What’s Real?

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

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

I call bullshit on several different fronts:

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

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

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

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?

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

Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?

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

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

Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. []

Last Day of 2013

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

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

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

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

It’s all relative, eh?

So here’s a new section instead:

What I wrote in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books out Next Year

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

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

Writing Plans for 2014

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

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

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

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

What else happened in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Less Fun Side of Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. []

Zombie versus Unicorns Banned in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let books roam free!

We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

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

One of the points she makes is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N K Jemisin also observes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter Etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.

So, Twitter.

Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:

Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.

And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2

At the other end of the spectrum:

Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3

Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!

Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4

Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow

Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.

This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.

Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.

To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:

TwitterConvo

I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you

Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.

For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5

Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!

Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.

I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.

If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you

I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.

Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!

Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.

It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.

If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you

I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.

Tweet what you care about

Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.

It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.

I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.

It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?

Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS

This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.

#hashtagsarefun

They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:

#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?

#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.

Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.

Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.

Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.

I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack

Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.

  1. Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. []
  2. What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. []
  3. And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. []
  4. I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. []
  5. Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! []
  6. Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. []

Dismissing Whole Genres

A few days ago I tweeted this:

I am sick of people who’ve never read a romance or a YA novel casually dismissing the entire genres. Do some research, you tedious people.

It was in response to yet another casual dismissal of YA in the middle of a discussion about something else entirely. So often does this happen, particularly in regard to romance, that I scarcely even register it anymore.

I’m happy for people to hate whatever they want to hate. Go, for it. I mean, yes, I think it’s kind of silly to dismiss an entire genre. All genres have good and bad and mediocre examples. Yes, including, Ye Mighty Literachure. I could give you a long list of literary writers I think are awful and/or overrated. Living and dead.

I can give you the same list for every genre with which I am familiar. Yes, including YA and romance.

What bugs me is when the people doing the dismissing have no idea what they’re talking about. Such as this ancient op ed by Maureen Down where she dismisses chicklit on the basis of a handful of books and the only one she actually quotes from, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, isn’t even chicklit.

What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:

I only read good books. Because I am endowed (pun absolutely intended) with a superior mind, which those poor pea-brained readers and writers of chicklit/romance/YA/fantasy etc will never understand. I pity them. And must do so as publicly and often as I can. Or how will everyone know of my vast superiority?

And, yes, the go-to genres for dismissal to prove superiority are almost always ones tainted by girl germs.

Though science fiction also has a long history of being in this category. I would argue, however, it has started the journey towards respectability. That path upon which crime fiction is much further along. Yes, there are still people ignorantly dismissing both these genres but not as much as they used to.

Lots of people don’t read particular genres because they don’t like them. Well and good. I don’t like cosy mysteries at all. I’ve bounced off several highly recommended, gorgeously written ones. They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like their neatly wrapped endings. I don’t like, well, their coziness. I like my crime fiction gritty and disturbing.

I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler. If it’s published as a romance the two protags will get together by the end of the book. Whereas if they read a book that has a romance in it but within the context of another genre there’s the possibility that it will end miserably. Narrative tension!1

I know heaps of people who really only like realism and non-fiction. They don’t have the reading protocols for fantasy or science fiction. They can’t get past the whole zombies, dragons etc are real thing. I feel sad for them, but I get it. They don’t judge me for loving fantasy. They’re just kind of bewildered.

I have said more than once that I hate science fiction. Most recently on Twitter:

See, I get to hate science fiction because I spent a billion years of my life reading it: the good, the bad & the mediocre. #stupidPhd

Yes, writing my PhD on science fiction and particularly focussing on excruciatingly bad examples of the genre turned me off the whole genre. Even though when I started Ursula LeGuin was one of my favourite writers. She still is. But the book of hers I wrote about for my PhD, Left Hand of Darkness, I haven’t read it since and it is one of the best books the genre has ever produced. One I used to reread regularly. I still highly recommend it. She’s a genius.

So even though Scott writes science fiction, as do many of my closest friends, and even though I myself have written a science fiction-ish novel. Yes, even though I love many sf books and films and tv shows, I react with dread and trembling to those two words together: Science + Fiction. GET IT AWAY FROM ME. The flashbacks! They burn!

No, it’s not rational at all. But at least I know what I’m talking about. Science fiction, oh I has read it. More to the point I do not think less of those who love sf best of all.

I wish people like Maureen Dowd would look at their motivations for dismissing a whole genre. That they would actually think before they open their mouths, ask themselves some pertinent questions:

Am I dismissing this genre of which I have read few examples, and those culled randomly from a bookshelf, without getting recommendations from people who know and love that genre, because I want to feel superior?

If the answer is yes then perhaps that says more about me than it does about the genre in question. Perhaps I am cooking the results before beginning the research? Perhaps I should shut my mouth on this subject in future?

I don’t care if they cling to their ignorance and prejudice. All I ask is that they stop blathering their nonsense in places where I can hear them or read them.

Bored now.

  1. I would argue that good romance has loads of narrative tension but it’s generated by the “how” not by the “if”. []

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Enjoy Critical Reviews of Your Own Work

I write this from my perspective as someone who has published nine books and received many critical reviews.

I know that’s obvious but I think it needs restating up front. I know what I’m talking about. People have loathed each one of my books with the fire of a thousand burning suns. People have wanted to throw them across the room, to burn them, to make sure they never get into the hands of impressionable teenagers, to remove them from library bookshelves, and have been bored into a coma by them.

I used to be really upset by negative responses now not so much. I was even upset by what is now my all-time favourite punter review: “Like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.” When I first read it I was incensed. Now, I giggle.

Here are my tips towards enjoying negative reviews of your work.

Not every book or art show or radio play or short movie or whatever it is you have made1 gets reviewed

Most books—even from mainstream publishing houses—don’t get widely reviewed. Getting any reviews at all should be a matter for celebration. Your book is getting coverage! It’s being read! Discussed! It may not disappear without a trace! Woo hoo!

Treasure the good ones, the bad ones, the meh ones: they all mean there is a conversation about your book. You know, the same book you were mostly alone with FOREVER. The book that when you tried to talk about it with other people their eyes would glaze and they’d change the subject. Most folks find other people talking about the book they’re writing the most boring thing in the world.2

Yet, here you are, lo these many months/years later, and now other people know about your book. What’s more they want to talk about it. You don’t have to force them. They have opinions! What could be cooler than that?

A bad review does not necessarily mean people won’t buy your book

Loads of authors automatically assume that because a review is negative it means no one who read that review will read that book. So not true. There are reviewers, who I won’t name, who hate the things I love. A bad review from them is as good as a recommendation from someone I trust.3

There are reviewers I’m unfamiliar with, who in listing the reasons they hate a book, fill me with a strong desire to read it:

This book is anarchist, atheistic, feminist filth about a werewolf in love with a militant unionist troll. The werewolf was not believable. Werewolf men should all be alphas. And the troll? In the real world she would never get a husband. So bossy and annoying. Blood Teeth Explosion is quite possibly the worst, most immoral book I have ever read.

C’mon, who would not want to read such a book? Now I totally wish I hadn’t made it up. Someone write Blood Teeth Explosion for me!

Then there are the completists in the world who don’t care if your vampire/angel/Mormon/atheist/whatever love story is considered rubbish by the majority of reviewers. You have written the thing that they collect. They must have it.

A review of your book is not a review of you

I know it feels like it is. They hated your beloved book that you spent years working on. They read it and dismissed it as nothing! Why don’t they just kick you in the teeth, already?!

But truly they’re responding to words on the page. Their response emerges out of their life experiences, the way they see the world. Yes, you put those words there but your life experiences and the readers’ are different. Odds are they are not going to read those words the way you do. Odds are they’re not going to be thinking of you when they read the story you wrote. And thus their reaction has nothing to do with you.

It’s the book they’re responding to, not you.

Yes, sometimes reviewers write things like “this author could not write their way out of a paper bag” or “author has a weird obsession with astroturf” or “author is a sick sadist to subjects their characters to horrors that should never be written of—I close my eyes and I still see those nylon, lime-green formal shorts.”

“The author” they’re talking about? Not you either. “The author” is an imaginary construct of the reader. Just as this “reader” I’m talking about is my imaginary construct. We know as little about them as they know about us.

You have the power

Someone hated your book enough that they were compelled to tell the whole world about it. Congratualations! You have the power. The book you slaved over? The one you thought would never be published or read by anyone you weren’t related to? Total strangers have read it and not only that they have had a passionate response to it! They want to stab it with a fork! You got to them! Woo hoo!

And the ones who keep going on and on about your “immorality” and “man-hating” ways every time anyone mentions your book anywhere online? They’ve clearly set up a google alert so that they can yell about your book everywhere. You really got to them.

There’s a certain breed of reader who hates all books by women in their genre. I am not making this up. They view every woman-authored book with seething hatred. Just by being a woman who has the temerity to have written in their precious, boys-only genre you have pissed them off. The better your book, the angrier they become, because they have to contort themselves into all sorts of weird shapes in order to prove to themselves that your book is rubbish. And in their heart of hearts they know your book is good and it DRIVES THEM INSANE.

I have had only one example of this particular kind of review. My first trade review was of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction was written by exactly the kind of male science fiction fan the book discusses, who is appalled by the presence of women in his beloved genre, and considers feminism to be a foul bacteria that destroys everything it touches. I still treasure that review.4

In this vein, I once had a reviewer go off about one of my books written in first person.5 First person, this reviewer contended was always a sign of bad writing. And my book was a particularly hideous example because the word “I” appeared on almost every single page. The horror!

So every time we write a book in first person we have the power to annoy that particular reviewer. I don’t know about you but that makes me giggle and rub my evil first-person-point-of-view-typing hands with glee.

We have the power!

In conclusion: Critical reviews can be amusing, prove that you have the power to annoy the annoyable, are not about you, and really just be grateful you’re getting reviewed at all.6

Hope that helps. Would love to hear other coping mechanism for dealing with our books not being loved for the perfection they clearly are. :-)

  1. For the rest of the post just assume “book” stands in for “created thing.” []
  2. Other than hearing about someone else’s dreams, that is. []
  3. Okay, I’ll name one: David Stratton. If he hates a movie it’s pretty much a guarantee I’ll love it. All these years later I still cannot believe he gave Fun no stars. Such an excellent film about female teenage rage. Something, obvously, Mr Stratton knows zip about. Also he loves Woody Allen. Enough said. []
  4. Or, you know, I would if I could remember where it appeared and had ever seen it again. Reviews are so ephemeral; my memory is so crap. []
  5. Honestly, I can no longer remember which book. []
  6. I was going to have another section on how reviews can also be useful when they point out failings in your writing that you had not noticed yourself. But it got really long. Will post it in the not too distant future. []

Changing My Mind: On What to Do About Cranky Authors

Recently I argued that the best way to deal with a cranky author coming after you for writing a less-than-glowing review about their work was to delete the review but say why you had done so. My argument was that obscurity is the worst thing that can happen to an author. No reviews = no attention = no sales = no career. Bye, bye author.

Kat Kennedy (and others) responded in the comments (and on Twitter) to say that while she could understand responding that way she personally would not do it for three reasons: 1) She was proud of her reviews. 2) Some authors badgered reviewers into taking down their negative reviews. Why should they be given what they want? 3) Readers deserve to see the full range of reviews.

Today I woke up to the latest online storm around an author and their fans going after negative reviews which culminated in the reviewer receiving threatening calls. It is so petty and so stupid I just can’t even . . . Aaargh!

What is wrong with people that they can’t take in a simple very obvious fact: we all have different opinions.

Didn’t I just write about this the other day?1 You can’t control what people think of you or your books. I guess I should have also said and if you try you’ll look really, really, really bad. You’ll look like you’re abusing your powerful position as a bestselling, popular author. You’ll make people not want to buy your books far more than any one-star review ever could have.

I have a theory that there’s been a lot more of this kind of bullying from authors lately because there are far more authors who publish themselves without first going through the process of submitting to agents and editors and experiencing rejection. Authors whose work has not been workshopped or critiqued or, in some case, even edited before publication.2 They’ve only being read by people they aren’t related to or are friends with, Then they start being reviewed by strangers. Thus their first experience of criticism happens in public with unfortunate consequences.

My theory may well be true for a handful of those at the extreme end of self-publishing.

But it does not explain the established, published-by-big-houses, several-books-into-their-career, New-York-Times-bestselling authors also freaking out about negative reviews in public.

How on earth can they think a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads is going to have the slightest effect on their career? What exactly are they afraid of from less-than-stellar reviews? The more widely read your books are the bigger amount of bad reviews you’re going to get. Simply because more people are reading you. Bestsellers are pretty much always the most hated. How many haters of Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey are there? Surely there in their gazillions. As are the lovers of those books. It goes with the territory.

It’s the sheer quantity of reviews and responses and other indications of your being read that fuels further sales because they mean your book is being talked about. Many reviews means word of mouth is happening. Whether they’re negative or positive is neither here nor there.

Look, I get that there’s a lot of pressure on those bestsellers for their next book to outsell the last. For them to always be a bestseller. I know it’s very stressful.3 But seriously? Siccing your fans on an Amazon reviewer? Why?

So, yes, I’ve changed my mind. Too many of these cranky authors want negative reviews to not exist. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them bully you into taking down your reviews. Be strong. And make sure as many people as possible know that you’re being bullied. Authors have to stop doing this.

I think the other strategy is only effective for books that are already obscure. In the real world my plan of them having no reviews at all and disappearing into obscurity is not really going to happen.

You should do what works best for you. Being in the centre of an online shit storm is horrible. I’ve been there. For most of us life is too short.

The fact that any amount of an energy is being spent on this is so ridiculous. The fact that readers are nervous about sharing their honest opinions about books is also ridiculous.

You publish books, you get bad reviews. If you don’t want bad reviews don’t write books.

  1. Why isn’t everyone reading me and obeying?! []
  2. This is absolutely not true of all self-published authors. Many of whom are extremely professional. []
  3. Not from personal experience—I’ve had no bestsellers—but from observation. Friends have been/are in that position. []

Selling Yourself Online

Seems to me to be bleeding obvious that tweeting and facebooking and blogging and whatever other social media is the flavour du jour do not automatically equal vastly increased sales. Of any kind. But I’ll talk about books that being what I am in the business of selling.

So I agree with Nick Earls’ post about how social media works for us author types. Except I don’t have a cat and have never had a cat and will never have a cat.1

Loads of authors are being told that they MUST tweet, blog, facebook, tumblr, whatever. Because if you do not have a social media platform NOT ONE BOOK OF YOURS WILL SELL EVER. And they freak out and do it and notice they have hardly any followers and no one’s clicking on the buy links and it’s not working and clearly their career will be a total failure and AAARRGH.

Here’s everything I know about authors promoting books via social media:2

No one knows how to sell books. Not for sure. Not online and not offline.

Many books have had the full weight of their publisher behind them, big publicity budget, huge tour, saturation marketing online and off—the works—and died on their arse. Or, sold well below expectations.3

It’s really easy to look at, say, Hunger Games and declare, “Of course it did well! Look at the promotional campaign behind it.” Sure. But what about all the other books who got the same or bigger campaigns and haven’t sold anywhere near as well?

Some books catch with the wider reading public. Some don’t. A big campaign behind your book sure does help but guarantees nothing. Unless that good old word of mouth takes off your book is not going to shift many units.4

There are also books that come out of nowhere and do really well. Most recently, Fifty Shade of Grey. When it was a self-published ebook—before mainstream publishers picked it up—there was no huge publicity campaign making it sell like hotcakes. Word of mouth did that magic.

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

Which means that publishers and publicists and authors tend to latch on to whatever they can in the hope that it will generate that blessed word of mouth. Telling authors that they should social media their little hearts out has the virtue of giving them something to do. Something that, occasionally, does work.

I know two authors for whom social media has been crucial to their success as writers: John Scalzi and John Green.

Data point: it helps to make it via social media as an author if your first name is JOHN! *considers changing name to John Larbalestier*

Obviously there are loads of writers who use social media really well who sell loads of books.

However, unlike the two Johns, I see no straight line between their use of social media and their sales. I reckon most of them would sell just as well if they had little online presence. Suzanne Collins certainly does. Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love sold stratospherically without either of them having much of an online presence and much of a publicity campaign on first publication.

And many of these successful authors were selling fabulously before social media existed. Most of their followers follow them because they are fans of their books. Not because they’re good at Twitter.

There are also many authors who are amazing at social media, have loads of followers, but don’t sell stratospherically. For some there seems to be an inverse proportion between their sales and their number of followers.

I follow heaps of writers whose books I’ve never bought. Just because I find their tweets witty and amusing doesn’t mean I’ll find the kinds of book they write appealing.

Plenty of people have told me they’ve bought my books because they’re enjoyed my blog or my tweets. Which is lovely. Yay! But I doubt they’re a big percentage of the people who buy my books. I’ve had many more people tell me they read my blog and/or tweets because they like my books.

I’m not saying having a social media presence doesn’t help. I’m sure it does. I’m just saying that there is not a direct impact on sales of books.

Selling Stratospherically

I think part of the problem is that all too many aspiring authors look at the success of a Suzanne Collins or an E. L. James and think that’s attainable for any author.

Um, no.

The vast majority of published authors do not make a living from writing books. I’m talking about novelists published by mainstream presses.5 Most writers have another job. Or supplement their novel writing income with school visits, teaching, other kinds of writing etc.

Most of us feel like we’re doing well if we can support ourselves from just writing novels. So the idea that if you only devoted more time to online marketing than you do to the actual writing you will become the next E. L. James is nutty.

Becoming an author to make bank is nutty. Social media’s not going to make it happen any more than any other form of marketing will. And the fact that it worked for one in a million6 doesn’t really prove the case.

So why social media?

I am not on Twitter because my publisher told me to be.

Okay, actually, I think I am. I was very resistant to Twitter at first. But a publisher said I should so I did. Even though they also told me I had to myspace7 and I hated it and gave it up pretty quickly. Or, at least, forgot about it. Perhaps that myspace page is still there. Is myspace still around?8

I digress.

I stayed on Twitter because it’s fun. It’s a great way to keep up with sport and politics. Especially women’s sport that mainstream news sources do such a terrible job of covering. I really enjoy tweeting with a wide range of people from all round the world about politics, sport, books, film, TV, publishing, random silly stuff. Worst place to get a mostquito bite? Your eyelids. Clearly.

I have come to love the brevity of Twitter. It certainly is way less tough on my RSI than blogging is.

It’s fun to field questions from fans. It makes my day when someone is excited that I followed them. Hey, I was dead excited when one of my favourite basketball players started following me. I so get it. Though perversely I hate being asked to follow people. I’ll follow you if I want to! Sheesh.

I was offline—not blogging and not tweeting much or anything—for almost a year. I saw no effect on my books sales. I came back to it partly because I had a new book out and felt I should. A lot of the publicity Team Human‘s publishers organised was online.

I found that I’d really missed blogging. Even though hardly anyone comments anymore. *pines for the old days* *is super grateful to those of you who do comment* *realises I don’t comment much on people’s blogs either* *shame spirals*

I digressed again! Sorry.

Has returning to the wonderful online world led to increased sales? I have no idea. Certainly it’s led to some. It’s been a useful way to let people know I have a new book out. Though I suspect my publishers’ efforts in getting advance copies of Team Human to book shops and libraries and other important places all over Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA has been even better at letting people know it exists. Their reach is way bigger than my reach.

Do I think social media is essential?9

If you have a well-known publisher behind you, who can get your book widely distributed and reviewed then, no, I don’t think it’s essential. Do it if you’re good at it and enjoy it. It will lead to some sales.

Don’t do it if it feels like a chore. If you resent it because it takes you away from writing. If you don’t enjoy it people can tell. Especially if your every tweet, blog post, facebook entry is about your book and where to buy it and how good it is and how we should all buy it. Don’t do that.

The audience for my blog before I stopped blogging was much bigger than it is now. You can build up an audience but it will vanish if you don’t keep feeding it. After a month back blogging those numbers are slowly growing again but they’re nowhere near where they used to be.

Those numbers, however, can be misleading. It’s easy to fall into thinking that there’s a correlation between visitors to your blog and sales of your books. Even though I had thousands of people visiting here daily back in 2009 I wasn’t selling thousands of books every day. I was selling around the same number of books per day as I am now with the much diminished blog audience.

Basically all my going away did was reduce the number of people who read my blog. Not the number who read my books.

The big effect of returning to blogging has been reigniting my love affair with blogging. *hugs blog*

In Conclusion

The link between online presence and books sales is a hard to prove. It depends on so much. We are still in the very early days of the online world. We’re all pioneers and early adopters and none of us really know how this is going to transform publishing. It’s like people driving in the 1920s. The new car-centred world hadn’t fully formed yet. Neither has the internet-shaped world of publishing.

Right now the people who are most successful at selling themselves online are the ones who do not seem to be selling themselves online. Neither of the Johns, Scalzi or Green, are standing up shouting BUY MY BOOKS. They’re doing what they do, being themselves, and it works. They’re a natural fit, and they started their mostly inadvertent platform building early on in the truly pioneer days. And it worked.

But there are millions of others who started blogging and youtubing around the same time for whom it has not paid off the way it has for the Johns. Two successes do not a model for success make.

The one true path towards a successful writing career is to write. Write a lot. Write well. Spend at least 80% of that precious writing time on writing, not on marketing. And only do it because you love it. Because you can’t not write.

And try not to freak out too much about social media as book marketing. Try to enjoy it for its, you know, socialness. Follow people outside of your industry, who have nothing to do with selling books or marketing, who aren’t useful to you. Follow fabulous,10 wild,11 interesting people12 and crazy all-caps newspaper feeds. Have fun!

  1. Apparently pets would not be down with the whole going back and forth between Sydney and New York City thing. []
  2. I was very tempted to leave the rest of this post blank. But aren’t you lucky? I’m going to ramble on anecdotally instead. Woo hoo! []
  3. No, I’m not going to name the books. It seems kind of rude. []
  4. “Shift many units.” Tee. I’ve always wanted to say that. I feel like a 1950s A&R man. []
  5. For self-published writers it’s even harder. []
  6. Or is it one in a billion? There are an awful lot of books being published these days. []
  7. Back in the day. []
  8. My experience with myspace is why I’m not on facebook. []
  9. However, for self-publishing I imagine that it is essential. But that’s an area I know very little about. The people I know who self publish, such as Courtney Milan, started out with a mainstream publisher and were well-known before they switched. []
  10. A lawyer from Perth, Australia. She cares passionately about refugees in Australia and cricket and Bollywood. She makes me laugh. No, I’ve never met her. []
  11. She’s an awesomely cranky NYC lawyer who likes to argue about social justice. No, I don’t know her. Discovered her via @sunili. []
  12. He’s tweeting small fates from 1912 culled from NYC newspapers. Some are pure poetry. Though of the limerick variety. []

What To Do About Cranky Authors

A friend of mine, a librarian and blogger and reviewer, has had a handful of authors attack her because she wrote what they considered to be bad reviews of their books.1 She did not enjoy it.

This is not an isolated incident. Reviewers have had authors dummy spit2 at them, sic their fans on them, and generally make them wonder why they’re bothering to write reviews.

What can bloggers do when wrathful authors and their hordes descend up on them?

Here’s what my friend did. She took down those reviews. Good idea.

What these authors don’t realise is that their worst enemy is not critical reviews; it’s obscurity. No reviews is way, way, way worse than bad reviews.

Someone hates your book? That’s a good thing because it means they actually read it. (Even better you got a passionate response!) No one reading it. No responses? That’s the fast track to out of print and gone and forgotten.

That’s what I fear: not being able to sell my books because I have no audience. I do not fear people hating my books. Jane Austen is hated. Every writer I love is hated. It’s a feature, not a bug!3

So here’s my advice: if an author has a go at you for a less than gushing review of their book—take it down. And if it’s possible leave a polite note explaining why. Something like:

This space was occupied by a review of X by Cranky Author. Cranky Author was incensed by the review so I have removed it and will no longer review anything by Cranky Author.

See? Everyone’s happy. Cranky Author’s eyeballs are no longer assailed by your shocking blindness to their genius.4 You don’t have to deal with their crankiness.

And maybe if everyone does this, those authors—and fortunately they are small in number—will get the message and knock it off.

As a general rule, authors, do not respond to reviews.5 They’re not for you, they’re for readers. And especially do not attack the authors of those reviews! Leave reviewers alone!

  1. Mostly, of course, these were not bad reviews but more like three-star, has-some-good-points-has-some-bad-points kind of reviews. []
  2. USians: look it up! You are online. You can find out the meaning of any unfamiliar word or phrase in heartbeat. Embrace this gorgeous future we live in. []
  3. Hell, I even have favourite bad reviews of my books. I have quite the collection for Liar. Wow, do the people who hate it REALLY hate it. It’s also, so far, my best-selling novel. Take from that what you will. []
  4. Not unless they go hunting down the cache. []
  5. If you must respond do it generally in a post on your own blog. []

On Blogging and the Olympics

So here it is the final day of my blogging every day of July effort and I have succeeded!1 And it was fun. So much fun that I’m going to keep on blogging. Not every day but at least once a week. Turns out I missed it way more than I realised. Missed you commenter types both here and on twitter. I think we had some really cool and interesting conversations over this month and I hope we’ll have many more. *hugs blog* *hugs commenters* *cries*

I didn’t do all the posts I promised I would. I know. I am badness. But I will do them. In the future. In the not-too-distant future even. If you ask me to opine on something here or on twitter eventually I will do so.

I did not, in fact, use voice recognition software. I tried and gave up in anger and frustration. But I will do the post I promised @SirTessa in which I use that dread software without correcting any of the mistakes.

However, not using it was really positive because I also finished the first draft of a novel this month2 and thus between that and blogging every day was typing more than I had for ages and doing so in a managed way. Some days, yes, I was very sore. But I never pushed through and typed more than twenty minutes at a time. And the frequent breaks—including at least two days off per week—and stretching and strength work and treatment kept the pain manageable. Turns out I can write more than I think I can. To which, well, YAY + DANCE OF JOY.

And my reward for finishing the first draft of a new novel and blogging every day?

THE OLYMPICS.

So far I have watched, in no particular order:

  • shooting—for the first time and it was way more interesting than I thought it would be
  • hockey—the Aussie men are RIDICULOUSLY good what a pleasure they are to watch
  • basketball—the US women ditto. I mean, they could field an entirely different team from the WNBA and they’d still win gold. Hell, they could go all the way down to, like, the fourth, fifth, and sixth team options and they’d still medal. Depth? Oh, yes, my second nation has it. Total pleasure to watch them play. Especially Seimone Augustus. Oh, how I love her. And yes I adore the Opals and I want them to win but without Penny Taylor? I mean, even with Penny Taylor it was a long long long long shot.
  • badminton—shuttlecocks are freaking awesome, I love how they are at once faster and slower than a tennis ball. I also love that serving has no impact on the game
  • weightlifting—has to be the most stressful sport of all. I am always afraid their eyeballs are going to pop out of their skulls, that muscles will rip from bone, that their heads will explode. I love the slapping and screaming and other weird stuff they do to psych themselves up and how cool is it when they manage to keep that insanely heavy bar above their head and their feet in line and not moving? Very. And some of them are lifting three times their own weight. Let me repeat: THREE TIMES THEIR OWN WEIGHT!
  • gymnastics—you know, every other sport I kind of feel like I can do a much crappier version of it. I could shoot and play hockey. I have played basketball and tennis and table tennis. I’ve lifted weights. I’ve been training at boxing for almost a year now. I have dived into pools. I’ve swum, run, rowed, canoed and jumped. These are all possible things. Admittedly everyone at the Olympics is doing them a gazillion times better than me. But the gymnastics? I cannot do any of those things. Not a one.3 Gymnasts fill me with awe.
  • table tennis—watching high level table tennis is for me like watching high level snooker. I have played this game in friends’ basements, backyards and the pub. The game I play has nothing in common what I see before me on the television machine. Wow.
  • diving—ditto. With even more wow.
  • beach volley ball—anyone who says this is not a real sport deserves a smack. Yes, they’re wearing bikinis so do many of the track and field athletes and no one’s dissing the 100 metre sprint.
  • boxing—I know. I know. It’s brutal and evil and violent and gives people all sorts of horrible brain damage and only barbarians could possibly like it. But, well, colour me barbarian. I’ve always liked boxing but learning how to do it has increased my appreciation and respect for its practitioners a hundred fold. It is so hard and so technical and so much more cerebral than I realised. Can’t wait to catch some of the women’s matches because I’ve never seen one before.
  • canoe slalom—This is CRAZY. I love it.
  • rowing–I have rowed. It is really hard. These athletes are incredible.
  • swimming—I swam with a swimming squad for quite a few years. Getting up at 5AM to train, having the coach go over the finer details of all the strokes with me.4 Doing endless laps with kickboards etc etc. Thus my empathy for what the swimmers put themselves through is very, very, very large indeed. And watching technically perfect swimmers gives me large amounts of joy. Plus underwater cameras? I love you.

The time difference between Sydney and London is kind of perfect. Live coverage starts at 5:30pm in Sydney and the last events are winding up at 9am the next day. So I can watch until I go to bed and then wake up around 7am in time to watch a live game of basketball. Then I can go about my normal day of gym, boxing, writing etc. I admit it, this particular sports lover is in heaven. I kind of wish the Olympics was on every single day of the year.

  1. Weekends do not count. No one is online on Saturdays and Sundays. Scientific fact. []
  2. *bounce* *bounce* *bounce* []
  3. Well, okay, I can do some of the goofy dance moves in the floor routines but other than that? Nope. []
  4. Why does that always sounds so rude? []

The Purpose of Bad Books

I’ve had several folks respond to the discussion of bad reviews and bad books pretty much as Trudi Canavan did in the comments: “I stop reading. Life is too short for bad books.”

To which I can only respond, well, yes, obviously. One of the great pleasures, for me anyway, of being an adult is finally realising I am under no moral compulsion to finish every book I start. I can put boring books down! I can walk away from bad books without being sullied by reading the whole thing! Oh happy day!

On the other hand—and I know this is not just me—sometimes I really enjoy reading a bad book. It has to be a particular kind of bad. Boring bad, for instance, need not apply. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand remains one of my favourite books because it is so campily ridiculous. You cannot read the dialogue out loud without dying laughing. No one in the history of the universe has ever talked like that. But the idea that somewhere, somehow, people are talking like that makes me laugh my arse off.

I am also very enamoured of Flowers in the Attic, which I adored when I was a kid, and genuinely thought was the best book ever. As an adult I deeply enjoy its insanely over the top plot, its risible dialogue and its jaw-droppingly improbable descriptions of pretty much everything. These traits hold true for all the V. C. Andrews books. Well, it does for the ones she actually wrote herself. She was a bad writing genius. Reading those books is really fun. It’s even more fun to read them out loud.

I have previously detailed a wonderful train ride with such YA luminaries as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld in which we took turns reading aloud an excruciatingly bad book. That’s how I know I’m not alone in this sick enjoyment of badness.

It is, of course, more than their campy dreadfulness that makes bad books useful. Without bad books we would not be able to appreciate good books.

You need context to be able to see when something is really well done and when it is a disaster. Part of learning to read is learning to be a discerning reader. Like I said, as a kid I had no idea that Flowers in the Attic was bad. I loved it. I thought it was genius. This is pretty typical of many beginning readers. We love a lot of what we read. We often think what we’re reading is the Best Book We’ve Ever Read. And, you know what, when you’ve only read a few dozen books, that could well be true.

We writers can learn a lot about writing from reading bad writing. When a book is not working for you it is revealing a lot about its construction. It’s much harder to figure out what makes a good book tick because you get so lost in it every time you read it that you stop seeing how the words are chosen and put together. With bad writing all of that is up front and centre there’s no gorgeous phrasing to distract you. Just before you put the next bad book down in disgust ask yourself why. What was it that made the book unreadable? This is a really excellent way to figure out what not to do in your own writing.

I am, of course, talking as if we all agree about what’s good or bad in a book. Would that it were so.

Nah, not really. Where would the fun be in that? Spirited arguments about the goodness or not of Moby Dick are part of the spice of life.1

Are there any other uses of bad writing that I missed?

  1. “Spice of life”?! Cliche alert! Yes, I know, one of many. It’s a blog post! I don’t have to get all fancy. []

Bad Book Exorcisms

Following on from my post about bad reviews there’s been a spot of conversation about how to exorcise the horrific experience of reading a truly bad piece of excrement masquerading as a book. Some of us write eviscerating reviews and some of us imagine or actually practice violence upon the offending item: I mentioned my desire to stab them. N. K. Jemisin says she throws them across the room.

I have a group of friends who compete to find the very worst books and then read them out loud in order to point and laugh and marvel at how truly bad they are. It is incredibly entertaining. We end up weeping we laugh so hard. It’s also educational. Nothing like reading out loud to truly expose the badness. It’s an extremely entertaining lesson in how not to write. I highly recommend it.

For an out of copyright truly terrible book may I recommend The Shiek by E. M. Hull:

The two men left standing by the open French window that led into the hotel ballroom looked at each other and smiled.

“Some peroration,” said one with a marked American accent. “That’s the way scandal’s made, I guess.”

“Scandal be hanged! There’s never been a breath of scandal attached to Diana Mayo’s name. I’ve known the child since she was a baby. Rum little cuss she was, too. Confound that old woman! She would wreck the reputation of the Archangel Gabriel if he came down to earth, let alone that of a mere human girl.”

“Not a very human girl,” laughed the American. “She was sure meant for a boy and changed at the last moment. She looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy–and a damned haughty one,” he added, chuckling. “I overheard her this morning, in the garden, making mincemeat of a French officer.”

Lots of wonderful bad writing tics: flat, unevocative, stage-direction like description; laugh transformed into a verb of utterance; unnecessary repetition “laughed the American” “he added, chuckling,” and un-dialogue like dialogue.

This passage is from early on in proceedings. It gets much much MUCH worse-er after Diana is kidnapped by the Shiek. The dialogue in the book starts over the top but ratchets up from there. Until basically you’re reading a novel where everyone is SPEAKING IN ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS AT EVERY TURN!!!!!

Reading it out loud and laughing is the only way to cope.

So, dear readers, how do you cope with the truly bad books you’ve had the misfortune to run your scared orbs across? Do you have any handy bad book exorcisms to share?

4th of July

I hear this is a big deal over in the US of A. Given that many of my readers are from there and that I myself am now also a citizen of your fine country—dual nationalities for the win!—I thought I should blog in a USian way or about the USA on your day of celebrating being a nation.1

First I thought why don’t I tell you everything I think is wrong with that mighty nation. But given that I haven’t even been USian for a whole year it seems a bit premature. It’s all very well for me to go off on the dread wrongnesses of Australia2 as I have been Australian for quite some time. But as a mere eight-month old USian I shall keep it positive for at least another year.

So instead I will share with you some of what I love about the USA. Yes, folks, there are many good things about the United States of America.

The music. Seriously, people, this is the country that produced Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holliday, Blossom Dearie, Big Mama Thornton, Aaron Copland, Kanye, George Gershwin, Gangstagrass, Missy Elliot, Salt’n’Pepa, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Una Mae Carlisle, Dixie Chicks, Bix Beiderbeck, Jean Grae, Chuck Brown, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan . . .3

Oh, good grief. There are too many amazing musicians across too many genres! It’s completely impossible to even list 0.01% of my favourites. I mean I’m looking at that list and thinking what about Lucinda Williams? What about Janelle Monae? Gillian Welch? Mahalia Jackson? Johnny Cash? How could I have forgotten them?! What is wrong with me?

You know, even if the USA had given nothing else to the rest of the world it’s music is more than enough. But then there’s all the amazing literature. Geniuses like Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Flannery O’Conner, Zora Neale Hurston, Dawn Powell, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith and many, many others. I’m only listing dead writers. That way my genius writer friends won’t be insulted when I leave them off the list. Interestingly almost all my favourite US genre writers are still alive. Excellent, eh?

Then there’s all the wonderful movies. I am an obsessive devotee of Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties. Way too many to list. And then in the last decade or so there’s been an explosion of extraordinary television for which I am insanely grateful. *hugs The Wire to chest*

Of course none of this art happens in a vacuum. The USA is a hungry beast absorbing cultural influences from all over the world. Personally, I think that’s how the best art happens. Though it’s a long continuum and at one end is US artists going to, say, Brazil, and ripping off artists there and taking it back and selling it in the USA and not even crediting the source except with generalised mumbling such as: “You know, Brazil, is, like, so inspiring.”

What never stops amazing me about the USA is how big it is. How almost everything you can say about that country—good or bad—is true. They have the worst and best health care.4 Ditto food. Ditto music. Ditto, well, pretty much everything.

But I guess the main thing I love about the USA is New York City, which has given me so many opportunities and wonderful friendships and, er, a husband, and completely changed my life. Kisses and hugs to you, NYC! Never change!5

  1. It is still the fourth of July there even though we Australians have already moved on to the fifth of July. []
  2. Oh, I’m just kidding. We Aussies know that Australia is perfect in every way and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Don’t say “detention centres” or “asylum seeker deaths at sea” or “deaths in custody.” Shush! []
  3. You’ll let me know, won’t you, if one of them turns out to actually be Canadian? []
  4. And that best in the world health care can easily be yours. All you have to do is be really rich or have an amazing job with amazing health insurance. Simple! []
  5. Well, actually, NYC, I’d kind of like you to quit it with the stop-and-frisk program and it would be awesome if you created more low-income housing in Manhattan so it doesn’t totally turn into a theme park for the rich and if you . . . *cough* Positive. I’m keeping things positive. []

Team Human is Now Out Everywhere*

*If by “everywhere” I mean Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, which, um, I do. Sorry, rest of the world.

Team Human is real! Team Human is out in the world! *bounce bounce bounce*

This morning (Australia time) we did a twitter chat about Team Human and I can’t quite believe this happened, but, well, there’s proof. Our chat #THchat trended worldwide!

How surreal is that? Thank you so much everyone for your participation and amusing questions. Yes, @colorlessblue, I promise I will add writing a bunyip book to my list.1

In other Team Human news here’s the very droll trailer:

I love the Vampires Are Wrong bloke. He has the best voice ever.

If you missed out on today’s Twitter chat you can always join a chat between me, Sarah Rees Brennan and Scott Westerfeld at Figment.com this coming Sunday evening in the USA (Monday morning in Australia).

Sunday July 8
8PM US-ET (5PM Pacific Time, 10AM Monday AUS-ET)

We’ll be discussing what it’s like to collaborate on a novel. Click here to find out more.

Oh, and Team Human was boingled today!

You can read the first chapter of Team Human here. In the USA it is available in all electronic formats. In Australia it’s available in many formats. Full details here.

Happy book birthday, Team Human! May you stay in print a really, really long time!

  1. My list of books to write is really long. I make no guarantees I will get around to it. []

Day One of July Blogging Month

Well, this is exciting. A whole month of me blathering at youse. And, hopefully, youse lot blathering back at me in them there comments below.

I’m overcome with joy at the prospect. So overjoyed that I know that I said I wouldn’t blog on the weekend but this year the 1st of July is a Sunday and I couldn’t not blog on the very first day of my blogging month, now could I?

I thought I would start with some frivolity. Did you see #badwritingtips on twitter? There were some truly awesome ones. I loved Elizabeth Knox’s “Begin as many sentences as possible with a verb + ‘ing’, it makes everything so much more active.” Cracking good advice!1 You should all follow her.

Here are the bad writing tips I tweeted:

Repetition’s your friend. Really & truly repetition’s truly your friend. Repeat things or your readers really won’t remember.

Make sure you have a prologue. Make sure it’s as long as your book.

Ha, yes, @mysterysquid, a prologue is even better if it has absolutely no bearing on the book that follows it.

“Really” “you know” “actually” and “just” are the most useful and versatile words. Make sure you use them A LOT.

Don’t use specific details. Rather than describing actual smells call them “pungent” or “redolent”. Details slow the story.

It is always much better to use your precious writing time coming up with #badwritingtips than, you know, actually writing.

The last few huge bestsellers I read did all of these things.2 Seems to be the rule that to become a giant, world-wide, sell-millions-upon-millions bestseller you do, in fact, have to write in a way that the majority of the writers and readers I know would describe as “bad writing.”

The theory behind this is that for a book to sell in those insane numbers it has to be picked up by people who don’t normally read books. And that those kind of readers therefore haven’t learnt the reading protocols that frequent readers have. Thus clunky, obvious, repetitious writing works for those newer readers in ways it doesn’t for us jaded, sophisticated readers.

I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that. Because that does not explain all the hard-core readers who read the mega-bestsellers. They can’t all be reading them to point and laugh and write side-splittingly funny one-star reviews.3

Not to mention that there are mega-bestsellers that aren’t full of this kind of “bad writing.” The Harry Potter books for instance. Especially the third one.4 For my tastes, they do get too big and insufficiently tightly edited as they go on but even then they are not full of the cringe-inducing repetition and generic descriptions of more recent bestsellers.5

Basically I don’t think we can explain how these mega-bestsellers happen. It’s kismet.

Any of youse got some entertaining crappy writing tips?

So this is the first of almost thirty posts this month. Feel free to suggest topics in the comments.

I leave you with a link to this really funny musical number about internet trolls and bullies. It’s very NSFW6 as it includes language that I know upsets many people. I loved it. My apologies to everyone who’s already watched it a million times and is now over it.

Happy July Blogging Month!

Team Human Alert: So, um, I have a new book out, Team Human, which I wrote with Sarah Rees Brennan and which publishes in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA this very week!

You can read the first chapter or take a squiz at some reviews or read about how Sarah and I wrote it together.

This week there’ll be a twitter chat where you can ask us whatever you want about Team Human organised by our US publisher, Harper Collins. It will be held on Tuesday 3 July at 6pm US East coast time. (That’s 8AM Wednesday 4 July for East Coast Australian types.) The hashtag to use is: #THchat

There’ll also be an online chat with Figment.com. Sunday 8 July 8PM US-ET (5PM Pacific Time, 10AM Monday AUS-ET) Scott Westerfeld will be me and Sarah Rees Brennan about Team Human. Mostly we’ll be discussing what it’s like to collaborate on a novel.Click here to find out how to take part.

  1. I cheated and made my gerund a modifier. Whatever. []
  2. Well, okay, not the prologue thing. []
  3. Yes, one of my favourite things in the world is reading the most popular one-star reviews of the most popular books. They are an art form! []
  4. My favourite. []
  5. Which I am not going to name. Because I don’t diss living writers. Not on the permanent record anyways. []
  6. NSFW = Not Safe For Work. Yes, I know you know that but there’s always someone who doesn’t know and is bad at google. []

July: Blogging A Lot Month (Updated)

I have decided to put this here voice recognition software to the test in the month of July by blogging every day.1 Yes, I will blog every single day of July 2012.

Tell Me What To Blog

If there’s anything you would like me to blog about please let me know! The comments are below in the manner of most blogs.2

I’ve had a few suggestions on Twitter:

@SirTessa wants me to write a complete post without correcting any of the voice recognition software mistakes. I WILL DEFINITELY DO THAT.

@WanderinDreamr wants me to write about Australian slang “the rest of the world is confused by”. My problem with that is, well, how am I supposed to know? Australian slang does not confuse me. Though I do love many of the words that are unique to these fine shores so I may just write about my favourite ones.

@ben_rosenbaum suggested I blog tongue twisters on account of the voice recognition software. I am ignoring him.

@nalohopkinson wanted me to “opine on bubble skirts”. How could I resist writing a horrors & joys of fashion post? Oh, bubble skirt, I shall SO opine about you.

I also recently got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. I think NOT AT ALL. Turns out that people mean different things by “rewriting”. I spluttered about on twitter in a way that I think was mostly confusing. A post is in order to clarify my thoughts. @pmattessi requested that I “mention things like whether eds should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” He comes from the tv side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing. I suspect my post will be about the writer/editor relationship with a little touch of the thankless work of the copyeditor.

Another interesting discussion concerned the way English-speaking cultures are so full of hatred for children & teenagers and how that is not the case in places like Spain, Italy, and Thailand.3

Many years ago I promised a post about writing dialogue. If any of you still want such a post I may attempt to finish it. It’s just that it’s hard because I’m not really sure how I write dialogue. You know, other than I type it and make sure there are quote marks around it. (And sometimes I use italics if it’s dialogue that’s not being directly said.)

Is challenging voice recognition software the only reason for blogging every day of July?

Nope. I really miss blogging. Not blogging hardly at all for such a long time has left me with many pent up THOUGHTS and FEELINGS that do not fit on twitter. I miss sharing them with you. But mostly I miss the wonderful crew of commenters who once hung out here. I miss your wit and your wisdom and your snark and your sincerity and your sarcasm and your silliness. I am hoping some of you will return. Even though blogs are so beginning-of-this-century and everyone’s on twitter and tumblr these days. I don’t care. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still love them.

Also my newest book, Team Human, written with Sarah Rees Brennan, will be published on 2 July in Australia and New Zealand and 3 July in Canada and the USA. This means I will be doing a fair number of interviews and the like about said book all over the internets. But while I love TH dearly and am very proud of it and over the moon with joy that the early responses to the book have been so positive the idea of talking about it non-stop for a month makes me feel a bit tired. This will be my online respite.

A Digression

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that by the time a book is published and it’s time to publicise it we authors have spent so much time with the book that it’s the last thing in the world we want to talk about. When I’m really itching to talk about my books is during the drive towards the finish of the first draft—when I know I’m going to finish it and talking about it won’t jinx it and the book becomes the only thing in the world I want to talk about. And—most of all—during the first few rewrites when it has become the only thing in the world I can talk about.

Unfortunately that is when very few people have read it and they’re all bored with me asking them questions about what they thought of the world building or the main characters and whether they think I should get rid of the gilded-wings subplot or expand the diabolic-exploding-hairclip subplot. They are so over my book and, by extension me, in fact, that if I ring them they no longer pick up. And my emails to them start to bounce. Waaaaaahhhh!!!!!!!

Fortunately there’s Scott and my lovely agent Jill and my editor who are always happy to talk endlessly about my book during these times. Bless them!

In Conclusion

In July I will blog a lot.

Update: @Marrije has also requested via Twitter that I “do a post on How To Find The Good Food In Any City? Isn’t this your superpower? Can you teach us?”

@MalindaLo has requested: “I blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

  1. Except weekends. Cause, come on, no one is on the intramanets on the weekend. Scientific fact. []
  2. I thought about having them above but my web designer said no. []
  3. And I’m sure in many other places I’ve not been to. []

Cassandra Clare on the Myth that Authors Automatically Condone What We Depict

Cassandra Clare has written an important piece called Rape Myths, Rape Culture and the Damage Done. If you haven’t read it already you really should. Be warned: she discusses much which is deeply upsetting.

What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:

[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.

What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.

The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER!3

But I digress the most annoying part of the “you wrote about it therefore you must approve of it” argument is that it shuts down discussion. If to write about rape or war is to approve of it than there’s nothing else to be said. The actual debate should be about how such fraught parts of human existence are written about.

Which is to agree again with Cassie. Context is everything. Arguing that merely depicting something means condoning it strips away all context, strips away the why and how of the depiction. It says that a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved is exactly the same as any of John Norman’s Gor books. After all there’s rape and slavery in both of them.

  1. Complaint letters about Liar make up the bulk of the specific complaints I get. []
  2. True fact, I goofed. And since there wasn’t a second edition it’s never been fixed. []
  3. Mostly though teenagers don’t write to complain, which is why I write for them. Just kidding. Sort of. []

Feeling Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Mafias & Other Things You Don’t Need to Worry About

Holly Black recently posted on the subject of the so-called YA Mafia, which apparently is a “cabal of writers who give one other blurbs, do events with one another, and like each other’s books.” Also if you cross them they can ruin your career.

In her post Holly said such a cabal does not exist. I suspect she’s right. Certainly none of the YA writers I know are involved in such a group. However, there are many YA authors I don’t know. Could be a few of them plot darkly together. Who knows?

Thing is plotting ain’t doing. As Holly points out, YA authors do not have that power. I have recommended twenty or more of my writer friends to my agent so far she’s taken on one. You see? I have her twisted around my little finger! Oh. Wait. And if I told her not to take on so-and-so as a client I shudder to think what she’d say. Probably that I’d lost my mind. Rightly so.

Here’s what I think is going on with the upset over the idea of a YA mafia. As Phoebe North says in an eloquent comment in response to Holly’s post there has been some nastiness online from authors to reviewers and sometimes vice versa:

I’ve seen countless blog posts that purport to be talking up positivity, but also include veiled threats (one post said that an author would ask her agent not to sign a writer who has negatively reviewed her friends books, even if they were fair reviews). I’ve seen authors post comments on negative goodreads reviews (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this go well). I saw someone who had been book blogging for three years–and had hundreds of followers and who genuinely loved book blogging–shut down her blog because an agent said that she’d never sign a book blogger as an author. And this woman wasn’t . . . snarkbaiting, I promise. She wrote great, thoughtful, and generally kind reviews.

What it boils down to, right now, is a lot of reviewers feel threatened. It’s uncomfortable, because they’re readers, too, and they love books, even if they don’t like particular books. But all of this feels silencing, even for reviewers who never want to be authors. There’s this air of intangible hostility around the whole scene. It feels like many authors generally don’t like reviewers or bloggers generally.

That sucks. I hate any kind of silencing. And I hate that there are reviewers and bloggers who think all authors hate them. Not true!

But here’s why I don’t think you should be worried:

  1. I guarantee you that the vast majority of agents or editors seeing their author making veiled threats would be having words with them of the DO NOT DO THAT variety.

    Some authors do go nuts in the face of bad reviews.1 This is why I have long been on the record as advising them to kick their pillow around, or run around the block, or do anything that will keep them from expressing their insanity online.2 Making threats of the YOU WILL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN ilk is definitely in the nutso category. When you see writers do that best to look away and hope it’s temporary. If it’s a continued pattern of behaviour? Don’t buy their books! Authors hate that.

  2. Most of the people making these threats online do not have that power. Very few authors do. Allegedly back in the day Enid Blyton used to threaten her publisher to stop them publishing her enemies. She was her publisher’s biggest seller. Hell, at the time she was one of the biggest selling children’s writers in the universe. Allegedly they did what she said. And more shame on them if true.

    These days, maybe Stephenie Meyer has that clout. But I’ve never seen her online making those threats. Nor are we likely to see her do so—from all accounts she’s lovely. People who threaten to destroy people’s careers are not lovely. They’re nasty and likely delusional.

  3. There are many reputable agents out there who would happily take on a blogger as a client. Jennifer Laughran represents the wonderful book blogger Gwenda Bond. I’m sure there are gazillions of other examples. What one agent says does not hold for all agents. I know agents who won’t represent books where children are killed. Another who can’t stand vampires.3 That’s why there are loads of different agents.
  4. The blogosphere is not as big as you think it is.

    Here’s the thing—and I suspect many of you are going to have trouble believing me—many YA agents and authors and booksellers and librarians and readers do not live their lives online. They’re too busy or oblivious or full of hate for computers to have that kind of active engagement. Yup, I know people who hate going online. I have friends who if you google them you find nothing. Shocking, but true.

    What happens in the blogosphere may seem like the biggest deal in the world but it is a tiny, tiny blip that the vast majority of people interested in YA are unaware of. Indeed many people who are active in your blogosphere also regularly miss the scandal de jour.

Phoebe North continues:

I guess I really wish book bloggers and reviewers and authors could all sit down and share beer or coffee and remind each other that there are people behind the text on the screen.

I think she’s dead on. There’s even a name for what she’s talking about: online disinhibition effect: people being astonishingly rude and cruel online in ways they wouldn’t be offline.

But I can also report that offline me and many other authors regularly share a bevarage with bloggers and reviewers and readers and librarians and booksellers and all sorts of other folks who care as passionately about YA as we do. Why some of my best friends are bloggers and reviewers.

All hope is not lost! Truly.

NOTE: Nope, this is not me returning to regular blogging. Yup, still dealing with RSI. But am getting loads of writing done and am doing well. Also I have been very fortunate to not be directly affected by any of the disasters in Australia or New Zealand though thanks for asking. And if you’ve got any spare money now’s a good time to donate it to the Red Cross in New Zealand and/or Australia.

  1. Including me. []
  2. Letting a reviewer know that they’ve made a factual errors is fine. Though even then I often think it’s better to let it go. I have seen such attempts turn into full on flame wars. Not pretty. []
  3. Well, okay, many agents. []

Farewell For Now

As some of you may have noticed I’ve not been around much online. Sorry! Thank you so much for all the concerned supportive emails. They are much appreciated. (You made me all teary.)

Here’s where things stand with me:

The good news: The original injury that caused me to cut back on blogging is completely healed. Yay!

The bad news: The RSI in my hands and forearms got worse.

I took four weeks off from the computer entirely. I have reorganised my computer setup. I’ve been doing a vast amount of physical therapy. I’m improving. Slowly and frustratingly but surely.

However, my time at keyboard remains limited and my top priority is my novel. All else—blogging, tweeting, emailing—is on hiatus until I can get through a day’s1 work without pain.

I see that all sounds depressing. But honestly I’m doing great. While I miss being in close contact with all my fabby online friends.2 I’ve been spending more time with friends in the real world. I’ve been reading more than I have in years. Watching lots of crazy good anime. Who recommended Moribito? I LOVE YOU.3 I’ve been cooking up a storm. And immersing myself in the WNBA, NBA, French Open, various cricket series and am ecstatic about the coming World Cup and Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Life is very good.

So this is farewell for now. Thanks for all the support. It means heaps.4

I’ll be back.5

  1. I.e. four hours. []
  2. A LOT. []
  3. Feel free to make more recs in the comments. []
  4. Thanks to the lovely folks who inquired after my health at BEA. Even if most of you were Team Unicorn. What’s up with that? []
  5. But not in a scary way. I swear that I’m not a cyborg from the future hellbent on wiping out humanity. Me, I like humanity. []

Guest Post: Jaclyn Moriarty on Blogging & Leaves Blowing Backwards

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

Jaclyn Moriarty is a wonderful Sydney writer who used to be a lawyer and is responsible for some of my favourite Aussie novels of the last few years, especially The Betrayal of Bindy McKenzie and Dreaming of Amelia. But, trust me, all her books are amazing. Be careful though they seem to have different titles in every territory they’re published in. I also love her blog. It’s as gorgeously written and thoughtful as this post. Though her notion that blogging ever day as anything to do with precision is kind of hilarious. It has a lot more to do with a different word beginning with p: procrastination.

- – -

Jaclyn Moriarty is the author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments. She grew up in Sydney, lived in the the US, the UK and Canada, and now lives in Sydney again. Her latest book, Dreaming of Amelia, will be published in North America as The Ghosts of Ashbury High in June.

Jaclyn says:

Every time I drive on Shellcove Road I have this thought: Blogging is leaves blowing backwards.

I don’t want to think that. I’ve got other things to think. But it’s there, every time, along with an image of a man in a coat, leaning forward, hunched into a storm, leaves blowing back into his face.

Then I turn the corner and a voice in the backseat says, ‘Where did Santa Claus go?’

He means the giant inflateable Santa Claus that was standing on the front porch of a house on Shellcove Road last December. They took him down in January.

‘Where’s he gone?’ Charlie asks, every time we pass that house.

‘The north pole,’ I explain.

Sometimes I add something educational: ‘They’ve got snow there, you know, in the north pole. And polar bears. And elves.’

Then I glance in the rear view mirror, to see if he’s impressed, and that’s when he says, with weary resignation, ‘I’m not in the mirror. I’m here. See? Look around. I’m sitting back here.’

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people—I’m thinking of Justine, for example—other people blog properly.

Also, when I do blog, I mostly just write about my kid. How cute he is, three years old, sitting in the backseat, telling me he’s not in the rear view mirror, and it must drive people mad. (There’s the issue of his privacy, too. I once wrote a thesis on the Privacy Rights of the Child.)

The other day I subscribed to the Herald, so I could start collecting other things to talk about on my blog. And I’m thinking I should get a dog. The dog can shred the Herald, and I can take photographs and post them—cute, apologetic dog, paper in pieces at its feet. I never wrote a thesis on the Privacy Rights of the Dog.

But I haven’t got the Herald or the dog yet, so there’s the kid. Last week, I took him for a haircut. Charlie in the big black cape, little face in the mirror, blonde curls. The hairdresser asked me what his starsign was.

‘Virgo,’ I said.

‘Huh.’ She raised her eyebrows, looking thoughtful.

‘What does that mean?’ I said. ‘Him being a Virgo?’

‘I haven’t got a clue,’ she said. ‘I was just making conversation.’

She snipped for a while and we were all quiet. Then she added, ‘He could be a Leo. I’m half-Leo.’

‘But he’s not a Leo,’ I said, and we were quiet again.

So, you see, there’s episodes like that. The little episodes.

And there’s the questions he asks. They make you think. Questions like:

‘What’s the fridge doing?’ and, ‘Mummy, what does this word mean? Are you ready? Here’s the word: why.’

Also, he collapses time and identity: ‘Last night, when I was a baby’, or: ‘Next week, when I grow up, and I’m you.’

I have child-safety gates around the house that I don’t use any more. I leave them open. But Charlie uses them. Wherever he goes in the house, he turns around and carefully shuts the gate behind him. Then he’s stuck. He shuts the gate, turns around, and is instantly outraged: ‘Let me out! The gate is closed! Somebody rescue me!’ In other ways, he seems very bright.

Partly, I write about Charlie because that’s my days—me and the kid. There’s also writing books of course, but what is there to say about that except, here I am, you know, writing? And I never take my book to get its haircut. But I think that the real reason I write about my child so much is this: before he was born, there was a single image in my mind of what it would be like to be a mother. In this image, it is night time, maybe a fireplace, and somebody small in pyjamas is coming down a flight of steps. I look up at the child in pyjamas on the staircase, then I look across at the child’s father. It crosses back and forth between us for a moment: the sweetness of the child.

As it turns out, I’m on my own with my child. And one thing I now know is this—that the small and remarkable fact of a child is something that has to be shared. That’s what the image was saying, I think. So my typing fingers are always spilling with words about my child that have not been shared.

People sometimes talk about the moment when you first get glasses, and you realise you’re supposed to see the leaves. All along you thought that trees were a green blur, but no, there they are, separate leaves. (A doctor on Grey’s Anatomy spoke very movingly about this experience in an episode last season.) Anyway, it happened to me when I was nineteen years old, and angry with professors for writing in such tiny, blurred print on the board up the front. They needed to get crisper chalk, I thought.

The optometrist who checked my eyes said, ‘Do you drive?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘You’re driving home today?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘You mind if I call my wife and tell her to stay off the roads?’

The next week, when I picked up my glasses, I saw the leaves on the trees, and the road signs painted neatly, and the professors using crisp white lines.

The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. New Yorkers find me indescribably so. I’ve always been slow at figuring things out—school, university, driving, conversations, the fact that I am practically blind—it’s not quick, snapped fingers for me, it’s a slow awareness rising. I figure things out in the end. Afterwards, I look back and think: aaaah. And I remember what was said and who said what, and I think: ‘Now I get it.’ In the end, I am actually so confident that I’m judgmental.

But until I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines.

Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves.

Fighting Spam (Updated)

Okay, after yet another spam hammering I’ve had to switch comments and pinging off on many of the posts that were getting hammered. I’m really at a loss as to what to do. I don’t want to switch comments off. I love your comments. But right now I’m battling so much spam that loads of geuine comments are not making it past the filters while too much spam is. I’m only spending four hours at the computer a day so I cannot use most of that time dealing with spam.

Oh, how I hate spammers!

Anyone got any cool wordpress plugins or other suggestions?

Update: Forgot to say I already have Askimet. Which was working brilliantly.

Part of what is going on is dealing with really vicious trolls. Of which there has been a multitude since last year’s stuff around the cover of Liar. I have no idea what to do about them. And CAPTCHA won’t affect them alas.

More Questions + Event

You’re unlikely to get anything sensible out of me for awhile. This will be brief. First, thanks for all the responses yesterday. That was truly fascinating.

Second, we recently finished watching Fullmetal Alchemist and Read or Die and LOVED them both with a fiery burning passion. Thanks everyone who recommended them. What should we watch next? And why do you recommend it?

Third, without googling how many have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris? And what do you know about him? And where are you from? (I suspect how old you are is pertinent also.)

Thank you!

If you’re in NYC you can see me and Scott reading this Saturday:

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

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

I’ll be reading from my 1930s book.

Later!

On New Zealand Not Being the Same as Australia (updated)

Right now I am at Auckland airport and it is nothing like Sydney airport. For starters there are All-Blacks jerseys everywhere and people are laughing at my accent and not Scott’s. It’s Bizarro-world!

Now a serious question for my USian readers. Do you guys have any theories as to why so many of the USian blog reviewers of Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead are under the impression that her extremely New Zealand book is set in Australia? Many NZ cities are named, such as Christchurch, where it is largely set. The South & North Islands are frequently mentioned as are many other very very very Kiwi things and people. No mention is made of Australia.

What gives? Are you taught at school that NZ and Australia are one and the same place? I am also wondering if this happens to all New Zealander writers when their books are published in the USA. Are USians the only ones who can’t tell the difference between our fine nations? Or do the French and Armenians and Chileans labour under the same delusion?

I am confused. Your explanations are most welcome.

Thanks!

Update: To re-iterate because apparently I was not clear: my question isn’t about ignorance per se, it’s very specifically about the way this one book is being read as Australian, even though it’s very clear that it’s set in New Zealand. Yes, including using the words “New Zealand” in the text. That’s not mere ignorance, but a really interesting and consistent misreading of the text. That’s what’s been puzzling me. Are there people who think that New Zealand is part of Australia?

I don’t think that USians are any more ignorant than any other peoples in the world. Nor do I expect everyone in the world to know all about Australia or New Zealand or any other country for that matter.

A Question for You, My Dear Readers

The wonderful Kathleen T. Horning sent me a link to this discussion of Twilight on NPR in which much mock is made of the writing style of Twlight. Judging from the comments if you love Twilight then the NPR people are being condescending meanies and if you hated Twilight1 then their comments are hilarious and spot on.

Now, I do not want a discussion of the merits or otherwise of Twilight here. In fact, I will delete any comment trashing Twilight. We do not diss living authors on this blog. What I’m interested in is a broader discussion of adults’ attitudes to YA literature.

My question is this: What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

Here’s what the folks at NPR had to say in response to that claim:

Linda: One thing we haven’t talked about much, except in the comments, is the fact that for a lot of people, both the quality of the writing and the content of the story, as far as its nonsensical aspects, are really irrelevant if the book is intended for or appropriate for teenagers.

This is an argument I would find a lot easier to swallow were it not for the facts that (1) I don’t think Meyer necessarily meant it as YA fiction and I think she’s said that; and (2) it is read by many, many adults who take it quite seriously. It seems to me that it has been embraced as fiction by enough adults that it’s legitimate to look at it that way. And that’s true EVEN IF you accept that it’s okay for things to be bad if they’re for teenagers, which I … don’t.

Marc: Of course. It’s wildly insulting to teenagers to insist that it’s acceptable to foist inferior product on them because . . . why, exactly? “This is a terrible book. Give it to your daughter.” How is that not a terrible abuse of kids’ minds?

In the comments on their Twilight posts there were many claiming that it was wrong to criticise Twilight at all because it’s popular and has gotten teens reading. I’m curious to hear your responses to that claim as well. Are such claims made about equally-criticised-for-bad-writing books by the likes of Dan Brown?

NOTE: Remember I want this to be a broad discussion of attitudes to YA literature. I’m not kidding about deleting any Twilight bashing.

  1. Even if you haven’t read it—how do you hate a book you haven’t read? []

Feel Free to Hate Antelopes

Why do so many people read any statement, no matter how innocuous, as being about them? For example, I have mentioned my dislike of chocolate and people have gotten cranky. As if my chocolate hatred will somehow deprive them of it. Huh?

Every time I talk about my love of fashion someone says, “I just want comfortable clothes! Give me jeans and t-shirts!” Which always strikes me as deeply bizarre because a) no one has said a word against jeans and t-shirts, b) t-shirts and jeans are items of fashion, c) having a desire for a ballgown does not mean that person doesn’t also wear jeans and t-shirts. (For the record I am wearing jeans and a New York Liberty t-shirt as I type this. Though I wish I were in my even-more-comfortable pjs, but guests are arriving shortly.)

Colour me puzzled.

I thought everyone understood that people are not all the same. We have different tastes and interests and desires. And hallelujah for that—if we were all the same the world would be a truly boring place.

Why do people keep being affronted by other people caring about something they don’t care about? If it doesn’t interest you, don’t engage. Why the need to tell the world that you hate and/or are bored by it? Why do people read a long post in which someone sets forth their love of antelopes as saying that everyone must like antelopes. You are free to hate antelopes! Go forth and hate antelopes!1 But, you know, don’t bore the person who just spent time and energy waxing eloquent about their love of antelopes. You can take it as read that their interest in your antelope hatred is zero.

I love a good ballgown. I would never make anyone else wear a ballgown.2 I truly loathe chocolate. I have given chocolate as a present to many people. I have even made chocolate cake for a friend. I don’t get why they like it since it tastes like death to me but, you know, it seems to make them happy so good for them.

I suspect that what I’m really asking is why do so many people think everything is about them? I know the ego is a powerful thing. Hey, I’ve got one too. And yet . . .

Let me put this in terms of writing: if you’re unable to empathise or understand people who are not like you, who have different tastes and aspirations, it’s going to be really hard for you to write about anyone but yourself. Only writing about yourself is going to limit the appeal of your writing considerably.3

Thus endeth the rant.

I’d be really interested to hear your theories on this perplexing matter.4

  1. Poor antelopes. []
  2. Except for John Scalzi and only because it would make me laugh. []
  3. Though it seems to have worked out really well for a handful of writers I won’t name out of fear. []
  4. Unless you’re one of those crazy chocolate loving people. Just kidding. Some of my best friends love chocolate. I even married a chocolate lover. []

Writer as Career v Writer as Identity

Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:

Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naïve.

There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).

That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”

I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.

If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.

Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.

Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.

That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.

If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.

You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.

All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.

  1. Hello, HSC year. []

What Four Hours Means + Answering Some Quessies

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How is your injury going?

A: I’m doing much better. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: When will your new book be published?

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

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

Q: How has Liar been selling?

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

Q: How is your garden coming along?

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

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

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

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

Songs of Girls Who Don’t Want to Get Married (Right Now) + Thanks

I have decided that I love songs about women who don’t want to be married. I decided this while listening to lots of Gillian Welch. Twas the song “Look at Miss Ohio” which triggered this decision. Also my annoyance with certain lines in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. “Put a ring on it”? What are we living in the 1950s or something?! Uggh.

Then I realised I couldn’t think of any other songs about women who have priorities in life other than getting married.1 Other than the “I never will marry” song:

I never will marry
I’ll be no man’s bride
I expect to stay single
For the rest of my life2

But that’s usually sung as a heartbroken miserable song of despair, which is not what I’m talking about.

Can anyone think of cheerful songs of women who are happy to be single, who are not desperate to be married, of women who may want to marry some day but not right now? Please to share in comments if so.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against marriage. I am married myself. Happily even. Nor do I have anything against women wanting to be married. It’s just that they already have a tonne of songs. I want representation for all the girls who don’t dream of a big wedding and marriage when they grow up.

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Thanks to everyone for all the lovely get well wishes. I is touched. Truly I am on the mend and is not that bad an injury. Trust me, I’ve had worse. But, yes, I will continue to not be online much for the forseeable and, yes, there will be more guest bloggers. Thank you, wonderful guests, and thanks again, faithful readers, for bearing with me.

Have a good weekend everyone!

  1. This probably reflects more on my dreadful memory than anything else. []
  2. Lyrics from memory thus could be wrong—too many keystrokes to google. []

Why I’ve Not Been Blogging (updated)

(Or answering email or responding to IM requests or to comments or been on Twitter or read many blogs.)

Like almost every writer I know, I have a number of chronic—though not particularly bad1—injuries, that were caused by (or flare up when) I spend a lot of time at my computer. Sitting at a computer for long hours is not good for your body. Which is why so many writers, receptionists, data processors, computer programmers etc etc2 have repetitive strain injuries, headaches, chronic back and neck problems, shooting pains in the arms and hands and so on and so forth.3

Like many of you, I frequently spend more than fourteen hours a day at my computer.4 A recent injury (not sitting-at-computer related) has made that impossible. In order for my injury to heal I have had to drastically reduce my time at the computer, which forced me to prioritise what I do there:

  1. Write novel.
  2. Answer urgent business related email.
  3. Blog.
  4. Answer other emails.
  5. IM with friends.
  6. Read blogs, twitter etc.

Here’s what most days since the injury have looked like:

  1. Write novel.

I no longer spend more than four hours on the computer. If the pain flares before four hours I stop. Four hours is not long so my novel gets my top priority. Many days writing my novel is the only thing I do at the computer. Ironically, I’ve written more in the last month than in the previous six. The book’s going well and I’m loving it. Bless, this injury!5 I have not once gotten past no. 4 on my list. So that is why you have not heard from me.

The acute injury is improving, slowly but surely.6 However, I have decided to stick to the current regime at least until the injury is completely healed and maybe longer because I have experienced less pain with my other chronic injuries as well.

In fact, February has seen me increase the amount of walking I do every day, I’ve taken up Pilates7, and I’ve upped the amount of time I spend at the gym.8 Injury aside, I feel better than I have in a long, long time. I’ve been reading way more books and manga as well.9

Because of this injury I’m fitter than I was, more flexible and, best of all, getting more writing and reading done. All good, right?

Not exactly. The reduced computer time has meant that I have not been communicating regularly with many of my close friends. I’m massively behind on email. I no longer IM.10 I feel like I’m losing touch with my online communities, which may sound trivial, but as Varian pointed out last week that sense of community is very important. It’s a large part of why I blog in the first place. Not blogging and responding to your comments has been difficult.

In fact, that is why this post. I don’t much like whingeing about my health here.11 Boring! But I couldn’t really think of any other way to let people know that even when I’m not responding I’m thinking about them. I feel especially bad about all the lovely fan mail I’m not answering.12 Several of the letters people have written me about Liar and have reduced me to tears.13 Thank you.

Thank you also to all my guest bloggers. You’ve kept this blog alive with entertaining, moving, informative, funny, wonderful posts. Bless you all. And thank you readers for supporting the blog in my absence. I’ve been so delighted to see the continued volume of traffic and comments. Yay!

One last thing: I know a fair number of you are in your teens and twenties and spending a vast amount of time at computers.14 If you’re not already taking care of your body now’s the time to get into good habits. Take frequent breaks, have an ergonomic set up,15 mouse with both hands16, take up yoga/pilates/tai chi/some kind of something that’s all about putting you in touch with the muscles in your body,17 drink gallons of water,18 stay as fit as you can, go outdoors etc etc.

You only get one body. Trust me, it will turn on you if you don’t treat it right.19

Update: You all need to read this beautiful, moving post by Tessa Kum about her struggles with RSI.

  1. I know people who have been crippled by RSIs and now can only write with voice recognition software. []
  2. There are bazillions of jobs that involve long hours sitting in front of a computer. []
  3. Any kind of repetitive movement done day after day can lead to injuries. I know a house painter with carpal tunnel. In fact, almost every profession has occupational hazards. I wish that careers days at school would include a list of the health risks & how to avoid getting them alongside all the other information they give about jobs. []
  4. I have, on occasion, spent fourteen hours straight just IMing. Yeah, I know. []
  5. No, not really. []
  6. To repeat, it’s not a drastic injury. []
  7. On doctor’s rec. I was dubious, but it’s been great. []
  8. While injured I can’t do upper body strength stuff but I can do lots of cardio. []
  9. Pluto is awesome! []
  10. Which I miss so much. It’s such a great way to stay in touch and shoot the fat. It’s also a great way to stay online for hours and hours and destroy all that great rehab work. []
  11. Especially as I know many people who are dealing with much, much worse than I am. []
  12. Once I’m properly healed I’ll be devoting time to answering it. []
  13. In a good way. I am a big sook but that doesn’t mean the letters aren’t beautiful and moving. []
  14. I know several people in their twenties who are already dealing with RSIs. []
  15. Yes, writing hunched over your laptop on a couch is really bad for you. []
  16. I have two mouses attached to my keyboard and alternate between them when I work []
  17. Just to state the obvious: different things work for different people. []
  18. Drink much water = pee much. Which means getting up a lot. Which is a very good thing. []
  19. Not that you aren’t your body. Mind/body split, you are imaginary! []

Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

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

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

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Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

Guest Post: Doselle Young on Everything (updated)

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

Today’s guest blogger, Doselle Young, is not only one of my favourite people on the planet, he’s also every bit as opinionated as me. (Though frequently wrong, like his love of Madmen and Henry Miller. Ewww.) I enjoy Do holding forth on any subject at all. He’s also a talented writer of comic books, stories, movies—anything he turns his hand to. Enjoy! And do argue with him. Do loves that. Maybe it will convince him to blog more often? I’d love to hear about the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr. Fingers crossed.

- – -

Doselle Young is a writer who hates the whole cliché about how writers ‘lie for a living.’ He thinks it’s boring, pretentious, and only meant to promote the author’s self-image as some kind of beast stalking the edges of the literary establishment. Whatever. Get over yourselves, people! Please! We’ve all gotten exceptionally lucky and you know it! When the meds are working, Doselle writes film treatments for Hollywood directors, comics like THE MONARCHY: BULLETS OVER BABYLON, the upcoming PERILOUS, and short crime stories like ‘Housework’ in the anthology The Darker Mask available from Tor Books. Read it. It’s not bad. And, after all, how often do you get to see a black woman with a ray gun? If, on the other hand, the meds aren’t working he’s probably outside your house right now planting Easter Eggs in your garden. Bad rabbit. You can follow him on twitter. He’d rather be following you, though. It’s lots more fun that way.

Doselle says:

Before we begin, I feel there’s something I must make clear: while I write a lot, one thing I am not is a blogger.
Not that I have no respect for bloggers. Hell, some of my best friends are bloggers (and I mean that with a sincerity that borders on relentless). It’s for that reason I’ve lurked here on Justine blog pretty much since the day I met her.
This is a good place, this here blog o’ hers. A smart place and a place with personality, wit, snark, truth, and, when appropriate, outrage.

Wicked outrage.

Kind of like a good local pub without the hooligans, the gut expanding calories and that obnoxious bloke at the end of the bar who smells just like the sticky stuff on the floor just outside the men’s toilet; although, there may be analogues to all those things here. It’s not my place to judge.

What I’ve noticed when trolling though the blogs of authors I know is that, as far as I can, what people fall in love with aren’t so much the personality of the authors but the personality of the blogs, themselves; the gestalt created in that grey space between the author and the audience. An extension of what happens when you read an author’s book, maybe.

And so, as I’m currently sitting here beside a roaring fire in lodge somewhere in South Lake Tahoe and bumpin’ De La Soul though a pair of oversized headphones I paid waaay too much money for, I feel a responsibility to engage with the personality that is Justine Larbalestier’s blog; which is not Justine, but of Justine, if that makes any sense.

On the subject of sports:

I don’t know a lick about the sport of Cricket. Justine loves it (almost as much as she loves Scott, I suspect) so there must be something of high value in the poetry of the bat and the ball, the test match, the teams and the history; some inspiration and beauty to be found there.

The sport that makes my blood race, however, is boxing.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it: brutal and beautiful boxing. Corrupt, questionable, brain damaging, violent boxing.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing but growing up black and male in the 1970s here in the U.S. of A. meant that Muhummad Ali was practically a super hero. Hell, there was even a comic book where Ali fought freakin’ Superman and won (and, yes, I still got my copy, best believe.) Like most everyone, I loved Ali’s bravado, his braggadocio, and his genius with extemporaneous word play. All that, and Ali’s unmistakable style, in his prime it seemed that Ali’s neurons fired to the best of jazz rhythm and when he got older, jazz slowed down to the Louisiana blues tempo—a little sad and melancholy, sure, but nonetheless beautiful.


Update: Image supplied by Doselle in response to Diana’s question

In each of the best fights I’ve seen since, I’m always looking for a hint of those rhythms that make my skin tingle to this day.

On the subject of chocolate:

Not a big fan, myself. I love the taste of vanilla bean and the scent of cinnamon. I love bread pudding and oatmeal cookies and the unholy joy of a well-executed Pecan Pie, but beyond that, whatever.

Screw chocolate. Chocolate still owes me money, anyway.

On the subject of LIAR:

If you’re reading this, I prolly read it before you did, so, nah-nah nah-nah and half-a-bazillion raspberries to you and you and you over there in the corner with that absolutely awful Doctor Who t-shirt.

I loved Liar when I read it and loved it even more when I re-read it. I loved every question and every turn. I loved Micah and her nappy hair and would love to see her again and again. If LIAR were a woman in a bar, I would approach her slick and slow, and be proud be as hell when she took me out to the alley behind the bar and stabbed me through the heart.

In short, LIAR is a killer book and that’s all I have to say about that. Nuff said.

I think Patricia Highsmith, as awful a person as she was, would be proud of LIAR and hate Justine for being the one to have written it.

On the subject of RACE and IDENTITY:

There is no monoculture among people of color or people, in general. Sure, there are tribes, cliques, groups, social organizations, concerns, movements, etc. and I can speak for absolutely none of them.

I can only speak personally. Will only speak personally. Could never speak anything but personally on something so emotionally charged as race and identity.

Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, “I was born a poor black child.”

For the first eleven years of my life, my favorite TV shows were super hero cartoons, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, All in The Family, M.A.S.H. Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. Even if you’re not Usian (as Justine likes to say), the U.S. exports every piece of television we have so I’m sure most of you will be aware of some of those shows, if not all of them.

I listened to Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Louis Jordan’s Jump Blues, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
Most of my friends growing up were Jewish and the most horrible acts of racism I personally experienced growing up were perpetrated by other people of color.1

All of which should be considered prologue to finding myself at last year’s World Con in Montreal sitting on yet another panel about race (as an African American author I somehow find myself on race panels even when I haven’t requested them on the programming).

I’m sitting there, halfway through a sentence, when I have an epiphany, of sorts: one of those moments where everything comes into a different kind of focus.

The truth is: I don’t have anything to say about race that I can put in a short blog post. I don’t have anything to say about my experience with race and the perception of race that I can tweet. I don’t have anything to say about race on a sixty-minute panel at a science-fiction convention.

My personal thoughts on race and identity (ethnic or otherwise) are just that: personal, and as complicated, convoluted and tweaked as the catalog of experiences that shaped them.

How about yours?

On a related note, when I requested to NOT be put on the race panel at World Fantasy 2009, I ended up on the queer panel and had a blast.

Life’s funny that way.

On the subject of Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

The show’s over, homey! You really need to move on!

On the subject of writing:

Have a life that feeds you. Lead a life that challenges you. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Research. Steal. Invent. Be brave. Be honest about what terrifies you. Be honest about your regrets. It also helps if you can spell.

On the subject of God:

Sorry. I still can’t get that jerk to answer the phone.

On the subject of Zombies Versus Unicorns:

Honestly, I make it a rule to never discuss pornography in public.

On the subject of books:

I’m reading Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN. The back of the paperback dubs Abbot “The Queen of Noir” and, honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Her books are violent explorations into the ruthless worlds of film noir and crime fiction, delving into the cold hearts of the grifter gals and femme fatales who, until now, have only existed at the grey edges of the genre.

If you like books like LIAR, I think you’ll like Abbott’s stuff, as well. Pick up QUEENPIN or BURY ME DEEP. You won’t be disappointed.

Another book I’m reading now is a biography: THE STRANGEST MAN – THE HIDDEN LIFE OF PAUL DIRAC, MYSTIC OF THE ATOM.

If you don’t know, Dirac was a theoretical physicist, one of Einstein’s most admired colleagues and, at the time, the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Dirac made numerous contributions to early work in quantum mechanics and was the first to predict the existence of anti-matter (the same stuff that makes The Enterprise’s engines go ‘Vroom.’) Dirac was, as you might expect, also a bit of an eccentric and a very private man who shared his tears with very few if any of the people closest to him. Written by Graham Farmelo, ‘The Strangest Man’ a meticulously researched piece that, nevertheless, maintains its focus on the often-enigmatic heart of its subject, Dirac. If you’re a science fiction fan, take a peep. After all, if a couple of social misfits hadn’t put chalk to chalkboard, we never have split that atom. Boom.

The last book on my nightstand, for the moment, is John Scalzi’s THE GOD ENGINES, published by Subterranean Press. Before I go any further, I should disclose that this book is dedicated to me but I didn’t know that until after I got a copy of the book. So, with that in mind, attend.

THE GOD ENGINES is a dramatic departure from both his Heinlein-inspired military SF and his more tongue-in-cheek material. While using SFnal tropes, the story is, at heart, a dark fantasy; one set in a world where an oppressive theocracy uses enslaved gods as the power source to drive their massive starships. Brutal, fierce and tightly laced with threads of Lovecraftian horror, 
this is Scalzi’s best book by leaps and bounds. I hope to see more of this kind of work from him—even if I have to beat it out of him, myself. I’m calling you out, John Scalzi. Remember, I’ve still got the whip!

Well, I guess that’s more than enough for now. Nine subjects. One post.

Guess that means the caffeine’s working.

As I said: I’m not a blogger. I have no idea how this stuff is supposed to work. I’m sure this post is way too long. I mean, I didn’t even get to address why the show Madmen doesn’t suck just cause Justine says it does; why Henry Miller looks cool standing beside a bicycle on Santa Monica Beach; The Terrible Jay-Z Problem or the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr.

Oh, well, maybe next time.

In the interim, let’s be careful out there and remember: just because its offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Best wishes,

Doselle Young

P.S. Those boots look fabulous on you, Justine! Absolutely fabulous!

  1. Being called ‘The N-Word’ by another PoC felt just as crap as being called the same by a white man. That just how I felt and I can make no apologies. []

Why Interview?

My previous post on conducting interviews was largely addressed to inexperienced interviewers. Some of the comments on that post have me wondering what the point of conducting an interview is. For those who simply want to interview their favourite author and find out everything they always wanted to know then that’s your point right there. But I get the impression from quite a few of these interviews that they exist because the blogger feels that that’s what you should do on a blog about books. As you can imagine that does not usually make for a good interview.

I also wonder if people run interviews on their blog because they think it will increase traffic.1 Especially if the author includes a link to the interview on their own site. However, if the interview is not very interesting, i.e. includes those generic questions I was talking about in the previous post, that traffic will be fleeting. Hardcore fans of the author won’t be interested.

Also I’m not convinced that people are particularly interested in interviews. Looking at my site stats, I can tell you that my interview page is probably the least trafficked page on the site. I suspect that many people, even those who love books and have many favourite authors, are uninterested in reading interviews. Unless those interviews are amazing. I know that’s how I feel. I have zero interest, unless the interview is on a topic that I care about, or is with someone I’m interested in who is rarely interviewed.

The book blogs I like best are full of excellent discussion of books. Opinions about the business, trends, books, authors and readers. One of my favourite recent posts was Miss Attitude’s passionate call for a greater variety of YA African-American historicals—ones not about slavery or the civil rights movement. That post generated a great deal of discussion and, I hope, some authors taking up her challenge.

What I’m trying to say is that interviews may seem like an easy way to create content and generate traffic, but they’re not either. A good interview is very hard to do and even then is unlikely to generate much traffic. I’ve conducted two interviews on this blog: one with Doret Canton about YA & girls playing sport and one with John Green about lying. Neither generated much traffic. Fortunately, I didn’t do them for the traffic, but for the fun of talking to two very smart people about two very interesting topics.

I would love to see bloggers doing as Ari and all my other favourite book bloggers do—writing about what they feel passionate about and conducting interviews not because they feel they must, but because they want to add to the conversation on their blog.

I’m sure there is varying mileage out there, feel free to share.

  1. Part of why I suspect this is the blogger whose interview request also asked if I would link to the completed interview. []

How to Conduct an Interview

I’m always very flattered when someone wants to do an interview with me. I jump with joy. People are interested in what I think! They want me to blather on! I am a woman of many opinions so being offered the chance to opinionate in multiple places is most pleasing. Thank you everyone who’s ever asked. I truly appreciate it.

However, many of the questions I get could be asked of any writer. Sometimes they could be asked of any person. It’s a bit lowering to suspect that the interviewer doesn’t really care about my particular pearls of wisdom—they want any old writer’s wisdom.

Let me make it clear that I don’t mind being asked generic, could-be-answered-by-anyone-with-a-pulse questions if the interviewer forewarns me. Just today I got a very sweet email from someone who runs a writing website for kids and teens. She specifically said she was writing to many writers and getting their response to one of a long list of questions. I will definitely be answering one or more of those questions.

I just wish the people who ask for an interview, but then send the same questions they send everyone, would preface their request by saying “My blog has five questions I send all my favourite writers. Here’s the link to the questions. Let me know if you want to take part.” Rather than, “I think you’re wonderful! I love your work! Please let me interview you!” Followed by the same five questions they ask everyone.

My friend Scalzi just ranted about this. Another friend, who I won’t name,1 gets cross about it too. They feel that the interviewer is doing zero work, but expecting them do loads, that the interviewer just wants easy content for their blogs.

Now, while I agree with some of what they have to say, I think there’s more to it than that. I’m convinced that the biggest problem is that most of these interviewers have little experience with interviewing and don’t know how to go about it. Learning to be a good interviewer takes time. It’s a skill. And not one that many people are taught.

Thus I thought I would share my tips. While I’ve never been a journalist, I was a researcher for many years, and that involved interviewing gazillions of writers, fans, and publishing people.

Justine’s guide to conducting a cool and interesting interview with a writer:

1. Research your subject. Read as many of their books as you can find. Read reviews of their books. Read all the previous interviews you can find. If they have a blog—read it. Yes, the entire thing. Or as much as is available online. If they’ve been blogging since the dawn of time (i.e. 1998) at least read a year or two’s worth of the archives.

2. Ask questions that are informed by this research. Rather than asking generic questions such as “where do you get your ideas” look at their responses to that question in previous interviews. Here’s Maureen Johnson talking at length about where she gets her ideas:

Almost every writer I know hates this question. We are, by nature, a lazy people. Hard questions disturb our state of mind. This is one of the hardest of the hard, topped only by things like “How do you write a book?” and “Why are there so many headless girls on the covers of your novels?”

Instead of asking her the question she hates being asked you could ask her why she thinks writers hate this question so much. Because, clearly, it’s not because writers are by nature lazy. Maureen Johnson certainly isn’t—ten seconds of research on her will reveal that fact. But, wait, she’s already answered that question:

I always try to make something up . . . some weird, cobbled-together, IKEA-quality answer that will definitely fall apart the second you attempt to deconstruct it. This is because, for me, there IS no answer.

The ideas just come from my brain. I store stuff up there, and the brain monkeys play around with it and put together different combinations. They come to me with stuff all the time, as your brain monkeys must do for you.

So why not ask why she thinks there’s no answer? Or why she thinks this question is asked so often. Writers seem to emphasise that the ideas are the least important part, yet people who aren’t writers seem convinced it’s the most important part. What’s up with that?

3. Conduct a subject-specific interview. One of my favourite recent interviews is over at Racebending.com where I was interviewed about the casting for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of the interviews I’ve conducted I’m most fond of this recent one with Doret Canton of the Happy Nappy Bookseller blog about YA & girls playing sport as well as this one on lying and the links to being a novelist with John Green. Having a specific topic helps you focus your interview and often leads to really interesting exchanges.

4. If you’re conducting your interview via email try to start with around five questions. More than that can overwhelm your interviewee and cause them not to answer straight away or, you know, ever. I know my heart sinks when I’m sent interviews of hundreds of questions. Even if they’re really good questions. Actually, especially if they’re really good questions because those are the questions that make you think and as well all know thinking is hard. Also fewer initial questions allows you to ask fun follow-up questions that bounce off the answers you’ve been given. This can also make an interview seem more like a conversation than an interview, which is always a good thing.

5. Think about doing an interview via IM. Now, some authors are going to shudder with horror at the very idea. It is a considerable timesuck. If they agree, many will probably tell you they’ll only give you 30 mins or an hour. But the results can be very pleasing. Scott has done several IMterviews on his blog. Here’s one he did with Robin Wasserman and here’s one of my fave interviews, conducted by Tempest Bradford, of me and Ekaterina Sedia about being foreign writers in the USA.

Since I said that any more than five questions is overwhelming I think I will stop at five tips. I’m sure the experienced interviewers who read this blog will add more in the comments. I hope mine will be helpful to some of you.

  1. Cause they’ve only said it offline. []

New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

I know many people are all bah humbug about new year’s resolutions but I love them. This year I resolve to find a balance with my time online.

Let me explain: when I first became a published author of an actual novel I kind of went a little bit insane. I tracked down every teeny tiny reference to my book or me. I used every tool then available (and remember this was the long distant past of 2005) to stalk mentions online. At first there were few, very few, and I was convinced no one was ever going to read or review my baby Magic or Madness. Wah! Then there was what seemed a lot, which provided momentary flickers of joy—yay! good review!—and longer bouts of misery—boo! bad review.1 But then the mentions slowed down and lo there was despair again. No one is reading my book!

All of that slowed down my writing. Considerably. I was spending more time thinking about what people were saying about my book then, you know, actually writing the next one. Fortunately, for me I’d already finished my second book, Magic Lessons before my first appeared. But all the they-hate-me-they-love-me-they-think-I’m-meh-they’re-ignoring-me significantly affected the writing of the third book in the trilogy, Magic’s Child. I ran late, very late, because I was wasting so much time online googling myself and angsting about the results of those searches.

It got so bad I considered pulling the plug and not going online ever again, which, as you can imagine, is not possible. A large part of what I do online is directly related to my work: communicating with my agent and publisher, all the online promotery stuff my publisher likes me to do, research, keeping up with my field, blogging (my favourite thing ever!) etc. I can’t really let any of that slide for more than a week or so.

So instead I vowed to go cold turkey on self-stalking. I turned off my google alerts, unlearned the existence of technorati, icerocket, blogpulse etc etc and concentrated on finishing How to Ditch Your Fairy. It went well. I could go online without doing my head in. I was productive again! I learned that people would forward me any interesting reviews or commentary on my work.2 I did not need to seek out.

I also found that after several published books, bad reviews worry me far less than they used to. What I used to know only intellectually—that most reviews say far more about the reviewer than the reviewee—I now know all the way through me. Bad reviews rarely rile me now.

Thus I happily remained until 2009. Yes, I was still given to procrastinating. I would discover new blogs and be compelled to read through the entire archive. What? You can’t understand a blog until you’ve read the whole thing! And certain people still seem to think I spend an inordinate amount of time IMing with friends and family. What can I say? I don’t like phones. Plus some of those chats have led to Very Important Things. I’m just sayin’.

This year, however, for the first time in my online life, I was at the centre of a storm. People started saying things about me that were not true and were sometimes downright nasty. I’d become inured to people hating my books, but I’d never had strangers hating on me before. I’d seen many of my friends go through it. I’d even counselled these friends not to let it get to them, to make sure they took time away, that it’s not really as big a deal as it seems, and that those nasty, small-minded people don’t know them and what they say doesn’t matter. All of which is true.

But then it happened to me and I let it get to me. I fell off the wagon. I reinstated my google alerts. I used every search engine known to humanity to search out every single mention. I lost sleep. I lost days and weeks and months of work time.

I found some wonderful friends and allies during this time. However, I’m pretty certain I would have come across them regardless. Throughout this time, people were writing me wonderful supportive letters and sending me all sorts of wonderful links to amazing discussions. All I got from my self-stalking was misery and woe. My hard-fought-for balance shattered.

But here’s what I learned: it doesn’t matter what random strangers think of me. As long as I’m doing what I know is right and the people I trust and respect think so too, then I’m good. Sure, nasty shit said about you hurts. But some of the stuff that was said about me last year was so absurd that no one was taking it seriously. Literally no one. Except me. Spot the problem? So I stopped.

The even more important lesson I learned was that none of what happened was about me. It was about much bigger and much more important issues. I always knew that intellectually, but the lizard brain is very slow to learn. The lizard brain wanted to track down every slur, every insult. The lizard brain is an idiot.

I resolve this year to ignore the lizard brain and go back to the lovely balance I once had.

Here’s what gives me balance:

  • Writing
  • Making sure I get out of the house at least once a day and preferably go for a long walk, or to the gym, or for a bike ride—something physical daily that keeps me away from computer and phone.
  • Turning off google alerts
  • Not getting involved in flamewars. If someone is saying something offensive or appalling or wrong I no longer engage them. If the issue is important I blog about it here. I cut off flamewars in the comment threads here also.
  • Hanging out with my family and friends
  • Blogging
  • Cooking

And like that.

How do youse lot achieve balance?

  1. For some reason the bad ones lingered longer in the memory than the good. Funny that. []
  2. In my turn I started forwarding cool stuff I found about other people’s work to them. []

Last Day of 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paperback edition of Liar

Zombies versus Unicorns anthology edited with Holly Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope 2010 shapes up beautifully for all of us.

Happy new year!

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

Wonderful New Blogs Discovered in 2009

In no particular order here are my favourite new-to-me blogs of the year:

  • Reading in Color. Ari reads and reviews and discusses and generously gives away YA books about people of colour. Ari was the first person to tell me about Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, which was one of my fave books of the year. For that alone I would be her devoted follower forever, but there’s way more to her blog than book reviews. If you have any interest in YA and you’re not following Reading in Color, then shame on you!
  • The Intern. An intern’s view of publishing. Funny as hell. She even has a nemesis and refers to herself in third person. She’s crazy, but so is publishing. They are the perfect match.
  • White Readers Meet Black Authors. Some wonderfully warm and witty outreach to us white folks who would like to expand our reading horizons.
  • Journal of a Baby Power Dyke in Training. Wickedly witty, insightful, Barbra Streisand-obsessed and happy making. Although I do not share the BS obsession I am a fan of many of her other faves, such as Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. I adore a good ole rant about politics and BPD is very happy to oblige.
  • Happy Nappy Bookseller. Doret Canton is my new favourite bookseller. Not only does she love YA, but she’s also a total sportshead and has given me enough girls sports book recs to last me a lifetime. Happiness! She runs two or three very thoughtful reviews a week. If you have have any interest in childrens lit, from picture books through to YA, you need to add Doret to your blogroll ASAP.
  • Eat Drink One Woman. Ganda is all about the food. Me too. This is probably one of my fave food blogs of all time. And she talks about bikes too! Perfect. Following her food adventures in Sweden was one of the blog reading highlights of my year.
  • Taste Life Twice. Two California girls, Tashi & Kiki, who love to blog about books. Their blog is chockers with book reviews and interviews. Their crazy high school schedule means they don’t blog as often as I’d like but, hey, that just means I treasure what they do post. Another essential for us YA fans.
  • Apophenia. Danah Boyd’s a researcher who writes incredibly thoughtfully about social networking online. I’m particularly fascinated by her research on facebook, myspace, twitter and race and class.
  • Color Online.
  • This is not just a blog about the work of women writers of colour, it’s also a non-profit that among many other things runs a library to get books by and about people of colour into the hands of those least able to get hold of books. They welcome book donations. It’s also a truly excellent blog with some of the best coverage of YA online. It really is essentially reading if you care about publishing or YA or reading. Susan also has an excellent personal blog, Black-Eyed Susan.

If you don’t know any of these there’s some wonderful reading in store for you. What were your fave new blogs this year? Oh, and no recommending your own blog. Self praise is no praise, people!

Wrongness on the Internet

This goes out with love to some dear friends of mine. You know who you are.

There’s an xkcd cartoon so famous that many refer to it by its number, 386. It’s my favourite and one that is referred to frequently in the Larbfeld household.

“OMG!” I will yell, looking up from my computer.

“Is someone wrong on the internet?” Scott will say, making me feel a wee bit foolish, and deflating my outrage by at least 50%. Thank you, Randall Munroe.

duty_calls

Turns out that it’s not as famous as I thought it was. Recently I discovered that my sister, who makes a living in the visual effects industry, had never heard of it or xkcd. Now, there aren’t many geekier professions or industries than my sister’s. And yet she did not know xkcd. I did a wee survey. Many of my friends, who spend as much time online as I do, had never heard of it.

Which leads me to my point: Internet famous is not the same as world famous. The internet may be vast, but it still isn’t as vast as the real world. Much that feels big and important online, that the whole world is paying attention to is, in fact, unnoticed by anyone but you and your online friends and enemies.

When you are caught up in some drama or other that has broken out on a list (or loops as some people call them), newsgroup, twitter, comment thread it’s easy to forget that. Many of these conflagrations are about incredibly important matters like race, gender, inequality etc. etc. Some are not. But no matter how grave the matter, getting caught up in an online shitstorm, or worse, being at the centre of one, is hellish. It can eat days or weeks of your life, mess with your head, and get in the way of work.

It’s easy to lose your sense of proportion and forget that the vast majority of people have never heard of the storm that’s been encircling you. Not only do they not know about it, they’ve never heard of the site where it took place, or the game it was about, or the field it’s part of. You will have friends and colleagues in your field who have no idea it ever took place.

The interweebs are vast. That’s true. But they’re also tiny and fragmented.

When I was on tour, I met countless booksellers who had no idea there’d been any storm surrounding the cover of Liar. These were YA specialists who make a living buying and selling YA.

The vast majority of people who read YA do not know about the YA lit blog world. I did many school visits. Most of the students I talked to had no idea that some writers blog, let alone that there are active communities and blogs solely devoted to discussing YA. So they certainly weren’t reading any of those blogs. Some of the librarians and booksellers and teachers ditto.

When you’re caught up in an online conflagration is exactly the time to remember that it’s a speck of sand in the scale of things. Sure, it’s important to argue for what you believe is right and to do so for multiple audiences. But don’t do it at the expense of your work and your mental health. Don’t think that the survival of the universe depends on your doing so. Let yourself back away when you need to.

Because one of the wonderful things about the intermawebbys is that you can back away. You can turn it off. Something it’s a lot harder to do with conflict in the real world.1

Besides for many of us around the world it’s holiday time. Enjoy yourself out in the sunshine!2

This is me turning off the internets and starting the xmas cooking.

Hope you have a wonderful break from work. I know I will.

  1. To be clear, what happens online is real. But it’s a real that’s a lot easier to turn off than conflict at work or at home. []
  2. Or out in the snow and cold and misery if you are unfortunate enough to live in the wrong hemisphere. []

Commenting Etiquette

Before I begin I will confess that I have committed many of these sins. I know it was wrong and I will try very very hard never to do it again because it was rude and wrong of me.

I also know that everyone who comes to this blog is good and wise and already knows all this. I’m really writing this post to remind myself. Please to bear with my stating of much obviousness.

So here’s my rules of commenting etiquette:

  • Read the entire post before commenting. Nothing is more annoying to a blogger than to have someone say “But why did you not mention French beanbags?” when you have just spent six paragraphs doing exactly that.
  • Click through the links in the post. Nothing is more annoying to a blogger than to have someone say “Oh! You should read this genius article on the evil of French beanbags!” when you have linked to that very article and quoted from it four times.
  • Read all the comments before commenting. Nothing is more annoying to blogger and commenters than to have someone come along and say “Those French beanbags are totally a rip off the Eritrean ones!” when that point has already been made and responded to by multiple commenters. If the comment thread is insanely long, read at least the first few dozen and then if you must comment say “I’ve not been able to get through all the comments so sorry if this is a repeat . . . “
  • Do not explode on to a comment thread in a whirl of fire and outrage. Particularly don’t do this if all the discourse up to that point has been calm and measured.1 Try to match your tone to the rest of the comments. If something truly outrageous has been said point it out. But there is no need to yell. This is especially annoying if you’re also violating one of the previous points. Exploding into a comment thread in high dudgeon to rant about something which has already been pointed out is double plus annoying.
  • If your outrage is so extreme you are shaking, if the post is the worst post in the history of posts,2 why not blog about it on your own blog? This is what I do. But then I’m kind of allergic to flamewars. Basically I view blogs as someone’s living room. It’s pretty rude to start screaming abuse at someone in their own home. But by all means go back to your own living room and scream about them from there.
  • This last ones for the bloggers: if you write a post and the comment thread fills with outrage you might want to figure out what it is you’ve done to upset so many people. It could be a case of innocently blogging about beanbags without knowing about the great beanbag schism of 1985. Thank the people for correcting your ignorance and move on. It could be your post’s been linked to by a forum for crazy people who believe that beanbags are immoral. Delete their arses, ban them, or do whatever it is you do to crazy trolls. Or it could be that you’ve unknowingly said something genuinely appalling. When a whole bunch of people say they’re hurt and offended it’s always a good idea to try and figure out why and how you can avoid being offensive like that in the future. Onus is on you to apologise.

Maybe it’s more that blogs are salons and the blogger is the host. They become communities and develop their own mores and standards. When you show up at a new blog for the first time you should lurk, figure it out, and only join in when you have a sense of how it operates. Which is a pretty good rule for all social settings. Now, all I have to do is remember that!

Did I miss any obvious ones? Any commenting etiquette rules you’d all like to add?

  1. There are, of course, plenty of blogs and forums that welcome, nay, thrive on fire and outrage. In which cause go ahead. You’re definitely matching the existing discourse. []
  2. Valiantly resists temptation to link to some of those truly dreadful posts. But that recent one comparing Barack Obama and Tiger Woods? I’m looking at you. []

Blogging & Teaching

One of my highlights of NCTE was doing a panel on blogging with Laurie Halse Anderson, Maureen Johnson, Barbara O’Connor and Lisa Yee. The panel was put together and moderated by Denise Anderson, who was just splendid and had done a tonne of research. I was very impressed. They’ve all now blogged about the panel. (Links to their posts are on their names.) All except for me and Maureen. As I think it’s a sign of deep failure not to blog about a panel on blogging I am now fixing my omission. I doubt Maureen will, however, because hers is not that kind of a blog.

The panel was aimed at teachers and concerned with demonstrating how they can make use of authors’ blogs in the classroom. Denise observed that many of her colleagues were unaware of authors blogs and was on a mission to open their eyes. I suspect, though, that most of the educators in the audience were well aware of blogs and that was why they were there. Certainly the questions we were asked were very knowledegable.

We authors took the opportunity to ask the teachers not to set writing to authors as an assignment. Yes, that’s right, we whinged. We explained how much time it takes for us to answer questions especially when there are forty students writing us at once. Volume is not our only issue. The students tend to write asking us questions that are already answered on our sites, revealing they have the skills to find our email addresses, but not to find the answers to their questions, which are also in plain slight.

We also mentioned that some of the letters we get from students are flat out rude:

YOU MUST ANSWER THIS EMAIL STRAIGHT AWAY. MY HOMEWORK IS DUE TOMORROW. HERE ARE MY 456 QUESTIONS.

Laurie asked the following question: “Should we continue to spend classroom time on letter writing or has the time come to teach how to compose appropriate email communication?”

Our panel gave a very emphatic yes to the second half. Teach them how to write polite emails, please! I saw many heads nodding in the audience.

Another concern we had was students leaving comments on our blog making their phone numbers or email addresses public. We made it clear that we delete such information but thought that was another thing that could be addressed in the classroom.

We were all very clear that we love hearing from our readers and try very hard to answer them all. It’s just the students demanding we do their homework that we’re reluctant to respond to. We write for a living. Our novels are our top priorities, any additional writing comes after that. Which is why most of us started blogging in the first place—to have a method of communicating directly with our readers. We all agreed that the comments are the best part of blogging. Laurie said that she feels the readers of her blog have become family.

Laurie also mentioned that if they ever have parents wanting to remove a book from the school library or prevent it being taught they should get in contact with the writer because often the writer’s been through this before and can offer support. (Oh, look: it’s happened again, this time in Kentucky. And Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted is one of the books.)

Hmm, we seem to have agreed about many things. The only disagreement I can think of is when we were answering a question from the audience about the relationship of our blog writing to our novel writing. I said that I found blogging much more relaxing and easy than novel writing. While I craft it, the writing here doesn’t go through any where near as many drafts as my fiction does. Nor is it professionally edited, copyedited or proofed. It also has a different voice than my novel writing, but I do still think of it as writing and it has an influence on my novels.

Maureen said that she views all her writing the same whether it’s a novel or a blog post or a tweet and that it all has the same voice. Which I think is one of the main things that makes Maureen’s blog so different to most other blogs I read. Every entry reads like a story and the voice is indeed very like her novel writing voice (but quite distinct from the Maureen I know). And is why a post about a blogging panel wouldn’t work there.

Sadly I can no longer remember Lisa or Laurie’s response but Barbara was very clear that she did not see her blog writing as real writing at all. It’s completely distinct from her fiction.

I have to admit that before I was contacted to be part of this panel I had not given much thought to the use my blog might have for educators. For me this panel was an eye opener to look at blogs from a different point of view. Not just from the “this is fun” pov.

Though blogging is fun. I feel like that’s the one thing we didn’t talk about. Maybe next time.

Do any of you have any comments or ideas about blogging and teaching? Do any of you use blogs in the classroom? Encourage your students to read blogs? To blog?

Guestblog on Teenreads

Today I blogged over here. Those of you who’ve been wondering about the process of writing Liar might find it interesting.

Today I prepare for my appearance in Larchmont tonight and the many appearances I’m doing next week in Seattle and Portland. Then I’ll be at the Teen Lit Festival in Austin next Saturday. That’s quite a temperature range. Packing’s going to be fun!

For those of you who only read the posts and not the comments, you really need to check out the comments on the White Writer Advantages thread and the Hating Female Characters one. People are being astonishingly smart.

Liar & Spoilers

I’ve already talked about this a fair bit, basically pleading for people not to give away any of the twists and turns of Liar. For the most part bloggers and reviewers for the trades have done exactly that.

I would like to thank them for being so amazing about not spoiling Liar. I’m really astonished by how considerate reviewers have been. Thank you!

Of course, inevitably, there are spoilers out there in the broad, wild intramanets. Not all reviewers feel the same way about spoilers that I do, which is absolutely their right. I cannot make anyone not spoil Liar I can merely request.1

But I would like to explain once more why I think it’s important that those of you who have not read Liar should avoid the spoilers. There are a lot of them out there now. Your best policy is to avoid all reviews until you’ve read the book.

Here’s why:

Pretty much every reviewer so far has expressed pleasure at the unexpectedness of some of the book’s revelations. If you already know the spoilers that pleasure is taken from you.

Even friends of mine who don’t care about spoilers and actively seek out spoilers have told me that they’re really glad they read Liar unspoiled.

Knowing those revelations ahead of time will change the way you read the book. It will make you decide ahead of time that Liar is an x kind of book when if you had gone into it not knowing you may have decided it was a y kind of book. Or possibly both. Or some other thing altogether.

I deliberately wrote Liar to be read in more than one way. That way more than one reading would make sense and be sustained by the evidence. So if your friend tells you, “OMG! Wait till you get to page x and you find out y! And you discover it’s a z kind of book!” Your reading will be shaped by that particular interpretation of the book, which puts weight on the first revelation, but ignores the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. ones.

Why, yes, Liar was a bugger to write. And, no, I have no plans to write any more books like it. From now on I’m only writing books where spoiling isn’t that big a deal. Like all my previous books.

One last thing: Yes, the Liar sightings contest is still going. Apparently Liar should start appearing in bookshops in Australia, New Zealand and the USA this week. First person to send me a picture of Liar in the wild for each country wins a prize. You can put a link to your picture in comments or email me. The Canadian prize has already been won.

  1. The blog overlord, alas, only controls this blog with an iron fist. []

My Silence

Enough of youse lot are wondering what’s up with me not blogging every day that I am driven to offer an explanation for my blog silence of late. A brief explanation: travel, busy, knackered, bad sport karma.

I have many posts brewing or brewed. More on race, writing and publishing (here’s a few links to others. I’m especially loving the Writers Against Racism series on Amy Bowllan’s SLJ blog like this one with Ari of Reading in Color.); a complaint about Being Human (Why does the woman have to be a timid ghost? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting if she was the werewolf or the vampire? Um, okay no need to write that post.); on re-reading Han Suyin’s A Mountain is Young; the long awaited stalker song post; a response to Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful essay on the way female characters get dumped on (hmmm, I think those last two posts may be connected); the art of writing dialogue, and many others.

Feel free to make requests for anything else you’d like me to blog about in the comments.

And for those who keep asking: both Liar and the paperback How To Ditch Your Fairy publish on 29 September. I.e. this very month! I happen to have two copies of HTDYF in its glorious paperback edition. So beautiful. Liar is also already a complete book with brand new dustjacket. I bet they will both start showing up in book shops around or even before the 29th.

Testing WordPress iPhone App & Praising Electronic Devices

I’m at Sydney airport, on my way to Melbourne for the Melbourne Writers Festival, and since it took way less time to get here than I thought1 I figured I’d test this here new application what Stephen Fry recommended.2 I am blogging from my phone without squinting or yelling. I count that as a big thumbs up for the wordpress app.

I’d also like to give a big thumbs up to my Sony reader 505. It’s not perfect—I’d prefer a touchscreen and a faster page turn on PDFs, I’d also prefer my iPhone to be larger and be a reader on top of everything else it does3—but just for reducing the weight of my luggage I hug the ereader to my chest. I’ve been a lot faster reading mss. than ever before. W00t! Oh, how I hate reading mss. on my computer or in paper form. I am liberated.

What electronic device is making your life better right now?

  1. 10 mins as opposed to 1 hour. Who knew? Other than Scott. []
  2. As you all know everything Stephen Fry says is golden unless it is about cricket. He supports the bastion of evil the English cricket team. Ewwww! []
  3. Next year I hear. []