Guest Post: YA From a Marginalized Young Adult’s Perspective

A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.

All the words below are hers:

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My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.

Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).

The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.

In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.

I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.

I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1

Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).

In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.

There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.

Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:

  1. No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
  2. Nothing too complex.
  3. No adults.
  4. Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.

Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?

I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?

  1. Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
  2. Young adults are unintelligent.
  3. Young adults have no adults in their lives.
  4. Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.

Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.

When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”

Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.

I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.

You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.

I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.

How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.

Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?

Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.

Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.

More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.

Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.

Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.

We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.

We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.

I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.

Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.

Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.

But I don’t want to quit.

The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.

YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.

If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.

We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.

  1. See also: #weneeddiversebooks []
  2. Heavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find? []

Guest Post: On Writing Scripts for TV in Australia and the UK

In the comments on Writers and Editors, Sarah Dollard delivered a fascinating treatise on how TV scripts are produced and what a script doctor does. I could not let be lost in the comments so here it has its own post. Take it away, Sarah:

As requested, here’s a rundown of how the process differs in television.

The job of the TV script editor can vary wildly from show to show, genre to genre, country to country. I can only speak about working on soap in Australia, and on numerous dramas here in the UK, as both writer and a script editor. From my limited understanding of the system in the US, things seem very different there; they don’t strictly have ‘script editors’ at all.

In Australia, I’ve found that the script editor job is openly acknowledged as one of re-writing; an editor will literally write whole new drafts of the work after the hired writer has finished on the episode. Next, a supervising script editor will do a polish and, after that, if any changes need to be made for production reasons, it is once again the job of the script editor to step in. This is the norm on high-output shows like soaps, where the writer only has one chance to get it right, and from then on the script is taken into the script department to be fostered through to the shooting script stage.

As far as I know, this type of script editor does not exist in an official capacity in the UK; here, a script editor would not change a writer’s work unless that writer was trapped under something very large and heavy, and even then you’d have to get their permission first. But that’s not to say that re-writing doesn’t happen. For whatever reason, on some shows it does fall to script editor to step in and re-write; maybe the writer hired for the job can’t get the script up to scratch and the head writer isn’t available to take over; perhaps a writer dropped out and couldn’t be replaced; perhaps the script is already being shot and changes need to be made on the hoof. However, when this does happen in the UK, it’s done very much on the quiet. Personally, I’ve never heard of a script editor getting credited for their writing, even if the shooting script contains little of the original writer’s work. Whatever the reality of the situation, script editors are not supposed to re-write in the UK; it’s not the ‘done thing’, and they’re certainly not paid for it.

If anyone is interested, what follows is a rundown of the *usual* experience of a script editor working on drama in the UK. I’ve been inspired to write all this down because I was having a drink with my current script editor the other night and when someone heard what she did for a living, they asked, “So, what, you like correct the writer’s spelling and stuff?”. To her credit, she did not punch this person. She just calmly replied, “It’s a bit more than that, actually.” And then I bought her a large drink.

While it does vary, usually a script editor’s job starts early, before a freelance writer is even brought on board to write an episode. Working with a small team (usually the head writer and the producer, maybe a script producer if there is one), the script editor will help to storyline the overall arc of the series and create a basic plan for each of the individual episodes. Sometimes he/she might have a say in which writers are hired, and which episode each is best suited to.

Once a writer is on board, the script editor will help brief him/her on the overall arc for the series and – along with the head writer/producers – talk through the basic plan for his/her episode. The writer goes away and writes up an outline (anything from five to ten pages, describing the story in full but without dialogue). The writer then meets with the script team again to talk through any problems with that outline. The script editor will write up notes based on the meeting. Sometimes the script editor’s *only* job is to write up those notes, but more often he/she will be fully involved in the meeting on a creative level, giving their own feedback and helping to find solutions.

The writer then does another draft of the outline, and another, and possibly another, and each time the script editor gives written notes, sometimes with a face to face meeting first, sometimes without, until the outline is considered solid and workable and ready to ‘go to script’. These notes are probably very much like those an author gets on a manuscript; there will be feedback on character, structure, tone and style. The big difference is that with TV, the writer doesn’t ‘own’ the story and the characters; they must pour their heart into the work, of course, but ultimately their vision must comply with an already established world; their episode must fit in with the continuity of the episodes that come before and after.

This cycle (writer writes draft –> feedback meeting –> notes from script editor –> writer writes new draft) works in much the same way once the writer has gone to script, only now there will also be notes on dialogue and action, as well as character and structure. There can be any number of script drafts completed before anyone outside the script team looks at the writer’s work. But once the script team is happy with the script, it will be shown to an executive-producer, or similar, to get a fresh perspective. Then the cycle of notes/meeting/new draft continues!

The whole way through this process, the script editor needs to be available to the writer to answer questions via phone or email, to help chat through any problems, and to communicate any new issues that might arise due to changes in other episodes.

The next stage happens when the production team gets a hold of the script for planning purposes. Necessary changes to the script might arise due to restrictions (or exciting new possibilities!) with locations, costumes, casting, stunts, etc. The script editor will communicate any necessary changes to the writer, and the writer puts them on the page.

Sometimes changes must be made due to notes from the network/broadcaster. These notes can be regarding creative issues, or to do with the classification of the program – usually because the swearing, violence, gore or sex needs to be toned down. Personally, I’ve never had a broadcaster ask for more nudity, cursing or carnage, but I’m sure it does happen! Oh, and it’s also the script editor’s job to liaise with the nearest legal-boffin-type-person and make sure that any names or products mentioned in the script are ‘cleared’.

Once the script is actually being shot, the script editor works with the writer to make any necessary day-to-day changes to the script. Perhaps a scene will need to be tweaked because it’s raining on the day of the shoot, and the scene had to be moved inside. Or perhaps the episode has turned out a little short, and the writer will have to write new material.

I hope all of that was of interest to someone! Perhaps I will direct my parents here and they will finally understand what I’ve been doing for the past eight years.

As discussed in the previous post this could not be more different than the process of writing a novel, which is far, far, far, far less collaborative. I do not think I could work on TV show.

Does anyone have experience of working on TV shows in the USA or any other countries? Would love to hear about the differences.

Guest Post: Bernice McFadden on the Writing Life

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

I do not know Bernice McFadden, but when she wrote to me about possibly doing an exchange of blog posts, I decided to invite her to guest post here because I have been hearing wonderful things about Sugar for years, and because her story is both unique and very common. Many starry-eyed wannabe and debut authors seem to imagine that all you have to do is get your first novel published and then rose petals will descend from on high and you will llive the glorious life of an author forever. Sadly, not so much. Even if you manage to write and publish a second novel (which most first novelists don’t) there’s no guarantee of a career. Even if your books receive great critical acclaim and are bestsellers—nothing is guaranteed. Publishing is a fickle, cruel and deeply unfair business as the wonderful post below amply illustrates. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.

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Bernice L. McFadden is the national bestselling author of six award wining, and critically acclaimed novels. The classic Sugar is celebrating its 10th anniversary in print. When it was first published in 2000, Sugar was hailed by Terry McMillan as “One of the most thought provoking novels I’ve read in years.” Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, called her sophomore release, The Warmest December, “Searing and expertly imagined.” Her sixth novel, Nowhere is a Place, was chosen by The Washington Post as one of The Best Books of 2006. McFadden has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, twice short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Literary Award and is a two-time recipient of the Fiction Honor Award from the BCALA. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter R’yane Azsa where she is at work on her next novel.

Bernice says:

This mystical, magical life of mine began on September 26th, 1965 in Brooklyn, New York and then it began again exactly two years later to the day on a stretch of highway between Michigan and Ohio. It was there in that I was involved in a near fatal car accident. I always cite the day as a turning point in my life. I was on the brink of death, teetering on that invisible line that separates the here and the hereafter, floating in that white light our ancestors inhabit. I believe that during that ethereal moment I was given an assignment, a purpose—a gift—and then sent back.

For me the process of writing is similar to channeling—I am not only of the story, but often find myself in the story experiencing it—even if only from the sidelines.

I won’t deny that some part of what I write comes from my own imagination, but I do feel that at least 80 percent of what I pen is being shared with me by people who have been dead and buried for years.

Many of my previous novels have historical references, but Glorious is the first, purely authentic historical novel I’ve written. I so enjoyed the feeling of fulfillment that I experienced creating a story that bore witness to history, that I have started another one, entitled Gathering of Waters.

For me, a great story provokes the heart of the reader, causing them to question what they thought they knew, and/or how they thought they felt about a certain place and/or people. I believe that Glorious does just that.

While all of my books hold a special place in my heart, I have a special relationship with this, my newest novel, for on reason in particular. The road Glorious traveled was almost identical to the journey my debut novel, Sugar, took a decade earlier. A book that naysayer’s claimed had no audience, Sugar received 73 rejections letters—Glorious received about forty and with that, publishing declared my career to be dead, but I knew different.

Back in 1999 I told myself that If I did not have a publisher for Sugar by the time my birthday rolled around, I would self-publish. But the universe stepped in and in February of that year, a literary agent took the project on and within a week I had a two-book deal.

Between 2000 to 2008 I wrote and published a number of books to critical acclaim, but because the books were marginalized, my sales numbers began to slip and I soon found myself without a publishing deal.

I had to begin from scratch.

In January 2009 I repeated the promise I made to myself in 1999—“If I do not have a publisher by the time my birthday rolls around, I will self-publish this book.” And once again the universe stepped in. But this time the experience was mystical in a way that not even I could have conjured up.

A significant portion of Glorious takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. In the book I mention literary icon Nella Larsen, I also thank her, along with Zora Neale Hurston, in the acknowledgements section of the book. It was Nella Larsen’s grave I went to visit just days before I received the email from Akashic Books, stating that they would be more than happy to publish Glorious.

You see . . . everything that should be, will be.

Like I said, my life is a mystical, magical one . . .

Guest Post: Margo Lanagan on Not Writing

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.

Margo Lanagan is probably the award winningest Australian YA writer of all time. She deserves every single one. When I’m asked who I think the best living YA writer is, which is a really dreadful question given how many wonderful ones there are and how I know so many of them, I say Margo Lanagan. I am in awe of her writing and never tire of her voice. Even when she says wrong things. If you haven’t read any of Margo’s work you need to fix that.

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Margo Lanagan has written for children, young adults and adults—she’s best known for her YA fantasy writing. She’s put out 3 collections of short stories (White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes, with Yellowcake to come out next), and her novel Tender Morsels was a Printz Honor Book and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Margo lives in Sydney all year round, except when her glamorous writing life affords her the opportunity to travel. She has silver hair, brown eyes, a GSOH, and no pets.

Step AWAY from the page

Where did I hear, the other day, that some well-known, well-published writer had decided to give writing away? She’d done so, she said, because she was ‘sick of the sound of her own voice’. And I knew exactly what she was talking about, because there are times when I stop writing, temporarily, for the same reason. (Note: this is not the same thing as writer’s block.)

Tiring of your own voice can happen when, because you’re so darn regular and dutiful in your writing habits, your writing rate overtakes your generation-of-ideas rate. Lots of writers are very fierce about the notion of applying your bum to a chair on a regular basis, and they’re not entirely wrong. There is a time for regular bum-application—when you’re partway through a draft or a revision of a novel, you have to work steadily. You need to keep the entire novel and all its offshoots uploaded to your mind for a sustained period, if you want the story to have integrity at the end.

But there’s also a time for running around outside, or partying-and-then-sleeping-in, or having a glut of reading for several weeks, or just moping off to the day-job and back. There are times, and they’re more frequent than a lot of people like to admit, when it’s a bad idea to sit down, set your jaw and force yourself once again to your story. You learn to judge, after many years of trying to be so determined, of forcing yourself to this uncomfortable duty, when to press yourself into the story’s service, and when to just disengage, banish the thing to your subconscious mind, and leave its problems alone to work themselves out.

But this isn’t about problem-solving. This is about feeling as if you’ve got nothing new to say. You sit down with what you thought was a good idea, and you start out on it, or you’re halfway through, and you find yourself reaching for the same similes or images, the same kinds of phrasing, the same plot turns as you always do. And it’s not reassuring, it’s not interesting, it’s not good. Everything is stale and worn-feeling; nothing makes you sit up and care about what you’re doing. Curses, another wet young protagonist who thinks too much? Can’t you create any other POV character? Can you not stop using the words ‘dark’ or ‘great’ before every damned thing you describe? Does everything you write have to be so sad, or so ambiguous, so qualified by cynical asides? What is wrong with you?

You begin on something else, some idea you’ve been hoarding and really looking forward to. Perhaps if you treat yourself, give yourself free rein, you’ll find new energy; before you know it you’ll be galloping off over the hills, gasping in fresh air and tossing your mane with the sheer joy of creation. And you bang away at it for a while, but then . . . you find yourself just nibbling weeds in the corner of some chewed-flat field again, berating yourself, bored to sobs.

I did this once just after I finished one of the drafts of Tender Morsels. I went off to a 5-day workshop of intensive writing. It was a fine workshop, full of stimulating tasks, full of fellow workshoppers doing wonderful things. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all over the shop. None of it was useful; none of it came to anything. Not a single story was born of 5 days of solid writing. At the end of it I flipped through the dutiful words, page after page of them, and I knew there was nothing there. Even now I don’t like to look in that notebook; the deadness, the effortfulness of the sentences, the absence of direction, is too dispiriting.

Sometimes you’re just drained; sometimes you’re just used up. Sometimes you’re not the kind of person who can get useful material from writing every day—I’m certainly not, not month in, month out. Sometimes you have to lie fallow for a while, remove yourself far enough from your own words, your own style, that you can come at them afresh later. Sometimes there’s a good story waiting, but your subconscious hasn’t worked out how you’ll approach it yet. Leave it alone; let it grow, unforced, un-angsted-over.

I wonder if she will give it up completely, that writer, whoever she was? Maybe she just needs to move beyond her current self a bit, get out of the shadow of what she’s already written, break out a different part of herself into her writing somehow—use a pseudonym? Try something funny? Have a crack at the lyric poem? Who knows? Maybe her public declaration is just her way of pushing herself far enough away from her past to feel free to move on?

Or maybe she really is done, for good. Maybe she’s said everything that seems to need saying. Maybe no stories are presenting themselves to her any more, and there’s plenty else in her life to fill her days and keep her sane. I can’t imagine what it would be like to run out of story, and it sounds like an awful thing to happen. But perhaps it isn’t; perhaps it feels quite natural; perhaps life is none the poorer for not including writing. Now, there’s a new thought.

What do YOU do when you get sick of the sound of yourself? Have you ever given up writing entirely—for a spell, or forever, or just one particular genre or form? Can you imagine retiring from writing (because I can’t, and I’d be fascinated to know what it’s like)—and if you can, what do you think would fill the gap?

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.

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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.

Guest Post: Megan Reid on Being a Bad Reader

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.

Meg Reid is another one of my pen pals.1 We started corresponding to each other when Meg was sixteen and my father, who is friends with her parents and was staying with them in the US, gave her a copy of Magic or Madness and ordered her to write me about it. Dads! Could they be more embarrassing? On this occasion though he did good and we’ve been writing to each other ever since. Oh, and now Meg’s in graduate school.2

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Megan Reid has blogged for Boston magazine, CosmoGirl, and Ypulse, and really likes writing about her little sister’s clothes. She recently bought her first ball gown. Find her on Twitter here.

Megan says:

Lately, I’ve been a little paranoid about being a bad reader. It’s kind of embarrassing, because it’s something I’ve always thought I was good at—I learned how when I was three, because I told my mom I wanted to, and allegedly I was a very strong willed child.3

Honestly, my main rationale for coming to graduate school in English, rather than Art History or Theatre like I’d spent most of my undergrad career planning to do, was that I realized that I was way better at reading than I was at acting or directing, and I didn’t really want to be a curator. Plus, it was something I liked. “How awesome would it be,” I thought, “to have my whole life for two years be going to school and learning about books, and then coming home and reading books, and then hanging out with clever grad-school people who like to talk about books, TOO?!?” It sounded ideal.4

And then I got introduced to theory. And postmodernism. And 500 pages of required reading a night. None of which was bad, exactly, but my dream scenario involved more time for napping and doing my laundry more often.5 And romance novels. Definitely more romance novels. I am very good at those.

That isn’t the reason I’m paranoid, though. Imagine my surprise when I found out a couple weeks ago that all this time, I might have been doing it ALL WRONG for eighteen years.

I read like most people do, I think, except for some little quirks, which I will now share publicly, even though they’re kind of embarrassing:

  1. When I get really into books I tend to forget to breathe, and then make embarrassing dying goldfish-ish gasping noises every few minutes.
  2. In my head, every protagonist has brown or red hair. I don’t know why, but they do. And it’s probably problematic, but that is a story for another post.
  3. I don’t read last pages first.

Which is why, after finding out inadvertently halfway through House of Mirth what happened to poor Lily, and poor Selden, and poor Gerty (oh, GOD…), I went home and wept. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for an hour. I had been reading it for class, and the next day, was soundly mocked by my friends. Evidently, they thought I should have gotten over the tragedy a little bit sooner and spent more time researching the distinctions between realism and naturalism. (Fair enough).

Obviously, I’m pretty firm on that last reading quirk. Not to suck up, but I’ll quote Justine to bolster my argument, because she said it very well, and loves House of Mirth, too:

There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the *****6 of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow.

YES. YES. YES. YES.

The trauma7 got me thinking, though—maybe I could have avoided my hour-long crying jag if I’d broken my commitment to reading quirk #3. I’ve never thought there was a right or wrong way to read. Some might be more effective for certain purposes (like skimming that aforementioned 500 pages of reading a night), but are some ways of reading objectively better than others? And if I’m a bad reader, how do I change it?

I know, deep down, that I’m not really a horrible reader, but I’m curious about it now. One of my clever grad-school friends (those, unlike laundry and naps are not myths) attempted to explain literacy studies to me, but even that branch of theory doesn’t quite answer my questions.

I’ve gotten seriously fascinated by how people read. I’ve started asking people questions about their reading quirks.8 It’s totally weird, and awesome, and funny. One of my friends reads lying down, so her arms don’t get tired. My mom only reads with socks on. Some people hear characters’ voices in their heads, some have specific narrators (with accents!). A guy I know told me he gets nervous when he doesn’t know how books end beforehand. A girl I studied abroad with sees colors in poetry. One of my neighbors has been known to pair books with wines—Emma goes very well with pinot gris, for example.

Clearly, there’s an upside to having my ending ruined,9 and to all this musing about right and wrong reading paranoia. And, since Justine was lovely enough to ask me to blog, I get to extend my new favorite question to all of you (since it’s finals week, I‘ll pretend it’s Very Serious Research): what are your reading quirks?

  1. Pen pal, still making me giggle. []
  2. Is a postgraduate. []
  3. Seriously. I found a book on “How to Raise the Strong-Willed Child” on my parent’s bookshelves when we moved a couple years ago. I had NO IDEA what it was doing there. []
  4. As you might be able to tell, I didn’t really take English classes in undergrad. []
  5. I won’t say how often I do it now, because my mom will probably read this, and I don’t want to shock her. []
  6. I don’t want to wreck the ending for anyone else. Seriously. Read it. []
  7. Exaggerating, obviously. Since I have now been exposed to the field of trauma studies and am fully aware this does not apply . . . []
  8. Maybe if I creatively edit them, a la Eve Ensler, I can turn them in instead of a final next quarter? []
  9. But only just barely. []

Guest Post: Kristin Cashore on the Flying Trapeze

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.

Kristin Cashore is one of the bright new stars of YA fantasy. I met her at a Books of Wonder event last year and we had a lovely time gossiping talking of serious matters and have been pen pals1 ever since.

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Kristin Cashore is the author of the fantasy novels Graceling and Fire and is working on her third book, Bitterblue. She’s lived in an awful lot of places but has recently moved back to Massachusetts, where she writes in a green armchair with an enormous cup of tea at her elbow.
Kristin says:

(A friendly warning to any readers who are afraid of heights: this post and its pictures might be uncomfortable!)

A few trapeze lessons ago, I was up on the platform, getting ready to swing. Now, for a beginning flyer like me, what this means is that I was leaning perilously over the edge of the platform, reaching for the trapeze bar, while an instructor behind me held onto my belt to keep me from falling down into the net. The instructor, Kaz, was giving me my instructions — stomach out, shoulders back, lean forward — and I wanted to do what he said — I even thought I was doing what he said — but actually I wasn’t, not really, not entirely, because, well, as it happens, on occasion, my body has an adverse reaction to the concept of leaning out over a void.

Then Kaz, holding my belt, said a single word: “Trust.” Words are powerful, aren’t they? That word made me understand everything all at once: what I was doing, what I wasn’t doing, what I was afraid of. I understood that Kaz wasn’t going to let go of my belt and drop me; that Steve, holding my lines on the floor below, wasn’t going to drop me either; and that Jon, swinging in the catch trap on the other side of the void, was going to do everything in his power to catch me when the time came. I trusted these guys. So I leaned myself out the way I was supposed to, and when I heard my call . . . I jumped, swung, and FLEW.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. Nothing in the world works without it, but even when it’s working, it doesn’t always make sense, does it? Trust is one of those words that means what it means, but also means the opposite of what it means, if you get what I mean. :) In other words, trust is about choosing to believe in something, even while knowing it might not exist. It’s about throwing yourself into something wholeheartedly, deciding to be certain about something, despite your uncertainty. Have you heard the saying, “Leap, and the net will appear?”

(They really shouldn’t let writers on the flying trapeze. There are too many impossible-to-resist metaphors.)

In my current work in progress, my protagonist, Bitterblue, a very young queen, doesn’t know whom to trust. She’s so turned around that she doesn’t even trust her own instincts about trust. Trust is stupid, she thinks at one point. What’s the true reason I’ve decided to trust [this person]? Certainly his work recommends him, his choice of friends; but isn’t it just as much his voice? I like to hear him say words. I trust the deep way he says, “Yes, Lady Queen.”

Why do I trust the instructors at my trapeze school? There’s something about their focus, their no-nonsense instructions, their calm demeanors, and the way they are completely accepting of people who are frightened or people who struggle. I keep expecting the instructors at trapeze school to tell me I don’t belong there. To make fun of me when I wipe out. To tell me I’m not learning fast enough. Instead, they explain that it doesn’t matter how slowly I learn. They tell me that my lessons will always be tailored to me, to my own personal abilities and limits. They are all superior athletes; they could flip circles around me on the trapeze. I have never considered myself an athlete, not once in my entire life, and I have a lot of strength and flexibility work to do if I truly want to advance on the trapeze. But they’re okay with that. They get that I, and most of my classmates, are baby trapezers. They treat us with respect despite how little we can do. And lo and behold, I reciprocate — by trusting them, quite literally, with my life.

Why do you trust the people you trust?

Writing is also about trust, of course. For example, I trust my early readers with my manuscripts; I choose them as early readers because I trust them to be honest, but respectful. I trust my editor because we’ve been through enough rounds of manuscripts and editorial letters and revisions and re-revisions for me to understand that she trusts me. And I also trust her because I trust myself; I trust myself to figure out when I agree with her and when I disagree, and I trust myself not to cave under pressure if I feel strongly about something. And I trust her opinions, even when I disagree, to be well-worth pondering and playing around with. I trust her to have good reasons for her criticisms.

Are you a writer? Do you feel discouraged sometimes, and wonder if you have any right to be writing? Are you depressed by the pile of crap you wrote yesterday? Well, for the record, I’m depressed by the pile of crap I wrote yesterday, too :), and just so you know, I get it. I know just how hard it is to keep faith in yourself when you’re writing. Will you trust me when I tell you that I believe in you? That the pile of crap is fixable, and writing is learnable, and being the creator of something is a risk — a leap — worth taking?

I don’t have anything profound to say about trust here… just that I think about it a lot, in my own life, in my characters’ lives, in my writing, in my relationships, in the car when I’m surrounded by crazy drivers — and on the trapeze. And I’m curious to hear any thoughts y’all have about it!

I’ll close with an illustration of the trapeze triangle of trust.

As you gaze upon the picture above, no doubt you’re admiring my socks and the chalk all over my ass, but what I’d really like you to notice is the disembodied arm in the right background. That arm belongs to the instructor on the platform, who, during this particular swing, was Jon. Jon helped me during my takeoff, reminding me of my form, giving me tips for the trick I was about to do, and holding my belt, pre-takeoff, so I didn’t fall off.

Perhaps, like me, you’re impressed with the photographer who took the photo above. Notice my hands? Somehow, the photographer managed to capture the exact moment in this trick where I let go of the trapeze in preparation for straightening myself out to be caught by the catcher. However, what I really want you notice is the carabiner attached to the belt around my waist. That carabiner, and another on the other side hidden behind my whooshing pony-tail, is connected to my rope lines, which pass through loops in the ceiling and back down to the floor, straight into the strong and capable hands of the instructor standing there, who happened to be Theresa when this picture was taken. If I miss my catch, or do anything wrong at any moment, Theresa will pull on the lines to break my fall into the net so that I land safely.

Finally, while you are no doubt fascinated by the view up my nose in the photo above, what I’d really like you to focus on are the hands reaching from the left, snatching me out of thin air. Those hands belong to Mike, who is swinging back and forth from his knees, upside down, in the catch trapeze. If I hadn’t trusted Mike to be there? I wouldn’t have flung myself off the trapeze with enough aggression. But I did trust him, and there he was.

BTW, I know these tricks can be pretty hard to parse from still photographs. If you care to see what this trick, called the “set straddle whip,” looks like in action, go to this page, scroll down, and watch the short video. That’s not me, and that’s not my trapeze school, but it’s pretty much what I was doing.

One last BTW — For anyone interested in flying, there are schools all over the world — you might be surprised to find one near you! I can vouch that TSNY has schools in New York, Boston, Washington DC, and Los Angeles.

  1. I love the phrase “pen pal.” It’s so corny. Espcially as I have not used a pen to write a letter since I was a kid. “Pal” also has a deliciously archaic sound to me. Seriously who calls their friends their “pals”? []

Guest Post: Courtney Milan on Lying

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

I first came across Courtney Milan when she very intelligently defended my honour on her blog. Turned out everything on her blog is witty and/or smart. Then Sarah Rees Brennan, my guide to romance, started raving about her writing. I commend both to you.1 You can also follow her on twitter.

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Courtney Milan writes historical romances for adults. She has been lucky enough to hold two jobs she did not need to tell lies to get, and one job that she lied to get and then loved. Her website is at courtneymilan.com.

In Defense of Lying

The heroine of my debut novel, Proof by Seduction, is a liar. Not a compulsive liar like Justine’s Micah. No; Jenny Keeble (that’s her real name, although she never admits it) is a liar who pretends that she can tell the future, so that people will give her filthy lucre. And while this may seem a little dishonest, believe it or not, we all do it.

I happen to be thinking about lying because a friend of mine has an important job interview next week, and today I was helping her practice. Here’s the problem: She wants to get the job. She wants to get the job very badly, because as you may have noticed, the economy sucks, and at six months of unemployment, one starts to become antsy about things such as paychecks and the like. She does not, however, feel very excited about the prospect of actually doing the job. You understand how these things go. And so she has two options. She can go to the interview and tell the truth—and inevitably not get the job. Or she can lie.

This is actually a really common problem, whether the economy is good or bad. At some point in any job interview, someone will ask you this question: “Why do you want to work for us?” It doesn’t matter whether the job is flipping hamburgers at McDonalds or if you’re auditioning to be the next CEO of Proctor and Gamble. They’re going to ask the question. And they never want to hear the truth. The truth is something closer to this: “Because Burger King isn’t hiring, and my parents told me I had to get a job.” Or, the high-end version: “Your parachute is so golden that when you fire me in thirteen months, I won’t have to work for another two years.” No; nobody ever wants to hear the truth.

But, fickle and undependable as people are, they also don’t want to hear obvious lies. And so what you have to do, as an interviewee, is learn how to lie effectively. Why do you want to work for McDonalds? They don’t really want to know why you want to work for them, because the truth is too crass. The question they are really asking is this: “Why am I great? Please pay me several compliments, because I am feeling surprisingly needy and insecure.” So you think of all the reasons why McDonalds will think they are a good employer. And you then lie. “My friend Jill works for you, and I’ve heard you’re a really fair manager in dividing up shifts.” There you are. True. Believable. And also, a complete fabrication.

Good liars recognize that most people will only ask you three or four real questions. One of them, I’ve already told you—“please pay me several compliments.” But there are also questions that are like this: “I don’t have anything to say, and I’m afraid if I sit here in silence you will think I am an idiot, so can you please fill the time?” And: “Hey, does this question make me look smart?” And finally: “Do you think everything’s going to be okay?”

Good liars ignore the question that people actually ask, and answer the deep down question instead. “Hey, you’re pretty cool. No, you’re not an idiot. Dang, that question makes you look pretty smart.” And the best liars . . . they figure out how to answer that deep-down question, while still telling the truth. And that makes them very, very scary people.

  1. Courtney’s writing and her blog, I mean. Not SRB. Not that I’m not commending SRB to you—she is wonderful—just on this occasion I am saving my commendations for Courtney Milan. []

Guest Post: Alaya Johnson: “What My Dad Said”

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.

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer, whose short story in Zombies v Unicorns, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is jaw-droppingly good. Her next novel, Moonshine, out in May is my fave New York City vampire novel. I love it so much that it’s been killing me waiting for it to come out because I’ve been dying to rave about Moonshine to youse lot. Trust me, you want this book.

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Alaya Dawn Johnson
dated a zombie once in high school, but it didn’t stick. Her first novel was Racing the Dark, the first in a trilogy she decided to call The Spirit Binders once her publisher told her trilogies needed names. The second book, The Burning City, is due out in June. She is also looking forward to the May 11 publication of Moonshine, her 1920s vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Alaya says:

What My Dad Said

When I first showed my dad the new paperback cover of Racing the Dark, I was pretty proud of it. I thought that it evoked the book and was fairly striking. I won’t lie, I pretty much expected him to pat me on the head and say, “Looks great, honey.”

Instead, he picked it up and turned it over a few times. His face took on that serious, thinking expression I recognized meant he was considering how to phrase something important.

“Alaya,” he said, “the art is lovely. The image and everything is great. But are you sure you want to limit yourself like that with this cover?”

“Limit myself?” I asked.

“White people are going to be way less likely to pick up a book with a cover featuring a brown person. That’s just the way the world works.”

I told my dad (with some annoyance) that I didn’t think that was true, and anyway, my book is about a brown person, so these hypothetical white people would just have to suck it up.

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.

At least I was in good company. On the shelves surrounding my book were works by Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I’ve looked through this peculiar hybrid section before, and I’ve always been bewildered by the mish-mash of genres and writers all sandwiched together on two narrow shelves. Would someone like to tell me what on earth Zane and Toni Morrison have to do with each other?

Dad and I stared at the book in dismay. “I can’t believe they did this,” I said.

“Honey, I told you,” he said. “You should have had a more generic cover.”

I couldn’t really disagree with him, at that point.

So Dad picked up the book and we physically marched it over to the Fantasy section, where we left it, cover side out.

“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”

Considering that we had just seen the physical evidence of my being shoved into that category, I just nodded and went back to my food.

It stuck with me, though. And I realized that my dad’s point of view hasn’t really been in much of the ongoing discussion about cover art and whitewashing.

In a lot of discussions about race, my Dad and I suffer from a pretty profound generational gap. My dad is of the Old School, which we could call “determined pragmatism.” As far as my dad is concerned, he grew up in a world where he couldn’t sit down at half the lunch counters in Richmond, where he had to sit in the balcony of the theater, drink from labeled water fountains and sit on the black side of the court house.

Now, in his sixties, my dad owns a business that actually works with the same governments that supported Jim Crow laws. He’s moved into that small percentage of the black upper-middle class, and as far as he’s concerned, race is something you deal with and move on. If you have to change something because white people don’t like overt blackness, then you do that. It’s not that my dad doesn’t understand my points about how frustrating and degrading it can be to always have non-whiteness relegated to this unwanted subcategory (or, even worse, an exoticized one). He does. He just feels that if the world works this way and if I’m just a writer struggling to make a living, then I ought to find a way to help myself within that existing power structure.

Now, I still don’t think he’s right. I still like my cover and I’m still very happy that it very clearly features my non-white main character.

But I will say that it felt like a gut punch to see Racing the Dark shelved—with such a contemptuous lack of care for its content or its audience—in the African American section of Borders.

Guest Post: Melina Marchetta on Personal Taste

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.

Melina Marchetta is probably Australia’s most popular YA writer and with good reason her books are deeply awesome. I just finished her latest, The Piper’s Son and I think it’s her best book to date. I was up reading it till 3AM and then I couldn’t sleep for another hour because I was weeping too hard. LOVED IT.

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Melina Marchetta is a Sydney writer. She has just released her fifth novel, The Piper’s Son, a sequel to her 2003 novel Saving Francesca which will be published in the US next March. Her website is www.melinamarchetta.com.au.

Melina says:

Please note that this is not a piece about books I don’t like, but about personal taste and what we look for in the novels we choose to read.

When you don’t like a book that everyone is raving about, you feel guilty. You don’t want to be that person who lets hype affect their reading because I hate that person. I want to say to that person, ‘Grow up. You can still be individual and love the same book or film as everyone else.’

I’m only admitting this publicly because he’s dead and I won’t be offending him, but I’m in the minority and didn’t care for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Despite being told that I wasn’t going to be able to put down Dragon Tattoo after page 200, I spent the next 356 pages dying to do just that. But I’d like to think that deep down, me not liking it had nothing to do with the hype or with Stieg Larsson’s writing and had everything to do with personal taste.

It wasn’t until I recently read another crime fiction novel, Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, that it became clear to me that when it comes to that particular genre, I need a tortured hero, lack of exposition and killer dialogue. As booklovers we choose novels because they have the secret ingredient we need to nourish our personal reading appetite. We reject others because they have the ‘turn off’ ingredient that is made up mostly by our personal idiosyncrasies or context.

Someone close to me is turned off by YA literature, for example. I forgive them because they have pretty good reasoning. Being a teenager was bad enough when they were young and they can’t bear the idea of re-living it again through angst-ridden characters like most of mine.

But the problem with me and those who have rules about what they do and don’t include in their reading material is that we miss out on some great stories and genres. I love it when someone stumbles on my work by pure accident. I love it when I stumble into a genre that I’ve kept away from. Science Fiction is a classic example. I always felt it was a bit over my head and then I read Cordelia’s Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold. I picked it up because I thought it was a romance. I ended up having a mini obsession for every Miles Vorkosigan novel. It was a good introduction to the genre.

But despite that, I still have my list below of what turns me away from reading a novel. Any suggestions to change my mind will be appreciated.

  • Love triangles. I haven’t been in one since fourth grade so it’s probably love-triangle envy that I’m feeling.
    Novels where middle aged men end up with much younger women.
  • Novels where there are no women or vague references to them. I forgive Melville and Conrad for Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness because one has a killer opening line and the other nourishes my obsession with rivers, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
  • Poor female representation. This can be anything from insipid female characters to one dimensional kick-arse heroines. Of course there are some fantastic kick-arse heroines out there, but the ones I don’t care for are those who display a plethora of male traits and nothing else and are considered the new feminists.
  • Novels where the character describes themselves as feisty, witty and quirky on the first page. These are characteristics that can’t be self-diagnosed and have to been shown not told.
  • Novels where the hero/heroine die at the end. I’m that person standing beside you in the bookstore reading the last page first. If there’s death on the last page the book goes back on the shelf. I know I’m missing out on some really fantastic novels by this exclusion. Before I die, for example, will be the first novel I read if I let go of my not-reading-novels-where-the-heroine-dies-in-the-end rule because I hear it’s absolutely fantastic and I’m going to go with the hype. If you’ve read any of my novels, all the deaths happen early on, usually on the first page and a couple of hundred in between, but rarely at the end. The idea of mortality keeps me awake at night so having to agonise over my death as well as another character’s is trauma I try to avoid.

    Note: The no-death rule also applies to films. I refuse to watch any more productions of Romeo and Juliet or anything to do with the life of Jesus Christ because we all know what happens at the end. They die.

Does anyone else have any turn-off ingredient? (please don’t mention book titles unless the author is dead).

Guest Post: Claire Light on How to Put Together a Story

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.

Claire Light is many things including a writer, a blogger extraordinaire, and a teacher. She provides this blog with its first guest post on how to write, which is odd. I was kind of expecting that there’d have been more than one by now. See what happens when you give people a free reign? But it’s worth the wait because this is a most excellent post on structure. Something I find it very hard to articulate my thoughts on. Thank you, Claire!

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Claire Light is a writer and freelance nonprofit hack living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a cat who’s allergic to people (although he really likes them) and she sometimes teaches creative writing to unwary victims. Her first collection of short stories, Slightly Behind and to the Left, was just released by Aqueduct Press in December.

Claire says:

Hi everyone! I’m thrilled to be posting on Justine’s blog, which I read religiously. Justine was one of the folks who got me reading YA again, after a long hiatus of absurd adulthood, and I find her blog just as entertaining and interesting and fun as her books.

I thought I’d bust out something today from my writing classes (for you budding writers out there.) That’s right, I’m teaching (FREE!) writing classes in Oakland, California through the Oakland Word program. This program is a (FREE!) gift of the Oakland Library (and the California State Library) because they are awesome. Libraries are truly Our Friends, people. So if any of you are in Oakland or the East Bay and want to take a class, you can sign up for our second session here for FREE! (but you do have to sign up. By the way, we have classes for adults and teens.)

I’m teaching a fiction class and a memoir (or “life stories”) class, but what I’m REALLY teaching in both cases is how to put together a story. Because whether you’re writing about “true” things that happened to you, or whether you’re making sh%t up, your readers sorta kinda expect you to write the story in a recognizable story shape. Stories are shapes that information (about what we think life is) comes in that make the information easy for us to take in, pick apart, and digest. We learn the story shape in school, and by reading lots of books. So your readers are primed and ready to receive stories, and your readers know when a story is shaped right and when it’s not (and will throw fits when it’s not.) Sometimes writers deliberately distort story shapes (the way Justine did with Liar) just to make things interesting.

But to mess with things in that way, you have to know what the “proper” story structure is, at least, what it is in our storytelling tradition. Now, when I say “our tradition,” let’s be clear, I’m talking about a western, primarily European tradition of storytelling that goes back over 2000 years to Aristotle (or back even farther than that, but Aristotle wrote the first creative writing manual about it.) We’ve altered, added to, and refined this tradition along the way, certainly. But the way James Cameron shaped Avatar is still pretty frakkin close to how Homer (if he existed) shaped The Iliad. (footnote: This western tradition persists in the US and other former European colonies, despite their increasing multiculturalism. And this tradition is making inroads into nonwestern storytelling traditions through the movies (and TV and books) that are exported all over the world. Folks from other cultures often add aspects of their own storytelling traditions to the western tradition. But what rules on English-language bookshelves is largely western storytelling.)

At the heart of both of these stories, and of most of the stories you read in our tradition, is conflict. Conflict, simply put, is where someone wants something and can’t get it, at least not immediately. Now maybe they can’t get it because someone else wants it and is fighting them for it (Avatar, The Iliad .) Or maybe they can’t get it because it’s hiding far away somewhere and they have to Have Adventures before they can get it Lord of the Rings, Holy Grail romances.) Or maybe they can’t get it because they’re crazy neurotics who love to make things difficult for themselves (any Woody Allen movie, the story of my life.) But you can reduce almost any story down to a formula: desire + obstacle = conflict. Keep in mind, of course, that the best stories are complex and will have more than one conflict, or will have conflicts going in all directions among many different characters, or will have the same set of conflicts repeat again and again in different ways.

Take the movie The Matrix for example. (If you haven’t seen it, go see it immediately! Whether you like it or not, it was a game-changer in filmic storytelling.) The core desire is Neo’s desire to understand reality. The core obstacle to his understanding is the Matrix and the beings who created it. So the core conflict is Neo’s quest to understand reality in the face of the massive illusion that is the Matrix and the resistance of the creepy Agents. The story starts out with Neo’s feeling that something is wrong with the world, and his search (mostly on the internet) for clues as to what that is. Once Neo meets up with Morpheus and Trinity and the rebels and learns about the Matrix, his quest then becomes to understand reality by learning to control the Matrix.

The desire + the obstacle necessitates action. The protagonist must take some action to overcome the obstacle, and achieve the desire. Neo must take action to overcome his initial obstacle, which is his inability to find out what the Matrix is. He overcomes this obstacle by spending waaaay too much time on the internet and not sleeping. As each obstacle to achieving his desire is overcome, another obstacle arises, and he must take new action to overcome that obstacle. So once he goes to a nightclub and meets the rebels, he has to decide whether to take the blue pill or the red pill. Once he exits the Matrix, he must download kung fu (whoa.) Once he learns how to manipulate the Matrix, he must go back in and fight the Agents. Because the film was set up for a sequel, Neo’s main desire is never quite achieved in the first movie. But he does reach a good resting place, where a large part of his desire to understand reality (mastery of the Matrix) is achieved.

Because The Matrix is a competently written movie, there is more than one conflict in the story. Many characters want many different things: Morpheus wants to find The One, Trinity wants to find her true love, Cypher wants to get back into the Matrix and eat steak, Agent Smith wants to control the human virus and destroy the rebels. Because this story is a very traditional hero story, the desires of the good guys align with the protagonist’s desire, and the desires of the bad guys run directly counter to the protagonist’s desire. But the difference between the good guys and the protagonist is that, while the good guys have desires and obstacles and do stuff to overcome their obstacles, it’s the protagonist’s desire that moves the main action of the story.

So how do you use this in your own writing? Well, pretty much every story writer everywhere has had this experience: you get a great idea, you come up with some great characters and a great setting, you start writing with great enthusiasm, and then at some point … well, you kind of stop. What happens next? You don’t know. You’re stuck. You’re out of ideas. (footnote: Don’t worry. This happens to the best of ‘em. Look carefully in published novels and you’ll often find a point somewhere around the halfway mark where the author suddenly gets very philosophical about what is happening in the story. Yeah, it’s because the author ran out of ideas for a while and is stalling.) This is usually because you haven’t entirely understood your conflict yet, so you don’t know what your protagonist needs to do to resolve it. The question isn’t “what happens next?” the question is rather “what does my character make happen?” And to answer that, you have to understand what your character wants, and what is keeping your character from achieving it.

So here’s what I ask my students to do. Think about where your protagonist comes from, in terms of culture, in terms of family and upbringing. What are her expectations of life? What are all the things she wants in life — not just the big things but the small things too. Does she want to be famous? Does she want to fall in love? Does she want for everything to stay the same always (a common conflict, in which the protagonist has to overcome the desire instead of its obstacle, which is the fact that everything changes.) Does she want to acquire a complicated skill set? (Swordsmanship, for example, or mechanics.) Does she want a particular dress? (Paul Gallico created a wonderful fairy tale of class conflict around a cleaning lady’s desire for a couture dress in Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.)

Now think about your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, her fears large and small. Think about the world she lives in and the people around her. What do they want? Think about all the ways she can be stopped from getting what she wants: the desires of other people, her own fears or inabilities, the distance or the difficulty of achieving the desire. Try taking notes about all of these as you think about them. And when you have understood the situation all around think about this: what would your protagonist do first to achieve her desire and what do you think would come of it? Write that. When you’re done writing that, think about it again, and take the next step. I guarantee that your dry spell will end quickly and soon your brain will fill back up with ideas.

Good luck with the storytelling, and feel free to share your writing problems and solutions in the comments!

Guest Post: Diana Peterfreund on Inspiration

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

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

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

TRASK. RADIO. TRASK. RADIO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: David Levithan on Why He Writes

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.

David Levithan’s a writer, an editor, and class president of the NYC YA scene. He got the YA drinks night going and the NYC YA Lit Festival. He does not sleep and must be at least part cyborg. (Or there’s more than one of him, which his interview of himself below strongly implies.) This post came at just the right time for me because it’s all about loving writing. I confess that right now I am head over heels in love with writing so his interview with himself made me smile and go “awww” and nod in recognition (and be really glad that I was enjoying summer in Sydney, not enduring smelly winter in NYC).1

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David Levithan writes books by himself, writes books with other people, and edits books written by other people. His latest book is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written with John Green, which will be out in April in the US and in May in Australia and New Zealand. You might be able to find him on facebook.

The two Davids say:

Q: Why do you write?

A: I write because I am in love with life. Or I write because I want to be in love with life. I think it’s always one of the two.

Q: What do you mean?

A: It’s nearing the end of a long winter. I don’t mind snow, but I’m tired of boots. I don’t mind cold, but I’m tired of the way we can’t talk about anything else. I feel the desire to retreat becoming more pronounced. But at the same time, I recognize that when I do retreat, when I do hole up in my home, I do so because I want to reconnect with the most elemental parts of my life. Writing is like that, too. You escape life to discover life again. And I can’t help but love that. Or be in love with that.

Q: You often write love stories. Conventional love stories. Two people falling in love. Why?

A: I think I write about that – a lot – because loving another person is a manifestation of loving life, or being in love with life.

Q: You keep talking about being in love with life . . .

A: It’s like synesthesia, without the wires crossed. Instead of seeing red when you hear a note of music, when you see red you really see the red, and when you hear a note of music, you really hear the note of music. I guess I truly believe the world is made of marvels. Horrible things, too. Awful things. But mostly marvels. And I rely on writing to help me capture them in some way. For myself and for others. Other people find their marvels in science, or math, or other arts. I understand that. But for me, the words get me closest to the true experience of life.

Q: You sound too happy.

A: I used to worry that you had to be in pain to be a great writer. I’ve gotten over that.

Q: But doesn’t a writer need to have an edge of despair?

A: That’s the popular conception. I’m getting over that too. It can certainly be there. But I don’t think it’s required.

Q: Why do you write?

A: I enjoy these words. I enjoy the sensation of sitting at this laptop and seeing which words float to the top from the depth where all possible words are kept. I think it’s strange that we rarely talk about this enjoyment, perhaps because we’re in awe of it, or perhaps because we feel to be a good warrior, you need to go through the wars and have the scars to prove it.

Q: You never write out of anger? Hate? Fury?

A: Of course I do. But it’s only because I believe in the right things that I can write about the wrong.

Q: Do you worry that words are losing their meaning?

A: In what way?

Q: Does technology devalue words, detach them from the marvels?

A: No. Well crafted phrases still show a love for life.

Q: For example?

A: I had cereal for dinner. It’s hard to imagine a more banal sentence. But if you can attach the sentence to its sensations, it will make you more in love with life. Tonight, I had cereal for dinner. It made me feel like an adult, but on childish terms. I walked around my apartment with the bowl in my hand, felt the cereal crunch in my teeth, drank the leftover milk when the cereal was gone. As I did, a trickle ran down my chin. I felt I was seven years old and thirty-seven years old at the same time. All of which is contained in the sentence, I had cereal for dinner.

Q: Why do you write?

A: Because I love that life is a puzzle and we only have a small chance to figure it out. Because it’s memory. Because I can make things exist that don’t exist, and I can also choose to show things as they exist.

Q: What do you want people to know?

A: That it’s okay to openly love writing, even when it’s hard. That it’s okay to be in love with life, even when it’s hard. That there is no reason to anything, and thus you find your own reasons. I never get a chance to talk about how much I love what I do. I really love what I do.

  1. What? I get to gloat! []

Guest Post: Ron Bradfield Jnr: “It’s All English to Me”

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.

Ron Bradfield Jnr blogs as Belongum. I discovered his wonderful blog via Cellobella, another fabulous WA blogger, who I met at the Perth Writers Festival last year. See sometimes you can discover fabulous blogs via real life. Amazing, innit?

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Ron Bradfield Jnr is a contemporary Bardi man because he has to be. His mob come for the tip of Cape Leveque, north of Broome, Western Australia. He was born and brought up, away from his Country and worked extensively through remote and rural communities all up and down WA. He works with visual artists (via Artsource) and it’s been said many times before in his presence, that herding cats would be a darn sight simpler! In his spare time, he writes. Mostly that consists of blogging, although he is also guilty of publishing in various related work-related magazines as well. It all depends on the two little people in his house and their fantastic mother. Family always gets squashed in there somewhere. All in all, Ron loves what a good yarn can do. Sharing our respective cultures in respectful and healthy ways is the key. Poking people in the eye with it—just makes for a bad experiences all-round and has us remembering them for all the wrong reasons. Our respective cultures make us the richest species on the planet—yet we don’t celebrate this in any way that helps us connect well to each other. Ron’s crossing his fingers in the vain hope that it’s all not too late and that we continue to share. You can find out more about the world he lives in on his blog.

It’s All English to Me

You’ve undoubtedly heard . . .

. . . the phrase ‘lost in translation’. It’s a phrase I see confirmed on many levels here in Australia. All irony aside, most Australians born and living in our English speaking country, probably don’t realise the trap that our familiarity with the English language brings: it leads us to assume certain things, based upon particular meanings. It fails to acknowledge other associated depths to a word—spoken or written—especially those relevant to other cultures. Most particularly—mine!

I am of two worlds. I have a foot in two culture camps here in Oz: that of the Aboriginal peoples (Bardi Mob in particular) of this country and that of the Irish who were brought, or settled here. I have lived a pretty varied life so far; it has seen me fail my early ‘schooling’; learn and work in my trade; sport two military uniforms for this country; work extensively with isolated and damaged young people; assist Aboriginal communities and now—I get to yarn with some of Western Australia’s most amazing visual artists.

My journey into the arts has allowed a fantasy of mine to come true: it’s given me a perfect excuse to write. I’ve always wanted to—I was just never allowed to explore this kind of opportunity as a kid. In general, our education system didn’t invest much in Aboriginal kids when I was young. It was just the way it was here in
Australia in the early 80’s. Thankfully though; at an early age, I discovered books.

They took me places my education couldn’t and allowed me sneak-peaks at worlds I didn’t believe existed. They showed me very early in life that words had an amazing power and they raised questions in me—I was reading of other people’s experiences—but none of them were mine.

Let me correct that some; none of them, were of my Mob. Not too many of these wonderful books brought me the Aboriginal meanings I had come to associate with certain English words. I recognized similar notions in other cultures that weren’t English based and only because the depth associated with the word was often accompanied by descriptions that took my mind along other paths to build the picture I needed. Rather than tell me a concept, my favourite writers showed me. In doing so, I was allowed the room to let MY cultural notion of the words exist without constraint. My understandings of these words were included and—as most people of another Culture in this country already knew—this was a rare experience indeed.

A simple example? Well, in my Mob (and for that of most Australian Aboriginal and Islander peoples) we call all our birth mother’s sisters, ‘Mum’. This is the translation in English of course, although each of the differing nations or language groups have their own term for this, but essentially—the notion of the word ‘Mum’ or ‘Mother’ in English—tends to fit. It’s not as limited in its use within our communities though. We don’t have only ONE Mum—we have many. Yep, I know, we’re just greedy that way.

The English word ‘Aunty’ just doesn’t fit here either and, should it be used (as it often is in other Aboriginal and Islander communities more impacted upon by our backward past policies of taking our children away), it’s used as the word’s actual meaning defines it—but the underlying cultural context—tells you a completely different thing entirely. Past government policies have managed to break our families apart, exterminate so many of our languages and cultures and almost rendered us lost to today’s Australian society—but it has NEVER squashed our own sense, of ourselves.

I know this to be true, simply because when I use the words Culture and Country—they take on a completely different meaning for us, than it does for the vast majority of those who live here. Please understand that I don’t say this to NOT include you dear readers; just to highlight a point. If anything I believe that if you call this Country your home – than you should understand these concepts as part of your own Australian heritage (despite what some people will tell you—you’re actually welcome to do so) and culture. Country is where I come from, what I’m
connected to and it defines who I am (to others). Culture is what connects me there; it feeds my centre and keeps me whole. I can’t explain it any simpler than that. It’s something I’d need to show you—as it can’t be captured completely in English.

English Dictionaries will tell you a completely different thing and that is an absolute shame. The English language is a tool. It shouldn’t govern the meaning you place upon your written words to the N’th degree—not like that. You—or should I say WE—as writers have a huge responsibility placed upon our shoulders. We have to convey actual meaning (real living and breathing meaning) to our readers and we have such a limited language with which to do it.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Ask those who have already contributed here their thoughts on how the English language constrains the notion of other people’s Culture. It’s a mark of their skill (and yours) as writers that they can bring their world into this one—the one you’re reading right now—the world of English.

My hat’s off to you all and I mean that sincerely, because achieving that, is no mean feat!

Coda: A Few Words on the Word ‘Mob’

Mob. There has been a tendency to use the word Tribe when describing each of the different language groups that exist in Aboriginal and Islander peoples cultures across Australia. This is actually incorrect. If anything we more closely represent family Clans (not all that different to Celtic and Gaelic ones). Language groups in distinct areas—broken further down to smaller family clans—better able to survive across harsh country—coming together at set times in the year—to trade goods and marry. Or at least this was the case a long time ago—when it was
necessary.

Instead of the word Clan, we tend to use the word Mob. Aboriginal and Islander people will say “Which Mob?” or “Who your Mob?” when trying to narrow down who you belong too. It’s an important question—it tells another Aboriginal or Islander person where you come from and who you’re likely to be related too. This determines how you should be addressed and who might be responsible for you—laying down the groundwork for a complex protocol system that nearly all Aboriginal and Islander children know backwards by the time they are 5 years old.

There are over a hundred language groups still surviving in our country. All of us have different cultural bases—yet all of us are similar in particular ways. This website doesn’t do a bad business of explaining this further—as my explanations are very simple.

And here is a map of how Aboriginal and Islander Language groups or nations looked (and to a degree still do) in it’s simplest form. Lastly some government statistics.

END of Message

(Sorry Military past intrudes haha—old habits!)

Guest Post: Carol Cooper on the Death of Print Media

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.

Today’s guest, Carol Cooper, is one of an increasingly rare breed, a working journalist. I have known her for many, many years now. I suspect since my first visit to NYC back in 1993.1 She’s a wonderful writer and friend and knows what she’s talking about on many, many, many topics, but most especially journalism. All heed what she has to say.

– – –

Carol Cooper is a NY born and based cultural critic, who also enjoys an active online presence at www.rocksbackpages.com and www.carolcooper.org.

Carol says:

So many possible topics, so little time!

As soon as our ever gracious host Justine offered me this guest spot, I started agonizing over how best to use it. I’m sure my concern is an occupational hazard, since the job of a freelance journalist is to pitch her editors the most compelling story of the moment . . . ideally before any other journalist has already written about it.

But . . . as you may have heard . . . rules and opportunities in the news game have, well, changed. Not long ago one of the papers I still sometimes work for ran a cover story they chose to illustrate with a little zombie paperboy dressed in Depression-era drag under the headline: “Print is Undead.” In a similar mood of gallows humor, the same publication also ran an education story which paraphrased the musical question: “I just graduated from J-school . . . what WAS I thinking?”

In the past few years the precipitous decline in print media advertising and circulation has forced even the most famous newspapers and magazines—like the New York Times and the Kirkus book review organ—to the brink of economic extinction. Established daily newspapers in big cities like Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco have already bitten the dust, and even online-only news and lifestyle publications continue to shrink and die due to staff cuts on a daily basis.

Now I don’t cover the war/politics/police-blotter/hard copy beats that normally put the “news” in newspapers . . . I’m a pop-culture reporter. And I’ve discovered it’s not really pop-culture reporting that suffers when printed publications vanish. What suffers—especially when online versions of respected newspapers fail to make any money by offering reportorial content on a daily basis, is a factual, archivable and informed analysis of economic and political events in real life as it happens.

Web-based information sources get plenty of traffic to sources of gossip, entertainment and opinion. But far fewer readers flock to .gov sites to read a thousand pages of a health care reform bill for pleasure. Even the less intimidating summary of such important information is harder to find and consume than the average Twitter feed or celebrity blog. The web makes it too easy to narrow our focus to only those subjects you already like or know about. And the web is a much greater time-gobbler than any print publication. What a good newspaper or magazine using a large diverse staff of writers is supposed to do is design a seductive, well-researched, and easily portable package of information providing insightful glimpses into every possible area of human interest.

The music, book, film, and nightlife reporting I like to do needs to be part of that larger package to have the kind of impact I want my work to have. Art, philosophy, and culture (to me) are innately political, and must be understood within the context of every other societal factor to be fully appreciated. When it comes to topical brain food, an all-candy diet is no better than an all-tuna or all-spinach diet if you want to live a long, healthy life.

So . . . while I continue to labor in an industry that appears to be burning down around me, I cling with giddy optimism to the fact that television didn’t kill radio; that YouTube hasn’t killed commercial TV; that video games have yet to replace the movies; and that old, seemingly obsolete media like vinyl singles and albums, remain collectible and are even being re-manufactured now as prestige items on the international scene. So—am I a paper chauvinist? I’d have to say ‘yes’ . . . even with one foot firmly planted on the other side of the digital divide!

I’ve been recruited to write for online sites since the early 1990s, and I still gotta say . . . paper is way better. Ever since some duplicitous staffer at the now defunct SonicNet e-zine put her own name on a great feature-review I wrote for them about Tupac Shakur, I don’t trust the online world to respect the integrity of my byline the same way “hard copy” does. Ah yes, the sweet sanctity of the byline. Honey, I’d go back to writing in cuniform on clay tablets if it would protect my byline!!!

Meanwhile, my being tempted to migrate into book-length fiction or historical biography in a world where the predictive quality of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and the inspirational quality of Carolyn Burke’s bio of surrealist muse and photographer Lee Miller rival anything investigative journalism can do, is a strong possibility. If I resist the golden allure of series television,2 I might eventually abandon periodical literature to write those kinds of printed matter. But we’re still talking PRINTED matter here. And between recycled newsprint and paper made out of all kinds of sustainable non-arboreal sources (not to mention the sustainable soft-pine grown abundantly on my grandfather’s land in Texas) this NYC-based freelancer will defend the survival of print media until you pry her back-issues of The New Musical Express, The Negro Digest, and Locus from her cold, dead hands.

  1. Momentary pause while Justine contemplates the weirdness and fastness of time. It is, indeed, a peculiar item. []
  2. Bring back Gilmore Girls!! []

Guest Post: Malinda Lo on The Woman Warrior

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.

Malinda Lo debuted in 2009 with Ash, which has made an enormous splash, getting shorlisted for gazillions of prizes and being loved by readers all over. I have heard wonderful things about it.1 I invited Malinda to be a guest blogger because I have become a big fan of her blog and I’d like to encourage more of you to read it. *hint* *hint* Also Aussie & Kiwi readers take note: Ash will be published here next week!

– – –

Malinda Lo is the author of Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist. Published last fall in the U.S. and Canada, Ash comes out in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand on 4 March. Ash was a finalist for the ALA’s 2010 William C. Morris Award and a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2009. Her next novel, Huntress, a companion to Ash, will be published in spring 2011. She lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. Her website is www.malindalo.com.

Malinda says:

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about race and representation in young adult books. Justine’s blog has become one of the centers for that discussion, and because of that, when she asked me to guest blog I jumped at the chance to share one of my experiences of encountering race in the pages of a book.

Many of the posts about this subject have focused on the importance of publishing books about people of color so that people of color can see themselves represented in print. Reading these posts made me remember my junior year in high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me a book to read because she thought I might identify with it. I am Chinese American; the book was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, an autobiography subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts.”

She meant well, but the book made me feel like a total foreigner. I hated it.

It made me wonder: Was this the way white Americans saw my family? Did they really think that I came from a family that believed in ghosts and treated their daughters like property?

I remember being distinctly disturbed by the book, and when I decided to write this post, I went back and re-read the first chapter. In retrospect, I’m stunned that my teacher gave it to me, because that chapter alone includes sex, rape, misogyny, and suicide.

I was probably 16 years old when I read it, and while I’d like to think that my teacher thought I might be mature enough to handle the content, I wonder if it was simply the only book she knew of that involved a female Chinese American main character. I have to give her points for attempting to find me a book that mirrored my life, but the fact is, The Woman Warrior made me cringe.

It’s not that the book is poorly written. Reading through it again, I find much to enjoy in Kingston’s prose. It’s that the book seemed to have nothing to do with me or my background, and the idea that my teacher thought it did shocked me. I thought: Was this what being Chinese American was supposed to be like?

(Notably, the book has been criticized as much as it has been praised, with some Asian American writers arguing that Kingston uses Orientalist stereotypes to present an exoticized vision of Chinese America for white readers. Kingston herself has asked why she should be required to represent anyone but herself.)

I was born in China, but I moved to the U.S. with my family in 1978 when I was 3 years old. I come from a long line of intellectuals, and some of my family were persecuted for their political backgrounds by the Communist Party. In addition, my paternal grandmother was white. She was one of the few Westerners to actually live in China during the Cultural Revolution, and when she returned to the U.S., she wrote a memoir about it (In the Eye of the Typhoon by Ruth Earnshaw Lo).

Because of all this, I grew up thinking my family was special. I’m pretty sure it made me (as a teen) a bit self-important and defensive about all things related to China.

On the other hand, I also grew up as one of only four Asian American kids in my high school class. The four of us knew each other and we had overlapping friends, but we did not group together out of any shared “Asian American” identity. There were too few of us. Instead, I think we all tried to blend in as much as possible. We didn’t advertise our different cultural traditions; we didn’t speak foreign languages at school even if we did at home; we did our best to be normal—to be white.

But Woman Warrior—and the fact that my teacher gave it to me specifically—forced me to acknowledge that I was not like everyone else, and it was an awful feeling.

In high school, we have a lot of chains on our feet. The way you dress; the street you live on; the group you belong to. I didn’t want another one. I was happier ignoring the fact that other people perceived me as different.

It took many years for me to accept that other people will see me through their own preconceptions, regardless of my wishes.

I joined (and left) Asian American student groups at college. I majored in Chinese Studies, then got a master’s in East Asian Studies. I went back to China. I dated Asian Americans. I attempted to become part of the Asian American community. But I never felt like I really fit in. The ghost of Woman Warrior, I admit, has been difficult to dodge.

And then there’s the fact that I’m a lesbian. Being queer and Asian can be problematic, because many Asian American families are quite homophobic. There wasn’t much room for queerness in the Asian American community when I was coming out, and I felt as though I had to choose between identities.

Sometimes, it’s still a struggle, especially when meeting new people who only know what they see on my face. They see Asianness, but they don’t see my white ancestors. They see a feminine woman; they don’t understand how I could be gay. As recently as last fall, I’ve gotten the comment, “You speak English so well.”

For those of us who occupy the spaces between identities—because of our personalities or because we have a foot in more than one subgroup—finding representation anywhere, in any form of media, can be extremely rare. It can be tempting to hand a person a book and say, “This is where you fit in,” but in many, many cases, that won’t be true. It may end up alienating the person more than making them feel welcome.

I want to make sure to state that I wholeheartedly believe that it’s important to publish books that incorporate diverse characters and stories. In my experience, every book, TV show or film that includes difference makes a difference—even if I personally disliked it. Woman Warrior did not mirror my life, but it gave me something to reject, and that played a valuable role in the continuing evolution of my own identity.

I have always identified much more with Jo March or Anne Shirley than any of the people in Woman Warrior. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate — eventually — my teacher’s suggestion that I read the book.

After all, twenty years later, I’m still thinking about it.

  1. Yup, Ash is on my to be read list. My reading for my 1930s book means it’s taking me a long time to get to more recent books. []

Guest Post: Baby Power Dyke on Ru Paul, John Mayer & Black History Month

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 is Baby Power Dyke whose blog I discovered last year and instantly fell in love with. She’s rude, smart and funny. We have shared crushes on Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. So, clearly, she has excellent tase. She is my kind of a gal.

– – –

Baby Power Dyke is a smartass. She’s an actor in New York City who is terrible about auditions. She lives in Brooklyn with the love of her life, who is also an actor and is muchMUCH better about auditions. Nonprofitting supports her blogging and acting habits. She loves cheese. She was born on April Fool’s Day and thinks that because of that, she receives the best birthday presents ever. She’s terrible about mail. Her personal theme songs are “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Barbra Streisand.

BPD says:

It is Black History Month and boy am I feeling the love.

Just yesterday Rush Limbaugh (or as I like to think of him, the Phantom Menace) derisively referred to the health care reform bill which is swimming its way upstream through Congress as a “civil rights bill” and “reparations.” To be clear, what he means by using “civil rights bill” and “reparations” as a pejorative is “this health care bill is another attempt by the lowly, lazy, complaining Black folk to take bread from the mouths of hard-working honest White Americans. First they took February, what’s next? March?.”

Last week the fine gentlemen of Pi Kappa Alpha decided to throw a party to “honor” Black History Month which included a very helpful how-to for the ladies so that they might properly comport themselves as “Ghetto chicks.”

Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes—they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as “constipulated”, or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as “hmmg!”, or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises,grunts, and faces.

But it was John Mayer (singer, songwriter, Poor Man’s Stevie Ray Vaughn) that got the month started off right with an interview that he did for Playboy where he proved that he doesn’t have the good sense (or graces) that God gave Kanye West.

    MAYER: Star magazine at one point said I was writing a tell-all book for $10 million. On Star’s cover it said what a rat! My entire life I’ve tried to be a nice guy.

    PLAYBOY: Do black women throw themselves at you?

    MAYER: I don’t think I open myself to it. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.

    PLAYBOY: Let’s put some names out there. Let’s get specific.

    MAYER: I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”

That’s an official Nice Guy FAIL.

These harbingers of Black History Month can get a girl a little down.

But not me. I am thankful that I have a partner who loves and cherishes me for the supreme delight that I am.

I am also thankful for the amazing strong black women (SBW) that I have in my life as role-models.
 Without my mother, Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand, my confidence in my smokingness (both intellectual and physical) might have been dimmed by that young-man whose mother must be really ashamed of him right now and who is actually making me sympathize with that Jennifer Aniston person.

But lately I realize that I’ve been leaving out one deserving woman in my SBW list of might: RuPaul.

Nownownow, I know what you’re saying, “But BPD, RuPaul’s been around since forever how come it’s taken you so long?” Really, I have no excuse.

From the revelatory, Super Model, with its clarion cry that got me through many a grueling show choir rehearsal (damn you mirrored gym) to the present RuPaul’s Drag Race—which is not about cars1 —RuPaul has given me the balls to get through the tough times. RuPaul has made me the man I am today. And by man, I mean small black lesbian gay-dandy.2

When I’m about to do something that seems super important, I think, “You better work, bitch!”
 I chant, “It’s time to lip-synch for your life!” when it’s time for me to move mountains.

Click here for vid.
. . . Minute 37 is where the real magic happens.

RuPaul is about knowing who you are and owning your fabulousness. RuPaul is about ripping people’s faces off with your fierceness and leaping in your stilettos over the shit. Most importantly RuPaul is not about some trifling mess of a boy that even Ghandi would slap.

With Ru and the other SBW in my life, I know my worth. I’m not even going to sweat it. Because I know, that despite how hurtful and how hateful what John Mayer said was, it’s not about me. It’s not about any other woman of color (or woman, frankly) in the world. It’s about him and the dick-shrivel that he is. I’m not waiting for the world to change. I am the change that I seek in the world. I am the light that I want to see. I am fabulous. I am fierce. I am magnificent.

Come for me, bitches.

  1. But just . . . can we all agree that if RuPaul hosted a muscle car show with, say, Joan Rivers or Tina Turner—that pair would be a mother-fucking wig-off—that show would be ridiculously awesome. []
  2. 2010 is the year of the bow-tie. Look out people! []

Guest Post: Lauren McLaughlin on Babies & Novels

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 blogger, Lauren McLaughlin, is a crazy talented YA writer, who has one of the more unusual backgrounds of all the YA novelists I know. She used to be a Hollywood producer. This means that she has more confidence than anyone else I know and is extraordinarily good at saying “no” and meaning it. She is also one of the most focussed and driven people I’ve known. I am all admiration and awe.

– – –

Lauren McLaughlin is the author of Cycler and (Re)Cycler, both YA novels about a teenage girl who turns into a boy for four days each month. She can be found all over the internet, but tends to materialize most frequently at her blog and
on Twitter. She strongly encourages people to read things for free whenever possible and has thusly provided the first three chapters of Cycler as a free download here.

Lauren says:

Greetings Larbalestians!

The wise and wonderful Justine herself has invited me to occupy some air time on her blog, which I am only too thrilled to do, being a friend, as well as a fan.

I’m still fairly new to the world of publishing, having only published my second novel, (Re)Cycler, in the fall of 2009. But I’m even newer at being a mother, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what it’s like to be a rookie at these two endeavours.

Novels and babies can both be challenging, but if I had to crown one the Supreme High-Maintenance Pain In The Butt, I’d have to go with the novel. Babies spend the first three months in a semi-vegetative state and have no problem whatsoever about informing you, quite loudly, when they’re in need of something. Novels, on the other hand, never inform you of anything, but rather sit there dumbly while you work your tail off. And only after you’ve invested a week/month/year/lifetime in their progress do they casually scream that you’ve COMPLETELY FAILED AND HAVE TO START OVER!

You can’t start over with babies. They have to adjust.

Also, novels never look up at you in blind dumbstruck love then grab a fistful of your hair and suck it while nuzzling into your shoulder. (I know, it sounds gross. Trust me, it’s transporting.)

Because of deadline pressure, I had to work through the first four months of my daughter’s life. It was difficult at times, squeezing in writing sessions between the frequent feedings and changings, but luckily my husband was around to pick up the slack. And when I turned in that final draft, I took two whole months off, something I’d never done before. In fact, I’d never had more than two weeks in a row off in my life.

It was strange indeed to face each day without a gaping blank page staring back at me. The only thing staring back now was my daughter. And without the pressing need to squeeze four hours of writing into each day, life seemed to open up for us. I could truly focus on her and enjoy our time together without ever feeling crunched.

Alas, after two blissful months of full-time motherhood, my editor delivered her rewrite notes and it was time to be a writer again. But something had changed. My novel was a futuristic story about teenagers and surveillance, and all of a sudden I realized I wasn’t just writing about the future. I was writing about my daughter’s future. My editor, brutal genius that she is, had already done a bang up job of pointing out all the little ways I had failed. And now, I found myself adding to the list. The novel lacked seriousness. It lacked a clean persuasive connection to the current state of affairs. And worst of all, it lacked color. Everyone in it was white.

But my daughter is not. My daughter is mixed race. What kind of a literary heritage was I creating for her if I kept situating my novels in the thinly fictionalized version of the all-white New England suburb where I grew up? The world had changed. Even that suburb had changed. When I was there, it was all Stacy’s, Kristin’s, Jonathan’s, and Patrick’s. But now it was sprinkled with Rojit’s, Jayla’s, Shinya’s and Yuri’s. I had to stop being so lazy. I had to open my eyes. I had to learn how to write my daughter into my fiction.

I had tried this in the past. Tried and failed, unfortunately. In an early draft of (Re)Cycler, one of the main characters spent four months as a thirty-five year-old African American woman before I realized that, although she was a fantastic character, she was in the wrong novel. I give myself no extra credit for the try, incidentally. Both Cycler and (Re)Cycler are overwhelmingly white.

But my next novel will not be. The main character is mixed race. And I have a feeling my days of setting novels in the white-washed suburb of my past are over. Of course, I’m only at the beginning of this journey and I expect plenty of bumps along the way, but I’m committed to it nevertheless. I could have made this commitment at any time, of course. Perhaps I needed the confidence of completing two novels within my teenage comfort zone first. Perhaps, I needed to read other writers’ attempts at writing outside their race. Or maybe all it took was for my daughter to look up at me, a chunk of my hair in her tiny fist, then smile at me with that blind dumbstruck love.

Guest Post: Varian Johnson on Battling Time Suck

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.

Varian Johnson is not only a wonderful writer—you must read My Life as a Rhombus—he’s also an engineer who builds bridges. Real ones that you can walk or drive on. Why, yes, I am very impressed. Varian’s yet another writer who has a job in a completely unrelated field and still finds time to write novels. I begin to suspect that the one can be very inspiring for the other.1 Though writing at 5AM? Eeek.

– – –

Varian Johnson is the author of My Life as a Rhombus and the forthcoming Saving Maddie. He’s a fairly lazy blogger, though you can find him on Twitter quite a bit. He is also active with The Brown Bookshelf, which he strongly suggests you check out as soon as you finish reading this post.

Varian says:

When Justine asked me to write something for her blog, I immediately said, “Yes.”

Then I said, “What the hell am I thinking? I don’t have time to write a post.”

After spending an hour or so thinking about how I didn’t have time to write a post, I decided to write about exactly that. Making time out of no time. Time management.

Because, Lord knows I’ve dealt with my share of time management issues. For all practical purposes, I have three “jobs”, all of which I’m juggling with varying degrees of success. Among other things:

1. I’m trying to write a new novel (due to my editor in seven months, which may seem like a long time, but as this is the first uncompleted novel I’ve sold, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time completely freaking out).

2. I’m teaching a course on Children’s Literature at a small liberal arts university. (Love the students, love the teaching, but the grading . . . grrr. I’d rather eat Lucky Charms.)


Lucky Charms

3. And I happen to also design bridges. (And “bridges” isn’t a metaphor—I mean honest to goodness, concrete and steel structures, like this.)

Of course, I haven’t listed all the other writing-related things I do—promotion for the new book (which hits stores in March—eek!!!), author events, tax stuff, etc. And I have a lovely, beautiful wife that I actually like to see every now and then, and a lawn to maintain, and—well, you get the picture. I have a lot going on.

So, clearly, I should know a few things about time management. Except I don’t. I mean, I have a few tricks that work from time to time, but in general, I often fiddle with my schedule, trying to tweak it just enough so I can make it through the next book without a nervous breakdown / heart attack / dismemberment by axe-wielding wife.

For what it’s worth, this is what I try to do:

SET UP OFFICE HOURS: I write—or at least attempt to write—every morning, at the ungodly hour of 5:00, when I’m the freshest. I type away a bit on my manuscript, answer a few emails, send a few twitter messages, and down a gallon or so of coffee. From 8:00 to 10:00 that night, I wash, rinse, repeat. Ditto for Saturday and Sunday mornings. It’s a bit painful, but it works. And slowly but surely, I chop away at my novel.

Of course, there are times when I have to miss office hours, but I really try to plan this in advance, so I can still get my core hours in. So, if Mrs. V wants me to spend ALL DAY SATURDAY looking for the perfect shade of (overpriced) granite for our kitchen, I’ll do this, as long as I get those hours back on Sunday.

And here’s the other thing with office hours—you have to be heartless when it comes to distractions. If the phone rings, don’t answer it. If the spouse knocks on the door, promising chocolate and ice cream, don’t open it. If you hear little Johnny attacking little Kevin with a baseball ball, well, let them go at it, and consider it a life lesson (and really, little Kevin will be just fine with one kidney).

When it comes to protecting your writing time, you have to be cold. Heartless. Merciless. Ruthless. Remember, you’re not Fredo Corleone. You’re Michael. 


SET UP REALISTIC GOALS: I used to think I was the type of author that could crank out 20,000 words a month. Ha! If I get 30 decent pages written, I’m usually ahead of the game.

TURN OFF THE INTERNET: I find Twitter, Facebook, and blogging an important part of being a published author. But when I find myself spending more time on Wikipedia than on my manuscript, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my laptop. And when that doesn’t work, I unplug the router.

DON’T GET JEALOUS OF OTHER AUTHORS: Everyone’s situation is different. Some authors make enough money from their books or have a home situation which enables them to write full-time. Some don’t. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point in pouting about it, because I’ve tried that, and believe me, that crap doesn’t fly with Mrs. V. All you can do is figure out what works for you, and do it.

FIND A WRITING COMMUNITY: You can’t stay holed up in your writing cave forever. You eventually have to come out, bath, and interact with the real world. When you do, it’s helpful to hang with other people that feel your pain. I consider my critique group meetings like a form of group therapy, where we spend the first hour or so either celebrating successes or talking about how screwed up this industry is. Plus we drink a lot of wine and eat chocolate.

MAKE TIME HOWEVER YOU CAN: In order to stick around in this business, you have to really want to do it. You have to want to write more than you want to play Wii Sports, more than you want to sleep, more than you want to hang out with your friends as you watch Matthew McConaughey movies.

It’s lonely. And a lot of times it sucks. But sometimes . . . it doesn’t suck. And sometimes it’s even fun. And if you work hard enough, and maybe with a bit of luck, you’ll finish a manuscript or two or three.

Again, this is what works for me. I’d love to hear if anyone else has any ideas.

  1. At some point in the future I will write a whole post about it. []

Guest Post: Ask the Alien Onions

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 bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3

– – –

The Alien Onions say:

Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
 
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.

So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
 
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
 
ANY GIVEN FRIDAY at the HOUSE OF ONION
  
Susannah
 
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone.
7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost.
7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby.
8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS.
8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self.
8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague.
8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up.
9.10:  Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer.
9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5
11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor.
11.05: Ask for opinion from colleagues on recalcitrant sentence.
11.10: Copyedit.6
11.15: Scramble to find the per-unit cost of a recently reprinted book so the Rights Department know if they can make a special overseas sale.
11.20: Copyedit.
11.25: Give opinion (solicited) to colleagues about matt lamination versus gloss and how it will effect the colour of already dark artwork.
11.35: Copyedit.
11.37: Give opinion (unsolicited) to colleague on e-book revolution. Ask opinion from colleague on same.
11.40: Copyedit.
11.45: Stare out window. (Where I can just catch a glimpse of the light towers of the MCG. That’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground for you USians. Where they play the cricket, you understand.) Chastise self.
11.47-12.30: Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.
12.31-12.50: Eat lunch. Noodle around on favourite kid lit blogs (also Cakewrecks). Formulate an idea for Alien Onion post.
12.56: Advances of picture book arrive in reception. Squeal. Gallop downstairs.
12.57-1.20: Rip through 17 layers of packaging to reveal advances. Squeal. Admire. Congratulate self. Gallop upstairs to show publisher. Squeal, admire, congratulate selves. Ring author. Squeal down phone. Congratulate author.
1.21: Return to desk. Too het up for copyediting.
1.22-2.00: Write design brief for YA cover.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Update publicity/advertising/marketing copy for three books.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Sigh with relief that no books have to be sent to the printer today.
4.03: Panic that three books have to be sent to the printer next Friday.
4.04: Keep panicking.
4.05: Argue with tall designer over the relative merits of hyphenating a word at the end of a line of text and thus making it difficult to read, versus keeping word whole and having too much white space in the line.
4.10: Reach compromise with tall designer.
4.11: Read email reminding everyone that 4.15 on Friday afternoon is a good time to archive some of that paperwork from now-published books.
4.12: Look at towering piles of paperwork.
4.13: Place head on desk.
4.15-5.10: Resign self to Fridayafternoonitis and resume reading excellent manuscript. Do internal happy dance.
5.11: Confer with colleagues about readiness to downtools and have a small glass of wine.
5.11 & 30 seconds: Retrieve wine and glasses while colleague emails office.
5.15-? : Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
Eventually head to tram stop, hop on tram and read excellent MS all the way home.

 
 
 
Jodie
 
7.45: Look up from laptop rested on knees to discover it is well-past time to stop checking emails and GET OUT OF BED. Chastise self. Continue with email management.
8.01: Narrowly avoid tripping over pile of unread ms beside bed.
8.41: Arrive at station. Discover train not due for ten minutes. Procure caffeination from conveniently located coffee emporium.
8.52: Lean against train doors, juggling coffee and e-book reading device (which is MUCH easier to juggle than coffee and unwieldy ms—praise Mothership for facilitating test-drive of e-book reading device).
9.12: Walk through Fitzroy Gardens enjoying lovely morning while making mental to-do list.
9.22: Arrive at office. Transcribe list of to-do items into notebook while computer boots up.
9.27: Consider list. Hyperventilate. Highlight in orange items that truly need to be completed today. Hyperventilate.
9.30: Refine blurb for graphic novel design brief. Compose email to designer explaining both design brief and why so many elements of design brief are still to-be-confirmed.
9.45: Save design brief email as draft in hope that to-be-confirmed items are confirmed by afternoon.
9.46: Consider next item on list. Hyperventilate. Compose replies to backlog of emailed author enquiries instead. Save replies as drafts to allow thinking time.
11.20: Respond to Rights colleague about request from Korean magazine for editorial article to accompany Korean publication of book.
11.25: Solicit opinions about the matt lamination. Ruminate on responses.
11.30: Check over contract to ensure all details of accepted offer are correct before sending to agent.
11.37: Engage with colleague, who has taken up residence in comfortable chair in office, about imminent e-book revolution.
11.40: Return to contract checking.
11.46: Catch sight of to-be-read ms pile. Try to keep guilt at bay.
11.47: Consider second coffee. Will tall designer to have second-coffee craving too.
11.49: Send draft-agreement email to agent.
11.50-12.48: Open New Book Notes template to complete so assistant can enter details of three new books into production database. Become distracted by recollection of MS number one. Email author to gush about brilliant, heart-wrenching ms. Save New Book Notes as draft.
12.49: Email colleague to say she is genius and should upload clever, funny Alien Onion post immediately.
12.50-12.55: Check next item on list. Hyperventilate. Open Publishing Proposal template and compose pitch for fabulous picture book ms to be presented to publishing acquisitions team. Save as draft.
12.56 : Hear squeal from colleague’s office. See colleague gallop downstairs. Hope colleague doesn’t trip.
12.57: Catch sight of ms to-be-rejected pile. Fail to keep guilt at bay.
12.59-1.03: Admire colleague’s GORGEOUS brand new advance copy of picture book. Squeal over endpapers.
1.03-2.00: Return to desk. Consider pros and cons of publishing fabulous picture book proposal while eating lunch. Do costing for fabulous new picture book proposal. Hyperventilate. Open PDF to reacquaint self with fabulousness of picture book proposal. Do happy dance. Complete Publishing Proposal and send to publisher colleague for comment before distribution to wider team.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Check over long-lead information for October 2010 books. Meet with editor to hand over ms for February 2011. Relay editorial discussion with author so far, enthuse about vision for book, confirm specifications and suggest cover ideas. Confer with colleague about titles to be pitched at Bologna Book Fair.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Check in with editor about progress of three books scheduled to go to the printer next Friday.
4.03: Confirm specifications for exciting new box set project.
4.05: Send replies to authors after adding ideas that have percolated over day.
4.15: Ignore email reminder about archiving.
4.15-5.10: Open New Book Notes template with aim of completing notes for second and third new book projects before overwhelming Fridayafternoonitis sets in. While writing pitch for new teen fiction, get distracted by recollection of how good ms is. Do happy dance. Save New Book Notes as draft. Congratulate tall designer on short-listings in Book Design Awards (Link is pdf).
5.11: Confer with colleague about readiness to downtools and have small glass of wine.
5.11: Email office to inform all that it’s time to celebrate successes (or drown sorrows) by gathering in reception with conveniently chilled wine.
5.15-6.30: Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
6.30: What happens after 6.30 on a Friday stays after 6.30 on a Friday . . .

  1. Which is why they say lovely things about my books. []
  2. You can tell from the frequent mention of trams. Sydney is tram-less alas. Also the mention of the MCG. Here in Sydney we have the SCG. Both are most excellently wonderful places. If I had a view of the SCG from my office I would get no work done. I have a view of the lights of the SCG from our deck and that’s bad enough. []
  3. Just reading the two posts you’ll notice terminology differences such as in Australia a “blurb” is what they call “cover copy” in the US. In the US a “blurb” is a quote recommending the book from a reviewer or author that appears on the book jacket. []
  4. Manuscript. []
  5. *GASP* ON SCREEN? Yes on screen. Always on screen. On screen is my friend. *Drowns out cries of, ‘The horror the horror’ with the efficient clacking of the keyboard.* []
  6. Clearly, this is a copyediting day. Anytime the word ‘copyedit’ appears in this timetable, it could be replaced on any given day by: structural edit, structural edit, structural edit, or check corrections, check corrections, check corrections, or meetings, meetings, meetings, or photo research, or blurb writing, or permissions chasing, or proof checking, or manuscript reading, or author/illustrator phoning/emailing. You get the idea. []

Guest Post: Lili Wilkinson on Sex

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.

I have known Lili Wilkinson for many years now. She’s one of the most talented, driven, organised people I have ever met. I am in awe of her. (Yes, even when I’m asleep.) She has had many wonderful books published in Australia as well as the UK and Germany. Her first novel to be published in the US is Pink which is one of her very best. It will be out in Fall of this year from Harper Collins. Trust me, USians, you want this book. Her post today is a wonderful follow up to Sarah Rees Brennan’s post on double standards in Hollywood.

– – –

Lili Wilkinson is the author of five books, including Scatterheart and Pink. She tends to write nerdy chick-lit for teens. She’s currently enjoying Battlestar Galactica and likes making monsters out of wool. You can find her at www.liliwilkinson.com, her blog, and on twitter.

Lili says:

SEX.

There, I said it. Lots of other people have been saying it lately as well, particularly in Australia. Because a couple of weeks ago the leader of our Opposition party, Tony Abbott, told the Women’s Weekly> that he hoped his daughters1 would wait until they were married until they had sex, and that a woman’s virginity is “the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving.”

That was the beginning. Then 17 year old YA author Alexandra Adornetto weighed in in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. She said some reasonably sensible things about self-value and the desire to have meaningful experiences. Then she said that “virginity is not highly valued among teenage boys” and that girls had to protect their reputations, which I kind of thought was a bit sexist and disrespectful to all the boys out there who are also looking for meaningful experiences.

Then 16 year old author Steph Bowe wrote a response on her (awesome) blog. I must restrain from quoting the whole thing here, but Steph’s basic opinion is, “if sex is legal, consensual, and there’s mutual respect, I really don’t see the issue.” I highly recommend her piece.

Reading the comments on these two articles are almost as enlightening as the pieces themselves. They cover both sides of the argument, and frankly both sides are offensively judgemental.

Anyway, I’ve got some opinions of my own on the matter, so I thought I’d take this particular forum to share them. So without further ado, here are the six things I’ve learned about sex.

We have to respect other people’s choices. If someone chooses to wait until they’re married, then good for them. If they don’t, please don’t inform them they’re going to burn in the fires of Hades.

There’s a lot of talk about people wanting their first time to be special and amazing and perfect. I totally respect that, but let me tell you from experience – there’s a strong chance it won’t be. You know how the first couple of pancakes are always a bit weird, until you get the consistency and heat just right? Well it’s a bit like that.

Virginity is not a gift. Losing your virginity is an important experience, but it doesn’t define you as a person. It’s like losing your baby teeth. Does anyone ever say “I want the first time I lose a tooth to be really special”?2

Sex is a gift. I don’t want to sound like someone’s slightly batty aunty here, but sex is something important that you should share with someone who you trust. It should be fun. It isn’t something that a girl sacrifices for a boy, never to have it back. It is, in fact, the gift that keeps on giving.3

People make mistakes. Some of them involve sex. I think if we didn’t place quite so much mystery and awe around the whole thing, this might not happen so much.

You are totally allowed to disagree with my opinions and my choices, just as much as I’m allowed to have them in the first place.

As a writer I’ve never included an actual sex scene in a book, because they’re REALLY hard to write. But there’s some implied sex. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. Some of it will be regretted. Some of it won’t. Because I think that reflects the reality of sex. There can’t be any blanket rules of you have to be THIS old or THIS mature. It just doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, for further reading I recommend you check out the comments on this matter on Insideadog, and Gayle Foreman’s excellent post on sex in YA books.

  1. One of these daughters referred to her dad last year as “a lame, gay, churchy loser”. I’m just saying. []
  2. This has led me to some peculiar thoughts about the Tooth Fairy and whether there is Another Kind of Fairy… actually, never mind. Bad thoughts. []
  3. I really just said that, didn’t I? Sigh. []

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.)

– – –

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: Ask Editor Alvina

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 we have an editor, Alvina Ling, who’s more than happy to take your questions about her job of editing. Remember, that she’s writing specifically about what it’s like to work in publishing in the USA. The job of editing is different in different countries. I’m hoping to be able to bring you a post by some Australian editors to give you a sense of some of those differences. Enjoy today’s wonderfully informative post.

– – –

Alvina Ling is a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she has worked for over ten years. She has also been a bookseller for Barnes and Noble, and interned at the Horn Book and in the children’s room of the New York Public Library. She edits children’s books for all ages, from picture books to young adult novels, with some nonfiction mixed in. Some of the books she has edited include Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young; The Curious Garden by Peter Brown; Eggs by Jerry Spinelli, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Geektastic by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, and the upcoming Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (April). She can be found at her blogs bluerosegirls and bloomabilities as well as her twitter feed.

My job as a children’s book editor

Hi all! I’m honored to be a guest blogger here. Justine has asked me to give you folks an idea of what the job of a children’s book editor entails. Warning: this is not going to be a short post. But I do hope it will be an informative one.

I’d say the job of a children’s book editor consists mainly of:

Emailing, project management, acquisition of book projects, meetings, preparing for meetings, cheerleading, reading, selling, networking, juggling, negotiating, more emailing. Oh yeah—and editing.

Basically, the role of an editor in terms of the publishing process is that of a project manager, with books being the “project.” Publishers generally publish their books according to lists. Little, Brown has two lists a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. I generally handle five to eight titles per list, or ten to sixteen per year. As the editor, I’m involved every step of the way. I also think of the editor as being a juggler—we have to keep multiple projects moving at the same time. And if you imagine juggling objects that change each time they reach your hands, that’s kind of what the publishing process is like. For example, we review a first draft of a manuscript, and then a second, and then a third, and eventually a final draft. Then it goes to copyediting where it changes again. Then it goes to Design and Production and it changes again. I review each stage of the project until we end up with the final book, working closely with copyediting, design, and production. My duties also include things such as writing catalog and jacket copy, presenting my books at Sales meetings, coordinating with marketing and publicity, and in general just being the go-to person for my titles.

Right now, I’m working on editing the novels on my Spring/Summer 2011 list, while at the same time reviewing 1st-pass pages (this is when the book is designed and typeset so it looks like the finished book will look like) of novels on my Fall/Winter 2010 list. I’m also reviewing color proof of my Fall/Winter 2010 picture books, and manuscripts and sketches for my Spring/Summer 2011 picture books. And while I’m doing all of this, I’m reading submissions and looking to acquire books for future lists.

If you’re curious about what my typical workday is like, check out this blog post.

Okay, are you back? I hope that didn’t make you too tired.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the two jobs of an editor that everyone knows about, the two roles that are perhaps the most “glamorous.” The first is the acquiring of books, and the second is the actual editing of books.

How I acquire a book:

Little, Brown is a closed house, which means that we only accept agented submissions. However, I’ll also sometimes approach authors directly—for example, if I’m a fan of an adult author I may write to him or her and ask if they’ve ever wanted to write a children’s book. I may write to journalists who have written an article I’ve liked. I might also pitch ideas to established authors that I want to work with (an example of this is the project I recently acquired from Barry Lyga, I HUNT KILLERS. Read more about this book here.) I’ll also go to writers’ conferences and invite the conference-goers to submit to me. But mainly I’m continually getting to know agents and making sure they know my taste in books so they’ll send the appropriate submissions to me.

So, let’s say I read something I love and want to acquire—I’ll need to bring it to our editorial meeting to get additional editorial reads. If it gets positive reads, then it also needs to be supported by our editorial director (for novels) or editor-in-chief (for picture books) before it goes to our acquisitions meeting. This is the meeting run by our publisher and attended by all the directors—Sales, Marketing, Publicity, School and Library Marketing, and so on. Sure, sometimes I pine for the old days when editors can decide on their own if they want to acquire a book (and this certainly is still the case at some publishing houses, although it’s rare), but I do think there are advantages to this so-called “Publishing by Committee.”

There are a lot of materials that have to be prepared for this meeting a week in advance, including a profit and loss report (P&L—basically shows us if we’d make money if we publish the book), our cover letter with a summary of the project and my pitch, selling handles, competitive titles, etc. It can take my assistant and me anywhere from two hours to days to prepare the materials for this meeting. I also spend about an hour the day of the meeting preparing for how I’m going to present the project, writing down my “speech” and key points. I try to anticipate what the objections might be to a project and be prepared to counter them.

At the acquisitions stage, I always have two hats on: my editorial hat, and my sales hat. Because projects are never completely ready for publication at acquisitions stage, I have to make sure that the committee understands my vision for the project. I’ll oftentimes include some basic editorial notes with the proposal so they can see the types of things I hope to work with the author on before publication. In terms of my sales hat, I try to come up with a sales pitch, like someone would pitch a TV show or movie. A couple of real pitches I’ve made for books are “Juno meets Stargirl” (SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick, pubbing in May) and “Donnie Darko meets Charlie Kaufman meets the Matrix.” (FADE TO BLUE by Sean Beaudoin) I also pitched WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin (which just won the Newbery Honor—yay!) as the Chinese Wizard of Oz.

I also have to think about things like, “where would this be shelved in the store?” and “who is the audience?” I try to think of as many selling handles as possible, such as “perfect for holiday promotions” or “author’s blog gets 1,000 hits a day.” Sometimes they’re silly, like, “Ninjas are the new Pirates!” and sometimes serious, like “tackles the important topic of verbal abuse, an issue that is not widely known about or understood.”

How I edit:

Once a project is under contract, the first step is to actually edit the book and work on it with the author. The legendary editor Richard Jackson, who edited Judy Blume, Paula Fox, and Virginia Hamilton, said this of editors: “Editors aren’t nobodies. They are of use; they should be goads, good listeners, and allies—though invisible in the published work.”

Basically, I believe that the role of the editor is to act as the reader–a very careful and discerning reader. Over my ten years as an editor, I’ve developed my own editing process, which is basically a five-step process. I’ve already written about this on one of my other blogs, so if you’re interested in reading more about my process, read this.

One thing that complicates this process is that at the same time I’m editing one novel over and over, I’m also editing all of the other books on that same list. And because I may have up to eight books on one list, it’s a real juggling act (gee, I wish I actually knew how to juggle!). Edit, send letter, get in revision, edit, send letter, get in revision of other novel, edit, send editorial notes for third novel, get in revision of second novel, edit picture book text, review sketches for picture book, read, edit, send letter, review revised sketches, lather, rinse, repeat, review final art for picture book, review third revision of second novel, etc. etc. Final manuscripts are due to copyediting about a year before the pub date, so in April for Spring/Summer books, and October for Fall/Winter books. As you can imagine, the two months or so leading up to those months are especially hectic.

This editorial process repeats until the manuscript is “done.” Generally, the first editorial letters are more general, and as we go I get more nitpicky about the little things, and the last edit is just “clean-up” of all of the little things that are left. I’ve never taken less than two rounds, and on average it takes three or four, oftentimes more. And I put “done” in quotations because sometimes it feels like it’s never really done to the author–they want to keep tweaking and revising.

I love the editing process—I love diving into a meaty novel with an author, I love how we work together to make the novel stronger. However, I would say considering the scope of my job, the actual editing part is probably only 10% of my job. The reading submissions part is also just about 10% of the job. I remember thinking that as an editor I’d just be reading all day. Nope!

This is getting long, so I’ll wrap things up. As I said earlier, the editor is the project manager. Or if you compare it to the movie business, my job would be closest to the director/producer. I’m also sometimes the casting agent, as on occasion I have to choose illustrators to match with a picture book text. As an editor, I have to wear many different hats—a marketing hat, sales hat, designer hat, business hat, and more.

There are things I dislike about my job: I hate negotiating contracts. I hate not having enough time to do everything I have to do in a timely manner. And most of all, I hate having to decline manuscripts and stomp on people’s hopes and dreams. If you’re interested in becoming a children’s book editor as a career, be prepared to do all of this. Be prepared for the job to take over your life—I’m constantly struggling with my work/life balance. Be prepared to work nights and weekends, and for not that much pay. But also be prepared to love your job, to be fulfilled. I love working with books. I love working with others who love books. I love making people’s dreams come true. I love helping to create books—love holding the finished book in my hands for the first time. I love working with authors and illustrator and agents. I love being the cheerleader for my authors and books. I love knowing that children and teens out there are reading books that I’ve edited. I’m awed by the responsibility, and hopeful that the books I edit are affecting readers positively.

Children’s book publishing is my life, and it’s a good thing that I love it!

I’m happy to answer questions. My apologies if my answers are delayed . . . I have a busy workday, after all!

Thanks for this opportunity, Justine. Thank you all for welcoming me!

Guest Post: Karen Healey is Waiting for the Miracle

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 is debut author, Karen Healey, whose first book is coming out quite soon, I believe. She may mention it in her post below. Possibly. She’s a busy woman. She’s prolly not paying much attention to things like that. I can tell you that her debut novel, Guardian of the Dead is a corker. I read it all in one big gobble. Grab a copy soon as you can. Be kind to her in the comments—debut authors are a bit nuts, er, I mean sensitive.

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Karen Healey is a New Zealander living in Australia and writing a dissertation on American superhero comics. Her diet comprises apples, chocolate brownies, Diet Coke, and novels about teenagers doing awesome things. Her first novel, Guardian of the Dead, is a YA urban fantasy set in New Zealand and deeply influenced by Māori mythology. It will be out on April 1st in Australia, New Zealand and the USA, and is available for pre-order now. She has heard all the jokes about that date.

Waiting for the Miracle

I have never possessed anything remotely resembling patience, and at the time of writing, my first novel will debut in 48 days.

This is not a good combination.

I’ve never been good at waiting. I was that kid who went to bed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, in the hope that the time between now and Santa would disappear in sleep. I was then the kid who got up at five and proudly showed my parents the results of Santa’s generosity.

Now I am a supposedly adult woman, and sometimes it feels like I have spent all the time in between those Christmases and this day waiting, for things both good and bad. Waiting in airports for delayed planes that will take me to dear friends. Waiting in dentist’s offices for the pleasure of getting holes drilled into my teeth.

Waiting is far from the worst thing in the world, but I cannot stand it. I am prone to jumping off trams in heavy traffic, though even a momentarily stalled tram will get me to my destination faster, because I long for the illusion of moving, going somewhere, getting closer.

My Year Thirteen1 English teacher carefully explained that the final words of The Great Gatsby are supposed to be a poignant underscore of the tragic impossibility of the American dream.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Sad! Tragic! Pointless!

WHATEVER, seventeen-year-old me thought. Sure, futile effort, impossible dream, but at least they’re taking action. They’re not just sitting in the stupid boat!

Now I’m sitting in the boat. And the boat is actually going forward, carrying me on to publication and beyond, but I can’t affect its pace. Nope, the current is going at its own sweet speed, and not even diving in and swimming is going to get me any closer, any faster.

Not that I don’t try to find the illusion of action.

SCENE: A motel living room, in a small New Zealand town. All is dark and silent. OUR HEROINE, whose brother is to be wed in a few days, creeps in and furtively opens a black laptop. She stares into the blue-white glow of the screen, tapping a few practiced phrases, switching between tabs.

OUR HEROINE’S FATHER wanders in with an empty glass in his hand, and recoils at the ghostly sight.

FATHER: What are you doing?
HEROINE: I’m checking icerocket.
FATHER: What?
HEROINE: Someone might be saying something about my book! Hm. No. Well, maybe technorati . . .
FATHER: Do you do this often?
HEROINE: Oh, ha ha ha, goodness no! That would be the act of a dangerously obsessed and insanely impatient person!
FATHER: Well, yeah.
HEROINE: YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. NO ONE UNDERSTANDS. DO YOU SEE MY PULSE FLUTTER IN MY THROAT? SIR, I MAY SWOON AT YOUR SHOCKING LACK OF SENSIBILITY. OH, WOE, WOE, ROSEMARY AND RUE.
FATHER: I’m going to put the cricket on. Can you keep the impassioned writhing to a minimum?

But even my most impassioned writhing doesn’t bring the publication date a minute sooner! In this strained time, I like to think about the words of the poet John Burroughs:

Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
I rave no more ‘gainst time or fate,
For lo! my own shall come to me.

Specifically, I like to speculate on what he might have been on, and to wonder I could get my hands on any. Serene waiting? Uncaring waiting? Waiting without raving? Impossible! I think the poem’s narrator is dead, which might be a clue—I imagine that if I ever find waiting easy, it’ll be then—but that doesn’t help me now.

How about you, Justine’s readers? How do you handle waiting for things? Do you also rave against time and fate, and specifically time for moving so damn slow, or are you calm, serene hand-folders? And if you’re the latter, can you teach me how?

In the meantime, I might have to go with the classics. I’m going to go home, change my sheets, fluff up my pillows, and curl up with my teddy bear for 48 days, until I get something better than Santa could ever bring me.

It’ll be worth it.

I just wish I didn’t have to wait.

  1. The final year of high school in New Zealand. []

Guest Post: Randa Abdel Fattah on Writing & Identity

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 we have Randa Abdel-Fattah and not just because she’s a Sydneysider like me. She’s one of those amazing writers who manages to produce novels while holding down a demanding job and looking after her kids. (Little known fact: the majority of novelists have day jobs.) Enjoy!

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Randa Abdel-Fattah is the award-winning author of young adult novels Does My Head Look Big in This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me and Where The Streets Had A Name. She is thirty and has her own identity hyphens to contend with (Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian-choc-a-holic). Randa also works as a lawyer and lives in Sydney with her husband, Ibrahim, and their two children. Her books are published around the world. Randa is a member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Palestine. She writes on a freelance basis for various newspapers and has appeared on television programs such as the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, ABC’s Q and A and SBS’ Insight. You can find out more about Randa or contact her through her website.

Randa says:

A couple of the guest posts have discussed books and race/ethnicity and it’s a topic I feel very passionate about so I thought I’d add my two cent’s worth. I’ve presented some parts of my post below in various talks but have added some more to it as well (once I get started on this issue, it’s very hard for me to stop).

It sounds trite to say this (forgivable in a blog post?) but a love of books transcends race, culture, ethnicity, colour. To be uplifted by words, moved to tears of joy or sorrow by a story, travel through the past and present, knows no nationality or religion. Books have the ability to transform people. As writers we wield immense power and there is something at once magical and terrifying about this. About our power to create subjects and objects; judges and judged. We take our pens (okay, our keyboards) and purport to portray individuals, communities, cultures and races using a frame of reference that can sometimes do little justice to those we seek to portray.

Okay, so it’s no secret I’m Muslim so I’m going to offer my insight into this problem from my personal point of view. That kind of power represents one of the difficulties Muslims have faced in the sea of books that have sought to characterise, sermonise and describe them, as though we’re some kind of crude, monolithic bloc. I mean, how many times do you trawl through the shelves of bookstores only to see that Muslim women only ever feature as protagonists or characters in crude orientalist-type narratives in which women achieve ‘liberation’ because they have ‘escaped’ Islam or are victims of honour killings, domestic violence and oppression because of Islam? I have a habit (I can’t let it go) of checking out bookshelves just to annoy myself. You know the shelves, holding a list of unimaginative but prolific titles: Beneath the Veil, Under the Veil, Behind the Veil, The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Princess, Desert Royal, Sold, Forbidden Love, Not Without My Daughter , Infidel . . .

I’m conscious that the fact that I’m Australian-born, that I’m a Muslim, that I have a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother who have both lived longer in Australia than they have in either Palestine or Egypt, has both closed and open doors for me in my life. I’m conscious that I’m neither part of Australia’s dominant culture nor part of a minority. I‘m conscious of the fluidity of my identity because it is an impossible demand of a country founded on immigration to expect a pure demarcation between citizenship and heritage, between minority and majority.

Despite the fact that I’m Aussie-born, I’m sometimes deemed to be part of a minority because of my Muslim faith and my Middle-Eastern heritage. Growing up, and sometimes even now, I have felt both marginalized and included. I have felt that I belong and I have felt like an outsider. But when it came to the books I read as a child and a teenager, and the movies I watched, I only ever felt that that part of my identity that was Muslim and Middle-Eastern was strictly slotted into a minority status, invariably represented in terms of crude stereotypes. I learned fairly quickly that I would not, as a Muslim of Arabic heritage, survive the country in which I was born and was being raised without choosing how I would define myself. Without demanding the right to self-definition I was a nappy head, a tea towel head, a wog, a terrorist, a camel jockey, a fundamentalist, an oppressed woman, a slave to Muslim men. The negative imagery of Islam and Muslims I saw saturating the arts pushed me to insist on my own self-definition and to take a proactive approach. I was motivated to provide readers of contemporary fiction with an alternative narrative and to give agency and a voice to a Muslim female character who defied the usual stereotypes.

When I wrote my first YA novel, Does My Head Look Big In This?, I wanted my readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and engage at a very personal level with a Muslim teenager, Amal, and her journey of self-discovery. I wanted to invite my readers to challenge their preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims and encounter a story in which a Muslim teenager explores what it means to come of age in the sometimes stiflingly conformist world of the young.

Using humour to tell Amal’s story was strategic. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? I was acutely conscious that given the breadth of stereotypes and misconceptions I wanted to confront, there was a real risk that I could sound boringly preachy. I therefore found that Amal’s self-deprecating, humorous outlook on life was the best way to humanise ‘the Other’ and avoid preaching to my readers. Humour enabled me to confront people’s misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims without plaguing my characters with a victim complex (oh, plus the fact it’s rare to think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘humour’).

But hang on a second. Let me make it clear that I’m no apologist and I certainly don’t seek to write novels which selectively present the ‘cream of the crop’ of Australian Muslims, denying the existence of Muslims who distort Islamic teachings to oppress women or who confuse culture with religion to exact an appalling abuse of Islamic teachings (plenty of examples of that happening around the world).

My second novel, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is a novel in which I sought to confront the reality of Muslim teenagers who experience great difficulty straddling between their Aussie, Muslim and Arabic identities and who withdraw to the safety of anonymity in order to achieve acceptance by their peers. The novel also addresses the sometimes sexist rules applied to brothers and sisters by their parents and the dishonest conflation between culture and religion (you know the kind, ‘the girl has a curfew but the guy has no limit to when he gets home’ etc). To write from a platform of legitimacy and to be taken seriously requires an honest insight into what is happening in Aussie Muslim communities (interestingly, I’ve received mail from around the world from teenagers of all different backgrounds, not just Muslim, who identify with Ten Things I Hate About Me).

I’ve always been concerned about identity issues for young people and as an Aussie-born Muslim I feel I am better ‘qualified’ to give expression to young people’s experiences than somebody of non-Muslim background who writes about Muslims through a prism of us/them, subject/object.

A critic once implored me to see the importance of writing about issues faced by all sorts of Australians, rather than limiting them to those of my culture. I reject this. Anglo writers do not attract that same instruction.

Australians of Anglo background are not defined as ‘Anglo writers’ (that applies to any westerner). It almost sounds absurd. And yet I am sometimes described as a ‘Muslim writer’. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me my objective was firmly set in my mind: I wanted to write about the lives of two Australian girls. I wanted to challenge the typical definition of the mainstream, of dominant culture, and show that these two girls, one who wears the veil, one who is of Lebanese descent, are a part of the mainstream, rather than interesting deviations from the norm. I wanted to normalize their experience, demonstrate that it is embedded in their Australian identity and life, rather than migrant or foreign identity.

There is no doubt that my first three novels have centered on my own personal world (my fourth novel to be released in Oz this year is a crime fiction/legal thriller for teenagers but that’s another topic, with its own issues, altogether).

So far I’ve been navigating identity struggles, family politics, community and relationships. Although works of fiction, I’ve drawn on my own religious identity and ethnic heritage, not because I seek to add another title to the ‘exotic Islamic/Middle Eastern’ bookshelf, but because I believe it is high time contemporary fiction recognised Muslims as human beings and dispensed with the one-dimensional Muslim caricature. For me, it’s about taking ownership over how my faith is represented and narrated.

Guest Post: Doret Canton on Books Being Television Shows

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.

Doret Canton loves sport as much as I do. In fact, I interviewed her about that very subject right here on this blog and she said many smart and sensible things. (Except about American Football not being boring.) The reviews on her blog are amongst my favourite online reviews. Do check them out.

– – –

Doret Canton is a bookseller who likes many of her customers. The others she runs and hides from. After working at a bookstore for so long, she has turned avoiding would be problem customers into an art form. She updates her blog TheHappyNappyBookseller regularly.

If This Book Was A Television Show

I loved Dia Reeves’ debut YA novel Bleeding Violet. It was beautifully strange. Check out this great review by The Book Smugglers. Seventeen year old Hanna heads to her mom’s hometown of Portero, Texas after knocking her aunt out cold. Portero, like Hanna, is far from normal. Before arriving in Portero Hanna only speaks to her dead father, now she can see him as well. Everything that happened in Portero was so out there I loved it. Halfway through Bleeding Violet, I couldn’t help but think—if this was a television show it would get cancelled. It would go something like this:

    Week 1: Watched by a few people with nothing better to do.
    Week 2: Only half return.
    Week 3: Some convince a few friends to check out the weirdness that happens in Portero. More people tune in
    Week 4-8: Word is spreading about this strange show. Friends are getting together to watch.
    Week 9: A made for TV movie airs.
    Week 10: The show is bumped again. Some fans begin to worry
    Week 11: – A rerun. Many aren’t exicted about this but at least its back.
    Week 12: Another rerun.
    Week 13: Another reun. By now the smart fans are catching on. They know the network is merely screwing with them by showing reruns.
    Six Months Later: The incomplete complete box set (with never seen before episodes) is available.

So many great, not-the-same-as-everything-else shows get cancelled. I still miss Arrested Development, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me

Thankfully Bleeding Violet is a book and not a television show. Though once this idea was in my head I started thinking about how other novels would fair. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful YA novel A Wish After Midnight would be passed over by all networks, large and small. They would totally miss its great miniseries potential. Many of my co-workers read YA. Like me, one enjoys Maureen Johnson’s novels. I asked her, If Suite Scarlett and its follow up, Scarlett Fever, (which was so worth the wait) were a television show how would it do? If the show stuck to the book, my co-worker gave it two seasons. Sadly, that sounded about right. That’s why we have TV on DVD, and, better yet, books.

Since this guest post might be read by people in Oz I shall end with a question. I loved Melina Marchetta’s newest novel Finnikin of the Rock. The year is young but I already know it’s a top read of 2010. If Finnikin of the Rock was an Aussie TV show how would it do?

Guest Post: Sarah Cross Tells Lies

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

*********

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

Sarah says:

You may be wondering where Justine is.

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

She’s been kidnapped by unicorns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow vomit spells your doom
Unicorn torture tactic #1.

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

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

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

Guest Post: Ask Agent Jennifer

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 we have Jennifer Laughran, with whom I have spent many hours IMing about Very Important Matters. She’s pobably the best handseller of books in the land both as a bookseller and an agent. Truly she is phenomenal. Pay close attention to what she says. (Except about what the next big parnormal thing is. Clearly it will be werequokkas!)

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Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent for children and YA books at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her clients include the legendary Daniel Pinkwater, the 2009 Morris Award winner LK Madigan, and #1 New York Times bestseller Calef Brown. She’s also been a bookseller basically forever and can play “You Are My Sunshine” on the musical saw. If you want to follow her on Twitter, you can: @literaticat

Jennifer says:

Justine asked me to stop by and answer some questions about Literary Agents. Because I am one. And because she knows I am a sucker for procrastination transparency. Ahem. Anyway, this will be a sort of FAQ, and I will be happy to tackle additional questions in comments.

I can only speak for myself, of course, so please remember that these are my opinions only — don’t take them as gospel, do salt to taste. And if I am using jargon or being mysterious, feel free to ask me to clarify. Also remember that I’m an agent for children’s books and YA specifically, and may not be able to speak to other segments of the industry.

SO, WHAT DOES A LITERARY AGENT DO?

A literary agent is an authors advocate. We act on the authors behalf to present and sell their book, negotiate their contract, get their money, and sometimes be a bully for them. Some of the things that come up on a day-to-day basis:

Read/Critique/Edit client manuscripts

Write pitch letters and/or create compelling proposal packages

Keep up relationships with editors (We have a database about about 350+ editors that we do business with that needs fresh info to stay relevant, so we have lots of meetings in person or by phone/email/etc to keep abreast of publisher needs/interests)

Pitch projects to editors

Follow up with editors (sometimes again…and again…and again)

Negotiate favorable advance, royalties, subrights etc for clients

Read contracts and re-negotiate finer details. (We have hundreds of contracts on record and we’ve worked with every big or mid-sized publisher, so we can compare older contracts, see what the best deals are we’ve ever gotten – as well as what the publisher won’t budge on – and use those terms as precedent when we are negotiating.)

Act as fiduciary — we hound the publisher (sometimes again…and again…and again) for the checks. When the check comes, it comes to us, then we pay you less our commission. Tax forms come from us.

Act as intermediary between author and editor if there is any unpleasantness — terrible cover for example, or author is running late on a due date, or whatever. (This is important – author/editor relationship should be all about the lovely books. The upsetting business stuff is for the agent to deal with. Basically we want them to see you as a wonderful artist, not a whiner or a jerk.)

Help shape your career — help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t, what might be a good next project, if you have multiple projects, what good timing would be for them, etc.

Talk to you about whatever you need advice about. Publicity woes, sales figures questions, revision crisis, general neurosis, etc etc. I don’t talk to all my authors every day, of course, but I do talk to at least a different 2 or 3 of them every day, either by email, phone or IM. (Some are deep in revision or doing other stuff and won’t emerge for months — some need attention now. I don’t necessarily chase after them, but I do respond immediately when they ask for me.)

Read and translate royalty statements, and follow up on discrepancies.

Get rights reversions on older works, or help client to do so.

Sell foreign/film/subrights with the help of co-agents. Follow up on those sales/checks etc.

Deal with permissions (ie, some acting company wants to use your story as the basis of a children’s production, or some testing company wants to use a paragraph of your story in an SAT test, or something – each of those people has to pay you or get the payment waived depending on the circumstances).

Read slush and fulls – discover new talent! This happens AFTER work.

WHY ARE YOU A LITERARY AGENT?

Agents can come from any sort of background. Agents at my agency have been editors, business-women, professors of literature, literary scouts and more. Personally, I started out and worked for over a decade as a bookseller, buyer and events coordinator for several wonderful independent bookstores in the USA. Because of that background, I have lots of great author and publisher relationships, and know quite a bit about the publishing world. Plus I’ve read about a million books, which definitely doesn’t hurt.

But really, I am a literary agent because I love working with my favorite authors and getting evangelical about my favorite books, and I am very good at selling things. (And modest!)

WHY DO I NEED A LITERARY AGENT?

Most publishers – particularly large and mid-sized publishers – are closed to unsolicited submissions, and only work with agents.

Of course, there are loopholes to this. if you are a tough cookie and you don’t mind doing a lot of footwork, submitting on your own, getting tough with editors and negotiating contracts on your own behalf, you can certainly get published without an agent. It definitely still happens. But I think that most authors like having an advocate in their corner, and prefer to be able to focus on the writing rather than the often-daunting and time-consuming submission and business side.

HOW DO I FIND AND CAPTURE ONE OF THESE CREATURES?

So you want an agent. First of all—is your book finished? Not just “I have enough pages to basically make a book . . . sorta”, but seriously finished, polished, like you could see it on the shelves of a store? OK. Now you figure out what sort of a book you’ve got. This can be general—like, is it a kids book, a science fiction book, a horror book, or what?

Now ask some of your author friends about their agents, and look in the acknowledgments of books you think are similar to yours in tone, and see who is listed after Thank You. Start a list. Then, go on Agent Query or QueryTracker or similar site. Look up agents by type of book they rep. Add more to your list. THEN, take your list and go to the agents actual website and make sure that the info you have is still accurate. THEN, if you’ve established that they are a real agent that is still taking submisisons and has books that are your “type”, follow the submisison guidelines on the agents website. Presto.

WHAT IS THE NEXT VAMPIRE / ZOMBIE / MERMAID / ZOMBIECORN?

I think that if people spent the time it takes to ask dumb questions like this actually WRITING, they’d be a lot better off. JUST WRITE AN AWESOME BOOK. Awesome never goes out of style.

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. []

Guest Post: Robin Wasserman’s Book is Due

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, Robin Wasserman, is one of my fave YA writers. She mentions her brilliant recent trilogy below, but she’s written many other novels besides. If you have not read any of them, I insist you go forth and do so now. Well, not, now now, after you’ve read her post.

– – –

Robin Wasserman is the author of the Skinned trilogy, and she’s doing her best to maintain her sanity as she puts the finishing touches on the final book. You can watch her stave off madness on her own blog or twitter, or plumb the depths of her depravity by reading the first two books in the trilogy. She lives in New York, wishes she lived in Paris, and swears she is not a robot. (Though she wouldn’t mind meeting one.)

Robin says:

When Justine asked me to write a guest post for her, I thought it over for about thirty seconds, then said yes. This is because, as it turns out, I’m the kind of person who stupidly says things like “Yes! Sure! Why not!” even when she’s got a book due in four days and is spending most of her time wandering aimlessly around in her pajamas trying to remember what day it is and how to spell her own name and why she left her apartment without pants, because said book is turning her brain—at least that part of her brain not devoted to angsty teen robots—to mush.

But rule number one of meeting a deadline is that somehow, there’s always time to do something—anything—that doesn’t help you meet said deadline. (And rule number one of Justine Larbalestier is that you don’t flake out on Justine Larbalestier. Yes, she’s on the other side of the world right now. But she’s got people. I’m no fool.)

Anyway, you’ve been warned. My brain is mush.

Which means, among other things, it took me a while to come up with something to write here. Casting about desperately for an idea, I kept coming back to the thing that’s been obsessing me of late (aside from my poor neglected1 book), which is this new book by Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

Some of you have probably come across this, but for those of you who don’t spend nearly as much time as I do trolling the internet for inflammatory articles about the way women should run their lives if they don’t want to end up miserable/alone/divorced/trapped in bad marriages/with serial killer-in-training children who hate them/cat-ridden (and more on that obsession in a minute), here’s the deal, courtesy of Amazon: “Suddenly finding herself forty and single, Lori Gottlieb said the unthinkable in her March 2008 article in The Atlantic: Maybe she and single women everywhere, needed to stop chasing the elusive Prince Charming and instead go for Mr. Good Enough.”

This has left some extremely articulate people rather pissed off. (I know, you’re shocked.) And trust me when I say I could spend the rest of the evening being slightly less articulate (but appropriate rage-y) on the subject of why.2

But then I remembered this blog is sort of, kind of about writing and publishing. So, scratch that.

(Sort of.)

I figured I could turn the whole thing into a not-too-tortured metaphor for writing, and the quixotic quest for the perfect book. (There’s also the issue of the search for the perfect idea, a game I played myself recently while finishing up my trilogy and groping blindly toward the future, wondering how many balding, non-deodorant-wearing, George Costanza-esque ideas I’d have to date before my George Clooney idea got sick of his cocktail waitresses and showed up on my doorstep with a ring. But it turns out that’s a terrible metaphor, and not just because of the cocktail waitresses. Because as I’m so prone to forget and as people keep proving so annoyingly willing to remind me, ideas are only as great or mediocre as their execution.)

Where was I?

Oh. Right. The question of settling for Mr. So-So (ie the book you can write now, in an expedient fashion, with a prayer of getting published and possibly establishing/furthering your career) or taking a risk and waiting around for Mr. Right (ie the Great American Novel you know you have in you, even if it will take you ten years and, given that it’s, say, a Norwegian folk epic written in second person rhyming verse, might be something of a hard sell). Do you marry George Costanza (call back that editor who wants you to write Little Women 2.0: Not So Little Anymore), or start shopping for cat food (sharpen your pencils and accept it might be a few years before you can afford to feed your cats)?

Obviously it’s not that stark a decision for most of us (just as many of us single ladies don’t own any cats and I’m sure those of you who do are very happy about it, because cats are cute), but I suspect when it comes to books, it’s starker than many of us would like to admit to ourselves. Dani Shapiro has a depressingly honest take on this, wondering whether the emphasis on publishing/building a career/being practical is robbing literature of its 21st century Joyces and Faulkners. And it’s pretty clear she’s no fan of Mr. So-So. Life is a series of compromises, and maybe she’s right that it’s easier to compromise your art than your bank account.

On the other hand, maybe for some people, selling out would mean pursuing some suitably “artistic,” respectably literary project because they’re too embarrassed to admit how excited they are about Little Women 2.0.

Which, finally (I warned you my brain was mush), brings me to my point. Like I said, I’ve become obsessed with these articles about the “right” way to find a husband, run a marriage, get a divorce, raise your children—the more self-righteous and hilariously angry blog comment-inducing, the better.

This is partly because I have a lot of time on my hands, and hilariously angry blog comments are (as long as they’re not directed at me) hilarious.

But it’s partly because I find something deeply appealing about these debates, despite the underlying assumption that it’s possibly to come to a rational consensus on what makes for the good life, like some trashy Cosmo version of Plato. Among other things, they’re predicated on the fiction that we get to design our lives, that we sit around mapping out strategies for ourselves rather than just bumbling from one decision to the next and only stepping back to look at the big picture when we’re berating ourselves for whatever’s gone wrong (or, more rarely—and, let’s be honest, often drunkenly—congratulating ourselves on whatever’s gone right).

Wishful thinking or not, I do love me some strategizing.

Obviously there’s no absolute right or wrong way to be a writer any more than there’s a right or wrong way to be a working mother—there are about a million ways, all equally prone to setback and failure and second guessing.

And writers, at least the ones I’ve met, are extremely good at second-guessing. Not to mention self-abasement and paranoia. (As far as I can tell, the only writer not afflicted by this is James Patterson, who seems to have developed some kind of miraculous immunity.) They harbor the fear that they’re failures, that they’re frauds, that they’re lazy, that they’re hacks, that it’s just a matter of time before that bottom drops out or that whatever they’ve achieved, it isn’t enough.

This is partly because we’re crazy.

But it’s also because writing has no track to follow. It has no mutually agreed upon mile-markers, no seven-steps-to-success, no tenure track, no nothing. So as soon as we succeed at X, we move the goalposts, and wonder why we haven’t succeeded at Y. (Not to mention Z, which our friends A_____ and B____ were just bragging about on twitter.)

If you have no tangible measure of success for yourself, it’s always ridiculously easy to talk yourself into feeling like a failure. But you can’t have any real measure of success unless you have a defined set of goals, and—at least as far as I can tell—you can’t have a defined set of goals unless you know what kind of writer you want to be. (Which may be why I spend so much time wondering whose career I would want if I got a shot at my very own Freaky Friday: Libba Bray for a day? Stephen King? Michael Chabon?3 )

This is not to say that deciding “I want to win the Printz” or, as long as we’re playing this game, “I want to win the Printz and make a million dollars and live on as an admired classic for several generations and, while we’re at it, receive an unexpected but much deserved Nobel Prize” is going to make that happen. 

(Although just in case, let’s be clear, universe: I’ll take it.)

But you can’t go after what you want unless you know what it is.

A wise woman (she can out herself in the comments, if she’d like, but I won’t do it for her) once made a group of us list our writing priorities (good reviews, good sales, awards, etc)—and then arrange them in order of importance. Harder than it sounds.

MUCH harder.

But you can see how it would cut down on a lot of whining—since it turned out some of the stuff we thought we wanted, we’d never bothered to pursue, maybe because we never wanted it in the first place. And plenty of other stuff—to our surprise—we already had. 

All of which is to say that my current preferred procrastination method is trying to imagine the shape of the writer I want to be, the Platonic writing life for me, and—at least in small ways, with incremental decisions along the way since I’m not foolish enough to imagine that I’ve got a grip on what will happen next month, much less in the next ten years—try to mold myself to fit it.

I can’t be the only one who does this . . . right?

Or do normal people just kill time by playing solitaire?

  1. But—I hasten to assure my editor, on the off chance she’s reading this—not too neglected. Pinky swear. []
  2. Caveat: I haven’t actually read this book, so I’m basing my rage on other people’s descriptions of it, which I realize is . . . problematic. But I have read the insanely depressing article the book is based on, and let’s just say it should come with a warning label: Feminists, especially those of the single variety, beware. []
  3. The correct answer, for those playing along at home: Joss Whedon. []

Guest Post: Ah Yuan on the Importance of Diversity

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 we have one of my favourite YA lit bloggers, Ah Yuan, whose blog, GAL Novelty, should be on your blogroll if it isn’t already. I love how no-holds-barred her reviews are. Thoughtful, smart and conversation provoking. If you want to know a bit more about Ah Yuan before you read this moving post check out this interview on Reading in Color.

– – –

Ah Yuan, also known as wingstodust, is your average Asian-Canadian female blogger tolling away as a liberal arts undergrad. When not being bogged down by school or work, she spends her spare time thinking, breathing and talking about fictional stories: anything from novels to manga to to movies to tv shows. The only thing she finds more enjoyable than a good yarn is to be able to talk about stories with others. She can be found on her book blog called GAL Novelty, her general/fandom blog on dreamwidth, and her twitter feed.

The Importance of Diversity

There’s been recent talk about race in fiction, and the predominance of a white-as-default cast in English-language novels. All in all, I’m pretty happy that we’re having this discussion because diversity in the stories I consume is very important to me. There’s the basic reason, because I believe stories that show worlds with diverse characters is just more honest, and then there’s the other reason, long-winded and messy and personal, which I tried to put into words for y’all today.

Growing up in a predominantly English-speaking part of Canada, I tried my best to seek out Asian representation in my novels. I would look for covers with East or South East Asian faces, squint at last names shown on the spine and trying to guess whether or not that this time, I’ll get lucky and find a story with a protagonist that had a physical resemblance to myself. Sometimes these methods would work, but more often than not I would turn up with absolutely nothing. The years went by and I mostly stopped trying to look for these novels. For a moment in my high school life, I ended up trying to replace my desire for East Asian faces in novels with East Asian movies and dramas, anime and manga. And I loved these shows, these comics—always will. But somewhere down the line this stopped being enough for me. I wanted more—but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, nor how am I to get what I couldn’t name.

You may find it bemusing then, wherein I hereby confess that I fail to buy into an argument I hear about ‘relate-ability’. The white audience won’t buy POC covers! White people are reluctant to read about a Protagonist of Colour because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to ‘relate’! In fact, if I must be perfectly honest, I find it quite laughable.

Because—no one would ever make the vice versa argument. No Person of Colour is ever going to go “Gee, I’m afraid I can’t read this novel because I don’t think I can relate with a white protagonist!” Relating to a white protagonist is expected, not just out for the white audience that the English-language publishers dominantly cater to, but to the rest of us POCs in the audience as well. POC are expected to relate to a white protagonist, but we can’t expect the same the other way around? Really?

At the same time, I do to a certain degree understand the whole ‘relating’ thing. As I’ve mentioned earlier on, I constantly searched and searched for a story that I can ‘relate’ to. Note that even while doing so, I was never averse to reading about characters who didn’t share my physical resemblance (If I was, the amount of novels I would have read would be an abysmally low count). Stories with non-Asian protagonists probably made up more than ¾ of what I read, even with my younger self’s dedication for Asian representation. What’s available on the library shelves influence and/or limited what I could read, after all, and I remember my elementary school shelves being predominantly whitewashed.

Then you may go, why aren’t you satisfied with your East Asian stories then? Look—Asian faces! You got what you wanted! Why are you still not happy?

See, those stories too, they don’t have room for someone like me either. My hyphenated background is as follows: Malaysian-Chinese Canadian. Tell me, can anyone think of a story with such a background for a protagonist? I’ve searched high and low and to this day I still only know one singular title (and I didn’t even enjoy that story. Representation doesn’t always equal reading enjoyment). In China my ancestors were too poor and low-class to make even a footnote in its history. In Malaysia my family is segregated by law for being ethnically Chinese. In Canada I am invisible. There is no voice for me, for my experiences.

The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese shows I love so much, they still mean something to me. They showed me that you don’t need Awesomely Coloured Eyes and have Blond or Red Hair to be beautiful. They showed me that Asians can have adventures too and be awesome, the hero of the day. But they also showed me that I don’t quite fit with this picture. Being an ethnic Chinese is different from being Japanese or Korean, and in China there is no voice for the Diaspora population. Getting Malaysian media in general is extremely challenging for me and even when I do find ones that feature Chinese-Malaysians, they may come sans subtitles and I would only half-understand the story with my garbled, faint understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin, never mind other Chinese dialects or Malay itself. The day Canada uses a POC protagonists, never mind even just Chinese-Canadian protagonists, in their narratives, is the day hell freezes over and the dead decides to come back to the living. And even with stories that do have the hyphenate identity of being a Chinese-American doesn’t quite hold. A Chinese-American is similar but NOT the same as a Chinese-Canadian, and a Chinese immigrant who came from the Mainland is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Hong Kong is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnan . . .

I’ve stopped holding my breath for characters that will be representative of my heritage. In my entire lifetime I do not expect to come across any more such protagonists and/or stories than what I can count on one hand.

There is no voice for someone like me, but I thought and thought about it, and a few years back I realized that all I really wanted was a story that said it was okay to have a diverse population. That everyone around you didn’t have to come from the same monolith culture in order to have a story to tell. Stories in English language novels that have a white default, stories in Japanese/Korean/Chinese shows that show a monolith culture, all these stories don’t have room for me in them. But a story that features and even stars a character that isn’t part of the dominant race default, wherein minorities of the country have a voice, that’s a kind of world wherein I have a possibility of existing. I am not saying that I read diverse books in order to find a Malaysian-Chinese Canadian within it, because I’ve long since stopped believing in such a story. What I am saying is that in stories that show a world wherein marginal voices are given centre stage and deemed worthy of a story, I as a jumble of hyphenates, a marginal group in every country my family have ever been part of, can have room to dream. I, in this world, can only carve out a space for myself as myself in a world that acknowledges the existence of people that don’t fit in the dominant fold. A diverse population is the only place wherein I as a marginal voice can exist, and that is why stories that reflect such diversity is important to me.

And I guess, this is the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it means to ‘relate’ to a world that is reflective of my own.

Guest Post: Sarah Rees Brennan on Movies & Sex

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. 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 we have Sarah Rees Brennan, who is quite mad, which is often quite an advantage for the writing of fine fiction, as you will discover if you read any of SRB’s books. She was last here for an interview where she revealed the insanity of her writing technique.

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Sarah Rees Brennan is from Ireland, but she likes to roam the world causing havoc, and on one such mission encountered Justine Larbalestier in New York City and the rest is history (and spells your doom). She can be found saying stuff like this all the time on her own blog and she is the author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, first instalment out, second instalment out this May, about which more here. Her own demonic possession is an unfounded rumour that has little to no basis in fact.

Sarah says:

So, ladies and gentlemen of the audience sitting in your chairs, happily anticipating another blog post filled with the usual thoughtfulness and wit by your favourite author, Dr. Justine Larbalestier.

I am sorry to disappoint you: said Dr. Larbalestier is currently unavailable.

    JUSTINE: Oh Sarah. I fear my blog readers will pine.

    SARAH: I have no doubt they will. They seem loyal and devoted sorts: they will pine like Christmas trees. (This is the kind of ‘wit’ you guys are in for. You lucky, lucky guys.)

    JUSTINE: Would you write a guest blog for me?

    SARAH: Oh, sure! I will try to be wise like you! Fill the void in their souls!

    TEN MINUTES LATER

    SARAH: Well, it was a nice idea.

So instead of Justine Larbalestier, you have me, and I am going to be talking about movies and sex! (Cue that scene when people are at a petting zoo, approaching a sweet kitty, and then . . . ‘IT’S A LION HARVEY, JESUS CHRIST, IT’S A LION, GET IN THE CAR.’)

There is a thing you need to understand about me. Sometimes, I like truly terrible things. I have watched all three High School Musical movies.

Nevertheless, I would not have of my own free will chosen to watch a movie starring Matthew McConaughey. (Apologies to all fans of this fine thespian in the audience. You may want to look away now.) But I was on a plane and had finished my book, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past started playing, I made an error in judgement.

Said movie’s plot: Matthew McConaughey is a heartless playboy about to be taught the error of his ways by apparitions from his dating life! Jennifer Garner is the One Who Got Away, who needs to be recaptured once Matthew has learned his touching and totally unexpected lesson about true love being all that really matters!

Matters were proceeding exactly as anticipated right until the point where we have the flashback to Matthew and Jennifer’s past romance, in which they banter, she softens towards him, his heart grows three sizes, and they come together in one glorious night with all the torrid passion of a box of cornflakes left out in the rain. Matthew McConaughey, sneaky playboy that he is, flees his own feelings and tries to sneak out on her as she sleeps. She wakes up.

    JENNIFER GARNER: Matthew McConaughey, you beast, I trusted you!

    MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: . . . Why? You had a clear view of my smirky, smarmy face at all times!

    JENNIFER GARNER: Because we’re on the movie poster together! I mean that’s not important now! What’s important is that there are some women you sneak out on in the middle of the night, and there are some women you stay and snuggle with, and I am one of the women you stay and snuggle with.

At this point, I turned to the lady in the seat beside me.

    SARAH: I cannot believe I just saw that! Can you believe you just saw that? Can you believe we literally, actually just saw a scene in which the heroine who we’re clearly meant to agree with explicitly says that, pretty much, some women are whores and deserve to be treated like trash! While obviously Matthew McConaughey has made a mistake dealing with these trashy wenches, he is not a trashy wench himself. He’s a dude, so it’s all good, as long as he treats a nice lady right when he’s got one. Because we’re all still divided into ladies and fallen women! Argh!

    MY NEIGHBOUR ABOARD THE PLANE: Je ne comprends pas.

    SARAH: Oh. Oh right. COOL. Excusez-moi. J’avais . . . a fit of feminist rage. Um. Excusez-moi.

The nice French plane lady patted my hand. Clearly, she thought I was insane. Obviously, she was right, but that is not the point at this time.

I have no excuse for watching Wild Child, which is a terrible teen comedy, except that I truly and deeply in my soul love terrible teen comedies, and I went to see 17 Again in the cinema. (‘Justine, Justine’ you all moan faintly. ‘Why hast thou forsaken us, Justine?’)

Wild Child is about a spoiled American teen who is sent to English boarding school, a place which is awfully stodgy, and where many people wear tweed, and some hunt! Obviously she learns valuable life lessons, and it all culminates in an epic lacrosse battle.

But there is a specific part of the movie I wish to focus on, and it is this: at one point, our heroine’s jolly dormitory mates ask if she has ‘done it’ yet, and she says with a toss of her mane that she has! A ton! And that seemed to be that, she got on with playing merry japes and romancing the prim headmistress’s son, and I thought to myself ‘You know. I think that’s pretty great.’

Oh, that was a rash thought of mine. For at the school dance, our heroine having bonded sufficiently with her dormitory mates, she tells them that no, actually, she never has! Just like them! She’s really been good all along.

Now, the heroine of Wild Child is meant to be sixteen or seventeen. I’m not saying ‘People, we need more teenage bangin’!’ Except maybe I kind of am. (Far away in New York City, my editor just had a tiny, tiny stroke. Sorry about that, Karen!) I trust I do not need to tell you guys that the decision not to bang is a totally okay and often wise decision on the part of people of both genders, at all ages.

But really. Really, in this day and age, do we so entirely equate a woman’s moral character with her sexual behaviour? Of course, we (and by we I mean, you know, Society) do. We have a whole lot of insults for ladies who like to have sex, and we don’t draw the same line in the sand for dudes. Having our books and movies reflect that attitude so very clearly just made me think—wow, how patterns go on and on repeating. We must sit down. And take a look. And say to ourselves, ‘Oh, wow, that is pretty gross.’ (Not that I’m encouraging people to go watch Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. MY LORD NO. I’ve taken that bullet for you all. Only too happy to have been of service. SAVE YOURSELVES. I can still hear the lambs on the plane screaming about feminism.)

Another thing that I’ve been doing lately, in between watching teen comedies, is reading romance novels. Because a) I was trying to overcome prejudice against certain types of books, as said prejudice is dumb and b) turns out a lot of romance novels are pretty great, so I wanted to read more.

Quite recently I read The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase, in which our heroine Delilah makes out with a rake! And she likes it. And I was delighted. Not because I wanted her to end up with the rake: I loved the bookworm hero, and Delilah and the bookworm had already made out, and it had been most excellent. But because that’s something I’d noted in a lot of (not just romance, and not just historical) novels—that heroines were given a pass on desire, as long as they desired the heroes alone. The implication of that? Women, with sexy feelings not associated with True Love! They would be no more than common trollops!

So now I have a great love for books with heroines who make out with people who aren’t heroes, and like it, and go with the hero because said hero is a better match. (As an example, if Jane Austen had written make-out scenes, which she did not, I feel Elizabeth Bennet is obviously attracted to Wickham, and could’ve had a great time snogging him, though of course it would still have been followed with the Austen equivalent of ‘Whoops, you are a tool, MY MISTAKE.’)

And—well, I just think it would be great if we could have heroines, even teenage heroines—sure, some of whom have decided to wait or haven’t decided to wait but just haven’t decided not to, but some of whom didn’t wait, had a disastrous experience and came through it just fine. Some of whom didn’t wait, had a great time, parted ways, repeated same five or a hundred times, and were also just fine. (Obviously, the reverse should happen as well, and actually, I think it’s kind of cool that one of the Most Beloved Fictional Characters of Our Time, Edward Cullen, is a self-confessed and unashamed virgin hero of a century plus. So, you know, take a bow, Twilight! If I had to pick between you and Matthew McConaughey, Mr Cullen, you would most assuredly be my sparkly date to the school dance.)

And next time you see a heroine tell people she’s Pure as the Driven Incidentally, or Not Like the Other Girls (those trashy wenches)—well, frown at the screen or the page, and think ‘Oh wow, that is pretty gross.’

Ahem. Thank you for your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen! (*surveys the audience, some of whom seem to be weeping softly and saying things like ‘Get thee behind me, Satan . . . Oh Justine, Justine . . .’*) Please feel free to tell me to get thee behind you, or tell me about kind of gross or kind of excellent portrayals of sexuality in fiction, in the comments.

Guest Post: Ask Publicist Lauren

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. 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 we have Lauren Cerand, who is a freelance publicist. I know that many people are confused as to what exactly a publicist does. (I know I frequently am.) It took me ages to realise that there are basically two kinds, freelancers like Lauren, and in-house publicists who work at publishing houses (or record companies or what have you.) Read on and Lauren will tell you more.

– – –

Lauren Cerand is an independent public relations representative whose current projects include Barnes & Noble’s “Upstairs at the Square” series. Lauren has been described as one of the “cultural gatekeepers in the literary world” by Time Out New York and as the “Best of New York” by The Village Voice. She is often asked to share her perspective with audiences, such as at Book Expo America in New York and Penguin Books in London, and will appear next at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference (June) and Squam Art Workshops Readers Retreat in New Hampshire (September). Lauren writes about art, politics and style at LuxLotus.com. She serves on the board of directors of both Girls Write Now and The Writers Room, and as an advisor to Fictionaut. Lauren is a graduate of Cornell University.

Lauren says:

I am a freelance publicist. My clients pay me by the month, the project and sometimes by the hour to create new media opportunities that engage and expand their natural audience. My main areas of interest are online media and events. I also consult with creative professionals on how best to capitalize on their existing resources to generate some buzz around a forthcoming project. Some ways to generate buzz are: learn how to use social media effectively, contribute to a website you read regularly, and support your scene.

In-house publicists at a publishing house send out books to reviewers and work to “place” reviews and features about an author (Noted: that is the verb we use because, as a publicist, I do not actually generate any content myself. Rather, and this is a major point, I convince others that my projects are worth covering in their publications and on their programs). They have many books per month and a very tight schedule. The best way to coordinate your efforts is to have a very honest conversation six months in advance where you, with grace and acceptance, understand exactly what your publisher is able to create and commit on your behalf. And then you come up with your own strategy. Why? Because your publisher is going to promote your book for about a month, max.

What do I think? You should give it a year. After all, it’s your career and this book’s success will make or break the next one. How can you extend that brief window, created by external pressures you have no control over? By committing some of your own resources to online ads that reach your audience, nominating your book for awards, booking events, and continuing to generate buzz per above.

A typical day in my life: 9 or 10am, wake up, answer urgent emails (about 50). Talk to clients on the phone. Noon – 2pm, lunch meeting with a journalist or colleague, discuss projects and possibilities. Afternoon: repeat all of the above. Evening: manage or attend event. 24/7: cultivate the relationships that will lead to premium exposure for my clients when the opportunity presents itself.

Questions? I’d be delighted to answer them.

Guest Post: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Reading as a Luxury

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. 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 YA lit bloggers.

First up we have a fellow Australian, Tansy Rayner Roberts, who’s not only a fine fiction writer, but her reviews and blogging skills are second to none. After reading this post I was overcome with the urge to curl up with a good book.

Tansy is the author of the Creature Court trilogy (HarperCollins Voyager, beginning June 2010) and Siren Beat (Twelfth Planet Press). She can be found on Twitter as @tansyrr and blogs on her own website as well as the Last Short Story project and Ripping Ozzie Reads. Tansy lives in Tasmania with her partner and two young daughters, and has a doctorate in Classics.

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Reading as a Luxury

I haven’t been reading enough lately. (I read all the time, emails, blogs, gchat, ymail, webzines, short stories for review, facebook, twitter, even my daughter prefers an ipod app to a bedtime story some nights.) I can tell I haven’t been reading enough actual books, though, because the to-read shelf is starting to call out to me in a mournful voice.

Poor dear, how it suffers.

A chapter here and there is not satisfying me or the shelf. I need to swamp myself in a papery thing, possibly several papery things back to back, to immerse myself in medicinal literature by the kilo. (I need. To put. The damn. Laptop down. Though not before current writing deadlines are met, obviously]

Talking to Girlie Jones (aka Twelfth Planet Press publisher Alisa Krasnostein) recently about A Book of Endings, I realised that while I had read all the new stories Deb Biancotti wrote for the collection, I had done so in pdf form (I read over 650 short stories for review in e-format last year) and I’d never actually sat down to read the collection properly, beginning to end, the reprint stories mixed in with the new. (The book, in fact, is still wrapped in bubble wrap from when GJ posted it to me) I knew the new stories all blended nicely together, but I wasn’t even sure I had read them in the right order. I wanted the real, genuine experience of sitting down and reading them all properly. I knew how much work Deb and her editors had put into it, and I wanted the full effect.

Only my head went directly from ‘I must read that book’ to this place: ooh, some time Very Soon I will lie on the couch with a box of chocolates, possibly wearing a floaty 1940’s sort of sun dress, and I will consume the delicious and ever so pretty book slowly and voraciously, as nature intended prose to be consumed.

I do love my imagination, it is cruel but creative.

(To unpack the above: my five year old would eat the chocolates or beg more than half of them off me so I’d never buy them in the first place to eat in front of her, and besides the whole chocolate-eating-while-reading thing doesn’t work for me, I can manage a maximum of four before the sugar hits and I start craving something savoury like a vegemite sandwich or gravy, and that’s just not as poetic. Also, I don’t own that dress, or anything like it, well maybe one but it’s pushing it stylewise and there are moth holes in it. Also, every single time in the last three months I have lain on the couch to read a book, I have ended up napping rather than reading, because sleep is another one of those old necessities that now counts as a luxury, did I mention I had a six month old baby?)

Reading is many things to me. It’s a professional necessity, it’s a tool, it’s being part of a community. It’s a sanity-inducing moment of relief from my life of juggling demanding children and an at-times-more-demanding laptop. It’s an escape from technology, and being plugged in. It’s recreation. It’s a distraction. It’s a project, or a task to be completed.

Somewhere along the way, though, it has become a luxury. Something I promise myself, if I just – finish – those – fifteen – tasks – first. On the rare occasions during the week that I do get to read something other than Gossip Girl novels (which are lightweight enough in all senses of the word to be consumed while breastfeeding my baby and thus hardly count as reading at all) I have somehow lost the ability to say ‘yes this is something I need to do’ and so I barely get in a guilty twenty minutes or so to read a chapter before going to do something else.

Books I really really want to read, books I was so excited about that I pre-ordered them to get them early, are lying around unread, or partially read, stacking up against the walls and the chairs. Luxury, my brain tells me. Not now, my brain tells me.

I’m beginning to suspect that my brain and I are not on the same page.

Reading Going Bovine in January, a chapter or two from the end and deathly afraid for the protagonist (as well as my own nerve) I found myself caught between needing to finish a book right now and, you know, getting my five year old off to bed on time, reading her a story, tagging my honey (or vice versa) to do the same.

The book won. For the first time in a very long time. And it felt awesome.

I admit the practicality of the e-book future that is hurtling towards us, and I even welcome it in theory, but I also rail against it. My hardwired memory of books is not just about the words and ideas, it’s about the whole product. The grey cloth cover of Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, so beautiful that I could not leave it in the bookshop, not for one second longer. My beaten up old orange penguin copy of A Room with a View, and my brand new leather bound edition of the same. Purchasing battered, matching antique green hardbacks of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a nine-year-old child, long before I knew that I would love one and hate the other. Every cover on every David Eddings novel I ever bought with my own money as a teenager (possibly I was supposed to buy clothes). Leaving Terry Pratchett hardcover sleeves randomly around the house like fallen apple peelings. The flop. The spines. The end papers. The mysterious blank pages at the end of all my Famous Five novels as a child, which I treated as spare paper, drawing tiny graphic novels to myself. Mysterious inscriptions in second hand books. (To Buster, from Rupert. Is it really from Rupert? Rupert Bear? Why was Rupert Bear giving a book to Buster? Was Rupert temping for Santa that year?)

My reading time is already at such a premium. I compromise my preferred book principles in dozens of tiny guilt-ridden ways, purchasing mostly online (though no longer Amazon) because it’s hard to leave the house, picking up books from Places Which Are Not Cool Indie Bookshops because they’re there, or they’re cheap or, you know, they’re books. However awesome it might be to have an electronic device with several hundred marvellous books packed and ready for next time I go on holiday or have time to read for a whole year with no interruptions (hahahaha that would be twenty-never) it’s just another to read shelf, really. A bigger one, that might make it easier to hide extravagant literary purchases from my honey. And no good could come of that.

(“Honestly, that 100 volume set of 1920’s murder mysteries was on special!”)

Guest Blogger: Neesha Meminger

Today’s guest blogger is Neesha Meminger. She is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (about which I’ve been hearing nothing but raves). She was born in India, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Film & Media Arts. She has a fascination with the moon, stars, planets and, strangely, coconuts. She can be found online at her website as well as her blog.

From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose.

I live in a fairly affluent part of New York City. We have a small apartment at the bottom of the neighborhood of course, but to the north of us are sprawling mansions with gorgeous, landscaped lawns and backyard pools. These mansions have their own security teams that patrol their streets to make sure no stranger ever gets lost and ends up roaming their quiet oasis. Down the hill from this neighborhood are the projects. It’s like two completely different nations living side by side. You’d be lucky to find a clump of trees huddled together in the projects—concrete as far as the eye can see. And the only nightly patrols are from the NYPD. Guess what the demographics of each of these neighborhoods is?

Gated communities, inner city projects, and massive wealth disparity allow white people the privilege of never having to come into any real contact with people of color and those nearer to the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make ammends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”

Racism isn’t only an issue in “white” countries like those in Europe and North America—it is a global epidemic. And it is wiping out people of color in massive numbers. Women and children work in appalling conditions all over the globe, making clothes and playthings for wealthier Europeans and North Americans. Third world nations are on their knees in never-ending debt cycles to organizations run by a majority of European nations and the US. There is a widespread lack of clean water, adequate housing, access to hospitals and education everywhere outside of the US, Europe, North America, and Australia—though there is certainly some of that lacking within these areas, as well.

This, folks, is a HUGE power imbalance where those who are benefiting happen to be predominantly white, predominantly male, and almost always heterosexual.

So what do we do when there is such a tremendous power imbalance, and such a gross abuse/misuse of that power?

Well, let’s first look at it on a smaller, more personal scale. A child takes another child’s toy. What do you do? My guess is that you’d tell him to give the toy back. You’d tell him taking what’s not his is not okay and that he should apologize. If he wants to play with his friend, he has to share. And then you work on why sharing is far better than not if he wants friends, etc.

Okay, so now: what do you do if a child takes another child’s lunch and eats it? Not so easy. The child can’t give back what he took because it has been consumed.

This, in effect, is what racism does. The wealthiest of nations have taken resources from the (now) poorest of nations and consumed these resources. So how do we make it better?

Well, let’s go back to the children. Because, really, that’s where it all starts, isn’t it? I’m guessing that first, we’d likely have the child apologize for taking the other’s lunch. Next, we’d want to make sure the child who doesn’t have a lunch gets food. Third, we’d work with the child who took the food to find out why he’s taking the food and teach him to appreciate what he has and eat *his share*. Then, we’d work with the child whose food was taken to help him build up his sense of self-worth, learn to defend himself better, and ask for help if needed.

Different solutions for each party. The same is true in any situation where there is a power imbalance. In the case of domestic abuse, let’s say. If a woman is being beaten by her husband, you can’t simply tell her to hit him back or to walk away. There are deep issues at work and those need to be addressed. The abuser has a different path to recovery than the partner who is being abused. Different things to work on; different lessons to learn.

This also addresses (another of my pet peeves,) the “reverse” discrimination argument; an argument that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that oppression is about power imbalance—not just name-calling and hurt feelings.

In the case of a parent-child relationship, when a parent smacks a child with all his might, the effect is far different than when a child smacks a parent with all her might. The latter is not “reverse” abuse. The former results in lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual scarring while the second leaves hardly an imprint. Why? Because there is a massive power imbalance on every level. The child is completely dependent on the parent for her very survival. And the parent is far stronger and bigger than she is.

In the context of racism, an insult—while it may sting for a moment—cannot leave lasting damage if there is no real power behind it. We do not have a mostly-black police force with mostly-black commissioners who are backed by a mostly-black team of judges and mostly-black politicians (please note that “mostly-black” could also be replaced here with “mostly-female” or “mostly-gay” and you’d get the same idea).

So when round after round of bullets is pumped into unarmed civilians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, or elsewhere, the result is a ripple of terror the likes of which most white people could never possibly relate to.

A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames, humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who look just like the one who is insulting them now.

It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

Likewise, when people throw racial slurs like “Paki” toward South Asians, or derogatory terms toward women, or equally denigrating terms toward lesbians and gay men, anything these same groups hurl back cannot possibly have the same impact. It might hurt feelings, but that is NOT the same as the lasting shame, humiliation, and fear that hearing an insult from someone with power to follow it up with action, invokes.

As authors of literature for children and teens, these power imbalances are at the crux of what we explore. Some of the best books for children and teens that I’ve ever had the joy of reading were about feisty children questioning their world and challenging authority head on. The way we explore these issues as authors and resolve them in the worlds we create in our books is critical. And the ways we deal with the world around us—the context for our art—is just as critical.

The first step is understanding the complexity of the issues. Then, we move on to realizing that there isn’t ONE solution. We all have to do something, but it isn’t the same thing—this is NOT a level playing field. We must all work together to bring about a more equitable, just, and sane world for our children, and the children of others. But we must each recognize and own the privilege we have, and use that privilege to help us all move forward. It is a collaborative effort where we must each do our part, search deep within for answers, listen carefully to the quieter voices around us, raise the voices of the silenced, and remain stead fast in our commitment to the young people in our lives.

Ari’s Guest Blog No. 2: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

I’m back! So yesterday I gave you a list of books about poc that I think you should read, although I’m sure I left off some great books by accident. If you want some more lists check out Susan’s at Color Online for specifically sci-fi check this out the Happy Nappy Bookseller’s list and for bi-racial, multi-racial poc go here.

Also I want to share some information with you on the Diversity Roll Call meme. Diversity Roll Call is hosted by Ali at worducopia and Susan at Color Online. Anyone can participate. It’s for two weeks and is basically like a challenge. The meme asks you to really evaluate your reading habits, how diverse are they (gender wise, religion wise, race-wise, economics-wise, sexual orientation).

The current assignment asks you to blog about a book that appeals to both genders, talk about gender in your writing (if you’re an author), or take a book that you love and change the gender of the protag. You can do all or either of these. I highly recommend everyone join in! More details when you follow the above link. If you don’t have a blog, just leave a comment answering the question. Have fun!

You may be wondering: why should I read books about people who aren’t like me? They’re not the same gender as me, the same sexual orientation, race, or religion. I’m uncomfortable reading about what I don’t know. I would never be able to understand them.

My response: No, no, no! Don’t think like that. First of, let me explain. I don’t only read books about poc. I’ve read (and loved) many books featuring white characters (I currently really want to read Eyes Like Stars, Deadline, Angry Management, Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, and Perfect Chemistry). But I don’t just want to read books about people who don’t look like me, so I can understand where the ‘I don’t wanna read about people I can’t relate to’ crowd is coming from.

Sometimes I don’t pick up a book because there’s a white person on the cover and I think ‘I can’t relate.’ But then I stop and think ‘I would hate to know someone else is doing this same thing to a book with a Latina on the cover’ (or any other race/religion/gender/sexual orientation), so I at least read the synopsis. Often I end up getting the book and enjoying it (like You Are So Undead to Me, the Mortal Instruments Trilogy, the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Heat, Private series).

I think it’s important to expand your horizons. Reading books can really put you in someone else’s shoes. For example, Whale Talk is one of my favorite books in the world. I could totally relate to the male main character even though I’m not a guy. Or reading about a lesbian teen (Down to the Bone—on my tbr list!) even if you’re straight can help you experience and sympathize with the hate, ignorance and discrimination LGBT teens and adults often face. They can also make you see that the way LGBT teens feel about their loves and lives are pretty similar to those of a straight person, the only difference is liking their same gender (or both genders).

Also, often when you’re reading a book you may not even notice their ethnicity a whole lot (like in the Make Lemonade Trilogy), they just are what they are. You get so wrapped up in thinking ‘Yeah I’ve been through that’, or ‘I definitely would have said that too’, that you don’t notice a character’s race, religion, or gender or anything else, except that you can relate. That’s awesome. One of the most powerful things books can do is help tear down stereotypes (especially the negative ones). They educate, uplift and make us laugh. Read more books about poc, the opposite gender or sexual orientation, and/or religion and I bet you’ll not only learn something new, but you’ll really enjoy it (maybe not all, but I’m sure you won’t hate all books about guys, if you’re a girl, for example.)

In writing this blog post, I’ve stepped back and really looked at my diverse reading habits. I definitely need to read more books about LGBT teens, Native American teens, Asian teens, and teen guys. So if you have any suggestions do share!

I hope I haven’t bored or insulted anyone. I would love to hear your thoughts on my posts so leave a comment on Justine’s blog, my blog, or email me willbprez at aol dot com.

Thanks Justine for letting me guest blog! I hope you don’t regret it.

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

Guest Blog No. 1 from Ari MissAttitude

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me today and tomorrow, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

A little bit about Ari MissAttitude: I’m a teenager who loves to read, dance, laugh, listen to music and just live! I also love my fine brown skin =) I started my blog Reading in Color because I would visit teen book blogs and I never saw reviews of books with poc (people of color). This frustrated me so I decided to start my own blog in an attempt to slightly fill in this gap. I review multicultural fiction about girls and guys, gay or straight, which means books about African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, I cover them all. I highly encourage everyone to look at their reading habits and evaluate if your reading is really that diverse. Read in Color!

Suggested reading from Ari

Hello everyone! Justine invited me to guest blog for her which is pretty exciting! Justine told me that lots of readers have been emailing her asking for suggestions about books to read with poc (people of color) for YA. I’ve compiled a list of books by gender and ethnicity because it was just easier to organize. Also, just because a book is listed under the ‘for guys’ section or the ‘Latino’ section, doesn’t mean that a Asian girl can’t read it. I highly encourage everyone to read at least a few books with people who look different from them.

There is crossposting, all the guy (or girl) books fit under another category, although I don’t always specify. I did some genres as well (only historical and sci fi, the rest are realistic fiction). In making this list, I realized that I have read almost no books about Native Americans so I definitely need to work on that. I realize that I’m probably going to be leaving off some author or book and I apologize for that, but I can’t get them all. Feel free to leave a comment with a book suggestion, I’ll be sure to add it to my tbr pile!

For guys: Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, The Hoopster by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, Tyrell by Coe Booth, The Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes, First Semester by Cecil Cross, Sammy & Julianna in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Contender by Robert Lipstye, Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

For girls (chick lit, cliques or about girls dealing with cliques): Hotlanta series by Denee Miller & Mitzi Miller, It Chicks series by Tia Williams (more substance than GG), the Del Rio Bay Clique series by Paula Chase (no spoiled rich kids in these books), the Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston, Honey-Blonde Chica series by Michelle Serros, Haters by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez

Sci Fi: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott, The Black Canary by Jane Louise Curry, 47 by Walter Mosley, The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okroafor-mbachu (check out another one of her books Zarah the Windseeker), Rogelia’s House of Magic by Jamie Martinez Wood, City trilogy by Laurence Yep

Historical Fiction: Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, The New Boy by Julian Houston, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper, Wolf by the Ears by Ann Rinaldi, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson (series) (all AA, some biracial. I would love to have suggestions of Latino/Asian/Native American historical fiction)

Native Americans: The Brave and The Chief (both by Robert Lipstye), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Latinos: Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa, White Bread Competition by Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandez, Estrella’s Quinceanera by Malin Alegria (she has other really good books), La Linea by Ann Jaramillo, What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (she has many, many books and they’re all fantastic! really, read any of them), Graffitti Girl by Kelly Parra, The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees, Adios to My Old Life by Caridad Ferrer, The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales, Amor and Summer Secrets by Diana Rodriguez Wallach (series)

Asians: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa-Abdel Fattah, First Daughter:Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins (read any of her books they’re great! ), Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith, The Fold by Anna Na, Good Enough by Paula Yoo

African American: Kendra by Coe Booth, The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia, Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson, My Life as A Rhombus by Varian Johnson, Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper, When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright, Hip Hop High School by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Drama High series by L. Divine, Hot Girl by Dream Jordan, Can’t Stop the Shine by Joyce E. Davis

Happy reading!

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

JWAM reader request no. 27: Voice

Kate L Says:

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

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

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

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

    Some helpful articles:
    http://julieleto.com/advice_for_writers.html#book_of_heart ***especially this one!***

    http://julieleto.com/advice_for_writers.html#manuscripts

    http://forums.mosaicmusings.net/index.php?showtopic=2072
    http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2008/06/what-is-writers-voice.html
    http://www.dianapeterfreund.com/page/2/?s=gbve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~Diana

What she said.

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

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

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

MY EDITORS, LOOK AWAY, PLEASE!

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

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

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

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

As you were.

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