier this year, as part of our conversational review of Blink, and I am delighted to welcome her back to talk about a very practical aspect of writing!

DON’T stick your butt in that chair!

I’ve always been hesitant to give writing advice. Firstly, because who am I to offer any? I’m still trying to work out how this whole writing thing works. Anytime I actually think I understand it, the rug gets swept out from under me and I’m back at the beginning! So what could I possibly offer, except for a confused shrug of the shoulders? Secondly, there’s already a lot of writing advice out there. Seriously, the internet is bulging at the seams with it. Surely I shouldn’t try to add to all the noise.

But, you know, I think I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Writing advice isn’t about a group of sparkly professionals dictating a concrete set of rules, or throwing the magic crumbs of ‘this is how to get published and be generally awesome’ for the rest of us to fight over. Writing advice is all about the shared experience. Each writer travels their own journey, and every path is different. We’ve all got our own set of pitfalls, successes, and monsters off the beaten path. And by sharing them, we learn that we’re not alone, and that there is no right or wrong, and that we can do this, all of us, together.

So, this is my little piece of writing advice for the day: DON’T sit your butt down in that chair!

‘What?’ I hear you say. (Well, I imagine you’re saying because it fits neatly with my internal narrative here… just go along with me, ok?) ‘But that goes against one of the shiny golden core writing rules — sit in that chair and write! How can I not do that? That’s what being a writer is all about!’

And here is where I admit to being a little triksy, because what I really mean to say is — don’t sit your butt in that chair ALL THE TIME.

A writer writes, this is true. And when I was but a young thing, all dazzled by the advice of those shiny, ‘real’ authors who knew so much better than me, I took this to heart. A writer writes. They sit down at that desk and they type, and they type and they type some more. But, you know, there’s a key part missing in this equation. They also get up OUT of that chair and move around.

You know why? Because there is nothing more upsetting than wanting to write but being unable to because you are in too much pain.

I have a dodgy back. This is not solely due to my adherence to the sit down and write doctrine. This is a combination of lots of things, including my sedentary hobbies, bad posture habits, and years of hating exercise and doing everything in my power to avoid it. But all of these, added to the failure I felt if I dared get up out of the chair instead of making words, led to a persistent injury.

It starts with a niggle and a tightening around the lower back. It inches up to the shoulders and neck. And eventually, it’s hip pain too, and leg, and then the sciatic nerve kicks in and it’s all over. At its worst, I can’t do anything except lie face down on the floor and engage the services of god’s gift to mankind — the heat pack. This makes typing difficult, to say the least. It can be heartbreaking, when you’re in the middle of a story that’s working — you know that feeling — when the story is everything and everyone and the world can just piss off thank you very much, all that matters is the invisible people in your head. When you can’t do that, when you have to stop, well, that hurts too, in its own way.

You know what, I’m not alone. I’m also very lucky. I know so many writers who suffer their own writing-related injuries. Backs, necks, shoulders, arms. It’s a common theme. But I’m lucky, because I can treat my injury, I can change my lifestyle, and it will improve. Not everyone has that luxury.

This is what I have done. At first I tried to change the way I sat down all day, without changing the actual sitting. New keyboard, back cushion, fancy chair. At work I have a height-adjustable desk, and a saddle seat (unfortunately it didn’t come with its own horse.) But that wasn’t enough. I had to start moving.

Nowadays, I get up out of the chair in between bouts of writing, and move around. Sometimes it’s to do glamorous chores, other times it’s to go for a nice thought-provoking walk. I run. For someone who has spent most of her life convinced that she can’t run more than a few steps without being out of breath, this is a big deal. I go to training. You see, they have these things called weights, and I have been introduced to the joys of lifting them. I have muscles. I’ve never had muscles before!

And you know what, it’s working. I can sit down and write now, without fear of initially creeping and eventually debilitating pain. If I have to, I can sit down all day, and even in bad chairs. Continuum proved this only a few weeks ago. Of course, I’d rather not, but if I have to, I can. Give me the chance and I will shout it to the rooftops — I am not in pain!

In one way, this doesn’t translate to more writing time, because I’m spending more time doing those exercisey things I was just talking about. But I do think it has made a difference to the writing itself. You grow accustomed to constant pain. You don’t realise how draining it is, or the negative effects it can have on your spirit and mind. Now, when I sit at the desk, all I need to worry about are the words and worlds in my head and at my fingertips.

So that’s my experience, and one I’m happy to share. Sometimes too happy — I can talk about this at annoying length. As I said, we’re all different. So this isn’t advice, in that it isn’t a new rule to add to the list. It’s just what happened to me, and what I learned along the way.

Joanne Anderton lives in Sydney with her husband and too many pets. By day she is a mild-mannered marketing coordinator for an Australian book distributor. By night, weekends and lunchtimes she writes science fiction, fantasy and horror. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear! and Epilogue. Her debut novel, Debris (Book One the Veiled Worlds Series) was published by Angry Robot Books in 2011, with book two Suited published in 2012. Debris was a finalist for the 2011 Aurealis award for Best Fantasy Novel, and Jo won the 2012 Ditmar for Best New Talent. Visit her online at http://joanneanderton.com and on Twitter @joanneanderton