Writing Goals: Reduxing the Redux of the Redux

This post is a thing that I do every so often. It started in 2006 when I posted my writing goals. I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out. And then in 2012 in anticipation of the publication of Team Human.

These goals of mine are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize.1 Winning prizes, making bestseller lists, having your books turned into genius TV shows are not things anyone can control,2 but I can control what I write. Not only can I control that, I do control that. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, eh?3

The following are categories I plan to publish a book in. When I publish a book in a given category I cross the category out. I also randomly add categories when they occur to me. Mostly, to give me the pleasure of crossing them out.4

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Mainstream or litfic5
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA
  • Gothic
  • Dystopia
  • Adult romance

The reason I am reduxing my writing goals post is because I just struck off another category: Historical. Woo hoo! Yes, with the publication of Razorhurst, set in Sydney in 1932, I have finally published an historical novel.6 And there was much rejoicing. I adore historicals. In fact, the very first novel I ever wrote was an historical set in thirteenth century Cambodia and never published. So this is a big crossing off day for me.

I have also added two new categories: adult romance and dystopia. Before any of you groan about how you’re totally over YA dystopia already I have a really awesome idea for one. In fact, I’ve already written a short story set in that world and it will be out late this year or early next. Very excited about turning it into a novel. But even if I don’t write that novel I’m still going to cross off dystopia when that short story is available.

As for adult romance. Read this post here and you will see me realising that adult romances are completely different to YA romances and that I really want to write one.

All I have left is adult romance, dystopia, western, horror and gothic. Some have said that Liar is horror. I do not agree. I wasn’t scared once writing it. The few times I have tried to write horror I have scared myself so badly I have had to stop writing. When I publish one of those I’ll cross it off the list.

I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Omniscient

The observant amongst you will notice that every item on this list is now crossed off. Yes, indeed, Razorhurst does make use of the omniscient point of view. I have conquered an entire list! Let there be rejoicing!

Penultimately:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series
  • Collaboration

A series is a sequence of more than three books that: 1) have the same character or set of characters but each book tells a separate story. You could argue that Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe books are a series of that kind. 2) are a large story that is told across more than three books.

Some people classify trilogies as a series but I think they’re their own thing. I also admit that that’s very hair splitting and may be heavily influenced by my desire to have one extra thing on this list. Hey, it’s my list. I get to do that.

I suspect the 1930s NYC novel is a series. I’ve been working on it since forever and it shows no signs of being finished. So one day, maybe, I’ll be able to cross series off the list.

And lastly a whole new list:

  • Witch
  • Fairy
  • Vampire
  • Zombie
  • Ghost
  • Siren
  • Psychopath
  • Werewolf
  • Demon
  • Fallen angel
  • Goblin
  • Troll
  • Evil piano7

For those unfamiliar with my oeuvre the Magic or Madness trilogy was about witches. There were, obviously, fairies in How To Ditch Your Fairy and if you don’t think those fairies count then I wrote about more traditional fairies in the short story, “Thinner than Water.” I knocked over both vampires and zombies in Team Human. I don’t count the zombies in Zombies v Unicorns because I did not write those stories. I merely edited them.

I get to cross off ghosts because there are bazillions of them in my newest novel, Razorhurst. I am also, more controversially, crossing off siren because I believe the femme fatale is a kind of siren and Dymphna Campbell, one of the main characters in Razorhurst is most definitely a femme fatale. I’ll be very curious to hear your opinions on that those of you who have read Razorhurst.

I am aware that some of you are going to say that there are two more on that list that I could cross off. However, I have decided I can’t do that because in that particular book it is up to the reader to decide if the main character is an x or a y or possibly a z or possibly none of those. There is no definitive answer thus they all remain on the list. I will brook no argument on that topic.

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. Have any of youse crossed anything off your writing goals list of late?

TL:DR My new book Razorhurst means I get to cross historical, omniscient, ghost and siren off my lists. Let the dancing commence!

  1. Though I would make no objections should such a thing happen. None at all. []
  2. Well, not unless they’re hugely wealthy or know hugely wealthy people who are willing to buy gazillions of copies of their books from New York Times reporting stores. But then you wind up with the * meaning this book QUITE POSSIBLY CHEATED. []
  3. Well, except that I’m only counting them once they get published, which is not actually something I can control. It’s something I hope (fervently) will continue to happen. []
  4. No, it’s not cheating. I made up this system. I set the rules. []
  5. You know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis. Though I have never written such a book nor will I. But enough of my readers declared Liar to be literature that I decided to cross it off the list. []
  6. Razorhurst will be out in the US next March. []
  7. This one is for Courtney Summers. []

Next on BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s Carol/Price of Salt (1952)

The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.

The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. It sold extremely well and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.

It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths, and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.

You can join in the conversation by commenting on the post where Kate and I share our thoughts which will go up next Monday/Tuesday and/or by joining in the twitter discussion with #BWFBC

Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.1

  1. Yes, different timezones make for chaos. []

Guest Post: YA From a Marginalized Young Adult’s Perspective

A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.

All the words below are hers:

——–

My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.

Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).

The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.

In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.

I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.

I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1

Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).

In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.

There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.

Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:

  1. No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
  2. Nothing too complex.
  3. No adults.
  4. Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.

Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?

I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?

  1. Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
  2. Young adults are unintelligent.
  3. Young adults have no adults in their lives.
  4. Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.

Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.

When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”

Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.

I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.

You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.

I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.

How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.

Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?

Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.

Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.

More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.

Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.

Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.

We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.

We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.

I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.

Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.

Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.

But I don’t want to quit.

The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.

YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.

If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.

We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.

  1. See also: #weneeddiversebooks []
  2. Heavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find? []

Melbourne Book Launch + BWFBC

I’ll be launching Razorhurst in Melbourne next Tuesday. Details below:

Razorhurst Invite Melbourne 2

Would love to see all you gorgeous Melbournites there! Yay, Batmania!

The Sydney launch went marvellously well. Thank you, so much to everyone who attended. I was overwhelmed.

Kate Elliott and I held the June book club over on Kate’s blog. We discussed the marvellous The Street by Ann Petry. This month’s book is Patricia Highsmith’s The Taste of Salt/Carol the first lesbian bestseller in the US with [redacted because SPOILER]. We’ll be discussing it on the last Monday (US)/ Tuesday (Australia) of the month.

Razorhurst Book Launch This Thursday + Liar in Brasil

This Thursday at 6:30PM in the glorious city of Sydney the wonderful Melina Marchetta will be launching my new book, Razorhurst.

Razorhurst Kinokuniya Invite June 2014

Here’s hoping you can attend. I have SO MUCH to say about this book. It was some of the most fun research I’ve ever done. Razors! Women mobsters! Walking every street of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross! Wearing 30s clothes! Studying enforcers!1

In other also super exciting news Liar is now available in Brasil under the title Confesso Que Menti. Here’s what it looks like:

confesso-que-menti-justine-larbalestier-ligia-braslauskas-livro-600

Hope my fans in Brasil like it even though it’s very different to my other books that have been published there.

One last thing: I know I have not blogged for several weeks thus, breaking my promise to blog at least once a week, but I was travelling and it was not possible. There will be much more bloggage from here on out. In the meantime you can always find me blathering away on Twitter.

  1. From a very safe distance in a way that they wouldn’t notice with a mask on. []

Razorhurst Book Launches in Sydney and Melbourne

My latest book, Razorhurst, is almost a reality. In just a few short weeks it will be available for purchase in both Australia and New Zealand. There will be rejoicing at, not one, but two launches. The first is in sunny Sydney:

Razorhurst Kinokuniya Invite June 2014

For cutting and pasting purposes:
Thursday 26 June at 6:30PM
Launched by the fabulous Melina Marchetta
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

I’m very excited to be launching my first solely-set-in-Sydney book in my hometown of Sydney.

The second launch will be in lovely Melbourne which I ardently hope will be super cold because we’re getting no winter at all up here in Sydney and I want to wear my gorgeous (yet currently useless) winter clothes:

Razorhurst Invite Melbourne 2

In non-jpg form:
Tuesday 8 July at 6:30PM
Melbourne launch of Razorhurst
By wonderful Emily Gale
Readings
309 Lygon St,
Carlton, Victoria

Hope to see you all there!

BWFBC: Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956)

Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:

KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.

JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.

Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.

KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.

JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*

Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.

KE: Also a classic text on classism.

What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).

The juxtapositions are whiplashing.

OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG

JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.

Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .

It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.

Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”

KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.

JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.

KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.

JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.

KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.

JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.

KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.

JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.

It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)

KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.

JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.

KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.

JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?

Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.

It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.

There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.

KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.

JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?

KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.

JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.

This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.

KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”

JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.

The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.

KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.

JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.

KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.

JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.

The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.

KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”

So I can see why the novel was a sensation.

JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!

That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.

KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.

JL: Ha! I guess that’s our TL;DR: ENEMAS!

Our Next Book: Ann Petry The Street (1946). Join us at the end of June to discuss the first ever bestseller in the US by an African-American woman. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

What’s Real?

In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”

The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.

I call bullshit on several different fronts:

Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.

They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.

The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feel so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?

I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.

Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?

I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2

Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.

Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?

Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.

In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4

Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.

I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.

Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.

Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.

TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.

  1. Read this lovely post by Karen Jensen on what YA is and how contemporary realism never went away. []
  2. And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy. []
  3. We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable. []
  4. Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is. []
  5. Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing! []
  6. I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird. []

Soon on Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub: Peyton Place

The Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub continues apace. This month we’ll be reading Petyon Place by Grace Metalious (1956). That’s right it’ll be a big ole dose of saucy New England.

When: Monday 26 May at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 27 May at noon on the east coast of Australia.

The discussion will take place here on my blog, where you will be able to check in at any time, and we’ll also be chatting on Twitterwith the hashtag #BWFBC

THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time. 26 May in Australia, 27 May in the USA.

We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Peyton Place.

On Maps and the Knowability of Cities

I’m sitting here staring at the map for my new novel, Razorhurst, which comes out in Australia and New Zealand in July. The map is a thing of beauty. I’m a little teary looking at it. I’ve never had a map in one of my books before. Let alone such a gorgeous one:

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

As you can see the map does not cover a large swathe of territory. Razorhurst is a Sydney novel but that map is not all of Sydney, it’s not even all of Surry Hills, the suburb (neighbourhood) where Razorhurst is mostly set.

It’s a tiny, tiny part of Sydney, which got me thinking. I say I know Sydney better than any other city in the world and that’s true. But I hardly know Sydney at all. The Sydney I know is a handful of suburbs (neighbourhoods). I rarely go any further west than Marrickville, further north than the city, further east than Paddington, further south than Alexandria. I’m the total opposite of this bloke valiantly striving to walk every street in the city. My New York City is similarly constrained.

Worse, even in those parts of the city I claim to know well, there are so many lives going on that I know nothing about. This is brought home to me most vividly at my gym. My gym is known for being a crim gym, also as a weightlifter’s and body builder’s gym, and as a gay gym. I don’t fit into any of those categories. I’m not an enforcer for any shady business men, while I’ve lifted weights I’ve never done it in competition, I’m so very much not a bodybuilder,1 and I’m not a gay man.2

I’m fascinated by those first two groups because they live in worlds I never intersect with except at the gym. Their Sydney is not my Sydney.3 I’ve never been anyone’s enforcer. Never been involved in any kind of robbery. Never sold drugs. Never done whatever else it is that those guys do that I don’t know anything about because I am so not part of that world.

I do know a bit more about bodybuilding because the bodybuilders sometimes talk about it.4 What I’ve overhead is mostly about what they can’t eat in the lead up to competitions and them fretting about their body fat percentage. I’ve also overheard loads of stuff I can’t make sense of because I don’t know enough of the specialised language of their world.

Bodybuilder 1: I just need to get down to 4%.
Me: 0_o
Bodybuilder 2: You’ll get there! Stay away from tuna. Fattiest fish ever.
Me: (not out loud) If you’re only 4% body fat how do you not die?! Tuna’s too fatty? Um, okay.
Bodybuilder 1: I miss salt way more than fat.
Bodybuilder 2: I miss salty fat. Food with flavour.
Me: 0_o
Bodybuilder 3 (under her breath): Weak. So weak.
Me: 0_o

Hmmm, I digress.5 My point is that there is so much going on mere metres from where we live that we know nothing about. People who live their lives in the shadowy illegal economy. People who work the night shift, going to sleep just as I’m getting up to write. Engineers! Actuaries! Vampires!6

There are as many different Sydneys as there are Sydneysiders. Hell, there’s more than that because visitors experience a whole other Sydney. I have been known to say that I am unfond of London and also of LA. My London is always rainy and the people are really rude. My LA consists of me being stuck in a car feeling like I’m going to throw up. I’ve only been to both cities a handful of time and know them hardly at all. My London and LA are awful. But I have many friends who adore both places. Who can’t understand why I don’t like London/LA. When I describe my LA/London they just stare at me. It doesn’t resemble their city at all.

The map above is of my imagined Surry Hills of the 1930s. It’s a map of my Razorhurst, a place that never existed except within the fevered imagination of the tabloid Truth.7 We all know novels are imaginary. But I often think that the places we live are also imaginary. My Sydney isn’t like anyone else’s. Neither is my New York City. They exist almost entirely in my mind. In how I interpret (and interact with) the place I live in. Maybe cities are secretly novels. Or vice versa.

Either way I love cities and novels and wish I could know and understand them so much better than I do.

TL;DR: Look at the map for Razorhurst! How gorgeous is it? Very. Cities are vast and complicated and unknowable.

  1. What? I like the way my skin is not orange. []
  2. I’m not the only one at my gym who doesn’t fit those categories. My gym contains multitudes. []
  3. Though I will admit in writing Razorhurst I borrowed from some of the things I noticed about the blokes in the gym rumoured to be crims. I spent a lot of time watching how they walk and talk. I was discreet about it. They are very large, scary men. []
  4. Sadly I have never overheard any of the (rumoured) crims discussing their business. And if I did wouldn’t I have to report it to the police? And wouldn’t they then hunt me down for being a stool pigeon. (Am I the only one who imagines a stool pigeon is one that poos a lot?) I don’t want to die. []
  5. Yes, those who’ve been reading me for awhile are aware I always digress. What of it? Digressions are fun. Like footnotes and being more than 4% body fat. I overheard one of the bodybuilders just before a competition complaining that his feet hurt because they weren’t padded enough. THE HORROR. []
  6. Possibly. []
  7. I quote from Truth a bit here. []

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: Rest of the Year Schedule (updated)

Kate Elliott and I have started a Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club together. Our criteria is that each book be a bestseller, classified as women’s fiction, be published between the end of World War One and twenty years ago. So no books from before 1918 or after 1994. We also decided not to look at any books by living authors. That way if we hate a book we can truly let rip. So far we’ve discussed Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls here on my blog and Ron Jaffe’s The Best of Everything over on Kate’s.

So that more of you can join in here’s what we’ve got planned for the rest of the year. All of these books are in print and available as ebooks except for A Many-Splendored Thing and Imitation of Life. Turns out Imitation is still in print in the US. We’ve scheduled it for September so you’ll have plenty of time to inter-library loan or find it second-hand:

  • March: Jacqueline Sussan The Valley of the Dolls (1966). Here’s our discussion.
  • April: Rona Jaffe The Best of Everything (1958). Here’s our discussion.
  • May: Grace Metalious Peyton Place (1956). This book was a huge blockbuster in its day and was made into an equally popular movie. I read and loved it as a kid but have memories of finding everyone’s behaviour very odd. This one was suggested by many different people. Here’s our discussion.
  • June: Ann Petry The Street (1946). I confess I’d never heard of this one until Kate suggested it. Ann Petry was the first African-American woman to have a book sell more than one million copies. Set in Harlem in the 1940s. I cannot wait to read this one. Here’s our discussion.
  • July: Patricia Highsmith Price of Salt aka Carol (1952). This was the first mainstream lesbian novel to not end miserably. Highsmith wrote it under a pseudonym. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Highsmith is one of my favourites but this book is nothing like her other books as it doesn’t make you despair of the human condition. It’s almost cheerful.
  • August: Winifred Holtby South Riding (1936). Kate and many others suggested this one. I’d not heard of it.
  • September: Han Suyin A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is set in Hong Kong and China. Suyin’s The Mountain is Young is one of my favourite books but I’d never read her most popular book Splendored. Partly because it was made into a crappy movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with an unspeakably awful song of the same title in 1955. I hate that song so much that it put me off reading the book. What can I say? Every time I read the title the song pops into my head. Like, right now. Aaaarrrgh!

Then in October we’ll be doing something slightly different. We’ll be reading two books together. They’re both about a black girl who passes as white. One was written by a black woman, Nella Larsen, and was not a bestseller. The other by a white woman, Fannie Hurst, was a huge success and made into two big Hollywood movies. (I wrote a comparison of the movies here.) Interestingly it’s much easier now to get hold of Larsen’s work than it is Hurst’s. Even though in her day Hurst had multiple bestsellers and was crazy popular. When you read the books you’ll discover why. If you wind up skimming the Hurst we won’t judge. At all.

  • October: Nella Larsen Passing (1929) and Fannie Hurst Imitation of Life (1933). I’ve read both of these. The Larsen is far superior on pretty much every count. But they’re both fascinating documents of their time. (Passing is available as part of the collected fiction of Nella Larsen: An Intimation of Things Distant.)
  • November: V. C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (1979). This one is mostly for Kate who for some strange reason has never read it. Me, I have read it multiple times. When I was twelve I thought it was the best book ever written. *cough* Why I have even blogged about Flowers. V. C. Andrews was my Robert Heinlein. Only much better, obviously.
  • December: Barbara Taylor Bradford A Woman of Substance (1979). If I have read this I have no memory of it. I don’t remember the mini-series either. Again many people suggested this one.

Thanks so much for all your suggestions. They were most helpful. Keep ‘em coming. Maybe we’ll keep doing this next year. I hope so. We’d especially love if you can recommend books by women of colour that fit our bill. Even if they’re not bestsellers, like Passing, we can read them against what was selling at the time.

And, of course, do please join in. We’d love to hear what you think of these books in the coming months.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub: Best of Everything

That’s right me and Kate Elliott are continuing our Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub. This month Kate will be hosting.

We’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1959). If you are a publishing geek you’ll love this book because it’s set in the world of New York publishing at the start of the paperback boom. Isn’t it fascinating how many women’s fiction bestsellers are about women at work?

When: Monday 28 April at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 29 April at noon on the east coast of Australia.

The primary focus of the discussion will be over on Kate’s blog, where you can check in at any time, but we’ll also be chatting on Twitter as well with the hashtag #BWFBC

THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time

We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Best of Everything.

Spoiling Spoily Spoilers

I used to hate spoilers. I didn’t care what it was—a book, an ad, a shopping list—I didn’t want to know what happened until it happened. I wouldn’t read the back of books or movie posters or reviews. I wanted to know as little as possible before going in. I thrived on surprise.

Now this would sometimes backfire. If I’d known a bit about Taken (2008) I would never have watched it on the plane. I just saw that Liam Neeson was in it. I used to like Liam Neeson. He was dead good in Rob Roy.1 But Taken? Worst. Most Appallingly Immoral. Movie. Of. All. Time. If I could unwatch it I would.2

Taken and a few too many hideous final seasons of TV shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars3 have made me more inclined to be spoiled so I know which shows to stop watching. I still wish I’d known not to watch the final season of The Wire. Such a let down after four brilliant seasons. Especially that fourth season. Wow!

I also don’t enjoy books that deal with people dying of diseases. Especially cancer. I’ve lost too many people I love to that disease and I just can’t deal. The few times I’ve accidentally read such a book I have been deeply unhappy about it. And, no, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Me no want to read about it.

Gradually, I have become considerably less hardcore about spoiler avoidance than I used to be. Partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because in this world of Twitter, and friends who can’t keep their bloody mouths shut,4 it’s getting harder and harder to avoid them.

My spoiler stance has also shifted because the last few times I was spoiled—on both occasions it was a TV show—it made my viewing experience more pleasurable, not less.5 Which was quite a surprise let me tell you.

Rest assured I will stick to my policy of not spoiling here. I was once 100% in the no-spoilers camp. I understand!

Besides there are plenty of books/TV shows/movies that if you know what’s going to happen next you might not bother. Because what-happens-next is the main thing they have going for them. Don’t get me wrong those books/TV shows/movies can still be fun but they don’t make me want to read/watch them more than once.6

I’ve been enjoying HBO’s Game of Thrones largely because I’ve read the books. I like seeing how it translates to screen. Knowing that the red wedding was imminent made watching it more tense not less and I got the added pleasure of seeing other people’s reactions. On the couch next to me and on Twitter.

I think another shift in my opinion of spoilerfication was writing Liar: a book written specifically to have more than one way of reading it. I made a big song and dance of getting folks not to spoil it because I felt that knowing ahead of time what the big secret was would shift how a person read the book. Particularly as there’s no guarantee that the big secret in the book is true. So if you went in knowing what that big secret was you read the book with that in mind and likely with the expectation that the big secret was true. I wanted readers of Liar to be open to figuring out how they felt about the big secret as they read, not to go in with their minds already made up.

It was a pain. I was chastised several times by people who said my call for readers not to spoil was me being a hypersensitive author trying to control my readers. That once my book was published it was no business of mine whether people spoiled it or not. And they’re right. But I was requesting, not ordering. It’s not like I have the power to stop anyone from spoiling if they want to. There are no spoiler police I can call.

Don’t get me wrong if I was to publish a book like Liar in the future I’d still want people not to spoil it. To this day I am made uncomfortable when people describe Liar as a [redacted] book because for many readers Liar is not a [redacted] book. Those readers think the big secret is a big ole lie. And there’s loads of textual evidence to support them. I deliberately wrote it that way.

But the whole thing was needlessly stressful and made me want to write books where spoiling makes no difference. Like romances. Knowing ahead of time that the hero and heroine get together? Well, der, it’s a romance! It’s not about that, it’s about the how, and you can’t really spoil the how. Because the how is about the texture of the writing not about particular events.

I’ve also come across readers who were told that Liar was a [redacted] book who read it and decided that it was definitely not a [redacted] book and that being spoiled really didn’t affect how they read it.

I was unspoiled reading E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and I’m glad because I had no idea where it was going. It was a very pleasurable and [redacted] surprise. I’m looking forward to rereading to see what kind of book it is when I know what happens. Double the pleasure!

And, Emily, you have all my sympathy for trying to get people not to spoil it. They will. Which is a shame cause it’s a hell of a surprise. But the book’s so excellent I think in the long run it won’t matter. Besides I know for a fact that there are plenty of readers who are going to enjoy it more knowing the big secret before they start reading.

TL;DR: I’m chiller about spoilers than I was but I won’t spoil you.

  1. What? I like movies with kilts. []
  2. I find it very hard to stop watching a movie once I start watching it. It’s a curse. But Taken may well have broken me of the habit. []
  3. Both of which are (mostly) otherwise genius. []
  4. Youse know who youse are! *shakes fist* []
  5. It also let me know when to close me eyes during a certain gruesome scene. []
  6. Which is frankly a relief. There’s already too many books etc I wish to read/watch multiple times. I don’t have enough time! []

Don’t Do What I Did: On Writing Historicals

I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.

I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2

But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.

I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.

Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.

I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.

And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.

(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)

Don’t do what I did.

If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.

Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.

TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.

  1. I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties. []
  2. Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I? []
  3. Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one. []
  4. “Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia. []

In which I speak of Razorhurst in front of a Camera

As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes.1 It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.2

The good people at Allen & Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:

Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.

  1. The alliteration is in homage to Truth Sydney’s fabulously over the top tabloid of the period. []
  2. Which may I point out is less than a year away! []

Dear Person Yelling at Me

Dear Person Yelling Questions at Me from their Car while I am on My Bike Waiting for the Lights to Change,

My face is redder than red because I’ve just left a very intense hour of boxing training where my beloved trainer took me at my word that I wished to work very hard.1 The jacket I’m wearing is not, in fact, making me hot. It is a fine example of modern engineering with multiple vents letting in all the cool air while still keeping Australia’s vicious sun off my delicate, pasty skin. Also, and this may shock you, Yelly Driver Person, when one cycles at speed it can get quite cold what with the cool breeze. Furthermore, the jacket’s bright yellow colour allows cars to see me and thus they can avoid inadvertently clipping me, though sadly, it seems to have attracted your yelling attentions. Sadly, every plus has a minus.2

But why, Yelly Person in Your Car, are you screaming these questions at me? Why must you know if “I’m overheating in my giant coat”? Why would I assume, perched as I am on my bike, waiting for the lights to change that these inane questions are being shouted at me by a total stranger? And once I realise they are, in fact, being shouted at me why on Earth would you presume I would answer you? What business is it of yours what my body temperature is or what I choose to wear when cycling or anything at all really?

Don’t get me wrong, out on my bike, I do communicate with drivers in their cars. We nod at each other. Sometimes we smile. When a driver kindly lets me cross when they don’t have to I say, “thank you” or “ta” and they say “no worries.” Why just the other day a truck driver next to me as we waited for the lights to change asked me to do them the favour of adjusting the side mirror. I did so. Thumbs up were exchanged and the nice truck driver allowed me to go first when the lights changed. It was a beautiful thing. Cyclist and driver helping one another and not a single, shouted inane question. You see, Yelly Driver Person, it can be done.

But not today. You are all incivility and I, once I realise your inanities are addressed to me, am all ignoring you. Had I realised earlier I would have had the pleasure of delivering this speech in person and then seen you watch slack jawed as the wings unfurled from my yellow cycling jacket, yes, the one that so offended you, and I took off into the evening skies keeping pace with the flying foxes and directed them to relieve themselves on your car.

Instead please to enjoy this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Cycling Girl of Extremely Well Regulated Temperature.

  1. Will I ever learn? []
  2. Except for the pluses that have no minuses. I’ll get back to you with a list. []

Getting Away

One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.

Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.

I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.

Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.

I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:

Photo taken by me from the rock I leapt on to get out of its way.

Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.

This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.

Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.

Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.

At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:

megalongvalley

And it was good. Really good.

TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.

  1. After their relieved that the goanna has gone away. []
  2. Did I mention the bellbirds? I love them []

BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Updated)

Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.

If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:

Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.

The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.

I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.

I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).

JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!

You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.

I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.

God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.

I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.

KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.

I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.

Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”

JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.

I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone. :-(

KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.

There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.

JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.

It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.

All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.

Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.

Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.

It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?

I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.

Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.

The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.

KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:

1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).

I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.

Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.

JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!

1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.

Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.

I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.

Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.

The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.

I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)

KE: I have a few other comments.

We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.

Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:

“I love you, Jen—really.”

Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”

Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.

What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.

JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.

That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.

It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.

Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.

I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:

“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”

This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”

“Exactly.”

She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.

“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”

Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.

——-

So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?

Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.

Some More on the Bestselling Womens Fiction Book Club or BWFBC (Updated)

Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.

Your suggestions clarified two things for us:

1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.

2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.

We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.

Update: We’ve both decided we won’t be looking at historicals.

Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).

  1. Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce. []

BWFBC: Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club

Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.

We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.

At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.

I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1

If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.

TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.

  1. Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. []

Newsflash: Millennials Are No Worse Than Any Other Generation

There are an awful lot of articles right now that spend a lot of time bagging the Millennials, who are supposedly the generation after Generation X, who are supposedly the generation after the Baby Boomers. Even in articles about something completely unrelated to generations the Millennials get bagged. Take this evisceration of a poorly researched article about Mexican food which ends:

Of course, America doesn’t give a shit about actual facts: at last count, this pendejada had been shared over 40,000 times on Facebook and garnered nearly 600,000 page views. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Millennial, is why your generation is fucked.

Seriously? Poor research and shoddy journalism didn’t exist until the Millennials came along? Tell that to Mr Randolph Hearst and his tabloids of yesteryear that routinely made stuff up. I roll my eyes at you, sir.1

You may detect a hint of skepticism about generations. You’d be right. I do not believe in them. There is no way everyone born within a decade or so of each other have the same tastes and aspirations and experiences and shitty research skills.

For starters these generational labels don’t even apply to the vast majority of people born within their timespan. The way they are used in Australia and the USA, which is all I know about, they usually only include relatively affluent, able-bodied, white people. Because factoring in class and race and anything else is too complicated, isn’t it? Even amongst the anointed ones there are vast differences in politics and world view and how well off they are. It’s still absurd to think that all the affluent, able-bodied white people born within the same decade are all the same.

So what is the point of generational labels?

They’re mainly used: 1) to help advertisers figure out how to sell things to people, 2) to let previous generations bag on current generations.

When the Generation X tag first started being used many of us so-called Generation Xers would talk about how stupid it was. Actually, we do work really hard. We are, too, politically engaged. We are, too, feminists.2 Those of us still living with our parents did so because the rents were way higher than for previous generations and we couldn’t afford to move out. We are not a lazy generation. Nor are the Baby Boomers, nor are the Millennials.

But now I’m seeing plenty of the so-called Generation Xers bagging so-called Millennials in the exact same ways we were bagged. I’m also hearing them say, “Oh, it’s not like when we were bagged. These Millennials really are lazy and indulged and all about themselves. They really are the Me Generation.” Yes, there was even a Time magazine cover story about the Millennials being the Me Generation.

Sigh. Do you know who was first called the Me Generation? The Baby Boomers. Then it was applied to, you guessed it, Generation X. And so on and so on.

That Time article begins like this:

I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.

And I roll my eyes at you, too, sir. They always have proof. Every single time.

Am I saying there have been no changes in people in Australia the USA over the period in which we’ve been talking about these generations? Of course not.

A century ago in Australia and the USA the vast majority of people were living in extended family households. Far fewer people, back then, were left alone to raise their children. They were helped by grandparents, siblings, aunts etc. etc. Far fewer people lived alone. Far fewer people were ever alone. We were vastly more socially connected back then than we are now. This basic shift in how most of us live has caused a great many changes. Some good, some not so good.

We still don’t understand the extent of those changes. But some researchers believe that the rise in depression and other mental illnesses, including, yes, narcissistic personality disorder, is closely connected to these changes in our basic family unit.3

Those changes to the family unit did not happen over night and those changes didn’t all of a sudden manifest themselves in one single generation. The very idea is absurd. And yet generation after so-called generation we keep repeating that absurd notion.

I keep seeing people say that teenagers are addicted to social media. Yet when I go out you know who it’s hardest to get to put their damn phone away? The adults right up into their forties. When I see teenagers out together their phones are mostly in their pockets. Anecdotal evidence I know.

But if you don’t believe my observations about an extremely small sample size—and why should you—then read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated she’s got proof! Her basic thesis is that teens are not addicted to social media, they’re addicted to each other, to socialising and often, because of the tight controls of their parents, social media is the only way they can socialise.

You know what my generation was/is mostly addicted to? Socialising with our peers. As was the previous Baby Boomer generation.4 We humans we are very social creatures.

TL;DR: There is no such thing as a coherent generation who are all the same. Historical change happens much more slowly than that. Stop leaving out class and race and other important ways in which identity is determined. Also: GET OFF MY LAWN!5

  1. Though am very grateful to you for this particular corrective piece of journalism. One of the things I love best about the internet is that while, yes, false information spreads quickly; the corrections spread quickly too. And it’s much easier to find correct information than it was in the days before the internet. []
  2. Except for those of us who don’t and aren’t. []
  3. There are, of course, many other theories to do with our increasing dependence on technology etc. But I’m most persuaded by the research on these changes in how we live. []
  4. Before then you’re getting into a time when teenagers haven’t quite been invented yet. []
  5. The lawn I don’t have because I live in a flat. []

My Next Published Solo Novel: RAZORHURST!

My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.

I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.

Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*

Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.

Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:

RazorhurstOzCover

Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.

What is Razorhurst about?

Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:

The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.

Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.

Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.

When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .

Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count.1 It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.

Why is it called Razorhurst?

Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:

Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .

Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .

Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!

As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.

Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Magistrates.2 Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.

What inspired you to write Razorhurst?

I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history.3 Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.

I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.

TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.

  1. Mind you, that was not hard to achieve given that no one dies in my trilogy or in How To Ditch Your Fairy or Team Human and the death in Liar takes place before the book starts. (Or does it? And was there really only one death in Liar? I could be lying but only because I’m contractually obligated to do so.) So, really, a body count of one means that Razorhurst is bloodier than my other novels. []
  2. Truth, Sunday, January 3, 1932. []
  3. It’s very much not like that anymore. Check out this little characterisation of Surry Hills these days. As a resident I would like to point out it’s not entirely like that either. []

Utopia Now

I often think about how to make the world a better place. What would I do if I were world dictator? Other than ban coffee,1 I mean, and banish all the smokers to Bulgaria. Obviously, there are many, many, many things about this beautiful, broken world that need fixing. Clean water and food for everyone! Shelter and clothing! And like that.

My utopia would also highly prize education. Particularly Early Childhood Education.2 There would be well-trained, well-paid, early childhood teachers. And when I say well-paid early childhood teaching would be the highest paid job attracting the bestest and brightest.3 Some would be skilled at working with kids from a very early age, even newborns. They’d be available to all parents.

That’s right, no parents would be left alone to raise their kids without any support. So if you have kids and you live far from your family and closest friends, or if your family are the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children, there would always be someone to help you. Multiple someones. I’m convinced that each child needs a minimum of three adult carers (though five is better). Yes, I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. And two adults—especially when one of them is in full-time employment so the family can eat and keep a roof over their head—is insufficient.

Here in Australia there are almost 20,000 children in foster care. There aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them. And every year that equation gets worse as there are more kids taken into care and fewer carers.

In my state, New South Wales, the government has responded to the crisis by throwing money at the foster care end of things which, obviously, does need more money. However, it’s even more crucial that families are helped before things get so bad their kids are taken away.4

If all new parents, no matter how poor or how rich, were given support and training and access to people and places to help them with their kids I reckon their chances of government intervention would go way down.

I’d also like us to completely revamp our education system from top to bottom so that it worked more like this experimental class in Mexico. The headline of that article puts the emphasis on finding geniuses but what I thought was coolest was that every student improved and learned and that they all seemed to really enjoy going to school. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if school was like that for everyone?

In case you think there’s no way any country could turn its education system around to that extent have a little squiz at what’s been going on in Finland for the last decade or so. Pretty impressive, eh?

Tragically, I am not dictator of the world, I am a novelist, which means I am dictator of those worlds I create. I think I’ll be writing a novel where everything is built around that kind of education from cradle to grave and see how it could go horribly wrong . . . (The problem with a fully functioning utopia is that they’re not great for generating plot. Unhappy people make more plot than happy people.)

What’s your utopia?

  1. Just kidding. I would never do that. Scott would die. So would my parents. []
  2. Sentence caps cause I am emphasising its importance. []
  3. I would reverse the way teachers are paid. In my world primary school teachers would be the next best paid after the early childhood educators. Then those who teach children 12 years and up to the end of high school. Then, lastly, university educators would be at the bottom of this extremely well-paid scale. In my world lawyers and advertising agents and CEOs would be paid way less than educators. []
  4. I’m not going to go into the total economic disparity in whose kids get taken away and whose don’t. Let’s just say rich folk no matter how vile their treatment of their offspring very rarely have their children taken away. And there are all too many cases of working class families have their kids taken away for no good reason. []

Daring and Ridiculous

alphalogo_fullToday, Justine has graciously agreed to host a guest post from Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. Workshop graduate Rachel Halpern is here to talk about the confidence Alpha gave her as a teen writer.

I came into Alpha in the comfortable certainty that I would never be a writer. Even applying to Alpha seemed daring and ridiculous, and getting in was a complete shock. I was seventeen, old enough to have given up on the silliness of “someday I’ll be a real author.”

Getting in was a hit of confidence I badly needed, amazed that I’d made it into a 20 person program so cool that Tamora Pierce – my literary idol at the time – was willing to teach there. But it was still pretty clear, reading my fellow students’ work, that I had gotten in on a bit of a fluke – everyone there was obviously very talented, and I couldn’t quite believe anyone had put me among them.

At Alpha, though, it turns out these incredible students and staff and authors all take you seriously as a writer. That all these amazing people took my writing seriously – wanted to know what my story was about, where I was planning to send it – it was transformative to someone who’d long ago given up on writing something that anyone else would bother to read. I was so sure I’d never get anything published – and I probably never would have, without Alpha telling me to keep writing and keep submitting at a time when that seemed arrogant and impossible.

At Alpha, we’re encouraged to not only write new stories, but to read them aloud in bookstores, in front of our fellow students and the awe-inspiring guest authors who’ve come to read their own work. The staff coach us not just on how to make our writing the best it can be, but how to perform it to best effect. The underlying message, as with so many parts of Alpha, is You are good enough. Your writing is important. If it’s worth reading aloud, it must be worth reading at all. They tell us where we should send our work, which are the best magazines in our field, that we deserved to be paid for our work. They told us that rejections were a badge of pride, proof that you were sending your work out at all. They treated us, in short, like “real” writers, and taught us to treat ourselves the same way.

Coming out of Alpha, that confidence affects every aspect of our writing lives. That confidence is what keeps us writing. It’s what keeps us sharing our stories, with our friends, read aloud in bookstores, with critique partners. It’s what keeps us sending stories out, to contests and magazines, keeps us pursuing publication.

As a teenager, certain my writing was a pointless hobby, it seemed so outrageous to even consider someday being published. Even just writing seemed like such a waste of my time.

At Alpha, though, they didn’t treat me like “just a teenager,” or like a hobbyist. Through serious critiques and exciting lectures and just by listening and reading my work, they told me I was a writer.

We get a lot out of Alpha that lasts beyond that short exciting summer workshop – lifelong friends, tremendous writing advice, a critique group that helps us years after we graduate. But most of all, we get the message: you are writers, and you are good enough to write.

Keep writing.

Alpha graduateRachel Halpern is Editor-in-Chief at Inscription Magazine. She is a Dell Award finalist whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

For more information about Alpha, visit our website. To support the scholarship fund, which provides financial assistance to young writers accepted into the workshop, please consider making a donation. All donors receive a PDF copy of the Alphanthology, a completely alumni-created illustrated flash fiction anthology.

Online Conflict

There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.

Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.

I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.

I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.

Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.

Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.

I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.

As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.

More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.

I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.

But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.

Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2

Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism

  1. In the 1970s a friend of my mother’s was once excluded from a women’s group because she’d had a male child and was thus harbouring the enemy. I hasten to add that was a fringe view back then. []
  2. I mean today I do. There are days when not so much. []

Writing Under Different Names

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my writing career it would be to sell How To Ditch Your Fairy under a different name. And then Team Human would also be under that name.1

Justine Larbalestier would be my author name for my older, less funny, scarier YA and Something Extremely Catchy would be the author of my lighter, funnier, younger books.

All too often fans of HTDYF or TH pick up Liar and, well, it does not go well. But usually it goes way better than the other way around. The people who read Liar first tend to run the gamut from Huh? to THIS IS THE WORST BOOK EVER when reading HTDYF or TH.

When people fall in love with Liar and ask me what they should read next I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly or any of these books. I don’t suggest any of my own books because none of them are like Liar.2

Most readers like their favourite authors to stick to writing within the one genre. When they pick up a book by Favourite Writer they like to know what to expect and they get annoyed when they don’t get it.

Yes, there are also readers like you, who love the writers who do something different with every book. But you are a rare creature. I know you’re thinking, “But different names will just make it harder for me to find all your books and read them!”

Not so. The kind of readers who read all my books, sometimes even my scholarly ones, are usually the kind who read my blog and follow me on Twitter. You can rest assured when I start writing under another name this website and my Twitter feed will loudly proclaim it. It will also be noted in the bio on the books: Awesome Pen Name also writes as Justine Larbalestier. Rest assured I will not make it hard for anyone to find all my books!

Think of Nora Robert who also writes as J.D. Robb. It’s not exactly a secret, is it? Or Seanan MacGuire writing as Mira Grant. In fact, the only writers who try to keep their pen names secret are the likes of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Super famous and popular already. Lucky bastards.

I cannot judge these readers who want one kind of book from their favourite writers because I am that kind of reader. When I first picked up one of Heyer’s detective novels I was horrified! I’d expected a bubbly and delightful regency romance, not a leaden, predictable, detective novel. It was a nightmare.

I like knowing which writers to turn to when I’m in the mood for something very specific: smart, feminist, sexy Victorian romance (Courtney Milan), being scared shitless (Stephen King), erudite, treacherous, complicated historicals (Hilary Mantel), having my heart broken (Jacqueline Woodson). Etc.

So, yes, I wish I had managed my writing career as my reader self would have liked it. Justine Larbalestier for my older books, a different name for my younger ones. If I ever start writing adult romance or adult crime, you can bet I’ll be using a different name.

Writers, readers, publishers what’s your take on this?

  1. Different Name and Sarah Rees Brennan, obviously. []
  2. Though that will change in July when Razorhurst comes out, which is definitely closer in feeling to Liar than anything else I’ve written. []

On Writing Short Stories

I find writing short stories much, much harder than writing novels.

Every time I say so someone looks at me as if I have lost my mind and says something along the lines of:

But novels are so much longer than short stories!

That is true.

The shortest length people give for a novel is usually around 50,000 words. Though pretty much only YA and Children’s goes that short and still calls it a novel.

The longest length I’ve seen given for a short story is 30,000 words.

So, yes, novels absolutely are longer than short stories.

However, I do not find the number of words I’m dealing with the most challenging thing about writing fiction.1 In fact, the more words you have, the more space you have.

Look it at this way, when you tell a story to a friend, if it’s about people they don’t know, the first thing you have to do is explain who the people are, then you have to explain where the story takes place, and then, and only then, can you tell the story.

The less the person you’re telling the story to knows about the who, where, or when of the story the more you have to tell them in order to tell the story.

Say I’m telling my sister a story about mutual friends. It could go something like this:

Magpie did that thing again. Yeah, in front of everyone, and you know what her dad’s like.2

Seventeen words and my sister is laughing her arse off. But if I was telling that story for an audience that doesn’t know Magpie, or what “that thing” is, or who “everyone” are, or what her dad’s like, then it’s going to take considerably longer.

When you’re writing a short story, mostly your audience isn’t going to know anything. They won’t know who your characters are, where they are, or what’s going on. You have to convey all of that to them in not many words. The fewer words you have the harder it can be. You start having to make decisions about what the audience really needs to know. If you’re telling your story set in a world that’s not like ours then it’s even harder.

Obviously, I’m speaking of how I write and tell stories. There are writers who are naturally spare with words, who have never struggled to say everything they wanted to say in a mere three thousand words. I’m not one of them.

What mostly happens to me when I start a short story is that it turns out to be too big for that small frame. My fourth novel, How To Ditch Your Fairy began life as a short story. I was writing it for a series Penguin Australia does called Chomps, which are around, I think, 20,000 words. It swiftly became apparent that it was not a short story. Too many characters, too much world building, too much going on. The final novel was 65,000 words. Which is not a particularly long novel but it is not a short story by anybody’s measure. 20,000 words did not allow me the space to tell the story I wanted to tell.

I find that all that extra space makes the novel a much more forgiving form than the short story. A novel doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful; a story needs to be pretty close to perfect.

Think of it this way: a few mistakes on a huge, detailed quilt are not nearly as glaring as mistakes on one square of that quilt that you hold in your hands. Your eyes can only take in so much with a large scale detailed work like a quilt, or a novel. But with a small square, or a short story, the flaws are glaring.

When I write a short story I want every single sentence to be perfect. Obviously, I’d like that for my novels as well but I know it to be impossible. (A novel is, after all, a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.) Because a short story is smaller, I wind up spending way more time going over and over and over and over and over every clause, every sentence, every paragraph, trying to make them perfect. Even though I know perfection is impossible.

Short stories do my head in.

I have yet to write a single short story I am happy with. Obviously, if I could go back in time there are things I’d change about my novels, but I’m basically happy with them. They don’t itch at me with their many imperfections the way my short stories do. And they don’t take me nearly as long to write either. I have many short stories I’ve been working on for more than thirty years.

I’ve been given loads of great advice over the years from wonderful short story writers such as Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan.3 Margo keeps telling me to stop trying to tell the whole story and hone in on the most important part.

Makes perfect sense, right? But it turns out I can’t do that because I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it by which time it’s a novel not a short story. I’m one of those writers who works out what they’re writing on the page. I don’t outline, I just type.

I have learned to accept that I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist. Many writers are good at one and not the other. Many are good at both such as the aforementioned Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan. There’s no shame in not being able to write short stories, or not being able to write novels. It is what it is.

So there you have it. That is why I find writing short stories much harder than writing novels.

Tl;dr: Short stories are too damned short not enough space! Also: perfection evades me. I have novel brain.

  1. Though, yes, that does have it’s challenges. []
  2. Names and genders and relationships may have been changed. []
  3. And, yes, they’re not bad at novels either. A bit rude really to be good at everything. []

On Likeability

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.1

Here’s what I have noticed:2

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4

V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.

VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.5

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9

In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.

I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

Jenny Thurman added:

There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.

Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.

Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.

The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.

If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.

V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.

So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.

VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.

What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.

  1. This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject. []
  2. As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject. []
  3. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism. []
  4. Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about. []
  5. It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist. []
  6. Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere. []
  7. There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example. []
  8. Not literally. That would be terrifying. []
  9. I know, right? What is wrong with them?! []
  10. Except for the lovers from her one and only upbeat book with a happy ending: Price of Salt aka Carol. []

On Letting People Know You Are Eligible For Awards (Updated x 2)

Adam Roberts wrote a blog post on why he doesn’t write a blog post letting everyone know what awards his work is eligible for. John Scalzi responded writing about why he does do that. They both write science fiction for adults.

I don’t write such posts and never have because, as Scalzi puts it, that kind of self-promotion makes some of us feel squicky. It doesn’t make him feel that way; but it surely does me.

However, and this is a big however, I write in a field, Young Adult, where there is no popularly voted award that has as big an impact as winning a Hugo does. In science fiction the Hugo is the big deal.

All the game changing awards in my field are juried awards:

The biggest in the US is the Newbery Award. Win a Newbery and your book will stay in print forever. YA isn’t actually eligible for it but many of us YA writers also write books that are more middle grade and are thus eligible. The Printz and the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature division are the big YA awards. Neither has the impact of a Newbery win.

In Australia the big awards are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards which also has an effect on sales, though not on the scale of the Newbery. Then there’s the much more recent Prime Minister’s Literary Awards which includes a YA category. Get shortlisted for one of those and you get $5,000 tax free. Win one and you get $80,000 tax free. How good would that be? Very.

So it’s a pretty easy decision for me to make. In my world popularly voted awards are pretty irrelevant and juried awards aren’t going to be swayed by me posting a LOOK AT WHAT I WROTE THIS YEAR VOTE FOR ME VOTE FOR ME screed. Au contraire. I can imagine how the Newbery jurists would respond to a Dear Newbery Jurists post. Or an ad in Publishers Weekly addressed to them. *shudder*

To be honest, I don’t worry about awards or pin my hopes on them. I won’t lie: it’s lovely to win one. It’s lovely to be shortlisted. I’ve written about how much being shortlisted for a CBCA meant to me.

But I’ve been a juror for some awards so I know first-hand how random they can be. How it depends on the interactions of the jurors. I’ve seen great books not make short lists because I was the only one on the jury who recognised their greatness.1 We’ve discovered months after the decision process was over that, in fact, one or two wonderful books weren’t even nominated. We jurists never got to see them. Aaargh!

At least in the world of books, there is no system of deciding who wins awards that is fair and just and guarantees the very best books triumph.2 That’s because no one can ever agree on what those books are.

That’s why I think it’s best for us writers not to worry about it too much. I try to restrict my worrying to the stuff I have control over. I figure the best thing I can do for my writing career is write the very best books I can, whether they win awards, and sell tonnes of copies or not.

Tl;dr: Awards are random, life is short, write the books/stories/poems/blog posts that you want to write.

Update:

I have had a few more thoughts on this subject after reading Amal El-Mohtar’s excellent piece on it. Here’s a little snippet of what she says:

Recently I went on a tear on Twitter because I saw women for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect speak up about how difficult they find it to overcome shyness and low self-esteem enough to talk about their work, and what an ongoing struggle it is for them to find value in their art, to think of it as in any way contributing anything to the world.

. . .

You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.

I completely agree with El-Mohtar. The ones who are least likely to blow their own horns3 are the ones who most need to, the ones who people like me and El-Mohtar most want to hear from.

But I can’t lie. I’m really glad I’m in a field where popularly voted awards are no big thing so I don’t have to make others aware of my work come award time. Even after what El-Mohtar says in her cogent post. Even knowing that it’s largely socialisation that makes me feel squicky about it in the first place.

I do write an annual post on the last day of the year to keep track of what I’ve been up to professionally. Somehow that doesn’t feel squicky because it feels more like it’s addressed to myself. I feel the same way about the anniversary of going freelance posts I write. Those are for me, not to spruik my books or myself, which would be tacky.

Why do I think it’s tacky?

I’m a writer. I make my living by writing books. Why do I think it’s tacky to remind people about that and have them buy said books? Why don’t I have any buy buttons on my website? Why I do find everything associated with selling my work uncomfortable? Yes, I do think a large part of it is because of my socialisation as a woman. Particularly as an Australian woman. I definitely think that Australians and British people, on the whole, are more uncomfortable with the whole selling thing than those from the USA. For me it’s partly gender and partly culture.

But there are plenty of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people from the USA who are also mighty uncomfortable with the whole process.

On top of all of that there’s the whole ridiculous notion that we shouldn’t be making money out of art in the first place. Artists being above all that.

Amar El Mohtar is so very right. She ends her piece by calling for us to stop this stupid debate:

Can we please just accept — and make widespread the acceptance! — that making lists during Awards season is fine? That it’s standard? That there is a vast difference between stating one’s eligibility and campaigning for votes? That lists are extremely helpful to nominating parties who are rigorous in their reading and want to see conversations in fandom expand and diversify? And that rolling one’s eyes about the whole process helps precisely no one while in fact hindering many?

I’m with her and am going to try very hard not to give into my feelings of squickiness at self promotion in the future.

Update the Second: And now Gwenda Bond has joined the discussion with this passionate post. She begins by talking about how she almost didn’t write it:

So…I almost talked myself out of making this post, but then, hey, I said I was going to start blogging again and these are the kinds of things I’m interesting in blogging about. Even though it is a little scary, for reasons the post will make clear. The thing is, publishing books is—even though our books are not ourselves—extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear.

All too many of us stay silent for those reasons.

Do read the whole post because Gwenda beautifully articulates so much of what this discussion is actually about. Not merely who does and doesn’t self-promote but how we are perceived when we do self-promote.

This blog post began with me talking about staying quiet about achievements because of choosing not to blow our own horn.4 But as both El-Mohtar and Bond make clear, there’s a tonne of silencing going on. Women being attacked for speaking up about their own worth and it really has to stop.

I strongly recommend you read both El-Mohtar and Bond’s posts.

  1. Shocking, I know. And I’m sure the other jurors felt the same way about the books I did not recognise the greatness of. []
  2. Popularly voted awards have their own sets of issues. []
  3. Ahem. []
  4. So to speak. []

Some Thoughts On A Writer’s Intentions

Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”

I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.

I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3

The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5

Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?

I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.

When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.

The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.

However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.

Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8

But that’s not entirely true either.

The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.

However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.

How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9

With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.

I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.

In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.

Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.

Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.

To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.

This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.

To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12

The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.

I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!

In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.

Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.

  1. As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. []
  2. When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. []
  3. But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. []
  4. Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. []
  5. I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. []
  6. Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. []
  7. No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. []
  8. That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. []
  9. Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. []
  10. Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. []
  11. Which is plenty of engagement, by the way. []
  12. Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy. []

Last Day of 2013

And, lo, another year has passed and it is time for my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life this year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2014. I do this so I have a record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)

For me, 2013 was wonderful personally and professionally. I wrote heaps and heaps and heaps and I liked what I wrote and the resulting pain was manageable. Yes, there will be a new novel from me this year. And a short story for an extremely cool anthology. More on those below.

I usually start this post with a section on what books I had out and how they did. But, um, I had no books out this year. None. Not only no book, I did not publish a single thing, not so much as a haiku, let alone an article, or a story. This blog and my tweets are the sum total of my public writings this year.

I’ve now had two book-less calendar years since my first novel was published in 2005: 2011 and 2013. It’s as if I think I’m a fancy writer of Literachure or something. Yes, when I freak out about the two year gap between my last book and the one that’ll be published in 2014, my romance writer friends look at me with pity and horror, my YA writer friends say that’s a bit of a worry, my crime writer friends ditto, but my literary friends congratulate me on my exceptional productivity. A book every two years! So fast! You’re amazing, Justine!

It’s all relative, eh?

So here’s a new section instead:

What I wrote in 2013

I rewrote my Sydney Depression-era novel in preparation for its imminent publication of which more below.

I also wrote 40,000 words of a brand new book that came out of nowhere. As my novels so often do.1

I continued to work on the never-ending New York Depression-era novel. *sigh* It will never be finished. I’ve accepted that now. As well as working (a little) on my fairy godmother middle grade, which would have been finished by now if I hadn’t gotten distracted by the brand new novel. What? Some of us don’t have long attention spans, okay?

I also wrote a short story. This is very very very unusual for me. The last time I had a short story published was 2008. I can’t tell you much about the anthology except that I was so intrigued by the concept I couldn’t refuse despite the fact that writing short stories is insanely hard.

Yes, they’re much harder than novels. In this case there was a 2,500-word limit. Many of my blog posts are longer than that. How do you build a world and tell a story in 2,500 words?! Madness. Yet many other writers have managed it. So . . . I have given it my best shot. Which at the moment involves a first draft that is more than twice the length it should be, doesn’t make much sense, and is begging me to turn it into a novel. All this despite much excellent advice from Margo Lanagan.

You may have noticed that I also resumed blogging. At the end of October I started blogging roughly once a week. Go, me! I plan to do that even more consistently next year. I.e. tomorrow. Hello, 2014, I will blog in you. Even though blogging is dead. What can I say? I like dead things. Mmmmm . . . zombies.

Books out Next Year

At last a new novel from me! It will be published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014. That’s right, Australians and New Zealanders, only six months till you get to read my first solo novel since Liar! It’s been a while between drinks, eh? Um, five years. Gulp.2 It will be my seventh novel and tenth book.

The novel is called Razorhurst and takes place over a winter’s day in 1932. There are no zombies or vampires or unicorns or werewolves or witches, but there are ghosts. I’ll have heaps more to tell you about it in the coming months. This website’s going to get a spruce up as well courtesy of Stephanie Leary. That way it will be sparkly and new in time for the sparkly and new book. Exciting, eh?

Writing Plans for 2014

Well, obviously, there’ll be copyedits and etc for Razorhurst. I’ll be finishing the short story. It is due 1 Feb, after all. The anthology it’s in will be published by Allen & Unwin either later in 2014 or early 2015. Again, I’ll let you know more when I know more. It’s a stellar line up of authors and, as I said, a very cool concept.

Then I plan to finish the novel that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows what will take my fancy? Back to the New York Depression-era novel? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere. Knowing me, the safest bet would be the last one.

I may finally have a good idea for an historical romance. So I might write that. I did talk about how much I’ve been wanting to write one of those and then got myself a master class on how to do so by some of the very best in the business. Isn’t twitter an amazing thing?

All of this writing is possible because the RSI management is continuing to go well as I described last year. I have been able to write as much as six hours a day, which I thought would never be possible again. Dance of joy! I continue not to push it and to always have a couple of rest days each week. As well as exercising. I am so very good. (Mostly.)

What else happened in 2013

I was in the US briefly. Most of which I spent sick with the flu. Fun! My favourite part, other than seeing all my wonderful friends, was teaching at the Alpha writing workshop for teens. The students and staff were fabulous. If you get asked to teach there, do it!

Other than that, all my travel was in Australia, including attending several Writers Festivals. My favourites were the Adelaide and Brisbane Writers Festivals. They had innovative topics for their panels and, stunningly, programmed YA writers with folks who write for grown ups, as well as mixing up writers from different genres. Shocking, I know, but it worked really well. The diversity of the panels was reflected in the diversity of the audiences. I would go back to both those festivals in a heart beat. If you’re invited say YES. They’re fabulous.

I hung with friends and family. I gardened. I cooked. I read a tonne and listened to loads of new music and watched vast amounts of TV.3

My fave new TV show is Sleepy Hollow because it’s insane and the dynamic between the two leads is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

My favourite new (to me) romance writer is Cecelia Grant, who, like Courtney Milan, seems to delight in writing historical romances that break the rules. No bad sex4 allowed? Right then says Cecelia Grant and writes some of the funniest terrible sex ever. The hero can’t be a virgin? Ha! say Courtney Milan and makes one of her heroes a professional virgin. Romance has some of the most rigid rules in fiction so finding authors who are brilliant at messing with those rules, while still writing a romance, is a great joy. Cecelia Grant is brilliant at it and every bit as good a writer as Courtney Milan. I cannot wait for her next novel.

Another new-to-me author was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her latest novel, Americanah, after being blown away by her wonderfully witty Ted talk on why we should all be feminists which was recommended to me by just about everyone whose taste I trust on Twitter. Americanah has the same wit and wisdom and I loved it. Remember, I read very little realism—especially not for adults—it’s so not my thing. But this tale of the one who migrated to the USA (though she returns) and the one who stayed, and of their relationship to each other, was fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down.

I related to the novel strongly as I am someone who migrated to the USA, but then went home, and will go back again. Like her main character, I have dual citizenship, and continue to live my life in two countries. Yes, Nigeria is very different to Australia, and the specificity of the characters’ experiences in the USA, and back home, are different to mine. But there’s also a lot of similarity. What can I say, this novel really spoke to me. Adichie is a gorgeous, smart, insightful, funny writer, and I’ll be reading everything else she’s ever written.

My three favourite albums this year were Dessa’s Parts of Speech, Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé.5 There’s not a bad song or dud note on any of them. These three were the soundtrack to my year.6

Make sure you read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. It’s her best book yet and comes out early 2014.

And now it’s time to party! Oh, how I love New Year’s Eve.

May you have a wonderful 2014 full of whatever you love best.

  1. For those counting my published out-of-nowhere novels are How To Ditch Your Fairy, Team Human and now the Sydney novel. []
  2. In my defence there were other books. Such as an anthology with Holly Black and a novel with Sarah Rees Brennan. []
  3. But not movies I’ve basically given up on them. The last three I saw were unspeakably terrible. Except for Byzantium. That was quite good but would have been vastly better if it were a TV show. []
  4. To be very clear “bad sex” does not mean rape. Bad sex is consensual sex that’s ungood. []
  5. Yes, the Beyoncé album is what spurred me to read Americanah because of her sampling of the speech in “Flawless”. []
  6. Oh, okay, the second half of my year. Dessa’s album didn’t come out till June, Monáe’s till September, and Beyoncé’s hasn’t even been out a month yet. []

To Self-Publish Or Not To Self-Publish (Updated x 3)

I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.

To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.

What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.

Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.

I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).

Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.

Ask Yourself This Question First

Why do you want to be published?

There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.

But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.

In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.

This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.

Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First

I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.

I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.

Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.

Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me.1 My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.

I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE.2 I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.

Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.

Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.

You learn to deal with rejection.3

Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.

You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.

My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.4

You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one.5 But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.

All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.

Always have a novel on the go.

When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.

Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.

Never stop writing!

People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.

They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.

True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.

Rejection: it just keeps on giving.6

You Learn How To Write

In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.

I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.

(Here’s a post on how to find people to critique your work. Check out the comments as well.)

Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.

Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)

Once You’re Published

This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.

I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.

Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.

Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.

Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.7

They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.

You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.

Self-Publishing

There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.

An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.

When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.

Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.

Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.

I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.

However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.

Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!

And keep on writing!

Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.

Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.

Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.

  1. I do know a couple of people who were picked up by an agent and whose first novel sold basically within minutes of sending out. That’s unusual. Also annoying. []
  2. I wonder if self-publishing had existed back then if I would have gone ahead and published my work as it was? Back then I was pretty sure what I was writing was genius despite all the rejections. Reading it now I know it was rubbish and it being published back then would have been at best really embarrassing. []
  3. Which is not to say you ever learn to like it. I hates rejection, I does. HATES IT! []
  4. But let’s just say I’m not barracking for any Eastern European football teams in the World Cup. []
  5. Oh, the tears this profession of mine has made me weep. Fortunately a fair few of them have been tears of joy. []
  6. Show me the profession that doesn’t involve waiting and being rejected. I suspect it does not exist. []
  7. Yes, there are exceptions. Horrible exceptions. No industry is perfect. Least of all publishing. []

Pjs, Pockets, and Purses

I spend a great deal of my time in front of my computer in my pyjamas. Thus I wear pyjamas more than I wear any other clothing. They are my work uniform. All my novels have been written while I was wearing pjs. I think about pyjamas a lot.

I like mine to have three pockets, two on the pants, as well as a breast pocket. I like them to be soft and loose fitting, and deliciously comfortable. It’s a bonus if they can also have goofy, gorgeous or gelid1 patterns on them.

I mentioned on Twitter that most women’s pjs do not have pockets and the sadness this fills me with. How I am forced to mostly wear men’s pyjamas which typically do not have as interesting prints as women’s. Soon we were in a discussion about the paucity of pockets in women’s clothing, the awesomeness of pockets, and of pjs, and there was much bonding.

Though there was also some who made distinctions between kinds of pjs. For them pjs are what you wear to bed and lounging pjs are what you wear to write in. Okay . . . sounds very Katherine Hepburn-y, and I love her, so I’ll go with it. But I do not make such a distinction. Then there was mention of “house dresses” which I’d only ever heard of in ye olde Hollywood movies. Must be a thing of the USA.

But there was also a distinct minority who questioned the need for pockets in pjs. I admit to being bewildered by the question but it swiftly became apparent that there are people who only wear pjs to sleep in.

I know. I was shocked too.

Then it turned out that there are people who don’t like pockets. Who don’t want pockets on any of their clothing. There was talk of pockets always having holes, ruining the lines of clothing, making people look fat (!).

I must confess at that point I fainted from shock.

Where do they put their phone? Their keys? Their sekrit decoder ring (when not in the company of people where it can be worn freely)? I don’t understand!

The answer was in their bags (or purses as those from the USA call them). Don’t get me wrong. I have handbags, I have backpacks. I use them. I even have some I love dearly but in my heart of hearts I wish everything I needed when I left the house would fit into my pockets. That I could be unencumbered by bags.

For bags weigh me down, pulling on one shoulder, or the other, or both in the case of backpacks. I am always inadvertently whacking into things with bags or being whacked with them. They are little violent, destructive beasts.

Worst of all bags eat my stuff.

I know the only pen I’ve ever liked is in the bag I bought in Rome many, many years ago. The first fancy bag I ever bought myself. And Italian bag! My Italian bag. I still have that bag though it is faded and frayed and somewhat less fabulous than it once was. The pen should be in there. But can I find it? No, I cannot. That stupid Italian bag ate my favourite pen. I have never found a pen like it since. I no longer like pens. All because of that bag.

In conclusion: Pyjamas are the best WITH pockets. Purses (bags) are the devil. The end.

  1. They only need be gelid in summer. In winter I prefer warmer patterns. []

On Writing Characters

It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1

Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2

There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.

But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.

Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.

Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.

Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.

Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.

Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.

It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?

What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.

Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.

Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.

Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.

But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.

Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4

Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.

Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.

But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.

This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.

All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.

None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.

  1. Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life. []
  2. Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain. []
  3. Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out. []
  4. I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world. []
  5. Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters. []
  6. With a tiny bit of Spanish. []

(The Non-existence of) Perfection in Politics and Writing

One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?

Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.

Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.

It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?

If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.

Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.

My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.

I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.

Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.

I think that’s a good thing.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.

But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.

Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.

They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.

This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.

Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!

  1. I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast. []
  2. Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me. []

The Less Fun Side of Social Media

On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:1

For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.

It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.

I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 12,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.

Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.

But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?

Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.

This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.

At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.

A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.

It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?

I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.

The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.

My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.

It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.

I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.

We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.

Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.

  1. Julia Gillard is no longer Australia’s female, atheist, living in sin Prime Minister. But I remain proud that she once was and that Australia has universal health care (no matter how imperfect), strict gun control and mandatory voting. []

bell hooks

Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!1

You can watch the whole thing here. Yes, it’s two hours. But they’re an awesome two hours. You can also read Trudy’s take on the extraordinary conversation here.

Here’s why bell hooks is important to me:

When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.

That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.

bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.

Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.

If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.

And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.

  1. Though of course one question came from someone who would not be stopped in giving that speech. []

Learning to Write Romance

The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks1 typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?

Everything.

Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel.2 I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.

Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.3

Back to my story and moving forward a decade:

Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.

My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.

When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.

I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.

However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas4 I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.

I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa5 immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.

Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.

Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.

There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.

None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day.6 Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.

The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.7

I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.

Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.

Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.

Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted.8 Wish me luck.9


  1. I honestly can’t remember how long it was now []
  2. Or how to write a short story. But I was blissfully unaware of that back then. []
  3. Romances published outside the category are allowed to have sad endings. []
  4. And also Jo Bourne who I didn’t ask because I have not read her work. Looks Like I’ll have to now. []
  5. I feel like we’re now on first name basis after several Twitter exchanges. []
  6. Though if there is one point me to it cause that would be fascinating. []
  7. I ranted on Twitter recently about how people are always claiming stuff about YA with nothing but anecdotal evidence and here am I doing the same thing. Sorry. If anyone knows of any actual research that has been done on this I’d love to hear it! []
  8. Well, except for that attempt at 15 which I hardly think counts. []
  9. But don’t hold your breath. I just started a new YA and have many other books on my to-write queue before I get to having a go at writing an adult historical romance. []

Small Word Count Goals

Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.

Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:

For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.

Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.

At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which made me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.

Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.

But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.

At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)

On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.

The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.

At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.

What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.

Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.

The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.

Enter Scrivener

I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.

If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:

Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:

ProjectTargets

The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.

The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!

To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.

To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.

You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.

Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.

Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.

Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!

Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.

  1. Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury []
  2. Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were. []
  3. Days I don’t write don’t count. []

Some Things I Forgot to Say About Sport

At the Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel about sport and writing alongside Hugh Lunn and Don Watson moderated by Lee McGowan. All three are sports obsessives and so it was great fun and excellently moderated and much territory was covered and if anyone wants me to talk about sport in front of any kind of audience at all I AM SO THERE.

By which I mean: PLEASE INVITE ME TO TALK ABOUT SPORT MORE.

There were a few themes that emerged during the discussion. Both Hugh and Don1 were mournful for how sport in this country used to be, for past athletes who were humbler and more dedicated than the athletes of today. They seemed to also have a fair amount of sadness that Australia is no longer the great sporting nation it once was.

I do not share their concerns so that made for some fun exchanges.

I pointed out that during the decades of Hugh’s and Don’s coming of age as sport enthusiasts, the 1950s and 1960s, the athletes in this country were largely still amateurs. Most had day jobs and were paid a pittance—if they were lucky—to represent their club or their country. We were still in the midst of a shift from amateurism to professionalism.

Even now for many sports that shift has barely begun, particularly for women’s sports. That’s why Ellyse Perry is one of the few dual internationals left—representing Australia in both cricket and soccer. Back in the day it was de rigeur for the best Aussie athletes to play cricket in summer and their preferred code of football in the winter. These days the men cannot play both even if they want to: being an elite cricketer or a footballer is a full-time gig. That’s why Ellyse Perry is helping stack the chairs after one of her club games and fully professional blokes like Shane Watson are, well, not.

Everything that follows is stuff I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to.

Probably the main reason Australia doesn’t seem to be as successful a sporting nation as it once was is that back then we didn’t actually have that much competition. If you look at the lists of say, tennis, champions in the 50s and 60s there are very few that aren’t Australian or from the UK or or the USA.

Let’s think about why, shall we?

Firstly, tennis used to be predominately a British game. Every single tennis champion until 1915 were British or from the USA or Australia. And they remain the vast majority until the 1980s. My evidence: these lists of grand slam champions. Tennis is now an international game, played all over the world. China now has a grand slam champion. I predict that there will many more.

Then there was this little thing called World War II, which set back most of Europe’s sporting programmes for many years. Australia was relatively unaffected. (As was the USA.) Australians could keep on training and playing and winning with far less competition than they would have had if there hadn’t been a world war.

Basically, while there is still nowhere near a level playing field,2 there are many more nations competing against us at all levels and in more sports than there once were. And as more countries around the world spend more money on their athletes our sporting achievements will continue to seem not nearly as good as they did up until the 1960s when it must have felt like we won almost everything.3

It’s also important to remember that until relatively recently most people were unable to train and compete, even in those wealthy countries like Australia and the USA, because of reasons of ethnic, racial and sexual discrimination. There’s a reason there have been so few African-American tennis champions. It was a sport for the wealthy. Now it’s a middle class sport played all over the world, which means the pool of talent has deepened and widened. The odds of a relatively small country like Australia regaining it’s former tennis glory are small indeed.

I would argue that the athletes who are at the top of their sport today are truly amazing. Samantha Stosur may have only won a single grand slam but the competition she is up against is much, much tougher than it was for, say, Margaret Court. And Stosur has managed to stay at a very elite level for quite a few years now, which is remarkable. This makes players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer some word which is like a hundred times stronger than “remarkable”.

Further to Samantha Stosur. I am so sick of her being bagged by the Australian press.4 She was the no. 1 in doubles for more than a year. She’s been as high as no. 4 in singles. She won the US Open against Serena Williams. SERENA WILLIAMS. She has 5 grand slam titles. And 28 career titles. But you’d never know it listening to the Australian press who can only talk about what a choker she is. Because apparently only singles grand slam titles count. Or something.

So here’s what I hate about contemporary sporting culture: that it’s all about winning. Sadly though I think that’s what sport’s pretty much always been focussed on. Fans turning on their idols because they lose a match is not a recent development.

I love watching Stosur play because you can see her fighting herself. Frankly, she reminds me of myself while writing. Some days it all goes so well; other days OMG stupid words! Why do you defy me?! Some days I fall to pieces. And I’m a writer. There is no opponent, there is no global audience watching my every move. If I were a tennis player I would be a much, much bigger head case than Stosur. Honestly I have no idea how they do their job day in day out with so many people watching and commentating on every move.

One of the reasons I love tennis is that it’s such a psychological sport. The more unemotional players who hold it together have never interested me nearly so much as the ones for whom the battle against themselves is almost as mighty as the battle against their opponent. It’s one of the reason I love Serena Williams’s play so much. She’s such a confidence player. I mean on top of just being amazing. Watching herself dig herself out of a hole—like she did at this year’s US Open—it is a thing of beauty and also of agony.

For another example of this insanity check out this tweet about the fact that Roger Federer one of the greatest players the game has ever seen is no longer winning every little thing:
“Do you think the great Swiss player is finished?”

I know what my response would be were I Federer. It would not be polite.

That’s another thing that drives me nuts. Why shouldn’t athletes keep playing their sport as long as they’re good enough to do so? It’s not like Federer needs a wild card to get into events. He’s still a highly ranked player. He’s just not number one any more. It’s total bullshit that he’s tarnishing his legacy. No, he’s not. No matter what he does now he will have still won a gazillion grand slams and been world number one for basically forever.

Athletes already have a shorter career that almost any other profession without us spectators and commentators howling from the stands that they’re finished because they’ve got from world’s best ever to still pretty bloody good.

Well, felt good getting that sporting rant off my chest. As you all were.

  1. I feel that we are on first name basis now that we have been in the panel trenches together. []
  2. Australia remains one of the world’s wealthiest countries. []
  3. Except soccer. []
  4. I can’t even imagine how she feels about it. []

Zombie versus Unicorns Banned in Texas

It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.

The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.

As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?

Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.

Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.

The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.

There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.

Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.

So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.

One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.

Let books roam free!

Melbourne Writers Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival

Next week I will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I have one event left which is not yet sold out:

Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013, 11.15 am
STRONG WOMEN
Me and Kelly Gardiner
Details here. Price: $7.
Melbourne Writers Festival

We have had excellent email exchanges with our moderator Jordi Kerr, which makes me believe it is going to be a most splendid panel. We will certainly argue with the very idea of a strong woman. Because that’s what strong women do.

Then the following week I will be at the Brisbane Writers Festival where there are still available tickets and a few of my events are free. I’m really excited about BWF. They have a brand new director, Kate Eltham, who comes out of science fiction and thus knows how to do panels right. This is the most diverse and interesting set of panels I’ve ever had at a writers festival. I cannot wait.

My Schedule:

A SPORTING NATION
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE: Friday 6th
TIME: Fri 3:30–4:30PM
TICKETS $12-$16
Don Watson
Justine Larbalestier
Hugh Lunn
From the long slow burn of a test match to the glories of a ‘specky’, Watson, Larbalestier and Lunn discuss their sporting passions and why sport inspires the best, and sometimes the worst, writing and language.

I’m so excited about this panel. The only other time I’ve been on a panel about sport was because I suggested it myself. This time it was their idea and they put me on the panel with two of the most famous sports obsessives in Australia and our email exchanges with moderator Lee McGowan have been most excellent. It is going to be fabulous.

THE GENRE GHETTO
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 6:30–8PM
Matt Fraction
Sarah Wendell
Justine Larbalestier
Ben McKenzie
Stuart MacBride
Tickets $20-$25
Funny, personal and heartfelt stories about being genre nerds and being proud. Live storytelling from Fraction, Wendell, Larbalestier, McKenzie and MacBride.

I’m very curious about this one. I certainly have more than my fair share of stories about being dissed in often very amusing ways for being a writer of young adult literature. I was never much of a nerd as a kid, however. Indeed back then we would have said “dag” and it didn’t mean the same thing and I wasn’t one.1

FESTIVAL CLUB
VENUE: Maiwar Green, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 8–11PM
Scott Westerfeld
Justine Larbalestier
Stuart MacBride
Benjamin Law
Simon Reynolds
Krysi Egan
Kevin Kwan
No ticket required. That’s right THIS ONE IS FREE
‘Juvenilia’ (stories we wrote as teenagers) set featuring Kevin Kwan, Clementine Ford, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Kimberley Freeman (Kim Wilkins), Stuart MacBride and Benjamin Law reading work they scribbled in their youth. A special ‘Juvenilia’ mixed tape set by Simon Reynolds will wrap up the night.

Okay, so I have no idea how this one is going to work. But I’m imagining a cool jazz band from the 1960s in skinny pants and black turtle necks clicking their fingers cooly in the background as we read you the excruciatingly bad shit we wrote as teens. The audience will be torn in two between their intense desire to laugh and their equally intense desire to be all cool in the face of the awesome jazz. May the laughter win.

THE RISE AND RISE OF YA
VENUE: Queensland Terrace, State Library of Queensland
DATE Saturday 7th
TIME Sat 10–11AM
Justine Larbalestier
Steph Bowe
Melissa Keil
Carley Commens
TICKETS $12-$16
Young Adult (YA) fiction is the fastest growing category of publishing and 55% of YA is purchased by adult readers. YA stars Justine Larbalestier, Steph Bowe and Melissa Keil explain why we love it, read it and write it.

There’s so much to say about this. I have so many opinions! Can’t wait to hear what the others have to say too. Despite living here I am still much less clear on YA in Australia than I am on the genre in the USA.

See you in Melbourne and/or Brisbane!

  1. I will delete any comments offering evidence to the contrary. []

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Movie Premiere

tmipremier

Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop.1 Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.

If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world,2 and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.

Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.

Here’s the event page on FaceBook for those of you who, unlike me, are on FaceBook. And here are the details for the non-FB types like myself:

WHEN: Thursday, 22nd August at 6:30pm

WHERE: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney

DRESS: Prizes for best costume

COST: $18.50

Tickets are on sale now and are strictly limited. Purchases can be made at Kinokuniya (at the cashier counter) or over the phone: 02 9262-7996.

Be there or be extremely sad you missed a wonderful event.

P.S. For those of you in Melbourne and Brisbane we will be there very soon at your fine writing festivals. Click here for my Melbourne events and here for my Brisbane events.

  1. My favourite Sydney bookshop—aside from all the other fabulous ones—if you live here and have never checked them out time to do so! []
  2. Other than all the other really good ones. []

Me in Pittsburgh, PA, USA

As part of teaching at the Alpha Teen Workshop, I’ll be appearing in Greensburg, PA. Scott will also be there on account of we’re teaching the workshop together. Along with the fabulous Theodora Goss and Tamora Pierce. Stellar company, eh?

Here are the details:

Sunday, 14 July1
2:00-4:30PM

Barnes & Noble Greensburg
5155 Route 30
Greensburg, Pa. 15601

Click here for the store locator.

Hope to see some of you there. It’s ages since either one of us did an event in the USA. We are very excited.

I have never been to Pittsburgh before. Is there anything in particular I should make sure to see? Tell me of Pittsburgh, oh Pittsburghians.

  1. Given the date I imagine the entire event will be in French. I’m pretty sure I can still count to ten in French and ask where the window is. Which is all you need, right? Oh, apparently it is not. My French-speaking sister has just informed me that I am forbidden to mangle that fine language. English, it is then. []

We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.

One of the points she makes is this:

women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.

I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”

How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):

To [Asimov's] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.

I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.

The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.

N K Jemisin also observes:

[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.

I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?

The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.

I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.

Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.

Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.

NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.

  1. The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. []
  2. There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. []

Twitter Etiquette

So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?

But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!

In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.

Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1

NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.

So, Twitter.

Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:

Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.

And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2

At the other end of the spectrum:

Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3

Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!

Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4

Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow

Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.

This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.

Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.

To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:

TwitterConvo

I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you

Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.

For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5

Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!

Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.

I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.

If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you

I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.

Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!

Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.

It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.

If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you

I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.

Tweet what you care about

Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.

It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.

I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.

It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?

Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS

This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.

#hashtagsarefun

They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:

#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?

#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.

Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.

Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.

Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.

I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack

Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.

  1. Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. []
  2. What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. []
  3. And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. []
  4. I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. []
  5. Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! []
  6. Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. []

Me and Libba Bray and Barry Goldblatt at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Look what’s happening this Sunday, 26 May at 10AM1

Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This event is free and no bookings required.
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
Moderated by fancy NYC literary agent Barry Goldblatt (also known as Mr Libba Bray).

I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. Even though I always lose to Libba. She’s a total card shark. I bet me and Barry can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that. We’ll also tell the very weird story of mine and Libba’s second meeting. And talk about that wild, wild weekend in Austin.

SO MANY THINGS FOR US TO TALK ABOUT.

I hope you can join us. Be sure to ask Libba embarrassing questions. She loves that.

  1. 10 am? Excuse me? How can I be expected to be witty at TEN ON A SUNDAY MORNING? I should still be asleep! Or possibly contemplating a decadent brunch. It’s inhuman having a panel this early. []

Where I Will Be in 2013

After Scott put up this post about his appearances for the rest of this year, I realised I should do likewise because most of those places he is, I will be also. An eerie coincidence, I know.

Most of the events are in Australia. Sorry, rest of the world, who may have some interest in saying hello. We’ll always have Twitter.

Conflux
Canberra, ACT
April 26-28

I’ll be interviewing the brilliant and wonderful Nalo Hopkinson on Saturday, 27 April (i.e. two days away) at 2:30PM, Forrest Room 1 & 2 at the Rydges Capital Hill. (Do come say hi. Unless I’m, like, on stage or in the ladies room or something.) Conference site.

INTERNET DEAD ZONE
3-13 May

I am turning off the internet for this whole week. No twitter, no nothing. It’s going to be AWESOME. The mental hygiene, I needs it. Oh, okay, I’m just turning it off for me, yours will still chug along. (Probably.)

Sunday, 26 May
Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. I bet we can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that.
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This is free and no bookings required.

Alpha Teen Workshop
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
13-16 July
I’ll be teaching at this week-long writing seminar for teenagers. Admissions for the workshop are closed, but there will be a bookstore appearance in Pittsburgh. I’ll post details when I know them.
href=”http://alpha.spellcaster.org”>the Alpha site
.

Melbourne Writer’s Festival
August 22-30

I’ll be attending and saying wise stuff with other wise people. Details not set yet, but you can always check back here or on the festival site.

Brisbane Writers Festival
September 4-8

There will be more wisdoms here in sunny Brisvegas. Again as soon as I know what I’ll be doing I will share with you. Festival site

There may be other events in which case I will let you know here on the blog. You can also check my appearances page which I am most scrupulous about keeping up to date.

I really hope I’ll get to see/meet some of you this year.

Overused Words

This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)

I will be editing it from time to time to add more evil words.

When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*

These are the offending words:

And
before
eyebrow (raise, lift)
eyes
glance
good
got
gotten
had
head
just
laugh
look
mouth (open, close)
nod
really
seem
shiver
shrug
sigh
slowly
smile
so
still
stood
suddenly
then
very
walk

None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.

For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.

“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:

Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:

Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.

I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.

My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”

You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.

The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap of the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.

(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)

Ten Years of Writing YA Novels For A Living

It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.

I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!

And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:

I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.

I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.

Here is my traditional anniversary post writing and publishing stats:

    Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
    Books published: 9
    Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
    Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
    Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
    Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
    Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
    Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
    Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
    Books about to be finished: 1
    Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
    Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)

For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.

I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2

Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.

I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.

Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?

But so much has changed since then.

My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be

For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.

I do now.

Wow, have I come a long way. I have had books remaindered. That’s right someone could gleefully recite Clive James’ brilliant poem, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”, about me.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)

Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.

It has now.

Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.

I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.

Um, no.

I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.

In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6

Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7

Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.

It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.

Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*

The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those two tomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8

The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.

YA Publishing Has Changed

Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9

Money

Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.

There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.

They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.

I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.

So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.

YA Has Changed

I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.

That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12

(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)

For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.

New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.

I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.

Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.

I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):

  • commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
  • gorgeously written books they think will win prizes

Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.

Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.

This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.

Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops

There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.

But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.

I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.

I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?

I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.

It Was Ever Thus

I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?

I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.

I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.

There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.

In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13

Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.

Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.

Writing

But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?

All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.

Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.

At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.

And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?

Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.

All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.

None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.

My writing is more important.

I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.

I was wrong.

Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.

Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.

I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19

If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.

To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.

Community

Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.

One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.

The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.

Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.

My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.

Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!

  1. Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. []
  2. I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. []
  3. Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. []
  4. I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. []
  5. Those job titles work differently in Australia. []
  6. And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. []
  7. Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* []
  8. Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. []
  9. Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. []
  10. Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. []
  11. I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. []
  12. There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. []
  13. Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. []
  14. In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. []
  15. That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. []
  16. She said euphemistically. []
  17. Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. []
  18. Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. []
  19. Okay, they might blink. []
  20. That’s for all my grammar nazi friends who freak out at the thought that the mighty “whom” will not be with us for that much longer. []
  21. Though I’d like to point out to said grammar nazi friends that the contortions needed to use “whom” made for a way ugly sentence. I’m just saying . . . []