Accompanying Scott Westerfeld on His US Tour

For the next two weeks I’ll be accompanying Scott on his US tour. We’ll be hitting the San Francisco/Bay Area (Menlo Park, Santa Rosa, and SF), LA, the Phoenix/Tempe area, Chicago, Princeton NJ, and New York City. Do say hello and if you’ve got anything you’d like me to sign I’m more than happy to do so. Details here.

I’ll be having a mini-tour of my own in November when My Sister Rosa publishes in North America. Full details as soon as I have them. In the meantime I’ll definitely be at YallFest and at the ALAN workshop. Hope to see you!

my-sister-rosa-cov

Launching Wai Chim’s Freedom Swimmer

Tomorrow, Friday 16th of September I have the great honour of launching Wai Chim’s first YA novel, Freedom Swimmer, and it’s a corker. The book was inspired by Wai’s father’s escape from Mao’s China by swimming to Hong Kong.

Wai tells a story of privation and love and friendship. The central relationship between Ming and Li, one of the city boys sent to his village to learn to be proper communists, is deeply moving. The book is warm and funny and sad. It’s also educational: The Cultural Revolution in China is a period of history I know little about. I learned a great deal because this book sent me down a trail of reading more because Freedom Swimmer is so fascinating. Youse all need to read it.

Launch details:

Friday 16 September
6pm for 6.30pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe, Sydney, Australia
RSVP here

Hope to see you there. This book is so worth it. And Wai Chim is a delight.

Brisbane Writers Festival! This Weekend! I am in you!

Hello, Brisbanites, I will be in your fine city this weekend doing the following things at the Brisbane Writers Festival. All my events are on site.

SATURDAY 10 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
Panel: Psycho
Auditorium 2, SLQ
Justine Larbalestier, Caroline Overington, Caroline Kepnes moderated by Meg Vann
Nothing I love more than talking about psychopaths. This will be the best. I have so many theories about the fascination with psychopaths.

SUNDAY 11 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
In Conversation: My Sister Rosa
GOMACinemaB
Justine Larbalestier
Belinda Jeffrey
Even if you haven’t read the book you should attend cause I’ll be talking about psychopaths some more, which is really a conversation about what makes us human and what counts as human. Who doesn’t want to talk about that?

THE RE[a]D BOX
1:30pm – 2:00pm
In which I crash Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s reading of ILLUMINAE

3:00pm – 3:30pm
In which I am supposed to do my own reading but will probably just talk about psychopaths. Cause, seriously, there’s SO MUCH TO SAY!

Looking forward to talking about psychopaths with youse all! See you very soon, Brisbane!

My WisCon 40 Guest of Honour Speech

Today in honour of James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday I’m publishing my guest of honour speech from this year’s WisCon. WisCon is the longest-running feminist science fiction convention in the world. It’s an amazing con.

My fellow guests of honour, Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar, will also be publishing their speeches. Both speeches are amazing. Check them out!

I’d like to thank you all for inviting me here and especially Tempest Bradford for taking such good care of me and being such a good friend. I’m honoured to be GoH along side Sofia Samatar and Nalo Hopkinson. Especially Nalo, who has been a long-term mentor of mine, even if she didn’t know it, and a wonderful friend. Thank you.

My life as a YA writer

I used to write respectable scholarly work on feminist science fiction for adults. I have two published tomes that attest to that fact. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth.

That work led me here twenty years ago to this feminist science fiction paradise. I love WisCon. I love youse all.

I used to be a WisCon hometown girl. I used to organise the academic track and then the readings track.

I once spent an entire WisCon weekend attempting to interview the wonderful Judith Merril, which involved much running after Judy in her extremely fast motorised wheel chair. I miss her.

I also miss my dear friend, Jenna A. Felice, who died far too young.

This convention is full of memories for me, happy and sad.

And humiliating. I once made a total fool of myself here in front of Ursula Le Guin. I’m blushing thinking about it. If I could go back in time to fix one of my fucks ups that’s the one. Not the one where I threw a glass of Guinness in an ex’s face, which also happened here.

I admit—and I wouldn’t have admitted it back then—I used to dream that one day I’d be a guest of honour here. But then in 2003 I sold a novel and had the following conversation multiple times here at WisCon:

ME: I sold a novel! To Penguin! Three novels, actually!
Them: Wow. That’s fantastic! Fantasy or science fiction? Will you be working with Ginjer Buchanan?
Me: Fantasy. No.
Them: What’s your book about?
Me: A teenager who discovers a door that’s a portal between Sydney and New York and that magic is real and totally fucked up.
Them: A teenager? As in teen fiction?
Me: Yup. They call it YA these days. As in Young Adult.
Them: Teenagers? Young Adult? Wow. Is that the time? I must dash.

Folks who’d been following my work for years apologetically confided that they would not be reading my novels.

It stung more than a little. Especially as it meant my dream of one day being Queen of WisCon aka GoH was now gone. I looked over the list of past guests to double check yup none of them wrote only YA. Most of them wrote no YA at all.

Yes, sure, Ursula wrote A Wizard of Earthsea and Tehanu but she also wrote The Left Hand of Darkness among many other classics of real science fiction and fantasy so it’s all good.

WisCon still hasn’t had a GoH who is mostly known for their YA. Tamora Pierce has never been a Guest of Honour here. Shocking, I know.

Even I have those two non-YA books, which, I suspect are a big part of why I’m guest of honour today. Hey, I’ll take it! My two scholarly books are not who I am now, I will never write more, but I’m still proud of them.

Adults Hate Teens
Turns out it wasn’t just the SFF crowd who aren’t fans of YA. (Though I suspect that SFF folk have particularly painful memories of being a teen and being oppressed by other teens.) I heard the following a lot: “Teens are awful. Being a teen was awful. Why on Earth would you write about them?” Often accompanied by visible shuddering.

It was starting to dawn on me that the horrified reaction to my writing Young Adult had little to do with the books and a whole lot to do with lack of interest in, as well as fear and hatred of, teenagers. Much as dislike of Romance is often more about misogyny than the books themselves.

It’s a mystery to me how I failed to notice that many adults hate teens. I’d certainly been aware of it when I was a teen. But somehow I forgot.

I also realised that adults hating teen wasn’t just a personal thing it was also a societal thing. There are, in fact, laws against teenagers in many jurisdictions. There are stores and even whole malls that won’t let teens in unsupervised by adults.

Why? I wondered. Why do we hate teens so much. I mean sure some of them are arseholes but so are some adults. What’s going on?

I started reading up on teenagers. (Brace yourself specialist historians for some pretty reductive, cringe-inducing history.)

What is a teenager?
When did the teenage years become a social category in the West, that sits in between childhood and adulthood?

To be clear adolescence, the biological stage, involving puberty and growth spurts and the rewiring of brains, has been a known thing for ages. The word adolescence is first used in English, borrowed from the French, in 1425. Meanwhile the word “teen age” doesn’t appear until 1921 with a space between teen and age and quote marks like tongs around it. Teen-ager in 1941. Teen-agedness in 1952 and teenaged in 1953. All of this is not to prove that I can use the OED like a fiend but that “teenage” and it’s variation are not even a century old yet!

Teenagers as a social category, that could be studied, marketed to, and blamed for society’s ills, didn’t exist until last century. In the West you were a child and then you were an adult working, depending on your time period, on the farm, on your back, in the mills, in the navy, in factories, in the streets, in someone else’s home.

If you were born a slave there was no childhood. The richer you were the longer you could be a child.

The spread of education and schools beyond the wealthy, caused lengthened childhood. This was reflected in legislation. For example in Britain the workday for eleven to eighteen year-olds was shortened to 12 hours in 1833. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929.
All of these changes are deeply connected to the shift from agrarian society to capitalism and the related shift from extended family to nuclear family and the emergence of white supremacy and advertising and psychopathy and . . . MANY THINGS.

In the 1930s we get teenagers. Bobbysoxers and teen hysteria. By the 1950s Hollywood is churning out movies about this newly invented menace to society—Rebel Without A Cause (1955) being the most famous and one of the few with actual teenagers in it although James Dean was 23, Natalie Wood was 16, Sal Mineo 15, and Dennis Hopper 18. The Wild One (1952) was one of the most ludicrous and starred the twenty-eight year old Marlon Brando. You keep being you, Hollywood.

Moral panics about teenagers and what they like began almost as soon as there were teenagers. There were panics about flappers and bobbysoxers and their obsession with that ne’er do well Frank Sinatra. Then there was the freak out about rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley in the 50s. The 1960s was nothing but a moral panic: drugs! Hippies! Teenaged druggy hippies! Psychedelia! Then there was skateboards, heavy metal, rap music, satanism, file sharing, hoodies, video games, MySpace, Snapchat. Many of which were restricted or banned because teens liked them.
Teens apparently are the worst. We do everything we can to control them and keep them away from us.

Adults Love Teens
Teens are also the best, inhabiting this fabulous parallel universe where they are the top earning models in the world, the stars of many movies and TV shows (albeit mostly played by actors who are no longer teens). When popular culture isn’t portraying them as out of control monsters, it’s showing them leading carefree happy times of exploration and freedom, menstruating blue ink for the very first time, buying cool fashions, making music, hanging out with other beautiful, perfect-skinned teens at diners, malls and clubs.

Without teenagers consuming them fashions and movies and video games—and books—rarely take off.

Adults Love YA
Teens have made YA the second most profitable fiction category in the USA—after romance. Twelve years ago I mostly had to explain what YA is. These days not so much. Some of those folks who were bewildered as to why anyone would write YA back then, now read it, and some of them even write it. YA advances are, on average, higher than those for SFF writers.

Most of the top-selling SFF books in the USA are YA, not adult. Many YA books sell millions of copies all over the world. Not my YA books, alas. Can’t have everything.

YA, of course, could not be this huge if only teens were reading it. The Hunger Games trilogy sold far more copies in the USA than there are teenagers. Adults are reading YA in huge numbers. Adults are making YA super profitable for publishers.

But it was teens that started the YA explosion. They were the ones who pushed the Harry Potter, then Twilight, then Hunger Games series on their parents and teachers and other adults in their lives. Pretty much every mega-hit YA book starts out that way.

You’d think the shared bond of loving books would diminish the hatred and suspicion of teenagers and the things they like.

You’d be wrong.

There’s now a whole genre of op ed pieces about how YA is destroying the minds of the adults foolish enough to read it, turning them into blithering, infantalised ninkompoops who will never grow up. At the same time we YA writers are also corrupting the teens who read our books. Multi-tasking!

We YA writers are purveyors of soul-destroying darkness and filth, who lead teens away from reading joy-filled, life-affirming texts like Hamlet, Macbeth, The Scarlett Letter, Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby, which all feature on lists of books most commonly taught in US high schools.

YA books have joined the long list of things teens like that must be banned and/or set on fire. Do we legislate against what teens like because we envy their unwrinkled skin and carefree existence?

Problem is outside the imaginary teen utopias of popular culture teens have little freedom.
One of the most consistent complaints about my books from teen readers is that they’re unrealistic. Not because of the magic, or the fairies or the zombies or the vampires. No, teens consider my books unrealistic because my characters walk to school by themselves, because characters in my books have time with their friends unsupervised by adults.

Teens right now, especially in the USA, are the most surveilled generation ever.
I could go into more detail but read Danah Boyd‘s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens published by Yale University Press but also available online for free. She demonstrates this fact in exhaustive and depressing detail and concludes that teens spend so much time online because that is pretty much the only space left where they can hang out with their friends unsupervised.

Who Gets to be a Teen?
Teens live in a dystopia, which may have a thing or two to do with how popular dystopias tend to be with teens. Even when publishing declares the dystopia to be dead.

But some teens’ dystopias are a lot worse than other teens’ dystopias.

One of my first big book events was in the Bronx in NYC. Students from economically disadvantaged high schools were given a free book. They got to choose either my Magic or Madness or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. We stood up on a stage in front of several hundred teens of colour and told them about our books and writing and they asked questions.

It rapidly became apparent that the majority of the students had chosen my book even though Scott’s book had sold vastly more copies. At the end we did a signing. I asked why they chose my book. Most students gave the same answer: “Because the girl on the cover seemed like she might look like me.”

They wanted to see themselves.

One of the PoV characters in Magic or Madness is an Hispanic teenager from the Bronx. Back then there weren’t many YAs with a character like that. Back then the vast majority of YA books had white teens on the cover. The same is true today.

When you google image “teenager” the images are overwhelmingly of white teens. Where are the black teens? The Asian teens? The Native American teens? The Hispanic teens?

Last year roughly 80% of YA was about white teens and written and published by white adults. And of that that 20% that isn’t about whites most of it is also written by whites. Whites like me writing from the point of view of Indigenous, Hispanic, African and Asian-American teens. (My figures come from The Children’s Cooperative Book Center, which is located right here in Madison, Wisconsin. They do an annual breakdown of the books it receives by race. They keep track of the race of the authors/illustrators as well as the main characters. In 2015 the majority of YA and children’s books with main characters who were African-American or Native American were written by white authors. The majority of books about Asian and Pacific Americans and Latinos were actually written by those peoples. However, those books made up fewer than 7% of all books.)

I have been told over and over again by teens of colour how much it means to them to read about teens like them. To see face like theirs on the covers of books. But they’re even more excited when they turn to the author photo and see someone who looks like them.

Why does this matter?
It matters because books and movies and tv teach us to understand other people. They teach us to recognise who counts as a human being.

When our popular culture only shows only a small percentage of the population being represented as three dimensional human beings we’re being taught that those who don’t fit that image don’t count.

That matters because of Trayvon Martin, Carey Smith-Viramontes, Michael Brown, Karen Cifuentes, Diana Showman, Jessica Hernandez, and right here in Madison, Tony Robinson.

What’s at stake?
Disparaging YA as inferior because it’s about and for teenagers matters because what’s at stake here is who counts as human.

What those op eds and laws that corral teens are saying is that teenagers don’t count. Yet being a teenager does afford some privileges. However, those privileges are not afforded to all teens.

White teens are less likely to be arrested than teens of colour, and when they are arrested they’re less likely to be charged, and when charged they are less likely to be convicted, and when convicted they are more likely to be given lenient sentences.

White teens are far less likely to be tried as adults. That’s right, the coveted adult category is bestowed on teens of colour most often when tried before the law so they can face harsher penalties.

Dystopia indeed.

Eighteen year old Michael Brown was called a monster and a demon with superhuman strength by adult cops. Meanwhile white young adults up into their twenties still get to be boys when accused of wrongdoing. Especially when accused of rape: “He was just a boy. He didn’t know what he was doing. He deserves another chance. We can’t let this one little mistake ruin his life.”

All too often that “little mistake” is another human being.

I’ve focussed on race today but the privilege of that “real” teen, the one who gets to make mistakes, rests not just on his race and sex, but on his heterosexuality, his ablebodiedness, his neurotypicalness, his Christianity, his cisgenderedness, his economic privilege, and all too often, his athletic prowess.

We here at WisCon pride ourselves on our work towards social justice. We use science fiction and fantasy as a lens on the world. As does SFF YA.

This historically new stage of life—teenagers—which is the matter of YA, not just its supposed audience–is a nexus for a lot of the things we do and discuss here—social justice work around identity: race and class and gender and sexuality and religion and politics and surveillance and so on. The Black Lives Matter movement has a large teen contingent, who were there from the beginning in Ferguson.

Loads of recent SFF YA has been grappling directly with these issues. Read last year’s GoH, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug. Or Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. Or D. J. Older’s Shadowshaper. Or . . . I could go on all day.

I’ve been rereading Octavia Butler lately, who has been a huge influence not just on adult SFF, but on YA, and on some of the writers I just mentioned, as well as on me. I was reminded yet again, that so much of Butler’s work is explicitly about power imbalances, about privilege, and who wields it. Guess who else understands a lot about how power imbalances work?

Teenagers.

And that’s one of the many reasons that they matter.

White Fragility post + posting WisCon GoH Speech soon

Last week I had a guest post over at the fabulous Reading While White blog. (I would have posted about it sooner but I’m on a writing holiday.) As you will have noticed from posts like these white folks and race is something I think about a lot. If you haven’t already seen it do check out the post over there. There’s been a very strong response so far. Thanks to everyone who commented on the blog, on Twitter and shared the link. We really appreciate it.

On the 24th of August I’ll be posting my WisCon 40 Guest of Honour speech and links to the speeches of the other GoHs, Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar. It was Sofia’s idea that we three GoHs post our speeches on the same day. She chose the 24th because it’s James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday. Perfect.

I would share my view as I write this but you’d all die of envy. Writing holidays are the best.

Lili Wilkinson’s The Boundless Sublime

This Tuesday, 9 August 2016, at 6 PM I have the great pleasure of launching Lili Wilkinson’s amazing new novel, The Boundless Sublime at Kinokuniya in Sydney.

The Boundless Sublime is a chilling thriller that deals with death, grief, brainwashing, cults, psychopaths, guilt, empathy, resilience and survival. Ruby Jane Galbraith’s brother has died under tragic circumstances that she thinks are her fault. Her grief and pain are so overwhelming she can barely function. It’s in this vulnerable state that she finds herself becoming involved with an, at first, loving community who turn out to be terrifying.

Too many of us are convinced that we are too smart to ever be conned or recruited for a cult but it turns out being smart offers no protection. All of us can be recruited when we’re vulnerable and no one is more vulnerable than someone grieving.

Join me and Lili as she talks about her brilliant book and all the research that went into it. She’ll teach you how to avoid being caught up in a cult!

How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White

Step One: Ask Yourself Why

Why are you writing this book? Why have you decided to write a protagonist whose background is different from your own?

Is it because you want to make the world a better place? Because doing so seems to be the cool new thing? Because you lived for many years in a foreign country and you think that writing about it from that outsider’s perspective is voyeuristic and exploitative? Because you have the imagination and understanding to do so? Because you’re the reincarnation of an African king? Because you came across a cool story in the local newspaper and only you can do justice to that story? Because you’ve been part of the community you’re writing about since birth? Because the voice of the character came to you in a dream?

Once you’ve figured out why you’re going to write an Indigenous protagonist or Protagonist of Colour and can explain your motivations clearly you can move on to:

Step Two: Research

Writing from the point of view of someone from a community that gets less representation in mainstream culture than your own is hard. Especially when what representation they do get is largely negative and/or stereotyped. If you do not know people in that community, and have not spent time in that community, it will be an uphill battle to write from that point of view believably.

Which is why you must research.

As much as you can avoid accounts written by outsiders—all you’ll learn is how outsiders see them, not how they see themselves. Read books written by the people of that community. Watch TV and movies created by them. Look at what they write about themselves on social media. Listen to their podcasts.

Confusingly, you will find many of their accounts of themselves and their communities contradictory. Take a moment to think about that. Is it really confusing to have a wide range of opinions within the one community?

Consider the histories and novels that have been written about your community. It’s likely they’re every bit as contradictory. There is no completely unified community that agrees about everything. You know, other than, say, The Borg.

Ask the people you know well in that community questions. Listen to their answers.

If you don’t know anyone well from the community you’re writing about go back to step one, Why are you writing this book?

Do not jump onto social media to ask strangers about their community. Though some may be kind enough to respond it is not their job to teach you.

Step Three: Find Sensitivity Readers

When you have finished your diligent research, and have a complete manuscript you’re happy with, you need to have people from the community you’ve chosen to represent look at your book. Approach these readers in good faith and pay them for their work. Because it is hard work.

When someone critiques your book about their community it’s called a sensitivity reading. It’s called that because they’re reading to see if you have been sensitive to the community you’re writing about. If you have instead written stereotyped caricatures then critiquing your book is going to be even harder work. For some readers it will be painful work.

It’s best to have more than one sensitivity reader. Some readers might tell you the book’s fine, or only find a few minor problems with it, while others will find major problems. No community agrees on everything. Listen carefully and rewrite your book accordingly.

I had two of my readers tell me they found some of the dialogue of the black characters in Liar jarring. While other readers had no problem with it. I opted to change it. None of those readers had a problem with Micah’s use of the word “nappy” to describe her hair, though they agreed it might be a problem that I, a white writer, was using it. After publication some readers found it offensive. I discuss that at greater length here.

No amount of careful rewriting based on your sensitivity readers’ critiques will shield you from criticism. That is not what sensitivity readings are for. They are to show you how to write your book as accurately and as sensitively as possible.

And there you have it in three easy steps you now know how to write from the point of view of a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person. What could go wrong?

What’s Wrong With This Guide

Sadly, a lot goes wrong, particularly at step one.

Let me speak from my own experience, having written six books from the points of view of Teens of colour and an Indigenous teen. I went wrong at that first step. I did not ask myself why I was doing this. It did not occur to me that writing from an Indigenous or PoC point view was problematic.

If I had asked myself, these are the reasons I probably would have given: that I wanted to examine racism, and that I was trying to make YA more diverse.

My old belief that I couldn’t write about racism from a white point of view is garbage. Certainly books like To Kill a Mockingbird show that. But books like Mockingbird have other problems. Racism in Mockingbird is something that good white people save black people from. Racism is something that bad whites do, not a system of oppression that benefits all whites. There need to be more books in YA that examine white complicity in systemic racism.

I also thought I was saving YA by writing PoC and Indigenous main characters. It’s a notion that is dangerously close to the idea of the white saviour.

Once I’d proffered those two woeful reasons I would have explained that I was qualified to write these books because I spent part of my childhood living on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory of Australia and because I have many friends who aren’t white. At the time I doubt I’d have realised I was literally saying, “Some of my best friends are black”. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Arrogantly, I did not let what I didn’t know about my Aboriginal and PoC protagonists be a bar to writing them. I made my protags of the same class and gender as me, which I figured would give me enough commonality to write them convincingly. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I did not consider how much I didn’t know about the ways in which race and ethnicity shape class and gender. It is impossible to know what you don’t know, which also makes it incredibly hard to write believable characters’ whose experiences are far from your own.

All writers need to have the ego it requires to write. But we white writers also need to step back from feeling we have the right to write the stories of people with less power than ourselves. Especially because every year more books by whites are published than by any other race. In YA, not only are the majority of books by white people, so are the majority of books about PoC and Native peoples. When we write these books we are literally keeping books by PoC and Native writers off the shelves.

Outside of my books with multiple protags, I now only write white protagonists because I realised that I was part of the problem of lack of diversity in YA, not the solution.

There are books by white writers with PoC protagonists that are loved by some people in those communities. But I think we white writers can do more good by calling attention to the books by PoC and Indigenous writers and by thinking about PoC and Indigenous readers.

In answering the question of why you want to write a book about someone else’s community try to think of those readers before you think about yourself. Think about who is better qualified to tell their stories: you or them?

Misusing Sensitivity Readers
In the last few years I have heard multiple stories about white writers in the YA, Romance and SFF communities misusing and abusing sensitivity writers. Writers who have employed sensitivity readers in bad faith, only wanting these readers to give them the Indigenous or PoC seal of approval. Spoiler: there is no such thing.

Sensitivity readers do not read your manuscript to give you cover. They read to show you how to make it better, how to make it not offensive. If they think that’s not possible they will tell you to kill the project.

Listen to them.

Writers who keep getting the same critique from sensitivity readers and ignoring it are acting in bad faith. If more than one person finds the same problem with your manuscript LISTEN TO THEM. And if it’s more than five or ten or, as in one case I heard about, twenty people pointing out the same problem? And you continue to ignore them and send your manuscript to yet another sensitivity reader? You need to stop. You need to burn the manuscript and go all the way back to step one and realise that you had no good reason for writing that book.

You also need to realise that you have trashed your good name in the community. People talk. People know what you’re doing and they’re appalled.

If you can’t take critique from the people who know the life experiences of your protagonist better than you do then STOP.

Pointing to the good reviews your book received once it was published, the prizes it won, is irrelevant. The vast majority of trade reviewers are white. The vast majority of major literary prizes come from white institutions. We white folk are not the best judges of accurate representations of any communities other than our own.

Nor is pointing to the Indigenous readers and Readers of Colour who’ve told you that they love your work. All too often they are so starved for representation that many have learned to be generous readers of even the worst representations. All too often I have heard teenagers say they’re just grateful to see themselves on their cover, to be able to read a book about someone like them, even if it doesn’t ring true.

Read the thoughtful analyses of books on Edi Campbell’s blog or on Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Some of the problematic books they discuss received multiple starred reviews and prizes.

What makes Edi and Debbie’s work powerful is that it is so clearly about the children and teenagers in their communities. Their mission is not to castigate white writers; it is to find books they can recommend wholeheartedly to those readers.

That is all the readers of any community that has been historically stereotyped and underrepresented wants: to read books that won’t make them roll their eyes, wince, or put the book down because reading it is too painful in the very worst way.

It’s Not About Us

Their work is not about us white writers. This debate about diversity in literature is not about us white writers. The only way to fix what’s wrong with publishing is systemic change at every point within the industry: from the CEOs of publishing companies through to the writers and editors and agents and sales reps and booksellers and librarians. Right now the majority are white. That has to change.

But we white writers keep centring ourselves. As Patrick Jones does in his recent article,
Writing While White, published in the June 2016 issue of Voya where he discusses writing PoC teen protags as a white man:

I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female authors who said, more or less, “No, you—as a white male—can’t tell this story.” I also asked a black female librarian from Flint to pre-read it. Her comment-slash-question, “Why didn’t you have them eating fried chicken and watermelon?”

Chasing told one black girl’s story; the pre-reader saw it as a white retelling a stereotypical story. I caved, but at the time, I didn’t think it was the best move. I understood the arguments about writing outside of race, but I didn’t accept them. So Tonisha became Christy.

Jones did the right thing in that he asked knowledgable readers to critique his book and they said, don’t do this. So he changed “Tonisha into Christy.” Well and good. Except that Jones does not seem grateful for their critiques nor does he acknowledge their hard work. He seems to have wanted his sensitivity readers to give him the PoC seal of approval and is annoyed that they didn’t.

Jones also doesn’t seem to understood what they told him. Maybe they did say to him, “No white man can write this story.” But it also seems like they were saying, “You, Patrick Jones, cannot write this story. You have not created a believable black girl living in Flint. You have created a stereotypical caricature of a black teenage girl living in Flint, who might as well be eating fried chicken and watermelon.”

He presents their thoughtful critiques as bad advice that he caved to. He says he understood their arguments but that he didn’t accept them. He describes the long-running debate about racism and the need for more diversity in YA as noise.

That’s the language of someone who is not listening. Someone who mischaracterises this vital movement to change YA as being about whether white people are allowed to write PoC protagonists. This is a common misconception.

Later in the article Jones says he’s decided to stop writing PoC protags because he worries Teens of Colour might view his books as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes.” But then he undercuts that central concern by saying he’s stopping because it’s all “too complicated and stressful” making it about him again.

He’s not alone. Indeed VOYA’s Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold told Fusion that

she didn’t expect Jones’ piece to spark controversy. “Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” she wrote in an email. “The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field.” When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did “not at all.”

This is a complicated and stressful debate but the central question is not whether whites like me and Jones can write PoC protagonists. No one is stopping us white writers writing whatever we want. Let me repeat: the majority of books in YA in the USA with PoC or Native protags are written by white writers.

We whites have to stop hijacking the debate to talk about us.

By all means grapple with this question on your own, as Jones has done, as I have done.
But we have to stop taking up space on Twitter, in Voya, and elsewhere to do so. If you read all the other articles in that issue of Voya you’ll find work by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Amina Chadhri, Marieke Nijkamp and others on the truly central issues around Native American and PoC and other communities’ access, safety, autonomy, constructions of intersectional identity and so forth.

But PoC Writers Get to Write About Whites It’s Only Fair We Get to Write About Them
We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us. This is a large part of why when we write from their points of views we all too often get it wrong.

Yes, we’re all human. Yes, we all have the same physiology. We all experience love and hate and desire and jealousy. We all need to eat and go to the toilet. But I’m no longer sure that our white imaginations are enough to fill in what we don’t know about loving and hating and existing as an Indigenous person or Person of Colour in a world where whiteness is prized and white people hold most of the power. In a world where the vast majority of our publishing, film and television industries, and other media is run by, produced for, and about white people.

On Twitter writer Justina Ireland has talked about how:

Every PoC lives with a dual consciousness. It’s the idea that PoC have to take on two identities in order to survive in a hostile society. Meaning: we learn how to act white in order to be successful. At school, in jobs, and in publishing. We know what it takes to be white. Which is why PoC can write white characters effortlessly. Because we’ve all played a white person at one time or another. . . Bottom line: the oppressed are forced to learn to identify with their oppressors, it rarely happens in the other direction.—Justine Ireland.

White people do not have to take on two identities to survive in a hostile society. Our society is not hostile to white people.1

In a recent discussion writer Doselle Young put the difference more strongly, talking about:

the reality of what “playing white” entails. From my PoV, it’s about learning to instinctively bundle up, separate, partition and obscure almost every element of one’s cultural identity at the drop of a hat. To set aside the body language, dialect, the physicality, the casual modes of communication, and the unspoken values that all those things are used to express, as a daily act of survival. It’s about learning to do something monumental with casual ease. The fact, however, remains that this is actually anything but casual. It can often feel like a low-level but ever present source of stress.

If anyone thinks otherwise, take a gander at white folks’ reactions when a beloved celebrity of color decides not to obscure their cultural identity.

White people lose their damned minds.2

What happens when we reverse that? Do we, as white people, have the same kind of insights into POC experiences, that PoC have into what it is to be white? We do not.

How would you respond if someone you didn’t know started telling you about your identity? As Doselle Young puts it:

Would you, as a writer, really expect someone else to do better job with the most telling details of YOUR autobiography? What forces would they need to marshal in order to pull that off? How many interview hours, how much research, thought, blood, sweat and tears would it take to get YOUR story right?

Everyone’s identity is complicated. All of us belong to different religions, cultures, subcultures, groups, clubs, kinship networks. We all come from particular families. One of the most common complaints I hear about white people writing Indigenous and PoC characters is that we leave out their families and friendships with people like them. We tend to give them absent brown families and present white friends.

All of which leads back to step one: Why are you writing this book?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

TL:DR: Think long and hard before you write a book about a community not your own. Listen to your sensitivity readers. Whose story are you really trying to tell?

NOTE: Thank you to Mikki Kendall, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for all your hard work, brilliant writing, and wonderful conversation, and for your truly excellent notes on this post. Any remaining lack of clarity etc. is all on me. Thank you also to the too many people to name in the YA, SFF and Romance communities who have shaped my thinking. I.e. pretty much all the folks I follow on Twitter.

  1. Though it can certainly be hostile to other parts of our identities as many white women and most LBGTIQA and disabled and poor and working class and fat whites can attest. But our society is not hostile to our whiteness. []
  2. As an example of what Doselle is referring to think of the furore over the Obama’s “terrorist” fist bump. []

Paperback US edition of Razorhurst in and My Sister Rosa News

9781616956257Razorhurst is now available in the USA as a paperback, with a whole new look. The new cover is getting a very strong response.

As a bonus, this brand-new paperback includes the first two chapters of My Sister Rosa. Cool, huh? You folks of the USA and Canada will get a teaser to get you even more excited for My Sister Rosa publishing in your countries in November.

My Sister Rosa will be published by Record in Brasil. I’m super thrilled with this as they have published many of my other books and I got to hang out with them a few years back and they are the best. Especially Ana Lima.

Rosa will also have a North American audio book produced by Blackstone Audio. They’re the ones who did the fantastic all-Australian audio book ofRazorhurst. So far all of my novels have had audio books. These means a lot to me because I know how important they are for my blind fans.

Me in Madison, Wisconsin

This weekend I’ll be a Guest of Honour at WisCon in Madison Wisconsin. WisCon is the longest running feminist science fiction convention in the USA.

I used to be a regular attendee and always had an amazing time. This will be my first time back in ten years. Pretty cool to return as a Guest of Honour, eh? I’m thrilled. Disbelieving, but thrilled, and in such company: Nalo Hopkinson is one of the finest writers of science fiction and fantasy ever. Sofia Samatar is an astonishing new voice. Her debut novel was rapturously received.

In addition to my convention schedule I’ll be doing one event open to the public:

Thursday, May 26, 2016 – 5:00pm to 6:45pm
WisCon Guest of Honour Reception and Reading
A Room Of One’s Own
315 W. Gorham Street,
Madison, Wisconsin
Nalo Hopkinson, Justine Larbalestier, Sofia Samatar

As well as my Guest of Honour duties of speechifying etc. I’ll be on the following panels:

Fri, 9:00–10:15 pm
Genre Blending
Whether it’s a steampunk fairytale or an end of the world love story between science and magic or a Hong Kong-style revenge space opera, stories are spilling over the edges of genre. When is it done well? What is left to explore?
M: Rebecca Holden. Alex Jennings, Justine Larbalestier, Loren Rhoads, Kristine Smith, Brooke Wonders

Sat, 10:00–11:15 am
AMA with GOHs
Have a question for Guests of Honor Sofia Samatar, Justine Larbalestier, or Nalo Hopkinson about writing craft, writing life, or their fiction? Come to this Ask Me Anything session with your questions!
M: K. Tempest Bradford. Nalo Hopkinson, Justine Larbalestier, Sofia Samatar

Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm
#KeepYAKind and Other Nice Tools of the Oppressor
There is always a point in the midst of heated Internet discussions where someone lifts their voice to make a call for Kindness, Niceness, Civility, or any other adjacent concept. These calls often go up when the issue at hand concerns an individual with privilege being called out by folks with significantly less privilege or cultural power. And Kind, Nice, and Civil become synonyms for Keep Your Mouth Shut. When this happens again, what tools can we use to dismantle this toxic dynamic and get back to the core matter? Are there secret code words we can deploy to neutralize the terms?
M: K. Tempest Bradford. Becky Allen, Betsy Haibel, Justine Larbalestier, Mark Oshiro

Sat, 2:30–3:45 pm
Science Fiction and Social Change
Many people believe science fiction/fantasy is escape from reality into made up worlds. But all sci fi is based and rooted in this world’s problems and issues, and will reflect those back. Often times mainstream science fiction reflects back visions of the future or alternative realities that reinforce systems of power. But throughout history science fiction has been used as a means of envisioning progressive new worlds, and has also been used by those organizing to transform power dynamics and create a more fair and equitable today, rooted in the experiences of those who have been marginalized and silenced historically. Come hear a panel of presenters discuss the ways science fiction is being used on the ground to create social change.
M: Jacquelyn Gill. Carlie Forsythe, Justine Larbalestier, Fred Schepartz, Sheree Renée Thomas

Sun, 10:00–11:15 am
Women Can Be Evil Too
Mikki Kendall and Justine Larbalestier discuss their research on women serial killers and psychopaths long thought to not exist.
M: Tanya D.. Mikki Kendall, Justine Larbalestier

Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm
GOH Kaeseklatsch: Justine Larbalestier
Come hang out with Guest of Honour Justine Larbalestier and talk about whatever comes to mind! In honour of Wisconsin, we will sample cheeses. Note: Since this is in a parlor room, it may get crowded and attendance may be limited. Sign up at the Registration desk to reserve a seat.

Sun, 2:30–3:45 pm
Women Writing SFF, All Around The World!
A reading recommendation panel! What books would be of interest to WisCon members? Whether Anglophone, in translation, or in different languages, from Indigenous to diaspora works, let’s share SFF we’ve read recently that encourages USian WisCon members to step out of our cultural bubbles.
M: Jaymee Goh. Jackie Hatton, Arrate Hidalgo, Emily Jiang, Justine Larbalestier

Sunday 4:00-5:15 PM
How Not To Think About Women Characters
Debbie Notkin, Becky Allen, Megan Arkenberg, Claire Humphrey, Justine Larbalestier
“She’s such a Mary Sue.” “She’s only there to serve the story of a male character.” “Her characterization is so inconsistent” or “She’s too flat to be interesting.” As consumers of media;even feminist consumers;we have a whole language at our disposal when we need to justify disinterest or dislike towards a woman character. But as often as these idioms are accurate criticisms of a work, they can also be ways to avoid actually talking about the character AS a character. Some questions to consider: Do the ways in which we critique women characters result in a denial of their agency? Is describing women characters as “inconsistently characterized” a way to avoid seeking out their motivations? Is being a “foil” or a parallel always a subordinate role?

Quite the schedule, eh? I’m especially excited about talking evil women with Mikki Kendall. But I reckon they’ll all be fun.

If you’re going to be at WisCon I look forward to seeing/meeting you. I’ll be at the big sign out on Monday and am happy to sign whatever you want. Well, almost anything.

See you soon, Madison! I’ve missed you!

Which of My Books to Read First (Updated)

This post is so I have somewhere to send people when they ask me which book of mine they should read first. Click on the links to learn more about each book.

Authors who sensibly only write the one kind of book don’t have to write guides like this. I’m not envious. Honest.

Update:
There’s a bonus section at the end for those who’ve read one of my books and are wondering which one to read next, assuming that you want to read the one most like it.

WARNING: If you consider knowing whether a book has a happy or a sad ending to be a spoiler do not read this!

Novels with unambiguously happy endings:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human

Novels with endings that might make you tear your hair out:
Liar
Razorhurst
My Sister Rosa
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (though I consider this novella to have a happy ending many readers disagree with me)

Novels with endings that might make you cry in a sad way:
Razorhurst
My Sister Rosa
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (Beats me why, but many readers have reported crying.)

Novels that just end, with no resolution, and WHY DID YOU DO THAT, JUSTINE?!
Liar (Though, come on, people, it’s called Liar! Novels that are built on lies about a liar cannot be resolved. This is a scientific fact.)

Fantasies:
Magic or Madness trilogy (contemporary with magic)1
How to Ditch Your Fairy (contemporary, different world, very mild superpowers)2
Liar (contemporary [redacted] because it might be a lie)
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (contemporary with faerie)
Zombies v Unicorns (self-explanatory)
Team Human (contemporary, vampires and zombies)
Razorhurst (historical, ghosts)

Science Fiction:
How to Ditch Your Fairy (Very few readers have realised this one is science fiction possibly because I left out the part about the fairies being micropscopic alien invaders.)
“Little Red Suit” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (post-apocalyptic Sydney)

Realism:
Liar (Though some don’t think so. See previous section.)
My Sister Rosa (Though I could mount a strong argument that psychopaths are monsters.)

Historicals:
Razorhurst (1932 Sydney)

Thrillers:
Liar (psychological)
Razorhurst (gangsters and cops trying to kill protags)
My Sister Rosa (psychological)

Anthologies/Short stories:
Daughters of Earth (I edited this collection of 20th century feminist science fiction with accompanying essays by feminist scholars)
Zombies v Unicorns (I edited this one with Holly Black)
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell
“Little Red Suit” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Novels with sex:
Magic or Madness trilogy
Liar
Razorhurst (very little)
My Sister Rosa

Novels without sex:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human

Humorous books:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human
Zombies v Unicorns (Mine and Holly Black’s bantering in between the short stories is funny and so are some of the stories.)

Non-fiction:
Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction
Daughters of Earth

What to Read Next:
If you loved Liar then read My Sister Rosa next. And vice versa. Though the protag of My Sister Rosa is not unreliable like Micah from Liar, My Sister Rosa is as twisty and dark as Liar. After you’ve read those two if you still want dark and twisty try Razorhurst, remembering that it’s set in 1932 and there are ghosts. So if historicals or supernatural elements are not your thing you might want to skip it.

If you loved How To Ditch Your Fairy because it’s light and funny then read Team Human. And vice versa.

If you loved the star-crossed lovers of “Thinner than Water” then try My Sister Rosa. Remembering that it has no faerie or magic and the emphasis is not on the romance. You could also wait for the novel I’m working on now, Psychopath In Love, with the star-crossed lovers more at the centre. If it was the world of “Thinner than Water” that grabbed you then see if you can find copies of the Magic or Madness trilogy or wait till I finally finish my epic 1930s NYC book(s) cause it’s basically all star-crossed lovers with magic.

If you loved Razorhurst and want to read another historical from me you could read “Thinner than Water” which has a kind of historical-y feel to it. Or wait for my 1930s NYC historical with magic that I’ve been working on forever and may never finish. Lucky heaps of other authors write historicals, eh? If you were more taken with the thriller aspect then read My Sister Rosa or
Liar.

  1. Out of print. I include the trilogy to be complete and who knows one day it might be back in print. []
  2. I can also make an argument that this one is science fiction. Most readers disagree []

Getting Started is Hard

My biggest writing struggle is getting started. The novel I’m writing right now which I think of as the Psychopath Book because, unlike My Sister Rosa, it’s from the point of view of a psychoath, rather than just being about a psychopath. It was going pretty well until Rosa was published in Australia and New Zealand. Suddenly there was promotion to be done, interviews, book launches, travelling.

I’ve been for home more than a week and this is how it’s gone:

Day One: I catch up on admin, which includes interview questions, paying bills, laundry etc as well as tweeting. Because Twitter is a vital part of my process. *cough*

Day Two: More admin. How does admin build up so quickly? Why can’t bills pay themselves? Why can’t Twitter pay my bills?

Day Three: More admin. More tweeting. I open Psychopath Book file. I have no idea who any of these characters are or what this book is about. Not entirely convinced I wrote these words. Who has been messing with my computer while I was away? I ask Twitter. Answers are unsatisfactory.

Day Four: More admin. Way more tweeting. I stare at Pyschopath Book file and read some of it and recoil in horror. Why is this so hard? There are plenty of writers with full time jobs, who are carers for children and elderly parents, who write ten books a year. I am the worst. I ask Twitter. Twitter overwhelmingly confirms my worst-ness.

Day Five: I ignore admin. Time to get back to actually writing this damn book. After I’ve delivered a very important rant on Twitter and commiserated with friends over the dread ways in which Twitter algorithms are trying to destroy Twitter. I read my notes on Psychopath Book. They don’t make any sense. Staring at this stalled novel fills me with despair. I watch Attack the Block for the millionth time. Surely it will inspire me? It does. To write an entirely different book.

Day Six: I continue to ignore admin but not Twitter. I make myself read more Psychopath Book. I edit some sentences. Some of them are okay. Most are not. I start to have vague memories about these characters. I marvel at the many ways I have misspelled pyschopath. It’s impressive.

Day Seven: I continue to ignore admin and am on Twitter slightly less than usual. I blog. What? It’s important for an author with a new book out to stay abreast of social media and blog the rants that are too long for Twitter. It’s also important to watch the cricket in case I one day get around to writing that highly commercial cricket novel I’ve been thinking about writing for years.

Day Eight: I finally write some actual new sentence of the Psychopath Book. They’re total shite.

Day Nine: I write more shitey sentences of the Psychopath Book. I know who these characters are! I can write this book! Shitely! I just have to make sure I never take more than a day or two off ever again.

And repeat. A lot.

TL;DR:
Getting started is really hard.

How do Awful People Create Beautiful Books?

I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting one of your favourite writers and them turning out to be horrible. They bark at their fans, they’re rude to their publicists. Sometimes you don’t even have to meet them. They launch online attacks on anyone who doesn’t give them five-star reviews, tweet racist “jokes”, or they’re arrested for beating up their partner.

Some writers are truly awful people. Yet some of those truly awful people write brilliant books. How?!

One of my favourite writers is Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1920. His 1890 novel Hunger blew my teenaged mind. I’ve read it many times since and still find it amazing. It’s about a bloke wandering around Oslo (then called Christiania) starving. It should be boring; it isn’t. I keep rereading it to try and figure out why. All I’ve got is compelling character + amazing writing.

Hamsun was also a card-carrying fascist. He thought Hitler totally had the right idea. He was tried for being a traitor to Norway after World War 2 and found guilty. You know, because he was.

How could Hamsun, who wrote moving, beautiful, psychologically insightful books, be a fascist? I don’t know. I have theories though.

The first is the fairly obvious one. People compartmentalise. They decide whole groups of people aren’t really people. They only see the psychological complexity of people like them and that’s who they write about: the ones they see as fully human. I suspect that’s what was going on with Hamsun. White Scandinavian/German people = yes. Everyone else = no.

My other theories are a bit more woo woo.

Sometimes something extraordinary happens in the process of creating. I’m convinced that even the worst people can produce magic because of it.

It’s hard to describe, but most creatives will know what I’m talking about. There are times when the writing is going so well it feels like words are pouring out of me, that they have nothing to do with me, even though obviously, I’m the one typing.1 When I’m in that magical zone I can write for hours and have almost no memory of what I wrote.2 It’s almost an out-of-body experience, like being high.3

There are other times when the writing is going well, and the words are flowing, when I’m fully aware of what I’m writing, but somehow I’m making connections I wasn’t previously and I’m smarter. I can see more, and write deeper, and truly understand all the characters, even the villains. This is my favourite kind of writing zone.

During those moments it feels like the act of creating has changed me. I’ve become my best self, full of empathy and insight that I don’t always have. I assume this happens for other writers. Even the evil ones. Because I have met some truly horrible human beings whose books are wonderful. Magic is the only explanation.

TL;DR: Writing is so magical it can even transform nasty people into empathetic souls.

  1. To be clear. This is pretty rare. Most writing days are more sweating and yelling than magicking. []
  2. This does not, alas, means those words are always perfect. I wish. []
  3. I imagine. As someone who writes for teenagers I obviously have no first-hand experience. *cough* []

My Sister Rosa in Shops Today in Australia and New Zealand!

MySisterRosa_RCcvr.inddToday’s the day you can buy My Sister Rosa in Australia and New Zealand! Woo hoo! A new book by me! Out today! *dances*

I hope you enjoy this charming tale of seventeen-year-old Australian Che Taylor’s adventures in New York City looking after his precocious psychopathic sister, Rosa Klein.1 Already critics are calling it, “Heartwarming and touching.” Would you believe they called it “Adorable”? Okay, fine, no one is calling it heartwarming, touching or adorable. More like “Creepy” and “soul-destroying.” But, remember, it’s a fine line between heartwarming and soul-destroying.2

You can read the first chapter here and about what inspired the book here.

This is also release day for Kirsty Eagar’s fabulous Summer Skin, which is a sexy contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet set amongst Queensland university students. It’s funny and hot and wonderful. You are in for such a treat with this book.

We will be celebrating their release next week:

Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Kirsty Eagar and me will discuss our books
and talk of Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A!
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

Hope to see you there, Sydney!

Fear not, lovely Melbourne peeps, we will be there doing our double launch with extra bonus Ellie Marney introducing us a week later on the tenth. And while we’re having our Sydney launch, if you’re in Melbourne, you can go to Leanne Hall’s launch for Iris and the Tiger. I’ve heard nothing but good things. Can’t wait to read it!

  1. She has their mum’s last name, Rosa has their father’s. Just like me and my sister. Except with no psychopathy. []
  2. Not really. []

My Sister Rosa USA Cover! (Updated)

My US publisher, Soho Teen, have come up with an amazing cover for My Sister Rosa. Feast your eyes:

Rosa_HC REV

What do you think? I love it. I love the echoes of the famous Silence of the Lambs poster. It also reminds me of the cover of my parents’ edition of John Fowles’ The Collector, which I read as a kid, which I can’t find online. Boo! Which also had a pinned butterfly. It’s a wonderful evocation of psychopathy. Well done!

I honestly can’t decide which cover I like best: the Australian one or the US one.

My Sister Rosa will be out in the US in November. You can read the first chapter here and more about where I got the idea here.

Meanwhile it will be out in Australia and New Zealand in two weeks. SO SOON!

Update: I forgot to say who the cover designer is. Vanessa Han. Doesn’t she do fab work?

Should I Give Up On This Novel?

Recently I critiqued two unpublished novels. Their authors wanted to know whether they should give up or not.

There’s no clear cut answer to that question. Some great novels had unspeakably bad early drafts.1 Some that their author never feels happy with, and are never published, have pretty good early drafts. Who am I to say this particular novel has no hope of one day being excellent?

I have novels started years ago I’ve never managed to get into a publishable state. But who knows? Some day I might. I never give up on a novel. I just kind of abandon them for, um, a while. Sometimes a really long while.

It’s also true that I rarely go back to these abandoned novels. There’s always a newer, more shiny novel to write.

Other writers do go back to them. I know someone who only got an agent after they pulled out a long forgotten novel, rewrote it, and sent that out. It was exactly what the agent they most wanted was looking for.

However, I would definitely suggest you give up on a novel (however temporarily) if you’ve been writing and rewriting it for years. Particularly if it’s the only novel you’ve ever written. It’s more than past time to write a new one. Who knows maybe in the process of writing a second novel you’ll figure out what was wrong with the first one?

Almost every novelist I know has given up on a novel.2 The important thing to remember is that writing that novel was not a waste. What you learned writing the abandoned novel will help with the next one. Bigger than that: YOU WROTE A NOVEL. You did it once so odds are good you can do it again.

Sadly, the lessons learnt from writing the previous novels don’t always directly apply to the next novel. Usually the lessons are more of a what-not-to-do kind of a thing. You’ve learned not to write novels with only one character locked in an empty room. Maybe you’ve learned about creating believable characters, but sadly not much about world building or setting, because you only had that one empty room to describe.3

Each novel tends to present different problems.4 They do this in order to keep things interesting. Thanks, novels.

So, yes, feel free to give up on a novel. But only once you have a complete draft.

If you’ve never finished a novel before, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how convinced you are that it will never work, you need to see it through to a complete draft. Especially if you’ve never completed a draft before.5 Scott has some cogent words to say on the necessity of writing endings as well as beginnings and middles.

It’s also good to keep trying to make a novel work. I know too many (mostly) unpublished novelists who don’t rewrite. Instead of continuing to work on the newly completed draft to make it work they move on to a brand new novel. The problem with doing that is rewriting requires a different set of skills from first drafting. You’ll never write a good novel if you can’t stand to work past that initial draft.

“But I don’t know how to rewrite!” I hear you cry.

For your convenience I have written this handy guide to rewriting. You’re welcome.

Whatever decision you make it’s going to be okay.

TL;DR There is no definitive answer on whether you should give up on your novel or not. It all depends.

  1. None of these novels were unspeakably bad. []
  2. Or two, or twenty, or a hundred. []
  3. There are many first novels sent in the one room with hardly andy characters that don’t go anywhere. Funny that. About the only successful novel set in one room I can think of is Emma Emma Donoghue’s Room, which totally pulls it off. But then not the entire novel is set in the room. []
  4. Unless you’re one of those writers who writes the same book over and over again. If that one book is super popular. Congrats! You are a sure-fire commercial success. We readers love authors who are consistent and don’t freak us out by writing totally different books in completely different genres. []
  5. Once you’ve finished a bunch of novels you’ll have a better sense of whether a novel isn’t going anywhere and can put it aside if it’s really not working. []

Last Day of 2015

This is my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2016.1 By which I mean what’s going to happen in my publishing life. I am not Nostradamus. (Actually neither was Nostradamus. He was not an accurate prognosticator.) Nor would I want to be. I’m convinced being able to tell the future is the worst superpower. I’d rather be invisible and being invisible never ends well. Just read H. G. Wells!

Um, I digress:

Reading and Watching in 2015

One of the good things about being really sick is that I read a lot more than I usually do this year. I read so many wonderful books I don’t know where to start. I tweet about books and tv shows I love so if you’re looking for more recommendations you can check my Twitter feed.

As mentioned above I discovered the writing of Kirsty Eagar this year and was blown away. Everyone needs to read her NOW. I know many consider, Raw Blue, to be her best book, and don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent, but my favourite is Night Beach which is one of the best explorations of teenage female desire I’ve read.2 Night Beach takes on one of the dominant tropes in YA: teen girl lusting after a little bit older hot guy. The teen girl is not punished for this desire. She is not seen as freakish or slut-shamed. I could hug this book.

In Eagar’s version the guy turns out to not be perfect. He is not a wish fulfilment, but a real person with flaws, some of them misogynistic. I’ve been working on my own take on this trope and getting no where with it for years and years. Eagar has written the book I haven’t been able to and it’s amazing. She manages to write about the toxicity of masculinity, while portraying believable, not villainous, male characters. She shows how that toxic mix of masculinity and misogyny is harmful to men as well as women.

Another favourite huge favourite this year was Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda‘s Monstress. Wow. Words fail. The writing. The art. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read and we’re only two issues in. MORE PLEASE.

Then there was Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon. I’ve never read a book like it before. Big and sprawling with a million points of view, including sea creatures. It’s about an alien invasion that starts in Lagos, Nigeria but, really, that’s just the starting point. It’s about much more than that. It’s one of those books you’ll get something different out of ever time you read it. Yes, I’ve already read it twice.

I also loved Ashley Hope Perez’s heartbreaking Out of Darkness set in late the 1930s in a small town Texas. It should win all the YA awards.

This year I decided to read something I normally hate: a cosy mystery. You know one of those mysteries where everything is tidily wrapped up at the end and everyone lives happily ever after? An Agatha Christie kind of mystery. They are so not my thing. But then someone was raving about Barbara Neely’s Blanche White books and they sounded interesting. I read the first one, Blanche on the Lam about a black domestic worker who escapes after a judge gives her a custodial sentence for being late paying a fine. She winds up being housekeeper to a deeply dysfunctional wealthy white family, and solving their assorted crimes, while delivering much pungent, and often funny, commentary on racism and misogyny while resisting her employers’ desires to turn her into a mammy. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I also read much non-fiction this year. I re-read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a book every one should read, particularly Americans, as the USA is her primary focus. Her book demonstrates that white is not universal, that white is not neutral, that it has a history, which she eloquently delineates. It’s not often you finish a book understanding how the world operates better than before you read it.

I was wowed by Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, which is about growing up black and privileged in Chicago in the fifties and sixties. It was a window into an alien world. Obviously, I’m not black, but what was really alien to me was her family’s focus on respectability. I was never taught when to wear white gloves, what length skirt is appropriate. The only reason I’ve ever had to wear a hat is to avoid skin cancer. But I’ve known white Australian girls from wealthy families who were sent to posh private schools, who knew all of that stuff, and I think would recognise much in Jefferson’s book. What I related to most strongly was the sexism and misogyny she had to battle.

One of my fave new TV shows is Into the Badlands because martial arts staged well and magically and saturated colours and eye candy and coherent plot and world building. It has a strong diverse cast. Except, well, I’ve been noticing this a lot lately in US TV shows and movies, even when several of the big roles are given to PoC, the extras are still overwhelmingly white. And there’s never any world-building to explain why in the future the world is 90% white.

I also enjoyed Ready For This, which was created by the people behind Dance Academy and Redfern Now, and really it’s what you’d get if you crossed Redfern Now with Dance Academy. I.e. heaven.

How my books did in 2015

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareAt the beginning of the year my story, “Little Red Suit,” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin.

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy. We critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker: future Masterchef. I chortled. There’s not a single dud in Eat the Sky.3

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen published the North American edition of Razorhurst. It received four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus and em>The Bulletin of The Center for Children’s Books (BCCB). As well as making the Tayshas 2016 list.

Meanwhile in Australia Razorhurst was shortlisted for the following awards: Adelaide Festival Award 2016, Young Adult Fiction Award, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards 2015, Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2015, Golden Inky Award, Queensland Literary Awards 2015, The Griffith University Young Adult Book Awardand the Norma K. Hemming Award 2015. Razorhurst won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel.

The acclaim for Razorhurst means even more to me than usual because, let’s be honest, Razorhurst is weird. It sits uneasily in a bunch of different genres. Some said it wasn’t really YA. Thus making the shortlist for the Inkys—entirely voted on by teen readers—was particularly gratifying. We struggled figuring out how to market the book. I worried it was going to disappear without a trace. So as you can imagine the enthusiastic reception has been way beyond what I let myself hope for. For awhile there all I let myself hope for was that Razorhurst would get published.

Books Out in 2016

MySisterRosa_RCcvr.inddA year ago I thought my next novel would be out already. But then I had a nasty bout of pneumonia in January and it took forever to recover. Lungs, they do not like to be messed with. I give pneumonia one star and that’s for the silent p.

My Sister Rosa was bumped from the schedule. None of my books has ever been bumped before. It freaked me out. OMG! I’m never going to finish this book! It’s never going to be published! My career is over! But—spoiler—I finished the book. Turns out it’s better to take the time to write the best book possible than to rush into print something half-baked. In the end, I’m proud of Rosa but it was the most gruelling writing experience of my career.

My Sister Rosa is my eleventh book, my eighth novel, and seventh solo novel. It’s my sixth book with my Australian/New Zealand publisher, Allen and Unwin, which makes them the publisher I’ve been with the longest anywhere in the world. Thank you, Allen and Unwin, for sticking with me! Youse mob are a joy to work with.

For those of you who don’t know, My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed told from the point of view a seventeen year old boy whose ten year old sister is a psychopath. Spoiler: this does not lead to fun times. You can read the first chapter here and how I came to write it here. It’s my first novel that I can accurately describe in one short sentence. High concept! I finally managed it.

IMG_5796The Australian edition will hit shops at the end of January. So soon! The finished book is gorgeous. Look at that cover. It’s beautiful and creepy, which is perfect. Also it has the popping-est spine.

Okay, I admit it doesn’t look that popping in this photo, but trust me, in real life it totally pops. People are going to see it on shelves and be compelled to pick it up and take it home. It is the Pied Piper of book spines.

There will be not one, but two, My Sister Rosa launches. For the first time I’ll be launching with someone else. Kirsty Eagar’s brilliant new book Summer Skin publishes on the same day. I’m a huge Eagar fan so launching our books together is going to be amazing. The first launch is in Sydney, the second in Melbourne:

Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin book launch
with the fabulous Kirsty Eagar
We will discuss
Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A!
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

Wednesday 10 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch of My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin
With the brilliant Kirsty Eagar
By the wonderful Ellie Marney
Readings
309 Lygon St,
Carlton, Victoria

Hope to see you some of you there!

My Sister Rosa will be published in the USA and Canada by Soho Press in November 2016. That’s my second book with them. So far it’s been a very enjoyable experience working with the lovely folk at Soho. Wait till you see Rosa’s Soho cover! It’s every bit as good (and grey) as the Allen and Unwin cover but also very different. I’ve been blessed by the cover gods on this book.

What I wrote in 2015

I spent this year writing and rewriting and rewriting and going through copyedits and proofs of My Sister Rosa. This took longer than I thought it would and not just because of the pneumonia. Rosa was a tough book to write. For the first time in my writing life I struggled to find the voice of my protagonist. I didn’t get it right until I was well into the second or third draft. (Or was it the fourth? It’s all a blur now.) Since I’d already sold the book it was pretty terrifying. I had a finished draft and yet the narrative voice didn’t work. What even?!

Since this is my first book told entirely from the point of view of a boy some assumed it was his maleness that made finding his voice difficult. Not at all. It was how nice he is. Che Taylor is possibly the nicest point of view character I’ve ever written. He genuinely thinks the best of everyone. Even his psychopathic sister. Writing someone that nice is hard. Ridiculously hard.

I suspect this reflects poorly on me. I’m sure other writers have no difficulties writing nice. Oh, well. We all have our flaws. I got there in the end and the early responses to Che are very positive. So far no one finds him so nice they want to throw up. Phew.

I also wrote forty thousand words of a new novel this year. It’s told from the point of view of the least nice character I’ve ever written. She’s a psychopath. Yup, having written from Che’s point of view about living with a psychopath, and doing all the research to make that convincing, I started writing a novel from the monster’s point of view. It has its own difficulties but, I’m ashamed to say, it’s much easier writing from a psychopath’s point of view than from that of their empathetic opposite.

I continued blogging, but between illness and deadlines, did not manage to blog nearly as much as last year. I’m hoping to do better in 2016. I love blogging, even though apparently it’s still dying, and hate it when I have too much going on to do so regularly.

So, yeah, I plan to blog more next year, illness, weather, deadlines willing. Blogging, I love you no matter how out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2016

I plan to finish the psychopath novel. It’s unsold so I can’t tell you when it will be published. My experience with My Sister Rosa showed me, once again, that I have a much easier time of it if I sell my novels after I finish them, not before. I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to do that. I think I’ve finally learned to stop worrying about how big the gaps are between my novels’ publication.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. Being ill did make it worse. The fitter I am, the less trouble I have with it, and I lost a lot of fitness this year. But I’m almost back to being able to write as much as six hours a day now.

Travel in 2015

I was in the USA in April and May to promote Razorhurst and had a wonderful time. The Houston Teen Book Con was amazing. If you’re ever invited, fellow YA authors, go. It’s the first YA con I’ve been to that was overwhelming populated by teens. Wonderful!

For my travel plans in 2016 go here. I’ll be in the USA in May for the paperback publication of Razorhurst and to be guest of honour (!) at Wiscon. I’ll return in November for the North American publication of My Sister Rosa (and to complain about how cold it is).

2015 was awful but there’s always hope

I was sicker this year than I’ve been in years. It made everything else much harder. I spent the year behind on deadlines and everything else. It’s only now in December that I feel even slightly caught up. 2016 has to be better.

2015 was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. But then more awful shit happens and nothing is done to stop it from repeating. History, we are not learning from it.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. The new PM, Turnbull, while a vast improvement on his predecessor is not doing much, if anything, to slow that process done. Sure, he’s less anti-science and anti-culture than Abbott, but low bar, and there’s not a lot to show for it beyond rhetoric. We still have disgraceful policies on asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Last year I wrote: May you have a wonderful 2016 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way towards doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

I feel the same way now. Happy new year! May 2016 not be vile.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. Time zones. Who knew? []
  2. I’ve not yet read Saltwater Vampires I’m saving that as a reward for after I finish the books I have in my critique queue. []
  3. It’ll be published in North America but I don’t have more details on that yet. []

My First Publication

This poem was first published when I was nine. First in the Newcastle Morning Herald and then later in the feminist magazine, Refractory Girl.1

I can fly.
They say I can’t.
They don’t exist.

I can fly.
They won’t believe me.
They aren’t real.

They can’t understand me
They won’t understand me
They don’t understand me

They say I’m mad
no-one can fly.

I can fly
They’re dead.

The day after it published in the local newspaper some of the kids at school demanded that I fly for them. They recited the poem back at me and laughed in my face. I spent the day wishing I’d never written it but also basking in my teachers’ praise.

The next day the other kids had forgotten about it but the teachers were still praising me. Yup, I was still buzzing about being an actual published poet. I enjoyed and was weirded out by the publication and attention thing. Praise = good! Kids laughing at me = oogie!

It was an early lesson in the gap between writing and publication. The writing part is private and often wonderful. Publication and public responses to the writing is a whole other thing. I’ve been doing my best to keep that in mind ever since.

  1. My mother, Jan Larbalestier was part of the Refractory Girl collective. Yup, nepotism got my poem republished. For the record, I didn’t know anyone at the Herald. []

How My NaNoWriMo Went

My NaNoWriMo ends today.1 The following is what I thought of the NaNo experience, which let’s be honest, is not aimed at someone like me, who’s already a professional writer with multiple novels already published for whom writing is my job. So take it with a massive grain of salt.

I have been writing every day for 56 days in a row.2 Twenty-five of those days took place during NaNo. Before NaNo I was averaging about 300 words a day. During NaNo I averaged 700 words a day.3

I already knew that gamification works on me. I’ve been using Scriveners’ Project Targets for years so that when I reach my word count goal my program congratulates me. Why, yes, I do take a bow.

Obviously, for me the NaNoWriMo word count goal is too high. It’s been at least a decade since I averaged anything like 1,667 words a day. So I went in with the lower goal of 10k words for the month in mind. I passed that goal on Day 12.

NaNoStatspageI enjoyed watching the word counts of my “writing buddies” going up. There definitely was an increased sense of camaraderie. I am not in this alone! Look at all these other people striving to finish their novels! Look at their bar graphs going up! I would love to have a stats page like the NaNo one for all my novels. I loved that bar graph.

But . . . by the second week the 1,667 words a day expectation was starting to get to me and the ever-increasing words per day in order to finish on time was really freaking me out. The line on the bar graph shows you every day where you’re supposed to be and I was never even close. I only hit 1,667 twice. I was starting to feel like a failure for not hitting 1,667 words a day and falling into the bad habit of typing in order to hit the word count, rather than choosing the right words. I was starting to hate that bar graph.

On day 16 I had a stern talk with myself: Are you a writer, Justine, or are you a typist?

I spent that day reading everything I’d written of this new novel, rearranging and deleting loads of it. It was my best writing day of the month. Not because it was a 1k day but because I was really happy with those words. I’d started to figure out what the novel’s about and where it’s going. I was beaming.

From that day on I went back to my usual practice of starting each writing day by reading over what I wrote the day before, editing it, and only then writing new words. I was back in the rhythm of my novel and feeling happy. I wasn’t thinking about word counts, I was thinking about the novel.

NaNo didn’t work for me because I struggled to get that massive word count goal out of my head. Yes, I wrote more, but much of that excess of words was more typing than writing.

I would have loved NaNoWriMo back when I was a teen writing obsessively and feeling like I was the only one on the planet who was trying to write novels. It would have given me a structure and a community. I would have been in heaven. And, wow, would I have blitzed that measly 1,667 words a day goal. Those were the days when I could write a 5k story in a day without breaking a sweat.4

Also back then I had no clue about rewriting. I thought you were supposed to produce perfection in your first draft. NaNo dedicating January and February to Now What? would have clued me into the whole rewriting thing much much sooner. How lucky you all are!

I won’t be doing NaNo again. I’m too competitive. I really wanted to hit that word count goal even though it would have played havoc with my RSI. Despite my self-pep talk I’m still annoyed I didn’t come close to 50k. But I’m really glad I tried it. I’ve been recommending NaNo for years without actually knowing how it worked. It really is a pretty sweet and easy to use interface.

It’s proven itself over and over again to be just the thing for new writers who keep getting in their own way. Finally, someone is giving them permission to just write! And they do.

It also had the lovely side effect of getting me to check in more frequently with my writer friends on where they are with the latest. Knowing that you’re not alone with your novel, that there other people sweating over theirs, is reassuring. We humans are social creatures. We mostly prefer to suffer together.

The following are some little tweaks I’d love to see on the NaNo pages:

I would love it if you could edit your stats page to put your own word count goal in. Mine would have been 300. It would have made that line on the bar graph far less intimidating.

More writing achievement badges! At the very least one for ever 5k increment would be lovely. The jump from the 10k badge to the 25k badge and then from the 25k one to the 40k one is too steep. More rewards = more better!

I’d also love it if the word counts continued to be visible even after people hit their 50k goal. So instead of just seeing that those writing buddies are WINNERS! you can see that they’ve continued writing. It would be a good reminder that hitting 50k is not the end goal—finishing a novel is. (For those who didn’t know 50k is a very short novel. Most are at least 60k. Razorhurst was 90k. It’s not a long novel.)

TL;DR: NaNo’s fab but didn’t work for me. However, my younger self would’ve loved it.

  1. I’m ending early because I’m off to Adelaide for the historic first day/night test. I can’t wait! []
  2. That’s unusual for me. I usually take at least one day off a week but more usually two. I’ve been experimenting to see whether it makes my RSI worse. So far so good. I did have a flare up but that seems to have had more to do with trying a new treatment. []
  3. I also stopped blogging for the month of November so the jump in word count is not quite as dramatic as it looks but it’s still pretty dramatic. []
  4. Those are the days that led me to having RSI now. But I digress . . . []

My First NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month begins on the 1st of November every year. I’ve been a supporter since I first heard of it way back when and in 2009 Scott and me turned our blogs over to a month-long series of NaNo writing tips which start here.1

Despite being aware of it for more than a decade this will be the first time I’ve formally done NaNoWriMo myself. I figured I’d give it a go because I was asked to do a NaNo pep talk, also Scott’s doing it this year, as well as many other friends, and I’ve met some of the people who run NaNoWriMo, like Rebecca Stern, and they all seem lovely.

But mostly I’m doing it because I already have the first 17k words of a new novel. I thought it would be fun to spend the next month writing it in the company of thousands of others all over the world.

I doubt I’ll hit the 1,667 per day you need to write 50k words in a month. The most I’ve written in a day over the last few years is about 3k and that was followed by a few days of not writing at all. Mostly I manage around 300-400 words a day. My personal goal is 10k words for the month. We’ll see.

Good luck to all you Wrimos! Take frequent breaks! Stretch! Drink lots of water! Don’t forget to eat and go for walks! May you all write like the wind.

  1. I first wished Wrimos luck back in November 2006. []

I Love Teens

No, not in that way. Stop snickering.

Not all of them, obviously. Like adults, some are lovely, some are complete shitheads, and some are a bit meh. But unlike the majority of adults, teens mostly don’t temper their enthusiasms, they haven’t had their enthusiasms squashed down for them yet. Yes, some have a wall of fuck-you, but when you break through that wall of fuck you, it stays broken.

On my first book tour, for How To Ditch Your Fairy, I was sent around the USA to talk to mostly years 6, 7 and 8. In the US they segregate those years into what they call middle schools. Middle schools are notoriously hellish. All my YA/middle grade writer friends, who were veterans of many tours, were deeply sympathetic and told me horror stories of being pelted with rotten fruit and being asked probing literary questions such as, “Why are your clothes so shit?”1

Thanks, you bastard writer friends, for filling my heart with terror.

On that first tour I visited gazillions of middle schools. They were all fabulous. Not a single projectile was thrown and my western boots were beloved. So was my accent. I highly recommend touring the US if you have a non US English-as-a-native-language accent and cool boots.

A quick aside: what I was meant to be doing was flogging my books, which was pointless as most teens do not show up at school with the money to buy books. (The only exception is the insanely rich private schools with stables and croquet courts where each kids has an expense account and three hundred copies of my book sold in a day. STABLES, people!) What I actually did was not talk about my book much at all.2

My favourite visit of the entire tour was at a public school (without a hint of a stable) in the Midwest.3 I was abandoned in the library by my publicist and the librarian in front of three classes of mostly 13 and 14 year olds. There were at least 60 teens and me. Every writer in this situation develops an if-all-else-fails move. Mine is vomit stories. This is the story I told them. Their response was to ask me to tell more vomit stories. Much fun was had.

When we got to Q&A they wanted to know everything there is to know about Australians, a people with whom they clearly had a lot in common. So I may or may not have told them that wombats fly and echolocate and aerate the earth, which, is, in fact, why they’re called “wombats” because they’re a cross between a worm and a bat. The questions and answers went on in that mode. We all laughed our arses off.

You’ll be pleased to hear they DID NOT BELIEVE A SINGLE WORD. One actually said, “You are the best liar ever.”

I conceded that, yes, bullshit is an art and that I have studied with the very best.

They all cheered.

Sadly, I praised the fine art of bullshitting just as the librarian and publicist walked back in. They were unswayed by the approval of my audience.

Cue lecture on not swearing in front of students. To which I did not respond by pointing out that in my culture shit does not count as swearing. Mainly because I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure I hadn’t said any of the words that count as swearing for all cultures ever. Their main concern, of course, was not the students, it was the parents. The librarian really didn’t want to deal with all the complaints they were sure they were going to get because of my praise of bullshit.

No teen has ever told me not to swear or complained about the shits and fucks and arseholes in my books.4 Nor have they ever complained about the sex. Or violence. They have, however, complained that my books start too slow, that no teen would ever be allowed the freedom that the teens in my books have, and that I don’t write fast enough, what am I? The laziest writer in the world?

Teens also, you’ll be stunned to hear, do not complain about the so-called fact that teens don’t read.

My hairdresser does. He has apparently read every single one of the gazillion panicked articles about the the current generation’s total lack of literacy. Seriously every time I go in he will say, once we’ve gotten past all the neighbourhood gossip, “I hear kids aren’t reading much these days.”

And I will say for the gazillionth time, “Actually, teens today read more than any previous generation of teens. They are readaholics. They are a huge part of why the genre I write, YA, is such a huge seller with double digit growth every year for well over a decade.”

“My kids only read comic books.”

“That’s reading! Reading graphic novels and manga requires a level of literacy with images and language that many adult readers struggle with. Furthermore, not only are teens reading more than ever before. They are also writing more. They write novels! Did you write a novel when you were thirteen? I didn’t. Teens today are a literacy advocate’s wet dream. Also, my lovely hairdresser, you need to stop reading the [redacted name of tabloid newspaper].”

This is why I love teens. They don’t get their information from [redacted name of tabloid newspaper]. Most of them are a lot better at spotting bullshit than your average adult and they’re way less prone to repeating the warmed over moral panics of the last hundred years. The sheer breadth of their reading is astonishing. They read novels, and comic books—sometimes backwards—and airplane manuals and games reviews and they write songs and poetry and stories and novels and think about words and language and invent slang in ways that most adults have long since ceased to do.

Can you imagine a better audience?

  1. That last question was actually asked on a tour of the UK, not the US. In the questioner’s defence the writer in question really does wear shit clothes. Most writers are poor, yo. []
  2. I wonder why I was only ever sent out on one other tour? It is very puzzling. []
  3. I think it was an M state. But it could have been a vowel state. My memory is now hazy. []
  4. For the record none of those words appear in How To Ditch Your Fairy the book I was promoting. []

On Writing PoC When You Are White

My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these two posts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.

First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what.1 This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.

I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view.2 This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.

I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.3

The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white author says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”

I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.

That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.

Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.

Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?

We whites are notorious for freaking out when PoC so much as hint that something we did or said is racist. Many of us seem to think it’s worse to be called on our racism than it is for a PoC to experience racism. Even though being called racist can not kill us.

On top of all that I’m increasingly unconvinced that white people writing more people of colour solves anything. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters.

Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.

We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check out Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lots of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.

The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.

No, we’re not.

Expectations about our race—our whiteness—shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.

I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.

A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.

Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa4 or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.

I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.

In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.

TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.

  1. Not going to lie I kind of which I was. I’d also like to dictate Australia’s foreign policy, response to climate change, and treatment of refugees. Also fashion. []
  2. In books with more than one point of view, such as Razorhurst and the NYC historical I’ve been working on forever, there are PoC povs. Those books wouldn’t makes sense otherwise. []
  3. Including winning the Carl Brandon Society’s 2009 Kindred Award for Liar, which is one of the biggest honours of my career. []
  4. My next book. My Sister Rosa will be out in Australia/NZ in February and in the USA/Canada in November 2016. []

Wrong Book Jackets

2l9hxeqIn 2006 when Twilight was published in the UK it looked like this. What were they thinking? This cover conveys nothing about Twilight. You’d never think it was an angsty romance between cranky teen girl, Bella, and perennial teenage virgin vampire, Edward.

This would be a great cover if it was about a terrifying three-metre tall alien takeover of a high school. Or as Jennifer Laughran suggested a tale of about an elven princess who joins the military. I would totally read either one of those books. But it does not match Twilight. Especially when you compare this cover to the US stark black with red apple in hands one, which perfectly captures the book.

You will be unsurprised to learn that Twilight tanked when it first came out in the UK. It only took off after rejacketing with the original US cover.1

Jackets matter. OMG do they matter. They have to convey what the book is about, they have to make you want to pick up the book. If you read the book and it doesn’t resemble the cover—in a way that makes you feel lied to—you are likely to be cross.

csók12 A few years ago the wonderful Bennett Madison had a book out called September Girls, which is a gorgeous and weird poetic meditation on masculinity, femininity and misogyny. Yet look at the cover.

To me it screams summer romance. Possibly one that will tug at your heart strings, be a bit melancholy and wry. But definitely a romance. September Girls is not a romance. This is entirely the wrong cover.

A book that is published as a romance—as opposed to a book that is romantic or a love story—has to have a happy ever after ending and the romance has to be the A plot. The very centre of the novel. September Girls is not remotely a romance. It’s almost the opposite of a romance.

Some of the book’s first readers reacted badly to it.2 I’m convinced that part of that was because of the misleading jacket. (Though it didn’t put off the leading review journals who gave September Girls many much-deserved starred reviews.)

I am sympathetic to this reaction. I have read books that were billed as romances that did not have happy endings and I was most displeased. I read romances at least partly because of the surety of that happy ending. I often read them when I really need a happy ending. It feels like a punch in the stomach if I don’t get one. The cover lied to me! Unacceptable!

But there are other books where the cover doesn’t match the story and I’m not angry because it feels more surprising than a lie. For example, I find both Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen’s books to be more complicated and interesting than their breezy, summery covers led me to believe. But it felt like a bonus not a minus.

Why does this happen? Many people have input into the final jacket of a book. Not just the editor, but also sales and marketing, as well as the major accounts they’re trying to sell to. Some of those people won’t have read the book. That means they’re only looking at what they think will sell. It’s harder for them to judge whether the cover is a good match for the book.

The other factor is that many readers don’t seem to care. Publishers have seen books with misleading covers do really well. And as with Han and Dessen sometimes misleading is not a bad thing.

It’s incredibly hard to get the right cover. I celebrate every time my books get a cover that doesn’t make me cry. Which, I hasten to add, has been for most of my career. I’ve been very lucky. What covers do you think most successfully convey the book within?

  1. I’m doubtful that would happen these days. Social media buzz would have been so huge that UK readers would have been clamouring for Twilight and would have overlooked the cover. Or maybe they would have just ordered the US edition. Who knows? []
  2. If you’re interested you can check out g**dreads. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. []

Things Not To Say As a White Person When Talking About Racism (Updated)

Not all white people are racist.

True. Also irrelevant. Not all white people are racist but we all benefit from being white because we live in a world that is structured to give white people advantages and that makes whiteness the default.

#notallwhitepeople is also an attempt to change the subject from people of colour and racism to how most white people are good and why are talking about racism anyway?

Sexism is much worse than racism.

Unknowable. However, we do know that being a white woman is easier than being a woman who is not white. The funny thing about oppression is that it operates on multiple axes, you can be black AND a woman. You can be black and a woman and disabled and a lesbian. These are not separate categories, which is why intersectionality is so important. Thank you Kimberlé Crenshaw for giving us a way to talk about oppression in a more nuanced way.

Some white women bring up sexism in conversations about racism with women of colour. We change the subject to sexism because it is something we can talk about with authority, unlike race, where we often feel uncomfortable because we have a vague feeling that it’s somehow our fault. Quick! Let’s talk about something else! We white women need to remember that WoC know as much, if not more, about sexism as we do. They do not need to have sexism explained to them. They are aware. So. Very. Aware.

We white women also need to remember that feminism does not have an entirely unracist history. Some of the suffragettes in the USA were also members of the Klu Klux Klan and fought for the vote for women because they were outraged that black men could vote and they couldn’t. Even though in practise many black men were prevented from voting. Always know your history.

I don’t see colour.

Get your eyes checked.

When white people say they don’t see colour what they’re saying is that they don’t notice what race someone is. Let’s just say that’s possible and you really can’t tell what race anyone is—how is that contributing to a discussion about racism? You’re making the conversation about you and your perceptions of the world. The people who experience racism see the world differently. We’re talking about them, not you.

Why aren’t we talking about class? Lots of white people are poor, you know. Capitalism is the root cause of all suffering. Discrimination against the working class is worse than racism.

Unknowable. Once again instead of talking about racism the subject is changed. Let’s not talk about race, let’s talk about class! Let’s not.

And once again with forgetting that people of colour can also be working class and thus suffer the double whammy. Or triple whammy if they’re a woman. Or quadruple if they’re disabled. Etc.

Let’s not forget that rich, famous POC still suffer racism. Oprah has been discriminated against because she’s black. More recently tennis star James Blake was attacked by the New York Police. There are endless examples.

Me? Privileged? My parents worked in a coal mine! My mum was murdered! I have no legs! I live in a hole on the side of the road!

I’m sorry for your suffering but you’re changing the subject. We’re talking about racism not about how you have suffered. Everyone has suffered. Most of us have been discriminated against in one way or the other. But that’s not what this conversation about. We’re talking about race.

I’m not racist. My ancestors didn’t own slaves. This is not my fault.

Congratulations. Also irrelevant. White supremacy gives all whites an advantage PoC don’t have regardless of their individual actions. Systemic racism is not about individuals being good or bad. It’s about whole systems discriminating. Those systems need to be torn down.

White is a broad category. You can’t put wealthy USians in the same category as poor Romanians.

White is indeed a broad category. So are statements that can be used to change the topic from talking about racism like this one.

Whiteness is also a changing category. It used to be that Jews and the Irish and Italians weren’t included as white.1 But now they are. Talking about past constructions of white when we’re trying to talk about racism here and now is changing the subject. Don’t.

You know what else is a broad category? People of colour. Think about how many different peoples are encompassed by that term in the USA. Many of them with little else in common other than being discriminated against because they’re not white.

Why do we have to keep talking about racism? Obama is in the white house.

Because racism still rules our lives. Mango is a fruit.

In case you don’t get it that’s me sarcastically pointing out that there is little connection between those two statements. There have always been exceptional PoC—Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth—who’ve managed to succeed despite the overwhelming odds against them. It says little about systemic racism.

Slavery was ages ago. Blacks people should stop using it as an excuse.

Actually slavery wasn’t ages ago. Trust me on this. Or, you know, read this book or watch the movie.

Long-term institutional oppression is not an “excuse”. Read this. No, really, you need to read Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining the systemic reasons black people in the USA are worse off than whites. It was true in the past and it is true today.

Asian people earn more than whites in the USA! They’re not oppressed.

How many Asian actors are there playing leads in Hollywood movies? How often do you see Asians on your tv screen? How many books are there by Asians on bestseller lists? And this is a problem even in Asian countries like Singapore.

Leaving aside representation Asian-Americans do extremely well in high school yet a lower percentage go to elite universities in the US than whites.2

Being held up as the “model minority” has a myriad of downsides.

Yes, racism is terrible I’m going to fix it by writing novels with more POC characters even though I know very few POC.

We absolutely need more books with PoC characters but we also need those books to be written by PoC. Sometimes write what you know is good advice. If you only know white people stick to writing white people. Right now in YA publishing there are more PoC characters written by whites than by PoC. That’s part of the problem.

Also, while I agree that representation is hugely important, better representation won’t automatically fix everything. If only . . .

My great great great great grandmother was Comanche so I understand.

*head desk* Okay, yes, if you go far enough back we all have mixed backgrounds. I’m a descendent of Genghis Khan. But so is a 0.5% of the world’s population. In my day to day life no one is looking at my epicanthic fold and thinking I’m anything but white. There are, obviously, many white passing PoC. I am not one of them. Nor are you with your great great great great grandmother. We were both raised white by white parents. Every day we benefit from our white privilege. We are white.

We white people need to stop trying to make everything about us. Every one of these strategies is about changing the subject to make us the centre of the conversation. Enough already. Often the best strategy is to sit and listen and read and learn.

Here are some other posts on what white people shouldn’t be saying when discussing racism. Via @fonticulus and @SamJBrody

TL;DR We white people need to stop changing the subject so that we talk about anything other than racism.

Note: While much of what I’m saying here applies more broadly, I’m largely talking about the USA because that is the country whose history I know the best. And, yes, before you say anything, I am a US citizen. I am an Australian-USian.

There are many many more examples of what not to say. Please add them to the comments. Thank you!

  1. Of course some Jews and Irish and Italians aren’t white. Once again this is why intersectionality is so important. See for example the African diaspora Jews in Israel and the discrimination against them there.Thanks to @sarahrhamburg for reminding me of this. []
  2. I couldn’t find the stats for Asian-Australians. []

Criticism Of Representation in YA Is Essential

I have written many times over the years about people criticising our work being an inevitable part of being a writer. I also think it’s essential. We need criticism.1

Lately I’m seeing people arguing that there’s too much criticism of Young Adult literature and it’s now stopping people from writing because they’re too scared their work will be shredded. I’m bummed people feel that way because I wish there were more criticism.

While we have a broader and better conversation about intersectional representation then we’ve ever had it’s still not enough. Far too many popular books get a pass for pretty appalling representations. And far too many people who speak up to criticise those books and writers get yelled at for not being nice.2

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters. So while representation is improving it’s mostly whites doing the representing.

We need more books about POC written by POC. Those books must outnumber the books by whites about POC. It matters that there’s space for everyone to tell their own story.

Until we reach that glorious future it’s essential books about other ethnicities and races written by whites are criticised by the members of those communities. Stereotypical and harmful books need to be pointed out.

Will every POC agree that a book is problematic? Of course not. None of these communities are monolithic.3 Liar has been criticised for being racist by African-American readers. It’s also been defended against those charges by African-American readers.

It is also not saying that those books that are criticised for stereotypical portrayals of POC should be burnt. No one’s calling for book burning or banning. That seems to get lost in these debates.

The problem is not criticism. The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people. The problem is our book culture keeps reinforcing the message that white people are more important.

If you are being stopped from writing a book about people of a different race or ethnicity by the fear of being criticised maybe you shouldn’t write that book? Write a book about white people. You will then be criticised for writing yet another book about whites. Which do you think is the bigger problem? There is no option you get to pick where you don’t get criticised.

I’ve heard many POC critics point out that most white writers only feel they can write about race from the point of view of POC. This feeds into the idea that “race” is not something that white people have. We are neutral. We are somehow outside race. Newsflash: no one is outside race.

That criticism really made me think. What is whiteness? What does it mean? How is it constituted? Why is it so harmful? Out of that I wrote Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa. Two books with white main characters that are about race.4

I now agree that me writing from the point of view of POC characters is part of the problem. I won’t stop doing it—I have a large multi-viewpoint book I’ve been working on for many year that has many POC povs—but right now I want to keep writing about race from white points of view.

Writing for many of us is an act of courage. It was years before I showed my work to anyone. I couldn’t risk myself by letting anyone see what mattered most to me: my writing. I survived.

Having my work described as racist hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to the harm experienced by the readers who found my work racist.

Everyone who writes, no matter what their skin colour, gets criticised. We white writers need to remember that POC writers tend to get more criticism for writing about their own people than we do.

What we should do in response to criticism is not demand that the criticism go away. We should listen. We should learn. We should keep on writing.

We should keep demanding that there be more books about POC by POC. A great way to do that is to buy the ones that are already out there.

  1. Here’s where I discuss critiques of the racism and transphobia of Liar. []
  2. Don’t get me started on niceness. []
  3. As an Australian I find Priscilla Queen of the Desert deeply racist and sexist. It does not represent me. I hate that people think it represents Australia. Or to be more accurate I hate that it does represent some of Australia’s sexism and racism and how okay many Australians are with it. []
  4. Razorhurst has two main characters. One of whom is not necessarily white but thinks she is. []

Our Heroes Are Fallible And So Are We

One of my favourite TV writers, Sarah Dollard, recently wrote some beautiful writing advice, which is applicable to all kinds of writing. Go read it!

I want to bring particular attention to this:

Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.

Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.

We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?

They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.

Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.

I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.

I write YA. It’s a genre that in Australia, the UK and the US is overwhelmingly about white, straight, middle-class teenagers and overwhelmingly written by white, straight, middle-class authors. The blind spots of my beloved genre are many. This is why we have organisations like Diversity in YA founded by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They have a whole section where they look at the statistics on diversity in YA. I highly recommend checking it out.

All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too.1 Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.

We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.2

Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties.3 I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.4

TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!

  1. Our own communities often judge us the most harshly. As an Australian the most vehement criticism I get of my books with Aussie characters and Aussie settings is that I’ve gotten them wrong. Aussies don’t talk that why! Why do you misrepresent your own people? Are you actually Australian? []
  2. I speak as a white author who has written African-American, Aboriginal Australian, Hispanic American and Chinese-American main characters. I know I’m part of the problem. []
  3. Although she may have been appalled by him being a vulgar colonial. []
  4. I just can’t read The Grand Sophy any more. []

YA is for Teens

The publishing category of YA (Young Adult) started as a category about and for teens. But it has always been controlled by adults.

Right now YA is one of the most profitable publishing categories in the USA. That’s largely because of the huge growth of the adult readership. Put it this way: the Hunger Games has sold more copies than there are teens in the USA. Adults reading YA has transformed it from a sleepy back water to a mainstay of publishing, film and TV.

But make no mistake, the initial readers of The Hunger Games who clamoured for it loud and long were teenagers, who bugged their friends and their siblings and their parents to read it. Teens are almost always the first adopters.

Before Harry Potter the big market for YA books was schools and public libraries. The trade market (bookstores) was relatively small. That meant that for a YA book to do well it had to sell to adult gatekeepers. Which mostly meant YA couldn’t have sex or too much swearing or be too weird. It also meant most YA taught a clear cut lesson. Rereading YA from the 1970s and 1980s I was struck by how moralistic and earnest a lot of it was. Reread The Chocolate War sometime. PREACHY! No wonder the Sweet Valley High books were such a hit. Those books ignored what adults wanted teens to read and gave teens what they wanted to read.

The schools and library gatekeepers were, and still are, under a lot of pressure to keep their book collections “clean”. You only have to look at the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged books to get an inkling of the kinds of pressures many school librarians are under. I salute each and every one of them. They bring those challenged books into their schools because the teens want to read them.

Like it or not, the influx of adult readership has expanded the range of YA books that can be published. It is now possible for a YA book with content that would keep it out of many school libraries to make money. Lots of money. This is a huge development and has led to the existence of books like The Hunger Games, Octavian Nothing, The Legend series and We Were Liars. In other words, all the books we now think of as YA.

Teens have more say about YA books now than they did when The Chocolate War came out.1 Publishers are listening to teens more because social media has given teens a bigger voice.

I write books that many adults say are more adult that YA. Yet I know I have teen readers who love my books. I tender as proof the fact that Razorhurst is currently on the shortlist for the Inkys, an award entirely chosen by teens. They choose the longlist, the shortlist and the winner.

It’s unlikely Razorhurst would have been published as YA in the olden days. I’ve already been told by librarians in conservative parts of the US that they can’t keep it in their library much as they want to. So I am personally very grateful for the ways in which YA has changed. Without it I would not be able to write YA.

It’s never been teens demanding YA be “clean”. That demand mostly comes from concerned parents.

This is the case with all the books that are popular right now with teenagers. YA as it is now exists because publishers stopped listening to adults about what teens wanted—moral lessons! upstanding characters!—and started publishing books teens wanted—plot driven! exciting! romantic! complex!—which had the ironic result of more adults wanting to read YA.

Adults still control YA and always will, but there never was a teen YA utopia where the books were chosen by teens. There are reasons me and many of my peers refused to read YA back in the 80s when we were teens. Those books were mostly unbelievably boring. We read Flowers in the Attic instead, which, I’m pretty convinced would be published as YA now.

  1. I know many of you love The Chocolate War. Imagine how amazing it would be if it was published now and didn’t have to be so preachy? []

On Being a Nice Author

Because of social media the contact between authors and readers is closer than it’s ever been. For me one of the many delights of Twitter is being contacted by readers enthusiastic about my books or blog posts. Wonderful! I have many readers from all over the world I’ve known for years through my blog and Twitter. We’ve become friends. I love how Twitter enables me to fangirl my favourite authors, such as Laura Lippmann and Courtney Milan.1

Twitter makes it easier to rave about the books I love. The thought of writing a proper review daunts me. Fortunately blathering on Twitter takes seconds. Why, yes, I have spent much time this year tweeting about how Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is one of the most complex, dense, witty, wondrous science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Seriously, people, READ IT!2

I also use Twitter to discuss politics, basketball, cricket, social justice, history, fashion, the publishing industry, Hollywood, food, wine, quokkas, So Many Things. I dispense and receive writing advice. I gossip with friends. I occasionally let people know when my books are out, share news about how my books are doing, especially when they’ve won an award or something like that, because, WOO HOO!

I don’t, however, view social media as a sales tool, or my readers as customers. I’m not on Twitter to sell books. I’m there to have fun and to learn.

There are authors who view Twitter differently, who feel it is a sales tool and that their job is to broaden their brand, and that part of doing that is to be as inoffensive as possible, as “nice” as possible—particularly to potential readers. Their golden rule is never be rude to a fan because they’ll stop buying your books.

I totally agree we authors shouldn’t be rude. I don’t think anyone of any profession should be rude. The problem, alas, is that no one can agree on what constitutes rudeness. Rude is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve only been accused of rudeness a few times on Twitter but it’s always for the same thing. Someone asks me to explain an acronym or phrase and I sarcastically remind them of google or ask if their google is broken.3 If the answer can’t be found via google which does happen occasionally I explain.4

Now the folks of the Twitter-is-a-sales-tool, my-every-book-sale-depends-on-being-“nice” camp are not fans of sarcasm. They see my reminder of Google’s existence as rudeness beyond redemption, they unfollow me, and tell me they will never buy my books again.

Which fair enough. There are plenty of authors I’ve unfollowed and whose books I’ll never buy again because I found what they say on Twitter appalling. If I’ve offended you by all means never buy a book of mine again.

Meanwhile, I find it rude when folks come at me on Twitter to lecture me on my supposed rudeness and on how to be a “nice” author. I think it’s rude to tell people you’re unfollowing them. Why tell them except in an effort to make them feel bad? How is that not rude?

Like I said, rudeness is in the eye of the beholder.

I also think their underlying belief that rudeness will lose sales is, at best, questionable. Most readers don’t look into what their favourite authors are up to online. To those of us who are online most of the time that’s a shocking idea. But it’s true, I swear. I’ll never forget being on tour for Liar in 2009. There was a huge online scandal about the book’s cover I was bracing myself to have to talk about it at every event. Not only had most of the readers who came to my events not heard of the cover scandal, quite a few of the librarians and booksellers hadn’t either. All most of my fans knew about me was what they’d gleaned from reading my books. It was quite the lesson on the lack of overlap between my online and offline book worlds.

You’ll notice I keep putting “nice” in quote marks. That’s because it’s a word I’m deeply suspicious of. Telling people to be nice is often a way to get them to shut up. Frankly, as a woman, I’ve had a few too many people tell me I’m not being nice when I express an opinion they disagree with. I cannot lie, there are days when I’ve wanted to take the word “nice” and beat it into a slurry. I know. I know. That really wouldn’t be nice.

The people who argue you should do folks’ research for them tend to also argue you should keep your opinions on controversial subjects like politics and religion and social justice to yourself. John Scalzi has a couple of cogent responses to that line of argument.

Twisting yourself in knots to conform to someone else’s notion of “nice” is not going to help you sell books and even if it did—at what cost? You’re so much better off being yourself. If you have strong opinions and enjoy discussing them, have at it. It’s what Twitter’s for. If you hate getting into arguments and want everything to be calm blue ocean then don’t. Do what feels right for you.

None of the bestselling authors I know are quiet about their opinions online. Being honest and themselves has not affected their sales.

As an author we’re going to offend people. Given that some people are offended when told of the existence of search engines it’s a low bar.

At the same time I believe in doing no harm. Being kind and thoughtful is not something we should do because it sells books, it’s something we should do because we’re human beings. When someone tells us something we’ve said hurts them, we should listen.

TL;DR: Be yourself! Be thoughtful and kind! Don’t be silenced! Sarcasm is fun but some people are never going to get it or like it. Book sales are not much affected by what you do online.

  1. When I was first reading novels it never occurred to me that I could get in contact with the people who wrote those novels. It barely occurred to me that novels were written by actual people. If I’d thought about it I’d’ve probably assumed they just showed up in the library as they were. Or were maybe harvested from book trees. []
  2. I’ve discovered so many wonderful books, movies, TV shows, anime, manga through social media. It has enriched my world. I can’t lie I adore Twitter. []
  3. I always mean to send them to lmgtfy.com but I always forget. []
  4. Google doesn’t know everything. Shocking, right? []

My Next Novel: My Sister Rosa

My next novel, My Sister Rosa, will be out from Allen & Unwin in February 2016 in Australia and New Zealand and from Soho Teen in North America in November 2016.

Here’s what the Allen & Unwin cover looks like:

MySisterRosaCover

Pretty creepy eh? What is she going to do to that poor wee little sparrow?

My Sister Rosa is not a cheerful tale of a happy family. Nope. It’s a novel of misery and woe told from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy whose ten-year-old sister, Rosa, is a psychopath.

It’s up to Che to protect Rosa from the world; and the world from Rosa.

[Cue ominous music.]

My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed narrative, which I’ve always been fascinated by. Creepy children? What’s not to love? Research for this book consisted of reading as many bad seed novels as I could. Including, of course, William March’sThe Bad Seed. I also read many books on psychopathy and, following a suggestion from Lili Wilkinson, books on empathy because you can’t understand psychopaths without understanding what they lack: empathy.

All that research has left me seeing psychopaths everywhere. The world is even scarier than I thought. Get my book when it comes out and you’ll be seeing psychopaths everywhere too. You’re welcome.

The First Sentence

A big deal is made of the first sentence of novels. There’s gazillions of pages listing good ones.1 Almost every obsessive reader can quote their favourite ones. Every Jane Austen fan can reel off:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

I mean even I know that one off by heart and I have the world’s worst memory. Tragically it’s just about the only first sentence I do know. No, not even the first sentences of my own novels. I have to look them up.

Pretty much every agent or editor or writer when giving advice will tell you that the first sentence is crucial. That you have to get it right! When they talk about what a first sentence should do they tend to say it should make you want to read on, which, well, yes, yes it should. But that’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you write a sentence that will make readers want to read on?

I think a more useful way of thinking about the first sentence is to think about its relationship to the rest of the novel. Many first sentences operate as a kind of shorthand for the entire novel, giving the reader a sense of what’s to come, who’s telling the story, and what kind of story it is. Or, almost the opposite, messing with the reader, getting them to think it’s one kind of book when it’s not, which perversely also gives the reader a sense of what’s to come: a novel that will mess with the reader.

But you don’t have to be all show-offy to achieve that. Here are two simple first sentences. The first from one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948):

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

The narrator is a writer, possibly an eccentric who likes to sit in places not traditionally used for sitting, or perhaps a child who hasn’t quite figured out where it is or isn’t appropriate to sit or doesn’t care, or it could be someone with some kind of foot or ankle or lower leg disorder which means their feet need to be soaked, though why in the kitchen sink and not in a bucket? What is the “this” that she’s writing? Is is a journal? Does that mean “this” is a novel told in journal entries? Or is it a letter? Is this an epistolary novel? Or is it a novel that’s telling us it’s a novel? So many questions. Such an arresting image. And now I want to read the book all over again.

The second one is from another favourite, Courtney Milan’s marvellous The Suffragette Scandal (2014):

“Edward Clark was disgusted with himself.”

This is the opening sentence and, boy, does it sum up the whole book in which Edward Clark continues to be disgusted with himself throughout. I’d argue that a big part of the plot is him learning to do something about that disgust, to change himself into someone who doesn’t disgust himself. Though it becomes clear that the initial incident that he’s being disgusted about is not, in fact, a big deal. Nor is he that disgusted. It’s more a figure of speech.

So, how do you write a good first sentence?

Buggered if I know. But I will suggest that it helps to not think about that first sentence when writing your first, raw, zero draft. For me that’s a recipe for sitting there staring at the blank page, coming up with nothing, and developing an increasingly strong urge to tweet, or go kill zombies, or clean the kitchen, or go for a run, or anything else that isn’t writing.

If I think about writing a perfect pearl of a first sentence I cry. So instead I just type, banging out the story, characters, ideas that are pushing me into starting a new novel.

I started my next novel2 in September 2013. I didn’t write the first sentence—or indeed the first chapter—until January 2015. The previous first chapter I threw out because it wasn’t working. This has been true of most of my published novels.

That said, you might be one of those writers who has to have a perfectly formed first sentence in order to keep writing. There are such writers. Many of whom manage to write many novels. So do not despair if you turn out to be one of them. Every kind of writer has their own burdens and to keep us own our toes what those burdens are can change from story to story.

For me it’s impossible to write a good first sentence until I know what the novel is about and not being an outliner I can’t know what the book is about until I’ve written the first draft. Perhaps outliners bang out the perfect opening sentence straight away? Perhaps some of them have that perfect sentence in their outline? Sometimes I am very envious of how I imagine outliners write.

Of course not all opening sentences sum up the entire book in a neat way. Or at least that’s not all they do. Consider the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):

124 was spiteful.

So many questions it raises. How is 124 a who? How has a number become a name? Who is 124? Why are they spiteful? How can a number be spiteful? I must read and find out.

Then there’s massive generalisation openings, which Jane Austen brilliantly skewers with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. These kind of overblown aphoristic openings are a hallmark of nineteenth century literature, and though oft quoted, are way harder to get away with these days—unless you’re writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. Though that makes me want to try one of these openings with a contemporary novel. Take Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities from 1859:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

While Dickens’ opening here is overblown it’s hard to deny that period of French history was kind of intense.

Then there’s Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I call total bullshit on this opening. There are as many different kinds of happiness as there are of misery. So, boo to you, Tolstoy. Maybe it’s less stupid in the original Russian?

There is, however, no denying the poetry of both those openings. They trip off the tongue and are very easy to remember. Though, most people only ever quote the first two clauses of the
Tale of Two Cities opening because we are lazy creatures. Maybe that’s why long, elegiac opening sentences went out of fashion?

TL;DR First sentences. They are important. But don’t sweat them unless you have to. The beauty of writing as opposed to, say, live debating, is that you can rewrite until you get it right.

  1. Though you’ll notice those lists seem to be compiled by people who mostly read books by white men. I merely observe, I do not judge. []
  2. My Sister Rosa which publishes in February and November of 2016 in Australia and the US respectively. []

What I’ll Be Doing In May: New York! Dallas!

I have two events in New York in the next week and a bit. The first is in Manhattan and the other is a little bit upstate in Rhinebeck, a gorgeous town I’ve heard much about, but never visited before:

Wednesday, 6 May, 6-7:30pm
Teen Author Reading Night
Melissa Grey, Corey Ann Haydu,
Justine Larbalestier, Lance Rubin,
Melissa Walker, Tommy Wallach.
Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL
Corner of 6th Ave and 10th St
New York, New York

Look at that star-studded line up! It shall be a wonderful night. I’ll be reading a very short amusing bit from Razorhurst. Yes, even a book that’s been repeatedly described as “bloody” and “blood-soaked” and just won the Aurealis award for best Australian horror novel1 has funny bits. Honest.

Sunday, 10 May, 4:00pm
Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld
Hudson Valley YA Society
Oblong Books
6422 Montgomery Street
Rhinebeck, New York, 12572

Me and the old man will talk about our latest books, what books are coming next, what it’s like living with another writer—HELL ON EARTH! heavenly—and many other things.

We’ll also be at the Romantic Times Conference in Dallas in May. Where we’ll both be reading our juvenilia to an audience that may regret attending that particular session. I found a demented Raymond Chandler pastiche from when I was around fourteen. Breathtakingly awful. You’ll laugh till you expire.

Here’s hoping I get to see some of you soon!

  1. Adult or Young Adult, I’ll have you know. Go, Razorhurst! []

Razorhurst Out in North America Today!

RazorhurstUSToday is the official publication of Razorhurst in the USA and Canada by Soho Press. For those of you who have been waiting since last July when it was published in Australia and New Zealand the wait is over!

For those of who you have no idea what I’m talking about: Razorhurst takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, tip the balance in a bloody underworld power struggle. As you do . . . You can read the first chapter here.

Razorhurst is my first solo novel since Liar in 2009. Loads of extremely fun research went into the writing of it. I walked every street in the inner-city Sydney suburbs of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and Kings Cross, trying to imagine what they looked like, smelled like, tasted like, back in 1932 when, according to Sydney tabloid Truth, the streets were crowded with “bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite.”

Facebook Timeline_Razorhurst Tile_You Didnt Go ThereI talk more about my influences here and here on Scalzi’s Whatever. Alert readers may notice that I contradict myself in those two pieces. What can I say? The influences on this book were many! But in short: blood, razors and ghosts.

So far the response in the USA has been pretty stellar1 with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal and Kirkus (“a dark, unforgettable and blood-soaked tale of outlaws and masterminds”). The Horn Book Magazine said this: “Yoking paranormal thriller, roman noir, and historical fiction, Razorhurst teems with precisely realized period details and an expansive cast of unsavory characters, as well as numerous allusions to the films noirs and Sydney history that inspired Larbalestier . . . intensely lucid and sharp.” Yes, I am blushing.

Razorhurst Tile_UninvitedRazorhurst was just named as one of Publishers Weekly Books of the Week along side the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro. Double blush! It’s also one of the twenty books picked for Amazon’s Big Spring Books: Teen & Young Adult. Really thrilled to be on that list alongside books like Courtney Summers’ brilliant All the Rage. I may spend the rest of my life blushing.

Go forth and borrow or purchase from your favourite library or bookshop. Here’s hoping you enjoy!2

Note: For those wondering why I’ve not been responding to tweets, emails, comments here etc. I’m still not 100% recovered and have to save my keyboard time for rewriting my next novel, which publishes in the US a year from now and in Australia in November. I still love you all and hope to be less silent soon.

  1. What? I’m allowed to pun. []
  2. And if you don’t here’s hoping you tell no one. []

Why I’ve Been Quiet

Short answer: pneumonia. Longer answer: mycoplasma pneumoniae

Apparently there’s a fair amount of it going around in Sydney in summer right now. So unjust. My bout was nasty and not short and my recovery is slow and annoying. Thus my silence online. I am now behind with everything and I have a rewrite due so my focus is on recovering and finishing the book. That’s why I’m not responding to emails and tweets etc.1

Being so sick reminded me—once again—that we build our worlds as if everyone is able bodied all the time—yet nobody is. Even if you’ve never had a day of sickness in your life, even if you’ve never even sprained an ankle, once you were a child.

We are all born utterly helpless unable to even raise our heads. As we learn to walk uneven surfaces are a challenge, stairs are a challenge. The built world is a challenge. And very little of it is altered to make things easier for littlies.2

Your strength and fitness will decline as you age. Even the fittest, healthiest ninety year old walks at a fraction of the speed they managed in their youth. They’re also a good deal weaker.

Yet pedestrian lights are all too often designed with barely enough time for someone young and fit to get across the road, let alone someone on crutches, or someone in their nineties, or someone looking after small children. Fire doors are too heavy for many people to open.

There are a million such examples. I’m too tired to list them all. We need to stop thinking that disability issues have nothing to do with the able-bodied. Being able-bodied is transitory, not fixed. We are all of us at some point in our lives going to be deeply grateful for ramps, automatic doors, and pedestrian lights that allow us to cross the road without being honked at by angry drivers.

  1. I haven’t been on Twitter in weeks and probably won’t be back until this book is finished. []
  2. There are some good reasons for that. Challenges are how kids learn to be stronger and fitter. But stairs and ramps can co-exist. []

On Sexism and Awards (Updated)

If you’re a man and you write a realist YA novel you’re more likely to win an award for it than a woman is.

Big claim I know.

Here’s some evidence about the awards side of the equation, an examination of most of the big awards in the Young Adult genre since 2000, compiled by Lady Business.1 They looked at not only US awards but the big Australian, Canadian and New Zealand awards too.

Here’s where I’m going by my own experience, i.e., yes, it’s anecdotal evidence. I believe the majority of authors published by mainstream YA publishers are women. Despite some—admittedly slapdash googling—What? I’m on a deadline—I don’t have the numbers to back that up. If you do have them please let me know and I’ll amend this paragraph. But I am pretty confident in asserting that YA is one of the most women-dominated genres there is.2

Here’s why: I’ve been told by many organisers of YA conferences and conventions that they struggle to get enough male authors to take part. Every time I’m at one of those conferences there are way more women than men. When I look through catalogues and lists of forthcoming titles from publishers they seem to run around 75% female authors. Yes, that’s a guestimate.

So let’s say that more than 70% of YA is written by women that means men are way overrepresented when it comes to award time winning 42% of the time rather than the 30% which would line up with their actual representation.3

We women writers of YA talk about this. We speculate about why it keeps happening. One of the reasons I’ve heard is that the givers of these awards are largely heterosexual women and they have crushes on the male authors and thus are more inclined to reward them. I think that’s total bullshit. Worse, it’s sexist bullshit.

Here’s what I think is going on. You’ll have to bear with me because it’s complicated.

First of all, we live in a sexist, misogynist world. Alas, awards are not given in a special sexism-free bubble. We have been taught from an early age that men are more important than women. There have been a tonne of studies—and if I wasn’t on a deadline and aware that I shouldn’t be writing this right now I’d link to some of them—that show that both men and women listen to men more than to women, that we value men more. That’s the culture we live in.

This permeates how we learn to read. Think back to picture books and those early primers. Now they’ve gotten a bit better over the years. But I have a two-year-old niece and, frankly, I’m shocked at how sexist many of these books are. Women are still predominately shown as parents and housewives and nurses and teachers and, well, you get the picture.4 I have to hunt to find books with girls and women shown as active and powerful as boys and men. Those books are out there, but wow are they lost in a sea of boys are everything. It correlates closely to what Geena Davis’s institute has found about movies and TVs. The majority of talking animals are still male.5

From an early age we’re learning boys are more important and boys have adventures. Then when we start reading proper novels we learn over and over, up through high school and then into college/university, that books by men are considered to be better than books by women. Look at the reading lists for most high schools and universities. Pretty much anywhere in the English-speaking world.6 Boy book after boy book after boy book. Plus some Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.

We’ve been taught that good books, on the whole, are written by men and that good books, on the whole, are about men. Is it any wonder that we carry those unconscious views with us into our reading lives? Into our award-giving lives?

I’ve been on juried awards and I know many people who’ve been on juried awards. I guarantee you we are not going onto them deciding to give awards to men, deciding that women don’t deserve awards. Everyone on a jury wants to give the award to the best book. But unconsciously we’re valuing stories about boys, stories by men, more than those about girls or women. Even when we’re damned sure we’re not doing that. Yes, I have done this. Yes, it’s insidious.

But that is not the whole story.

There’s more to what stories are valued than who the protag is. Most romances are told from the point of a woman, but also of a man. That’s right in the majority of mainstream romances the man is telling fifty per cent of the story. Yet romance is rarely valued. Both fantasy and science fiction frequently have male protags. But they’re not valued highly either. That’s born out in these awards. Look through the winners of any YA award—other than the ones specifically for fantasy/science fiction/romance—the majority are realist. The majority of the nominees are too. In my cursory glance through I couldn’t find a single winner that could even at a stretch be called a romance and only a handful that fit the bill of being a crime novel.7

The only literary genre we are consistently taught to value during our formal education is realism i.e. Literature, which historically is a recent genre. Fantasy has been with us since we started telling stories. It’s by far the oldest kind of story we tell. But two centuries of realism dominating has left us consistently undervaluing fantasy and not considering it to be Literature.8

Learning to read is hard. I’m watching my niece take her first steps in letter recognition. She’s able to recognise her written name about half the time. It’s tough. But that’s just the beginning. We’re also taught how to read stories and novels. As I’ve noted, what we’re overwhelmingly taught to read, once we leave children’s books behind, is realism. So that’s what most of us are best at reading.

I’ve heard reports from frustrated genre loving friends on juried awards where the other jurors literally did not know how to read the fantasy, science fiction, romances etc. The non-genre reader jurors saw a book with a dragon in it and instantly decided it was derivative rubbish. Read a book where someone’s learning magic and said “Well, isn’t that just Harry Potter all over again?” They wondered why books were marred by “inserting” vampires/ghosts/werewolves/etc into the story.

They did not have the reading skills to recognise the ways in which this particular dragon book, and this particular learning magic book, this particular vampire/ghost/werewolf book was doing something that had never been done in that genre before because they’d never read that genre before. They had no idea. All these book read the same to them. Ditto with romance. They could not see how that particular romance was basically reinventing the genre because they’d never read a romance before.

Pity the poor genre-literate juror. They do not struggle to grapple with realism. They know how to read it. Everyone knows how to read it. But they have to sit and watch every single genre book be discounted simply because the other jurors don’t have the skills to read them. It’s mightily frustrating.

Romance, of course, cops it worst of all. Love stories are silly girls’ business. YA romances by women do not make it on to award shortlists. I suspect the publishers don’t even bother submitting them for awards. What’s the point? They’re discounted before they’re even read.9

There are other factors to do with reputation and who is perceived to write the same kinds of books over and over again and who isn’t. Not to mention how a woman writing a traumatic story from a girl’s point of view is perceived to not be stretching themselves as much as a man doing ditto.10 How funny books are not valued as much as serious books. Domestic stories are less important than stories about war and so on and so forth. How certain writing styles are closer to the styles of writing we were taught in university/college were good writing: no adverbs! “said” as the verb of utterance! Blah blah blah! Basically a funny, romantic, fantasy book by a woman has close to zero chance of winning an award.

There are, of course, many other things going on—I did say it was complicated, didn’t I?—but that’s all I’ve got time for now.

Disclaimer: I want to point out that I felt free to write this post as a woman who writes YA precisely because my books have not been overlooked. They’ve been shortlisted for and won awards. I have no sour grapes. I’ve been very lucky. If I didn’t feel that way I would not have written this.

I don’t believe anyone’s story is more important than anyone else’s. I don’t believe any genre is more valuable than any other genre.

Update 7 Oct 2015: An Australian study found that 66% of all writers are women and 90% of all children’s authors, which I’m assuming includes YA. I still haven’t found data for the USA but I doubt it would be too much different.

  1. I am so grateful to Lady Business for doing the heavy lifting and writing that smart, detailed report. You saved me from having no data to point to at all. Bless you! []
  2. Romance, obviously, being at the head of that list. []
  3. Though, you know what, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are even fewer YA novels written by male authors than that. I think I’m guessing high. []
  4. To be clear those are all hard jobs that should be paid and respected far more than they are. But they are stereotypically female jobs. []
  5. Total mystery as to how talking animals manage to reproduce. []
  6. I like to think that it’s better in non-English speaking countries. Don’t disabuse me of that notion. []
  7. Though I would argue overall that crime is probably the most valued of the so-called “genre” genres. I believe capital L Literature is also a genre. []
  8. For instance, retold fairy tales aren’t even eligible for the National Book Award in the USA. To which I say, WHAT NOW? But that would be a huge digression and this is already too long. I got a book to write. []
  9. Well, unless they’re written by men and are not described as romances or even as love stories. And, well, there are quite a few examples in YA, aren’t they? I’m not going to name them. []
  10. Same with a white writer writing a black protag as opposed to a black author writing a black protag. There are many other ways in which reader expectations mess with how they read books along the axes of race, class, sexuality etc. []

Last Day of 2014

The year is practically over so here I am again with my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2015.1

Books Out in 2014

This was my first year with a new solo novel since 2009. Five years in between solo novels!2 I was nervous but it seems to have gone quite well.

Razorhurst was published in July by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews have been blush-making. Including being named a book of the week by the Sydney Morning Herald, of the month from Readings Books and making Readings’ top ten YA books of the year and top 50 books by Australian women in 2014 lists, as well being the Australian Independent Bookseller’s No. 1 Children’s Pick for July. Although Razorhurst isn’t out in the US until March it’s already received starred reviews from the School Library Journal as well as Kirkus.

Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3

So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.

Books Out in 2015 and 2016

I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareIn India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.

“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.

Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.

Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.

I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!

The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.

The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.

What I wrote in 2014

I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.

And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.

Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.

I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.

I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2015

Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.

Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? 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? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.

Travel in 2014

I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.

Reading and Watching in 2014

My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.

I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.

One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.

2014 was awful but there’s always hope

Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Argh. Make it stop!

May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. []
  2. Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. []
  3. If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. []

So-called Writing Facts

Here are two “facts” about writing I’ve been hearing lately that I must beat until their stuffing falls out and their non-factness is apparent to all.1

1. On average published authors write 2-3 novels before publication.

Um, what? How was such a statistic arrived at? Where does it come from? Why is everyone repeating it? Oh, who cares. It’s irrelevant.

It does not matter how many novels other authors wrote before they were published. It has no effect on you. I wrote two novels before I was published. Scott sold the first one he finished. I know of authors who wrote more than twenty novels before they finally sold one. Who knows what your path will be?

It’s like asking an agent how many authors they sign per year on average. Knowing that doesn’t increase or decrease your chances. The only thing that will increase your chances of finding an agent to represent you is writing a book an agent likes. It could be that the agent who falls in love with your book will take on no clients but you that month or year. Or they’ll take on ten. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fall for your book and your writing.

Being above or below this random number of 2-3 written books before selling first book makes zero difference to your writing career. It predicts nothing.

That stat is only useful if it helps people realise that selling your first novel is unlikely. Though, yes, it happens. In publishing pretty much everything has happened. Learning to write well is a long process. As I have chronicled it took me years to learn how to rewrite.

2. People’s second published novels are always much worst than their first.

Crap. Bullocks. Rubbish. Bulldust. Wallaroo droppings.

Yes, people talk about second-novel syndrome. But it mostly applies to people whose first novel was a huge success. Surprise! The vast majority of authors do not have a run away bestseller with their first novel. Therefore they do not have the over-the-top pressure for their second book to be as successful as their first.

Most novelists don’t have a huge hit with any of their novels. And for those that do get lucky? Well, it can happen with their fifth or sixth or tenth or whatever-th novel. Sometimes in the wake of all that attention and money raining down on them it can take a long time to write their next book.

I don’t think there is a second-novel syndrome; I think there’s next-book-after-a-huge hit syndrome.

Now I’ve cleared that up, let’s take a moment to consider what people mean by the second novel. Shockingly some authors’ second novels were written before their first novels, which is the case with Jonathan Lethem. Michael Chabon’s second novel was the third novel he wrote. My first published novel was the third novel I wrote.

Often we don’t know what order novels were written in. All we know for sure is the order in which they were published and, why, yes, there are many authors with super successful second novels whose second novels were better than their first.2

There’s Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which you may have heard of. Many consider it to be her best. I love P and P but for my money Persuasion is her finest work. Scott’s second novel Fine Prey is way, way, way better than his first Polymorph. Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is an amazing debut but I reckon her second novel, Price of Salt/Carol, is much, much better and breaks my heart every time I read it. Then there’s Infinite Jest, which I’ve never been able to finish, so not my thing, but which was certainly more successful than his first novel.

I could go on like this all day long. There are many great second novels and great third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. novels. Most novelists get better the more novels they write.3 Usually, the more you do something the better you get at it. It’s called practice and training and like that. With most of my favourite living writers it’s their most recent book that’s their most accomplished.

I would argue that amazing debut novels are the exception not the rule. I’l blurb a flawed debut novel. I expect debut novels to be rawer. I cut them more slack because they’re a novelist’s first baby, their first attempt at that impossible task: writing a perfect novel.

In conclusion: most so-called “facts” about the writing life are no such thing. Every writer writes differently. There are as many different paths to publication as there are writers.

  1. Or, you know, the people who read this blog. Both of them. []
  2. In these discussions the word “successful” is usually used to mean “sold lots of copies.” I don’t think that’s the only measure of a book’s success. Quite a few of the so-called second-book failures are quite good. They simply failed to sell as well as the first. []
  3. Yes, there are exceptions. No, let’s not name them. []

Accompanying Scott on his tour of the USA

I’ve not been blogging much because I’m accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. So far we’ve been to Raleigh, Lexington, Louisville, Philadelphia, Washington DC, St Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. And there’s much more to come. Check out the rest of the tour here. I’d be delighted to sign anything you want signed but mostly I’m just happy to say hi and chat.

We’ve had many adventures so far including staying in what I swear was a haunted hotel. Uncannily cold temperatures? Check. Eerie cold winds that came rushing out of the elevators/lifts? Check. Strange rustling sounds in the hotel room in the middle of the night? Check.

If you haven’t read Afterworlds yet you should. It’s definitely Scott’s best book so far.

Hope to see some of you soon!

The Habit of Getting Ideas and Turning Them into Story

I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.

The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.

Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.

I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.

My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”

Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”

MP: “They’d shout through the door.”

Me: “What if they’re mute?”

MP: “Aaaaaarrrggghhh!”

As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?

MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”1

Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”

MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”

Me: “But what if . . . ”

MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”

Me: *side eyes parents*

Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?

I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.

If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2

It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.

When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.

Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:

BwK_T5jCEAAo08X

And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.

When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.

Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.

There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.

Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.

  1. I was a truly awful older sister. I’m not kidding. It speaks volumes as to what a fabulous sister I have that she forgives me. []
  2. Punishment meted out by parents. Possibly for asking a few too many what ifs. []

No More Bestselling Women’s Book Club This Year

Apologies to those reading along with us but alas, travel, deadlines, and sundry other things have crashed down upon Kate Elliott and I and we will not be doing the book club for the next few months. We hope to resume next year.

In the meantime you can find our discussions of the books we’ve already read here.

Thanks to all who’ve been taking part. We’ve learnt a lot.

Books That Changed Me

Today the Sydney Morning Herald is running my entry in their long-running Books That Changed Me series. I struggled mightily to get it down to four. Especially as they initially told me I could name five. There are too many books that have changed me! Too many books that I love with every fibre of my being!

The four that made the cut:

Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux (1939) is a novel that reads like history. Like geography. Almost geology. It’s slow, there’s no plot to speak of, it’s everything I don’t like about literary novels. I love it. Tennant lays bare Surry Hills from before the first world war up to the first hints of the next war. She swims in her joy at the Aussie vernacular. It’s bloody bosker.

Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979) because, well, fairy tales. When I was little I made up my own, and the ghostly echo of “Once upon a time” shapes all the fiction I’ve ever written. But it wasn’t until I read this explosion of a collection that I realised how much could be done to fairy fales, and how much they could do to me. Carter taught me the anatomy of the fairy tale and how to make use of the viscera.

I give people Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (1998) when they demand proof that novels for teens (YA) can be as good as the best novels for adults. In a scant 200 pages Woodson delves deep into New York City’s geographical, class, and racial fissures, and then she breaks your heart.

About Writing (2006) by Samuel R. Delany is the smartest book about writing I’ve ever read. In a series of letters and lectures Delany leaps from the intricacies of punctuating dialogue, to those of creating character, to existential questions about what it is that a writer can make a reader know. Delany with both his fiction and his non-fiction changed the way I write and how I think about writing.

These are the ones I couldn’t include:

I don’t know how old I was when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813). Very young. I’ve read it so many times that I could probably read it from memory. Yet every time I read it I find something new. On the last reread I focussed on the world of the servants. The time before that on her extraordinary world building with her razor focus on economics. It’s true that Persuasion (1818) is now my favourite of her novels but it was not the one that changed me when I first read it as a pre-teen.

I’ve always read True Crime as well as fictional crime. Always veering towards the dark: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosley, Denise Mina. At their core are these questions: What is evil? Why do people do evil things? Why are we fascinated? I picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) when I was very young and didn’t know who Charles Manson was and hadn’t thought much about the question of evil. This book meant I never forgot.1

I didn’t know which Octavia Butler book to pick. They’re all amazing. Even Survivor (1978), an early novel that she never wanted to see in print again. I read it in the bowels of the Rare Books section of the University of Sydney. It’s not her best but it’s still better than most every other novel by anyone else. Her stories in Bloodchild & Other Stories are a revelation. Each one perfect in a different way from the last. Read everything she wrote!

Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romances. She’s brilliant at torpedoing the constraints of the genre while working within it. Take Unclaimed (2011) in which a courtesan has to seduce a Victorian rockstar professional virgin who’s written the book on how to be celibate. She neatly upends the heroine as virgin; hero as rake paradigm of most historical romances and she does it with wit. Her latest, The Suffragette Scandal (2014) is her best book yet.

Each of these fiction writers showed me what was can be achieved with writing. They taught me to push past the constraints of genre and to think about the impact of every single word. They changed me as a writer and as a person. I recommend them all. In fact, I kind of feel like rereading them all right now. For the millionth time.

  1. This is the one book on the list that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. But I think it’s important to note that some books that change you aren’t particularly good. []

The Internet is Also Real Life

The distinction between Real Life and the internet is frequently made. Particularly by people for whom the internet is not a big, or in some cases any, part of their social lives. But the internet is not on a different planet. It’s right here on Earth it was created by people and is made up of people just like Sydney or New York City or Timbuktu.

The internet is a huge part of my life, and has been since the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the weird and wonderful World Wide Web. Oh, the glory of it.

I remember my very first email address. Hard to believe now, but back then email was a wonder. I could stay in touch with friends and family all around the world without stamps or envelopes or treks to the post office and without the insanely long waits.1

In those early days I spent a lot of time reading through various different rec.arts news groups. People exchanging opinions! As if they were in the same room! Except they weren’t! Woah! I joined loads of different listservs. I discovered weird and wonderful blogs and would lose days reading back through the archives. I even commented on some of them. By 2003 I had my own blog. Er, this one. In the last few years twitter has become a large part of my life and through it I have met many amazingly smart and witty an inspiring people.

Online I have found people who care about the same things as me. I’ve found communities I feel at home in. I loved it then and I still love it.

For twenty years now I’ve had many people in my life I think of as my friends whom I’ve never met in *cough* real life. But I know them. Not the way I know the people I’ve lived with. Not the way I know my closest friends. But in some cases I know my online friends better than some of my offline friends and acquaintances.

These online friends are not imaginary. We who spend big chunks of our lives online are real. We make each other laugh. We make each other cry. We annoy each other. We talk to each other several times a week. We fight bullies together. We share experiences. We care about each other.

When one of us dies it hurts.

Social media is not an abstraction. It’s real. It’s made up of real people, who live and die. Their deaths are real and painful.

  1. Okay, obviously, not entirely true. As with snail mail it all depends on how good a correspondent a person is. But in the first days of email we were all so excited we were amazing correspondents. Until the novelty wore off . . . []

No Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club This Month

Due to a terrible combination of deadlines, travelling, illness and other assorted calamaties Kate Elliott and myself will not be doing the book club this month. We’re bummed about it too. But life she threw too much at us this month.

We will be back in September to discuss Han Suyin’s A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is the first out of print book that we’ll be reading. I haven’t been able to find an ebook edition either. It’s truly out of print. Start putting it on hold at your library now.

You can see the schedule for the rest of the year here.

That discussion will be held: 30 September Tues in Australia and 29 September Monday in the USA.

US Cover of Razorhurst

I’m super excited to reveal what Razorhurst will look like when Soho Teen publish it in the USA next March. Quite a contrast to the Australian cover, eh? Yet at the same time they both have that gorgeous, strong font treatment.

RazorhurstUS

I adore that font and those colours. I hope you do too. Everyone who’s seen this cover has been wildly enthusiastic uttering comments like, “I would buy that in a heartbeat.” “Utterly beautiful.” “Wow, that’s so commercial.” All of it music to my ears.

Soho’s edition will have a bonus glossary. Yes, you US readers are going to be spoiled. It also means the USA Razorhurst will be my first novel to have both a glossary and a map.1 That’s right, Soho are keeping the beautiful map used in the Allen and Unwin edition. Still gorgeous, isn’t it?

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

Map designed by Hannah Janzen

Map plus glossary? What could be cooler? Nothing. I can’t wait until all my US readers can get their hands on Razorhurst. March is so soon, youse guys!

  1. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with a glossary. Because I love them: Words, definitions, dictionaries, glossaries, they are all my dearest loves. []

On Ideas and Plots and Their Mutability

Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:

Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?

I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.

My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.

However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.

I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.

These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.

I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.

It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.

Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.

Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!

What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!

Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.

  1. Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath. []
  2. For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea. []

Who is My Audience?

On Twitter ages ago N. K. Jemisin asked “*do* white writers want only white readers?”

The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.

But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?

In order to respond I need to break it down:

Whiteness

I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.

What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.

Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.

Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.

When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.

For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.

I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”

I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.

All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”

White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.

Audience

When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.

I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.

All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.

However.

That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.

When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.

When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.

That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.

As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.

Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.

Addressing a White Audience

There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.

Writing to an Audience

But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.

Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.

It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.

My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.

Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.

I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.

  1. When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. []
  2. Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. []
  3. First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. []
  4. Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. []

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

Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.



Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

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

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. 🙂

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

Our Next Book: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) Join us at the end of August to discuss the first English book we’re looking at. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

  1. Pun intentional. []

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) (updated)

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. Although it did not sell well as a hardcover it sold nearly a million copies as a Bantam paperback 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,1 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.2

Update: I got some facts wrong about the book and corrected them. My source is the note that Highsmith wrote for a reprint of the book in 1989.

  1. No, obvious ones anyways. I think Carol’s husband could be one. []
  2. 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. []