On Sexism and Awards

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

Big claim I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is not the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Likeability

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

Here’s what I have noticed:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny Thurman added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Write Romance

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

Everything.

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

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

Back to my story and moving forward a decade:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overused Words (Updated)

This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)

I will be editing it from time to time to add more evil words.

When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*

These are the offending words:

And
at all
before
begin (to)
eyebrow (raise, lift)
eyes
glance
good
got
gotten
had
head
just
laugh
look
mouth (open, close)
nod
really
seem
shiver
shrug
sigh
slowly
smile
so
start (to)
still
stood
suddenly
then
very
walk

None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.

For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.

“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:

Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:

Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.

I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.

My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”

You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.

The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap of the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.

(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)

Update March 2014: Have noticed in my latest draft that I’m overusing “start to” or “begin to” as in “she started to open the door” when “she opened the door” is all that’s needed. Also “at all” as an intensifier. “She didn’t love them at all” when “she didn’t love them” does the job.

Girls Who Hates Girls

In yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.

The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1

Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.

Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.

These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.

No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.

Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!

There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.

The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:

Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”

Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”

Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”

Woman-hater: *silence*

As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2

Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.

I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.

The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.

But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3

Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?

Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.

I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.

Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.

I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.

Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.

Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.

This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.

The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.

But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.

Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.

They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.

  1. Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering. Maybe the book turns out to be a critique of that stance. []
  2. I’m not against judging. I’m just against inaccurate judgeiness. []
  3. Gone With The Wind is appallingly racist but one thing it does well is skewer its woman-hating protag. Scarlett is so awful she doesn’t even notice until Melanie is dying that Melanie is the one who loves Scarlett best and never does her a single wrong. Why Melanie is so loyal to such a narcissistic psychopath is a whole other question. My theory is that owning slaves breaks everyone’s brains, not just their ethics and morality. []
  4. Other than gymnastics, dressage, netball and other girly sports. []

Racism in the Books We Write

It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.

We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.

Often that is a not good thing.

When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?

First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.

Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.

Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.

We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.

What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway: Continue reading

  1. Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. []
  2. Hello, Megan! []

Why I Cannot Write a Novel With Voice Recognition Software (Updated x 3)

Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful transformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!

I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.

I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?

I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.

But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:


1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.

Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.

Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”

The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2

2. Flow is incredibly important.

Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.

Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every clause appears I wind up with sentences like this:

    Warm artichoke had an is at orange night light raining when come lit.

Rather than

    When Angel was able to emerge into the orange night Liam’s reign was complete.

Which is a terrible sentence but I can see what I was going for and I’ll be able to fix it. But that first sentence? Leave it for a few minutes and I’ll have no clue what I was trying to say.

However, checking what the VRS has produced after Every Single Clause slows me down and ruins the flow.

3. It’s too slow.

I am medium fast typist. I’ve been typing since I was fourteen. I can get words down way faster and more accurately than VRS.3 Its slowness is very, very frustrating and is yet another factor that messes with my flow when writing.

Obviously, none of this is a huge problem for e-mail. I do persevere with it for blogging too despite the fact that means I am at most blogging once a month. Using VRS for those kinds of writings does save my arms. I’m grateful.

But for my novel writing? It’s a deal breaker. I can’t do it.

VRS is going to have to take giant strides to get to a point where it allows me to write fiction without grief and frustration and the hurling of head sets across the room.

Again, I’m really glad that it has helped so many of you. I have been hearing lots of wonderful stories about the ways VRS has changed lives since I started writing cranky posts about it. That’s all fabulous.

But for me? No, not yet.

Update: I should have also noted that every time I write one of these posts I get lots of people trying to help. That is very sweet of you and I totally get why. I have the same impulse. We all want to make things better.4

But, yes, it is also kind of annoying and overly helpy. This has been going on for years now. You can safely assume that unless you are suggesting a very recent breakthrough or a very left-field obscure idea—WEAR A ROTTEN WOMBAT ON YOUR HEAD—I have heard it all before and tried it all.5

So if you were wondering—everything suggested in the comments?—been there, done that.

Update the Second

Am getting many folks telling me that the error rate in the orange night example above is crazy high. You got me. I deliberately chose a super bad example because it’s funnier. My bad. Next time I rant about this I promise to choose a less crazy and amusing one, okay?

Funny thing, though, even the best VRS error rate I’ve ever managed is incredibly annoying and slows me down.

Update the Third

Thanks so much for all the lovely letters & comments of sympathy, support, me toos, and commiseration. Means the world to me.

  1. Very few humans are one hundred per cent accurate at the task. Even court reporters make occasional mistakes. []
  2. Actually I’m now thinking of all sorts of ways in which it would work for fiction but you get my point, people. []
  3. And, wow, am I not the world’s most accurate typist. []
  4. Unless we have an evil streak a mile wide. Ha! VRS rendered “a mile wide” as “a mild way.” Bless. []
  5. Well, not the wombat thing. But only because I can’t get past the smell of roadkill. And the fear of putrescence dripping down my face. []

Writing Liar with Scrivener

I’ve been promising a post about writing Liar using Scrivener for two years now. It wasn’t a fake promise. I’ve been working on the post. But given my hassles with RSI and othe injuries it’s been slow going.

A friend asked about it recently and I realised that I haven’t touched the post in a year. The odds of my finishing it are low. When I spend my scant few hours at the keyboard I focus on my novels, not blog posts. So here is my unfinished and pretty rough account of writing Liar using Scrivener:

In the acknowledgements of Liar I wrote the following: “Without Scrivener this book would most likely not exist.” Ever since people have been asking me to please explain. Here, at long last, is my explanation.

For those who don’t know Scrivener is novel-writing software. A while back I wrote an overview. If you’re unfamiliar with Scrivener I suggest reading that first.

Scrivener Streamlines

The first words I wrote of the novel were “I’m a liar.” What came after the words “I’m a liar” in my first draft of the opening bears no resemblance to the final novel:

    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. Well, okay, there’s also writing, isn’t there? I do that with my mouth closed and there’s just as much bullshit on my blog as there is coming out of my mouth. Like I’m not 30, I’m not blonde and I don’t live in New York City. I am a girl though, and Australian.

That was written in October 2006. By the time the novel was published in 2009 the opening looked like this:

    Promise

    I was born with a light covering of fur.

    After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.

    My father is a liar and so am I.

    But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.

    I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

    That’s my promise.

    This time I truly mean it.

I began writing Liar in Word way back in 2006. I spewed out a bit over 500 words which were mostly notes like this:

    After preamble. First chapter starts with her at a new school in NYC. Preamble can mention that she’s determined not to lie anymore that the new school’s going to give her a new start. And as it’s in a foreign country she’ll be the cool one. So she tells all these outrageous stories such as dropbears and they all buy it and she’s the cool one and there’s this really cute guy.

    Beginning of second chapter she’s all like okay so the last chapter was the total truth except that there was another oz student in the class. So then she tells the story going back a little ways and having the other oz blow her first outrageous story about Australia. And also the other oz likes the boy too (who is now different in this chapter).

As you can see, originally I thought it would be more of a comedy than Liar turned out to be.

I didn’t work on Liar again until 2008. This time I was using Scrivener, not Word. I’d already used Scrivener to write “Thinner than Water” so I was comfortable with the program and very excited about writing my first novel on it.

I plugged in the existing words, quoted above. They looked wrong in Scrivener. It may just be me, but there’s something about Scrivener that makes me want to streamline my words.1 It’s a very clean, uncluttered program. So my extremely cluttered, messy first words of Liar had to go. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have wound up chucking them anyway. See this extremely crappy first draft of the first chapter of Magic or Madness to see that I have never been averse to throwing everything out, even pre-Scrivener.

However, when I resumed writing Liar with Scrivener what came out was more pared down than anything I had ever written before. There are parts of the published version of Liar that are pretty much unmodified from the first version I wrote. That’s untrue of any of my other novels.

Though the majority of Liar was rewritten more times than anything else I’ve written.2

Many Little Pieces

Liar is a novel made up of 138 short pieces. Part I has 60, Part II has 29, and Part III has 59. Some of those pieces are as short as the opening piece, “Promise,” quoted above, which is only 90 words. Some are even shorter. The shortest piece in the book is 41 words. The longest is 1,897. The average length is probably in the 300-500 word range. None of the chapters are longer than 2,000 words which is usually considered to be a shortish chapter.3 That’s part of why I call them “pieces” rather than “chapters.”

As I wrote, those pieces kept having to be moved. I did not begin with a clear three-part structure. That didn’t emerge until I’d written about a third of the novel. But once it did emerge I realised that many of the pieces I’d already written belonged in the third part of the book. So I moved them there, which left gaps in the first part where they’d been. New pieces had to be written.

That kept happening a lot. A piece that I’d written early on turned out to belong much later in the book, which meant that it had to be rewritten to fit into its new location. The pieces around it also had to be rewritten. Every time I moved a piece the same rewriting process would happen, which is why so much of the novel has been rewritten more times than I’ve rewritten anything else.

To be clear: rewriting is not a novelty for me. I’m very big on rewriting in all my books. As someone once said, “There is no writing, only rewriting.”

The Glory of the Corkboard

Scrivener made working with 138 different little pieces of text a cinch because it has a wonderful corkboard function. The corkboard allows you to see your novel as if it were a series of cards pinned to a corkboard. Like so:

Pretty, huh?

At a glance those cards tell me three kinds of info.

First, there’s a brief description of each piece on every card. This saves having to scroll endlessly through the larger document trying to find a particular scene.4

Second, there’s the different coloured pins holding the cards to their virtual corkboard. You can also see the different colours in the left sidebar (the binder). Liar is made up of three different kinds of pieces. There’s Before (purple), After (green) and then what I thought of as Backstory (white). The After pieces go forward in straight chronological order. I determined early on that they would be the most common pieces. Part I has 31 After sections out of 60. Part III has 31 out of 59.

I also determined that I would never have more than one in a row of the Before or Backstory pieces. The colour coding means that I could see at a glance whether I’d violated that.

Um, I did.

Part II turned out to run on its own rules. It’s mostly Backstory with a sprinkling of Before pieces. There are also two places in Part III where there are two Backstory pieces in a row.

What? Rules were made to be broken. Even your own rules that you make up for your own novel. But, trust me, I only broke the rules when it was essential. Like grammar, really.

Third, there’s the diagonal stamp across each index card. Every time I started a new piece I would label it according to what state I thought the writing was in: Incomplete, Rough, Semi-Polished and Polished. (I was going to call them Sketchy, Crappy, Less Crappy and As-Uncrappy-as-I-can-Manage-Right-Now but while accurate that seemed unduly negative.)

Most of the cards in the picture above say Polished. That’s because it’s the final draft. A snapshot of the novel I’m working on now would show a predominance of Incomplete and Rough.5

This is a huge departure from my previous system of writing novels. I used to write the first draft in a mad hurry and then go back and rewrite the whole thing. Thus the whole first (or zero) draft would be labelled as Rough and it would stay pretty rough through several drafts. Usually the first few drafts were all about making the plot and overall structure work. Only once that was working could I do any serious polishing.

With Liar I rewrote as I went along. As a result many of the pieces were what I considered to be polished long before I had a complete draft. It was a very strange way of writing but it was the only thing that worked for Liar.

This labelling system was also really helpful whenever I was stuck on writing new pieces. I’d go into corkboard view and find a piece labelled Incomplete and work on it until I could upgrade it to Rough. If there were no Incompletes, I’d work on a Rough and so on.

Usually in the course of working on one of the rougher pieces I’d realise some other pieces that needed to be written before or after it. I’d write those next. And so it went.

I know it sounds really painstaking but it was a lot of fun. I was never stuck writing Liar, there was always something for me to work on.

The most important glory of the corkboard for Liar was the ease with which it allowed me to move the pieces around. That’s right, every single one of those index cards can be dragged to a new location. Brilliant! I don’t even want to think about what a major pain in the arse it would have been to write it with any other writing software. Like the dreaded Word. I may have had to print it out. Multiple times. *shudder*

Some of my days writing Liar consisted of me doing nothing but shifting index cards around until I was satisfied with the order. Then rewriting to make sure it all flowed right.

Often I’d start the next day’s work by doing the same thing. Fun!6

Notes on Each Piece/Overall Notes

One of the other glories of Scrivener is the Inspector. That’s the thing taking up the right sidebar. It’s where you write your index card description, colour code it and label the state of the draft. It’s also where you can write notes on each piece. Notes such as “This makes no sense at all. Where did the rabbit come from?” Or “Too many knives. Cut them down!”

I got into the habit of striking through each note after I addressed it:

Dunno about you but there’s nothing I find more satisfying than crossing things out. It’s almost as satisfying as deleting whole scenes.

Document notes can toggle over to Project notes. This allows you to write notes on a particular piece/scene/chapter as well as notes on the overall book. Being able to see my micro and macro notes that easily made a huge difference. Simple! Clean!

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about Liar is how on Earth did I manage to outline it. I think everything above makes my answer clear.

I didn’t.

But Scrivener made outlining unnecessary.7 It allowed me to see the structure as it emerged from the various pieces I was writing. I have no idea how I would have kept track of everything without software that’s designed to allow you to manage such a big and complicated text as a novel.

It has both changed how I write as well as what I’m able to write. Scrivener has been a revelation.

  1. You can tell that I didn’t write this post in Scrivener, can’t you? []
  2. I swear there are some sections that were rewritten more than a kajillion times. Honestly. []
  3. To give you a sense of length, this post is more than 2,000 words and is thus longer than any piece of Liar. []
  4. Something that always drove me nuts with Word. []
  5. Also Adequate. While working on novels after Liar I decided the leap from Rough to Semi-Polished was too daunting. Adequate is my intermediate phase. []
  6. I’m not being sarcastic. It really was fun. []
  7. Though there is an outlining function for those who crave such a thing. I’ve never used it. []

I Love Bad Reviews

Okay, I totally shouldn’t be writing this. But Janni Lee Simner issued a call for authors to say that it’s okay to give us bad reviews. I want to add my voice to those saying, “Go forth and shred our books into tiny pieces.”1

You do not have to be nice about a book you hate.

However, I also want to say that it’s not our place to say so. Reviews are not for authors. They’re not even about authors. You do not need our permission to write about our books. Because once they’re published they cease to be ours.

Reviews are for other readers. A review is about a particular reader’s relationship with a particular book. And if you happen to trust that particular reviewer’s taste they’re a great way to find books you want to read or books you should avoid.

It’s ridiculously pleasing to come across a review shredding a book you loathed. It’s an OMG someone else hated it too moment. Yay! And they’re mocking it in the most hilarious way. Double yay!

I even enjoy bad reviews of books I like. Shaking my fist in outrage at them and rebutting every point is fun. It’s also fascinating to see how differently people read. Dia Reeves’ marvellous Bleeding Violet is a call to arms to take down the state? How did I miss that?

More seriously the effort to critique misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia and so forth in YA—in all art—is essential. We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic world. We can and do unwittingly replicate racist tropes, sexist cliches and homophobic stereotypes in our work. It is a very good thing to be called on it. Our intentions count for nothing if they aren’t visible on the page to people who aren’t us.

Thinking about these issues can be painful and confronting, especiallly for those of us who have had the privilege to not have to think about them, but, trust me, doing so makes us better writers and readers.2

Will we always agree with such critiques? I think the recent Bitch media stoush answers that question. Feminism can, indeed, be in the eye of the beholder. Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels has been critiqued for “validating (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance”. I think that’s—at best—a sloppy reading of TM and that the book is profoundly feminist, but I also think that such a debate is extremely important.

When your work is published and out there people get to critique it however they want. The only way to avoid such critiques is not to publish your work.

It’s very hard for authors to believe that reviews are not about them. To not take them personally. It’s hard for anyone to read or hear people hating on something they worked very hard to produce. But you get over it.3 Or you learn to stop reading your reviews.

I was not so cavalier about all of this when my first book came out. Back then every bad review, hell, every non-ecstatic review, broke my little writer heart. How could people be so mean to me!? But then I’d read a book and hate it and pray that the writer never publish again4 and think well, okay, that’s how.

Sometimes you discover that your bad reviews can be hilarious. Here’s my favourite:

Magic or Madness is like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.

It was one of my very first punter reviews—on Barnes & Noble, I think—is it not a gem of its kind? I treasure it.

So, yeah, as I’ve written here many times, I think it’s inappropriate for an author to go to someone’s blog and argue over a review, especially when the author brings hordes of their friends and fans with them. The best response to bad reviews is to ignore them, not to attack or threaten the reviewer. Get over yourself already. Your book is not your child. You are not the boss of the internets.5

I am not, however, calling for author silence. I mean, seriously, have you read any other posts on this blog? I am so not a silent author.6 I don’t see any problem with an author rebutting claims about their politics or world view on their own blog. It can lead to very interesting conversations. Because of her brilliant and wonderful novel, Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan has been accused of not only sanctioning rape as revenge but also of purveying filth to children, and she has ably combatted those claims on her blog and in interviews and elsewhere. Good on you, Margo.

Mostly though I think authors should be thankful that their books are being discussed at all. Passionate opinions and debates about your work are a truly excellent thing. Plenty of books disappear without a ripple.

The biggest enemy of our careers is not bad reviews, but obscurity.

Let me repeat that: the biggest enemy of an author’s career is not bad reviews—it’s obscurity.

And on that chilling note I’m back to saving my typing hands7 for writing more of them books in the faint hopes of postponing total obscurity just a little bit longer.

  1. If you hate them that is. Feel free to praise should you want to. Feel free to meh them also. Whatever you want! []
  2. Not to mention better people. []
  3. Though not getting cranky about bad reviews of Scott’s books is still a work in progress for me. []
  4. Yes, I mean you, Henry Miller. Yes, I know you’re dead. This is a warning to any possible reincarnations of you. I will kill you with my mind. []
  5. That would be me! Or it used to be me—I retired hurt. []
  6. Except when injured. But seriously offline I’m ranting away same as ever. If you see me ask me about Wikileaks or the minnows being expelled from the World Cup or Australia’s immigration policy or pretty much anything else and prepare to have your ears bleed. I gots opinions, yes, I do. []
  7. Thanks so much everyone for letting me know you miss the blog. I miss it too and youse lot as well. Heaps! []

In Which Kingsley Amis & I Disagree

First a confession: I love Sir Kingsley Amis. That’s why the heading of this post says “Kingsley & I” rather than “Kingsley & me” (which is my preference cause I reckon it sounds better) but not old Kingsley, he was a sucker for good grammar.1 I does not wish to offend him.2

I love Kingsley Amis for so many reasons. Because he’s dead funny, because he wrote in pretty much every genre, and because his main writing concerns were story and characterisation. Thus one of my favourite anecdotes about him goes like this:

Kingsley Amis is listening to a radio interview with his son Martin Amis, in which Amis Junior says of his latest novel that it really must be read twice in order to be fully appreciated. At which point Amis Senior says, “Well, then he’s buggered it up, hasn’t he?”

Too right. In case you’re worried about animosity between father and son, by all accounts they got on well, and there was much affection between them. They just had very different outlooks on writing. It happens.

I first came across Sir Kingsley when I was researching my PhD thesis on science fiction. His New Maps of Hell from 1960 was by far the wittiest, smartest, and most enjoyable book on science fiction I came across.3 That it was written by an established non-genre writer was astounding. It’s hard in these oh-so-much-more-tolerant days to convey just how much contempt was felt by the literati for us lowly genre writers. Why, back then even crime fiction (which Amis also loved) carried a stigma. But Kingsley Amis cared not a jot and wrote whatever he pleased: mysteries, science fiction, books about James Bond. I would love him for this alone.

Like me, he had an opinion on pretty much everything.4 (Though, um, his would only rarely, if ever, line up with mine.) In fact, I think he would have made a fabulous blogger. His non-fiction writing, espcially in newspapers, is chatty, unpretentious and instantly disarming:

Only one reader by her own account a hotelier and Tory [conservative] activist who’s also been a probation officer, took serious issue with me. “Your writing,” she stated, “is getting more and more biased and entrenched in reactionary fuddy-duddyism.” An excellent summing-up, I thought, of my contribution to the eighties’ cultural scene.

The quote comes from his writing on booze. Sir Kingsley was a boozer. He wrote three books on the subject, which are now handily collected in the one volume, Everyday Drinking, The Distilled Kingsley Amis. It’s wonderful and I say this as someone who pretty much disagrees with every word.

Sir Kingsley Amis’ drinks of choice were spirits and beer. He also had an inordinate fondness for cocktails and the book includes many recipes, including one for a Lucky Jim.5 I am a wine drinker,6 with little taste for cocktails, spirits or beer. Kingsley loved gin. I loathe it. Kingsley considered the Piña Colada a “disgusting concoction” and an “atrocity.” I love a properly made piña with fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut milk and cream, and a dash of dark rum. Though really I just love coconut and pineapple—I’d happily skip the rum. He also considered combining beer and limes to be an “exit application from the human race” whereas I consider lime to be the only thing that makes most beer even vaguely palatable.

I also adore the French white wines he hates the most:

But the dry ones are mostly too dry to suit me, whether with food or solo. That’s if dry is the right word. I mean more than the absence of sweetness—I mean the quality that makes the saliva spurt into my mouth as soon as the wine arrives there. Perhaps I mean what wine experts call crispness or fintiness or even acidity, which for some mysterious reason they think is a good thing in wine. But whatever you call it, I don’t want it. Chablis, the average white Mâcon, Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé—not today, thank you.

That’s fine, Kingsley. I’ll drink them!7 Well, not the average ones. Only the best, please!

He has scathing things to say about the Irish. Doesn’t think they could possibly have invented the process of making whiskey.8 Boo, Kingsley! Some of my best friends are Irish. Snobby, pommy bastard, you!9

So what was I doing reading a book I kept yelling “boo” at? Have I mentioned how funny Kingsley is? Here he is discussing the essentials for a good home bar kit:

1. A refrigerator. All to yourself, I mean. There is really no way around this. Wives and such are constantly filling any refigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubblish like food.
8. A really very sharp knife. (If you want to finish the evening with your usual number of fingers, do any cutting-up, peel-slicing and the like before you have more than a couple of drinks, perferably before your first.)

Oh, Kingsley! How did you cope with those pesky wives and such?10 And food, irrelevant? My heart is so sad for you. I will go eat a nectarine. *gobbles* Ah, better.

Then once he’s given you his list of ten essentials he tells you what he ommitted:

Half the point of the above list is what it leaves out. The most important and controversial of your non-needs is a cocktail shaker. With all respect to James Bond, a martini should be stirred, not shaken. The case is a little different with drinks that include the heavier fruit-juices and liqueurs, but I have always found that an extra minute’s stirring does the trick well enough. The only mixture that does genuinely need shaking is one containing eggs, and if that is your sort of thing, then clear off and buy youself a shaker any time you fancy. The trouble with the things is that they are messy pourers and, much more important, they are far too small, holding half a dozen drinks at the outside. A shaker about the size of a hatbox might be worth pondering, but I have never seen or heard of such.

I am now trying to imagine operating a hatbox-sized cocktail shaker. Maybe if Yao Ming was the bartender? Which, oddly enough, is something I would like to see.

I also greatly enjoyed his instructions for making sugar syrup (simple syrup):

A bottle of sugar syrup, a preperation continually called for in mixed-drink books. To have a supply of it will save you a lot of time. . . Concoct it yourself by the following simple method:

Down a stiff drink and keep another by you to see you through the ordeal. . . [instructions] Your bottleful will last for months, and you will have been constantly patting yourself on the back for your wisdom and far-sightedness.

Reading Kingsley on booze is like reading novels from the 1930s-1950s. The adults are drinking all the time. With breakfast, lunch, before dinner, during dinner, after dinner, before bed (night cap!). Was anyone ever sober? It is a miracle that anything at all was achieved in those decades in the US, UK or Australia.11

Sir Kingsley sadly discusses the growing ubiquitousness of wine. But I can’t help thinking that the largely lower alcoholic content of wine (lower than spirits and cocktails anyways) combined with the prevelance of it being drunk with food, is a good thing. Wine cultures tend not to have as much alcoholism as, say, vodka cultures. Compare and contrast France with Russia.

Kingsley explains his own lack of wine appreciation12 thus:

Now we reach the point at which my credentials become slightly less than impeccable. With all those drinks I have got through, what I have not done is drink first-rate table wines at their place of origin, work my way through classic vintages and develop an educated palate. To do that, what you really need, shorn of the talk, is a rich father, and I missed it.

I missed that one, too, Sir Kingsley. But I’ve muddled along okay without. I may not know much about the very best Bourdeaux but I does know which wines I like, you know, like a good Pouilly-Fume. Or “pooey fumes” as me and my classy friends call it.

Anyways, bless you, Sir Kingsley Amis, for poking fun at yourself, at wine and booze, and almost everything else. For your classy deployment of sarcasm, irony, and out-and-out wit. Tonight I will raise a glass of the wine you hated most in your honour.13

  1. He would be appalled by my grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills. Or lack thereof. Sorry, Kingsley. []
  2. Though I do feel free to use his first name. I guess I’ve been reading him for so long I feel that we are now mates. A very safe feeling what with him being dead and all. []
  3. I disagreed with much of it, but that’s neither here nor there. []
  4. Toilet paper goes over the roll, people, not under! []
  5. Many people believe that Amis’ Lucky Jim was one of the funniest British novels of the 20th century. I’d definitely put it up there with Cold Comfort Farm. []
  6. I mean if I were a drinker that’s what I would drink. Though obviously as as writer of YA I don’t drink. So clearly everything in this post is on the hypothetical side. []
  7. Er, in my mind, I will. Not in real life. YA writer. []
  8. With or without an “e.” []
  9. Though we do agree on the subject of cola drinks and Woody Allen. We doesn’t like them. []
  10. According to his bios, he did so by having lots and lots of affairs. Oh, is that who the “and such” were? Bad, Sir Kingsley! []
  11. I know not of the drinking habits of other nations, but I fear the worst. []
  12. Though judging from what he writes about wine he was a phony and knew vastly more than, say, I do on the subject. []
  13. I won’t actually drink it, mind. YA writer, me. Pure as driven snow. []

The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. []
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. []
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. []

Types of crazy writers

Because I am myself barking mad I feel moved to share my four varieties of insane writers with youse lot. This is different from the run of the mill craziness of every writer who writes differently to me. This is the down-to-the-bone craziness.

I just shared my list with a bookseller friend and we agreed as to the unadvisability of ever blogging them.

So here they are:

    1. The unpublished writer who can barely string a sentence together yet is convinced that the reason they are not published is because of a conspiracy. “Those evil New York publishing houses only publish crap, deliberately keeping me from being published! They are fools and cannot recognise my genius!”1

    2. The newly published writer who believes they have the keys to the kingdom and know everything there is to know. “I am published! I am real! I have met my editor and thus acquired all publishing knowledge ever! All bow down to me!”2

    3. The midlist writer whose career is not where they wish it was and blames it on everything and everyone in the entire world. Especially all those foreignors who are gobbling up all their publisher’s attention and winning all the prizes that are rightfully theirs.3 When in fact success or failure in publishing is almost always a matter of luck. This is the most common form of madness simply because success in this game is such a crapshoot. If by success you mean “can make a living at it” then not that many published writers are a success. Maybe five per cent of them. Tops. If you mean “has written a book that they’re proud of” then many writers are a success. Guess which definition I prefer.

    4. The super successful writer who believes that they are so important and such geniuses that they should never be edited again. Or questioned. And that their fans should lay down at their feet as if before a god. In fact, so should everyone.4

Of course, there are all sorts of temporary insanities that hit every writer. Not just crazy outlining and writing books backwards and burning the first version of the book, there’s also:

  • Amazonomancy5 the obsessive consulting of the Amazon tea leaves to see if your book is selling despite knowing that Amazon tells you nothing. Absolutely NOTHING.
  • Furtive facing out of your books in bookshops when the clerks aren’t looking in the largely mistaken belief that they won’t notice and that in the fifteen minutes it stays like that your book will sell.
  • Conviction that your book is tanking even though it’s only been out for a week and the only evidence you have is Amazon numbers and a note from someone in Delaware/Dubbo saying they couldn’t find a copy in their local bookshop.

There are many many more. Seriously, I could go on forever listing them.6

In fact, I would argue that attempting to make a living writing is a sign of total insanity, which may be why the part-timers tend to be much more stable.

  1. I definitely suffered from this one during my twenty years of not being published. How could they publish HIM and not me?! []
  2. I confess that I went through this stage. I’m so sorry! []
  3. This is where I’m headed. Best to buy LOTS of copies of my next book to prevent me from winding up there. I’m just saying . . . []
  4. Let’s all hope this never happens to me for I would be a MONSTER. []
  5. The term comes from the briliant Hal Duncan []
  6. You may have noticed that I am a big fan of lists. []

How to rewrite

I get a lot of beginning writers asking me how to rewrite. This post is aimed squarely at them: the ones who are unsure how to fix a story they have written from beginning to end. Which is my way of saying that any experienced writer is going to find what I am about to say obvious, boring, and un-useful. You folks should go read Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing or, you know, get back to work.

(It’s also a really LONG post. Hence the cut.)

“How can I learn to rewrite?” is an incredibly hard question to answer. It’s sort of like asking a pro tennis player (or coach): “How do I improve my tennis?” Continue reading

Top 10 Reasons Banning Books is a Bad Idea

10. It upsets the writers what wrote the books.

9. It upsets the readers what want to read the books.

8. It makes the books cry and books are very sensitive.

7. If you really want people not to read a book, banning it will have the opposite effect.

6. If the content of a book offends you there are more effective ways to deal with your offendedness. Like, you know, engaging with it. Maureen Dowd’s columns frequently drive me spare, but I don’t try to get them banned, I argue against them.

5. Besides banning books does not make them go away. Just ask Chris Crutcher.

4. Banning books might make you feel like you’re in control, but it actually screams of lack of control. You think you can control input but you can’t. Banned books have a way of being passed around mightily and promoted during banned book week and gaining a whole other life they might not otherwise have had.

3. Banning books, you know, it kind of doesn’t encourage literacy. Last time I looked literacy was a good thing that goes hand in hand with increased life expectancy, education, living standards. Little stuff like that.

2. It’s a short step from banning books to wanting to burn ‘em. People who burn books, well that is not company you want to keep.

1. Book banning clashes with everything in your wardrobe. Every. Single. Thing.

Why do you like sport?

This is not a question I get asked very much. Not directly, anyway, but every single time I post about sport someone writes and asks me when I’m going to post about interesting topics again. That’s right, the biggest complaint I get from you, dear readers, is that I talk about sport too much.1

Now I ain’t never gonna stop writing about sport, no matter how many of you are bored into a coma by it. I writes about what I wants to write about. You can suggest topics if you want but if I can’t be arsed to write on that topic then it ain’t gonna happen.

I digress. The complaints do get me thinking about why it is that I like sport so much. Seriously, for me to learn the rules of a sport is for me to become addicted. I’ve had to start studiously avoiding contact with new (to me) sport just to have enough hours in the day to, you know, get books written. I try very hard to only pay attention to cricket, the Tour, and women’s basketball. And the Olympics. I cannot get any work done when the Lymps are on.

I’m not that fussed about playing it. Tennis is great fun, I love swimming and riding my bike but I have zero interest in doing any of them competitively. (Gah!) But I can watch pretty much any competitive sport and I can do it for days and days and days. For me it brings together the aesthetic pleasures of watching athletes at the top of their form, with the soap-opera like joys of a long-running story (what can I say I’m a narrative junky in all its forms), together with the gossip and politics. A good sporting scandal is prolly my most favourite thing in the world.

Clyde Walcott, one of the West Indies' greats.I love how knowing about the history and politics of cricket (West Indies not getting a black captain until the 1950s and then only after a long-running campaign orchestrated by C. L. R. James; the long campaign to get an Untouchable to play for India), and about women’s basketball (Title IX, and when it was allowed into the Olympics, and how little coverage it gets in the mainstream press) adds so much to watching any individual game.Picture purloined from abc.net.au

I love the majesty and pomp. I love supporting (and hating) individual players and countries.

Why do you love the particular sports you love? Sing it, please!

No offence intended but I’m uninterested in why any of you don’t like sport. I’ve been hearing it long and loud from my fellow arty-farty types my entire life. I get that you’re an oppressed minority. I feel for you. But enough already! Let us sport obsessives bond for a bit. And, yes, I will delete anti-sport diatribes.

So fellow sport lovers—time to share that love!

NB The first image is of Sir Clyde Walcott who died earlier this year. He was one of the greats of West Indian cricket. Bless him.

The second is of the Australian women’s basketball team winning the world cup. Bless ‘em.

  1. It’s particularly weird as I’ve hardly blogged sport at all this year. Very little mention of cricket, the World Cup, or the Tour de France; pretty much nothing about the Liberty’s unhappy WNBA season, and hardly any mention of all the various Australian triumphs this year. I’ve been busy, okay? []

How to write a novel*

Ever wanted to write a novel but had no clue how? Having just finished my fifth novel, I am now ready to pass on my accummulated novel-writing wisdom to those what have never writ one but wants to.

Here is the complete, full and unexpurgated guide:

First of all you need a computer. (Yeah, yeah, I know in the olden days they made do with quill, ink and paper, and typewriters—aargh! don’t get me started on how creepy and scary typewriters are—plus, whatever, this is not the olden days.) Continue reading

Too Young to Publish

Recently I’ve had a number of letters from teenagers wanting advice on how to get their novel published and wondering whether their age will make it harder for them to get it into print. Specifically, would they be discriminated against because they were only thirteen/fourteen/fifteen/sixteen or whatever?

The simple answer is no. When you submit a query letter to a publisher or agent you don’t have to tell them how old you are. You’ll be rejected or accepted on the quality of your submission.

Being young can be an advantage in getting published. I was first published when I was nine. A short poem in The Newcastle Morning Herald (now The Herald). My mother sent it in and it was published with my age listed. While the poem was clearly a work of genius, odds are that if I hadn’t been nine, it wouldn’t have been published. As it happens I was more embarassed by the publication than I was proud. The kids at school teased me to buggery for the rest of the year. Happy days.

Up until I was 15, I had a number of other poems and stories published. Without motherly intervention even. Every one of them with my age beside my name. After that, nothing of mine was published until I was in my thirties.

What happened?

Another simple answer: I started competing with adults. I stopped listing my age and started sending to more grown up venues. My work was not as good as that of the grown ups. I didn’t find my way into print again until I was way past my child prodigy days.

The teenage me was cast into deep, dark despair by this. On my seventeenth birthday I had a midlife crisis. There I was seventeen years old and still no novel published! I was a complete and utter failure! What was wrong with me?

Another easy answer: I wasn’t good enough yet and I wouldn’t be good enough until I’d learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. Until I got past thinking my first drafts were perfect and that rewriting involves a wee bit of chipping at the surface of a story. It’s much, much harder than that. And, I’m belatedly learning, more fun too.

If you’d have told me back then I wasn’t good enough and had a lot more to learn about writing I would not have believed you. Actually come to think of it, people did tell me back then. But they were polite about it saying that I had a "great deal of promise" and a "bright future ahead". Blah, blah, blahdy blah. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to be published immediately! Before I hit twenty-one or, worse, thirty and was too decrepitly old to enjoy it.

Now, of course, I’m incredibly grateful that no one did me the disservice of publishing me back then. I’ve kept a lot of my juvenilia and, well . . . it shows promise.

I have a couple of friends who were not so fortunate. They were first published in adult venues when they were still teenagers. Both of them are horrified that their learning and growing as a writer has been done so publicly and that there’s nothing they can do to make all that evidence of early missteps go away. They both wish they’d spent more time honing their craft and less time desperately trying to get into print.

But how do you hone your craft?

Read a lot. Write a lot. In that order. There are very very few good writers who aren’t also good readers.

Never send off a first draft for publication. Even though the temptation to do so is enormous. I mean you wrote a complete draft! A whole poem/story/novel! It has a beginning, a middle and end! The sense of accomplishment is enormous you can’t wait to show your work of genius to the rest of the world.

Resist that feeling.

Wait a few weeks after writing something, then reread it, rewrite it (and I don’t mean just fixing typoes), then give it to some people you trust for comments. (Not your parents. Most’ll just tell you it’s wonderful no matter what.) If you have friends who read a lot give it to them. Or to a teacher you trust. Give it to as many people as you can think of. Trust me, most of them will not get back to you with comments.

Ask the ones who read it to tell you when they got bored. Ask them to tell you the plot. This is a great way to figure out if your readers are reading what you think you wrote. It’s amazing how often they aren’t.

When they get back to you with all their comments, rewrite it again. Many of the comments will be intensely annoying and boneheaded and will make you want to end the friendship with the idiot who said them. Resist your urge to do so. Resist the urge to tell them how moronic they are. Also resist the urge to cry (I still haven’t quite mastered this one). Instead look for parts of your story/poem/novel that all readers had problems with. Figure out how to fix it. Most likely the solution you find won’t be the one they suggested. (Later on when you’re published you’ll find this also applies to your editors.)

Learning to take criticism is one of the major prerequisites of being a professional writer. Once your work is accepted for publication, your editor will criticise what you have written and ask you to rewrite it. Usually many, many times. And after it’s gone through all those rewrites she will often forget to tell you good it is. There will be few gold koala bear stamps. Your editor’s primary concern is to get rid of that which sucks. It should be yours too.

Just as important: don’t get too caught up in the praise your readers offer you. If your readers only have good things to say about your manuscript, enjoy it, but then be suspicious. Very few pieces of writing are perfect first go. (I rewrote this essay several times and then gave it to Scott to read and it could still stand a bit more rewriting.)

Once you’ve made your manuscript as good as you can possibly make it—if it’s a novel that should take months, maybe even years—then and only then do you send it out for publication.

But how do you get a novel published?

With great difficulty. Getting published is very, very hard no matter how old you are. Most novels never find their way into print. Even really good ones.

Ian Irvine outlines the whole process in his essay, The Truth About Publishing (the link’s in the menu on the left). I strongly advise reading the whole document through to the end. It’s depressing, but it’s also very very useful. I wish I’d read it back when I was fifteen.

Good luck. Do not despair when you are rejected. Welcome to the club. There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t been rejected. Many, many times.

New York City, 13 August 2005

The Hebrew translation is here.

For those young writers who are angered by this please read my clarification.

Being Dumped is Much Much Worse

I have a friend who for a very long time contended that dumping someone was awful, truly awful, perhaps even worse than being dumped. She argued that she, having been forced to dump several lovers, had never gotten the amount of sympathy she deserved for the pain she had to endure putting her hapless exes out of their misery.

At the time I had never been dumped (neither had she) and was entirely persuaded by her reasoning. I, too, had never gotten sufficient sympathy. Ending a relationship hurts. True, it was a relationship you were tired of, that was driving you nuts, that you were relieved was over, but you still had fond memories. Worse still, you had to return all the cool stuff you’d borrowed (most of which was a present from you in the first place), mutual friends weren’t speaking to you, you’d had to find a new hairdresser, a new favourite café, and worst of all: not one person felt remotely sympathetic about your suffering just because you weren’t walking around swollen eyed, beating your chest and moaning. Dreadfully unfair.

Then I was dumped.

What a load of cobblers the above is. There is no comparison between being dumped and dumping someone. It’s the difference between stabbing someone and being stabbed. Even if your fingers were cramped from gripping the knife too tight, or worse case scenario, you were dumb enough to let your fingers slip on to the blade, you’re still not the one with the sucking chest wound, vital organs falling out willy-nilly. At worst you have a couple of sliced fingers. Boo-bloody-hoo.

Nothing makes it better. You were just about to dump them. Nope, you feel even worse. You never loved them anyway. Nope, not feeling less pain. You’re better off without them. Nope, bastard didn’t give you the chance to figure that out for yourself. They are now going out with the biggest whore/bastard in the known universe. Nope, cause what does that make you? Did they upgrade or downgrade?

I blame romance.

I lay the blame for the ridiculous amount of pain on the idea—reinforced by insane amounts of propaganda every single day of our lives—that without a life-partner (let’s all take turns to shudder at that neologism) you are nothing. If you’re not in a couple you’re nobody.

Life, we are taught, is about growing up. A grown up does not live with their parents, or flat with friends. A grown up has a means of support (most often a job) and a partner. But for some reason it’s the partner that’s the main bit: a person with a job who lives alone is somehow pathetic, not quite grown up—even if they’re getting laid when they want to, have thousands of friends, are world leaders in their field—they’re not complete and won’t be until they find The One.

Being a grown up is all about romantic love, but a very narrowly defined version. Romantic love is exclusive, sexual, between two (and only two) individuals. To be a true grown up you have to find your soul mate, move in together, and then reproduce. Find The One, have babies, die: that’s life.

So how come so few of the couples I know (married and unmarried) stay together longer than a year or two? How come so many of the ones that do are miserable? How come so many single people I know are happy, at least that is until they’re reminded that they’re single: "Oops, sorry, forgot, mate. Yup, you’re right. I’m miserable. Life alone is like a fish without a bicycle. A prison without walls. Sorry, miserable. Yep, that’s me, totally miserable."

How come the majority of the longest relationsionships in my circles are between good friends? That’s right "just" good friends. People who have known each other for years and years and years, have loaned each other money, helped rear each other’s children, read each other’s books, shared houses, shared jobs, but who aren’t in a sexual relationship with each other. How come the myths of our potential lives are centered around romantic love instead of friendship?

Who is this One that we’re all supposed to be waiting for? In the very few cases when The One comes along, doesn’t The One turn out to be your best friend who you just happen to find sexually attractive and enjoy living with? All the happy sexual relationships that I’ve seen last were built around close abiding friendships.

I see friends in relationships with people they don’t much like, because somehow that’s more grown up than being single. I see friendships destroyed when friends become lovers and it doesn’t work out and somehow the friendship dies in the process. I see single friends, otherwise perfectly happy, beating themselves up because they haven’t found the mythical One yet.

And "single"? What does that mean? How can someone with thousands of friends whose whole life is dominated by their relationships to their family, friends, colleagues. How can they be described as single?

I know people in couples for whom the term "single" is better suited. Totally focussed on each other, erradicating virtually every other connection they have in the world. They work together, eat together, finish each other sentences. Until finally one of them goes barking mad, the relationship ends, and then, suddenly, they each remember about friendships, communities, the existence of other people.

Why do we live in a world where one model of happiness is set up as the ideal for every one? What if one day it were decreed that we must all love chocolate? After all, the majority of people love chocolate, why shouldn’t everyone? And if you didn’t spend your whole life consuming vast amounts of the stuff your life would be viewed as a waste and a failure.

Absurd. But no more absurd than expecting everyone to want True Love with The One.

To return to my point of departure: Why is being dumped worse than dumping someone? Why do so many worlds crumble when the person you’ve talked yourself into believing is The One leaves?

Because so many of us have bought the romantic lie that all our happiness—that our very claim to a fulfilled adult life—is predicated on our success in romantic love. If it’s you ending it, you’re in control, you have hope of better things (or, if you’re crafty, you already have the next One lined up). You’re ready for what’s going to happen next.

The dumpee has made no contingency plans, is still wrapped in the warm glow of the delusions they’ve fed themselves about the relationship. Now they have to divest themselves of those delusions, find someone new who’ll be The One, not another Wrong One. A whole new bunch of delusions to weave. Or scariest of all—they must face the possibility that they may never find The One.

The truly delusional dumpee may not have any friends to turn to—not even a cat or dog—wrapped as they were in the ludicrous idea that you only need one person in your life.

That’s why being dumped is so much worse.

There is one compensation: the dumped always get sympathy. Another of the perks of a world dominated by the myth of romantic love is that people know you’re in mourning and will treat you nice.

Not so if a friendship ends. No matter how devastating, once you’re out of high school you’re supposed to be grown up enough to deal with that sort of thing on your own time. But as we all know the end of a friendship can be every bit as dreadful and destructive as the end of a romantic relationship.

Console yourself with the knowledge that it was only your lover of the last six months who dumped you, not your best friend of the last fifteen years.

Sydney, New York City & San Miguel de Allende, 10 Oct-31 Dec 2003