I spend a great deal of my time in front of my computer in my pyjamas. Thus I wear pyjamas more than I wear any other clothing. They are my work uniform. All my novels have been written while I was wearing pjs. I think about pyjamas a lot.
I like mine to have three pockets, two on the pants, as well as a breast pocket. I like them to be soft and loose fitting, and deliciously comfortable. It’s a bonus if they can also have goofy, gorgeous or gelid1 patterns on them.
I mentioned on Twitter that most women’s pjs do not have pockets and the sadness this fills me with. How I am forced to mostly wear men’s pyjamas which typically do not have as interesting prints as women’s. Soon we were in a discussion about the paucity of pockets in women’s clothing, the awesomeness of pockets, and of pjs, and there was much bonding.
Though there was also some who made distinctions between kinds of pjs. For them pjs are what you wear to bed and lounging pjs are what you wear to write in. Okay . . . sounds very Katherine Hepburn-y, and I love her, so I’ll go with it. But I do not make such a distinction. Then there was mention of “house dresses” which I’d only ever heard of in ye olde Hollywood movies. Must be a thing of the USA.
But there was also a distinct minority who questioned the need for pockets in pjs. I admit to being bewildered by the question but it swiftly became apparent that there are people who only wear pjs to sleep in.
I must confess at that point I fainted from shock.
Where do they put their phone? Their keys? Their sekrit decoder ring (when not in the company of people where it can be worn freely)? I don’t understand!
The answer was in their bags (or purses as those from the USA call them). Don’t get me wrong. I have handbags, I have backpacks. I use them. I even have some I love dearly but in my heart of hearts I wish everything I needed when I left the house would fit into my pockets. That I could be unencumbered by bags.
For bags weigh me down, pulling on one shoulder, or the other, or both in the case of backpacks. I am always inadvertently whacking into things with bags or being whacked with them. They are little violent, destructive beasts.
Worst of all bags eat my stuff.
I know the only pen I’ve ever liked is in the bag I bought in Rome many, many years ago. The first fancy bag I ever bought myself. And Italian bag! My Italian bag. I still have that bag though it is faded and frayed and somewhat less fabulous than it once was. The pen should be in there. But can I find it? No, I cannot. That stupid Italian bag ate my favourite pen. I have never found a pen like it since. I no longer like pens. All because of that bag.
In conclusion: Pyjamas are the best WITH pockets. Purses (bags) are the devil. The end.
They only need be gelid in summer. In winter I prefer warmer patterns. [↩]
So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?
But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!
In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.
Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1
NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.
Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:
Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.
And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2
At the other end of the spectrum:
Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3
Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!
Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4
Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow
Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.
This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.
Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.
To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:
I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.
You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you
Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.
For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5
Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!
Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.
I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.
If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you
I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.
Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!
Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.
It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.
If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you
I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.
Tweet what you care about
Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.
It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.
I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.
It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?
Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6
IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS
This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.
They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:
#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?
#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.
Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.
Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.
Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.
I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack
Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.
Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. [↩]
What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. [↩]
And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. [↩]
I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. [↩]
Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! [↩]
Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. [↩]
I am afraid that clowns will take over the world and make it compulsory for everyone to dress like a clown and wear that hideous make up. Yes, I have coulrophobia. I know this will never happen. But WHAT IF IT DID?!
I’m afraid of accidentally punching my boxing instructor. Cause she for sure would sock me back and then I’d finally have that black eye I have never had. Oh, wait, that’s a real fear. Though I would kind of like a black eye.1
I’m afraid of being alone on a desert island with only Moby Dick to read. Or even worse the complete works of Henry Miller. *shudder*
I’m afraid that the next season of Bun Heads won’t be as good as the first. I know it has many flaws but I heart it. What if its next season is like the third season of Veronica Mars? Worst TV season EVER.
I’m afraid of Pants Too High. And every single guy I have ever been with has thought that it was the funniest thing in the world to stomp about the place with his trousers/tracky dacks/pants/slacks/pj bottoms/whatever-you-call-them-where-you-live pulled up way too high solely to torment me. Kind of like this:
As you can see it is an ABOMINATION. It is not funny, it is horrifying. No man should be allowed to do it ever, under any circumstances. It is the fashion crime that goes too far. Frankly, it should be illegal. It has to stop.
But the worst of my minor fears is this one:
I am afraid that as I get older my arse will fall off. Don’t laugh! I have seen this happen with many older people. Admittedly more men than women. They develop this weird baggy seat of their jeans thing where there’s air when there should be an arse. How does one go through life arse-less? Does it make sitting down really uncomfortable? It scares me.
Am I alone? Surely someone else out there fears their arse falling off? We’ve all seen those baggy old people jeans.
What? When I was little I thought black eyes were cool. [↩]
I write this from my perspective as someone who has published nine books and received many critical reviews.
I know that’s obvious but I think it needs restating up front. I know what I’m talking about. People have loathed each one of my books with the fire of a thousand burning suns. People have wanted to throw them across the room, to burn them, to make sure they never get into the hands of impressionable teenagers, to remove them from library bookshelves, and have been bored into a coma by them.
I used to be really upset by negative responses now not so much. I was even upset by what is now my all-time favourite punter review: “Like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.” When I first read it I was incensed. Now, I giggle.
Here are my tips towards enjoying negative reviews of your work.
Not every book or art show or radio play or short movie or whatever it is you have made1 gets reviewed
Most books—even from mainstream publishing houses—don’t get widely reviewed. Getting any reviews at all should be a matter for celebration. Your book is getting coverage! It’s being read! Discussed! It may not disappear without a trace! Woo hoo!
Treasure the good ones, the bad ones, the meh ones: they all mean there is a conversation about your book. You know, the same book you were mostly alone with FOREVER. The book that when you tried to talk about it with other people their eyes would glaze and they’d change the subject. Most folks find other people talking about the book they’re writing the most boring thing in the world.2
Yet, here you are, lo these many months/years later, and now other people know about your book. What’s more they want to talk about it. You don’t have to force them. They have opinions! What could be cooler than that?
A bad review does not necessarily mean people won’t buy your book
Loads of authors automatically assume that because a review is negative it means no one who read that review will read that book. So not true. There are reviewers, who I won’t name, who hate the things I love. A bad review from them is as good as a recommendation from someone I trust.3
There are reviewers I’m unfamiliar with, who in listing the reasons they hate a book, fill me with a strong desire to read it:
This book is anarchist, atheistic, feminist filth about a werewolf in love with a militant unionist troll. The werewolf was not believable. Werewolf men should all be alphas. And the troll? In the real world she would never get a husband. So bossy and annoying. Blood Teeth Explosion is quite possibly the worst, most immoral book I have ever read.
C’mon, who would not want to read such a book? Now I totally wish I hadn’t made it up. Someone write Blood Teeth Explosion for me!
Then there are the completists in the world who don’t care if your vampire/angel/Mormon/atheist/whatever love story is considered rubbish by the majority of reviewers. You have written the thing that they collect. They must have it.
A review of your book is not a review of you
I know it feels like it is. They hated your beloved book that you spent years working on. They read it and dismissed it as nothing! Why don’t they just kick you in the teeth, already?!
But truly they’re responding to words on the page. Their response emerges out of their life experiences, the way they see the world. Yes, you put those words there but your life experiences and the readers’ are different. Odds are they are not going to read those words the way you do. Odds are they’re not going to be thinking of you when they read the story you wrote. And thus their reaction has nothing to do with you.
It’s the book they’re responding to, not you.
Yes, sometimes reviewers write things like “this author could not write their way out of a paper bag” or “author has a weird obsession with astroturf” or “author is a sick sadist to subjects their characters to horrors that should never be written of—I close my eyes and I still see those nylon, lime-green formal shorts.”
“The author” they’re talking about? Not you either. “The author” is an imaginary construct of the reader. Just as this “reader” I’m talking about is my imaginary construct. We know as little about them as they know about us.
You have the power
Someone hated your book enough that they were compelled to tell the whole world about it. Congratualations! You have the power. The book you slaved over? The one you thought would never be published or read by anyone you weren’t related to? Total strangers have read it and not only that they have had a passionate response to it! They want to stab it with a fork! You got to them! Woo hoo!
And the ones who keep going on and on about your “immorality” and “man-hating” ways every time anyone mentions your book anywhere online? They’ve clearly set up a google alert so that they can yell about your book everywhere. You really got to them.
There’s a certain breed of reader who hates all books by women in their genre. I am not making this up. They view every woman-authored book with seething hatred. Just by being a woman who has the temerity to have written in their precious, boys-only genre you have pissed them off. The better your book, the angrier they become, because they have to contort themselves into all sorts of weird shapes in order to prove to themselves that your book is rubbish. And in their heart of hearts they know your book is good and it DRIVES THEM INSANE.
I have had only one example of this particular kind of review. My first trade review was of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction was written by exactly the kind of male science fiction fan the book discusses, who is appalled by the presence of women in his beloved genre, and considers feminism to be a foul bacteria that destroys everything it touches. I still treasure that review.4
In this vein, I once had a reviewer go off about one of my books written in first person.5 First person, this reviewer contended was always a sign of bad writing. And my book was a particularly hideous example because the word “I” appeared on almost every single page. The horror!
So every time we write a book in first person we have the power to annoy that particular reviewer. I don’t know about you but that makes me giggle and rub my evil first-person-point-of-view-typing hands with glee.
We have the power!
In conclusion: Critical reviews can be amusing, prove that you have the power to annoy the annoyable, are not about you, and really just be grateful you’re getting reviewed at all.6
Hope that helps. Would love to hear other coping mechanism for dealing with our books not being loved for the perfection they clearly are.
For the rest of the post just assume “book” stands in for “created thing.” [↩]
Other than hearing about someone else’s dreams, that is. [↩]
Okay, I’ll name one: David Stratton. If he hates a movie it’s pretty much a guarantee I’ll love it. All these years later I still cannot believe he gave Fun no stars. Such an excellent film about female teenage rage. Something, obvously, Mr Stratton knows zip about. Also he loves Woody Allen. Enough said. [↩]
Or, you know, I would if I could remember where it appeared and had ever seen it again. Reviews are so ephemeral; my memory is so crap. [↩]
Honestly, I can no longer remember which book. [↩]
I was going to have another section on how reviews can also be useful when they point out failings in your writing that you had not noticed yourself. But it got really long. Will post it in the not too distant future. [↩]
Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify.1 He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.
Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.
My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.
Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.
*cough* I digress.
Where was I?
Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned3 film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.
Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.
If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.
They tried really hard to get Elvis Presley rather than Kris Kristofferson. Can you imagine? Maybe he wouldn’t have died in 1977 if he’d starred in it. Or maybe he would have died sooner. We’ll never know. [↩]
I can too make words mean anything I want them to mean. [↩]
However, let us not forget the incredible boost that the home country advantage gives you in the Olympics.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia came 4th overall with 16 gold medals, 25 silver, 17 bronze, 58 in total.
For Great Britain to have surpassed Australia’s efforts at our home olympics they needed to do three times as well as we did, given that they have three times our population. We are the 52nd most populous country in the world.
They needed 48 gold, 75 silver, and 51 bronze.
What did they get? 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze.
I’m sorry, Great Britain. Great effort but not quite good enough. I feel quite sure that you’ll get much closer to that total at your next home Olympics.
In all seriousness: I think the true “victors” of the Olympics are all the countries who were able to have people compete despite having to get to London on the smell of an oily rag. And the women who competed despite insane pressures not to. Such as Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar of Saudia Arabia.
Or arithmetic. Whatever. Numbers. I talked about numbers. [↩]
Hmmm, I wonder if Holly Black would be interested in editing an anthology on that topic? It’s almost as catchy as Zombies versus Unicorns. *cough*
@ronnidolorosa said that she’d “be really interested to read about your experiences in academia, and how it compares to being an author.”
I was raised by two academics. Two lovely, smart, politically engaged and engaging, argumentative and enthusiastic academics. They both have PhDs. I kind of thought everyone got a PhD when they grew up. It’s the main reason I have one. The majority of adults I knew when I was little were academics teaching and researching in universities around Australia and sometimes the world. I don’t know when I first realised there were people in the world whose jobs were not to teach and argue and write about ideas. But it was a bit of a shock.
All I ever wanted to be was a writer of stories, not of academic tomes, but I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time, professional, could-live-by-writing alone writer. Thus I didn’t believe it was possible. But I knew plenty of people who were academics and wrote on the side. They’d use their long summer holidays to write. It seemed like the ideal solution. I like reading and researching and arguing and writing. And that’s a huge part of what you do as an academic. At least so I thought.
What I hadn’t factored in—despite having lived, for many years, with actual academics working in actual universities—is that reading and researching and arguing and writing are not, in fact, the biggest part of being an academic. Administration, politics, grovelling for money in the form of applying for grants,1 and teaching are what takes up the lion’s share of most academics’ lives. I really hate administration, politics, meetings, grovelling for money, and teaching.
Okay, I don’t hate teaching. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let me recalibrate, I’m a good teacher if you’re enthusiastic, smart and engaged with what I’m teaching. I’m absolutely terrible if you’re not. Someone who’s only good at teaching the people who want to be taught, the people who are not struggling with the subject, is not a good teacher.
As a professional writer my life consists of writing and reading and researching.
It’s everything I loved about being an academic with almost none of the stuff I hated. There are very few meetings in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had even one this year.2 The admin is a pain but not nearly as bad as when I was an academic and it’s mostly taken care of by my agent. I don’t have to write any grant applications. On those rare occasions when I teach it’s people who want to learn more about writing and/or publishing.3
Back when I was an academic money was a huge issue. Funding was going down, class sizes were getting bigger, tutorials were being phased out. It was a really depressing time to be an academic. In the many years since I quit it’s gotten worse. Money is even tighter, class sizes bigger. The morale of staff is worse than when I left. And it was pretty bad back then.
In contrast Young Adult publishing is booming and has been booming for more than a decade now.4 It’s an exciting business to be part of. Morale is mostly pretty good. Even with all the seismic shifts in publishing caused by the beginning of the ebook boom and the concurrent growth of Amazon and various forms of independent publishing. Publishing in ten years time is not going to look much like it does right now. Even so most YA writers are happy and enjoy what they do.
I mean, yes, we get angsty and doom laden, but we’re WRITERS. Writers are neurotic. However, compared to the academics I know. Well, there is no comparison.
So, no, I don’t miss the world of academia because I’m doing all the stuff I loved about it plus no ENDLESS MEETINGS.
I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky. The vast majority of writers of novels, no matter what they’re genre, cannot do so full time and still pay their rent etc. If not for my extraordinary luck I would probably still be an academic, writing on the side. It wasn’t really that bad. It’s only in comparison to my ridiculously fortunate life now that I’m so down on it. I’m sure when the YA boom ends and I go back to being an academic I’ll remember everything good about it.
Update: I forgot to mention that before I became a full-time novelist being an academic was BY A HUGE MARGIN the best job I’d ever had.
Disclaimer: I’m sure there are happy, content, non-angsty academics out there who get all the funding they need and teach very small classes. I’m talking only about my experiences. I only really know how things are in Australia and the USA and only at a handful of universities therein.
Of all the genres I am absolutely terrible at, the grant application is right up the top. [↩]
Unless you count me and Scott over dinner and wine discussing the novels we are working on. [↩]
Occasionally a few of those people will want me to tell them that they’re geniuses and should be published without any editing or further work on their manuscripts. But even those tend to get over themselves. [↩]
I’m not stupid though I know the YA boom will end. Just as every other genre boom has ended. E.g. Horror in the eighties. [↩]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?” 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.
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
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.
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. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.
. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.
. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.
. . . I get an agent.
. . . I get five rejections from publishers.
. . . I get ten rejections from publishers. (Would you believe twenty rejections? How about thirty? One hundred? One thousand? One million?)
. . . I start writing my second/third/fourth/fifth/etc book despite the fact that the first/second/third/fourth etc book hasn’t sold yet.
. . . I get an offer from a publisher.
. . . the deal is announced in Publishers Lunch.
. . . I get my first real editorial letter.
. . . I have my first hissy fit about my first editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book.
. . . I get my second real editorial letter.
. . . I have my second hissy fit about my second editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book. Again.
. . . (And repeat. Or not. Depending.)
. . . I get my first copyedit.
. . . I have my first hissy hit about my first copyedit. (Only robots speak without contractions! “Me and LJ” is how my character would say it NOT “LJ and I” because my character is not the FREAKING QUEEN OF FREAKING ENGLAND!)
. . . I get my first ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of my very own book with my name on the front and EVERYTHING. Oh my Elvis! It’s real, people. Book by me! *faints*
. . . I get my first page proofs and am overwhelmed by the urge to completely rewrite everything and make the book, you know, ACTUALLY GOOD!! (Also notice that I use the word “actually” way too much and that is BY NO MEANS the only word I use WAY TOO MUCH. Wonder if I have also overused CAPS and italics and exclamation marks!!! Consider getting publisher to cancel book. Actually.)
. . . I get my first good review.
. . . I get my first bad review.
. . . I get my first meh review.
. . . I am enraged by an eleven year old who enjoyed my book but wished it was as good as [redacted]‘s bestselling piece of [redacted] about [redacted].
. . . I get my first box full of my own finished actually TRULY REALLY book what I have written MYSELF!!!
. . . I open said book on a page with a typo of “actualy” and the CAPS and italics in the wrong places.
. . . I realise that it is the last book in the entire world I wish to read.
. . . I go to my local bookshop and there is my book in a real actual book shop.
. . . I get a query from my publisher wondering where my next book is.
. . . I miss a deadline.
. . . I miss two/three/four/five/etc deadlines.
. . . I get my first query from Hollywood which goes nowhere.
. . . I am sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I bitch and moan about being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I am not sent on tour.
. . . I bitch and moan about not being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I get my very first fan letter. Someone read and enjoyed my book enough to write to me! Best. Day. Ever.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so moving.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so illiterate.
. . . I get more fan letters than I could ever possibly answer.
. . . I become a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I am disappointed when my next book only reaches no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I am not a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I think about killing those entitled bastards who whinge about their books only getting to no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I quit my dayjob.
. . . I can live off my advances.
. . . I can live off my royalties and don’t have to sell books on proposal anymore.
. . . I have to live in a garret and eat ramen in order to keep writing.
. . . all my friends are writers.
. . . I don’t have to hang out with writers anymore.
. . . I win the Nobel Prize.
. . . I do an event and half the crowd is dressed up as characters from my books.
. . . one of my books is optioned to be made into a movie.
. . . my book becomes a movie.
. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to complain about how Hollywood destroyed it.
. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to go to all the Hollywood parties for it and stand in the corner because no one’s interested in talking to a writer. Even a nobel-prize winning New York Times bestseller who can live off their own royalties.
. . . all my books are optioned to be made into movies.
. . . all my books are made into movies.
. . . my first book is remaindered.
. . . all my books except the most recent are remaindered.
. . . I fire my first agent.
. . . I move to a different publisher.
. . . even people who don’t read know my name.
. . . only people who read my genre know my name.
. . . only some of the people who read my genre know my name.
. . . I have to change my name and genre in order to keep being published.
Because Margo Lanagan is one of the best writers I know, and is wonderful in every way, and has written two of the best short story collections ever published (White Time and Black Juice)—I should probably follow her rules of writing to the letter.
But, see, she has this list of banned words and every one of those words sings to me:
obsidian* (Margo says, “only okay when used to describe arrowheads”.)
roiling* (Margo says, “must be used with care”.)
There are heaps more but I can’t remember the rest. Help me out, Margo? Margo’s Clarion students?
Update: *Are Margo Lanagan additions to the list.
Ever since I heard of the existence of Margo’s banned words list it has become my goal in life to use every single one of them whenever possible. (I’m proud to say that one of the chapter titles in Magic or Madness is “Maelstrom”.) I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to have such a noble purpose. It was like being reborn.
Thank you, Margo! You’ve not only given me wonderful works to read, but a purpose in life.
And maybe I can inspire all of you in turn to start accreting wondrous corruscating volumes of words whilst smelling the sweet sweet sweet jasmine that is succour to all us arty writer types . . .
In the olden days, some newspapers got so fed up with folks going off in high dudgeon about certain articles which proposed, say, that the rich eat the poor, that they took to ending such pieces with the following line, This is writ ironical. (Think of it as ye olde smiley face.)
Which is to say that a tin ear for irony while depressingly widespread nowadays, alas, is not a new development. Long before the intramanets, certain early readers of Jane Austen did not notice her tongue placed firmly in her cheek.
I know I don’t need to say this to the esteemed and learned readers of this blog, but for newer readers please to imagine those words—This is writ ironical—at the end of most posts.
This made me giggle. Safe reading positions for reading a very, very, very heavy book: Hunger’s Bride, by Paul Anderson. Via Tinglealley. Caaf gives the book’s weight in weird USian measurements. I’m guessing a couple of kilos. Whatever it is, looks tough on the old wristies.
Now I want to write a really, really heavy book. Wonder how my editors will feel if I turn in the ms. of Magic or Madness iii and it’s, say, 200,000 words long? The first two were around 65,000, so clearly it’s time for a wristbreaker . . .