Writing Goals: Reduxing the Redux of the Redux

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

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

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

First the genres:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penultimately:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series
  • Collaboration

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

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

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

And lastly a whole new list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Do What I Did: On Writing Historicals

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

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

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

I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.

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

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

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

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

Don’t do what I did.

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

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

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

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

Last Day of 2012

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life for the year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2013. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)

Last year was not a happy year for me so you’ll be pleased to hear that 2012 was lovely. There was some huge personal changes and they were all very very good indeed. What I’m really saying is this post contains no whingeing. Phew, eh?

Books Out This Year

This is the first since 2009 that I had a new novel out. Woot! Mine and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Team Human. The response has been truly wonderful. Starred reviews! Acclaim! Rose petals! Best of the year lists! My favourite review is this one by Thy because of the wonderful fanfic Twitter conversation between Team Human‘s main characters Mel, Cathy and Francis. It’s seriously funny.

Books Out in the Future (The Distant Future)

Note that I didn’t call this section Books out Next Year. That would be because I have nothing scheduled to be published in 2013. Sorry about that. I remember the days when I thought having only one book published a year was embarrassingly slow and was aiming to ramp it up to two a year. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

So, yeah, I only had one book out this year, and even though it was co-written, it still counts as the first novel by me since 2009. I know, I know, SO SLOW. It’s like I’ve turned into a writer of literary novels for adults. Those lazy, lazy types who think it’s fast to publish a novel every five years. My romance writer friends are deeply ashamed of me. I am deeply ashamed.

But I have been writing. This year I finished a complete draft of a new novel. It’s my first book set in Sydney since the Magic or Madness trilogy and involved oodles of research. Fun! And even though it’s at least two drafts away from being sent out to publishing houses I’m feeling good about it.

But I’m taking a break from it for the moment while I turn to another novel. The Sydney novel is intense and more complicated than I had intended. It takes place over one day. I figured that would be easy. I WAS WRONG. SO VERY WRONG.1 It was supposed to be a relaxing, easy break from the 1930s New York novel! Stupid tricksy books acting like they’re all easy and then being super insanely complicated! Grrr.

So now I need a break from the novel that was supposed to be a relaxing break from the overcomplicated and intense New York novel. If the novel I turn to winds up being more complicated than I thought and I have to start another novel to take a break from it and then that novel winds up being too tricky and I have to take a break and work on yet another novel . . . then, um, actually I have no idea what will happen. Either the world will blow up or I’ll never finish any novels ever again and starve.

Funnily enough the book I’m turning to now was also started while taking a break from the New York novel.2 It’s a middle grade I started in 2009, which involves a chaotically neutral fairy sort-of-but-not-really godmother and is set in Bologna and is wryly funny.3 (I hope.) I had a lot of fun writing it and only stopped because I had to work on Zombies versus Unicorns and then Team Human.

As for the 1930s New York novel I do keep working on it. On and off. In between all these break novels. It grows ever longer—I suspect it’s more than one novel—but it remains a long way from a finished draft, which is why I keep turning to other novels. Or something. What? Not all of us are super focussed types. And I’m not listening to your suggestion that maybe the NYC novel isn’t finished yet because I keep turning to other books. That’s just silly.

Since I started the NYC novel in 2007 I’ve begun work on five other novels, one of which is now published, Team Human, and another of which is close to finished, the Sydney novel. Not to mention writing the bulk of Liar and putting together Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black.

In conclusion: I am writing. A LOT! There will be new novels from me. In the future.

The RSI

I’m doing a lot better. Not only am I now a total pro at managing my pain but I found a therapy that seems to be making my arms better and not merely managing it: active release. (Here’s the wikipedia article, which points out that very few studies have been carried out. So it’s mostly anecdotal evidence thus far.) The therapy is only good for soft tissue damage. It’s early days so who knows if the improvements will keep happening but right now my arms are in the least pain they’ve been in for ages. But I’m not going to be stupid and push it. (Been there done that.)

The plan it to slowly push to writing five hours a day. So I may start blogging again more frequently. Yes, I have missed blogging. SO MUCH. Twitter is fun and easy. But it’s not the same.

The last paragraph was written more than two months ago since then I’ve been on the road for six weeks and home for two and have had the longest break from writing in a very very long time. And let me tell you: my arms feel great! So really the best things for them is for me not to write.

But that’s not going to happen.

In conclusion: I’m doing much better but I am not going to push things.

Garden Update!

The garden is still totally wonderful. The passionfruit are flowering but not fruiting I am about to commence Operation Hand Pollination. Will let you know how it goes.

Travel

Most of the year I spent happily ensconced in Sydney. And it was good. Then there was a brief trip to NYC last month where I voted in my first US election and, lo, it went how I wanted it to. Woo hoo! Well, the results did. The voting process was chaotic and insane and wow does the USA need the Australian Electoral Authority to take over and fix stuff for them, like, NOW.

Then we went to Sao Paolo and Rio in Brazil and Santiago in Chile. My love for South America grows. It’s warm when it’s supposed to be warm. None of this insane cold Christmas rubbish. The Southern Hemisphere rules, yo!

Truly Brasil, in particular, was AMAZING. I shall blog about it more in the new year. But in short our publisher, Editora Record, spoiled me and Scott rotten. Ana Lima, the executive editor, was so helpful and kind and fun to be with and we learned so much about Brazilian publishing—Editora Record has their own printing press (!)—and about Brasil. If you’re an author and you’re ever invited to Brasil. Just say yes. The fans are smart and funny and so enthusiastic. They are both legal and very fofa. See? I learnt a wee bit of Portuguese! I can’t wait to go back. Oh, and the food. How I miss the food and the caipirinhas and the cachaca. We just ran out of the bottle we brought back. Waaaah!

I hope your 2012 was as productive and fun as mine. And that your 2013 is awash with fabulosity.

Make sure you all get hold of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new book The Summer Prince. Best YA book of 2013. Oh, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which is most definitely the best adult book4 of 2013, probably of the century. You heard it here first. Both books are pure genius.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!

  1. I may blog about what exactly is so hard about having the action confined to one day. []
  2. How To Ditch Your Fairy was also a break novel. What can I say? I’m easily distratced. []
  3. So did I use the D&D term correctly? You know what don’t tell me if I didn’t. []
  4. No, not Fifty Shades of Grey adult. Get your mind out of the gutter, people! []

Getting Started

I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.

I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.

Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.

The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.

The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.

By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.

It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.

I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.

Procrastination is good

The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.

Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.

Research

Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.

Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.

Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.

Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1

Many books at once

I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.

That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar four years later.

At the time I was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.

Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2

Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.

If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.

If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3

In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.

  1. It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! []
  2. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. []
  3. Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

Writing about Racism in the Past (Updated)

There’s an argument I get into about Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which is set in England in the early 1800s. When I criticise the book’s racism the defender often says, “But they’re just reflecting the racism of the time.”

Here’s the problem with that argument for The Grand Sophy (or for Gone With the Wind for that matter). They were not written during the period they were depicting. They do successfully evoke the racism of their particular periods. However, a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.

For instance, The Grand Sophy was written and published after World War II. That is, the book was written and published after there’d been an appalling demonstration of the logical end of anti-semitism: the Holocaust. Heyer is not critiquing racism in The Grand Sophy she’s re-inforcing it. Her Jew is not human, he’s a grasping monster. That’s not even as sophisticated a portrait as Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice several hundred years earlier. So, yes, I have huge problems with it and haven’t been able to read that book for many, many years.

The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning it. Heyer not only condones it, she revels in it. It’s clear that she thinks Jews are bad people, not that she’s showing that many people of the Regency period believed that Jews were bad people. That’s a huge difference.

Compare Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench both depict the racism of the period they’re writing about, but Mitchell’s text looks back on slavery with nostalgia, Perkins-Valdez absolutely condemns it while not reading like a twenty-first condemnation of the nineteenth century. Wench is one of the best historicals I’ve read.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I research and write a novel set in the early 1930s in New York City. A period when racism and sexism were everywhere.

In the 1930s NYC was even more segregated that it is now. People in Harlem lived in third-world conditions with much higher unemployment than the rest of the city. The only jobs available to most black women were as domestic help. But when the depression hit many white families could no longer afford help and those that could increasingly hired white women. There were black men and women with professional degrees, but few whites would employ them. They had to go into business on their own—tricky given that no bank would loan them money—or work in capacities well below their skills.

Racism pure and simple.

Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?

That’s not to say that there weren’t white campaigners against racism at the time. There were. But they were white anti-racism campaigners of the 1930s. They did not think about racism in the same ways that many of us do now. Actually, they may not have thought about “racism” at all as the word was newly minted in the 1930s and did not become widespread until decades later. Reading some of the letters and lectures of these campaigners now can be horrifying. To say they are often paternalistic would be a kind assessment.

It’s a fine line. Obviously, it’s impossible to write an historical that’s a hundred per cent faithful to the time and place. I wasn’t around then. All my information is second hand. All of it is informed by my time and place. But I want to avoid truly egregious false notes. People saying and doing things that were not thinkable at the time.

But in doing that you can wind up in trouble with your contemporary audience. Someone I know, a white writer, wrote a book set in the 19th century and received a lot of criticism for not using the term “African-American.” Despite the fact that the term did not exist then. They were also criticised for using the n-word, which was in common use at the time.

The last word is a major problem. It is a hateful word bearing the weight of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws and continuing racism today. For many reading it in any context at all feels like a slap in the face. So is historical accuracy more important than the hurt of people reading your book?

During the period and place I’m talking about—NYC in the 1930s—it’s a word that was used a lot by most classes. Though a nice upper class white lady would not have sullied her lips with. However, when she hears it said, she’s supposed to be shocked not because it’s racist, but because it’s vulgar.

I think many white writers are reluctant to be accurate in their depiction of racism for fear of being seen as racists themselves.1 I fear it. I want to be a good person. But racism exists and white writers are part of it. The ways in which we write about race and racism are important because we can help shape thinking about them. And depicting the past as a magical wonderland full of enlightened, kind, good white people is not only wishful thinking it does not help us understand and combat racism right now in the real world.

I have no conclusions about any of this. But I would love to hear your thoughts.

Update: I seem to have managed with this post to give the impression that I am writing an all-white novel. I am not! I have never in my entire career done so! I will never do so! I was mentioning the white characters in this post because they are the ones who will be read as villians if I give them the racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time. Sorry for being unclear.

  1. And there are an awful lot of white people who seem obsessed with that particular word and seem to look for any excuse at all to be able to use it. To which, well, uggh. []

On Research for Novels

‏@DaniArostegui asked “Can you write a post on the research process for your novels? How much research do you do for a given book?”

The book I’m writing at the moment, Sekrit Project, was inspired by a non-fiction book. So one of the first things I did was work my way through the articles and books listed in the bibliography. Each of which led to other books and articles and so on. Footnotes and bibliographies will lead you in many wonderful and unexpected directions.

When I’m writing a book set during a different historical period as I am with my 1930s New York City novel I immerse myself in the music, literature, movies, radio, fashion, food (via cookbooks and restaurant reviews) and art and photography—from postcards to news photography to high art photography to people’s snapshots—of the period. Fortunately these days there’s a great deal of that kind of archival material available online. Though I do find it very helpful to spend time with the actual physical material. So I spend time in archives reading letters, official documents, reports, newspapers and magazines and other material.

Magazines and newspaper and books looked so different back then. You don’t fully appreciate that until you’re touching them and turning the pages.1 For instance, I was surprised that so many books in the early 1930s had advertisements in them. I stupidly thought that was a more recent innovation.

For historicals I find the Oxford English Dictionary absolutely indispensable. I am constantly looking up words to make sure a) they were in use in the 1930s and b) that they meant then what they mean now. There’s also Ben Schmidt’s wonderful blog, Prochronism that looks at anachronisms on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. In which he points out, to take a recent example, that the cliche of “the defining moment” only dates back to 1983.

Schmidt makes great use of Google books’ n-gram viewer, which may be my favourite tool for this kind of research. Here’s the historical graph of the usage of the words “vampires” “zombies” and “unicorns” over the last two hundred years:

The blue line is vampires, the red zombies and the green unicorns. Click on image to go way bigger

Depending on your historical period you should also talk to living people about it. Some of their memories can be wonderfully evocative and useful to your story.

For Team Human the research was considerably less full on. Sarah Rees Brennan and I re-read classic vampire novels such as Dracula as well as catching up on the vampire novels we’d missed over the last few decades. Sarah had me reading L. J. Smith; I put her on to Tanith Lee’s Sabella. All the other research was mostly searching online to see how short the days are in Maine in autumn and stuff like that.

I never wait until I’ve done all the research before I begin writing. That way leads to never writing a sentence. You can never do all the research it’s simply not possible. Much better to start writing and when you come to something you don’t know insert square brackets. [find out if taxis were yellow back then] [what kind of toothpaste did they use] [is "I'll call you back" anachronistic] etc.

I tend to research the square bracket queries when I’m stuck with the writing or simply need a break from it. Though some days I’ll stop and look things up immediately if it’s easy. Today I had to check if the word “slapper” was used in the 1930s. No, it wasn’t. Not in the sense I needed it. In that sense it only goes back to the 1980s and it’s primarily British. So a big fat no to anyone saying it in NYC in the early 1930s. With my handy OED subscription2 and the n-gram that research took about ten seconds.

My bedtime reading when I’m deep in a project is usually books from the period I’m writing about. That way I’m pretty much always researching.

Hope that helps.

I’ll leave you with a link to Lisa Gold’s blog where she talks about getting more out of your online searches.

  1. Or at least I don’t. []
  2. You don’t have to subscribe. Many libraries have subscriptions that you can access if you’re a member. []

Writing Goals Reduxing the Redux

Back in 2006 I posted my writing goals. Then I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out.

My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize.1 Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something anyone can control,2 but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, really.3

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

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Gothic
  • Mainstream or litfic4
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA

I have added a new genre: Gothic. This is Sarah Rees Brennan‘s fault. She has written a Gothic, Unspoken, the first of a trilogy, which comes out in September. I love this book SO MUCH. It reminded me of all those Victoria Holt5 books I read by the truckload when I was wee. Of how much I have always adored the Brontes.6 And Shirley Jackson.7 And how I have always thought Georgette Heyer’s one Gothic novel, Cousin Kate, is much overlooked. Me, I am dead fond of it. I even read some Barbara Michaels on SRB’s recommendation and enjoyed them mightily. Though as a genre reader they are a bit frustrating. I kind of hate it when the Creepy Stuff Happening in the House has a really boring logical explanation. It’s too much like a Scooby Doo episode. Anyways, SRB has given me a powerful urge to write my own crazy, scary house novel, which is a metaphor for female imprisonment and yearning. Only in mine she’ll get to blow said house up, which even though it has been done before, will make me very happy.

All I have left is western, historical, horror and Gothic. Though a friend says I can cross horror off because Liar scared the crap out of her. But she is the biggest wuss on the planet so I declare that cheating. Liar isn’t scary at all. Wait till I write my slugs book. Now that’s scary. Though if some more of you think Liar counts as horror I may use that as an excuse to cheat and cross it off.

I am hard at work on a novel set in the 1930s so I suspect historical will be the next one to get the old strike through. But it may take some time . . .

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

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

The 1930s novel makes much use of omni. When it’s finally done I will conquer the entire list!

Lastly:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series
  • Collaboration

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

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

I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying. Or a duology. At which point I would add duology to the list.

The collaboration is a new addition to the list. I admit that it doesn’t really fit this list but I couldn’t think what other list to put it on. So, you know, whatever. I added it, obviously, because I get to cross it off. Thanks to having written Team Human with Sarah Rees Brennan which will be published in July. So soon, people!

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?

Disclaimer: This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

  1. Though I am not against those happening to me. I mean, wouldn’t that be grouse? I would not say no. Hmm . . . can you say no to being a best seller? Also is bestseller one word or two? []
  2. Well, not unless they’re hugely wealthy or know hugely wealthy people who are willing to buy gazillions of copies of their books from New York Times reporting stores. And then you wind up with the * meaning this book QUITE POSSIBLY CHEATED. []
  3. Well, except that I’m only counting them once they get published, which is not actually something I can control. It’s something I hope (fervently) will keep happening. []
  4. You know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis. Though I have never written such a book nor will I. But enough of my readers declared Liar to be literature that I decided to cross it off the list. []
  5. Yes, I am aware that “Victoria Holt” is one of the many nom de plumes of Eleanor Hibbert and that her most popular books were written under the names Jean Plaidy and Phillippa Carr. I loved all those books as well. []
  6. Yes, all of them. Even the much neglected Anne. Well, okay, not Branwell. AT ALL. But then he didn’t write any books, did he? I love all the books by Brontes. []
  7. I worship Shirley Jackson, actually. []

Last Day of 2011 (Updated)

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 2012. 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.)

This was not a fabulous year for me but it was a whole lot worse for so many other people around the world that whingeing would be tacky. I’ll focus on the good:

Finally, finally, finally we were able to announce, Sarah Rees Brennan and I, that we wrote a book together, Team Human, which is all about how having your best friend fall in love with a vampire SUCKS.1 We had to keep that secret for well over a year and it nearly killed us. It comes out in July in Australia (with Allen & Unwin) and in the United States of America (with Harper Collins). Oh, and it’s totally a real book and not a hoax despite what that lying minx Maureen Johnson says. See, actual real people have read it!

Sarah Rees Brennan has been crazy busy. Not only did she write a book with me but she also sold a whole new trilogy. The first book, Unspoken, will be out in September 2012. (Yes, she has two books out within three months of each other. Yes, she has superpowers.)

It’s SRB’s best book so far. I loved her Demon trilogy2 but Unspoken is even better. I cannot wait for more people to read it so we can all talk about the fantastic things she does with all those delicious Gothic tropes. Seriously, it’s wonderful and I’m convinced that SRB is going to start a Gothic revival.3 In fact, SRB’s made me want to write my own Gothic, which obviously I will have to dedicate to her. It will have an insane house that . . . oh, actually, I think Shirley Jackson wrote that book. Hmmm. I guess I should update that list of writing goals to include Gothic.

Books out this year

There were no new books by me in 2011. It was the first time since 2005 that I went book-less. Turns out I am no longer capable of a book a year. And to think I once attempted two books a year. It is to laugh! From now on it’s more likely to be a book every five years. Maybe.

Books out in 2012 and 2013

Well, except that I will have a book a year for the next two years: Team Human and Team Human: The Sequel of Awesomeness.

Thank you, SRB, for being the best and hardest working and paitentest collaborator a writer could hope for. Without you it would have been an eighteen year gap between my last book, Zombies versus Unicorns in 2010—another collaborative book—you do all see how my lovely writer friends are saving my career, right? Thank you, Holly Black—and my next solo book in 2028.4

RSI

Often after a new post from me I get a few people saying, “OMG! You’re writing again! You’re all cured! That’s awesome!”

To which, thanks! It’s really lovely to know that my online jibberings have been missed. But, sadly, no, I am not cured. Still with the RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Alas and alack. I’m pretty much where I was when I wrote about it a year ago.

What I’m doing is managing the RSI. Figuring out how to get the maximum amount of writing done with the minimum amount of pain, which involves a lot of time and money. I swear I practically have my own staff: physiotherapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, masseur, trainer, pilates instructor.5

I am extremely grateful to all of them while also resentful of the time it takes to buy me a few hours of writing. It does get me down. On the days when I don’t type I have virtually no pain at all. On the days I do type, even if only for a short while, there’s pain. For some strange reason feedback like that is more conducive to lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself than it is to writing.6

Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely fortunate. There are plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money to be able to deal with the ailments that are making their life hellish. Whose ailments are far worse than mine, whose symptoms cannot be managed. I know writers who write with multiple sclerosis, while recovering from strokes, with serious heart conditions, with cancer and so forth.

There are people out there getting all sorts of amazing things done despite the most horrendous obstacles in their way. I admire each and every one of them.

Other Things I am Asked About

Q: How’s your 1930s book going?

A: I am still at work on my 1930s novel. Slowly but surely. I even read a small section of it at the lovely Sirens conference I attended this year. The reception was most pleasing. If you ever have an opportunity to go to Sirens—Do. A smarter, more interesting crowd of readers and writers does not exist.

But, no, the 1930s novel is not any closer to being finished. Best, really to forget I ever mentioned it. Instead watch the wonderful new US tv show SRB said I had to see: Revenge. The heroine is a wicked Nancy Drew, who’s in the Hamptons to revenge her unjustly imprisioned father and she has ninja super powers and the people she gets revenge on are, like, hedge fund managers. I love her so much!

Q: How’s your garden?

A: My garden is doing great. Thanks!

Well, there was the small matter of the accidental drought when the battery went on the irrigation system. But most of the plants survived. It was kind of amazing. All the native violets laid down and died and then the second they felt sweet, sweet water they sprang up and were green and flowering again. Life, I tell you, it’s a miracle.

Those few plants that died I replaced with passionfruit. Because, well, yum. Also it turns out that passionfruit are like triffids. They move when you’re not looking and grow REALLY fast. Though, so far they have not attempted to eat me.

And the drought made my poor freaked out where-has-all-the-water-gone Tahitian lime tree fruit for the first time. Fruit! On a tree! In my garden! Um, yes, I am excited.

And I am starting to win my battle against the slugs. Apparently, they love corn meal. EVEN THOUGH IT KILLS THEM. Mwahahahahah!:

What? They totally deserve it. They were killing my basil and my poor benighted flowering eucalyptus! I have to KILL THEM ALL. NO OTHER PUNISHMENT IS ENOUGH. And, no, I’m not channelling Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge because she would think that merely ruining the slugs was sufficient. SHE WOULD BE WRONG. THEY MUST ALL DIE.7

Slugs and accidental droughts aside, my garden is one of the great pleasures in my life. We use the herbs daily. Currently, thyme, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, majoram, oregano, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. There are native bees and rainbow lorikeets sipping from our grevillea flowers. It looks and smells amazing. Every time I get stuck I walk out there breathe deep, kill a few caterpillars, smell a few flowers, chew on some mint and everything is just fine.

Happy new year, everyone! Here’s hoping 2012 will be what you want it to be.

Update: I forgot to put my usual disclaimer at the bottom of this post, which led a few folks to write and suggest I use voice recognition software. So here it is:

This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

  1. Pardon the truly terrible pun. []
  2. Because, well, Sin and Mae and Jamie and Nick. And SRB even got me to start liking Allan by the end of the final book. []
  3. Yes, that was another bad pun. []
  4. Which is when the next total eclipse that can be viewed from Australia takes place. Clearly, it will be the best year ever. []
  5. I will say this: Damn, am I fit! []
  6. Crap. I said I wasn’t going to whinge. Sorry! []
  7. Also, Emily/Amanda is way too classy TO SHOUT IN ALL CAPS. []

Because No One Should Suffer Alone

I am hard at work in the writing-sequel-to-Team-Human, researching-the-1930s word & image mines, which led to watching “The Truth About Youth” (1930). Man raises best friend’s son (known as the Imp) after best friend dies and encourages a match between the Imp and his housekeeper’s daughter (Loretta Young). But the Imp is in love with wicked exotic dancer, Myrna Loy, and Loretta Young is in love with the guardian. (Oh no! How can they resolve such a mess?) It’s not bad by early talkie standards. (I.e. it’s bad by any other standards.)

The problem with casting Myrna Loy as a dancer, is, um, well, you’ll see.

Just so you know I do love Myrna Loy. The Thin Man movies fill my heart with joy. But the following? To say that she can’t sing or dance is to be kind. I suffered through it now you should too.

Feast your eyes:


Myrna Loy-The Truth about Youth-1930 by redhotjazz

This post brought to you by demonic voice recognition software. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

Feeling Good

Yesterday’s post on my lack of love for voice recognition software seems to have left some with the impression that I’m doing badly. Not so!

There are many people with RSI or other injuries like carpal tunnel much worse affected then I am. There are some who can no longer hold anything, let alone a pen. My RSI doesn’t impinge on many activities other than writing. Also I have the resources to get the help I need (physiotherapy etc) to manage my condition. I’m extremely lucky.

I am, in fact, in the best shape of my life. Strengthening my core muscles and shoulder girdle (boxing is excellent for that as one of the commenters yesterday noted) has helped a great deal with the RSI. I have abs and arms of steel,1 I tell you!

More importantly, I am writing fiction with my hands the way I like it.2 I love what I have been writing since Liar. I probably shouldn’t say it but I think I’m doing some of the best writing of my life.

I know there’s nothing new from me this year, but I did have a pretty good anthology last year! Also, and this is currently a secret because the deal has not been announced yet, there will be a new novel next year and then another one in 2013. You all promise to tell no one, right? Oh, and before you ask, no, it is not the New York book. I continue to write that book but I will not sell it until I have finished.

I might have been pretty silent here but that is because I have been saving my arms for writing novels.

I might hate voice recognition software but it did allow me to write yesterday’s post—and now this one—without any pain. I could never use it to write a novel but I can use it here. I do not know how often but I hope it will be more than it has been.

Thank you so much for all your kind words and suggestions yesterday. They were very helpful. I sure do miss this blog and all of you.

  1. Well, maybe gold . . . []
  2. I reserve demonic VRS for e-mail and writing posts like this and other non-fiction stuff. []

Last Day of 2010

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 2011. 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.)

For reasons I’ll explain in more detail below (but are mostly I was not online much) 2010 was ridiculously productive for me. I now have more than 100,000 words of my 1930s novel. Most of it written this year. And I declare those words to be good.1 I have not enjoyed writing a book this much in I do not know how long. I never want to finish. Which is fortunate because I suspect that I’m not even half way finished. Likely not even a quarter. Possibly not even a tenth. Ooops. I may well not EVER finish. But, hey, at least I’m having fun.

For those of you who actually like to read words I write do not fear! I also wrote (with someone sekrit) a whole other sekrit (but hopefully not for much longer) project about which you will hear much next year when we’re allowed to tell you. Writing it was just about the best fun ever. I adore collaborating it turns out. Or maybe I just got lucky with the smartest, wittiest, fastest-writingiest collaborator of all time. Whatever the reason the two of us finished that project and sold it in two different countries.2 And now we get to do it all over again. Colour me, excited.

Such a productive year was particularly wonderful because in 2009 I stopped writing for many months. In that year all I did was rewrite Liar, a few thousand words of the 30s book, and about the same on two other unfinished projects. It was my least productive year since I became a professional writer and it scared me. For a while there I was worried I wouldn’t write again. So, phew! Despite annoying injuries 2010 has been my most happy and productive writing year ever. Here’s hoping 2011 will bring more of the same.

But this is my what-happened-in 2010 report, I shall continue:

Books out in 2010

This year I had only one new book: Zombies Versus Unicorns which I put together with Holly Black. It was published in the US (Simon & Schuster) and Australia (Allen & Unwin) with one of the most perfect and gorgeous covers any book of mine has ever had. I cried tears of joy when I first saw it. Josh Cochran is a genius and so are the design team at Simon & Schuster. The book has had wonderful reviews and even won an award for the audio edition and sold way better than anyone expected.

It’s a publishing truism that anthologies don’t sell.3 Well, this one sure does. Yay! Thank you so much for reading ZvU, buying it, and telling your friends and librarians about it. Much appreciated.

There’s also an audio edition by Brilliance, which features me and Holly reading the introductions. Well, sort of reading, we got more and more ad-libb-y as the day went on. Let’s just say we had a great time. I would happily record audio books with Holly and the Brilliance team whenever they want.

ZvU also sold into France (Pocket Jeunesse), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag) & Brazil (Editora Record).

Liar came out in paperback in North America. It was also published for the first time in Denmark (Hoest), France (Gallimard), Italy (Salani) & the Netherlands (Mynx). I had the great pleasure of meeting the Gallimard Jeunesse team in Paris and they were all wonderful and work in the most gorgeous building complex I’ve ever seen. They even have a sekrit garden!

There will also be editions of Liar in Brazil (Editora Record), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag), Taiwan (Sharp Point Press), Turkey (Artemis, an imprint of Alfa Yayin Grubu) and Spain (Ediciones Versatil).

Reception of Liar

It’s been brought to my attention that some people don’t feel Liar has gotten the recognition it deserves. While it’s lovely that people feel passionately about the book I want to point out that Liar‘s gotten a tonne of recognition. Liar was more widely reviewed than any of my other books and almost all of those reviews were extremely positive. It also made a gazillion different best book of the year lists. Liar was shortlisted for eleven different awards and won four of them:

  • the Davitt Award for best Young Adult Crime Novel 2010, which particularly thrilled me because I deliberately wrote Liar as a crime novel and the Davitt Award people were the first to notice,
  • the WA Premier’s Literary Award, Young Adult Prize 2009. In Australia the Premier’s awards are a huge, huge deal and even come with a big old fat cheque,
  • the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Christina Stead Award 2009, which is an award for best novel of the year regardless of genre—Liar was the first YA novel to win. I could not be prouder,
  • and the fourth award has not yet been officially announced but the 2009 Carl Brandon Kindred Award. When I found out I screamed. I think the wording of the award will explain why this means so much to me: “The Carl Brandon Kindred Award is given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group.”

So there you have it Liar is by a country mile my most successful book by whatever metric of success you want to use. It’s the best reviewed, won the most awards, generated the most fanmail and discussion,4 and has sold better than any of my other novels in Australia and the USA. On top of that it’s a book I’m proud I wrote.5 I’m stoked.

Read These Books!

My favourite YA book of 20106 was Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. Dark, weird, quirky, full of unexpected turns, fabulous world-building, and gorgeous writing. It’s not like anything else I’ve read. Well, other than her second book, A Slice of Cherry, which comes out in 2011. I highly recommend both.

Onto next year:

Books out in 2011

    The paperback edition of Zombies versus Unicorns

7

and, um, nothing else . . .

That’s right for the first time since 2005 I have no new book out. But I promise you there will be something new (see above about my sekrit project) in 2012 and in 2013. Truly.

My Silence this Year

You might have noticed that this is my first post in six months. For someone who used to blog every day that’s a huge change. A weird one. Yes, I do miss blogging. No, this is not the beginning of me blogging frequently again.8 I won’t be blogging much for the foreseeable future. Sorry. But thank you so much all of those who wrote to let me know how much you miss this blog. You made me all teary, you did. As did you lovely people I met at ZvU events this year who told me ditto. Bless!

I spent the year dealing first with an acute injury that kept me from writing but that healed relatively quickly. Then I discovered that I had RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) i.e. shooting pains in my arms and neck because of having typed a vast deal for about thirty years.9 I still have RSI. I cannot type for more than twenty minutes at a time or more than four hours a day without pain. I spent 2010 learning how to deal with it.

I tried many, many, many different things but here’s what worked for me:

RSI management:

  • My computer is for writing novels. I only tweet or blog or IM or email or any other non novel-writing keyboard activity on days when I don’t write. I also make sure I have at least one or two days a week completely away from the computer.
  • Most days the internet is switched off on my computer. Ah. The calm and ease of concentration with it gone. I honestly don’t miss it.
  • I am very strict about writing only in twenty minute bursts with stretching in between and not for more than four hours a day.
  • I use an ergonomic split key board, two trackballs with writst rests—one for my left hand and one for my right, my screen is at eye level, and I sit on an exercise ball forcing me to use my core muscles at all times.
  • Weekly massage and physical therapy. Accupuncture has also helped. I have tried other therapies but those are the ones that have given me the best results.
  • I work out five times a week with a trainer.10
  • I do pilates once or twice a week.

So, yes, I am doing much better than I was—most importantly I’m able to write—but it’s a continuing thing for which there is no magic cure. I hope those of you at the beginning of your writing life pay attention and start developing good habits now before permanent damage is done. I wish I had! /lecture

Being offline a great deal of the time does mean I’m harder to contact than I was. My apologies. If you wish to contact me the best way to do so is still via email. If I don’t get back to you and you deem it urgent contact my agent, Jill Grinberg. (Her details are in the automatic reply.)

In conclusion

This time last year my writing was not going well. I was in a dither about what to write next and was working on four books at once. Obviously, see above, I concentrated on the 30s novel, which is not finished, and the sekrit project, which is.

I said my goal was to be happy writing and I was. That’s my goal for this year too. And for the rest of my life. I declare it to be a most excellent goal. I commend it to you!

Thanks everyone who wrote me letters of support and letters about my writing this year. Those letters were wonderful. I treasure them and I’m very sorry I haven’t been able to respond. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being moved by the different responses people have to my work.11

I hope 2011 shapes up beautifully for all of us.12

Happy new year!

  1. I’m sure when I re-read them I’ll be less thrilled but right now I think they’re fabulous. I’ll stick with that feeling, thanks. []
  2. Well, our agents did. Thank you, Jill! []
  3. Take that, smelly publishing truisms. I bet green covers aren’t the kiss of death either. []
  4. And, no, I’m not counting discussion generated by the cover controversy. []
  5. I don’t care what anyone says I think that’s the most important thing of all. []
  6. Not written by a friend or husband of mine. []
  7. And this was not, in fact, published in 2011. Current rumours are that it will be out April 2012. []
  8. You do not want to know how many days it took me to write this. []
  9. This is a very common condition. I know gazillions of writers in the same boat. []
  10. Yeah, I’m one of those people. Sorry! []
  11. Yes, many of your letters made me all teary. What can I say? I’m a sook. []
  12. Even the Australian cricket team. Not that I’m holding my breath on that one . . . []

Jim Crow, Antebellum Propoganda, Civil Rights & the Color Line

Sibylle asked:

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but is this question [have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris] somehow connected to your reading of Slavery by Another Name by Blackmon?

You are not reading too much into my question. It is indeed related to my reading of Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or, rather it’s related to the research I’ve been doing for my book set in the early years of the 1930s in New York City. I asked about Harris because I’d never heard of him and only vaguely knew what the Uncle Remus stories were. Yet his name kept coming up in a lot of reading I’ve been doing. I was curious to know whether he was still being read and how he fits into modern USians reading histories.1

How did I get there?

I began my research reading everything I could set in, or about, the early 1930s in NYC. I expanded backwards to read about the Crash, the beginning of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance.

But it soon became apparent that there was loads I wasn’t understanding because I didn’t know enough even earlier US history. For example, while reading Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavins & Robert Korstad (which I highly recommend) I realised that I didn’t know when or how the Jim Crow laws originated. I didn’t know if they were federal, or state, or local, or all three. I didn’t know if they were restricted to the South. They weren’t and New York was, in fact, the worst of the Northern states. Though there were restrictions on where African-Americans live throughout the entire country. The color line was more of a wall. (Don’t believe me? Read this excellent account, Jim Crow in New York by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz with Garima Malhotra from the Brennan Centre for Justice. You can download it for free.)

Before I started my research for this book I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggle in the North. For those of you who are interested I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue. Reading that book side by side with Or Does it Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression by Cheryl Lynn Greenburg (yet another wonderful book) has done an enormous amount to widen my understanding and (I hope) improve the book I’m writing.

Finding out the answers to my many questions meant reading further back in time and realising that I didn’t really know a lot about Reconstruction or how Reconstruction ended and the North ceded control of the South. It also meant learning about how the myth of the Antebellum South emerged—you know that magical place of happy black slaves and beautiful white women worshipped by gallant white men, where the only poor whites were mean and trashy and deserved to be poor?—which was so pivotal to cultural understandings of race in the USA after the Civil War and Reconstruction. A myth that was as much constructed in the North as the South. A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.

I realised pretty quickly that I needed to know a lot more about how 19th (and then early 20th century) USians thought about race, which led to learning about “scientific” explanations of race and the so-called science of raciology. It meant learning more about Physical Anthropology as well as 19th century theories of Biology. And the way in which Darwin’s theories of Evolution were co-opted by white supremacists.

It also meant learning about the different political and philosphical positions of Booker T. Washington and W. E. Du Bois and many other black thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Marcus Garvey. If you haven’t read Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk I highly recommend it.2 You can download it from Project Gutenberg.

That’s what happens with research. It grows and blossoms and one path leads to another, which leads to another and so on and so on.

That is how I wound up reading Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. That is why I am currently reading The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars by Elazar Barkan.

And that is why I may never finish this book. But, hey, I’m learning a lot writing it . . .

  1. I am aware that my methods of finding out are not exactly scientific. []
  2. Yeah, I know I’m doing that a lot. []

Read Recently

One of the results of my recent injury, which has meant that I spend no more than four hours at my computer each day, is that I’ve been reading a tonne more. Here are some jetlagged thoughts, without any spoilers, on stuff (of all genres, not just YA) what I have read and loved recently:1

    Battle Royale Koushun Takami: Do not read this book if high school students murdering each other in graphic detail appalls you. And let’s be frank, it should appall you. I’m appalled that I was not appalled. But then I kind of like boxing too so clearly I have no moral compass at all. Um, yes, I loved this book. I could not put it down and kind of loved all the characters. It’s the kind of wonderfully well done crackalong pulptastic experience that I think Taratino frequently goes for (but in my opinion largely fails at). Actually, I thought I’d already read this book but it turned out I’d just seen the movie, which is not anywhere near as good. A few people are accusing Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series of being a rip off Battle Royale, which is silly. It’s an old, old plot and her version is very different. I hope that clears things up and people will stop with the dumbarse plagiarism charges. Aside from anything else even if she had deliberately set out to do a YA version of Battle Royale it would still not be plagiarism. Borrowing a plot is not plagiarism. I’m not just saying that cause I had planned to write a YA Battle Royale.2

    Bride of the Water God Yun Mi-kyung: I wrote about this manhwa series after I’d finished vol. 2. I said at the time that it has some of the most gorgeous art I’ve ever seen. After five volumes I stand by that. If anything it’s been getting even more beautiful. I also said I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on. I stand by that too. I love this series. I enjoy it in a clueless haze.

    Bury Me Deep Megan Abbott: This crime novel is set in the 1930s thus it was research. W00t! Awesome novel by a writer who’s new to me. I’ll be reading more of her stuff. Lyrical, intense, with gripping plot. Just my cup of tea. If only it had been set in NYC and not LA, it would have been perfect. (For research purposes, I mean.)

    Dreaming of Amelia Jaclyn Moriarty: I’m a huge Moriarty fan and this latest addition to her series which began with Feeling Sorry for Celia about a bunch of high school students at two high schools in Sydney, one posh, one not. The beauty of this series is that you can read them out of order without any ill effect but if you read them in order there even better. My faves are this one and Bindy McKenzie. All the books in the series are told from multiple points of view via letters, notes on the fridge, legal depositions, etc etc. They’re technically stunning. It is very hard to tell a gripping, moving story that way. Yet Moriarty not only does it but does it so seamlessly you stop noticing that these are not conventional novels. I love these books.

    Enchanted Glass Diana Wynne Jones: I love pretty much everything Wynne Jones has ever written. She is a genius and this is one of my fave books of hers in ages. She’s funny and moving and, well, I just worship her. My only quibble was that the ending was a tad abrupt. But who cares. It was Diana Wynne Jones. More, please!

    Pluto Naoki Urasawa: I cannot decide which of the three Urasawa manga series that I’ve read I like best. I love Monster. It’s a bad seed story, what’s not to love? But on the other hand 20th Century Boys is pretty amazing too. And now Pluto is blowing me away. Maybe I’ll have to wait until I’ve finished all of these series to decide.

    Piper’s Son Melina Marchetta: Melina’s first adult novel. A kind of sequel to Saving Francesca. This is my favourite book of hers to date. I love love love love loved it. Read it in one sitting and balled my eyes out.3 Walk, don’t run!

    The Right Mistake Walter Mosley: I’m yet to dislike a single Walter Mosley book. This was no exception. Though I’ll admit I was nervous. I’m not a big short story person and am quite suspicious of long narratives told in a series of short stories. They’re incredibly hard to pull off. Mosley does it.

    Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II Douglas A. Blackmon. Another research book. This one non-fiction. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Jim Crow and the colour line for my 1930s book. Right now I would like to make everyone with even the slightest interest in the history of the USA read this book. It absolutely debunks any notion that slavery ended in 1865, try 1945. It makes me even angrier at the waves of Southern propoganda about the Civil War and Reconstruction embodied by books and movies like Gone with the Wind. This book made me want to go back in time and do something to persuade the North not to abandon the South, for Reconstruction to have lasted, say, fifty, or even a hundred years, rather than a mere twelve. Or maybe all that was needed was to put different people on the Supreme Court, who wouldn’t have gutted the Civil Rights amendments in 1883 or ruled wrong on Plessy v Ferguson. For me this was an eye-opening book and has forever changed how I think about US history.

    Wench Dolen Perkins-Valdez: This has been getting a lot of buzz online. All of it is deserved. Set in the 1840s and 1850s in the USA about four slave women who are taken to an Ohio resort by their masters. This was another one-sitting read. It’s gorgeously written, incredibly moving, and had me in tears more than once. This book was made even more poignant for me because I read it immediately after Slavery by Another Name and couldn’t help but worry about what was going to happen to these women after Reconstruction.

I loved all of these books and highly recommend them. Be very interested to hear from others who’ve read ‘em. What did you think?

  1. My apologies for how bad that sentence is. And for the bad ones which follow. []
  2. Damn you, Suzanne Collins! []
  3. Though I should point out that I am a sook. It is easy to make me cry. []

Two NYC YA Events

If you’re in NYC in the next couple of weeks here are two YA events you might want to check out:

The latest New York Review of Science Fiction Readings features

Barry Lyga, Marie Rutkoski, & Robin Wasserman
curated by Carol Cooper

Tuesday, 6 April, Doors open 6:30 PM, event begins at 7:00 PM
SoHo Gallery for Digital Art
138 Sullivan Street (between Houston & Prince St.)

Admission is by a $5 donation. (If circumstances make this a hardship, let them know and they will accommodate you.)

Me and Scott will be taking part in the Read This Books for NYC Schools Day on the 10th of April. Read This collects books for people who need them, especially schools without libraries, hospitals, homeless shelters, troops overseas, etc.

Justine Larbalestier, Bennett Madison,
Scott Westerfeld, & Cecily von Ziegesar
Reading and Q&A
12:30PM-1:15PM, Saturday, 10 April
Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street, Second floor
(between Madison & Fifth Ave.)
NY NY

The price of admission? Your donation of two or more new or gently used board books through grade 12.

The readings will be short. Just five minutes each.1 I’ll be reading a letter from the 1930s novel (the novel I’m mostly working on right now) by my favourite character, Lizzy.2 Scott may or may not be reading a sneak preview from Goliath. He says it will depend on the crowd and his jetlag.

Hope to see some of you there.

  1. My favourite kind of reading. []
  2. Well, she’s one of my favourite characters. I kind of love them all. []

What Four Hours Means + Answering Some Quessies

As some of you know I’ve been dealing with an injury that means I spend way less time at my computer. I thought I’d say a little bit more about what that means as I’ve had a few people frustrated at my not responding to them.

When I’m at my computer for my scant four hours my top priority is my novel. After that I deal with the most important email (from agent, publishers etc) after that I tackle this blog. So far that’s pretty much all I get to. Which means I am not reading anything on Twitter and I have not read any blogs in a donkey’s age.

Thus I do not know what you’ve been saying about me. I’m not ignoring you, honest. I just haven’t read it. I do not know the latest kidlit gossip (unless Scott remembers to tell me). I have not answered your lovely email to me. But I have read it and been thrilled by it. Thank you.

To summarise: if you wish me to know something email me. But know that it will take me a long time to answer. My apologies in advance.

Which leads me to answering the questions I’ve been emailed lately:

Q: How is your injury going?

A: I’m doing much better. Thank you.

Q: Does that mean you’ll be online more?

A: For the time being no. Until I’m completely healed I’m going to continue the current no-more-than-four-hours daily-on-computer-five-days-a-week regime. Aside from anything else I’m getting a lot more writing done this way.

And when I’m not at the computer I’m getting a tonne of reading done. Most of it is research for my novel but I also recently read and loved Melina Marchetta’s Piper’s Son and Jaclyn Moriarty’s Dreaming of Amelia. I have also read two awesomely great novels by Sarah Cross. (Neither published yet. Sorry. But, trust me, you’re gunna love them.) I’ve been reading the serialised version of the third book in Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, which I am also adoring. (Though I am very impatient for the next installment. Aren’t I lucky to know so many great writers who let me read their books early?) I’m also buried deep in Pluto by Naoki Urasawa. (I also love his Monster and am about to get started on 20th Century Boys.)

Q: What is this novel that’s eating all your computer time?

A: It is the 1930s novel that I have been mentioning for some time. That’s right I finally settled down and picked just one novel to work on. It’s big and sprawling and set in NYC in the early 1930s and is written in a mixture of omniscient point of view and letters.1 I haven’t had this much fun writing in ages.

Q: When will your new book be published?

A: I have no idea. I am writing the 1930s book without a contract. I’ll sell it—or, rather, my agent Jill Grinberg will—when I’ve finished the book. So your guess is as good as mine as to when that will be.

Well, okay, my guess is a lot better than yours. The book just passed the 40k mark and I haven’t even gotten up to the events in the proposal (which I wrote when we were going to sell it before I finished it). I think I’ve written about a quarter or less of the novel. I also think it may be more than one novel. But I have decided to write the entire story in one go no matter how long it is. Then and only then will it be sold. The soonest I can imagine this book being finished would be the end of this year. But that’s probably way too optimistic. Then Jill would have to sell it, then the publisher would have to find a place for it in their publishing schedule, which would be 2012 at the earliest. Again that’s a very optimistic guestimate. In short: do not hold your breath for my next novel to appear in bookshops any time soon.

Q: How has Liar been selling?

A: My Australian and USian publishers tell me Liar is selling better than any of my other books. But that’s all I know. (It hasn’t been published anywhere but Australia/NZ and USA/Canada yet. Though it has sold in a number of other countries.)

Q: How is your garden coming along?

A: Wonderfully well. Thank you for asking. All the plants are in! We’ve even used some of them in cooking. (Mint, bay leaves, dill, chillis.) Being surrounded by gorgeous plants has made us both happier and we spend much time doting on them (and then eating some of them). Here is a photo for your delectation:

This is what it used to look like (Well, actually, this is what it looked like after we got the deck sanded prior to garden going in. Click here for the pre-sanded version.):

Thanks again for the lovely letters. The ones in praise of Liar are becoming more and more frequent and never fail to make my day. I’m so pleased that book has meant so much to so many readers.

  1. That’s right, Justine goes for the most commercial angles yet again. []

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. []

What Novel I Wrote Next

Searching for something else entirely, I stumbled across this old post from March 2007 where I asked my faithful readers to help me choose what to write next. I decided it would be fun to do an update. Fun for me, anyways.1

First on the list of possibilities is this one:

The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.

Sound familiar? Why, yes, it’s the book I wrote next: Liar which published in September this year. As it happens it involved no outlining at all. But I was right it was hard. Much harder than I knew at the time. It also generated more excitement than I anticipated.

The other now completed item on the list was this one:

Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!

The story was “Thinner than Water”, which was published in 2008 in Love is Hell. You can find a bit more about the story here. Even if I do say so myself it is an actual good story. I’m proud of it. But it was many years work and I think I’ll be sticking to novels from here on out.

I don’t know why the 1930s book isn’t on that list. I was already thinking about writing it in October 2006. Though the specifics didn’t come together until a fortuitous conversation with Cassie Clare in 2007. (Thank you, Cassie!)

The other idea on that list I’ve made a substantial start on is this one:

Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight years old) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.

I have, in fact, recently resumed work on it. Though as I am at work on many other things that does not mean the lodger novel will be finished any time soon.

Actually none of the other things I’m working on is included on that list. Mostly because I hadn’t thought of them way back then. Which just goes to show you that ideas really are a dime a dozen. Why, I just got a new one yesterday that I’m valiantly struggling against given that I already have four novels on the go. Five would be too many.

It was lovely looking at that list from almost two years ago and realising that in the intervening time I’d written two of them. Novels take ages and for me short stories take even longer. It will be many years before I write all those books. If, indeed, I write them at all. Most likely I’ll forgot about them and move on to other shinier ideas.

Because it’s not about the ideas, it’s about what you do with them. My barely sketched out idea of Liar from early 2007 does not invoke the completed book. There’s no mention of murder, no sense of what Micah is like, and no hint of why she lies. The book you write is never a perfect match with the imaginary book that was in your head before you began.

And now I must go and do some of that writing thing. Hmm, lodger novel? 1930s? Or that shiny new idea from yesterday . . . ?

  1. Hey, it’s the holidays no one’s reading this right now. []

Writing Goals Redux (updated)

A while ago I posted about my writing goals. I updated it a year ago with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy. But now I have published Liar which is in a whole new genre and allows me to cross even more off my lists.

My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize. Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something I can control, but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are about. Simple, really.

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller)
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Mainstream or litfic (you know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis)
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA

The publication of Liar allows me to knock three genres off that list. Though cheatingly I only just added one of them—problem novel. What? It’s my list! I can add to it if I want whenever I want. I could have added unreliable narrator and pretended it was a genre, too, you know. But I didn’t.

All I have left is western, historical and litfic. I’m writing an historical right now. The western is still aways off but will definitely happen. I also have a couple of ghost stories in mind so horror will also get knocked off. I don’t think I’ll ever manage litfic. Unless you think I can claim Liar as litfic? If more than one of you says I can then I’m crossing it off.

Update:
More than one of you said I could cross of litfic. Thus it is now crossed off. I love collusion.

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

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

Why, yes, Liar does allow me to cross off another one: second person. Go, me! And the 1930s novel makes much use of omniscient. I will conquer the entire list! W00t!

And the last list:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series

Which sadly remains unaltered because Liar is a standalone. But I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying.

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?

Lindy Hop Report

Yesterday I discovered that my husband is evil.

Remember way back when people said they’d donate money to the New York Public Library if I learned to lindy hop? I said that I would have my dancing verified by three YA authors approved by John Green who was the first person to offer money to charity if I learned to dance. Well, that’s not necessary any more.

Because Scott secretly shot video of some of our lessons. Utter, utter, utter bastard! He was going to make a video and put it up on youtube! Behind my back!

Fortunately, I caught him looking at some of the footage. But since he was nice enough to not shoot our faces, and we’re running out of time to gather up YA witnesses, I decided that we would make the vid together.

But just so you know, Scott, YOU ARE EVIL. ALL TRUST IS GONE.

Some disclaimers for people who know from lindy hop. We knows we has a long way to go. We’re working on bending knees, sticking out arses, holding frame, chasseing, pulsing and etc. The most recent footage included is from three weeks ago. We’re already way better than the vid demonstrates. Honest.

Many many people have been asking how I like learning lindy hop given how much I really really really really didn’t want to do it.

I love lindy hop.

[A minutes pause while you all tell me you told me so.]

It’s the most fun I’ve had in ages. I’m loving learning something that requires my full attention. When I’m dancing I’m not thinking about my novel or bills that have to be paid or anything except where my feet and bum and arms should be. While I’m learning to dance I’m not even slightly stressed. Scott feels the same way. We will be continuing our lessons. We both want to get good at it.

One of my objections did turn out to be true: I have to ice my left foot after every lesson. Lindy hopping is not kind to plantar fasciitis.

We got around my other fear—of making a fool of myself in front of total strangers—by taking private lessons. I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Also private lessons means learning faster and having all your mistakes picked up and corrected quicker. We have had two awesome teachers: Jessi and Stephanie. Thank you!

We have even gone out and danced in public. (Once.) Last Sunday under the stars on Pier 54. It was magical. Yes, we are addicted.

Here’s proof that I’ve been learning to lindy hop:

If you pledged money now’s the time to pay. You can donate to the NYPL here. Even if you didn’t make a pledge you can still donate to the NYPL or your local library wherever you may be. Libraries all over the world need our help.

Library Stories

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of libraries. Why, I am currently learning to lindyhop—two lessons a week—in order to raise money for the New York Public Library System which is facing $57 million in budget cuts.1

This story of an Uzbekistan immigrant to the US who is now in charge of the Queens Library at Broadway made me teary:

My daughter didn’t know English well; I didn’t know English. I was trying to teach her myself. The library was my life at the time. We took out childrens books to hear that language. We learned 30 words a day. We memorized them, put them on the wall. The next day, another 30 words. After half a year she didn’t need English as a second language anymore. I learned with her. She just graduated from Vassar, Phi Beta Kappa. The library was everything for us. We were in the library every day, me and my husband.

My own library stories are not nearly so dramatic. I remember as a kid the excitement of being taken to the library by my parents and getting to pick out lots of picture books to take home. Much later as a uni student, the library at the University of Sydney, ugly, haunted2 monster that it is, was where I practically lived, studying, finding endless reams of articles, chapters, books and other material for my countless assignments, essays, and, later on, PhD thesis. The excellence of the Sydney Uni Library’s Rare Books departments made my doctoral research possible. Without them my first book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, would not have happened. My gratitude to all of them, especially Pauline Dickinson, remains huge.

So, yes, librarians and libraries, I love them.

What about youse lot? Do any of you have some library stories to tell? I’d love to hear them.

  1. Lindyhop progress report to be posted soon. []
  2. Don’t go above the fifith floor! []

Today is L-H day

I have booked five lindy hop lessons with one of the studios Frankie Manning once taught at. Today at 4pm I have my first lesson.

I am afraid. Very afraid.

If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow, you’ll know what happened. Remember me fondly!

And now I am off to hear many eleven year olds screaming super loudly. The first pre-season New York Liberty game. It will be chaos. I love chaos!

Five Thousand Dollars Raised for NYPL: Yes, I’ll Be Learning to Lindy Hop

So, you lot won, I’ll be learning to lindy hop. Margaret Miller and Lauren McLaughlin have volunteered to go with me for at least part of the process. As has my husband. I’m sure it won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.

Thanks a bunch, evil minions of John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson and John Green—John Green, being the evil-John-Green-minion-in-chief. But most of all thanks to my husband who stepped in at the last minute to make sure the $5,000 total was met. (All thanks sarcastic in case you were wondering.)

The New York Public Library really does thank you all. Truly, I’m so thrilled that we’ve raised five thousand dollars to help them out. If you’d like you can start making those pledges real now. Or you can wait until I start delivering proof that I’m learning the lindy hop.

I will blog the whole process from my first lesson on. I’ll be doing this properly. There will be more than one lesson. Final proof will take the form of three YA author witnesses approved by John Green. They will watch me dancing the Lindy Hop and testify to their witness on their blogs. There will be no video.

All this talk of the lindy hop is especially fitting as one of the originators of the dance, Frankie Manning, died on the 27th of April. He was not only a pioneer and tireless evangelical for the dance but a true New York City boy through and through. He’s a huge loss, not just to the world of dancing, but to the city. Footage of him dancing was a big influence on my deciding to include lindy hopping in my 1930s NYC novel. It’s very fitting that I’ll be learning this dance in the city where it originated for a book set during the early days of the dance.

Here’s hoping lindy hopping doesn’t render my plantar fasciitis permanent! Or give me any additional injuries. But if it does I’ll know who to blame: MY OWN HUSBAND!

On Research

In the comments thread on my post about some of the research for Liar Kathleen asked:

Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

I started answering the questions in the comments but it got too long so I have given my answer its own post. Lucky answer gets an upgrade!1

No, there’s no point in writing a book in which I stop researching. In fact, I was up at Central Park again this week checking out a few things for Liar that I’ll now be changing in the first pass pages.2

Especially when I’m writing an historical the research is all the time. As some of you may know my current project is set in the 1930s in New York City. Before I started writing I already knew a fair amount about the place and the period because of earlier research projects. So the first thing I did was to find out if there’d be any new books since I my research was now more a decade old. Then I started reading those new books and articles. At the same time I started writing the novel.

That’s one of the important things I have learned. Never leave the writing until you feel like you’re on top of the research. Because if you’re anything like me you’ll never get there. I’ve been at this for well over a year now and I still don’t feel like I know enough. I’m still finding out cool tidbits. Did you know there was a Little Syria in NYC in the 1920s? I just found that out yesterday. Now I’m wondering if it was still around in the early 1930s. What did it look like?

I used to do the research first and only when I felt like I knew enough did I start writing. But I never felt like I did. So—you guessed it—I didn’t start writing. The only reason I started my PhD thesis was because my scholarship was going to run out. But I learned my lesson: never put off the writing.

I write until I hit a point where I don’t know enough. If it’s a big thing—I’m writing a scene set in a buffet flat in Harlem but I’m not sure what one might have looked like—I’ll stop writing and go back to researching. But if it’s just a small thing I leave a note for myself [what kind of toothpaste? powder?] and continue writing.

Which means I’m always constantly rewriting—going back and filling in the square brackets, as well as changing stuff I’ve guessed wrong, and adding cool new details: Little Syria!3 That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun. And unlike scholarly research I don’t have to footnote everything. Or anything really.

It’s all of the fun with little of the tedium.

Kathleen also asked:

I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

Yes, that feeling is part of any writing gig that involves lots of research. There’s always more to learn. But it’s one of the beauties of fiction. It doesn’t matter if some scientist makes a breakthrough that negates your plot because you’re writing fiction not a peer-review science article. A good story is a good story. Lots of my fave sf is based on outmoded science. Proabably all of it. Doesn’t matter.

All fiction dates in one way or other. But the good fiction outlives its datedness.

  1. Hope it doesn’t go to the answer’s head. []
  2. Typeset pages which have been proof read. I.e. these are the first page that look like the book will finally look. I check to see if I agree with the proof reader’s catches and to fix anything else that needs fixing. []
  3. Which may change the direction of the plot. []

Update of Lindy Hop situation (updated x3)

Quick Recap: I’m writing a book set in the 1930s in New York City. Some of the characters lindy hop. I jokingly asked my blog readers if they thought I really needed to learn it without any intention of actually doing so. John Green stepped in and offered a thousand dollars if I did learn it. And like that.

I have looked deep in my heart and not found a desire to learn the lindy hop. I have flashed back to hated dance lessons as a kid. To the mean yell-y or eye-roll-y dance teachers. The injury in my left foot has flared up again.1 Also I am unconvinced by all the people who swear I’ll love it. Many people swore I would love martinis and gin & tonics! I hate them! They taste like paint thinner.

I’ve been charmed and sometimes bemused by all the comments from followers of Maureen Johnson & John Green urging me to put my life and limbs at risk. But not enough to actually do it. However, since John Green made this about charity and I chose helping out the New York Public Library system more donations would definitely persuade me to learn the dance.

Right now one thousand, four hundred and twenty-five dollars has been pledged. Bless all you extremely generous pledgers! But it’s not yet enough to push me into a dance studio. I can give that amount out of my own pocket. That way I don’t suffer and the NYPL system doesn’t lose out.

So I’ve decided that unless people pledge more than I can afford to part with myself $5,000 I’ll donate the money myself and continue to study the lindy hop via youtube. I know most people don’t have much spare cash at the moment. But even small amounts will help. Helping libraries is more important than ever now that they are the only resource for so many people who have no where else to go for entertainment, for assistance putting resumes and job applications together, for somewhere they can just sit and think for a bit. I’ve met many teenagers in this city for whom the NYPL has been a refuge, a source of friendship, hope, and learning.

Monday’s the deadline.

If enough money is raised by then I will take lessons with my lovely husband, Scott. Lauren and Margaret, who are already dancing fools, have also agreed to be part of proceedings at various stages.

I will be learning this dance properly. Unlike John Green who only stood on that table for less than a second I plan to learn it so well that I can start lindy hopping whenever the music is right. I hate learning to dance, but I do enjoy dancing. So the lesson learning will take awhile. But I’ll keep you all up to date on my progress.

Proof that I have learnt the lindy hop will be provided by three reliable YA author witnesses approved by John Green, who will write their observations of my lindy hopping on their blogs.

I’m really hoping some of you will make donations. No matter how small! It would be great to give a big wack of cash to the NYPL system. It would help so many people.

I’m also really hoping that you won’t. It would be awesome not to have damage myself further.

Yes, I am torn on how this goes. And afraid.

Update: Because of Eric Luper’s vociferous complaints I have named an amount that has to be exceeded in order for this to happen: $5,000. And I’ve made the deadline Monday.

Update the second: As already stated numerous times there will be no video. I hate being filmed. Not going to happen.

Update the third: Okay a video did happen.

  1. Plantar fasciitis from my foolish attempt to learn how to run properly []

Romance

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. []

Lindy Hop Challenge

Hmm, the whole Should I Learn to Lindy Hop thing has gotten bigger than Ben Hur. There’s more than two hundred comments thus far. And not all of them are from minions of Maureen Johnson and John Green. I’m kind of amazed.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: I asked if it was really necessary for me to learn to lindy hop as research for my 1930s novel. Yes, there is dancing in the novel. But I figured looking at youtube clips would be enough.

John Green instantly responded that he and Sarah Green would donate a thousand dollars to a charity of my choice if I learned the EXTREMELY DANGEROUS DANCE and continues to beat the drum of my destruction. I suspect this is revenge for my instigating John having to overcome his fear of heights. Which he didn’t. Not really. He’s on that table for like .05 of a second!

A number of other commenters have said they will also give money to a charity of my choice if I learn this dance. So, if I do this thing AND I HAVEN’T SAID I WILL YET then that money will go to the following:

Save Queens Library

Brooklyn Public Library: Support Our Shelves

Support the NYPL

Brooklyn Vanguard

Read this extremely moving letter from a NYC librarian for some of the many reasons they’re such a worthy cause. Basically, the city is cutting funding to the NYPL system right at a time when libraries are being stretched to breaking point because the downturn in the economy means more and more people are using libraries.

Almost every book I’ve ever written has involved large chunks of time spent researching in libraries. I love them. The NYPL system is proving invaluable for my lindy hopping 1930s novel. I love libraries and l love New York City. So if I have to damage myself learn the lindy hop it would be fabulous for NYPL to get something out of it.

You can vote and/or pledge money to the NYPL over there or here.

For those who don’t know what the lindy hop looks like:

Frankie Manning who was one of the lindy hops pioneers is featured. He died just last month.

To Celebrate Getting My Site Back

Did you know Buddy Ebsen of the Beverly Hillbillies could dance? Well, he could. He and his sister Vera had a most excellent vaudeville act together. He’d be the clumsy kid and she’d be the dance teacher. They appear together in Broadway Melody of 1936. He’s the one wearing a Mickey Mouse jumper (sweater)

I really love his goofy dance stylings. Halfway between dancing and falling over. Fills my heart with joy. Here’s the only good example I could find online. It’s from A Banjo on My Knee (1936). Buddy doesn’t start dancing until about 1:40. Enjoy. And keep your eyes peeled for his surprise dance partner who I have never ever seen dance before:

Very happy making!

Should I Learn to Lindyhop? (updated x 3)

Following my post of t’other day several people have been saying that I really must learn the lindy hop for my 1930s novel. And, in fact, if I don’t they won’t read my book.

I have several extremely sensible objections to learning the lindy hop. They are as follows:

Objection no. 1: My book is set in the early 1930s and the lindy hop was around later.

Tragically, this turns out not to be true. Multiple sources online say it began in the late 1920s in Harlem. *sigh*

Objection no. 2: I cannot learn how to dance.

This is absolutely true. I have physical dyslexia. I cannot folllow instructions. The instructor’s arm goes one way mine goes the other. It is not pretty. Or fun.

Objection no. 3: It looks dangerous.

I’m not sure if I have ever told you, my dear readers, about my sports curse. It has been the bane of my life. Every time I take up a new sport I damage something. I’ve broken a toe, many bones in my right wrist, the transverse process of vertebraes L1, L2 & L3 (bones in my back), torn cartilage, as well as mutiple sprained ankles. All of which has resulted in my having to have surgery three times.

And I haven’t even played that much sport!

I’ve not broken a bone since 1994. Or sprained an ankle since 2004. I fear that the lindy hop would take me back to the bad old days.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about. Here is the lindy hop. (The dangerous stuff is around the midway point.):

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple (1939)

So do you still want me to learn the lindy hop? Even in the face of my extremely sensible objections? If so why? Is it because you hate me?

Update:
If I do this thing proof will be as suggested by Yza: the say so of three reliable YA author witnesses.

Update the second:
John Green has agreed to reliable witnesses. More on the challenge here.

Update the third:
And learn it I did. You will find the proof here.

Actual 1930s footage

A few of you were a bit scathing about my attempting to recast Kiss Me Kate as relevant to my 1930s NYC research. There can be no nay sayers to the following snippets of research.

First up the genius Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band with “Old Man Blues” from 1930:

Duke Ellington is far and away my favourite USian composer. Just for his & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” alone. Oh, how I love “Isfahan”. Yes, I know they didn’t write that until the 1960s, but there was so much wonderful music before then. Including one of my favourite songs of all time: “(In My) Solitude” from 1934.

Next up a particularly nutty Busby Berkley number from Footlight Parade (1933):

Go, cats, go! The kid that shows up around the minute marks is SO disturbing. And I don’t want to be rude but Ruby Keeler? Not the world’s most impressive hoofer. She was no Eleanor Powell. Her singing wasn’t up to much either.

Footlight Parade’s one of my favourites of Busby Berkley’s insane extravaganzas. For some reason every single one of them features a woman putting on and taking of stockings very slowly. And many weirdo dance numbers. What is not to love? Added bonus: Footlight Parade has my favourite poster boy for ADD, Jimmy Cagney.

I’ve talked about Fredi Washington previously. If you haven’t seen Imitation of Life (1934) you really should and skip this next bit cause you wouldn’t want spoilers, would you? Reveals a lot about class, race and gender at the time. Plus I have a crush on Fredi Washington.

Here’s a pivotal scene with Fredi and Louise Beaver:

Lastly, more insanity. American fashion designers predict future fashions:

Oooh! Swish! Want. Pretty much every outfit. And the hair styles. Why aren’t we dressing like that? I sure would like to see Scott decked out in that last number. Bless!

Are you all starting to understand why I’m writing this book? Is just an excuse to swim about in an ocean of 1930s fabulosity. Music, movies, clothes, books. Everything really.

Because it makes me happy

I was actually looking for “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” cause it’s brilliant plus it’s clearly inspired by Damon Runyon who published many of his best stories in the 1930s and is thus within the period of my next novel, which makes it vaguely research-ish. Not to mention Runyon’s stories are almost all set in NYC. A highly imaginary NYC, I grant you, but still.

(Er, for those who don’t know my next novel is set in NYC in the 1930s. I’m only reading and watching and listening to 1930s stuff until the novel is written. I’m being extremely strict about it except for sometimes my interpretation of “1930s” gets a teeny tiny bit elastic.)

Sadly, I could not find a version of that genius song that I liked well enough to share with you. I know for some of you this might have been the first time you’d heard “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” and that experience must be PERFECT! (Especially for the Corialanus line.) So instead I’ve opted for “Always True To You In My Fashion”.

It’s also from Kiss Me Kate and thus also written by the fabulous Cole Porter (who wrote many of his best songs in the 1930s) and I love it muchly. It’s relevant to my research on account of I do believe there might have been women who were occasionally unfaithful in the 1930s and, um, it was written in 1948, which is not that far off the early 1930s.

Oh, never mind just enjoy:

Aren’t Ann Miller and Tommy Rall darling?

And just to push this slightly closer to the 1930s: have some lindy hopping featuring Frankie Manning. Yes, this footage is from 1941 but the lindy hop was invented in the 1930s 1920s, okay?

I have a couple of dancing fool friends, Lauren and Margaret, who say that I really need to learn the lindy hop in order to write my book properly. But don’t you all think that’s a little bit extreme? I would have to have a mighty big incentive to go that far!

Stop asking me for ARCs! (updated)

It says that I don’t have ARCs on the contact page. You know, the same contact page you have to go to in order to write and ask me for the ARCs I do not have. *head desk*

Let me put it another way:

I DON’T HAVE ANY ARCs

The contact page also tells you who does have ARCs. Yes, right at the top of the contact page.

But please remember: publishers don’t give ARCs out to everyone. There’s only a small number so they have to be selective. It’s one of those “while supplies last” things.

Bloomsbury will be giving more away at IRA, ALA, and BEA.

Sorry to sound snippy but I’m getting way too many of these requests and I don’t have time to respond. I’m busy! I’ve got copyedits to check, 1930s research to do, my next novel to write, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped!

I am thrilled that so many people want to read Liar. It’s truly wonderful. I can’t wait for you guys to read it either. I’m really enjoying hearing people start to talk about Liar and argue about what really happens. THOUGH DON’T SPOIL IT FOR OTHERS. If you really are bursting to talk about it but no one around you has read it: write to me. I’d love to hear from you.

Here’s hoping this enthusiasm to read the book is still going strong when the real proper book version of Liar publishes in October! Only six months away! How did that happen?

*Goes back to copyedits.*

As you were.

Update: Since there seems to be some confusion, I have attempted to clarify here.

Researching NYC in the early 1930s

The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.

It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.

And as you can imagine the research is immense.

So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.

The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.

Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

    Selma, Alabama
    Sept, 1935

    Dear Mr. President,
    Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
    Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
    The Colored
    Women

    Burlington, Iowa
    Nov. 4-36
    President + Mrs. Roosevelt
    Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
    I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
    First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
    I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
    I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
    I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
    I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
    I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
    Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
    Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
    Happiness and Success to Both of You.
    Sincerely
    Mrs. I. H.

Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.

I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.

As I work on this book I keep getting Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” stuck in my head:2

    Them that’s got shall have
    them that’s not shall lose

It’s a beautiful song but so very sad.

  1. The “u” in “coloured” is original to the letter. Not this Australian introducing an error. []
  2. Technically I shouldn’t be listening to it. Was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939 and not recorded till 1941. []

Thank you

A while back one of you wonderful commenters recommended the books of Thorne Smith as fun examples of 1930s NYC fiction. I have been reading much Thorne Smith of late and his books are strange and wonderful and full of much usefulness for my research. He wrote Topper which was turned into a marvellous movie of the same name with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.

Another reader recommended Been Rich All My Life a documentary about the Apollo Theater dancers of the 1930s, which was truly wonderful and made me cry, and also gave me many leads. Because I am at the very beginning of my Harlem research I am embarrassed to confess that I had not heard of Small’s Paradise, a black-owned big nightclub in Harlem, which was also the only integrated nightclub and is now a school. I think Smalls will be making an appearance in the 1930s novel.

Now of course I can’t find either of the comments where those recommendations were made so I can’t find who to thank. All I can hope is that the two of you read this post and put up your hand. In the meantime: THANK YOU!

While I’m at it thanks to all the lovely folks who’ve been sending me links to 1930s sites and other tips and suggestions for the research for what is fast becoming the biggest book I have ever written. So much cool stuff to include! You’re all wonderful!

Please keep the suggestions coming. I’m especially interested in documentaries about the period. Liz Bray, one of the fabulous Alien Onions, told me about the 1930s in colour series that I managed to just miss in Australia and is no longer available on BBC’s iPlayer. But I will get my hands on it. I will!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself on account of the insane amount of fun I’m having with the research and writing this book. Tis almost too fabulous.

Thanks, all!

I love you, Emily Post

I am now the proud owner of a 1931 edition of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage by Emily Post. Up till now I’d been making use of the Project Gutenberg edition. And while I adore digitised books—they certainly make research much much easier—you still can’t go past an actual held-in-your-hands book from the period you’re writing about.

I have been flipping through it all day, checking out the illustrations, enjoying the jacket copy and ads for other books. (None of that matter is included in the Project Gutenberg edition). It feels like a direct link back to the people of that era. I can imagine them holding it just the way I’m holding it. And I’m pretty certain some of them are mocking it just the way I’m mocking it.

Here is something you may have been blissfully unaware of:

The Dining-room

It is scarcely necessary to point out that the bigger and more ambitious the house, the more perfect its appointments must be. If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver. Furthermore, in a “great” dining-room, all the silver should be real! “Real” meaning nothing so trifling as “sterling,” but genuine and important “period” pieces made by Eighteenth Century silversmiths, such as de Lamerie or Crespell or Buck or Robertson, or perhaps one of their predecessors. Or if, like Mrs. Oldname, you live in an old Colonial house, you are perhaps also lucky enough to have inherited some genuine American pieces made by Daniel Rogers or Paul Revere! Or if you are an ardent admirer of Early Italian architecture and have built yourself a Fifteenth Century stone-floored and frescoed or tapestry-hung dining room, you must set your long refectory table with a “runner” of old hand-linen and altar embroidery, or perhaps Thirteenth Century damask and great cisterns or ewers and beakers in high-relief silver and gold; or in Callazzioli or majolica, with great bowls of fruit and church candlesticks of gilt, and even follow as far as is practicable the crude table implements of that time.

Oh noes! I have been doing EVERYTHING wrong! Does it excuse me that we don’t actually have a dining room? Just a tiny table in our not very big kitchen? I worry that Emily is mad at me.

I can’t help but wonder what percentage of New Yorkers in 1931 found that advice even remotely useful, let alone the rest of the country. But that’s the thing, of course, Post’s Etiquette is as much aspirational as any thing else. Currently I aspire to having a dining room . . . I’ll work up to the English silver.

A most excellent research tool

Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.

Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.

I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.

“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.

Win some; lose some.

The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.

Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.

But the OED is an awesome starting point.

So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2

Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .

  1. According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s. []
  2. Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be. []

Best nominal phrase ever

Since I’m on the topic of my research I feel compelled to share this sentence with youse lot:

    Since his days in the state senate before World War I, and culminating in an explosive controversy involving Jimmy Walker, the flamboyantly corrupt mayor of New York during FDR’s governorship, Roosevelt’s political nemesis in state politics had been Tammany Hall, the ultimate, ball-jointed, air-cushioned, precision-tooled, thousand-kilowatt urban political machine.

Ultimate, ball-jointed, air-cushioned, precision-tooled, thousand-kilowatt urban political machine. Does that nominal phrase not fill your heart with joy? It does mine. I am imagining a ginormous Heath Robinson steampunk-like contraption wandering the streets of New York City demanding bribes, fixing potholes, and handing out bread, all the while puffing heavily on a cigar, and railing against the Governor.

That lovely phrase and, indeed, the whole sentence comes from David M. Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, which, thus far is my favourite non-fiction tome on the 1930s. As you can see, Kennedy has a delicious turn of phrase and a gift for communicating extremely complex ideas clearly and concisely. Concise may be an odd word to use for a book that is close to a thousand pages long, but trust me, it is the correct one. If you’re interested in that period I strongly recommend Kennedy’s book.

Sometimes I’m so deep in this research that I’m a little startled to realise that we’re not in a depression, there aren’t lots of wars in progress all over, the car industry isn’t in trouble, and there aren’t banks collapsing all around us.

Oh. Wait.

Never mind . . .

Maturity still not achieved

It’s pretty bad, isn’t it, that one of my favourite aspects of my 1930s NYC/USA research is the hilarious names I keep coming across.

Exhibit A: Rexford Tugwell.

Readers, I admit that I laughed for about half an hour. And then I made the mistake of telling Scott about Monsieur Tugwell. More laughter.

For the record, Mr Tugwell was a dead interesting bloke. A member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brain Trust and thus a key contributor to the New Deal.

And yet, REXFORD TUGWELL!!!!

RomCom rage

Lately I’ve been talking with many of my film-obsessed friends about romantic comedies. Specifically we’ve been trying to come up with one made by Hollywood in the last five years which wasn’t misogynist rubbish. We’ve been failing.

Sarah Dollard, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and fellow romcom addict, pointed me to this excellent Guardian article on the problem. Kira Cochrane agrees with us completely:

It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine described He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick” and Kevin Maher has written in the Times that the “so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype”. Dr Diane Purkiss, an Oxford fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way that women are portrayed on screen, and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing down of the whole genre. That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving. But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines, rather than dimwitted ones.”

As many of my readers know I’ve spent the last year watching heaps of movies from the 1930s. I find it shocking that so many of these movies are less sexist and appalling than the ones being made now. The female leads in so many of the 1930s movies are smarter and more interesting than any of the mostly deeply stupid women in the likes of Made of Honour, Confessions of a Shopaholic, License to Wed, He’s Not That Into You, Bride Wars and 27 Dresses.

These movies fill me with rage. There is no equality between the romantic leads which has been the heart of a good romance ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy first met. In recent Hollywood romcoms the women are insecure, neurotic, needy, obsessed with marriage, and neither witty nor fun. The men are bemused by the women as one would be by a naughty puppy dog. That is not my idea of equality nor is it my idea of romance.

As Cochrane points out “the people making these films” seem to “genuinely dislike” their audience. Which I think is a good explanation for how stupid, insulting, and dumb so many recent romcoms have been. They’re made by men who hate women. Wow, does it show. It’s why I’ve stopped seeing them. It’s too painful.

For some additional romcom rage, check out the wonderful Robin Wasserman’s rant about The Family Stone.

Sometimes all the research I’ve been doing on the 1930s gets me down, because it forces me to realise that there are so many ways in which our current world is every bit as sexist as it was seventy years ago. And in some ways it’s worse: Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn never ever played stupid women. In their movies the audience was invited to side with them just as often as we were supposed to side with their male sparring partners.

What the hell happened?

No, I won’t read your story (updated)

One of the hardest things I have to do is say no to the folks who write and ask me to read and comment on their work. In the last two weeks I’ve had five such requests. All for novels.

In the last week I finished reading exactly 0 novels. Let me repeat that: in the last week I finished reading no novels. Not a single one. Actually, it’s worse than that I haven’t finished a novel since January and it was a book I was asked to blurb.1

I get asked to read quite a few books every year. There’s the blurb books. Given that my career has been helped by other writers blurbing me, I always say yes to these requests. Yes, that is to reading the book. I won’t blurb a book unless I love it.

Then there’s all the novels I critique for friends. Right now I have six early draft novels on my hard drive. One of which I’ve had for seven months now. They are all wonderful writers whose work I adore reading. Not to mention that I owe them as they’ve all critiqued my own work. Yet here I sit with six unread mss, one unread blurb book, and dozens of unread 1930s novels.

Critiquing a novel requires a brain firing on all cylinders and lots of time.2 In its own way I find it every bit as challenging as writing. Given that I earn my living from writing, my own stuff gets top priority. At the end of the day if I have anything left over I start critiquing one of the backlog of novels. Though when a friend’s having a real emergency I’ll drop everything to critique for them. They’ve done the same for me often enough.

But lately I haven’t had anything left over. Rewriting the Liar novel has been the most challenging writing of my career.3 The research and writing of the 1930s novel takes up the rest of my time. Who knew trying to understand the Great Depression would be so hard? I guess my extremely sketchy knowledge of Economics has been a wee bit of a handicap.

And I have a life outside writing and reading. I know it sounds strange but sometime I go outside and, you know, do things. Often I do them with my friends and family. Also I cook, I clean, I buy groceries and pay bills. Life stuff.

That is why I say no to all outside critique requests. I simply don’t have the time or the energy. It’s also why there are so many posts about the writing process on this blog. I may not be able to help you directly, but maybe I can help indirectly.

Good luck with your writing!

Update: For those of you who’ve been asking how to go about getting critiqued I’ve written a few suggestions. Hopefully, there’ll be more in the comments thread as well.

  1. That is not usual. I’m a three-novels a week kind of a girl. But lately the majority of my reading has been non-fiction. This is what happens when you take on an historical project. []
  2. Depending on the length, it takes me a solid ten or more hours to read and critique a novel. []
  3. I took on an unreliable narrator and the unreliable narrator is kicking my arse. Mental note: never write an unreliable narrator EVER AGAIN. []

Flying things seen from our flat

crows
flying foxes
magpies
myna birds (alas)
white ibis
pigeons
rainbow lorikeets
sulphur crested cockatoos

Heard but not seen:

kookaburra

We’ve learned that the flying foxes fly past at the same height as our flat—so we can see and hear them clearly—mostly when it’s raining or there’s low cloud cover. They’re way up high when the skies are clear. So, um, there has been much praying for rain. There weren’t nearly as many flying foxes in Sydney when I was a kid so I never get tired of seeing them.

Same for rainbow lorikeets. They’ve been everywhere over the last week. Yesterday they decided to distract me by landing on our deck directly in front of where I sat writing on our couch. I mean seriously how am I supposed to keep working with them frolicking about in front of me? Here’s a photo Scott took after I called for him to come down from the study and check ‘em out:

And here’s a close up:

They hung around for about half an hour. Chirping to each other and to the other lorikeets perched on nearby buildings. Um, no, I got no work done during that time.

Why, yes, I am loving our new digs. It’s amazing how having a view changes everything.

And, I kid you not, another flock of ‘em flew past just as I was about to publish this. Their brilliant greens, reds, blues and yellows even more intense against the grey sky. Leaving this place is going to be such a wrench. I want to stay forever.

Nana china

One of the most pleasing things about finally have our own digs in Sydney was getting all our stuff out of storage. Including my nana’s china:


Look we has TWO whole shelves of it!

I remember her saying that it was one of the first presents she bought herself when she came to Australia in 1939. Scott and me use it as our everyday crockery. No point in it sitting on the shelf collecting dust, right? And I love the sense of continuity that so many people have used these plates and cups and platters over the last 70 years. Pretty cool, huh?

Here, have a closer look:

I suspect it was very common in the late 1930s and early 1940s because several friends have seen it and gone, “I can’t believe it! That’s my nana’s dinner set!” Also it was the special occasion china that they used on this BBC Channel 4 reality show from a few years back, The 1940s House,1 where a family had to live as if they were back during the London Blitz.2

I’m wondering if the same set was available in the US as well. Because I like the idea of a few of the characters in my 1930s novel eating off it. Though I’d also have to find out when it was made because I doubt my novel will go up until 1939. Though maybe in the sequel?

Do any of you have inherited china or such like? Do you use it? Keep it in a glass case? Do you collect additional pieces? It had not occurred to me that I could add to this set until I was Googling around trying to find out more about “England’s Countryside” by Myott, Sons & Co. and lo and behold: many pieces for sale on Ebay and elsewhere. Is there nothing you can’t buy online?

  1. Mighty Google has failed to find the name of the show for me. *kicks Google* Thank you, Chris for identifying it for me! []
  2. Hint: they did not have fun. []

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!

The Printz awards have been announced. They are the most prestigious awards in the US of A for young adult literature. And the winner is an Australian: Melina Marchetta for Jellicoe Road. One of the honour books is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

CONGRATULATIONS, Melina and Margo!!!! Genius recognised!!!

I’m also thrilled that non-Australian E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was also an honour book. How fabulous is that?

Tender Morsels and Frankie Landau are two of my fave books ever. I LOVE them!1

I also note that at least three of the books are fantasy! How bout that?

I haven’t read any of the other books on the list but I’m sure they’re just as fabulous. Unfortunately for me, none of them are set in the 1930s. So I won’t get to read them for awhile. Woe.

  1. Though I’m still not convinced Tender Morsels is YA. []

JWAM reader request no. 20: Research

Monica says:

You’ve talked a lot about research and reading other writers to learn from them. How do you go about researching a novel? Do you research before a first draft, after, or while you are writing it?

Depends on the novel. My current novel, as regular readers of this blog will know1, is set in New York City in the 1930s. I’ve been researching it pretty much my entire life. I fell in love with early Hollywood movies when I was a kid. I used to fake being sick so I could stay home from school and watch Bill Collins’ midday movie presentations. I’d also stay up late cause they used to play old movies way into the wee hours. (Still do on ABC1.) I was also a regular attendee of the local revival cinemas. This was before videos, let alone DVD.

More recently I wound up doing doctoral and post-doctoral research that touched on USian science fiction in NYC in the 1930s. This included reading a tonne of letters from back then. By at least October 2006 I was already thinking about a novel set in the early to middle part of last century.

Before I had any idea of the story or characters, I was reading, watching and listening to material that would wind up being useful. None of that research was on purpose but it meant that I went into my current novel with quite a lot of background. But as I write I keep discovering things I don’t know. Like how private and public schools operated in Manhattan in the 1930s, how much it cost for a first-class passage on an ocean liner to England, what tooth paste and tooth brushes looked like back then, and how commonly they were used and so on and so forth. The first draft is full of [how would that have worked?] and [find out how much this would cost] or [when did nylon become commonplace? Second world war? what were the earliest readily available synthetics?].

Every novel I’ve written, no matter how much I knew going in, has involved further research as I wrote.

I knew virtually nothing going in to Magic or Madness about mathematics, number theory, or Fibonaccis. I researched as I wrote.2

I’ve never written a novel that required no research. For How To Ditch Your Fairy I had to find out a lot about sports I was unfamiliar with. For the liar book I learned about the difference between compulsive and pathological liars and theories about why people lie and how best to detect lies and much other spoilery stuff. Sometimes I think I write novels solely to force myself to learn.

Another thing that can happen when you’re reading—like me reading 1930s related stuff—is that it can set off big ideas that reshape your novel entirely. Scott puts it this way,

    People tend to think about research as a way to get the details right. But it’s also about understanding big ideas. What makes Dune so interesting is Frank Herbert’s big idea that water is everything. Practically every detail in Dune serves that big idea. While writing Leviathan3 I realised that the big idea for airships is aerostatics. There are about five plot points on Leviathan that have to do with the fact that every time you put something on an airship you have to take something off.

I come across some beginning writers who look upon research as a chore. It’s really not. Sometimes the research is the most fun part of writing a book. I love making unexpected discoveries that change my book entirely. Like with my 1930s novel discovering that . . . oh, wait, that’s a massive spoiler. Never mind.

A really cool resource for online research is research maven Lisa Gold’s blog. Go read, enjoy!

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. Stop rolling your eyes! []
  2. I still know very little and have forgotten most of what I learned for the trilogy. []
  3. To be published in September. It’s Scott’s best book. I loves it. []

JWAM reader request no. 18: Endings

Becca says:

You’ve mentioned that Ms. Austen ended Pride and Prejudice too abruptly. I have this problem in my writing, too. When the protag’s problem is solved, I end it. Let it go. I would love to know your suggestions about rounding out a story/book instead of letting it drop off (I may leave readers wondering if there were supposed to be more pages that somehow didn’t get printed). Any great ideas?

I’m not sure I have any suggestions though I’d love to hear those of other writers. Anyone out there know how to write perfect endings?

You guessed it—the most frequent complaint about all four of my published novels is that I’m no good at endings. Ironically, the thing that annoys me most about many of my favourite novels is their endings.

Endings are the hardest thing in the world.

No matter how much I think I’ve nailed it, tied up all the loose endings, delivered the coup de grace, someone always disagrees.

Now it could be that I suck at endings. I suspect that I do. It could also be that we all have different expectations about endings.

The reason I think Austen rushed the finish of Pride and Prejudice is because she shifts from showing to telling. There are no details about the weddings or about the first few days or weeks of their married life as they learn to live with each other. Me the reader wants Austen to continue showing for at least ten or twenty or thirty years of Elizabeth’s & Darcy’s & everyone else in that book’s lives.

I’m mad at the ending because I don’t want there to be an ending.

What the reader wants and what the writer wants are sometimes—perhaps even often—not the same. As a reader I want to know EVERYTHING ever that happens to every single character in books I love. As a writer the idea of doing that appalls me. You can’t tie off every single thing. If you did you’d wind up writing the one book for forty years. And it would be UNREADABLY huge. Also you’d leave no room for your readers to ponder and imagine and make the book their own.

Then there’s the fact that conventions change over time. I’ve been watching a vast number of movies from the 1930s lately and I’m always struck by how abruptly they end. Girl and boy figure out they do like each other and bingo THE END appears on screen and the movie’s over. No hint of what anyone else thinks of this, sometimes no kiss, and mostly no credits.1

It’s very disorienting to be thrown out of the story so abruptly because we’re used to more drawn out endings, not to mention long credits that give you time to mull over what you’ve just seen. That’s one of the reasons I always put my acknowledgments at the back of the book. Gives you a little bit more to read something that’s kind of sort of related to what you’ve just read. You can pretend the book’s not finished yet.

Though it could be that they had it right back in the thirties and we’re now faffing about.

Hmmm, I’m not sure how helpful that was, Becca. You have my best wishes and condolences. Just remember that no book ever—no matter how popular or acclaimed—has an ending that satisfies everyone.

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. They were usually at the beginning back then. []

JWAM reader request no. 16: The necessity of thinking time

Rachel says:

So, I just read the storyless character post, and I have a similar problem: the storyless scene. I tend to come up with a scene, kind of like your Charlie scene but generally the idea, not the character, is dominant. How do I give that basic idea and scene a plot, characters, and events?

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and I’m failing to come up with any new suggestions. There’s stuff on finding a plot here and I think the one on characters applies as well, and you’ve already read the storyless character post.

I suspect that your problem is that you’re still in the mulling stage and not yet in the writing stage. I’m more and more convinced that many of the people who can’t get started because they only have an idea but no plot or characters, or a plot but no setting or characters etc, are simply not ready to write that particular story yet.

A big part of the writing process for many writers is the thinking part. It may look like I’m sitting on the deck staring at the flying foxes making their slightly cumbersome, leather-winged way past me, but in fact I’m working very hard mulling and thinking and cogitating. Ideas and images are percolating and I’m letting them take me where they will.

Which sometimes is nowhere. Sad but true: not all ideas or images or characters lead anywhere. Sometimes they’re dead end; sometimes they’ll come in handy later.

I’d wanted to write a book set in NYC in the thirties for ages, but it wasn’t until I came up with another idea—in a conversation and email exchange with Cassandra Clare—that the characters and story started to grow enough for me to start writing them.

Sometimes I start writing as soon as a voice pops into my head1 or the setting or scene or whatever and it will grow as I write and I’ll figure it all out in the writing. Sometimes I need more than that to get going. I know many writers who need to have the entire novel nutted out before they can put fingers to keyboard.

When you’re a beginning writer part of what you’re learning is what kind of writer you are.2 I do know that whatever kind you are, you’ll find that a huge chunk of writing is thinking. Even if I start instantly from the moment the idea first hits me, sooner or later I’ll stop to have a think before continuing to write more.

Good luck!

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. Not in a crazy way, okay? []
  2. The bad news is that what kind of writer you are is probably going to change from book to book. []

JWAM reader request no. 9: Plot similarities

AlisonG Says:

I’m working on my first YA novel, and have (of course) discovered two other books that have similar plots. What do you think, should I read the books so I can avoid similarities and reassure myself that my book will be unique? Or should I avoid them so I can claim I was not influenced and did not steal from them?

Kevin Says:

I’ll second AlisonG’s comment. Scalzi has talked about borrowing concepts for his books. I have a vague memory that Scott may have talked about his books having similar ideas or themes to other books. Have you had a situation where you’re borrowing concepts/ideas/settings and you borrow too much? How did you (or how would you) deal with that, beyond the obvious step of rewriting?

My apologies for the rambling messiness of this post, but these questions sent me off in many different directions.

It entirely depends on where you are with your project. I’ve been thinking about writing a zombie novel pretty much since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. As I mull and think and cogitate on zombies, I’ve watched many zombie movies, and more recently been reading zombie stories (though that’s had to stop because for some reason there’s not so many 1930s zombies). Reading material related to what you want to write about feeds your novel, makes it richer and better. You discover what works, and just as importantly, what doesn’t.

However, if, say, I’m in the middle of writing my novel about an underground colony of zombies, who can’t climb, or manage stairs or ladders,1 and thus are unable to get out of the bunker they were bred in, and a friend alerts me to a review of an underground zombie novel, I am very likely to panic.

Once I’ve calmed down, though, I will continue to write my novel, because even two novels with very similar set ups, wind up being very different. I would make it a point not to look at the other book because I would worry that, consciously or unconsciously, I would alter my book in ways that might break it. As in I would be paranoid about the similarities and would thus make changes to make mine massively different. However, chances are those changes might not make sense in my book, but only in relationship to the other book.

But once my bunker zombie book was in print I would totally read the other underground zombie book.

Or maybe not. Occasionally I’m told so often that some writer or book is just like mine that I develop an irrational hatred and refuse to read it (or them) at all. The five-year-old within screws up her nose, pouts, and says, “We are not the same!” But I’m assuming you’re more grown up than me. For your sake, I hope so.

I asked a bunch of other writers and they split fairly evenly on whether they would or wouldn’t check out the other book while in the middle of writing. Those who said, yes, they’d read it, said they’d rather know than not know. So, like everything in writing: figure out what works best for you.

Or should I avoid them so I can claim I was not influenced and did not steal from them?

People will accuse you of all sorts of crazy stuff once you’re published. Best not to let it bother you. Honestly, whether or not you’ve heard of or read the book/movie/tv show/ad copy you’re accused of stealing from is neither here nor there. C. L. Moore’s “Of Woman Born” was recently mentioned in a discussion of a friend’s book, with the implication that the book in question was overly influenced by it. This may shock science fiction nuts, but the vast majority of readers don’t know that story, including many science fiction fans. Not being an sf scholar like myself, my friend had never heard of Moore or that story.

This is because most people are confused about what plagiarism is. Plots and ideas cannot be copyrighted. No one owns them. It’s only plagiarism if the actual text is copied, word for word.2 Plots, ideas, concepts, themes are there for the taking. If you could copyright them there would only be a handful of books and stories and no new ones since the 1800s. The only vampire tale wouldn’t even be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it would be John Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, which, trust me, is not very good.

Two books came out last year, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson and Skinned by Robin Wasserman, which illustrate this. They were written at the same time, with neither writer having the faintest clue that the other writer was also working on a book in which a girl wakes up in a fabricated body after an accident. (Yes, that’s also the plot of the C. L. Moore story.) The two books could not be more dissimilar.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is slow and contemplative; Skinned is fast-moving and action-packed.3 However, they both deal with the meaty (get it?) philosophical issues raised by having your memories downloaded into a body that is not your own. The main one being: Are you still you?

It’s an exaggerated version of what happens when you become an adolescent and your body changes in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways that totally freak you out.4 It’s a very juicy YA plot. I’ve had a novel brewing with a very similar plot for several years now—ironically enough, inspired by the Moore story. Does the publication of these two books mean I won’t write it now? Nope. I haven’t written it yet, not because there are too many other books like it, but because it’s not ready. Needs more stuff before it’s good to go.

Because Skinned was published a few months after Adoration. I’ve seen a few people online who seem to be under the delusion that the first was influenced by the second. Impossible. Given the way publishing works—a book coming out in September has already been finished the previous September—you can’t “rip off” a book published in the same year as yours. Besides, see above, using a similar plot is not a rip. It’s how many writers write.

My hope would be that people who’ve read the one, will then check out the other. I read Skinned first. Robin and me are mates and I read it in ARC. But as soon as I heard of Adoration I grabbed a copy and had a read. I absolutely adore seeing what different writers make of the same plot. I loved how different they are from each other and how VERY different they are from “Of Woman Born”. It’s one of the reasons I’m so addicted to fairy tale rewrites and have read every single volume of Ellen Datlow & Terry Windlings fairy tale series. Not to mention the fairy tale collections of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee.

It’s why I think vampires will never be played out. There’s always some writer to come along and breathe fresh air into them.5 Part of the appeal of vampires, or “Beauty and the Beast” for that matter, is that they’re so familiar. That’s why I found Holly Black’s Valiant such a joy: it was something old made very new. Same with John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Though I’m not sure I would describe it as a joy. More like the opposite. In a good way!

Plot similarities are not a problem

It’s very rare to come up with a plot that hasn’t been done before. In fact, I can’t think of a single recent book with a completely-original, never-been-done-before plot. They’re all interesting takes on something else (usually many other things). In fact, some argue that there are only two plots:

    Stranger comes to town: Pride & Prejudice, every Western ever, How To Ditch Your Fairy
    Someone goes on a journey: Lord of the Rings, every quest novel ever, How To Be Bad

Personally I think that’s so reductive as to be useless. But I do think many books have the same basic plot. Person opens a door/falls through a rabbit hole to a new world: Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Magic or Madness, and to many others to name. Obviously the settings, the characters, and the many other details that make up these novels’ voice and feel are very different.

Because it’s the settings, the characters, the feel of a book that makes it unique. Very rarely is it the plot. And if the plot is all a book has going for it? Then you’re in deep trouble.

Let me repeat that:

It’s the settings, the characters, the feel of a book that makes it unique.

So, yeah, I would be concerned if key details of setting and characters appeared to be similar: two novels about an underground colony of zombies. But not that concerned. I’m pretty sure no other writer out there has my twisted brain, so they won’t have added an insanely evil spider-god who controls the zombie hordes, and is slowly teaching them to climb.

A spider-God! No one in the world has ever thought of that before.

Plus, I’m thinking of having my bunker zombies, who are controlled by the evil spider-god, be discovered by a girl who’s just woken up in someone else’s body after an accident . . .

What do you reckon?

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. I think of them as zombie daleks []
  2. And why anyone does that is totally beyond me. The great pleasure of writing is picking out the words yourself! []
  3. I could not put it down []
  4. Or maybe that was just me. []
  5. Though I’m not sure that fresh air works with vampires. Er, come up with your own image. []

JWAM reader request no. 1: Choosing povs

Malcolm Tredinnick Says:

Picking a point of view and how you learnt to work with the different types would be something I’d be interested to hear about. As a reader, I kind of know when the point of view works for the story and when it doesn’t, but I don’t really know how consciously writers make the choice or how you do it.

Hmmm, a tricky one first up. Curses!

I think I may have mentioned that for most of my writing life i.e since I was five and first started, I wrote short stories, not novels. I’d start many but not finish them. But I finished hundreds of short stories. None of them were much good as stories, but they were excellent for learning stuff like how to use the different points of view.

And, wow, did I. I even have a few stories written in second person. Those were on purpose experiments, but in my early days I did lots of experimenting without knowing what I was doing. I would change points of view willy nilly. One minute a story would be in first, and then in limited third, and them in omniscient. I’d write from Jack’s pov, then Chan’s, then Jill’s, then Kara’s. Sometimes all in the one paragraph. Those stories were mostly unreadable, but slowly I started to learn my way around the four basic povs.

In those early bouncing-around-all-over-the-place stories I had no control over what I was doing with pov. I didn’t notice the constant changing. That was something I learnt by writing all those bad stories.

How does that translate to what I write now?

The first draft of Magic or Madness was written in third person. I also thought the book was going to be entirely from Reason’s pov. I wound up with Reason’s voice being in first and the two other pov characters, Tom and Jay-Tee, being in third. I’m not sure how that happened. Reason just wasn’t working in third. Her voice seemed flat. As soon as I tried shifting it to first, the book took off. I’d found the right voice.

I think my struggle to find the right voice for Reason stems from the trilogy beginning life as a set of ideas, rather than with a specific character. Both How To Ditch Your Fairy and the Liar book began with the strong voice of the protag. Both are in first person. It never occurred to me to change. Didn’t need to.

Scott says he uses first person when the book is more digressive—So Yesterday, Peeps—it allows him to stop the narrative and say, “Hey, let me tell you this cool thing.” He uses third when the narrative has more of a straight drive, like the Midnighters and Uglies books.

My current novel is (at least partly) in omniscient. It’s big with a large cast of characters. I believe that omniscient is the point of view best suited to epics. I think Dunnett’s and Pullman’s1 deployment of it is a large part of what gives those books their distinctive epic feel. If I can make it work even half as well as they do I’ll be home and hosed.

I’m loving writing in omni. I love being able to move from a close in view of a character’s thoughts all the way out to a sweeping view of the city and that character’s place in it. Omniscient feels like the most metaphysical point of view. The most flexible too. It allows for straight driving narrative, digressions, whatever I want to do with it. Right now I am deeply in love and feel that it is perfectly suited to the huge story I am attempting to tell. Bless you, omni!

Hope that answers your question, Malcolm.

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. in His Dark Materials []

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. []

Up to date correspondence & the joys of fanmail

I am now almost up to November answering my correspondence. There’s only a hundred more emails to answer! Yay!

If you’ve written to me this year and not heard back from me, that means I either didn’t get your email, or you did not get my response. Either way best thing to do is to write me again.

I received more fan mail this year than all previous years added together. (Which, admittedly, was not hard as I received very few until this year.) Of all the fabulous things that have happened to me in 20081 those letters are by far the best. The majority were about posts and essays on this website—especially requesting writing advice. The next biggest group of letters were about the trilogy, and lastly about How To Ditch Your Fairy. Though to put that in perspective HTDYF has already attracted more letters in the few months since it was published than Magic or Madness did in its first 18 months of publication. Yay, fairy book!

Thank you so much for the wonderful letters. Each one gave me a tremendous lift. Even if I was already in a good mood they made me happier still. While I’ve always wanted to be a writer, until my first book came out, it had never really occurred to me to think about what that would actually mean, about what it would be like to have readers. I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I was so focussed on my writing, and on getting published, that I just hadn’t considered that part of the equation: that being published means being read by people I’ve never met. I’m glad that part didn’t occur to me ahead of time. I think it would have spooked me. But it turns out to be fabulous.

Thank you for all the letters pointing out the typos and errors in my books and my blog. I really appreciate them and do what I can to fix future editions. Keep ‘em coming!

Thanks to everyone who wrote and begged for more books in the Magic or Madness and HTDYF universes. I’m pretty sure that HTDYF is a standalone and the MorM series a trilogy, but I’m thrilled my books left you wanting more. The best way to get more is to write it yourself. There are gazillions of wonderful fanfic sites out there. You could add your own stories about the further adventures of Tom and Charlie. Go forth and create more fanfic! Mash up MorM with Buffy or Nana. Or HTDYF with Naruto! What would be cooler than that?

Thanks for all the tips on quokkas and mangosteens and cricket and 1930s fashions and photo sites. Much appreciated! Though I’m horrified that any of you are settling for dried mangosteen or mangosteen juice. Ewww. There are no substitutes for the actual fresh fruit!

Good luck with your writing. Yes, sometimes it can be hard and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. That happens to the professionals too. The only thing you can do is keep pushing through. Don’t give up. But remember to have fun with it too. One of the best things about not being published yet is that you have heaps of time to experiment. Write the same story in all the different points of view. See which one works best. Try writing a story backwards. Starting at the end and working your way towards the beginning. Write in lots of different genres. Muck around! Have fun!

Thanks for your letters, your comments, and all your support. It means the world to me.

xo

Justine

  1. Of which more on the last day of the year. []