A Writing Toolbox

Novellablog, the Toolkit Series: Outbrain, Part Two, in which Kate Gets Schooled in Bloggin’.

In my previous post about Outbrain, I talked about why I chose to use it, how the service I used worked and what the results were. I also mentioned that in my first meeting with Natalie Chan, the Self-Serve marketing manager, I got a bit of a tutorial on being a better blogger. I needed Outbrain because I needed more traffic to my website during the Kickstarter campaign to fund The Kairos Mechanism. But it turns out that nobody goes to your website if you aren’t putting compelling stuff up there on a regular basis. So before she let me sign up for the service, Natalie told me what I was going to need to do to get the best results from the program, and we made a plan I could stick to.

1) I needed to be adding new content two to three times per week. For contrast, up until that point I considered that I was doing pretty well if I managed to add a post a week, but a post every other week was much more likely.

Natalie suggested that I write ten blog posts in advance of launching (I planned to start my Outbrain campaign at the same time as I started the Kickstarter campaign). Writing that content would be easy; I would be learning lots during the Kickstarter campaign, but I had already written The Kairos Mechanism and done the research on things like the Espresso Book Machine and McNally’s pub services, and (as you know if you’ve read other Novellablog posts) I was already experiencing mild panic attacks about editing and formatting and so forth. I had plenty to draw on to start writing posts.

Natalie offered to look over the posts once I had them ready and offer suggestions on how I could improve them, which leads me to:

2) I needed to make sure my posts were more self-contained than I was accustomed to making them. For the past few years of blogging, about the only traffic I got was from people who already knew of me and of my writing, so I didn’t have to worry about making sure each post stood on its own. Plus, since I was writing a series on a specific project, I had the tendency to just assume that folks were going to have read previous posts. This may seem like an obvious fallacy–and if you had asked me if I thought this was a safe assumption, I would have said obviously not–and yet I had done just that in nearly every blog post I had written in advance.

3) I needed to cut just about every post in half and turn it into two posts. This is something my husband, who is a good blogger, has been yelling at me about for years. The good news is, once I faced the reality that I seem to write things more like articles than blog posts, cutting them in half meant I actually had more posts pre-written than I thought.

4) I needed to really give some thought to the titles of my posts. The more exciting and compelling the title, the better. Once again, this sounds obvious, and it was obvious to me even then, but I still had trouble with titles to start with. For one thing, the kinds of titles that generated a lot of traffic for me via Twitter and Facebook did not translate to traffic when the same titles were offered up to readers who didn’t know of me in advance. My campaign underperformed for the first week or so, and my titles were pretty much directly to blame.

Natalie explained that, taken on their own, the kinds of titles that work best and get high numbers of clicks tend to sound almost sensational, and that that would probably be the biggest thing I’d have to get used to. This turned out to be absolutely true. Titles were my biggest stumbling block.

Now, Outbrain’s customer service folks can re-title posts and articles at their end, so I had the option of using one title on my blog and have the same post offered under a different title through the Amplify service, but that turned out to be more trouble than I wanted to deal with–not because it was any trouble for anyone, but because it did require me to send an email asking for the title change, and as it happens I’m too lazy to be bothered to do that. So I started really trying to keep Natalie’s advice in mind as I chose my titles, and once I did, I started getting vastly improved results.

For instance, there was the post about how I completed the first draft of Kairos in under a month, which I titled “How to Write a Book in 30 Days.” Now, obviously there are many ways to do this, many ways do fail at doing this, many reasons to try anyway and learn to be disciplined about getting words on the page, and many reasons to spare yourself the stress and write at your own pace. But giving the post the simple, decisive how-to title (ignoring all the reasons why what I was about to say was completely subjective, might or might not work for you, etc. etc.) was the key to getting clicks from strangers. There was also the massively popular “Yes, You Can Edit Your Own Work, But You Will Probably Frack It Up.” Same idea. I don’t think I’m any kind of expert; I was just writing about my experiences. Still, titling the posts with authority got better results than ones I titled more humbly.

So those were the things I was tasked with keeping in mind as I wrote my posts. I still have a lot of learning to do, but I do think I was vastly more prepared than I would otherwise have been, and I certainly got better results in terms of clicks and also in terms of engagement with my new readers. Not only did people find my blog, they actually spent time reading it, and even clicked through to read more of what I’d written.

Now I just have to find some way to keep the momentum up now that the campaign’s finished. Which just might turn out to be the hardest thing of all.


Novellablog, the Toolkit Series: Outbrain, Part One

Having taken some time to decompress post-Kickstarter, I’m now ready to get moving on a group of posts I’ve been very excited about. In the Toolkit Series, I’ll be talking about some of the services that are making this first volume of the Arcana project possible. This is the first of two posts in which I’ll be talking about Outbrain.

One of the challenges I knew I would have was that I’m a haphazard blogger, and at the time I started the project, my website didn’t get much traffic. I definitely needed to make plans to reach beyond my own circle of contacts. Outbrain is a startup that specializes in driving traffic to web content. Now, full disclosure: I had a lot of time and opportunity to get to know Outbrain, the folks behind it, and how it works because my husband, Nathan, has worked there for three years and is currently the US Operations Manager. I follow Outbrain folks on Twitter, I’ve geeked out over bourbon with Outbrain folks, I’ve even traveled with Outbrain folks (like that time I scored a vacation in Israel by tagging along on one of Nathan’s work trips). Along the way, I’ve gotten a really good sense of the company and what they do, so it was kind of a no-brainer decision to look to Outbrain when it was time to start worrying about how I was going to get people I don’t already know to read about the Arcana project.

I knew I would be using Outbrain’s Amplify Self-Serve program. You choose links to submit through your dashboard, and then those links pop up as recommendations on sites that use Outbrain, too; small sites like mine, as well as bigger, fancier sites like Slate, CNN, USA Today, Mashable, and lots more. You can read this article on Outbrain’s blog to learn a bit more about how their automation and algorithms work to serve up content recommendations, but in a nutshell they do a really good job of pointing folks who are already likely to be interested in what you have to say toward your content.

Before I started, I arranged for a meeting with Natalie Chan, who, apart from being one of my Israel traveling companions, is the Marketing Manager for Self-Serve. The basics are simple enough: you set a budget per day (I started with the minimum, $10) and choose a cost per click (CPC). Each time someone clicks on one of your links, you pay the CPC to Outbrain. You only pay for the clicks you get, so some days you might not spend your entire budget, and other days, your campaign might go offline if you hit your budget limit. I started out at a CPC of $0.15, but over the course of the campaign I adjusted that, as well as my budget, a few times. You can change the elements of your campaign anytime as you see what’s working and what’s not.

So, ten bucks budgeted per day at fifteen cents per click equals 66 clicks per day, or an additional 2000 clicks over the course of the month, assuming I was consistently generating interesting content–meaning I also needed to turn into a better blogger. But more on that later.

I launched my Outbrain campaign at the same time I launched the Kickstarter campaign, at the beginning of April. At Natalie’s urging, I had ten blog posts pre-written in an effort to set myself up to blog more consistently. I was able to monitor the clicks I was getting via Outbrain in real-time on my dashboard. I could see what my campaign had spent up to that time each day, what links were getting the most traffic, and where they were coming from. If you like metrics, by the way, you will have a good time with the dashboard.

For the first week or so, my campaign underperformed. I got monitoring emails from Outbrain a couple times during that period with suggestions on how to improve things so that I was getting enough clicks to spend my budget each day. I also emailed quite a bit with Natalie during that time, and I learned two things: that the biggest hurdle I was facing was that my titles weren’t compelling enough; and that the posts that people were most interested in were about craft rather than general updates and musings. Throughout the entire campaign, the post that got the most traffic was this one about my beta-reader Emma, titled “Kid Editors: Because the Kid in the Room Understands Your Book Better Than You D0.” That one must have had the best combination of subject matter and title.

By the time May rolled around, I had the combination sort of figured out, and I was getting so many clicks that my ten dollar a day budget was being spent by late morning. I’d added not only links to my own blog posts, but links to each interview I gave on anyone else’s blog and links to blog posts that mentioned The Kairos Mechanism or the Arcana project. I started getting emails from Outbrain suggesting that it might be time to reduce my CPC so that I could get more clicks within my budget. I took a look at the links I was “amplifying” and culled a few that were either not performing well or that were not as relevant, dropped the CPC to $0.10, and upped my budget. This combination resulted in more than 4500 clicks in the month of May and more than 1500 in the first week of June leading up to the end of the Kickstarter campaign.

The net effect is that my blog, which in March, according to Google Analytics, was averaging (are you ready for this humiliating admission?) less than twenty clicks a day, averaged more than 60 clicks in April, 213 in May, and 234 in June until I stopped the campaign on the 10th. For contrast, post-Kickstarter but without Outbrain, my blog has been averaging 85 clicks a day. My total spending for the two months was $705.50. This was more than I had initially budgeted (remember that I had started out with the minimum daily budget of $10/day), but once I was getting so many clicks, I didn’t like seeing the campaign go offline so early in the day, so I decided the extra expense was worth it, especially since the readers who’ve visited the site have also consistently spent more time here, which I believe means I am also getting better engagement with my readers overall.

A side-effect of the campaign, by the way, is that (with the exception of the month I just took off, during which I will admit to having willfully fallen back into my errant ways, but LOOK, I NEEDED A BREAK, OKAY?) I did turn into a better blogger, and that’s pretty much all up to the pep talk I got from Natalie during that first meeting. Another great thing about the folks at Outbrain: they are passionate readers of blogs, and they know what works and what doesn’t. So, without suggesting that I lose anything that I might feel was uniquely part of my own blog-writing voice and style, Natalie was able to help me craft posts that were more likely to get served up as recommendations, and more likely to be read and talked about afterward.

And that bloggy pep-talk will be the subject of Outbrain, Part Two. Stay tuned!

Wherein I Admit to Lacking the Blogging Instinct, and Freak Out About It for a Minute

I totally lack the blogging instinct, and it sort of freaks me out.

A couple of days ago I announced that I’m publishing a novella this summer, and part of my strategy is a three-posts-per-week blog series about what I’m doing and why, because I’m treating it a bit like a proof-of-concept project. So I’ve basically committed myself to twelve posts a year from April through September. This is a number real bloggers would shake off as no big deal.

It’s already giving me panic attacks. I’ll pull through, but lemme tell you, the panic is there.

One of the tools I’m planning to use to publicize the book and the project is the company my husband works for, Outbrain, which specializes in content recommendation and referral. They do pretty amazing stuff, the net effect of which is that they help your content find its way to readers who are likely to be excited to read it. Outbrain is my ace-in-the-hole to help drive traffic to my website, which, mostly because I am a really bad blogger, gets minimal traffic.

Well, this will not surprise you, but when I sat down with my contact at Outbrain, Natalie Chan, to discuss my needs and expectations, she listened patiently, made copious notes, asked lots of questions, and then made the strong recommendation that I start blogging more. And then, in order to make sure I understood how important this was going to be, she suggested very strongly that this go at the very top of my to-do list, and that I write at least ten posts in advance. And because I figure if I’m going to hire Outbrain, I had better do what Natalie says (especially when it’s such an obviously good idea), I started writing those today.

The official launch of the project is still about two weeks away, but I’ve spent the last month in writing and planning. Do I have enough stuff to write about to generate ten posts? Oh, heck yes. How much progress did I make towards writing those posts today? Well, I wrote a few thousand words, but only one coherent post emerged. By contrast, my husband wrote five posts today. His website gets exponentially more traffic than mine. It’s infuriating, if not entirely surprising.

Meanwhile, my husband is trying to help me write better blog posts: ones that are not too long, that don’t have uncomfortably large paragraphs, and that have images.

I forgot to find an image for this one. Here’s a dinosaur on a truck waiting to ambush my mom, who was following about a mile behind my car.

Don’t worry, I still have two weeks to get good at this. I can do it. I can do it, honest.

The Kid Editor Crew, Part the Third: The Discussion

The discussion begins with a phone call.

Ah, the phone call. I could probably do this by Skype, but I always think I look awful in pictures and video, and while obviously nobody but me cares whether or not I look elegant and put-together in this sort of situation, I don’t want to be distracted. So phone it is.

In the email setting up the phone call, I ask the readers to go over my questions, and, which is more important, to begin writing down their thoughts and questions, if they haven’t already. Some kids are great at talking off-the-cuff and thinking of things in the moment; others will do what I do myself if I don’t make notes, and go completely blank.

When it’s time for the phone call, I have my original questions and the reader’s notes (if they’ve emailed any along the way) in front of me, and a fresh notebook page with the date up in the corner. The next page has a list of all of the major and most of the minor characters.

Now, from here, things can go a couple of different ways. We always go over the advance questions, and any questions that arise organically from those. Then we start talking people, places, things.

We go over the settings. I ask them if they can picture the locations, and which places they most liked visiting. We go over any major weirdnesses I threw into the story (which have, in the past, included everything from alchemical fireworks to mail-order catalogues to creatures made from walking iron to half-told, invented folklore).

We go over basically every character, first with me simply asking the reader what he/she thought of that person, and what he/she liked and disliked. Then I ask who the readers would like to see more of in this book; who they’d like to see come back in another book; and who they’d like to be the main character in his or her own story. For these questions, any character, no matter how small, is fair game. I have been absolutely shocked by what I’ve learned with these questions. Among other things, it’s how I know if I get my villains right. If the readers connect with the villains, that’s always an incredibly good sign.

Then we get into the reader’s questions, concerns, confusions. This is where it’s critically important that these kids understand that it’s okay to tell me, the almighty writer, that they don’t understand something, that they’re confused, that they’re bothered, that they simply don’t like what I’ve done. This is a tough one, too. It takes a while to build up the necessary trust between yourself and the kid editor for him/her to feel comfortable being honest when the truth means giving constructive feedback. I knew I had the right formula when one of my readers, who I will speak more of in a later post, told me point blank, “I wish you hadn’t done that. I wish you had done it more like this.”

Another thing I ask, because I write things that tend toward the scary: was anything too far beyond the pale? Did anything really creep you out? Do I need to dial down the scariness? This question gets the most interesting answers. In The Broken Lands, when I thought I might have crossed a line or two, the two youngest readers told me I could make it more frightening, if I wanted to, and that the villains were just the right kind of creepy. One of my readers had no problem with anything the villains did, but was truly shaken by an act of violence that takes place between two adults that, in her words, “should have known better.” Fascinating stuff.

And, of course, as with any group of readers, sometimes I agree with what the Kid Editors tell me, and sometimes I disagree–although certainly if they’re all in agreement, that’s a big flashing warning sign for me to pay attention.

When we return: your questions answered, and wise words from the Kid Editors themselves.


The Kid Editor Crew, Part the Second: How it Works

Continuing with our discussion of kid beta-readers, we rejoin the Kid Editor Crew for Part the Second: How it Works.

Here’s how it works.

When I have a draft almost ready, I send out an email to the Kid Editors to find out what everybody’s schedules look like, and the Editors let me know if they’ve got busy times coming up (family trips, school projects, that kind of stuff), and we figure out when a good time for me to send them material might be. The Kid Editors know that I do not want to get them in trouble with their parents. Nor do I wish to get in trouble with their parents (all of whom, at this point, I consider friends as well).

When it’s time to send out reading material, I come up with a list of specific questions I would like answered. Sometimes I break these concerns into two parts; let’s call them things to keep in mind while reading and questions for afterward (the latter category might involve spoilers, or things I’m concerned might not actually be issues if I don’t point them out in advance and make a big deal out of them). I am learning to make these open-ended questions. I also always ask for the Kid Editors to make note of anything else that leaps out at them that I haven’t asked about, and to note any questions they have while reading, any characters or moments they particularly like, and any they particularly don’t.

The specific questions vary from manuscript to manuscript, but here are a few taken from the email I sent with the manuscript for The Broken Lands, earlier this year.

  • What are your thoughts on Sam? What are your thoughts on Jin? Nathan thinks I changed my mind midway through about who the main character was, and that I need to work on Sam more. I think he might be right, and I think I know what I’m going to do about it, but what do you think?
  • Does hearing Jack’s story from Ambrose rather than actually meeting him make him menacing enough? Do you have a sense of what it would mean for him to take the city of New York? Are you clear on what the stakes are? Does the concept of the pillars of the city make sense to you?
  • What do you think of Walker and Bones? Scary? Too scary? Not scary enough? What about Christophel and Bios and the daemons?
  • The love story–is it good, bad, stupid, annoying?
  • How is the pacing? Am I doing better with getting things moving quicker?
  • Having read this and The Boneshaker, do you understand how they are related? Any thoughts on what you now expect when we return to Natalie?

I want to make sure the specific concerns I have are addressed; but I also want to make sure that the readers know I honestly want to hear their thoughts, not just their responses to my questions.

Now, here I will pause to answer another frequently-asked question. It’s usually framed something like this: “How do you send the material?” I send it in Word, primarily because I’m too lazy to remember to convert it to a PDF, but when asked this question I actually think what people often really mean is, “You send your manuscripts to a bunch of kids? How do you know they aren’t emailing it off to all their friends? You don’t know where that manuscript goes! How can you possibly do that and not wake up in a cold sweat at night?”

I don’t wake up in a cold sweat at night a couple of reasons. I didn’t pick these four kids off the street at random. They are passionate readers, and passionate fans. They understand that what they are being asked to do is, essentially, take part in the secret, behind-the-scenes world of books-before-they’re-books. They know that’s something very special, and they understand it would be a tremendous breach of trust to share the manuscript with anyone else (however, talking about how awesome the book is with anyone and everyone is, of course, highly encouraged). But in the end, it is a leap of faith. Every writer has to decide for him or herself whether or not this is a leap he/she’s willing to take.

Some of the Kid Editors like to give me updates throughout the process. Others are fast readers and want to breeze through on their own. One pair of readers, twin girls, asked their father to read them the last draft out loud, because that’s how they read The Boneshaker (BONUS!! This parent was dragooned into being a Dad Editor). Eventually, though, I get messages from each reader as he or she finishes reading. These emails might contain answers to my questions, or just “I finished it” notes. In either case, the next step is to schedule a phone call.

I don’t ask for comments back in the manuscript itself, for two reasons. Firstly, I want them to be able to read the material in whatever manner works best for them. If they want to print it, that’s fine, but that can get expensive. If they want to read it on the family computer, that’s fine, too, but who knows if the computer can be spared for that. The second thing is, I find real-time discussion to be amazingly informative. Now, one of my readers, who I’ll introduce to you in a later post, is actually planning to become either an agent or an editor, so it’s looking like we may begin to look at options for in-manuscript critiques, too. Honestly, though, there’s a third reason for an actual conversation, which is simply that I like having the more personal contact of talking directly to them. It’s a treat for me. Actually talking to readers is rare, and special.

So, part the Third on the phone call, coming to you on Wednesday.

My Secret Weapon: The Beta-Reading Geniuses of the Kid Editor Crew (Part the First)

Every writer eventually gets asked at least once or twice what she thinks the most important things are for someone who wants to be a writer. There are any number of good answers to this question (persistence, self-motivation, delusions of having something to say, delusions of being able to take criticism, etc). Today I’m going to focus on this one: writers need critical readers they trust. We need them like we need coffee. Which is to say, they are absolutely something we cannot do without.

Now, my mother, my father, my sister, and my best friend are all good readers. They are smart, they ask good questions, and while they might be somewhat deluded about how totally brilliant I am, they are all of them, in one way or another, writers as well, and they know what’s helpful and what’s not. My husband is even better, if only because he is somewhat concerned that I eventually get paid for what I write, since I quit a full-time job to do it. My critique group, which is comprised of ten brilliant middle-grade and young-adult authors, is phenomenal, and takes a near-psychotic pride in its ability to apply razor-teeth to each others’ drafts and/or take those vicious crits like the nerves-of-steel ladies we are. That is an awkward sentence, for example, and I promise you there are ten ladies out there right now dying to fix it.

But in the end, all of these people are adults. And while I certainly hope adults will read my books, they are written for younger readers. Wiser folks than I have pointed out that there is sometimes a huge gap between the experiences of an adult reader and a kid reader, even if they’re reading the same thing.

Enter the Kid Editor Crew.

The Kid Editor Crew–my Kid Editor Crew, anyway–is a circle of four kids between 9 and 12, and it occasionally, but not always, includes their parents and siblings. But only if the Kid Editors decide to allow it. When I have a draft nearing readiness to submit to editors, these are the last eyes that see it before I decide it’s ready to go. Sometimes they see it before my critique group does, for various reasons. I have discovered in my perambulations throughout the writerly world that not everybody has Kid Editors, and I have several times been asked 1) how it works and 2) how did you find them?

Hence, readers, my gift to you this December: all about the amazing Kid Editor Crew and their thoughts on the beta-reading process, with special appearances by these genius kids themselves.

Email me your questions, and they will be passed along to the Kid Editors themselves. In the meantime, stay tuned. Part Two coming up on Monday.

The Lady in White and the Dreaded NaNo

Well, here we are. The Saturday before Thanksgiving. Usually for me this means the final phase of the Countdown To My Birthday (December 2, if you were curious, which you probably weren’t; but just in case, my favorite color is blue), things like attempting candied fruit peels for the millionth time and checking to see if the plum puddings stashed in the back of the fridge from two years ago still look edible (answer: with that much alcohol in them, they should be good until the next millenium).

This year, it also means I have 11 days to crank out the rest of a novel I didn’t know I had in me until September, and which I have committed to attempting to finish by the end of November. November, for those of you who may not have known, is National Novel Writing Month, during which thousands of writers attempt to crank out 50000 words in 30 days. NaNo.

I have never done this before, but I figured my “minimum day” target word count–the number of words I have to do to consider it a minimally productive day and not feel guilty about spending the evening watching anime or diving into my to-be-read-just-for-fun pile–is about 1500, which is something like 3 pages, double-spaced. 50000 words in 30 days breaks down to just under 1700 words. That’s two more paragraphs than a minimum day. No biggie. At least in theory.

Oh, I kicked those first two weeks’ number-crunchin’ backsides. I lost a week to pneumonia, but now I’m basically caught back up. I can crank out another 17000 words, this I know. The question is, am I going to be able to end the novel–or get anywhere close–with those 17000 words? I write LONG first drafts. I overcomplicate everything. I discover whole new plot points at the 2/3rds mark. To say nothing of the fact that as recently, as August, not even the barest shred of this story existed. This is going to be interesting.

An especially interesting part of this is the villain. If by any chance you read my previous post, you know I was looking for one. Well, I found her, but boy, is she strange. She isn’t my usual sort of bad guy, and not only because she’s female. But she is based on a persistent bit of folklore that pops up around the world: the lady in white. However, most lady in white legends are basically ghost stories. My lady in white is…well, she’s something else altogether. And I think she still has a few surprises in store for me.

I wonder if she’ll be done with me–and with Natalie–by December 1. We shall see.




Today I Go In Search of a Villain.

This is a fascinating state of affairs for me. I will tell you why.

But first, let me say this. I love writing villains. I love dreaming them up, deciding on their quirks, their monstrosities, and the cuts of their bespoke suits (I’m looking at you, Walker). I love choosing which slivers of humanity to reveal, and when. I love when my beloved beta-reading genius editor kids tell me, “No, that’s not too scary. I think he could be a little scarier. And by the way, are you going to write more about Jake Limberleg?”

I love villains so much that, from time to time, they turn up in my head before the hero does. It may surprise you that this is what happened with The Boneshaker. That’s right; Jake Limberleg surfaced before Natalie Minks. The Broken Lands was a little bit different. I knew the villains in advance, but I knew the main characters in advance, too; and unlike Natalie, I knew them just as well, maybe better, than High Walker and Bloody Bones, the folks they were going to go up against.

So now we come to my current project. Let’s call it Peculiar Springs, since this is what it’s called in my head. This one is coming together in an entirely different way: the place happened first. This has happened to me before, too, but I didn’t start thinking about a book set in that place until I discovered I had a protagonist and a villain in mind. Fortunately, the minute I began building the Peculiar Springs Hotel in my head, I knew immediately who was going to have an adventure there, and why–partly because I was looking for an adventure idea for this particular character. Let’s call her…well, let’s just tell the truth and say it’s Natalie.

So now I have a place and I have Natalie. In the last month, since this idea first occurred to me, you would not believe the details that have come together for this story. This is how I always know I’m on the right track. Unrelated strange and interesting things suddenly reveal their connections to each other. I read something I’ve really been looking forward to, and immediately I see how it relates to Natalie in Peculiar Springs. Five or six different characters have shown up and come to life. But the one who hasn’t turned up yet is the villain.

So I’m ready to get moving, to start writing–and I’m missing my adversary. This is not normal. I always know who the villain is, because the villain is half the fun for me. What to do?

Continue reading

How I Got Stranded with Linux and the World Didn’t End

For the last three weeks, my husband Nathan has been hopping around the country and the world doing IT Stuff, and I’ve been sitting at home trying to finish a book draft. Somewhere along the way my beloved red Dell started making some really creepy noises. Now, basically everything I have is backed up through the amazing thing that is Dropbox, so we weren’t precisely worried that I was going to lose data if the laptop died, but this is not the time for me to lose days of work because of a dead computer. So he handed me one of his and hopped on a plane. This is how I got stranded with Linux. And you know what? I might stick with it.

There may be some among you who have no idea what I’m talking about. (For those who do, please forgive me the gross oversimplifications that are about to follow.) Linux is an operating system, like Windows. If you have a PC, your computer shipped with Windows and you probably run programs like those included in Microsoft Office. I, for instance, use Word when I’m writing. I use Excel to organize my taxes. I use Photoshop and MS Paint to remove scratches from my negatives and resize photographs for use on this blog. All of those are programs that run on Windows. They are also all programs that have to be purchased (or–don’t do this at home, kids–pirated). If you’re a Mac user, you’re probably using Apple’s operating system, Mac OS X. Same idea.

Linux’s biggest difference (at least for a non-techie like me) is that it’s open-source, meaning anyone can take the code and use it, change it, improve upon it, and send it back out into the world, so it’s constantly evolving with the help of its users. And, by the way, if you use an Android-based phone, you’re already running Linux.

Nathan is a confirmed Linux guy. He’s been managing a few hundred Linux servers for a couple of years, and has been running a Linux-based operating system on his desktop, too. When he left me with this thing, he said, “Just try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll fix your laptop and you can go back to Windows.” Why, I wanted to know (and I was rawther frustrated at the time), would I want to change what I was using? This is what he told me:

  • Linux is faster. At basically everything.
  • The version he put on my laptop, Linux Mint, was designed to be easy-to-use, so that new (or reluctant, like me) users can install it and use it without any major re-learning or any tweaking.
  • Linux is free. Anybody can use it. It’s MS Office-comparable programs, called Open Office, are free, too. So where, in order to get Word on this laptop I would’ve had to pay $150-$500 for a MS Office Suite, I can use Open Office Word Processor for zero bucks. Photoshop Elements, the simplest and least expensive Photoshop product, goes for $80. Photoshop CS5 costs $700. GIMP is the comparable image manipulating system for Linux, and it’s also free.
  • This version of Linux Mint (Debian Edition) performs rolling updates. This means it’s always being improved upon by the community behind it, and you are always running the most up-to-date version of the system. Compare this with Windows, which does a big release that you have to re-purchase every few years if you want to upgrade, and in the meantime if the version you’re running is annoying or buggy, you pretty much just have to deal with it.
  • Linux has a huge community of afficionados–so if you have a problem or a question, you can find a forum and get a solution or an answer. If you call Microsoft with a problem or a question, you are likely to get charged for the answer. On the other hand, speaking as a woman who lives with an IT guy and who regularly hears “Google it” in response to my more basic support questions, I am finding that I am much more likely to get an answer (and an enthusiastic one, even) when asking a question about my use of Linux. IT nerds love Linux. (I think I recall Nathan telling me it would be hilarious if I asked one of his nerd buddies if his new smart phone ran Linux. Hilarious to him, because he knew I had no idea what I was saying, but he also pointed out that I would instantly be the hottest girl in the room.) So if you are helpless and you need assistance to use Linux, you can get help. People are likely to be glad to help you, rather than just telling you to Google the problem or asking if you’ve already turned your computer off and on again. There’s even a meet-up here in NYC for brand-new Ubuntu users (Ubuntu is a Linux-based operating system).

Okay, so those are the plusses (again, I’m sure there are many, many more, but I’m restricting myself to a couple that pretty much anybody who works regularly on a laptop can appreciate). But Open Office Word Processor is not Word, Spreadsheet is not Excel, and GIMP is not Photoshop (according to Nathan, I’m really going to be annoyed with GIMP for a while. Evidently it’s a pain in the neck). So for anybody who’s curious, here are the negatives I’ve found so far.

  • The trackpad and buttons on this laptop are weird. Seriously. Dragging and dropping is funky. Doesn’t work the same way my other laptop did. I’m pretty sure that’s not Linux, though, and the bottom line is, I am smarter than a trackpad. I really believe this. I refuse to let a trackpad get me down.
  • We haven’t gotten my scanner working with it yet. We did, however, get Nathan’s working with it, so possibly I will just get to swipe his for the time being.
  • I’m sure GIMP is going to make me want to shoot myself in the head. But then, so did Photoshop and Photoshop Elements until I got manuals for them and taught myself how to use the features I needed.

And…so far that’s it. We set the defaults in the word processing and spreadsheet programs and GIMP to save my files as .docx and .xls and .jpg so I don’t have to worry about converting them. So I won’t, by accident, send my agent or editor a file they can’t read, or switch to my netbook (which runs Windows) and not be able to open my manuscript. And yes, things look different in Open Office, but working in its word processor rather than Word is no big transition. It’s like making an omelet in somebody else’s kitchen–the frying pan might be in a different place than it is in yours, but as long as all the tools are there and in logical places, you can cook breakfast without a headache.

So there you go. My writing life is an experiment right now. But I’m not hating it.