Guest Post: Diana Peterfreund on Inspiration

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

I just want to make it clear that I’m only letting Diana be a guest here because she has threatened me with a fate worse than death. Mind you, she’s already mentioned uni**rns like ten times. Surely that’s a fate worse than death? My blog has been violated! She and Sarah Cross need to go form a band together. I should also mention that Diana’s books are excellent. Especially—believe it or not—the killer uni***n ones. Also I agree with this post a hundred per cent. Except for what she says about uni***ns.

– – –

Diana Peterfreund loves unicorns. Despite this, Justine is letting her guest blog. Her fifth book, Rampant, and her sixth, Ascendant (out this fall) are all about killer unicorns, specifically. So is the story she has coming out in Holly & Justine’s Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology. She’s pretty much the captain of Team Unicorn. (And she’d like to point out that the stuff about Tonks is a dirty rumor of John Green’s. Tonks was killed by a werewolf.) Diana lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and the most beautiful puppy in the world. She loves the outdoors, television shows about awesome women like Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Avatar: The Last Airbender . . . and all animals, not just unicorns. Also, Justine? Unicorns, unicorns, unicorns. Check out Diana’s website or Twitter feed.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the complexity of inspiration. One of the most common questions writers get is “where do you get your ideas?” It’s one that makes a lot of writers want to run screaming for the hillside. We don’t all have cute, soundbite-worthy answers. Lucky the author who can cite a dream about a sparkly dude in a meadow and call it a day. Luckier still, those authors who can actually point to blog evidence of their inspiration in action.

Sans a convenient dream or public debate to spark the imagination, many authors, when faced with this ubiquitous question, just manufacture a Eureka moment to please their audience. I’ve actually gotten emails from enthusiastic fans who want to know why I say in one interview that Rampant was inspired by a dream of being chased by a unicorn and in another that I got the idea after mistakenly hearing the words “unicorn hunter” on a local television program.

The truth is, inspiration is not so simple. Rarely is there one bolt from the blue that turns into a 400 page novel. Rampant was also inspired by a desire to write about women warriors, by my long love of classic mythology, and by a passing interest of several years to talk about the topic of virginity in one of my books. Each of these motes float around in the brain, sometimes glancing off one another and moving on, sometimes colliding and accreting and eventually turning into something resembling what John Scalzi would call “a big idea.”1 Sometimes, the process takes years. And it’s not always interesting or linear or even something we can explain – or would want to in a public forum.

So why is this question so persistently popular? Is it the equivalent of talking about the weather? Less-than-imaginative interviewers who can’t think of anything more interesting to ask? My friends will tell you that I’m a lover of fictional concepts. I love hearing about people’s ideas, talking about the nature of ideas, the classification of ideas, how people sell ideas, why ideas fit into this trend or that trend (or not). I read Scalzi’s Big Idea posts religiously. And yet, how the person “came up with” the idea is never as interesting to me as how this idea was so powerful it moved them to create a fictional world through which to explore it.

But maybe I’m biased, because I’m a writer and I know the process of story creation is rarely romantic. So I tried to think if I’m fascinated by other kinds of inspiration—scientific discoveries or culinary coups. Do I want to know about apples falling on people’s heads, or an engineer taking a close look at the burrs stuck to a dog’s fur after a hike? (The inspiration for Velcro.) I know many of these stories off the top of my head. I know that Post-Its were a lucky lab accident, like Silly Putty, and of course, penicillin.

Though maybe I only know these because they are so famous for being accidents. Indeed, there are several other scientific inventions that are often called accidents, because that’s a far sexier story than, “This scientist named Goodyear was working for years on making vulcanized rubber, and he had all the ingredients right but for one and then one day, after many, many, many attempts, he finally got the formula exactly perfect.”

I liked learning that ice cream cones were a last-minute substitution after vendors ran out of dishes, that potato chips were invented to piss off a customer complaining about soggy French fries, and that Coke started out life as a headache remedy (possibly when it still contained actual coca leaves) and only then became a food. So maybe I have the same issue in fields other than my own, where the romantic aspects of those careers still hold sway.

Perhaps we’re hardwired to gravitate toward stories of “how’d they do that.” Maybe it’s similar to the urge folks have to know how a couple met? (Woe to the couple with no “cute meet” when asked this question. I feel their pain.)

Savvy readers will note that the title of this post refers to a line from the film WORKING GIRL. In the climax of the movie, the heroine, Tess, must defend her ownership of a business deal her unscrupulous boss Katherine is trying to steal credit for. The test—for both these women—is based on inspiration. Tess has a torn sheet of newsprint connecting the idea of Trask Industries and the idea of radio, and Katherine claims she can’t quite remember her initial “spark.” Though I love this movie, that particular scene always sits wrong with me.

I know Katherine is an evil thief and we’re all supposed to be on Tess’s side anyway, but I hate the fact that we’re supposed to condemn Katherine merely for not having a published record of her inspirational path. Moreover, on top of a torn sheet of newsprint, Tess has been working her butt off on the deal for the entire film. She’s put everything together – and Harrison Ford’s Jack was there to witness her doing so. Isn’t all that work far more important (and indicative of her true ownership of the deal) than some crumpled scrap of tabloid? Isn’t the work far more vital to the product than the spark?

Thomas Edison once said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. And that may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to the audience. After all, here’s another truth: “Never let them see you sweat.”

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

My mate Diana Peterfreund had an excellent post on some truly terrible publishing advice doing the rounds at the moment. In passing she mentions that “as someone who has now published with four NY publishers and the aforementioned small presses—every publisher does things a little differently.”

I have not seen that pointed out very often. I’ve seen oodles of folk point to how writers all write differently. That there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novels. But in most discussions about publishing the assumption is that all publishers are the same. Or at least the only differences is between small presses and big presses. Between the Big Six1 and everyone else. Between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

What Diana says is so so so so true. Let me repeat it: every publisher does things a little differently.

Like Diana I’ve published books with several different publishers in the USA: Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Wesleyan University Press. I also have a close working relationship with Allen and Unwin in Australia.2 So that’s six publishers I’ve been through the whole publishing process with.3

The biggest shock for me was going from Penguin to Bloomsbury. So many things I assumed were standard to all publishers turned out not to be.4 Fortunately Bloomsbury has5 a welcome letter for its new authors where it lays out how it does things. Most useful document!

One of the biggest differences between houses is their culture. Some are far more corporate than others. Some are more like families. It takes a while as a new author to get a handle on your new house’s culture, which of course, also varies within publishing houses. A big publishing house is not one entity. There’s also variation between the adult and children’s divisions and between the various different imprints within each publishing house and how those imprints interact with sales, marketing, and all the other departments. Some publishing houses are more like a feudal country than a corporation or a family.

Every publishing house has different procedures for editing, proofing and copyedits. Some do hard copy, some electronic, some a mixture. Some are done in house. Some not. Some allow quite a long time to get those edits done. Others want a two-minute turn around. This is related to how big a lead time the house has, which also varies widely. It also varies a lot from editor to editor.

Each publishing houses has a standard contract. In which their preferences on various thing are laid out. Stuff like how advances are divided up. For some publishers the standard split is into thirds. Some advances are split into sixths. And there are other variations depending on the house and how negotiations go with the agent. Some houses offer bonuses (to some of the books they sign) if they list in the New York Times or USA Today or win certain prestigious prizes. That’s only happened to me with one deal and boy did I feel fancy despite none of those bonuses ever coming into play. I’m sure there are further variations I’ve never heard of. For those of you who don’t know what an advance is I explain in this post.

Then there’s the speed with which publishers pay you, which also varies a lot. There’s one house that used to be notorious for having the slowest contracts department in the known universe. There are other publishers whose accountants departments have been equally notorious. I know of one publishing house which sometimes pays its authors within a week or less of signing them.6 Any freelancer in any trade at all will know how this goes.

Some publishing houses have separate marketing and sales departments. But the sales department at one house doesn’t always do the same things as a sales department at another house. Many of the smaller houses have one person doing all the sales, marketing, and publicity. Over the last ten years or so the majority of publishers have been getting smaller and their sales, marketing, publicity and other departments have been contracting. So who handles what has been changing.

Every house I’ve been with has had its positives and its negatives. But given the speed with which publishing has been changing and contracting. What I know about how, say, Penguin, operates probably isn’t true anymore since I haven’t been published by them since 2007.

The growth of ebooks and Amazon and independent publishing and the disappearance of so many book shops both here in Australia and in the USA—though ebooks are still a much bigger deal over there—has transformed publishing in ways I could never have imagined when I sold my first novel back in 2003. What I know about publishing is mostly about the Big Six New York City publishers, who are not as dominant as they once were.7

The internet is so much more important to publishing now than it was back in 2005 when my first novel came out. I remember being asked back then, by someone quite senior in publishing, “What’s a blog?” These days the idea of a publicity campaign without the internet is, well, inconceivable.8

All of this is why, I suspect, so many discussion about publishing between those who work for or are published by the Big Six and those who are part of the independent, self-publishing explosion so often go awry. Our publishing worlds are different so our assumptions are different. But I’ve also seen authors published only by one house have conversations at total cross purposes with other authors who’ve published with more than one mainstream house.

Publishing is big and confusing no matter which part of it you live in. When I became an author I had no prior experience in publishing. My friends who worked in publishing first have a much better understanding of how it all works than I do. But even they are frequently confused. Coming from editorial doesn’t mean you understand how other departments operate and vice versa.

In conclusion: Publishing is complicated! Not everything is the same! Things change! Boxing is awesome!

  1. Hachette; Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan; Penguin Group; HarperCollins; Random House; Simon & Schuster []
  2. Although Penguin Australia published the Magic or Madness trilogy they bought it from Penguin USA so all the editing was done in the USA. []
  3. While I’ve met some of my non-English language publishers and have occasionally been consulted about translation questions and so on I mostly hear very little in between saying yes to the sale and the translated book showing up. []
  4. Going from Wesleyan University Press to Penguin was not a shock. I assumed a big fancy publisher would be different from a small university press. I was right. []
  5. Or maybe had? I don’t know if they do that anymore. []
  6. Yes, it’s a small house. []
  7. Though they’re still pretty dominant. []
  8. And, yes, I do know what that word means. []

Guest Post: Sarah Cross Tells Lies

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.


Sarah Cross is the author of Dull Boy, a YA superhero novel. She blogs intermittently, posts random videos on tumblr, and is hiding in a unicorn-and-zombie-proof bunker until this whole mess is over.

Sarah says:

You may be wondering where Justine is.

And I am sorry to tell you that something horrible has befallen her.

She’s been kidnapped by unicorns.

Mo' unicorns, mo' problems
Yes: these vile creatures.

You may be familiar with the zombies vs. unicorns debate, and the forthcoming anthology that was inspired by that eternal struggle. If you take a look at the anthology’s cover, you’ll see that the zombies and unicorns are engaged in an epic battle for dominance. It’s a gorgeous panorama of rainbow-colored destruction: severed unicorn heads, zombies impaled on pearlescent-yet-deadly horns, and corpses floating in a sky blue stream.

But one element has been left out of this struggle–and that, my friends, is the human element.

Typical Team Unicorn supporters
Members of Team Unicorn pose with their deadly mascot.

Humans will not emerge from this battle unscathed. They have been forced to take sides. (Vote here … if you dare.) Either you’re Team Zombie, or you’re Team Unicorn; and Justine, unfortunately, as the founding member of Team Zombie, has been targeted by her enemies: those sparkly, bone-crushing, rainbow-mane-shaking, marshmallow-defecating, zombie-impaling unicorns. From what I understand (I’ve been sent several encoded messages, written with a crayon that was rubberbanded to their leader’s hoof), the unicorns intend to hold Justine prisoner until she betrays the zombies and swears allegiance to her sparkly captors. Since we KNOW that will never happen … I was hoping to drum up some support for her release here.

Please, if you believe in fairies … er, believe the unicorns should release Justine, leave a comment here pleading her case. Personally, I believe that zombies, humans, and unicorns can get along. But some people are so frightened for their lives (or so passionate about unicorn domination), that they’re doing their best to disguise themselves as unicorns.

Team Unicorn 4EVA
I think this is Diana Peterfreund’s new author photo …

It’s a sad state of affairs. And yet, given the ‘corns’ legendary cruelty, totally understandable.

Unicorns are more ruthless than the Spanish Inquisition. Their rainbow vomit can induce madness in even the most stable mind.

Rainbow vomit spells your doom
Unicorn torture tactic #1.

And you do NOT want to be subjected to their special blend of “Lucky Charms.” Seriously–you’re better off starving. If they bring you any colorful marshmallow cereal, beg for some gruel.

These marshmallows are not magically delicious
That’s so unsanitary, Mr. Unicorn …

I am posting these lovely unicorn pictures as a peace offering. Please, infernal unicorns, release Justine. Before Sarah Rees Brennan comes back and blogs about another Matthew McConaughey movie.

Zombies versus Unicorns Cover

Today mine & Holly Black’s Zombies v Unicorn anthology was featured on EW’s Shelf Life, the press release went out, and the Simon & Schuster’s official Z v U page is officially official.1 Go there to vote Team Zombie—my team—because zombies are superior to unicorns in every way.

Over the next few months leading up to the antho’s publication in September I will have much to say about it. But today I wanted to talk about the art because it is so spectactular that I’m still pinching myself. I love it!2 The artist, Josh Cochran, has surpassed himself with his Heironymous-Bosch-meets-Where’s-Waldo epic art.3

Feast your eyes:

And do click on the art to see it in its much bigger glory.

What could be cooler than that? Well, how about the fact that it’s going to go on the boards of the book. Yup, for the first time in my publishing career, a book of mine will look just fine without a dustjacket. A book of mine is going to look good NAKED. Happiness!

But do not panic: the glorious art will not be totally concealed by the dustjacket. Oh, no, Simon & Schuster are going with a three-quarter black dust jacket so that you can see the magnificent zombie v unicorn battle peeking out of the dj. It’s going to be absolutely spectactular. I cannot wait to see the final book. In fact, not since my first book was published have I ever been so eager to see the final book.

Note: A few of the people I’ve shown this art to seem to be under the misapprehension that the unicorns are winning. Not so! What they clearly do not realise is that zombies are many, unicorns are few. In fact, every unicorn in the universe is depicted in this art. Whereas the legions and legions of zombies wait at its edges. Unicorns are So. Very. Doomed.

  1. Yes, those of you on Twitter already know about it. That’s because being on Twitter makes you special. Give yourself a special Twitter hug. []
  2. For those who seem to have been confused on that subject in the past you can tell that I love this cover because I wrote “I love it.” Rather than, say, telling you that other people love it. []
  3. Tip of hat to Diana Peterfreund for the Where’s Waldo part of the mashup. []

Talking Writing with Sarah Reees Brennan

Irish writer, Sarah Rees Brennan, and I spend a lot of time IMing each other. We talk about many, many different things—including the superiority of Ireland and Australia to all other nations1—but mostly about writing. Recently when I was unwell SRB cheered me up by telling me the story of two of her not-yet-written novels. It was better than chicken soup! As any of you who have read her novel, Demon’s Lexicon, or her blog know, SRB is a wonderful storyteller.

It was not the first time SRB had told me the complete detailed plot of an as-yet-unwritten novel but this time I started wondering about how she does that. When I write a novel I know very little before I start writing. I figure it out as I go. My method is the winging it method. SRB’s is outlining. (Thogh really it’s so much more than that.) Which are the two basic approaches to novel writing. I decided it might be fun to ask her about her methods. And it was.

JL: I am so amazed at how you can reel off a whole written novel like that.

SRB: Oh I like to tell stories.
JL: Though it bewilders me.
SRB: I think in past times I would have been a bard.
Sad about my singing voice tho.’
JL: I think you would have been too. (I have not heard your singing voice.)
I used to tell a tonne of stories as a kid. But I got out of the habit.

SRB: I think our natural storytelling gene kicks in early and then you know, as you say, we get into habits.
I used to think i could never write straight onto a computer.
JL: Ha. I’ve been doing that since I was fourteen. I don’t really know how to write with a pen anymore. I think with my fingers. All the words are in my ten typing fingers. (Yes, I even use my thumbs!)

SRB: Occasionally I still write on paper.
JL: I am shocked. But I have a bad relationship with paper. We hate each other. I’ve been known to get papercuts on my nose.
SRB: I guess this is because you were wee when you started to write only on the computer? Whereas I was . . . the lofty age of seventeen?
JL: It’s not so much the age of starting as the amount time spent writing that way.
I’ve been writing on computers for more than 20 years. You haven’t even been writing that way for ten.
SRB: That’s true. ‘Habit becomes second nature and a stronger nature than the first’ — Anthony Trollope speaking of alcoholism.

ALso now I have writer friends, the ability to tell the whole story is super helpful. I told Holly [Black] the story I told you in Mexico and she was like ‘VILLAINS, we must take your villains apart.’

 JL: She started making suggestions about an unwritten novel? And you were okay with that?I
I’d worry it would interfere with you figuring it out yourself. I don’t think people are allowed to stick oars in until the thing is written.

SRB: See, it helps me
As I also gleefully reject anything someone says that goes against stuff I have decided.
I say no to many suggestions. Though sometimes I am very wrong about that.

JL: Hmmmm. Whereas because I work stuff out on the page and have such nebulous ideas about the story before I start writing that talking about it with someone else will just destroy it.
Which is why I mostly don’t.
Or if I do I say, “Don’t make any suggestions! Just nod and smile!”
SRB: See, if I don’t know where I am going to end up I float on a sea of horror. HORROR.

Mostly what I have is a firm start and end, and islands in between and I make bridges between the islands by telling people or making a chapter plan!

JL: Whereas if I knew my story as well as you know yours before you start I would never write them. I can’t see the point. It’s done already. Hardly anything left to work out. Why bother?
SRB: Well, I want to see how it plays out, and what will change. 😉
Plus I want to write the scenes I already love so I can see them. I admit they are rarely as beautiful as I picture them being, which is sad.
JL: I think writing a novel is like having an adventure. Without a map. I love finding out what the novel is about as I write it. It’s one of the main reasons I write novels. If I knew what it was about before I started it wouldn’t be an adventure.
SRB: Well that is a good metaphor and one which I can relate to.
Whereas I like buying a travel guide and planning out some stuff and thinking to myself WOW that picture of a temple is beautiful when I get there I’ll have so much fun. I’ll do this and this and this. (Which is hilarious, as actually in real life travels, I am the least organised person ever, and get carted about by my friends from place to place going ‘Oooh’ in a vague way, usually in inappropriate clothing.)

JL: (I can imagine.)
But you don’t just have an outline. When you tell me the plots of your unwritten novels you describe whole scenes and dialogue. So it’s more than just knowing where you’ll go and when. It’s knowing exactly who you’ll meet and what you’ll do.

SRB: Well, I admit some of my dialogue is written on the fly and some of it i keep, and some i do not depending on whether it sticks in my head.
JL: Which is the other part of your method I find utterly alien: your memory!
That all of this stuff is in your head, not on paper. (Well, at least not until I make you tell me the plot via IM.)
SRB: I do have an exceptional memory for useless stuff which is what the stories are in my head.
JL: Novels are not useless!

SRB: But in my head, they are. I still do not believe I get to do STORIES for my living. Mostly they have been just something I harass my friends with. Endless yapping about stories in my head! About as useless as my remembering stuff like it is legal to shoot someone with a bow in Scotland for trespass.
JL: But you can’t shoot them with a bow for other reasons?
SRB: Not legally, alas.Then they arrest you for ‘murder.’

JL: Seems grossly unfair. What if the person you shot had interfered with your hamster?
But I digress.
Do you remember when you first start telling stories?
SRB: (We have no legal recourse to protect our hamsters. We have to move outside the law like Robin Hood.)

Well, in fact, in keeping with the theme of your novel, LIAR, I began my career as a storyteller by telling tremendous lies.
Crazy, elaborate lies.
I mean, I recall drawing a house, and having a small story about the house beneath it at the age of five and then informing my sailor grandpapa, a much muscled and tattooed man, of my many years of toil over this fine scholarly work. I remember the lying as my start, more than the house story
And you too did this lying thing did you not?

JL: The elaborate stories? Yes, indeed.
I would make up stories to entertain my younger sister, Niki. But there were also the outrageous lies I told to pretty much everyone, of which I was often the heroine. But I never wrote those down. I only wrote down the stories that I would make up for Niki.
The proper stories.

SRB: See, I find you writing down stuff for your sister very beautiful and fitting. It reminds me of the Brontes and Diana Wynne Jones who all did these things.
HOWEVER, my siblings are ingrates and did not let me participate in this flow of souls. They would never have in a fit read anything I wrote down for them. Happy though I would have been to do so!
My sister Genevieve however did like me to come ‘talk her to sleep,’ which may mean, I was so insanely boring she used me as a tonic. But I was ready to do it at all times and indeed to be fair to Genevieve she also read a couple of my books once I typed them and printed them out and bound them for her. And, indeed, is my only sibling to have read my published book.
JL: (It should be noted at this point that both SRB and me are the oldest sibling.) Oh, my sister never read any of it. I had to read it to her.

When she was little, I mean. Niki has read all my published books. And the unpublished ones, too, for that matter. She is most good sister.
SRB: (Why does anyone ever have brothers? Even among the Brontes, Bramwell was the bad seed.)
JL: (It is a mystery. Though I should not really express opinion as I do not have brothers.)

SRB: Putting stuff on paper does legitimise stuff in a way now
JL: I think Niki was pretty young when I stopped making up stories for her.
SRB: We understand as Homer would not have that REAL BOOKS are on paper.
JL: Yes! That’s probably why I shifted into purely writerly form for my stories.
SRB: And why we rush to do that when we have the storytelling urge.
Plus, once I write something I can forget about it.
JL: That might be why I am so bad at remembering stuff.
SRB: Think of those olden days bards who had to remember hundreds of stories.

JL: Literacy destroys memory. (I would like to claim that this is an original thought but I think Walter J. Ong would be cross with me.)
SRB: I COULD have done it, I think. Remembered all those stories. But good god the alternative is nice.
So now if a fan says ‘I loved that bit where’ sometimes my brain offers me up nothing! I venture a ‘good?’

JL: I could not have been a bard! Even as a small child my memory was dreadful.

Yes, people ask me detailed questions about my books all the time. I have not the faintest clue. I wrote them so long ago now. (Though for me even a week ago is outside the scope of my memory.)
SRB: I imagine that will happen to me. Should I ever be lucky enough to have five books published.

I like that we end up in the same places (the temples!) but one of us wants a map and plan and the other voyages to adventure!
JL: I have seven books! Two don’t count though as they’re non-fic. However, I don’t remember anything about them either when asked.

 SRB: (I feel people asking questions about non-fiction would be cruel and unusual.)
JL: (I get asked about the non-fic all the time. I remember nothing! It was more than a decade ago that I worked on those! I was a different person then. That was in another country and the wench is dead!)

So how did you start writing down your stories? And how did that not stop you from continuing to tell your stories?
SRB: Well, I was always aware that this was what you did. Wrote stories down. And also, I could spend happy days alone in my purple room writing. Whereas to tell stories to a person for days I would have had to drug them and tie them up, and as a deprived child, I had little access to chloroform.
JL: (Though you had a purple writing room. *Is jealous*)

Probably illegal. Like using a bow on hamster interferers.
SRB: There just isn’t a bardic culture anymore. Or a court where people all read Chaucer together, which in some ways makes me sad!
JL: We’re not as good at listening as we used to be.
SRB: Short attention spans, given the variety of amusements available.
JL: But I also think people aren’t as good at telling stories either.
There aren’t many people I would suffer to tell me their entire novel.
SRB: I blush, m’lady.

We do not have the memory-recall of the bards of yore. And, you know, the beautiful bits of writing—description and the like—we have to think about those. I couldn’t tell someone those bits.
JL: I am still wondering about your telling of novels. My zero drafts are very tender delicate creatures. I show very few people.

And basically only in a cheering squad capacity. They can cheer my first baby steps, not criticise the wobbliness and pigeon toes. (There’s nothing wrong with pigeon toes!)
My novels can’t bear the weight of criticism until I’ve figured out what they are. And that doesn’t happen until there’s a whole draft.
SRB: I tend to find criticism always helpful.
JL: Oh, criticism is essential.

SRB: Unless I disagree with it of course . . .
JL: But someone criticising a zero draft is kind of like someone criticising a souffle on the basis of a few of the ingredients laid out on a table, but not yet made into a, you know, souffle.

I can’t stand people weighing in before I know what it is I’m doing. Before I can see the souffle. Because then they’ll try and make it into a cheesecake or, I don’t know, an aardvark or something.
SRB: While I am kind of like, as I can already visualise the souffle I like your idea of adding cinnamon.
JL: I am, of course, now envisioning a cheese souffle so am horrified by the idea of adding cinnamon to it.

SRB: Well, I have never made a souffle so cinnamon may be inappropriate to all souffles
JL: (Would be fine for a chocolate one.)

How soon do you start telling someone a novel idea?
SRB: Hmmm. There is usually a space. I mean, I will tell people I have an IDEA and then I will ruminate for some time. Sometimes unconsciously.
JL: There’s a long time while the novel gestates when it can only be me who knows about it. Maybe the difference is your gestation happens in your head and mine on screen?
SRB: Maybe! That would make sense. I do start telling people bits of novels before I have it all worked out: beginnings, backstory.
I told a lot of my friends the backstory for Demon’s Lexicon before I had a book.
JL: Cause telling it out loud was part of your process of figuring it out?

SRB: Yeeeees. It is one way of fine-tuning, building the bridges between the islands. Very tiresome for my friends however . . .
JL: Not for some of them. I know plenty of writers who like to stick their oars into other people’s books. I love it!

SRB: I remember being very surprised when Holly was like TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOOK!
I was a baby publishing intern at the time. She was a Big Deal Writer Lady.

I was very pleased though: usually I had to coerce people. TALK LOUDLY OVER THE SOUND OF THEIR PROTESTS.
JL: Lucky you have such a penetrating voice. 🙂
SRB: Possibly this is how I developed it . . .
JL: Holly really loves telling novels. She and Cassie Clare too.
SRB: This is how we all work.
JL: I had never come across that method before I met you three. I admit I was appalled at first.
SRB: So us in a pool in Mexico plotting novels in detail really works Plus we can fill in each other’s steps. If I have a gap and cannot proceed along the way. Holly or Cassie can fill it in for me and from there my ideas can snowball
JL: The first time I saw (heard) Holly & Cassie doing that I was shocked and appalled. But now I enjoy watching them at it. I had to let go of my fear of spoilers. And I learned not to breathe a word of what I was working on them lest they start interfering with it.

I’m already permanently spoiled for Scott’s books. Now yours and Holly’s and Cassie’s are also on that list.
SRB: Sometimes my process is too chaotic for them. I scream out something that seems insane to them. Then ten minutes later we reach a brainstorming point where my insane scream makes sense.
JL: I think what appalled me is that from my viewpoint you’re all sharing something that has always been intensely private for me. I do all of that stuff on my own.

SRB: I guess since it ends up public it seems right to start it with friends.
JL: Well, that’s the part you can’t control—when it’s published. So I like as much control as possible before then.
SRB: on the other hand, while I do not mind people showing me their babies. I would be very discomposed if they had sex in front of me.
JL: Ha! Interesting way of putting it.
JL: EWWWW!!!!!

SRB: Wow, now my own rash metaphor has transformed me, Holly and Cassandra into immoral orgiastic maeneads.
JL: You said it, not me.
SRB: Whereas you are the decent lady. (Sorry, Holly and Cassie!)
JL: Well except that you tell me your novel plots all the time. Sometimes I even beg you to. (I get Diana [Peterfreund] to tell me hers, too.)
SRB: So you are a decent lady with a peephole. Or I am the maenad who sometimes has orgies on your lawn?

: I look but don’t touch. (I fear we have taken this too far.)
Do you like talking on the phone? (Not in a sexy way!)
SRB: Hmmm, not that much.
JL: I would rather IM than talk on the phone.
SRB: I mean, I am perfectly happy to do it
JL: Holly & Cassie are phone people and they don’t like IMing.
SRB: I have never IM’d with Holly, it is true
JL: IM is my fave form of communication. Other than face to face.

I had a theory linking preferring to talk on the phone to telling stories rather than writing them first. But you have blown it by preferring IM.

*shakes fist at SRB*

SRB: Well, there is the fact I always live pretty far away from people. I like most forms of communication to a degree.
(Curse my own metaphor, now I am the sluttiest of all!)

JL: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a slut.
SRB: Naturally not! But I could wish others would join me in my scandalous preferences.

JL: Don’t look at me! I is good, sweet, innocent writer.

  1. Just kidding. []

Last Day of 2009

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2010. Basically I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.) Do feel free to skip it.1

This year, though, was less happy than any of the previous years I’ve summed up here. Thus my summary is brief. I want to get past 2009 and on to the fun of 2010 as fast as I can.

Books out: Liar (hc in US & tpb in Oz), HTDYF (in Oz & pb in US)

MorM&MLDeustchEdLiar sold in nine different countries this year (in order of sale): Taiwan, Germany, France, Brazil, Turkey, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands & Spain. That last sale was to Ediciones Versatil. I only just found out about it. Since I’ve been wanting to sell Spanish-language rights since I even knew such a thing existed I’m dead happy. (Champagne tonight!) Spanish is the only language I can even vaguely speak. (Other than English, obviously.) I’m going to be very curious to read the translation. (Or try to anyways.) Liar has now sold in as many countries as the Magic or Madness trilogy. HTDYF remains my least popular book o.s. having only sold in Australia, the US, Germany & this year to Japan. Germany is the only country other than Australia and the USA to have bought all my novels. Apparently, the trilogy is doing well there—yay for German readers! I figure that’s because of the awesome covers. The cover above is of a new German edition of the first two books in the trilogy which will be out in October next year. Isn’t it gorgeous?

There were also audio editions of Liar and How To Ditch Your Fairy released in Australia by Bolinda and the USA by Brilliance. I was able to sit in on a bit of the recording of Liar and was invited to help choose the narrator of HTDYF both wonderful, wonderful experiences. I think the end results are amazing.

Okay, that was my 2009. Now on to next year!

First up, I have two books coming out in the USA in fall:

The paperback edition of Liar

Zombies versus Unicorns anthology edited with Holly Black

I am so excited about the antho. You would not believe how fantastic the stories are. Not a dud one in the book. Well, except for the unicorn stories which are all dreadful (Holly edited those) but you are going to adore the zombie stories, which are, no lie, the best stories written in the history of the universe by some of the best writers ever. Um, yes, I edited those ones. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to announce who the writers are yet. I’ll just give you their initials: LB, CC, AJ, MJ, SW, & CR. Tell no one! I’m not giving you the unicorn story writer initials because 1) I know you don’t care, 2) they’re all hack writers you never heard of anyways.

It’s quite astonishing that someone as spectacularly talented as Holly could be such a unicorn fan. I don’t understand. I think the best plan is for everyone to skip the unicorn stories and instead read Holly’s new novel, The White Cat, which is out in May next year and is the best thing she’s ever written. I say that as someone who adores everything Holly writes. The White Cat, though, beats them, hands down. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. You are in for such a treat! In even better news: it’s the first of a trilogy.

The ZvU antho began life as a sekrit project in 2007. It is my first sekrit project to see the light of day. Very happy making. It’s also the first project of mine to be inspired by this blog. By this comment exchange between me and Holly and many others, to be exact.

So that’s what I’m publishing, what about what I’m working on? People have been asking me about that a lot lately. I suspect because I’ve not blogged about it much lately. Especially compared the flurry of 1930s book posts earlier in the year. Speaking of which there have been queries about how the 1930s novel is going, seeing as how I haven’t mentioned it in awhile. “Have you given up on it?” I’ve been asked anxiously. (Mostly by my friend and critique partner Diana Peterfreund, who’s read some chunks of it.) I have not! But I have kind of been cheating on it.

Right now I’m working on four novels at once:

  • One is the 1930s novel, which has turned out to be much bigger than I thought. More than one novel, in fact. When it became clear to me that there was no way I was finishing it any time soon my brain spat out another idea for a much shorter novel and I started working on that.
  • That novel is set in the here2 and now and is closer in tone to How To Ditch Your Fairy. When I started working on it I stopped reading only 1930s books. I now only restrict myself when I’m working on the 1930s novel.
  • The third book I started awhile ago, it’s the lodger book for those of you who’ve been with this blog for awhile, and then rediscovered it while procrastinating. It was the one I put aside to concentrate on Liar.
  • The fourth one is a sekrit. Though not the sekrit project I thought would come to fruition this year that I mentioned at the end of last year. I still have hopes for that sekrit project but I do not see it happening for at least two or three years. Thank Elvis for the new sekrit project, eh?

At the moment none of these novels is winning the fight for my attention. And, honestly, while touring I was unable to get any writing done at all. I truly admire those who can. School events all day and then a library or book store event at night means no writing on tour for this particular writer. And travelling and returning home ate my December. (In a good way!) My next clear, no travelling, stretch starts tomorrow. Bless you, January 2010. So tomorrow I start writing again in earnest and that’s when I expect one of the four novels to take over my brain completely. But maybe it won’t. Maybe my new style of writing is to flit back and forth between books. I guess I’ll find out in 2010.

My only goal for this year is to be happy writing. If I finish one or more of these novels then wonderful. If not, no big deal.

I hope 2010 shapes up beautifully for all of us.

Happy new year!

  1. Cause it will be boring. Don’t say you weren’t warned. []
  2. Well, not Sydney (or NYC), but this planet and not an alternative version of it. []

Re-reading Northanger Abbey

As you, my faithful readers, know lately I’ve been thinking about heroines and reader responses to them more than somewhat. This led me to re-reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey because I’ve never had much of an opinion about Catherine and was curious to see where she fell on the blank page spectrum. I adore Lizzy Bennet and Anne Elliot. I don’t like Emma or Fanny Price. Elinor bores me and Marianne gets on my nerves but they both have their moments. But Catherine? I couldn’t even remember much about her other than she’s a bit wet. Cue re-read.

So what did I find? That Catherine and Henry’s pairing is unequal. It’s like the anti-Lizzy & Darcy. Catherine has nothing to teach Henry. He’s older, smarter and wiser. And I simply don’t see what he sees in Catherine. He must school her. Often. He is amused by her not because she’s witty but because she’s an idiot child. It verges on being what Diana Peterfreund describes as “the wiser/more cynical/world-weary/advisor dude who totally has the hots (or vice versa, or mutual) for our naive heroine.”

Except that Henry isn’t really into Catherine, not at first, not for some time:

[F]or, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.

In other words, he came to like her because she was so besotted with him. Which, to be sure, happens all the time. But in this case when he’s so much smarter than her I just don’t believe it as the beginning of a wonderful marriage. In future years I fear they’ll wind up a bit like Mr & Mrs Bennet.

I don’t think Jane Austen believed it either. Northanger Abbey is, after all, a spoof on the novels popular at the time such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and very amusing it is too. But as a romance? For this reader the book is an utter failure. I need equality between my leads. I need for one of them to not be continually patronising the other. Don’t know about you but being patronised is not my idea of sexy.

Okay, now I must re-read Persuasion to see Jane Austen’s writing at its sexy best.

Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo (updated)

I have a rule that I never respond to bad reviews. I have blogged on several occasions about why I think doing so is pointless. However, I can’t help noticing a certain tenor in many Paranormal/Fantasy YA reviews lately. Everything seems to be talked about in terms of Stephenie Meyer’s Twlight books.

On the one hand it’s inevitable given that they are the most popular books, not just in YA, but in the entire world. Meyer’s had a huge influence and, yes, there are many Twilight knockoffs out there. But on the other hand, people seem to forget that Meyer’s books are very new. Twlight was first published in October 2005. YA fantasy had already existed for decades before Meyer. There were even YA vampire books before Twilight. Thus the constant accusations of ripping off Stephenie Meyer and jumping on the “paranormal bandwagon”1 are a bit rich, particularly when aimed at say, L. J. Smith, whose vampires novels were first published in the 1980s 1991. Pretty hard to rip off a book pub’d almost 20 years before yours.

The constant accusations have led me to develop a bingo card so all us writers of YA Fantasy/Paranormal can tick each item off as we are accused. I admit I got the idea because I was recently accused of jumping on the paranormal bandwagon and ripping Stephenie Meyer off with my debut novel, Magic or Madness. As you’ll see below I get bonus points because MorM was first published before Twlight.2

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the urge to educate people about the timescales of publishing. Not to mention how influences, trends and fashions work. But not today. Today I am in a mocking mood.

So here is my (Sarah Rees Brennan, Diana Peterfreund and Carrie Ryan contributed) list of squares on the Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo Card.3 See if you’ve gotten a review that allows you to cross off each one. I suspect pretty much all of us who write YA fantasy will be winners.

  • Twilight ripoff (Extra points if the book that is accused of this predates Twilight)
  • Jumping on the paranormal bandwagon (Extra points if the term “paranormal” did not exist outside the Romance genre when your first books were published)
  • Being accused of rippping off a book published after or around the same time as your book
  • Being accused of jumping on a bandwagon that’s hardly a bandwagon such as the steampunk or killer unicorn bandwagon. Shouldn’t there be at least a dozen books before it becomes a bandwagon?
  • The line “haven’t we seen this before” appears in the review
  • Says vampires/werewolves/zombies/fairies/[supernatural being of your choice] is old hat
  • Claims your protag is a ripoff of Bella and/or Edward and/or Jacob
  • Criticises your character for not being as wonderful as Bella
  • Criticises your character for being as drippy as Bella
  • Complains your hero is not dreamy like Edward
  • Complains your character is drippy like Edward
  • Complains your vampires are inauthentic because they do not sparkle
  • Is unaware vampires existed before Twilight came out in 2005
  • Says your book is great because is exactly like Twilight
  • Says your book is great because is nothing like Twilight

I’m sure I’m missing some. Do please suggest more in the comments.

NOTE: Please don’t bash the Twilight books in the comment thread. Stephenie Meyer and her books have been an enormous boon to the field of YA. She’s created more readers than anyone since J. K. Rowling. The fact that the criticisms above keep happening is testament to that.

Update: Aja went and made the bingo card! Bless!


You can see it bigger here. Thank you, Aja!

  1. “Paranormal” is also a pretty recent literary term and was not used at all outside the romance genre until pretty recently. []
  2. Not twenty years before like L. J. Smith but seven months prior is still before. []
  3. Someone with photoshop skills can turn it into an actual bingo card. []

NaNo Tip No. 24: Writing While White

Lately many white writers have been asking me about writing characters who aren’t white. Quite a few are doing NaNoWriMo, so I decided I’d put my responses into the NaNo tips.

I’ve been asked the following questions: Why should I have non-white characters in my books? How do I write about non-white people if I’ve never known any? Should I write about non-white people at all?

I’ve already addressed some of these questions a number of times. I’m not sure if any of my responses are adequate. These are complicated questions that I wrestle with myself.

And, of course, I feel very weird being put in the position of giving people permission to write. No one can do that for you. Least of all me.

In a few cases, I’ve been tempted to tell these well-meaning askers, “No, don’t put non-white characters in your fiction.” Reviews like this one by the fabulous Doret Canton definitely make me feel that there are white writers for whom writing outside their social circle is a bad idea.

As a general rule you should never write about anything you are ignorant about. If you want to write about an African-American character living in NYC, say, and you don’t know any, and you’ve never been to NYC, odds are you’re going to do a bad job. Which is why Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk is so good. He’s drawing on his lived experiences.

Now, you may point out (if you know me at all well) that I have repeatedly written about things about which I know practically nothing. Mathematics in the Magic or Madness trilogy, as well as luge in How To Ditch Your Fairy and biology in Liar. I did a lot of research to be able to write about them but I was shockingly ignorant starting out.1

So what’s the difference?

Mathematics, luge, and biology are not people. They can’t be hurt.

What we all have to remember when we write about people—any people—is that the risks of reinforcing stereotypes and thus hurting people is very high. So the onus is on us to do the very best job we can. We also have to remember that even when we do a wonderful job, even if we are a member of the group we’re representing, there are still people who will be offended.

There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. For example, there’s been much discussion on this blog about representations of women and the way women characters are held to different standards. I recently saw a discussion of Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful debut novel Demon’s Lexicon where Mae was referred to by a commenter as a “whore,” which is, aside from everything else, factually incorrect. The much more sexually active character (also not a whore), Nick, was discussed in approving terms.

None of us want to perpetuate those attitudes about female sexuality but even when we’re writing strong2 3D female characters, like Mae, readers are still calling them whores. Which is to say it’s really hard bucking centuries of negative representations of women and particularly of their sexuality.

None of the white writers asking me these questions wants to hurt anyone or reproduce racist stereotypes. They’re asking because they’re concerned and they want to do the right thing and because they recognise that most of the novels being published in the USA are about white characters. Outside of bookstores like Hue-Man the shelves of most bookstores in the USA are groaning with books about white people.

However, when I ask them what they mean about not knowing any non-white people it usually turns out not to be true. Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as “white”3 and forget that they’re Hispanic or of Japanese or Korean or Indian ancestry. I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

Writing should challenge the way you perceive the world. You should look harder and longer than you ever have before. Notice that the sky at night is not black, that eyes are not one uniform colour and that car engines don’t “growl”. I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

  1. Sadly once the books are written all that I gleaned in order to write them drops out of my head. []
  2. By “strong” I do not mean “arsekicking”. See Diana Peterfreund’s comment for further explanation. []
  3. Which is a whole other problem. []

NaNo Tip No. 14: Procrastination can be Your Friend

Yes, it’s time for some more vaguely contradictory advice. So first a word on that. Here’s why this tip is not contradictory. No one technique or strategy works for every writer. They don’t even work for one writer all the time. There are times when the only way I can get any writing done is to cut off from all external stimuli, most especially the internet. Sometimes I can’t write if there’s music on. But other times I need music and I need the internet.

Sometimes my procrastination feeds my writing.

That’s right, sometimes procrastination is your friend.

Yes, I know I just told you to turn the internet off. Well, now I’m telling you to turn it back on again. Or to go clean the bathroom. Or crochet or knit. Shoot some hoops. Take a shower. Or do some other urgent-ish thing that is calling to you rather than writing. Yes, even if it involves hacking off zombie heads.

My biggest form of procrastination is IMing with friends. I have been known to spend 8 hours straight doing so. (Hello, Alaya!) I find five convos1 at the same time no problem.2 I can’t tell you how many times those conversations have given me ideas, solved plot problems, made me realise something about my writing I never realised before.

To be clear we mostly don’t talk about each other’s writing directly. What we do is talk about many other things including shows, books, movies we love (or hate) and what did (or didn’t) work about them. Ever since Diana Peterfreund first nudged me towards watching Avatar we’ve been talking about it. I think writing a convincing and likable Chosen One is incredibly hard. I tend to dislike fiction that centres around one. Yet Aang in Avatar is just about pitch perfect. Our Avatar conversations have sparked off a million and one ideas that have gone into various projects of mine.

So, yes, it’s procrastinating. But it’s also feeding into my work in awesomely productive ways. I think everything I experience feeds into my writing. Which is why I believe procrastination is necessary.

Sometimes you need to be alone with your work. But no one can create without stimulus from the outside world. The key is balancing the two.

  1. More than five, though, and I’m lost. What can I tell you? I’m old. []
  2. While also reading blogs etc. []

Liar Trailer

Just found out that my US publisher, Bloomsbury, together with BookSpots has put together a trailer for Liar:

Pretty good, eh? It kind of reminds me of late 1950s/early 1960s film credits. Feel free to share the link far and wide.

Is it just me or is this the year when book trailers are everywhere? My favourites so far are Scott‘s, Libba‘s, Robin‘s and Diana‘s. I also love Lauren‘s but it’s not live yet. Keep your eyes peeled.1

What do you think about the whole book trailer thing?rty od

  1. Or maybe don’t. Eyes peeled sounds so painful. []

In Which Me and Scalzi Lay Down the Law and then Realise that We’re Full of it

T’other day I was gasbagging with John Scalzi as I do when the writing isn’t going well and IM calls to me. We got to discussing as how we are frequently annoyed by reviews which dismiss a book because the reviewer did not like it but can give no reasons beyond saying that the book sucked. This is something that annoys many writers. We put in all that hard work agonising over every word and someone dismisses the book like this:

This book is bad. It sucked so much. Don’t read it.

Or even more frequently,

This book had golden retrievers in it. I really hate dogs. Also the mother washed her son’s mouth out with soap and the book was set in the 1980s. No parent has washed a child’s mouth out with soap since the 1950s. This book sucked. Don’t read it.

Not liking dogs does not make a book with dogs in it bad. And a belief that x didn’t happen in the 1980s does not make it so either. For the record: a boy I went to school with in the 1980s had his mouth washed out with soap by one of his parents. I hadn’t realised soap washing of mouths happened in real life until then. Why do so many people slide from their experience to “this is how the world is”?

Scalzi and me agreed that there’s a difference between personal opinion and whether a book is technically bad. Netherland is a well-writtten book that bored me into a coma.1 I happen to enjoy some of V. C. Andrews’ books—they’re train wrecks of bad writing and insane plotting. They’re practically a manual of how not to write. I love them.

Lots of what I like and don’t like is because of my personal tastes—I have a strong love of narrative:2 Netherland is almost entirely lacking narrative drive—and my political views often make it hard for me to like books that are egregiously racist or sexist no matter how superbly crafted.

So me and Scalzi decided that more reviewers need to separate their tastes from their personal judgements. So that they could upfront admit that the book was well-crafted and did everything it set out to achieve and then go to to talk about their personal reactions. Because personal reactions are fascinating. I’m constantly amazed by the variety of ways in which books can unintentionally turn readers off (or on). From the very common “I hate books where an animal is killed” through to the less common “I don’t like books set in spring”.

I’ve already been told by several people that they won’t be reading Liar because they hate unreliable narrators and/or they hate people who lie and don’t want to read about them. All of which is fair enough.3 I have zero interest in books about middle aged college professors having affairs with their students so I don’t read them. To be honest, I kind of hate all novels set on university campuses.4

So from now on, reviewers, can we have more separation of your little quirks and kinks from whether or not the book is good?

Thank you. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.

Of course, there’s a teeny tiny problem with this straight forward separation. Just a small one:

Very few people can agree on what good writing is.

I could give you a long list of all the writers I think are total rubbish and then give you a bunch of links to rave reviews and people saying what wonderful writers they are. Most of them are living though and their fans would kill me. So instead I’ll say that I think Patrick White is dreadful. He overwrites like you would not believe. A Fringe of Leaves is one of the most overwritten piles of dreck I’ve ever slogged my way through. It’s supposed to be written as if it were 19th century prose. It’s turgid and unreadable.5 Lots of people love A Fringe of Leaves and it’s considered a classic. I also have a major hate for the writing of Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Both considered 20th Century masters. I don’t think either of them could write their way out of paper bags.

I have friends who say the same thing about Angela Carter and Jean Rhys.6

Could it be that notions of “good writing” also fall into the category of personal taste? I mean, yes, obviously, we’re taught to recognise good writing in school, university, at writing workshops, from parents, friends, critique partners, from the books we read. But we don’t all learn the same things or have the same teachers. I have heard people say that they don’t like books with too much description and that they consider that to be a sign of bad writing. I have ranted here previously about all the USians who are convinced that omniscient point of view is bad writing. Ditto using adverbs or verbs of utterance other than said.7

So what me and Scalzi are really saying is that we want you reviewers to separate out our notion of good writing (not your wrong version of good writing) from your personal tastes and start your reviews by admitting that our books are brilliantly written and that the only reason you don’t like them is cause of your personal quirks.

Hmmm, turns out we are being unreasonable.8 Not to mention that writers have no business telling reviewers how to review. Reviews are not for writers, they’re for readers.9

Um, never mind then. As you were.

Do me a favour though, the next time me and Scalzi are in total agreement about something, could you remind me that it’s a very bad sign and tell me not to blog about it? Much obliged.

  1. Mad Men is an excellently written and acted show that I hate with a fiery burning passion. []
  2. My love of narrative aligns me with genre fiction (YA, fantasy, sf, crime, romance, historicals) far more often than it does with capital L Literary fiction. Though obviously it’s not that clear cut: my shelves have many books that are classified as Literarchure, such as works by Angela Carter, Isak Dinesen, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, and Dawn Powell. Capital L Literature also keeps rediscovering narrative. There’s been less rejection of genre (and thus narrative) in universities over the last forty years than there used to be. []
  3. Though I’ve already come across some reviews of Liar that begin “I hated this book because I hate unreliable narrators.” To which I can only say: Why did you read it then? The book is called LIAR. On the very first page she says she’s a liar! What did you expect? /rant []
  4. Except Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society books, of course. And Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. And those Diana Wynne Jones magical university books. Update: And Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. Really it’s only realist university novels I hate. []
  5. Which I guess does make it like the worst of 19th century writing. []
  6. Obviously they’re totally insane. []
  7. I’ve had people accuse me of being a bad writer for writing things like “Scalzi and me” instead of “Scalzi and I” because they consider it bad grammar and do not recognise that I am going for an echo of how people actually talk and not how grammarians wish we did. It’s a battle I also have with copyeditors. []
  8. What a shock! []
  9. Yes, we’re both writers and readers but we’re attempting to tell reviewers what to do in our writerly capacity. []

Tell Diana What Anime This is

Diana Peterfreund has a request:

Um, can someone help me with an anime rec? I watched one episode a long time ago and I can’t remember what it was called but it was recommended to me.

It starts with a girl falling through the sky. then there are all these kids at a school — they’re angels, with little wings and halos. And they are cleaning up in a library that has what looks like a giant cocoon in it. And then you see inside the cocoon and the girl who was falling is inside of it.

Anyone know what series she’s talking about?

And thanks everyone for all the amazing anime recs. I can’t wait to start watching. I’m particularly excited about Read or Die cause I love the manga and didn’t know there was an anime.

Some More Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some people seem to be under the impression that I was saying authors shouldn’t reply to any reviews at all. In my capacity as lord god of the internets1 I only forbid responding to negative reviews or reviews the author perceives as negative.2 I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser. Responding to positive reviews is a whole other thing and as Diana Peterfreund points out can lead to very interesting discussions.

Though I have seen authors respond to positive reviews in comment threads and unintentionally shut the conversation down because everyone panicked on realising that the author was watching. That’s why I no longer drop in to thank a blogger for a positive review. But I definitely don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

Walter Jon Williams talked
about how annoying some online amateur reviewers can be:

Some of them are just bad readers. They miss major plot points and then complain that the plot makes no sense, or they say that something is impossible when it’s something I’ve actually done, or they complain that a plot twist is unmotivated when I’ve foreshadowed it sixteen dozen ways . . . these guys I’m sometimes tempted to respond to. Not in abusive way, of course, just by way of information. (”If you would do yourself the kindness to reread Page 173, you would realize that your chief complaint is without foundation.”) That sort of thing.

Sad fact: most readers are crap at it. We read too fast and carelessly. We judge books by what we expected to read so often don’t see what is actually there. We get mad at books for not being the book we wanted them to be. We read when in a bad mood and blame the bad mood on the book. Most of us suck at noticing all the carefully laid foreshadowing, backstory, clues that the hardworking authors wrote for us and then we have the gall to blame them for our own stupidity in not seeing them. Damned readers!

Sadly, there’s zero percentage in going after them and pointing out their stupidity no matter how much we writers ache to do so.3 Because this is the biggest power imbalance of all. Amateur reviewers on good reads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or on their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made. Sometimes authors do attack them. I heard from a blogger who wrote a negative review of [redacted well-known author] and had said author set their fans on the blogger who was inundated with hate mail for months. Authors, DON’T DO THAT!

And reviewers please don’t do the opposite. Adrienne Vrettos said:

Once I had a reviewer who had written a not very nice review in a widely read trade magazine approach me at a crowded event to tell me – in detail – what exactly she didn’t like about my book.

I had *no* idea how to handle it. I stammered out a ‘thank you’ for reviewing the book, which now sounds suspiciously like ‘thank you sir, may I have another?’, and hurried away.

How extraordinarily rude. While I’ve never (thank, Elvis!) had anyone tell me in person about their hate for my books I’ve had reviewers write me with their lack of love. I have no idea what these people want from us authors. To make sure that we read their review? Why does that matter to them? Reviews of books are not for the authors, they’re for potential readers. So leave us authors alone! Thank you!

Robin Wasserman said:

I have to admit that I miss the era of loud, passionate, messy literary feuds, so have been pretty entertained by this whole mess. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe vs Updike/Mailer/Irving, Dale Peck vs everyone…those were the good old days. (Authors — and it seems important to note that Hoffman’s reviewer is also an author in her own right — still have plenty of books and authors that we despise, we just do our despising behind closed doors.) And this morning I discovered that after Alice Hoffman published a horrible review of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Ford got a gun and shot a bunch of holes through Hoffman’s latest opus. ( So maybe she can be forgiven for her misunderstanding of “appropriate” behavior!

Sure. Feuds can be extraordinarily entertaining. I enjoyed those spats mightily. You’ll note that most of them were between equals with roughly the same reputation and access to media. Most of the flare ups in the past few years have been well-known author going after much less well-known reviewer and/or punters on Amazon. Which I happen to think is flat out awful.

And while I enjoy those stoushes between equals, I enjoy them in the same way I do seeing what hideous outfit Chloe Sevigny or Gwyneth Paltrow are wearing right now. Fun for me, sure, but embarrassing for them. I enjoy their sartorial mistakes mightily just as I enjoyed Mailer and Vidal etc posturing. But I still think they’re arrogant self-obsessed drop kicks. I will always advise other authors not to follow their lead.

  1. Yes, that is a joke. []
  2. And that’s a whole other thing. I have seen authors go berko over a starred review that had one negative phrase in it: “while occasionally overwrought”. []
  3. And, boy, do we. []

Things I Learned Recently

  • Most politicians and journalists would rather spend time arguing about total trivialities than important stuff. No, I do not care about ute-gate. Not any of it. Could you please get back to governing and how about actually doing something about climate change?
  • In the Heights is every bit as wonderful and entertaining as people have been saying. Especially when seen with Robin Wasserman. Musicals make me so happy!
  • Never go anywhere with Maureen Johnson where cockroaches may show up. She told a story about dining with me and Scott and our good friend Alaya Johnson. The way she tells it is very operatic and entertaining but not exactly how I remember it. A cockroach landed on Scott’s shirt, I leaned forward to flick it off, and then something terrible must have happened because MJ started screaming. Alaya leapt up, me too, our hearts pounding, looking in the direction that MJ was pointed, while still screaming so loud my hearing is probably permanently damaged. There were no zombies shambling towards us. It took several seconds to realise that she had screamed down an entire restaurant over a cockroach. Mental note: no camping with MJ. EVER.
  • Sarah Rees Brennan and Diana Peterfreund do not know how not to spoil books and tellie and movies. I’m thinking of starting up a spoilerer re-education camp for them. Perhaps I will use MJ’s screams as part of the aversion therapy . . .

What have you learned this week?

Literary Influences

One of the questions writers get asked fairly often is who their literary influences are. I rarely know how to answer that question. Mostly because it’s usually asked about a specific book. I have no idea what writers and books influenced How To Ditch Your Fairy. And the Magic or Madness trilogy was more influence by fantasy books that drove me spare than the ones I loved. The people asking the question tend not to want to hear about negative influences.

I suspect the people best positioned to answer the question are not the writers but the readers. I’m dreadful at spotting my influences.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this post is going behind a cut because I discuss literary influences on Liar and I happen to know that some of you are as nutty about spoilers as I am and don’t want to know even the tiniest bit about the book before you read it. Though I think identifying specific literary influences is way more that just a tiny bit spoilery. And one of the ones I’m going to talk about below this cut is MASSIVELY spoilery. (Well, in JustineLand. I have a much broader definition of spoiler than most people, which makes conversations with Sarah Rees Brennan and Diana Peterfreund difficult sometimes as neither seems to understand the concept of the spoiler at all. Bless them!)

You has been warned.

Continue reading


Okay, who of my readers is a fan of the romance genre?

As many of you already know I am a huge fan of Georgette Heyer.1 More recently I discovered a love of Sherry Thomas. Her first novel Private Arrangements is a total ripper. Funny too. Thanks so much for the rec, Diana!

I discovered there were well-written amazing romances courtesy of Kelly Link. She’s one of those omnivorous readers who doesn’t let genre classifications get between her and a good read. She’ll literally read anything and it shows in her writing in truly excellent ways.

When I met her back in 1999 I was not so open minded. I was disdainful of romance. On the back of having read one very bad Mills & Boon. It was Kelly who pointed out to me that Heyer is a romance writer. She loaned me a bunch of her favourite romances and I discovered writers like Penelope Williamson, Carla Kelly and my absolute favourite, Laura Kinsale. My favourite of her books is Flowers From the Storm which is so amazing I do not have the words to describe it. It’s INSANE.

I don’t read much romance. Largely because since 2003 I’ve been reading mostly YA and since last year only books set in the 1930s2. For some strange reason, I have not been able to find romances set in the 1930s. Why is that? I think someone should fix that immediately.

So which of you are romance fans and what are your fave books and why?

Are there any genres you were snobby about only to discover that you were wrong that there are indeed most excellent books coming out of that genre?

  1. When she’s not being racist. []
  2. The exceptions are books I agreed to look at for a blurb and books I agreed to critique for friends. []

Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about. It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []

It’s not too late

To duck out of work and come see me and Alaya and Cassie and David and Diana and Holly and Scott make total fools of ourselves sharing our earliest attempts at writing, while Libba laughs her head off.

For extra incentive: in Sydney I unearthed a piece I wrote while in the thrall of Raymond Chandler at the age of 13 or 14. It involves a scary Erroll Flynn and has to be heard to be believed.

Details of this extraordinary event:

You will laugh and laugh and laugh and never feel the same way about any of us ever again.

Juvenilia panel

As many of you know the first-ever NYC Teen Author Festival (March 16-22, 2009) starts in two days. There are many fabulous, wonderful events. Make sure you check out the full schedule over here. But as far as I’m concerned there’s only one event that’s unmissable:

You really need to hear just how bad our writing once was. But here’s what John Scalzi had to say after moderating our last juvenilia panel:

    “I was hitting my head on the table to stop the pain.”

How could you miss such an event? Don’t you want to heckle the badness? Laugh until you cry? Vote on who is the worst writer of all?

It really is worth ducking out of work early, skipping basketball/band practice, or whatever other thing that’s currently getting in your way. You know you want to mock us. You know you want to see how very very bad writing can be.

See all you New Yorkers Monday at 4PM in Tompkins Square Park Library!

P.S. I’m especially looking forward to Alaya’s contribution which was even stored in a purple folder.

JWAM reader request no. 27: Voice

Kate L Says:

I have a writing question that I always have trouble with. A lot of writers have a distinct style or tone. You can pick it up while you’re reading but, for the life of me, I can’t decipher what gives the writing the qualities that seem to ooze out of the sentences. How do you define style and tone? How do you foster it? Heck, how do you even find your own tone in your work in order to foster it? It’s so hard to pick out the nuances that make writing yours in your own work.

This is another one that’s too hard for me to answer. For starters, there are people who say that I do not have a distinctive voice that’s instantly recognisable across my fiction. I’ve had people tell me that they find it hard to believe that the same person who wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy also wrote How To Ditch Your Fairy. Those who’ve also read the Liar book say it even more vociferously.1 So as I do not have a clear voice except when writing this blog I clearly don’t know how to acquire such a voice.

Fortunately my friend Diana Peterfreund can answer. I wrote to her in a panic because I did not know what to say. And she responded thus:

    Fear not, my dear! This is a favorite topic among romance writers!

    Some helpful articles: ***especially this one!***

    Like Julie, I believe that a writer’s voice is something that develops over time, through the process of putting words on the page, over and over. She writes that it’s one of the hardest aspects to define, because it is so different depending on how it manifests. With one writer it could be the way they choose to put sentences together, or their propensity for wacko similes (or avoiding them like the plague, as they always come out cliched “like the plague”), or the fact that they write super short chapters, or that they always write XYZ kind of characters. It’s what makes you love one writer’s historical romance but not care very much for her contemporary thrillers. Or vice versa.

    Like that famous quote about pornography, you know it when you see it. But that doesn’t mean you can define it.

    You also know it when you feel it—or more likely, when you fail to. There are all kinds of books I can’t finish, though their subject matter/genre/plot/characters/style seem as if they’d be right up my alley—and it’s because I don’t like the voice.

    So, enough about defining another writer’s voice. How to go about fostering your own is actually an easier question. Write. Lots. Write about what you love, what you’re driven to write about. Pick out the parts of your writing that you love the most, the parts that readers have reacted to the strongest. Those are likely the parts where your voice shines through. Your voice comes as you develop as a writer.

    I’m not going to get into the argument about writer’s “adopting” voices, where you see a writer coming out with one set of book in a particular style, and then really changing it up and having a whole other kind of book—E Lockhart or you, Justine, with the departure of the Liar book.2 I also do think that some writers prematurely limit themselves in terms of what they can do because they decide, a priori, that their voice is such-and-such and so they have to write that. I think that’s a modern marketing thing, or a branding thing. Who knows? It’s very common these days for a unpublished writer with one or two manuscripts under their belt to take some “brand development” workshop and go, oh, I write sexy category romances! (That’s what I would have come up with had I taken one of those workshops with two books under my belt. And, as we can see, not the case.) I find it baffling. What if Jessica Bird, with her established career in family-oriented category romances, had called that for herself, had not said, oh, you know what? I’m going to go out and write a bunch of hot, homoerotically charged, urban-speak large worldbuilding paranormal romances that are markedly different than my previous novels. There’d be no JR Ward.

    I do think that a commercial writer needs to recognize their strengths, in style, tone, voice, plot, genre, etc. and head in the direction of what works. However, at the same time, challenging yourself can also produce great rewards. And, it’s important to note that as you write more and gain confidence in yourself as a writer (like we were talking about last night, in terms of “can we write this project, are we there yet in terms of skill?”) that the voice will emerge/develop to tackle it.

    The answer is: write a lot. Write a lot, and as you gain more confidence in yourself as a writer, your voice will emerge.


What she said.

As you can tell from the above, Diana and I talk about writing A LOT. We share snippets of our work in progress, brainstorm ideas, talk about what worries us—action scenes (me, not Diana), what make us happy—killer uni**rns, (both of us).

Part of what I’ve been trying to do this month is open up the kind of writing conversations I have with my writer friends to the readers of this blog. Talking about writing is part of the process of becoming a better writer. Obviously, nothing beats actually, you know, writing. But I’ve gotten lots of insights over the years talking with other writers. Thank you, Diana, and every other writer who’s shared the delicous moments of talking shop over the years. From way back when I was a teen writer to the present day. I’m a better writer because of you all.3

This is the last post of the writing advice series. That was more work than I thought it would be. *Collapses in heap* In the end I wrote more than twenty thousand words on writing . . .


Wow. That’s more than I wrote of the 1930s novel this month. Scary.

I’m so pleased that some of you found it helpful. It’s been a lot of fun for me even though you kept asking HARD quessies that forced me to actually THINK. Damn your eyes! Thank you for pushing me. I’ve probably definitely learnt more from your questions than you have from my answers.

Never forget that much of what I’ve said will be completely wrong for some of you. The only subjects I’m always right about are cricket and Elvis.

I’ll continue to answer any questions you care to ask on any subject. But not every single day.

As you were.

  1. Get it? Voc=voice thus voice-iferously. Oh, never mind. []
  2. No comment. []
  3. And a more excellent procrastinator. That’s Diana’s fault. And Scalzi’s and Doselle Young’s and, um, er, possibly my own fault. Let us never speak of it again. []

JWAM reader request no. 25: Pacing

Rachael Says:

I was hoping you might talk a little bit about pacing. What are your thoughts on it? What kind of methods do you have for making sure things move at a proper pace; how do you tell if it’s too slow or too fast at certain points? Whatever you can tell me about this subject would help. Also, if you feel like passing this around to any of your other writer friends who blog (or if you know of anyone who has already blogged about this), I’d be curious to hear their answers, too.

I don’t think much about pacing until I have a finished draft. Then it becomes all I think about. No doubt about it pacing is hard. And you will never satisfy everyone. I’ve had quite a few people tell me—especially teenagers—that they found the beginning of Magic or Madness and How To Ditch Your Fairy boring, but that once they got into they were fine. I’ve also had some folks complain—all adults—that both those books move too fast and they do so at the expense of depth and literary worth. Whatcha gonna do?

As instructed I asked around my writer buddies and here’s what they came up with. Listed in the order that I received them:

    Cory Doctorow: Things get worse on every page = reason to turn the page.

    E. Lockhart: I am always trying to fix the pacing issues created by my philosophy of “just write it stupidly the first time and fix it later.”

    Robin Wasserman: I’m horrible at pacing—my editor used to tease me that my first drafts always have about thirty chapters of nothing, then two really ACTION PACKED chapters of CHAOS, then boom, THE END. It’s vaguely embarrassing. For me, I’ve found the best ways around this are outlining (I outline before I start writing, but I think it would be equally, maybe even more helpful to outline your first draft once it’s finished, so you can see very clearly the dead zones where nothing happens). I also outline other books that I feel are structurally similar to my own, and try to figure out how the authors move around their characters, where and when the action scenes fall, etc. I still suck at this, but I’m working on it.

    Sherwood Smith: The old structure of action-reaction is a good rubric. If reaction starts stretching out too long, especially when reaction turns into the character(s) planning the next action—which requires some new information, may as well insert it here–I sense the pacing slowing, slowing, slowing. Reaction and planning scenes need to have the motivation (with its attendant emotion) right up front. When the emotional logic is as convincing as the physical logic then the pacing ramps up correspondingly. I think.

    Ellen Kushner: Pacing is entirely subjective. Just the way an hour spent talking with an old friend can feel like a minute, while ten minutes in the dentist’s chair can feel like ten lifetimes, so good pacing is about whether the reader is having a nice time or not. How that time is spent almost doesn’t count as long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind that needs to be answered. It can be immensely trivial-seeming (“Will she accept the party invitation?”) or huge (“Will they get the serum to the town in time to save her life?”) or personal (“Why on earth did the hero insult her when she seems so nice?”) . . . as long as there’s something I want to know, I’ll keep going. You, the writer, get to decide what it will be.

    Ursula Dubosarsky: I remember an eleven year old boy in a workshop, when I asked what sort of problems they had writing stories, saying: “How do I make my story last longer? Like, I wrote this story about a boy climbing up to the top of the volcano and then he fell in and that was the end.”

    Makes you feel like an agony aunt, that sort of question. How to delay the obvious gratification of having your hero fall headlong into a volcano…perhaps he stops on the way and has a sandwich? looks at a flower? remembers his last meeting with his aging grandmother? Only after all that your readers may well toss it aside . . .

    Pace is very fascinating. I think it’s all about experimenting. When I write there’s a lot of coming and going, trying this and that and seeing how it reads—like balancing hundreds of different sized bricks on a scale—until you feel it’s just about right and then you tiptoe away very quietly…(Crash!)

    Margo Lanagan: I think this one’s really a practice thing—reading a lot of differently paced stories, particularly ones that change pace internally, so that you get a feel for the kinds of details that get left out/included in order to speed up/slow down the telling. Where do authors make the cuts (e.g. how is a hot-pursuit scene put together)? Where do they start letting their characters pause and look around and register the smell of the roses/drains (e.g. when the character is home free/dying/waiting for the next burst of activity)?

    How do you know when a scene is moving too slow or too fast? You just know, from experience. Too fast, and you get confused (sometimes you have to ask someone else to tell you whereabouts they get confused); too slow and you find yourself thinking about shopping lists, or yawning, or not caring what happens to this dreary character in his overdescribed cave that has nothing to do with the plot. There is no quick recipe; you just develop a feeling for pacing by experiencing lots of examples of good and bad pacing.

    Diana Peterfreund: 1. “Get in late, get out early.” That means start the scene at the latest possible moment you can and end before it gets boring. Try to end on a “hook” too—keeps things moving.

    2. Elmore Leonard said “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Good advice. That means no scenes of hair brushing, unless it’s important to the plot (the only time I can think of is in The Snow Queen.) You can also skip the scenes of people going from one place to another, most times. Just put in a scene break and then put ’em there.

    3. If things are getting slow, throw in an explosion. That’ll hold ’em.

    Melina Marchetta: Pacing’s hard. If I’m writing an action packed scene, like one of the fight or chase scenes in Finnikin, I use continous verbs (-ing words—flying, thumping, connecting, roaring etc) and I tend not to use punctuation, soo it seems as if the chase or fight is neverending.

    Scott Westerfeld: Pacing is like a monkey on fire: you either have one or you don’t.

Wow. How cool is it seeing those different takes side by side? I wish I’d written all these writing posts like this. So much less work!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 6: Getting started

Bran-la says:

The thing that i always have trouble with is getting started. I never know what to say in the beginning or where the setting should be. What helps you get started? Any hints and tips would be wonderful!

It is a scientific fact that the majority of first chapters never make it into the final version of the novel. Here’s the very first chapter I wrote of Magic or Madness and here is the published first chapter of Magic or Madness. You will notice that the two have pretty much nothing in common.

This is good thing to know. It means you can relax and not worry whether your first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter is perfect. Odds are they won’t be in the final version.

When you’re getting started I find it’s best to just let yourself go and not second guess yourself on grammar or even spelling. Just type! When I was little all my stories began, “Once upon a time . . . ” I know it’s corny but it really helped me to get going. You can always edit out that phrase later.

I’m one of those writers whose first drafts are unspeakably bad. Total rubbish. It’s only in rewriting that they become readable. I suspect that some beginning writers are put off by the idea of their writing not being perfect straight away.

You need to give yourself permission to be bad. You’ll fix it in the next draft, or the draft after that. The first goal is to write a complete draft. It don’t have to be pretty.

As for kick starting ideas—have a read of this post, it definitely applies to getting started.

Once you start writing you’ll likely find you’ve gotten many things wrong. You don’t have to know everything about your novel before you start writing it. I never do. I usually know close to nothing about my novels when I start.

I have a novel that I originally thought was set in an alternative mediaeval Russia. It was rubbish and kept stalling and going no where. I abandoned it for a few years before I realised it was really set in an alternative fourteenth century Cambodia. I was several chapters into How To Ditch Your Fairy before I discovered it was set in an imaginary place called New Avalon.

Diana Peterfreund mentions in a comment that while writing one of her books she discovered ninety pages in that her protag was afraid of water. It changed her plot. She had to go back and rewrite everything up to that point to accommodate this revelation.

Happens all the time. Books change as you write them, as you learn more about the world you’re creating, and the people in it. This is why the first chapter is usually the most frequently rewritten chapter in the entire book. That is, if it escapes the cutting room floor.

Other kinds of writers

Now, none of this advice will be useful to you if you turn out to be one of those writers who has to know exactly what the first sentence of their book is before they can move on. My condolences!

There are also writers whose first draft is their final draft. They write slowly and painstakingly, crafting and shaping as they go. What I achieve over the process of many drafts they achieve in one but they probably take the same time with their one that I take with my many.

There are writers who cannot write a single word of the novel until they’ve figured out the entire plot in their head. From first to last sentence. If you were one of those writers than perhaps that’s why starting is so hard for you.

I know other writers who work out their novels in a detailed outline and don’t start the real writing until they’ve nailed every plot twist and character quirk. I remember someone once telling me that Tim Powers’ outlines for his books are longer than the books themselves and include maps and diagrams.

So it could be that what you think is slowness in getting started is, in fact, all part of the process of writing the novel. Some people work things out on the page, some in their head, and some in an interperative dance with finger puppets. (*Shudder*)

The only way you can figure out what kind of novelist you are is to write one. And be aware that with your second novel you may discover you’re whole different kind of novelist.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

JWAM reader request no. 5: Characterization (updated)

Today I attempt to tackle questions about how to write the peoples in your novels. I believe I mentioned in the initial post for this month of questions that I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers. Today’s post will demonstrate that with bells on. You have been warned.

Julia says:

How do you come up with interesting believable characters? Without them seeming flat, or ridiculous, or confusing, or just completely lacking in personality?

Tim says:

Justine, I was wondering whether there is anything in particular you do when developing the voice of your character (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything you do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

Monica says:

I am pretty new to novel-writing, but I’ve heard a lot about “interviewing your characters” to get to know them better. Is that something you do?

I’ll take Monica’s quessie first since it’s the easiest:

No, I have never interviewed my characters and find the idea of doing so deeply bizarre. However, if it works for you—go for it. That’s the thing about writing advice. Every writer writes differently. Some really do have conversations with their characters, and come up with astrological charts for them, and take them to the movies, some of us most emphatically do not. There’s no one right way. When you’re a beginning writer try anything and everything. Some of it will work and some of it will not.

Actually, Tim’s is pretty easy too.

Is there anything in particular I do when developing the voice of my characters (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything I do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

No, there isn’t. My characters just talk to me and I transcribe what they say. Kidding! (Sort of.)

Any one else got a more useful response than this for Tim? Diana? Maureen? Anyone? (I apologise for my crap answer.)

Now for the tricky question:

How to write interesting characters

So far, I’ve already thought a lot about the questions I’ve answered for this month of writing advice. But I’ve never thought about how I write characters. Not once. Thus trying to give you tips and suggestions is breaking my brain.

I suspect the problem is that writing people and dialogue have always been my writing strengths. I spent a long time learning how to plot, how to write action scenes, transitions, exposition etc. etc. because I was crap at them. (They’re still not my strengths and I’m still learning.) Thus I can talk about how to do those till the cows come home. But the peoples?

Being asked to describe how I write ’em is like being asked to detail how I breathe. I dunno. I just do.

So I did what I usually do in this situation I talked to Scott.


    “Don’t yell. I’m brushing my teeth. I can’t hear you.”

    “If you can’t hear me then how come you’re answering?”

    “Can’t hear you!”

    “Can to.”


    “They want to know how to write characters!’

    Scott emerges from bathroom with extremely clean teeth. “Tell ’em about Aristotle: ‘Drama is character revealed through action.'”

    “Aristotle. Right. What about your funny hat thing?”

    “Fine. Tell them about funny hats. But Aristotle’s key. And choices. Your characters have to make choices. When they make a hard decision, your reader invests in them, because they’ve lived with them through that difficult time. Also zombies.”

You all got that? What Scott said.1

You’re probably wondering what funny hats are. Scott says that when he begins a book all the characters are essentially funny hats: the girl with the big hat, the boy with red hair, the woman who lisps and so on. But eventually they become more than a funny hat, they take on other characteristics, opinions, ways of existing in the world of the novel. As he writes they grow. He does not, however, explain how he makes them grow.

Hmmm. The only simple tip I can come up with2 is to try and avoid writing stereotyped characters. Does the boy who like fashion have to be gay? Does the footballer have to be straight and a thug? Is your protag a reader and super smart and beautiful, but not in a conventional3 way? If you’ve written characters like that are they that way for solid reasons? Do they make your story better? Or do they seem tired and unoriginal?

I really hate it when a character, midway through a book, turns out to have a relative (mother is a surgeon) or hidden ability (black belt in karate) solely because the plot requires it. How convenient. If your mum’s a surgeon or you’re a black belt it would affect who you are. You’d be used to your mother not being around a lot. Being really good at a martial art, or sport, or some other intense physical activity changes the way you move and think about your body. Those are not things you can suddenly pluck out of the air for your characters in the middle of a book.

Check out some bad books with unconvincing characters. Try to figure out why those characters don’t work. Are they too stereotyped? Predictable? Boring? What is it about the way they’re written that doesn’t work for you? Too much description “violet eyes”? Not enough?

I know many of you are going to hate me for this, but when I think of unconvincing characters, I think of science fiction. Especially the science fiction published in sf magazines of the 1920 through to the 1950s. Talk about your two-dimensional characters. Those stories are all plot and no real peoples. They are a nightmare to read.

Why are they so crap?

I suspect part of the answer is that many of the writers, like Isaac Asimov, for instance, were extremely callow and didn’t know much about people. It’s hard to write people if you don’t know many or understand the ones you do know. It’s possible that part of why some writers struggle to create convincing characters is that they too don’t understand people or can’t empathise with how other people think, which makes it very tricky indeed to come up with believable characters.

It could be that as they get older, meet more people, travel more, go through different friendships, work relationships, love relationships, marriage, they’ll learn more about people and find them easier to write. There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.

Another part of it is, of course, practice. But if you’re struggling with writing convincing characters, writing lots of stories may not be that helpful. Why not re-read your favourite books with your favourite characters? But instead of getting caught up in the plot, read closely. Try to pinpoint the moment where you start liking the character. Now figure out why. What has the writer done to win you over? I know I fell for Elizabeth Bennett before she even comes on stage:

“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”

“You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

Even though this is still the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice, Mrs Bennett has already been established as a fool, and Mr Bennett as a man of sardonic humour. If Mrs Bennett doesn’t like Lizzy, and Mr Bennett does, then this reader has high hopes for Lizzy.

I hope there’s something in this post that will trigger something for you. But likely not. It’s a topic I need to read and think more about. My apologies for its inadequacies.

I’d really love to hear from other writers. What are your tips on writing believable characters?

Update: Sarah Monette has chimed in with a most excellent post answering many of these questions particularly Tim’s one about developing the voices of characters. Do check it out! (I am so with her on being kind of appalled by what I think of as the acting-school of writing. But as we both say it really works for many writers.)

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. He didn’t really say zombies. But I’m sure he meant to. What would cause your characters to reveal themselves in action faster than zombies? []
  2. and, actually, I stole it from a friend []
  3. Oh, look, she has red hair! []

JWAM Reader request no. 4: On getting published (Updated)

I’ve had a couple of questions that are about publishing, not writing. I have disqualifed such questions from this month’s advice though I might run a publishing questions month later in the year.1 But since I’ve already gotten two such questions I’m grandfathering them in.

But I will answer NO OTHER publishing questions! From now on: questions about the process of writing only. Thanks!

beth says:

I’d be interested in looking at the differences in submissions from when you were first starting to now. Could you share your query letters? Could you show us a real-life synopsis that you used when publishing one of your books? As someone with a complete novel and complete lack of success in publishing, I’d love to know more about the nitty-gritty of publishing, what it looked like for you when you sought publication, etc.

And, of course, I’d love to see your zombie attack plan

Beth, I can’t answer your second question because this is not zombie questions month. Save it for later.

Mitch Wagner says:

The one that’s really got me stumped: How do you sell a first novel? Does you really need to get an agent first? If so, how can you tell who the good agents are and who are the crooks? There’s so much writing advice out there, it all sounds authoritative, and I don’t believe any of it. I have friends who are established writers, and I don’t even believe THEM, because all they can tell me is how they got started 10 or 15 or 39 years ago, not how to get started today.

These quessies are variants on how to get published. Please take into account that I am not an editor or an agent and have, in fact, never worked in the publishing industry except as a writer. Thus I am not the best qualified person to answer these questions.

Like, for example, I have never written a query letter. Although I spent twenty years trying to make my first professional sale, I was trying to break into the genre short story market. The markets I was submitting to didn’t require a query letter more complicated than “this is my story it is x words long”.

By the time I started to shop my first completed novel in 1999, I had made enough contacts in the publishing industry that three agents and two editors agreed to look at it without my querying them. They all passed on it. That novel remains unpublished. So does the novel I wrote after it.

My path to publication was accidental. Eloise Flood listened to me pitch the Magic or Madness trilogy and then bought it from the proposal2. It helped that she’d read an early novel of mine so she knew I could write a complete novel. It also helped that she had a brand new imprint at Penguin, called Razorbill, and was desperate. I learned later that she was very nervous about the risk. Lucky for her and for me it worked out.

That is not the usual path. When I tell unpublished writers my story they tend to respond by saying. “Oh, so it’s not what you know it’s who you know.”

Which bewilders me. They seem to not hear the part about spending twenty years trying to get into print. TWENTY YEARS, people!

Or the fact that my contacts turned me down flat. Having contacts might3 get your work looked at faster, but it still has to be good, and they still have to love it enough to publish it.

I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t relied on my scant contacts, if I’d done it properly and queried lots of agents and editors, instead of just five. Maybe I would have gotten published faster if I’d tried the old fashioned way?

The vast majority of pro writers I know found their agent and got published by doing a lot of research to figure out what agents suited them best and then sent out query letters. Scott did it that way and he did it in the days before the internet made the search for an agent easier with site likes Agent Query. Maybe you should ask him about query letters? Though that was back in 1996.

I do know a bunch of people who’ve debuted in the last few years or about to in the next few. Every single one of them sent out query letters to get an agent.

I’m not sure if there are any big NYC houses left that officially accept unsolicited manuscripts. I do know though that they all have slush piles made up of the unsolicited manuscripts. I hear that very very very very very occasionally some plucky editorial assistant finds gold in them there hills. But it’s probably the most difficult way to get published. A manuscript from a reputable agent gets read much much quicker. My agent, Jill Grinberg, started getting responses from editors about How To Ditch Your Fairy less than a week after it went out.

Reputable agents make things happen faster. When you get an offer they protect you from signing a pernicious contract. I did not have an agent when I signed with Penguin for the MorM trilogy. That deal was much less favourable to me than the one brokered by Jill for HTDYF and the Liar book.

How do you know who’s a reputable agent and who isn’t? The easiest way is to check who their clients are, and what their sales record is. Here’s a random agents’ site and look it’s not even based in NYC. (Yes, there are good agents who are not based in New York City.) But who are their clients? Why New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is one of them. Well, I’ve heard of her. A quick check on Publishers Marketplace reveals that it’s quite a big agency with a lot of agents and many recent sales.

AgentQuery allow you to find agents for your specific genre. If an agency doesn’t have any writers you’ve heard of in your genre be concerned. I assume that you are very familiar with your genre. How else could you write a book in it? Writers Beware is a great place to check if you think an agent might be dodgy. Never query an agent who charges fees of any kind. Reputable agents don’t.

It’s also a good idea to check out agents’ blogs. Kristin Nelson‘s is a particularly good one and has links to many other agents’ blogs. She often shares her clients’ successful query letters and explains what it was about them that attracted her attention.

It sounds to as if Mitch and Beth above have already been down the querying salt mines without luck. Trust me, I know how much it sucks. I’m about to get all my stuff out of storage here in Sydney and one of the things I plan to do is go through my dispiriting collection of rejection letters. Even now that I’m published and have a wee bit of a career just the thought of them gets me down. I’m not yet ready to celebrate them the way that Shannon Hale does with her long roll of laminated letters. Being rejected sucks and publishing is a world of no.

My biggest piece of advice is not about agents or editors. It’s to keep writing. Beth and Mitch appear to have written only one novel. Beth says “a completed novel”. Mitch says “first novel”. A while back Tobias Buckell ran a survey and discovered that only 35% of published writers sold their first novel. I suspect if he’d gotten a bigger response that would be an even lower percentage.

My first two novels remain unsold. I have friends who sold their tenth first. Selling your first novel is the exception, not the rule.

There comes a time when you need to set your first novel, your baby, aside and move on. Doesn’t have to be forever. I still have hopes that one day my first will find its way into print. But you have to shift your focus to the next novel. If you get no where finding an agent for it, write another.

Keep writing novels. You’ll get better with each one. It’s okay to take a break from submitting and sending out queries. You can even stop altogether. Getting published is not the thing, writing is.

Yeah, I know. That was said to me during my twenty years of trying and it was annoying as hell. But, you know what? I kept writing. And if my career comes to a grinding halt, which statistically it’s likely to, that won’t stop me either. I will always keep writing. I can’t not. (Though I’m really good at taking long breaks from it.)

I guess the other advice—which I really wish I could take myself—is to not take rejection personally. The agent isn’t thinking about you at all, but about whether they like your book, and whether they think it’s saleable.

I realise that I did not touch on synopses. My quick and dirty advice is to think of the synopsis as an advertisement for the book, not the book itself. Though you should really ask Diana Peterfreund for synopsis advice. She is much better at them than I am and claims to love writing them. I do not.

Update: Bless Diana for she has now written a post on writing synopses. And it is very good.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January, but I will not be answering any more on publishing.

  1. Though I am far less qualified to answer publishing questions. []
  2. Which consisted of the first three chapters, a detailed synopsis, and bits of back story []
  3. It doesn’t always—one of my contacts never got back to me. []

Last day of 2008 (updated)

Yup, it’s my annual what-I-did-this-year skiting post. I write these mostly for myself so I can easily keep track. Hence the last day of the year category. Thus you are absolutely free to skip it.1

This year was exceptional. I’m still pinching myself. My first Bloomsbury USA book, How To Ditch Your Fairy, was published and seems to be doing well. I was sent on my first book tour, which was fabulous. It’s insane how much fun I had and how many fabulous schools, book shops and libraries I visited in California, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Thank you to everyone who came to see me while I was on the road. It was a blast getting to meet you all! I loved hearing what fairies you all have!

Now this is going to sound like the acknowledgments page but bear with me cause I thanked my fabulous editor, Melanie Cecka in print, but not the wonderful publicity and sales and marketing folks because, well, I didn’t know them back then. Deb Shapiro is the best and funniest publicist I’ve ever worked with, Beth Eller is a genius of marketing, and all the sales reps who’ve been flogging the fairy book mercilessly across the USA are too fabulous for words. Extra special thanks to Anne Hellman, Kevin Peters, and Melissa Weisberg.

HTDYF also sold (along with the liar book) to Allen & Unwin in Australia. This is a huge deal because it’s the first time I’ve had a multi-book deal in Australia and A&U publishes many of the best writers in Australia, including Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Penni Russon and Lili Wilkinson. My editor and publisher, Jodie Webster, is a joy to work with. So’s Sarah Tran and Erica Wagner and Hilary Reynolds and everyone else on the Alien Onion team. Bless!

Both Bloomsbury and A&U seem even more excited about the liar book than they were about HTDYF. Which is a huge relief to me because, um, it is not the most obvious follow-up to the fairy book. Older, darker, scarier, completely different. Stuff like that. Here’s hoping that not too long into the new year I’ll be sharing the title, the cover, a sneak preview, and other such fabulous things.

The fairy book also sold in Germany to Bertelsmann, who published the Magic or Madness trilogy there and gave it the best covers ever. It was awesome getting to meet the two Suzannes: Krebs and Stark in Bologna. Thank you for believing in my book so strongly that you bought it when it was still in manuscript. I still can’t quite believe it.

Speaking of the trilogy it sold in Indonesia to PT Gramedia and in Korea to Chungeorahm Publishing, which means it’s now published in ten different countries and eight different languages. All of it Whitney Lee’s doing. It’s astonishing to me how well the trilogy is doing more than three years after first publication. Fingers crossed that will continue.

I also had two short stories published. A rarity for me. My last short story was published back in 2004. These two were the first I’d written since then. Short stories are not my thing. They’re so much harder to write than a novel. ““Pashin’ or The Worst Kiss Ever” appeared in First Kiss (Then Tell): A Collection of True Lip-Locked Moments edited by Cylin Busby and was universally declared to be the grossest story ever. “Thinner Than Water” is in Love is Hell edited by Farrin Jacobs. I’m proud of them both for very different reasons. But don’t expect any more. Writing short stories hurt my brain.

Last year I was wise and only aimed to write one novel in 2008. Just as well because that’s all I did this year no stories, no articles, nothing else. I wrote the liar book and began the 1930s book. It’s very clear that I’m a one-book-a-year girl.

I also mentioned in that one-year-ago post that I had three sekrit projects. The first is no longer a secret: the Zombie Versus Unicorn anthology that I’m editing with Holly Black, which marks the first time I’ve edited original fiction. Am I excited? Why, yes, I am. It will be out from Simon & Schuster in 2010 and we’ll be announcing our insanely excellent line up of authors in the new year. Truly, you will die at how great our writers are.

One of the other sekrit projects morphed into a solo project (the 1930s book) and I’m still hoping that the last of the sekrit projects will go ahead some time next year. Here’s looking at you co-conspirator of my last remaining sekrit project! You know who you are.

Next year will be taken up with writing the 1930s book and editing the Zombie v Unicorn antho. The 1930s book is the biggest most ambitious book I’ve tried to write since my very first novel set in ancient Cambodia. I’m loving the researching and writing. Immersing myself in another era is the most fun ever! I think my next ten books will all be set in the 1930s.

My 2009 publications. This is a WAY shorter list than last year:

    Update: Possibly September: paperback of How To Ditch Your Fairy

    September: the liar novel for Bloomsbury USA.

    October: the liar novel for Allen & Unwin.

Yup, just the one two novels from me and one a reprint. Sorry! You should also get hold of Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass when it comes out. It’s the final book of the City of Bones trilogy and the best of the three. I read it in one sitting on my computer.2 Then later in the year there’s Robin Wasserman’s sequel to Skinned. You know you want it! Yet another book I read in one go. Also on my computer. Think how much better it will be between actual covers.

Then there’s the three YA debuts I’ve been talking about by Peterfreund, Rees Brennan and Ryan. If you read no other books in 2009 make sure you read those three. I’m also dying to read the sequel to Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, which was my favourite book of 2007.

Last, but not least, the old man has his first novel in two years, Leviathan, coming out in September. Fully illustrated by the fabulous artist Keith Thompson and better than anything else Scott’s ever written. I’m so proud of him and of this book. You’ll all love it. Seriously, it’s worth the price just for the endpapers!

I travelled way too much this year. Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the UK, France, Canada, all over the USA, and home to Australia. Again. Looks like the same for next year. I have no idea what to do about that. I guess when you try to live in two different countries at the same time that’s the price. Oh, and lots and lots of offsets. We try to be good.

This is where I usually say that I think the coming year’s going to be fabulous. But this year I’m not sure. The economic news back in the United States has been dire. Friends have lost their jobs, their editor, their imprint. It’s scary in publishing right now and it’s even scarier in many other industries. I really hope good governance in the USA will make a difference world wide. But I just don’t know. I had great hopes for the Rudd government and here he is botching the fight against climate change and trying to put up a filter for the internet in Australia. Ridiculous. Surely Obama’s government will not be so stupid.

Here’s hoping 2009 will see a return to sanity all around the world, but especially here in Australia.

Happy new year!

  1. I would if I were you. []
  2. Actually I was lying in bed. Whatever. []

Not that fussed

Initial disclaimer: I realise that just by announcing that I’m not that fussed I’ll be seen as protesting too much. To which I respond: Whatever.

In the course of reading Diana Peterfreund and Carrie Ryan’s lovely posts about all the ways in which YA is dismissed by people who know nothing about it and have read at most two YA novels, and the New Yorker blog post that set Carrie off, I realised that I, in fact, wasn’t particularly annoyed or outraged by it. There are a few reasons for that:

  1. The post in question, while declaring that it is the exception that proves that YA is not worth reading, raves about a novel by a truly wonderful writer: Kathe Koja’s Headlong. I’ve not yet read it. (Tragically, it is not set in the 1930s.) But I have heard great things and I’ve read several of Koja’s other novels. She’s a genius. Pure and simple. Anyone spending time praising her work in a public forum is okay by me. Continue!
  2. I’ve seen that kind of dismissal of the genre many times before—not just YA, but also sf and fantasy. It’s boring and I’m bored by it. Yawn. Been there done that. The more you hear an erroneous set of assumptions, the less they bother you. I’ve also mounted the counterarguments and had them largely fall on deaf ears so I can’t be bothered saying it all again. I’l leave it to those more able and willing. Like Diana and Carrie and Maureen Johnson and John Green and Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
  3. We’re doing better than they are. I don’t want to skite about my genre, but . . . Oh, who am I kidding. I totally want to skite! I don’t care that there are adults who will never read YA because there are heaps of adults who are reading it. Not to mention the gazillions of teenagers. YA totally outsells adult litfic. Our audience is bigger than theirs. Our books earn out; theirs mostly don’t. Many of the YA writers I know can make a living writing; most of the litfic writers I know can’t. Many YA writers sell in multiple territories. We have books in Korean and Russian and Indonesian and Turkish and Estonian as well as English. We get fan letters from our readers all the time. We’re doing just fine; it’s adult litfic that’s in trouble.

Now that last skiteful point may turn out to be an historical aberration. Horror as a genre was riding very very high in the eighties and look at it now! Exactly. There are very few “horror” sections left in book shops and Stephen King’s pretty much the only one still doing fabulously well. Best to take that point with a grain of salt. I imagine that when the genre dries ups and my books stop selling1 I’ll be annoyed all over again at those mean litfic types peeing on YA. But I hope not. On both counts. But, yes, especially in the US, this has been a very scary year in publishing.

In the meantime, yay for Koja praise. Yawn to ignorant dismissals of any genre. And yay for all us YA writers doing just fine, thank you very much, while the rest of the publishing world collapses. Some of you astute followers of publishing in the US may have noticed that there were way more job losses and other slash-and-burns in the adult publishing world than there were in children’s/YA. Maybe the current spate of litfic sniping at YA is sour grapes?2

Oops, seems that I’m still skiting3 Look away, pretend you saw nothing! And read whatever damn books you want to read: litfic, YA, romance, fantasy, manga, airplane manuals, cricket books. It’s all good.

I’ll get out of your way now . . .

  1. Those two events may or may not be concurrent. []
  2. Well, except that as I pointed out t’other day many of them haven’t even heard of us. []
  3. Which is dangerous given how precarious publishing feels right now, even though book sales are actually up in the USA on what they were the year before. []

YA and other animals

Diana Peterfreund and Carrie Ryan saved me from writing a post I’d been sort of planning for awhile—on the various lame ways people dismiss YA—but which I kind of couldn’t be arsed actually writing. So bless them both!

I’ve come across this example all too often:

“XYZ is pretty good, for a book for children, but I doubt the author will be allowed to take it to the next level, because children’s books rarely do that.” (The “that” in question, by the way, is a rebellion against the powers-that-be by the teen main characters, which is so common in YA fantasy and SF books that it’s practically a cliche.)

Succinctly put, Diana!

Though mostly what I get from adult writers and readers in place of dissmissals, are blank expressions. “What’s YA?” they ask. This happened to me most recently here in Sydney. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since we were studying for our PhDs together. She’s a successful (and fabulous—I love her work) writer of adult fiction and memoir, winner of many awards and grants, very clued in to the Australian publishing scene, but when I told her what I write, she didn’t know what I was talking about, and hadn’t heard of any of the top YA writers or novels I named. It was very disorienting. She didn’t even know Twilight.

I’m trying to decide whether that’s better or worse than all the people who assume that all YA is exactly like Twilight. Yes, I have had people seriously say to me, “YA? Isn’t that the vampire romance genre?”

Sigh. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Twilight. In fact, I’m a hundred per cent for it. Stephenie Meyer’s success has created a whole generation of readers. Many of whom, I’m convinced, wouldn’t be reading without her. A few of her fans have gone on to read my books. Bless her and bless them! I feel the same way about Meyer that I feel about Rowling. Grateful bordering on worshipful.

But as the readers of this blog know, there’s more to YA than vampire romance. Why, we have zombie romances, faerie romances, troll romances, robot romances—we have any kind of romance you can name. My next novel is a liar’s romance and the one after that is a 1930s romance.

See, stupid YA knockers or ignorers, we has much variety in YA! Why, I’ve even heard rumours that there are YA novels that aren’t romances at all. Though I’m yet to confirm it.

Outlining v winging it

One of the conversations that I have most frequently with my good friend, Diana Peterfreund, is about our different writing methods. She’s an outliner; I wing it.

Tis most excellent fun talking writing with her precisely because we could not be more different. So different that we frequently wind up talking at cross purposes. Last time we had this discussion we got hung up on the phrase “first draft”. Turns out that what she means by “first draft” is not what I mean.

Because Diana outlines she figures out much of the novel before she begins writing. I figure things out as I write the first draft. Thus my first drafts—zero drafts really—are frequently messy conversation spines. A large part of what I do when I rewrite my first draft is make it coherent. Describe where the conversations are taking place, illuminate thought processes—flesh the skeleton out.

Diana’s already figured out most of that stuff before she types a word. She has a clear vision of her book before she starts writing. I have only the haziest of notions, which changes as I write. I had no idea when I started writing How To Ditch Your Fairy that a large part of would take place at a sports high school in an alternative universe in the city of New Avalon. I found all of that out as I wrote.

Diana’s “first draft” is much closer to the final book because she wasn’t figuring stuff out as she went along; my “first draft” is a mess. So when she says she doesn’t like to change her first draft too much I think she’s insane. Because I keep forgetting that her first draft is not a broken mess like mine.

On occasion I am made to write an outline or a proposal by my agent or editor. I hate writing them more than anything in the whole world. I would much rather write the book than a description of it. The reason for this is that I don’t know what the book will be until I write it. Writing a description of the book before writing it is pretty much impossible for me.

Diana, on the other hand, loves proposals, outlines and the like. They make her excited about writing the book. Whereas I see them as something that gets in the way of writing a book. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy before I wrote it on the basis of a proposal, which consisted of the first three chapters, an outline, and short descriptions of the world. It was some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Writing the first three chapters was easy. Writing the rest of the proposal was nightmarish. The only way I could do it was to tell myself that the outline was an advertisement for the book, not a description of the book.

I never looked at it again. It did its job of selling the book; I did mine of writing it. Never did the twain meet.

I’m not exactly sure what Diana’s planning and outlining looks like, though she has posted pictures of her plot board. It seems crazy detailed. I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing that. Though sometimes I make notes before I start writing.

My notes for the Liar book start on the 24th of February 2005. I wrote seven short notes—jotting down ideas and a few lines—before I started writing in earnest at the beginning of this year. Those notes amount to a few hundred words (to put that in perspective this post is more than 900). That was my planning. Except that the first time I read those notes again was for writing this post. The point for me is not the notes, but the act of writing them. I remember because I wrote them down, which means I don’t have to look at them again.

It’s not until I have a completed first draft that I get serious about planning. In my pre-Scrivener days that’s when I’d start using a spreadsheet to map out the structure of the book and see where and how it was broken. With Scrivener the structure is plain to see—on the cork board—-making the spreadsheet redundant.

So my outlining and planning stage comes after writing the book. Diana’s comes before. Which makes me wonder if our novel-writing methods are actually that different. What she works out in her head, or on paper, or plot board before beginning the actual writing; I do during the writing. I nail down the structure once I have a draft. Whereas Diana does it before she begins the draft.

All the same things are happening just in a different order.

Maybe winging it and outlining are identical methods put into practice in a different order? Maybe all novelists write in the exact same way but merely change the order? Maybe we are all the same?! Me and Diana and Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov, all identical!

Or maybe not.

Heh hem.

Either way my method is the best method. I’ll get back to applying it to my latest novel now.


Debut YA to look for next year

I am going to go out on a limb and predict that these three titles will be the big debuts of 2009:

Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant
Killer uni***ns and the tough gals what fight them. It’s funny and exciting and romantic and has amazing action scenes. What more do you need to know?

Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth
Zombie apocalypse, scary nuns, and a girl who’s never seen the ocean. You know you want this.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon
I have not yet read this one but Scott has and he keeps bugging me to read it. He loved it. I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s extremely witty and wonderful blog so I have high hopes.

They’ll all be out next (northern hemisphere) spring. I guarantee that you will love them.

What books are you all looking forward to next year?

Answering your zombie v un***rn questions

Yes, there will be a zombie-un***rn story. I hope you’re happy. Because personally I think that’s a bit gross.

No, I can’t tell you the names of any of the contributors. But trust me, they are all fabulously excellent writers.

Yes, it is a YA anthology. It will be edited by the marvellous Karen Wojtyla. That’s right, me and Holly, who are editing the Zombie versus Uni***ns anthology, will in turn be edited. It’s, like, a whole editing chain.

Sorry, the anthology is closed.

Yes, there will be lots of different kinds of zombies. Not just your regular Romero types.

I have no idea about the uni***n side of things. I doubt there’s more than one kind. And if there is, who cares? Hmmm, maybe you should direct your uni***n questions to Holly Black or to Diana Peterfreund both of whom know ridiculous amounts about that very lame topic.

Send your zombie questions my way. If I don’t know the answer I will turn to Robert Hood, who is Professor Zombie, and knows everything there is to know about zombies.

Thanks for all the excited emails and comments about the anthology. Us two editors are both thrilled that you’re thrilled.


Why zombies rule (updated x 2)

Mr Simon Pegg of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead fame has explained perfectly why fast-moving zombies are so deeply lame:

    You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can’t fly; zombies do not run. It’s a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I’ll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It’s hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.

Exactly! But wait there’s more what is even better:

    More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety. As monsters from the id, zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.

    However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them—much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares—the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.

That is why zombies are so powerful and so chilling. You can fight them off. You can get away. But in the end? Not so much.

No one escapes death.

Un***rns as a metaphor? For what exactly? Tooth decay? Give me a break. They are a beastie entirely without resonance.

Zombies for the win. Yet again.

Update: Because I am nothing but fair I am pointing you to Diana Peterfreund’s response. In which she defends lame sparkly boring uni***ns. Feel free to go over and point out her wrongness.

Update the second: Now John Green, who is on the side of zombies, weighs in.

Lots and lots of fairies

Because the talk everywhere I go is of the US election1 or of the general economic collapse I thought that I would share the rest of the YA writers’ fairies.

    Holly Black: The coffee fairy—a fairy that would make sure I always find the most delicious cup of coffee (free-trade, with milk) wheresoever I am.

    Cecil Castellucci: I’d like a fairy of perfect timing.

    I mean that in every way, from timing everything perfectly, to everything being on time, to it being the right time for things, and to telling a good story/ joke with perfect timing.

    Cassandra Clare: I have an umbrella fairy. Umbrella fairy tells me to take my umbrella, then it doesn’t rain. But I wish I had a typing fairy. Typing fairy could teach me to type with all fingers.

    Jenny Davidson: My fairy is a sense of time fairy—I always know when it is, it is easy for me to be punctual and I have a good sense of how to pace a class (use of 75 mins) or a project (use of 3 months). But I wish I could trade it in for a sense of direction fairy! Because I can get lost at the drop of a hat, it is utterly absurd, I never know where I am or how to get anywhere, I am often finding myself (though less in age of Google Maps, where foresight can largely compensate for sense of direction) on the verge of tears and not at all sure which direction I’m pointing in!

    Cory Doctorow: I wish I had an email answering fairy who knew exactly what I wanted to say to every email and took care of them all!

Cory really needs that fairy. I have seen how much email he gets: nine hundred bajillion katrillion pieces in a single day. It’s insane.

    Maureen Johnson: Right now I wish I had a Book-Finishing Fairy. Or, at the very least, a That Section Clearly Adds Nothing to the Plot Fairy. Or a Make this Suck Less Fairy. Failing that, I would accept an Answer My E-Mail Fairy or a I Will Make You the Next Doctor on Doctor Who Fairy . . . because that last one sounds kind of fun.

    Ellen Kushner: My fairy seems to be the Find Your Friends Fairy. I run into people I know on the street in foreign countries, in airports, and in restaurants.

    David Levithan: I’ll go for a Wakefulness Fairy. You know, one who would whisper something really funny or (barring that) really loud in my ears whenever my eyelids started to flutter shut in the middle of the day.

    E. Lockhart: I have a “finding things that belong to other people” fairy. If someone I live with has lost something, I can put my hands on it in a minute or two.

    Sadly, my fairy won’t actually work for me. My postal scale went missing in my house 6 months ago and hasn’t turned up yet.

    I wish for an anti-clutter fairy. Clutter is cluttering up my cluttered life.

    Jaclyn Moriarty: I think I have the fairy of relentlessly excited expectations. Every time I hear an e-mail arrive, or the telephone ring, I think something amazing is about to happen. At the moment I have a letter by my front door, to remind myself to post it, but every time I walk by the door I notice it there and get a rush of excitement. I think: ‘Somebody has slipped a mystery letter under my door! How fantastic! Who could it be?!’

    If there was a fairy that could meet my excited expectations, such as a fairy of
    regular yet surprising news of good fortune, that would be my choice.

    If not, I’d like the fairy of decisiveness.

Ooooh! I want a fairy of met expectations, too. Frabjous!

    Sarah Mlynowski: I am a hypochondriac. So the fairy I wish I had is one who would point out germs. Such as: Sarah, do not eat that chicken! It is not well cooked and is riddled with salmonella. Or, Do not shake that guy’s hand, he just went to the bathroom and did not wash it. Or, Do not sit next to that girl on the subway because she will sneeze on you and give you Diphtheria.

    I have a perky fairy. I can usually cheer friends up when they are depressed.

    Garth Nix: I have a slightly warped Punctuality Fairy. He/She/It forces me to be on time, the twist being that if I am actually late, the Punctuality Fairy will make everyone else late too, or delay my plane, or cloud my mind so that I’ve thought the meeting is earlier than it should be, so that any meeting, engagement or booking that I would have been late for by the original schedule, suddenly becomes on time.

    I have been asked many times over the years by Sydney’s State Rail to sell them my punctuality fairy so that all their late trains will suddenly become on time, but the fairy just won’t leave me. I’m hoping that HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY will give me some ideas.

    Diana Peterfreund: I think I have a hat wearing fairy. I tend to look good in hats, and I never lose, sit on, or have hats blow off my head. I also don’t get hat

    I don’t know if I feed her often enough, though.

    John Scalzi: I did have a “know who is calling on the phone as soon as it rings” fairy for a while, which used to freak people out when I would pick up the phone and call them by their name without saying hello first. However, in the age of call waiting, this fairy has become far less useful than it was back in the day. Stupid advances in technology.

    I wish I had a fairy that would make bacon double cheeseburgers a slimming health food. Because that would rock.

    Robin Wasserman: My fairy is a last minute fairy, that lets me start anything at the last minute and still get it done on time. That works out rather nicely, but I suppose if I had my pick, I’d take a say the right thing fairy — which, as you might guess from the name, means that in any and every situation I’d always know exactly the right thing to say. (Perhaps this fairy would first have to kill the say the wrong thing fairy who often stops by for a visit.)

    Scott Westerfeld: I have the simile fairy. Whenever I need a cool simile to nail a dramatic moment, my fairy comes and hits me on the head like a pillowcase full of naked mole rats. Or, if I come up with a lame one like that, I pick a book from the shelf and open it at random. And, lo and behold, there’s a great simile to steal right on that page. So it’s a simile-stealing fairy as well.

    But I want a good-night’s-sleep fairy.

You can find more fairies here. And, as usual, feel free to share your own fairies.

I would like to wish everyone in the US over 18 a good voting fairy.

  1. I’m in Canada! They have their own election! Why are we still talking about the US one? Um, because it’s really important? []

Two wondrous things

1) The fabulous Guarina Lopez, who is a genius with the camera and took my author photo as well as Diana Peterfreund’s, now has a truly gorgeous website showcasing her beautiful work. Check it out!

2) The Magic or Madness trilogy has sold in Korea! Woo hoo! Chungeorahm Publishing have made a very lovely offer for the trilogy and I have said yes! For those keeping count the trilogy is now published in eleven different countries: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. My happiness is huge. All hail Whitney Lee of The Fielding Agency who made the majority of those sales. She’s incredible.

Answering questions

A while back I said I was updating the FAQ and please to ask me questions. And then I didn’t answer any of them. On account of book to write and blah blah blah.

But I’ve had a nudge from Certain Important Parties about the out of dateness of the FAQ and, erm, it’s been moved up the priority list. So here are at last are the answers:1

Gina asks, How do you write a novel? you said in another post that you have changed how you write them.

Tricky question! The short answer is: Scrivener. I promise that in the future I will answer in more detail. But it involves writing scenes out of order rather than from beginning to end. The book I just finished was written pointillist style.

Anon asks, Whats it like living in 2 countries?

(For those who don’t know, me and Scott spend half the year in Sydney, where I’m from, and half in NYC, where Scott has lived the majority of his life.)

Living in two places is most excellent. I have two sets of friends. Two sets of favourite restaurants. Two sets of everything really. When it’s six months at home and then six months in New York City I rarely get homesick and nor does Scott. Works out pefectly. Also lots of summer. I love me some summer.

Ariel Zeitlin Cooke asks, Will there be another book set in the MORM world? Will there be another book set in the HTDYF world? Have you ever written non-fantasy? (And then you can talk about the new one) What other books do you recommend?

At the moment I have no ideas for more books set in the Magic or Madness world or in the How To Ditch Your Fairy world. That doesn’t mean I won’t get some great idea later on. But right now the next few books I have planned have nothing to do with those worlds.

Why, yes, Ariel, I have written a non-fantasy book. I finished it just this week as it happens. It’s called, Why Do I Lie? and is set in New York City. It’s told from the point of view of a compulsive liar and involves a murder. I think it is the best book I have written. But then I think that of every book I’ve just finished the first draft of.

Everyone must read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews. For very different reasons.

Diana Peterfreund asks, You seem to be drawn to very unusual names for your characters: Reason, Jay-Tee, and now Charlie and Fiorenze. I know you’ve talked about the story behind “Reason,” but what about the new books? Also, how did you come up with the idea for personal fairies? And why do you love Elvis so much?

Charlie’s not an unusual name! The names in How To Ditch Your Fairy come from two sources: 1. Famous sports people, 2. I borrowed them from teenagers I met doing appearances in libraries, schools and book shops in Australia and the USA.

I answered the question of how I came up with the idea for How To Ditch Your Fairy here. Is good story because I have good friends. If you are a writer it is best to have many friends for they are much goodness in the giving of ideas.

I think the question should be Why doesn’t everyone love Elvis? The story of the genesis of my Elvis love is here.

hillary! asks: And sports? Why do you love sports so much? And what’s your favorite color? and what type of car do you have, if you have one, if not, what kind would you like? Do you want a chimpanzee or a monkey or a teacup piglet?

Again the question is Why doesn’t everyone love sport? Explaining my love of sport is like explaining my love of breathing or eating. Without air and food and sport living is impossible.

All colours are good colours. Except vomit yellow.

I do not drive. I have never learned how. I dislike cars. I think they are the worst invention of all time and responsible for untold carnage. Not just to all the people killed in and by them but for making us so dependent on oil. I wish cars did not exist. Our world would be in much better shape. We need to switch to bicycles and horses. And airships. Transmat beams would also be most excellent.

I want no pets or teacups of any kind. I travel too much to have a pet. (Though if I could have one it would be a quokka.) Also I don’t drink tea.

Patrick asks, Have you ever played organized basketball?

Briefly in primary school. I have never excelled at team sports. I, um, don’t take direction well.

Liset says, I think in your FAQs you should write more about your marriage, I know it’s extremely personal but I find it so interesting! (way more than any celeb couple!)

The truth is Scott and me aren’t actually married. We don’t even live in the same flat or country even. We just thought it would be excellent publicity if we pretended we were two married writers in the same field. Sadly, it has generated almost no publicity. We should have pretended to be monkeys instead. Next time!

Benjamin Rosenbaum asks, What do you feel is the essence of inspired play in the loose in fifteen-man rugby? In the scrum? The line-out?

I have no opinions about rugby. Or league for that matter. I have nothing against them either. But I live in perpetual summer. They are not summer sports. Thus I never see them.

Lizabelle asks, What’s your favourite place in Sydney (apart from the cemetery in Newtown)?

There are so many! But right now—other than my parents’ house—it’s the Botanical Gardens.

Brittany asks, The devil books, must they be typed and submitted in a particular format? Or is standard Times New Roman 12pt Single spaced ok?

One of the nice things about being a published author is that I submit my books electronically. Thus the font I use is irrelevant. The publisher can change it. When you’re unpublished and having to submit paper it’s best to stick to the industry standard stuff: double spaced, readable font, single-sided, etc.

For those wondering why Brittany asks about “devil books” it is because of this post where I say that books are teh devil, which they are.

Feel free to ask more questions. Is there anything you’re burning to know? It doesn’t have to be about me. In fact questions that aren’t about me are more fun. Though, um, Certain Important Parties would prefer the quessies be about me and my books. But, honestly, how boring is that? Very!

  1. That’s right. You need to know nothing more. From this point on you have all knowledge necessary! []

Fixing my FAQ*

I’ve been meaning to update my FAQ for ages. I’m thinking of dividing it into different subject areas like Diana did on her blog: such as, my various books, writing, publishing, whatever else you want to know.

So if you have any questions about writing or publishing or my books or anything else that isn’t already answered on the FAQ fire away.

*Is it just me or does that sound vaguely obscene?

This is my thousandth post!!!

Since May 2005 I have written a thousand blog posts!1 Those posts contain around 300,000 words which is longer than any of my novels, though, fortunately not longer than all of them put together.2 I am verbose! Yay for verbosity!

And yay for blog statistics! Here are some other numbers:

The posts here average 13 comments each. Given that when I started I was lucky to get any comments at all that number startles me. Of course, I have all of you to thank! Yay readers and commenters and lurkers and the occasional drive-by visitors. I love youse all.

The numbers of words in the comments is approaching 800,000. Astounding, eh?

I’ve averaged just under a post a day. But in the beginning I did not post nearly as much as I do now. The addiction has crept up on me slowly. Now going a day without blogging leaves me jittery and discombobulated. Must. Blog. Or. Die.

My most popular post by a very big margin is How to Write a Novel. Every day people arrive here to imbibe my novel writing wisdom after googling “how to write a novel”. So I recommend all writers post their own thoughts on same and give it the same title. Cunning, eh? Though maybe you should be less silly about it than I was.

Other than “how to write a novel”, my name, and titles of my books, the most popular search terms that lead here are “quokkas”, “Jill Grinberg” (my agent), “crazy writers”, “Sheryl Swoopes”, “Andrew Symonds”, “how to rewrite” and “what should I wear”. I feel that’s an excellent representation of the blog seeing as how writing and publishing, fashion, quokkas, women’s basketball, and cricket are some of my main topics. I am saddened, though, that “zombie” leads so few people here. Must work on that. Expect oodles more zombie posts.

When I first started this blog it was read by my mum, my dad, my sister and a few of my friends. Now I average over a thousand visits a day from people I’ve mostly never met. Who’d’ve thunk it?

In the olden days a thousand visits in one day meant that John Scalzi or one of the other internet gods had linked to me, now it’s standard and seems to be on the rise. Yay! And THANK YOU!

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I love blogging. LOVE it. I love the speed and ease of it,3 having an idle thought and being able to publish it almost instantaneously. And I especially love the responses. The comments you leave—even when you’re completely wrong—yes, I’m looking at all you lunatic car and coffee worshippers—not to mention Diana and her crazy outlining love—make doing this way more fun.

It’s such a contrast to the novel-writing. I write the novel, send it to a few first readers, wait and wait, get a few responses, rewrite, send to agent and editor, wait and wait, rewrite, send it back to editor, wait and wait, rewrite, and so on, until it makes its way through copy editing and proofing and finally at least a year later winds up being read by more than that small handful of people. Is maddeningly slow. The instantaneousness of blogging keeps me sane while I wait.

Because of blogging I get to enjoy people’s thoughts and responses and teasing and off-topic musings. I watch conversations emerge and go in places I never would’ve expected and I get to join in and generally feel less alone. Tis a wondrous thing.

Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without blogs. Not just my own but all the other fabulous blogs out there that make me laugh and think and keep me informed and giggling and more in touch with what’s going on at home and elsewhere.4

Bless you intramanets and blog world. I adore being part of it.

Here’s to another thousand posts. Another billion!

  1. I am only counting the posts here, not my previous musings, which go back to 2003. []
  2. Because that would be embarrassing. I should admit that I’m cheating slightly by including the novel I’m writing now in that total. I could have cheated worse and included the two unpublished novels . . . []
  3. Well, most of it. Sometimes I take ages to write a post like the How To ones. []
  4. I would link to some but there are too many! Check out my blogroll for the blogs I love. []

Books about going to uni?

A commenter on Scott’s blog, Liset, asked:

now that i’m in college i get a little disapointed with the YA selection,
it seems to be filled with IT girls, and all that other non-sense.
I want a book where the main character is just stepping into being an adult, not 15 or 16 but 18-21.
I think I’m in an age that is highly ignored,
I can vote and join the military but I can’t drink, go to a club (on most nights) and I can’t find a book that talks about the first years of college!
It’s insane too, because college is seriously the most interesting thing.

Anyone got any suggestions for Liset?

I immediately thought of Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl. I can think of books where the protag is in that age range—Peeps for example1—but not where uni is the focus. I know there are plenty of books where it is but my brain is sluggish this morning. Help me out, please!

  1. Though I happen to know Liset has read that one. []


The world is causing me to shred rope this morning. With my teeth.

I am cranky and have decided to share my crank with you my gentle and not-at-all cranky readers. I know that I’ve written this rant in different forms already. I fully expect to write it again. Here goes:

Ever since I because a YA writer I have been hearing certain people accusing me and my colleagues of writing books solely for the sake of being as dark/bleak/shocking/perverted/[insert your own personal bugbear in adjectival form here]. “Why did you have to put x into your book?” is a question that almost all of us seem to hear at one time or another.

It drives me nuts.

YA writers who write about anything that isn’t considered to be squeaky clean or uses language stronger than, “Oh, bother!” get this a lot. We’re often accused of writing “dark,” “edgy,” “controversial” books in order to increase our sales.

Newsflash: the inclusion of swearing and sex and drugs and the other things that render YA books less than squeaky often, nay, usually, has the opposite effect. Book clubs won’t pick them up, Wal-mart and Target won’t stock them, nor will many school libraries, and lots of conservative parents won’t let their teens buy them.

Sure, you can point to teen books that have sex and swearing and drugs that sell; but there are just as many that don’t. It is not the automatic sales shot in the arm that so many people are convinced of.

I have never written anything for the sake of being “dark” or “edgy” or anything else. The YA writers I know think long and hard about including anything “controversial” because nine times out of ten it will reduce their sales, not increase them.

Valiant by Holly Black is often accused of being deliberately shocking; it’s her worst-selling book.

Of all the YA books I’ve read, Valiant is the closest to my teenage experiences. I recognised so much in that book. I found it moving, honest, beautiful, scary, dark and brilliant. It made me weep in sadness and, by the end of the book, in joy. I’ve read it four times so far and each time it has gotten better.

I’ve been wondering what it is about the book that bothers people. Perhaps they don’t like it because they didn’t recognise anything from their teenage experiences, therefore the book seems to them deliberately and inexplicably dark. They grew up safe and happy behind their white picket fence and weren’t interested in reading about teens that didn’t. But my friend Diana Peterfreund disagrees because she had a white-picket upbringing and she adores Valiant.1

Maybe the Valiant haters recognised too much and that made them uncomfortable?

I should point out that these are all adult complaints about the book: The teens who don’t like Valiant are mostly annoyed because it isn’t a direct sequel to Tithe.

All the adult complaints I’ve heard about books like Valiant and Looking for Alaska seem to stem from discomfort with the reality of some teen lives. Have they forgotten how traumatic teenage years can be? Have they forgotten that many teenagers swear, that they not only think about sex, but some of them have it, some of them drink and take drugs? I’ve met and talked with enough teens over the past three years2 to know that many of them are extremely grateful to have their experiences reflected back at them in the books we write—whether those experience are dark or light or a mixture (which is most people’s experience). Once I would have argued against problem novels because I personally don’t like them. But I’ve heard too many teachers and librarians tell me tales of students finding comfort and guidance in a book about child abuse, or a teen with alcoholic parents, or anorexia or whatever.

Recognising yourself in a book—in any work of art—is extremely powerful. It’s one of the ways we learn we’re not alone.

Some teenagers grow up in very dark places. Some of them go through dark, scary times. Some teens have friends and relatives who’ve overdosed, been murdered, raped, tortured, deported, gaoled, executed. Teen lives are as varied and scary and wonderful as adults’ lives. Those stories deserve to be told just as much as the story of Anne of Green Gables.

Some of us cope with the dark times by re-reading Anne of Green Gables. Some of us cope by reading stories that touch on our own horrible experiences or that are even worse.

Valiant, however, is not a problem novel. It’s a fairy tale with the requisite fairy tale ending. It affirms that even in the darkest of times a fairy tale ending is possible. I love it; I would have loved it even more as a teen.

I know that writing for teens is a huge responsibility. I take that responsibility seriously, which is why I believe it’s my duty to write books as honestly as I can.3 Whether it be the froth and bubble of How To Ditch Your Fairy or the darkness of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Pretending that teens aren’t people with as wide a range of desires and aspirations as any adult is dishonest.

Okay, I feel slightly less cranky now. Slightly . . .

  1. I should point out that my family life was great; it was my school experiences that were dark and miserable. []
  2. Since my first teen novel came out. []
  3. You know what? I also think that’s the duty of writers of adult books. []

Next novel poll

What 27% of my readers want is for me to write a novel about unicorns versus zombies. And right now I gotta tell you I’m dead tempted cause it wouldn’t require nearly as much research as the current novel.1 So colour me slightly nudged on the zombie v unicorn front. I may have news to report upon said subject at some point in the future. Or not. You never know where my ten-second attention span will take me.

The next most popular options were a ghost story where the ghosts are perfectly aware that they’re ghosts. Which would be just a regular ghost story, right? One day I will write one of those. And then the snowboarding werewolves. Gotta tell you, I don’t see it happening. I’m not oudoorsy and I am particularly against being outdoors in snow. I have no desire to try snowboarding. None at all. And you can’t write about a sport you haven’t tried yourself. Also I’d have to learn all about wolves. Too much research! I am currently against research.

However, what most astonished me about the latest poll was that several of my readers—3% of the total—voted for mainstream realism. Clearly, they were messing with me. There can be no other explanation. Me write non-genre? Are you insane? I have noted all your names and will go after you in my own time. Watch your backs.

Enjoy the new poll. I was feeling random. It happens.

  1. Don’t hit me, Diana. I know you’ve done tonnes of research for your unicorn novel. But my unicorn v zombies novel would be a lazy one, okay? []


Sorry about the silence of the last week. I did something very bizarre: I went on holiday. A real holiday with no laptop and no internet access. Totally off the grid! Let me report that five days of no internet is bliss! I plan to do it more often.

In other news Diana Peterfreund got me addicted to free rice. Improve your vocab while being virtuous!

Also Maureen Johnson is stirring revolution on Amazon. Go, Maureen!

Hope your holidays are going as well as mine. Normal blogging will resume soon. Honest.

I heart Meg Cabot

As regular readers of my blog know I am not a fan of vampires. I’m especially not a fan of the vampire-as-love-interest because falling in love with a vampire is falling in love with a corpse. Frankly, Ewwwwwwwww!!! is too mild a response. Turns out Meg Cabot feels the same way I do (via Diana Peterfreund):

Anyway, as a consequence of that experience [having lyme disease], I just don’t enjoy books (or movies or TV shows) where vampires are the love interest. Because they remind me of the parasite that caused the disease that almost made me bald (if the fiftieth—only a slight exaggeration—doctor in two years that I went to hadn’t successfully figured out what was wrong with me, and cured me before I ended up looking like Britney before her extensions. You will note I am more upset about nearly being bald than I am about nearly dying. That is yet another sign of how shallow I am), and I honestly don’t understand how any girl could not want to spray a vampire in the face with Off.

So me and vampire love stories? Not so much.

Yes, I know, I liked Buffy—but she KILLED vampires, remember, and never toyed with the idea of BECOMING one. I didn’t take my husband’s last NAME when we got married. Do you honestly think I’d like a story about a girl considering changing SPECIES for a guy? No offense to any of you, but as a feminist, I just can’t go there…especially considering it’s a species that has so much in common with the one that tried so hard to make me bald. I mean, kill me.

What she said. Times a billion.

An unanswerable question

Someone just wrote to ask me what to do when the writing is not going well. Fortunately, Diana Peterfreund has just written on this because I have no useful answer.

I suspect my own struggles with sentences that crumble as I type, with plot and character and meaning twisting out of my control, are at least partly because I’m very early on in my career. Old timers are much smarter about this stuff. Fer instance, my parents heard Thomas Kenneally interviewed the other day and he said that the writing got easier as he got older. After having written for more than forty years and having produced a bazillion gazillion novels (or, you know, thirty odd) he knows his own process and what to expect.

I don’t.

Not really. I’ve only written six novels and the writing of each one was different. I’ve been a freelancer writer for four years. I still have no idea how long it takes me to write a book. I can tell you how long the last one took, but not how long the next one will.

When you’re starting out you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what you’re capable of. When the crappy writing days hit you—it’s a shock and you don’t know how to handle them.

Even super disciplined writers, like my old man, have days of words dissolving into puddles of putrescence, when they can’t focuss, and can barely squeeze out five words let alone a thousand.

What he does is keep writing. That’s where the discipline comes in. The act of getting yourself into the chair and typing—even if the words you’re producing make William McGonagall look like a genius—can be enough to get you past the crap and into the good.

Or not.

Sometimes people just need a break.

And only the writer can figure out which it is.

Personally, I’m pretty much always convinced that I need a break. Preferably in a place where there’s plentiful cricket coverage (alas, poor England), the food is fabulous, and the wine even better.

Sadly, my deadlines say otherwise . . .

Romantic conclusions

Judging from your comments here and those over at Cassie Clare’s lj the following are what you look for in a romance:

  • tension
  • conflict
  • verisimilitude
  • external obstacles
  • geek love
  • banter
  • painful misunderstandings
  • Gender-bending mistaken identity
  • super competence
  • baggage
  • equal partners
  • witty banter
  • wish fulfillment
  • restraint
  • chemistry
  • little things
  • vulnerability
  • choosing happiness
  • Character development
  • lots of witty banter
  • no internal thoughts
  • verbal sex
  • brooding
  • unrequited love
  • undying love
  • enemies in love
  • slow, lengthy build ups
  • humour
  • context
  • best friends falling for each other
  • lots and lots of witty banter

i just love this list! Makes me so happy. I agree with almost everything on it (especially gender-bending mistaken identity These Old Shades I go weak!). Thanks, everyone. Your comments were witty, thought provoking and wonderful.

So why was I asking?

Because I’ve never written a romance.

I’ve never started a book and known that one of the major plot arcs was going to be about people falling in love. But since so many of my favourite books are that way (Pride and Prejudice, too many Heyers and Kinsales to name, The Mountain is Young, Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy etc etc) I thought it might be fun to try my hand at it. But I soon realised that I’m really not sure how to do it on purpose. It also rapidly became clear that it’s much much much harder than it looks.

Also of that list above there are two that don’t work for me:

  • Brooding


  • wish fulfillment

Don’t get me wrong I was once very much into them. I loved Heathcliff! Bad boy love of any kind! But the Angel/’Buffy romance wound up just annoying me. Angel’s broodingness caused my eyes to roll. He was a WW. A whingeing wanker. Blerk.

I also used to adore heaps of books that were basically that ultimate wish fulfillment: the Mary Sue. But they don’t work for me anymore. Could be that I’m too grizzled and cynical to believe it now. The world is way more complicated than that and often when people get what they want it doesn’t make them happy.

Yet I know wish fulfillment books and brooding heroes work very powerfully for any number of readers.

So I’m struggling with the whole writing about people falling in love thing and was looking for some advice. And what you’ve given me is lots of ideas and a long list of books to check out as well as to reread (like The Master and Margarita which strangely I never thought of as a romance. When I think of that book I think of cats walking upright smoking cigars and demons floating in and out of windows. How dumb am I?) It was wonderful to see how many of your favourites are also my favourites.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? The way to learn how to do any new kind of writing is to figure out how other folks do it. Der!

So, Julia Quinn, you reckon? Or Jennifer Weiner? Or Jo Leigh? Which is the best of their books?

And again thank you so much, everyone, for all your responses. Vastly entertaining and useful. And extra thanks to Diana and Cassie (who are both pretty bloody good at the romance thing) for sending so many smart folk my way. I owe youse all one.

Starting out

Diana Peterfreund must have a looming deadline or something because she’s written two wonderfully helpful posts for writers who are brand new to the publishing industry. They include a glossary explaining what exactly, for instance, an agent does. Check ’em out!

One of the things she glancingly touches on is the idea that the already published are actively resentful of up-and-coming writers and go out of our way to lessen their chances. If that’s true why then do so many authors’ spend huge chunks of time offering advice and help the way Diana is right now? (I mean other than procrastination reasons.)

Publishing is very competitive. That’s true. Most professions are. But not in the way that most people think. One book being hugely successful can increase the chances of other books. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books created a boom in children’s and YA publishing. Garth Nix says that before Rowling he was happily paddling along and then he got caught up in a tidal wave. He’s not the only one. I don’t know a single YA or children’s author who isn’t profoundly grateful to Rowling. She made our careers.

If a person really likes a particular book they don’t (usually) just read that one book over and over and over again; they try to find other books they like as much. Many kids who loved Harry Potter have gone onto read Nix and Diana Wynne-Jones and Eoin Colfer and Jonathan Stroud and so on. It’s not the end of the road; it’s the beginning.

Reading Dorothy Dunnett led me to Geraldine McCaughrean’s historicals and so on. Every time I hear there’s a new historical that’s approaching the genius of Dunnett I check it out as fast as poss. Jane Austen led me to Georgette Heyer. You develop a particular kind of reading thirst then you have to find the books to quench it.

Deadly Uni***ns

I’m so stoked to be able to announce that my mate Diana Peterfreund has just gotten herself a new two-book deal and it’s for young adult books. That’s right! Diana is now one of us!

From the Publisher’s Marketplace Announcement:

    Young Adult
    Author of SECRET SOCIETY GIR Diana Peterfreund’s RAMPANT, about killer uni***ns that can only be defeated by virgin descendants of Alexander the Great, and the teenage huntress whose birthright is seriously messing up her social life, to Kristin Daly at Harper Children’s, in a good deal, at auction, in a two-book deal, by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency (NA).
    Film: Matt Snyder at CAA.

I read and ADORED the proposal and cannot WAIT to read the completed novel. Congratulations, Diana. You rule!

Book evangelist (updated)

Diana Peterfreund has just written a smart piece about authors reviewing. In it she quotes me claiming to be a “book evangelist”. I’ve decided to own it big time over here.

My name is Justine Larbalestier and I’m a book evangelist.

I call myself that because it’s a more accurate term than “critic” or “reviewer”. I rarely go into detail about books I love. I don’t analyse, or critique, I don’t even give plot summaries, I just say, “I love this book! Read it!” If I hate a book I rant about it with friends, I don’t write about it here.


Lots of reasons. Firstly, writing a serious critical analysis of a book is very hard work. I don’t have the time or the inclination to work that hard on anything but my fiction.

Ranting about books I hate can be a lot of fun, but I don’t want to hurt the feelings of people I’m very likely to run into in social settings. Hell, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I know how much work goes into a novel. Even ones I think are terrible. It’s horrible to have your weeks, months, or years of hard work dismissed by some jerk who read it while they had digestive issues from too much vindaloo the night before.

I have disliked many books because I was in a bad mood about something else when I read them (such as digestive issues from vindaloo). On the few occasions I’ve given them another go, I’ve discover that truly it wasn’t them, it was me. I’d rather not have this blog drowning under the weight of all my retractions.

Some hideously bad books are loved by readers and change their lives in positive ways. Some of the Young Adult books I’ve hated most in the last ten years have had a huge effect on many young readers. Not the least of which is turning them into passionate readers, who in some cases have gone on to discover my books. It would be churlish to publicly eviscerate books like that.

When I hate a book I kind of don’t care whether other people read it or not,1 but when I love a book I want everyone in the whole world to go out and read it and discover its amazingness.

On that note here are the YA books I’ve read and loved recently that I don’t think are getting enough attention, or selling as well as they should. You all must must must read them:

  • Coe Booth Tyrell (I know it’s up for the LA Times book prize but I keep meeting people who haven’t read it and that is just wrong.)
  • Audrey Couloumbis’ The Misadventures of Maude March
  • Kenjiro Haitani’s A Rabbit’s Eyes
  • Simmone Howell’s Notes from the Teenage Underground
  • Maureen Johnson’s Devilish
  • Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter (And it’s sequel, Dreamquake is now out so you don’t have to suffer from massive cliffhangeritis.)
  • Margo Lanagan White Time
  • E. Lockhart’s Dramarama (As it hasn’t officially pub’d yet it’s a bit premature to say it’s flying under the radar. Whatever. I love it.)
  • Jaclyn Moriarty’s Becoming Bindy Mackenzie (US title is The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie.)

Updated to add

  • Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy of The Thief, Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia. Can’t believe I forgot it!

Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. Only relatively obscure books, please. No New York Times or any other kinds of bestsellers.

  1. Though it is fun to have a good old bitch session about a mutually hated book. []


Right now there are not one but two competitions to win a copy of Magic’s Child.

Go to Diana Peterfreund’s blog and make a comment and you’re in the running. She promises that she will ship the book anywhere in the world. I signed it and all! Or you can to the Teenreadstoo site to win a copy. The intermanets are positively dripping with free copies of Magic’s Child!