bell hooks

Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!1

You can watch the whole thing here. Yes, it’s two hours. But they’re an awesome two hours. You can also read Trudy’s take on the extraordinary conversation here.

Here’s why bell hooks is important to me:

When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.

That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.

bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.

Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.

If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.

And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.

  1. Though of course one question came from someone who would not be stopped in giving that speech. []

Epiphanies, Other Opinions and Listening

Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine.1 The sounds weren’t quite as lovely. Spring seems to be the season of renovations in Paddington so the hills were alive with the sound of jackhammers. That and really pissed off birds. One of which shat right in front of me: had I been a fraction faster . . . splat of eww on my head.2

Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.

Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.

Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.

And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.

Plan to fix book was not hatched.

Not exactly.

My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.

Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.

Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.

Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.

This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.

This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.

Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.

Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.

It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.

I am so grateful to Scrivener which allows me to keep track of everything. Seriously have no idea how I wrote a novel before Scrivener.

In conclusion: writing is hard.

  1. Sorry, Margo, but it truly did. []
  2. No, I don’t care that it’s meant to be good luck. []

Monsters I Have Loved

Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*

Here it is:

Monsters I Have Loved

Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson

Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.

Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.

Excellently recursive, yes?

I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.

Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.

Nah, not really.

When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:

Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis

Am I right?

I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.

No?1

Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.

Me and Elvis

My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.

The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.

I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.

I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).

Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.

(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)

I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.

That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”

A thousand times NO!2

What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.

What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3

It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.

My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.

I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.

My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.

From http://www.outbushpitchas.com

This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.

Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4

Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.

The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.

I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.

Appropriation

I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.

Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.

Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)

They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?

Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:

I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.

Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.

Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6

Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?

Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?

Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?

Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.

But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.

I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.

Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.

Originality

My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.

Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7

In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.

He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”

“Angela Carter.”

“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”

He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?

It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.

At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8

And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.

Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.

But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.

I am no more original than Elvis.

Can Feminists Love Elvis?

But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?

He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.

How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)

In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.

No! Yes! Um, maybe.

Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.

Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.

I adore it.

SO MUCH.

US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.

Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.

I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.

You all make up stories that go with songs, right?

That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)

Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.

I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.

But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.

So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11

Recursively Speaking

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.

And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.

My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .

Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.

Thank you!

  1. At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. []
  2. I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. []
  3. Check out these accounts of discovering you are black or white (though mostly black). They’re from Baratunde Thurston’s tumblr for his book How to be Black which you should all read because it’s smart and insightful and funny as. The book and the tumblr. []
  4. I recently re-watched Stay Away Joe and it turns out to be jaw-droppingly bad and not just because it is sexist and racist. There is, in fact, nothing good about that movie at all. []
  5. I was little! See photo above. []
  6. For about a week to be totally honest. []
  7. Dissenting comments will be deleted. []
  8. As you do. []
  9. Yes, including the farts. []
  10. By the way there’s increasing evidence that cave humanity was not as cavemanish as we think but I digress []
  11. Courtney Milan has written several historical novellas along these lines. They are delicious. []

Guest Post: Diana Peterfreund on Inspiration

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

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

- – -

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

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: 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.

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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.

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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. []

How to Conduct an Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour Almost Over + Gorgeous Art

Today (yesterday) I had my last school events of the Liar tour at Joliet West High School and Glenbard South High School in the outer suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. The students at both schools were amazing and asked many smart, engaged, funny questions. It was a total pleasure to meet you all. Thank you.

In other news Cristina Hernadez posted her midterm project for her painting class on her blog and I was so impressed I asked if I could share it with you here. Remember, Cristina? She’s the one who photoshopped a very disturbing version of Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett.

Here’s her midterm painting:

Wow, huh? Cristina also had to write an essay about the painting and I couldn’t help laughing when she wrote this:

Honestly, the hardest part of the project was the ESSAY. I mean, I think I finally understand** why authors moan so much about the “where do you get your ideas” “how did you came up with X idea” kind of question. Because it IS hard to answer!

That’s exactly it. So much easier to write a novel then to explain where it came from. I’ve spent the last few weeks explaining where Liar came from. And honestly? It was mostly bunkum. I don’t really know where it came from. It just is. I can talk to you all day long about the process of writing with lots of singing the praises of Scrivener but ideas? Ideas are magic. No one knows where they come from.

Don’t forget to check out Scott’s NaNo tip!

The Book You Thought You Were Going to Write

When I first got the idea for Liar I thought it would be a comedy. I thought it would be a goofy, screwball comedy with a protag who was lying about herself out of boredom and insecurity and that as the layers of her lies were peeled away chapter by chapter—”Actually, I’m fourteen, not seventeen, but that’s only three years diff. Not that big of a lie, right?”—through a series of misunderstandings and misadventures she would learn to like herself and lose the need to lie so much. It would be heartwarming, they’d all hug it out, and everyone would learn and grow. You know only funny. Really funny.

The finished Liar turned out somewhat differently. Less with the funny.

This happens to me a lot. I suspect it’s because I don’t plan or outline my novels. Writing the first (or zero) draft is where I do the planning and figuring out and where I discover what kind of book I’m writing. Though maybe that’s what those planners are doing as they outline?1

Just before I start writing a new book I have the shiny wobbly spherical-ish ur-idea of it floating at the front of my brain. I can see the colours and I know what it smells like. It is gorgeous and wonderful. But something happens the moment I start writing it: the-texure-colours-shape-and-smell-novel I thought I was writing begins to fall apart. Every new word on the screen speeds up the process. Within a few thousand words all that’s left is this very faint residue. By the time I finish the first draft I can barely remember the floating sphere of wonder. The book has become its own self.

When I first started trying to write novels that process really bothered me. It drove me nuts that I couldn’t capture what I’d been imagining on the page. I thought it meant I was a terrible writer. But now I know it’s just part of the process and I enjoy it. I’ve decided that exactly capturing those early imaginings would be boring. There’d be no discovery, which is part of why I can’t outline. I really enjoy finding out what kind of novel I’m writing as I write it. I like that my novels surprise me.

But of course as I’ve said here many times before: every novelist writes differently. I’m sure many of them will not recognise what I’m talking about and write exactly the books they imagined. I wonder what that’s like?

  1. Who knows? Their ways are a mystery to me. []

Literary Influences

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

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

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

You has been warned.

Continue reading

JWAM reader request no. 3: How to get unstuck

There are a number of requests that touch on the same theme of getting stuck:

Jonathan says:

I’d be very interested in the pushing a dead plot post, since that’s where my novel is at.

On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already—stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.

Sylvia_rachel says:

I second the request for a pushing-through-a-dead-plot post (or perhaps a figuring-out-who-the-villain-is post). My writing projects tend to start with a strongly felt character/voice or scene, and then I have to go looking for a plot — sometimes easily found, sometimes … not.

Quiz question: Lois McMaster Bujold has said that the way she finds plots for character-driven novels is (I’m paraphrasing) to figure out what’s the worst thing she can have happen to that character, and then make it happen. Discuss ;-)

Gillian A says:

I third the request for a post on pushing through with a dead plot. I’d also be interested in any comments on dealing with the ‘middle’ of a novel (although there may be elements of overlap with the dead plot advice – at least in my experience).

Dorothy says:

How can I make my plot more exciting? Like put in those kinds of turns to make you want to read the whole novel at once! So far my stories are too calculable.

Lianne says:

Sometimes when I’m writting I really like the story idea but, then I loose intrest in what I’m writng. I know that if I ever want to complete a novel, I have to stick with my idea and like what I am writing about. Do you have any advice on how to stick with my ideas?

These all amount to more or less the same thing. How do I stick with my novel? Despite the plot being dead, me being bored, me having crap ideas, my novel being totally uninteresting—how do I perservere?

My first response is, Oh, good. Another not easy question. Though I think I have at least partly answered Sylvia_rachel’s question in JWAM reader request no. 2 when I talk about nicking plots from elsewhere.

I’ll answer Sylvia’s quiz question first. Lois McMaster Bujold is the mistress of good plotting (and one of my favourite writers) so what ever she does is bound to work. Though personally, I have never consciously done that. How do you figure out what the worst thing is? Surely there are multiple answers to that question? (Which is probably Bujold’s point.)

How to deal with a dead plot

I don’t believe that any plot is dead. Only abandoned and/or recalcitrant. With the second (recalcitrance) often leading to the first (abandonment). This definitely seems to be the case for Jonathan, given the second half of his question: “On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already—stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.”

When your plot tangles, or grind to a halt, or becomes in some other way recalcitrant, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away. You need to not be in the same physical space with the problems. Go for a walk1 around the block, around the flat, whatever’s possible. Stretch our your back and arms and hands and fingers. Jump up and down on the spot. Do something physical away from your computer for at least fifteen minutes.

When you feel like the blood is actually circulating, sit down somewhere—not near your computer—and with pen and paper, or your iphone, or blackberry, or whatever—the key is that it be something that is not the thing you mainly write your novel on—write a quick schematic of where you are in the novel. You can draw little stick figures if you like representing the characters. Squares to represents the various places your novel takes place. Squiggles to represent action. Straight lines for when nothing’s happening. Etc etc. Personally I am not a visual person, I just write stuff down, you know, with words, but I have seen diagrams and sketches work for other people.

The point is to recreate your novel in a much shorter form to give yourself a different angle on it and a path forward. You may discover that not all your characters are interacting—bring two unlikely ones together. That they’re stuck in the same place—move them. And so on and so forth. Sometimes just the act of writing (or drawing or dancing) stuff about your novel away from it will trigger a solution to your plot problems.

It’s really important to take a break from your computer when you’re stuck. Don’t stay there futzing about on teh evil interwebs. That’s usually not the path to clearing brain and getting more focussed. Though if you’re writing your novel with pen and paper or on a typewriter (you lunatic!) or some other weirdness, then sitting in front of a computer could be just the break you need.

The other tried and true method—and this is the one I use most frequently—is to just push through. Sometimes that means putting in square brackets [no idea what happens here] and jumping ahead to write a scene where I do know what happens. Other times it means stubbornly writing even though you’re not sure what happens next. I did this when I got stuck with Magic Lessons and wound up writing about twenty thousand words (or whatever it was) where Tom was stuck on his own in Sydney while Reason and Jay-Tee had a fine old time in NYC. I didn’t realise I’d made a wrong turn until I had Tom sitting on his own in the cemetery saying to himself, “What am I doing here?”

Very good question.

I deleted the twenty thousand words and started from the point where Tom had been left on his own with nothing to do. This time Jay-Tee stayed in Sydney. The book began to write itself. Love it when that happens!

Scott had the same thing happen to him with Extras. He started the book in Hiro’s point of view before realising 16,000 words in that was the wrong point of view. He had to start over. Not much of what he’d written was salvageable.

Many beginning writers are appalled by these stories. “But you wasted so much time!”

Not really.

The time spent going in the wrong direction is how we figured out the right direction. Making mistakes and fixing them is how you learn to write a novel. Very few (if any) people get it right the first time.

Pretty much every novel Scott and I’ve written (and I suspect this is true of most novelists) has far more words on the cutting room floor (so to speak) then make it into the actual novel. I don’t mean that in the dramatic ditching-twenty-thousand-words-cause-of-wrong-turn way. Just that as you write, you make edits:

    First version: Her hand had gotten cold so that when she reached out to touch him he startled from the coldness of her touch. (22 words)

    Second version: Her hand was cold. When she touched him he startled. (10 words)

    Third version in which you realise the sentence not only sucks, but is unnecessary and cut it: (0 words)

So 22 words witten, but none of them remain in the complete first draft of the book. That’s just one (very bad) sentence. There are gazillions more where that came from.

Dealing with the middle, making things more exciting, finishing

I think the advice above can definitely help when you’re bogged down in the middle and will also help make things more interesting. You should also look at JWAM reader request no. 2 about generating ideas.

But I suspect that the real problem is often psychological. Who says your book isn’t interesting? You, right? Are you sure that’s not just an excuse to give up?

The most important way to deal with all these problems is to finish your book. It’s very hard to diagnose what’s wrong with an unfinished manuscript. Trying to fix things before the book is finished can complicate and slow things because once you truly finish you may discover that your diagnosis was wrong. Making your book good is easier to do when you have a complete manuscript to work with.

Your main job is to complete the first draft. This is especially true if you’ve never finished a novel before. You will never trust yourself as a writer until you have a completed ms. with a beginning, middle, and an end.

Hope this advice helps. Just remember there are lots of different solutions to these problems. Some will work for you, some won’t.

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

  1. I know that’s tricky for some of you Northern hemisphere types given that it is literally below freezing right now and I’ve heard tales of people in Canada dying of exposure when they went out to get the paper and the door slammed behind them []

JWAM reader request no. 2: Generating ideas

Travis Says:

Where do your ideas come from? Every time I try to write something, I can’t think of any interesting thing for my protag(s) to get themselves into. Very frustrating stuff.

I have written so many posts answering your first question that I created a separate “ideas” category for it. However, I think you’re asking something different. The issue is not where I get my ideas from, but how you can generate some of your own, and thus find interesting things to happen to your protags.

When beginning writers ask this question I tell them to take a plot from somewhere else: a fairy tale, a movie, a novel, manga, anime, anywhere at all really. But change it. Change it a lot.

Say, you decided to use “Little Red Riding Hood”. Why not make the protag a boy? And instead of crossing the woods to meet his grandmother, he has to get from one end of your city/town/neighbourhood to visit his uncle. And in place of a wolf there are members of an enemy gang trying to stop him.1 And it’s set in a future where water is scarce and worth more than gold. Or whatever you want. If you get stuck throw in another plot. Like one from Naruto maybe or High Noon or Great Expectations or something.

Every time you get stuck have something blow up. Or someone come running in brandishing a gun. Or someone discover that their new best friend is their long lost sister. Just keep throwing more stuff in until it feels like you have enough to work with.

I also suggest fixing someone else’s story you think is broken. Next time you read a book you hate, or stop watching a movie because it’s deeply lame, try to figure out what you hated about it and how you would fix it. Then write your improved version. This is a great way to learn how to plot.

Trying your hand at fan fiction—setting a story in someone else’s world with someone else’s (maybe minor) characters—like writing a story set in Harry Potter’s world about Hagrid or in the Middleman universe about Lacy. It’s a great way to learn. You already have a world and characters. But it really helps you learn how to plot like no one’s business. It’s no surprise that the pro writers who come out of fandom are plotting geniuses. Counter-intuitively they’re also very good at characterisation and world-building. You learn A LOT playing in someone else’s world.

Now most of these borrowed-plots stories and fixing of other people’s disaster will probably suck. But they’re an awesome way to learn.2

I once3 wrote a story by opening up two books at random in my room. I closed my eyes, spun around, and grabbed a book and opened it before opening my eyes. I was staring at an entry in an almanac about Lammas Day. The second book opened on the “Demon Lover” ballad. The resulting story was at long last, after many many rewrites, published this year.

I don’t need to generate ideas using tricks like that any more because after so many years of writing ideas come easily. That’s true of most things in writing (in life, really) the more you do them (plot, write dialogue, transitions, action scenes etc.), the easier they become, until they’re a habit you couldn’t break if you tried.

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

  1. Wait a second does this mean that Warriors is a retread of “Little Red Riding Hood” and not whatever Roman myth the creator claims? []
  2. Some fanfic is just out and out genius. []
  3. more than fifteen years ago []

Questions authors always get asked

I have a bunch of friends who have brand new books coming out next year. Friends who will be doing at least one or two appearances—or in one case (lucky duck!)—going on a book tour. This post is for them because they’re going to be asked certain questions over and over again and it’s best to have a bunch excellent and entertaining answers. Here they are:

    Where did you get your ideas for this book?

    This is a particularly hard one for most of us because often we have no idea where a book comes from. Best to start thinking about that questions and putting together some anecdotes. I have a bunch of different ones for HTDYF because, like most books, the ideas for it came from several different incidents. The first time I was asked it about Magic or Madness I ummed and ahhed and generally made myself sound like my IQ is lower than room temperature. Sigh.

    Where do you get your ideas?

    I tend to respond to this one by talking about how ideas are not the hard part, making yourself sit down and write is. Or I say I steal them from Maureen Johnson. Hey, it gets a laugh. Did I mention that going for the laughs is always the right move?

    What were/are your inspirations?

    I tend to interpret this one as being about what books/writers most inspired me when I was a beginning writer. So I talk a lot about Enid Blyton. I’ve also used it a couple of times to talk about the people who encouraged me to write when I was little. But I think you can interpret it as widely or broadly as you like.

    When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

    People love to hear the story of how and when you became a writer. Is it something you always wanted to do? Or did you just suddenly decide to give it a whirl one Sunday morning when you figured you could write better than the crappy bestseller you put down in disgust? Tales that involve dealing with rejection are always popular. Fortunately almost every writer I know has had to deal with it.

    What’s your favourite book/author?

    This is the question I still don’t have a handle on. Every time I’m asked I kind of freeze and can’t think of the title of a single book or author let alone the many, many ones I love. I always have a difficult time when I’m asked to pick just one thing. But, really, I’ve been asked the question often enough—pretty much every appearance I did on the tour it was asked—I need to prepare for it much better.

Bonus: Questions you’ll be asked if you’re an Australian author touring the USA:

    Do you like vegemite?

    Is the Pope Catholic?

    Can you wrestle a crocodlie?

    I’m sure I could if I tried.

    Did you know Heath Ledger?

    Sadly, no. But I think he was an amazingly talented actor.

    Speaking of acting. Actually, I think that’s a whole other post, which I will now go write.

If I missed any general author questions you’re asked a lot please to share.

Good luck, everyone, with your first appearances. Break a leg! (In the good way.)

Ideas are Free, Part the Millionth

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talks about ideas being free-floaters and how as a result many things get invented over and over again.

He never quite says the obvious: that ideas are nothing unless you can do something with them. And then he conflates the having of an idea with actual creation:

You can’t pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart’s Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse’s “La Danse.” A work of artistic genius is singular, and all the arguments over calculus, the accusations back and forth between the Bell and the Gray camps, and our persistent inability to come to terms with the existence of multiples are the result of our misplaced desire to impose the paradigm of artistic invention on a world where it doesn’t belong. Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s. The first kind of creation was sui generis; the second could be re-created in a warehouse outside Seattle.

Well, sure, but heaps of people could (and do) get the same ideas as some great musician or writer or artist. Getting an idea is not the same thing as creating the work of art. Lots of writers have told the exact same stories. Many composers have written variations on particular folk tunes.

It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.

This is one of the reasons most writers (and other artists) never know what to say when asked “Where do you get your ideas?”

Because it doesn’t really matter.

The idea is the least important part of writing a novel. You can have the best idea in the history of the universe but if you don’t do anything with it or you write a crappy novel out of it? Well, then it wasn’t that great an idea, was it?

No matter what your field—science, engineering, the creative arts, cocktail making—ideas are in the air for the grabbing. All you has to do is the hard part:

Turn them into something real.

The Non-infringability of Plot and/or Ideas

People’s confusion over what plagiarism is sometimes drives me to loud and angry screamage. Thus I was thrilled to read Candy’s recent post, On Ideas, Repetitiveness and Copyright Infringement over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books:

There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of ideas in copyright law. You can’t copyright a plot or an idea. You can only copyright the specific expression of that plot or idea as recorded in some sort of tangible form. Think about the nightmare of attempting to nail down and legislate a plot or idea for a story. How specific would you have to be before you could declare something unique enough to copyright?

“An angst-ridden story about a vampire falling in love with a human.”
Dude, if you can copyright that and collect a small fee every time somebody published that story, you could have your own giant pool of gold coins to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-stylee. (Side note: doesn’t that sound like a painful idea to you? Because it always has to me.)

“An angst-ridden story in a contemporary setting about a vampire warrior falling in love with a human woman.”
OK, that’s a little bit more specific, but c’mon. (Also: goddamn, think of all those germs on all those coins. There is a reason why we call it “filthy rich.”)

What. She. Said.

Read it! Memorise it! Tattoo it all over your body!

I am so sick of people thinking that retelling a story is plagiarism. If that were so then we would have, at most, ten novels. All books about vampires, zombies, middle-aged English professors are not the same (well, okay, some of them are). It’s not about the story you tell so much as HOW YOU TELL IT. Why is that so difficult to understand?

Georgette Heyer did not plagiarise Jane Austen. David Eddings didn’t plagiarise J. R. R. Tolkien. Walter Mosley didn’t plagiarise Raymond Chandler. I did not plagiarise C. S. Lewis.

The next person who says to me, “Oh my God! Did you see that Certain Writer’s next book is set in a future world where you have to have your skin removed and replaced with carbon when you turn sixteen? That is just like Scott’s Uglies books! He should sue!” That person will get smacked. HARD.

There are bazillions of science fiction stories where something happens to you at a certain age. Logan’s Run anyone? And many more stories set after the apocalypse. There are even a fair few that deal with physical beauty and its enforcement. Like those two Twilight Zone episodes, “Number 12 Looks Just Like Me” and “Eye of the Beholder” (both based on short stories).

Watch them and read Scott’s books. The only thing they have in common is an idea. The characters, the mood, the texture of the writing, the way they makes you feel is very different. Scott paints an entire world with three-dimensional characters and relationships; those eps can only lightly sketch in world and characters. Given that they’re short and Scott’s books in the Uglies world add up to almost 400,000 words, that’s not surprising.

Same goes for the ridiculous claim that Melissa Marr is ripping of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books. As if.

Holly Black refutes the claim succinctly:

I can only assume that Ms. Henderson didn’t realize there’s an entire genre of urban fantasy faery books published in the 80s like Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthologies and the the novels of Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterly, Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder and many others.

It is really bizarre to me that she would point to the Merry Gentry series as though it was the first to use faerie folklore in a contemporary setting.

Plagiarism happens when you steal someone else’s words. If that future world book with the carbon skin had the following opening: “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” And featured characters called Telly, Shiy, and Daniel who ride hoverboards and wind up starting a revolution and are described with language that is very close to how Scott described Tally, Shay, and David and have very similar dialogue, well, then I might start to be a little more concerned.

But remember Scott’s opening sentence is already a riff on the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” It’s a little science fiction joke/homage. Homage is not plagiarism either.

Lots of books echo the words of other books. On purpose. To bring them to mind so that the reader (if they recognise the reference) can remember the earlier book and enjoy the light it casts on the one they have in their hands. Literary echoes done well are cool.

Writers are influenced by the writers who went before them. Every single book they’ve read, movie they’ve seen, place they’ve been, conversation they’ve had creeps into their work. I know that if I hadn’t read Enid Blyton, Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, Isak Dinesen, Raymond Chandler, and Tanith Lee obsessively as a kid my writing would be very different. Without Flowers in the Attic and Alice in Wonderland I might not even be a writer.

Pretty much all writers borrow plots. Even when they’re not aware that that’s what they’re doing. I was not thinking of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when I wrote Magic or Madness. Borrowing a plot is NOT a bad thing. It’s what writers do. Shakespeare did it. Afterall, there aren’t that many plots: Stranger comes to town and changes everything! Person goes on a journey and changes themself! Two people fall in love but their family is against it! Two people meet, hate each other, then gradually realise they were meant to be together!

Think about telling a joke. Some people do it well. Some people are total shite at it. It’s not the joke—it’s the way it’s told.

Here’s a game for you. How many novels, movies or whatever can you think of that fit the following descriptions. The first two are lifted from the Smart Bitches:

  • A woman dares to make the mistake of evincing sexual desire and unconventionality, the punishment for which is death
  • Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually triumphs over adversity
  • Teen girl discovers she is faery, not human, and becomes entangled with a handsome faery
  • Teen copes with drunk/drug-addicted/loser father/mother and learns own strength

Thus endeth the rant. I must now go back to my idea and plot stealing. Novels don’t write themselves you know.

Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve been asked this question about eleventy bazillion kajillion times and I’ve only been a published writer for about three years.1 Most recently my new (and FABULOUS) publisher Bloomsbury USA asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” in their author questionnaire. Here’s what I said:

I steal them from Maureen Johnson.2

So now Maureen, the wise one herself, has answered the question and she’s done it so brilliantly and perfectly that I can do what I said I do: steal her idea, which is

brain monkeys


(This is how I imagine brain monkeys look. Though they are actually twin albino pygmy monkeys.)

That’s where Maureen gets her ideas from and it’s So True. Mine come from brain monkeys, too! Nasty little buggers running around in the old brain pain, flinging poo, screeching, tugging at bits that don’t want to be tugged, laughing.

Evil annoying brain monkeys.

Except when they cobble some really cool stuff together like cricket and mangosteens and Elvis and monkey knife fights (though should they really be pointing at themselves?) and quokkas and feminism and runic surfing and it congeals and melds and explodes and winds up being my next book, formerly known as The Ultimate Fairy Book, which is coming out in September and whose brand new title and cover I hope to share with you sometime in the next three or four weeks.

Glorious brain monkeys!

Now we all have the answer to that extremely irksome question. Bless you, Maureen.3

  1. I hate to think how many times Stephen King has had to answer it. I mean, seriously, if he punches the next person to ask, that should be permissible. []
  2. Was probably funnier before the most recent plagiarism scandal . . . []
  3. We must all tell Stephen King before he punches someone. []

Sleep and dreams

I am fascinated by dreams and sleep and how they work and how little we know about them. According to Science Times, the New York Times weekly science section, we know a lot more than we used to.

According to the Benedict Carey reporting for the Times insomnia “makes you more reckless, more emotionally fragile, less able to concentrate and almost certainly more vulnerable to infection.”

I so knew all of those ones too. Though I’m shocked they left out accident prone. I have had much insomnia in my life and way to make the accidents! Sheesh. I’m so glad my insomnia has been cured.

Apparently the whole thing about “sleeping on it” to figure out a problem is totally true. I so knew that one too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to bed completely freaked out about a plot problem and woken up knowing how to fix it. Or at least how to get to where I can fix it.

I also got gazillions of story ideas from my dreams and nightmares. And when I don’t sleep I’m buggered.

Pretty much all the articles in this week’s Science Times are worth a squiz.

Though sadly there’s no article about how 99% of people should be banned from telling other people their dreams. See, it’s not that dreams are boring; it’s that most people are really boring at relating their dreams. I had a friend—back home in Sydney—who was brilliant at telling her dreams. I looked forward to it!

Do any of you find your dreams useful? And not just for writing. Please to tell. But, no telling of the dreams! Boring dream recounting is verbotten!

Inspiration

Where do you get your inspiration? is a question a lot of writers get asked. I find it really hard to answer and usually wind up mumbling, “I dunno. I just type.”

Not a satisfactory or particularly honest answer. The problem is that it’s a really complicated question for which every writer has a different answer depending on who’s asking them, and when, and which book they’re talking about.

Some writers, like Maureen Johnson, are inspired by free monkeys. Others by imminent deadlines or the need to pay their bills. And others by the need to tell stories or the urging of their extremely bullying muse. Some of us are inspired by all of these. (Especially the monkeys and even more so when they’re in knife fights.)

Most of the time I have no clue where my stories come from. And even when I do know (like with the Fairy novel) it’s only a partial answer because there are always lots of other things that feed in. Usually I don’t figure out what they are until long after a book is finished. If ever. And usually I feel like I’m making up the inspirations retroactively.

That’s the dirty secret: most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. I suspect I am not alone.

So what inspires you in your writing? Let’s build up a list so that we can all crib from it when we next get asked this question.

RW7: Inspiration

Little Willow asks:

What inspires you to write?

This is one of those questions that make me go all monosyllabic1 and grunty and I-dunno, I-dunno, I-dunno. Cause most of the time I have no idea where story ideas come from. None.

But sometimes I know exactly where. Like the Magic or Madness trilogy which began something like this:

I was reading a fantasy novel that suddenly took a turn for the deeply lame. So lame that I wound up throwing it across the room. Here’s what caused the book hurlage:

“I am in trouble!” quoth the hero. “Fortunately I have a magic pill of trouble-destroying properties! I will swallow it! All will be well.”2

This reader couldn’t swallow it. I was so cranky I started writing a book of my own. One where the magic wasn’t there to fix every problem the hero (or author) encounters; a book where, indeed, magic is the problem. That book became Magic or Madness.

It probably reflects poorly upon me that I am more inspired by books I hate than books I love. Sigh.

But I’m not alone, am I? Someone tell me I’m not alone . . .

  1. Don’t you love how the word for speaking in one syllable words has many syllables? []
  2. No, I will not name the book. You people know the drill. []

Ideas, like butterflies, are free

I was out doing errands t’other day (including a visit to the Tax Office to get my German contracts stamped—thank you, Niki). At one of my stops the fact of my being a writer came up and the bloke behind the counter said, “Really? You know, I have this great idea. If I give it to you, and you write the book, you can keep half the profits.”

My mouth opened. My mouth closed. See, I’ve heard other writers talk about non-writers making that offer, but I’ve never actually had it made to me so I didn’t have an answered prepared. I stammered something about being grateful for the offer, but that I have a tonne of ideas of my own, thanks all the same.

Ideas are no big deal. I have a gazillion ideas every day. Oodles of the little buggers. But without labour an idea is nothing. Unless I sit down and type for several months and turn a bunch of ideas into a book, those ideas are worthless. Their only value is in what’s done with them. Lots of people have ideas for books; not that many write them.

Scott and me were talking about the inflated value many people give ideas. And Scott wondered if that was partly behind the ever-growing insane obsession with copyright (like the Canadian Red Cross trying to copyright the Red Cross symbol). And the notion so many people have that ideas can be stolen. That rewriting an earlier story is somehow plagiarism (that’s right, Shakespeare was a plaigarist, and James Joyce, Jean Rhys, and just about any other writer you care to name).

Some are unable to make a distinction between riffing on something and stealing. If someone were to write a book about a girl who a finds a door that leads from Sydney and New York City and has adventures. I would not be bothered. Not unless the characters bore an uncanny resemblance to Magic or Madness and large chunks of the book were word-for-word the same as mine. Plagiarising means to take some one else’s work and pass it off as your own. Taking credit for someone else’s labour is wrong; riffing on someone else’s ideas is what writers/comedians/artists/musicians etc. etc. do. That’s their job.

Which leads me to Cory Doctorow’s fabulous post on BoingBoing about the publishing industries ludicrous efforts to stop Google’s fabulous Book Search which would make said riffing so much easier. What he said.