Getting Started

I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.

I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.

Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.

The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.

The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.

By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.

It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.

I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.

Procrastination is good

The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.

Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.

Research

Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.

Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.

Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.

Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1

Many books at once

I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.

That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.

At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.

Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2

Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.

If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.

If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3

In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.

  1. It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! []
  2. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. []
  3. Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

My Books of Electrons! (Updated)

One of the most frequent queries I get is: “Are your books e-books yet?”

For a long time, they were not and I could only respond in the negative. This was never a very satisfactory reply. Not for me, because I dreamed of having books of electrons, and piteously begged my publishers to make it so.1 And certainly not for the would-be purchaser of said electrificated tomes.

“No, sorry they’re not,” I would say mournfully.

They would demand to know, “Why? What is wrong with you that your books are only available as piles of extruded wood pulp? Electrify your novels at once!”

This led to me having to explain how it’s beyond my control. They never believed me just as no one believes John Malkovich in Dangerous Liasions. No amount of talk of contracts and publishers reserving the right and blah blah blah ever convinced them that I was not being willful and obstreperous. Their eyes would glaze and they’d walk away.

They weren’t happy. I wasn’t happy. There was SO MUCH UNHAPPINESS!

But now, at long last,2 I do not have to have that upsetting conversation anymore because:

All of my novels are now available as e-books in North America and some of them are on sale right now.

Let there be rejoicing!

Yes, even the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy, which is called, wait for it, Magic or Madness. Their wise publisher deemed it absurd to have the first book in the trilogy available when readers could just skip to the second and third book. But no longer! You can download all three in any format for any device you wish to purchase them on. Halelujah!

The anthology I edited with Holly Black, Zombies versus Unicorns, is also available on all devices. And is currently available for the bargain price of $3.99 which is ludicrously cheap. Love is Hell which includes my short story “Thinner than Water”3 is also available on every device known to humanity.

Meanwhile Liar and How To Ditch Your Fairy are available for Kindle and the Nook and I think other devices but only HTDYF is available via ibooks. They are, however, currently available for the low, low price of $4.79, which, BARGAIN.4

Team Human by me and Sarah Rees Brennan will be available in all formats going, which is how I like it.5 I don’t know when or how much it will cost. Though 3 July 2012 is the current publication date for the paper version in North America.

Some of you Australians and New Zealanders may be wondering, “What about us? Can we access these e-books?”

I am investigating and it looks like only Zombies versus Unicorns is definitely available in e-book form. You can get it from Readings and Read Without Paper. I hope that in the not too distant future all my books will be yours for the push of a button. We are living in the future!

So, how many of you actually consume e-books? I do. In vast numbers. Usually books that in the past I would have bought in paperback. When I truly love an e-book I tend to buy a hard copy. It has made a huge difference to travelling. I never run out of books now.

On the other hand, as a bunch of us were discussing on Twitter, formats becoming obsolete scares me. I have floppy discs from the olden days . . . So useful! So glad I backed all my early writing on those little babies.

This post brought to you by demonic voice recognition software. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

Update: All my Allen & Unwin books are now available on multiple platforms in Australia and New Zealand. Those books are How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies Versus Unicorns and Team Human.

  1. Or, well, okay, I begged my lovely agent Jill who in turn. You know how it goes. []
  2. Well, actually I think they’ve all been available for almost a year now. But what with my RSI problems and voice [mis]recognition annoyingware it has taken a long time to write this post. []
  3. Nope, I will not explain the title. Figure it out yourself! []
  4. I had nothing to do with them being on sale. How much books cost is yet another thing we humble authors are not consulted on. []
  5. Down with exclusivity! []

I Love Bad Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covers

The most discussed aspect of a book, other than whether it’s any good, is its cover. But looking around online and off- at gazillions of different cover discussions the cover’s main function is sometimes forgotten. Thus I’ve decided to devote today’s post to talking about what a cover is and how they’re made.

When a publisher buys a book one of the first things they start thinking about is how to sell it. Who is its ideal audience? How can they position the book so those readers will find it? How can they position it so they expand beyond those readers? These discussions quickly wind up with ideas for the cover. That’s because the most important function of a book cover is

To sell the book.

That’s right, folks, a book cover is an advertisement. Typically, ads don’t go after the existing customers, they go after new ones. A cover that’s totally true to the book might make the author’s heart go pitter pat and please mad-keen fans, but if it works only for author and hard-core fans, it is not a successful cover.1 A successful cover calls out to people who’ve never heard of the book or the author and says, “Pick me up! Read me! Buy me!”

A successful cover expands your audience. Other than word of mouth, the cover is the most important factor in selling a book. Often it is the biggest and best, or even, only advertisement for the book.

Uglies is Scott’s most successful series. The first book in the series, Uglies, was an original paperback that went out into the world with little fanfare. But, wow, did that cover attract a lot of attention. Scott has had countless letters from fans telling him that they picked the book up because of the cover. That it called to them from across many aisles. That cover is a huge part of why Uglies did so well.2

How is a cover made at the big publishing houses?

Typically3 the first step is for editorial to put together a cover brief and send it to the art department. A cover brief is a description of what they’d like the cover to look like and/or the element of the book they’d like to see reflected in the cover.

The artists who design the covers tend not to read the books they’re working on because they don’t have time. They’re working on so many books in a year and their deadlines are so tight they barely have time to read the cover brief. On top of that sometimes the book they’re working on hasn’t been written yet. (Or, at least, not finished.)

Next a series of rough ideas are sent back to editorial. There is discussion and one or more direction is pursued. Then editorial okays one and the art department completes it. Sometimes editorial changes its mind and sends art in another direction. Once editorial likes the cover it’s sent to sales and marketing to be approved. Sometimes it isn’t and the process has to start over. The next important approval comes from the big accounts, the stores that order the books. Sometimes if they don’t like a cover it gets redesigned.

Something else to remember: all of this starts a long time before the book comes out because—have I mentioned this already?—the cover is the single most important part of advertising the book. Sometimes the book isn’t even finished and the cover is. The cover of Magic’s Child was completed before the first draft of the book was, which was weird, though it gave me time to add more butterflies to the text.

Another important consideration that you can’t actually do anything about is how the book will look when it’s in the bookstores. I.e. will the cover pop. You can design the most gorgeous eye-catching cover in the world in luscious golds and browns and rusts and then have it disappear on the new releases table because guess what? Every book that season is a a luscious blend of golds and browns and rust. But that book in the white and teal that everyone was worried about? Pops like you wouldn’t believe. You can see that book the minute you step foot in the store.

See how random that is? And because of such randomness no one really knows what makes a cover sell. Lots of books fail utterly despite everyone—from author to publishing house to the big booksellers to reviewers—believing the cover to be utterly gorgeous. There are last-minute, emergency covers that everyone’s nervous about that sell like gangbusters. Sometimes you’re sure a cover’s going to sell great and it does; sometimes it does not. The unpredictability leads to all sorts of superstitious nonsense in publishing houses. Green doesn’t sell! Illustrated covers on YA never works! Never put a chicken on the front of a middle grade! A skeleton on the front means the book is doomed! Etc. etc.

There are also house styles. Publishing companies that have had a lot of success with a certain kind of cover are keen to keep using that look and loathe to experiment. Especially if past experiments have failed. Now, with the recession, publishing companies and the big accounts are being more cautious and conservative than usual with the result that are an awful lot of same-same covers out there. But many of those covers are selling.

I’m sure I’ve missed some important aspects. Remember that I’m an author, while we’re part of the publishing industry, we’re also at a remove from it. There are authors who’ve published multiple books, who still don’t understand how their royalty statements work,4 or what co-op, or a P&L is. Yes, I am also a publishing geek and have spent the last decade asking questions, but I’ve never worked in a publishing house. Actual people who work at publishing houses no way more than I do about this.

If you have any questions or information to add fire away!

  1. Ideally you want a cover that works for those who know and love the book as well as for those who’ve never heard of it. But such covers are rare and wonderful beasties. []
  2. Initially, that it keeps on selling is due to its own goodness. []
  3. It varies from house to house and book to book. []
  4. I’ll admit I’m one of them. []

New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what gives me balance:

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

And like that.

How do youse lot achieve balance?

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

Last Day of 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paperback edition of Liar

Zombies versus Unicorns anthology edited with Holly Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope 2010 shapes up beautifully for all of us.

Happy new year!

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

Ebooks of My Novels

This year I’ve been getting more and more people asking about ebook editions of my novels. This is my general response to that query.

First of all: you’re asking the wrong person. My publishers are in charge of the electronic rights to my novels. If you’re curious John Scalzi has more to say on this question. If you’re desperate for ebooks of my stuff bug my publishers, not me. That will be much more effective.

But here’s what I know: Penguin has made electronic editions of Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child available. But for some reason not the first book in that trilogy, Magic or Madness. Apparently they’re working on it. That’s all I know.

Bloomsbury, who publish How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, are also working on making them available as ebooks. Possibly it will happen by the end of this year. Again that’s all I know.

I suspect one of the big reasons that my books are not available is that very few teens are reading ebooks and they are the biggest part of my audience. (Bless you all!)

There’s also the fact that those who have converted to ebooks are still a very small part of the market. Tiny even. So there’s no great urgency for my publishers to make my books available. It’s a very new thing for them. Many of the big publishers are still figuring out their approach to ebooks, especially YA and children’s publishers. I’m sure in the next few years, as the ebook market expands, all of my books, and everyone else’s, will be available as a matter of course. But we are just at the beginning of the ebook revolution.

And there you have it: bug them, not me.

On Hating Female Characters

For a while now I’ve been thinking about how many readers seem to hate female characters more than they hate male. Or rather that the same behaviour from a male character is okay but someone inexcusable in a female. Sarah Rees Brennan has written about this phenomenon most eloquently:

Let us think of the Question of Harry Potter. I do not mean to bag on the character of Harry Potter: I am very fond of him.

But I think people would be less fond of him if he was Harriet Potter. If he was a girl, and she’d had a sad childhood but risen above it, and she’d found fast friends, and been naturally talented at her school’s only important sport, and saved the day at least seven times. If she’d had most of the boys in the series fancy her, and mention made of boys following her around admiring her. If the only talent she didn’t have was dismissed by her guy friend who did have it. If she was often told by people of her numerous awesome qualities, and was in fact Chosen by Fate to be awesome.

Well, then she’d be just like Harry Potter, but a girl. But I don’t think people would like her as much.

To which I say, indeed. I am noticing this somewhat acutely right now because quite a few people are hating on Micah Wilkins the protagonist of Liar. Now, I will admit as how Micah has rather more flaws than HP. Even aside from being, you know, a liar. But I happen to love Micah, as I do all the characters in my books.1 I’m well aware that I’m not an impartial observer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that were Micah a boy even with all the same flaws s/he would not be attracting such hate. I suspect that there would be a fair few crushes on Micah-the-boy. That he would be considered hot.

As evidence I offer the fact that I’ve already been told by a few people that they have a crush on Zach, who a) is dead and b) is, um, perhaps not the most reliable boyfriend in literary history given that he had an official girlfriend and an unofficial girlfriend. I.e. there’s a strong argument that’s he’s a cheating dog. Yet there are crushes.

Now, what I want to know is how to go about being part of the process of changing this kind of thinking. I was talking about this with a friend and she said I should write books that unpack it. To which I umed and ahhed before realising hours later that I already do. I have worked very hard in all my novels to unpack assumptions about what girls and boys can and can’t do. I have written female jocks, boy fashion obsessives, laconic girls, garrulous boys. I have tried to work against stereotypes at all times.

So does pretty much every working writer that I love. Yet still readers call Isabelle (of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy) a “slut” and have crushes on Jace who’s much more slutty than Isabelle. What can we do to shift such sexist assumptions when they’re so deeply ingrained in so many of us? Because even when we write books that challenge such stereotypes, readers put them back into the text by reading Isabelle as a slut and Jace as Hotty McHott Hero. I have done this myself both as a reader and a writer. Our prejudices are so unconscious that they leak out without our knowing it.

Hmmm, I find that I have no cheering conclusion. Feel free to provide one in the comments.

  1. Yes, even Jason Blake and Esmeralda Cansino in the trilogy and Dander Anders in How to Ditch Your Fairy. []

What I’m Doing This Friday

I’ll be here:

Friday, 16 October, 7:00 pm:
Voracious Reader
1997 Palmer Ave

Larchmont, NY

It’s a very short train ride from Grand Central so if you’re in NYC and wish to hear me be witty and wise you can do so! It’s even closer if you’re in Westchester County and thereabouts, (which you would probably know if you were in Westchester County or thereabouts).

I’ll be talking about Liar, writing and life, and answering all your questions. In fact, I have decided that this will be the event where I tell the true ending of Liar. So if you don’t attend you will never know! Though I did say I would reveal all in Memphis and Nashville yet I didn’t. But I’m quite sure this time will be different.

In other news if you are anywhere near Memphis I left behind giant piles of signed books here:

Davis-Kidd Booksellers
387 Perkins Ext

Memphis, TN

So if you want my name scribbled on your copy of Liar. This is the place to go. I swear I signed about a million of them. I also signed several How To Ditch Your Fairy and Magic or Madness trilogy paperbacks.

In other news, I’ll be in Seattle and Porland next week. Details are here.

I cannot wait to meet you all!

Don’t Panic About Blurbs

When I was a brand new about-to-have-my-first-book-published baby author I freaked out entirely about blurbs. I was sure I needed them. Or rather my brand new baby book needed them. I panicked and decided I needed to ask every single published writer friend I knew. But then when it came to actually asking them I froze. It was so icky and embarrassing.

“Hello, oh lovely writer friend of mine, so, um, I know we’ve known each other for years and, um, gotten drunk together, even though getting drunk is wrong and neither of us plans to ever do it again, and, um, where was I? Did you hear about them Sparks? Suck, don’t they? Er, why did I phone you? No reason. I was just thinking about you . . . ”

So after several conversations like that I finally screwed up the courage to ask Karen Joy Fowler, who I knew had actually read and liked Magic or Madness and she blurbed it. At the time her wonderful novel, Jane Austen Book Club, was everywhere. Also Karen is not only a dear friend but one of my favourite writers so I was over the moon. The book was published with her blurb on the back.

To this day I’ve never heard anyone tell me they picked up my book because of Karen’s blurb. The paperback went out with a quote from Holly Black on the front. And ditto. No one has ever told me they picked up one of my books because of a blurb.

Here are the reasons people have given for picking up one of my books:

  1. Their sibling or best friend told them they had to read it.
  2. Their librarian or teacher recommended it.
  3. They liked the cover.
  4. They read about it on Boing Boing or Whatever.
  5. It was the only book around.
  6. It was on their course list so they had to read it.

The only time blurbs have been mentioned to me was when a sweet girl wrote to thank me for blurbing Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. She told me it’s now her favourite book on the planet and she only picked it up because of my blurb.1

There are some blurbs that make a difference. If Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King or J. K. Rowling loves your book and wants to tell the world about it that is a Very Good Thing. But I’m unconvinced that there are many other writers who have that kind of clout. Not in book blurb form though there are plenty who have the ability to move a book when they mention it on their blog.

If you’re a brand new writer and you’re freaking out about blurbs, and you don’t know any published writers, or you do and are too embarrassed to ask, I think you can relax. Scott’s biggest selling book, Uglies, went out into the world unadorned with blurbs and several gazillion copies sold later it continues to sell.

Plenty of books sell great without blurbs.

If you have the time, energy, or inclination, go after blurbs from famous authors but it truly won’t make much difference if you don’t get them. Don’t sweat it. I really wish someone had sat me down way back then and told me to calm down. Would have been a big weight off. I honestly thought blurbs were one of the most important aspects of getting people to pick up a book. Even though I had pretty much never bought a book because of a blurb myself.

My latest book, Liar is my first book without any blurbs on it. And I gotta tell you it was a huge relief not having to ask people to blurb it. Even after five books I still find doing so excruciating. I really hope I never have to do so again.

Blurbs schlurbs! Worry about your next book. It’s far more important to your writing career than any blurb is.

Hmmm, best I get back to doing that myself . . .

  1. Which was replaced on the paperback by a blurb from Stephenie Meyer. As if her blurb will sell as many copies as one from me! What? Oh, she’s the one who wrote Twilight? Never mind. []

My Melbourne Writers Festival Events

Next week I’ll be doing four events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. None of my events are free, alas. Sorry about that! I will work extra hard on these panels to make up for it.1

My Sunday event is part of the adults programming and thus is a bit pricey. You can book your ticket here. However, my other events are part of the under 18 programming and thus are only $6. You can book the U-18 events here.

Event 1
Day: Sunday
Date: 23/08/2009
Time: 4:00 PM
Venue: ACMI 1
Event Name: Taking Over the Grown-Ups Table
Panelists: Isobelle Carmody, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier
Chair: Agnes Nieuwenhuizen
Official Description: Join Justine Larbalestier, Isobelle Carmody and Scott Westerfeld, three authors who have successfully marketed their books to crossover audiences. Join these hugely successful YA authors as they discuss just who they think are reading their books. During this session Text Publishing will also be awarding the 2nd Text Prize.
My Description: This one will be lovely. Agnes Nieuwenhuizen was one of the first people to champion mine and Scott’s books in Australia. She’s the doyenne of YA literature and has made it her business to champion so many wonderful writers. It is impossible not to love her. Isobelle is not only one of Australia’s most talented writers but she lives in two countries just like us. Hers being the Czech Republic and Australia. This will be the first time we’ve ever hung out in Australia. We seem to only see Isobelle at the Bologna Children’s Lit Fair. *Heh hem* I think I have revealed that this will be the wankers’ panel. Ooops.

Event 2
Day: Monday
Date: 24/08/2009
Time: 12:30 PM
Venue: ACMI 1
Event Name: Magical characters.
Panelists: Justine Larbalestier
Chair: Pam Macintyre
Official Description: Justine Larbalestier talks about how she populates her novels with magical characters. In her latest novel: How to Ditch Your Fairy, every character has its own personal fairy. How does Justine come up with her magical ideas? And what does her own personal fairy look like?
My Description: Given that there are no magical characters in any of my books I imagine that we’ll have a lot of fun talking about many other things. (Well, I guess there’s one in the trilogy. I’d tell you who but it would be a spoiler. And no, having magic, does not make you magical. I guess I may have to explain why on the panel.) I can answer the two questions right now: My ideas—magical or not—come from my brain monkeys. My personal fairy looks a lot like the young Genghis Khan.

Event 3
Day: Tuesday
Date: 25/08/2009
Time: 10:00 AM
Venue: BMW Edge, Federation Square
Event Name: Rules of Invention
Panelists: Isobelle Carmody, Justine Larbalestier
Chair: Erin Ritchie
Official Description: What are the rules of invention? How do you make imaginary worlds real? Isobelle Carmody and Justine Labalestier will discuss how they paint new worlds without the brushstrokes. These two wonderful and well-respected fantasy writers will take you elsewhere, effortlessly.
Supported by the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria
My Description: Another session with Isabelle! The MWF is totally spoiling me. Yay!

Event 4
Day: Wednesday
Date: 26/08/2009
Time: 10:00 AM
Venue: ACMI 1
Event Name: Magical characters
Panelists: Justine Larbalestier
Chair: Cordelia Rice
Official Description: See Event 2
My Description: See Event 2

  1. Not that I don’t give my all for free events! []

In today’s news

Liar just sold to Salani in Italy. They’re the publishers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Cool, huh? For those keeping count Liar has now sold in six countries. This is massively more sales than any of my other books have made prior to publication. I am dizzy. (I posted recently on how foreign rights works for those who want to know why I am so excited.)

In other news: today I met someone who looks so much like Tom in the Magic or Madness trilogy I almost gasped. He’s a red head and taller and older (20 rather than 15) than Tom, but other than that identical. I had to stop myself from calling him “Tom.” This has never happened to me before and it is deeply weird. When my fictional worlds collide with my real world than my head explodes.

I may have to lie down to recover.

What Do My Readers Lie About?

Yesterday’s post got a pretty overwhelming not really from most of my readers. Most of you do not lie about those five things. (I was made very happy by all the teenage non-drinkers. Yay, youse!)

Judging from your comments and my own experience here’s my suggestion of a top five:

  1. That you didn’t do the thing your parents/teacher/boss busted you for
  2. That your friends’ clothes/appearance looks fine
  3. Your health in order to get out of school/work
  4. Height
  5. Weight

I have lied about all of these. But not about no. 1 in a very long time. Or about no. 3 and no. 4 in ages. Haven’t lied about no. 3 since I had a regular job. Sadly my no. 2 areas of lies is still going strong. But I don’t think of no. 2 as a lie so much as a difference in aesthetics that there’s no point in going into. I will never like t-shirts tucked into jeans or formal shorts or the colour yellow or espadrilles or gladiator sandals.

Is that any closer to a list of things most everyone has lied about? How many have you lied about these? What popular area of lying am I still missing out on?

Much Yay

Last week was a very big week for me. I found out that How to Ditch Your Fairy sold in Japan and Liar in France and Germany. (I also had my first lindy hop lesson. Next one is on Tuesday.)

How to Ditch Your Fairy sold to Tokyo Sogensha in Japan, who also publish Diana Wynne Jones. I know it’s tenuous proximity but it makes me happy, okay?

I can’t give more details on the French sale but I can say that my German publisher continues to be Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag, who published the Magic or Madness trilogy in quick succession last year. It’s doing amazingly well over there, which I put down to the glory that is the covers:

Bertelsmann will also be publishing How to Ditch Your Fairy later this year. I met some of the crew over in Bologna last year and they were wonderful. Feels fabulous to have a solid home in Germany, which is one of the biggest book publishing markets in the world. Germans love to read. Bless them.

Sometimes I can’t believe this is real. It took twenty years to find anyone who wanted to publish for my fiction. I never dreamed it would appear in any language other than English. Yet here I am with a whole shelf full of various different editions of my books. Please let this last another twenty years.1 Fingers crossed!

In other yay news, Scott has previewed the final cover of Leviathan. It’s spectacular. And I say that as someone who loved the first version.

  1. Yeah, I’m aware of how great the odds are against that. []

Magic’s Child in Brazil & Japan

Just arrived from the fabulous Whitney Lee: Brazilian (Editora Record) and Japanese (Hayakawa) editions of Magic’s Child. This means there are now complete sets of the trilogy in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan & the US of A. W00t!

Very happy making indeed. I really adore all the different covers the trilogy has gotten around the world. I still love the German ones best. Though the Japanese and Brazilian ones are a very close second. I like that the Japanese designs are so strongly influenced by events and characters in the book. While the stylised clean design of the Brazilian covers is just gorgeous. And also reflects the books quite accurately.

Here’s the two different Magic’s Child covers. The Japanese cover is on the right:

And here’s the Brazilian editions of the whole trilogy:

And the Japanese versions:

I love them all. What do you think?

First foreign language sale for Liar

Yesterday I said yes to an offer to publish Liar in complex Chinese from Taiwanese publishing company, Sharp Point. They also publish such obscure books as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books, Garth Nix’s Key To The Kingdown series, as well as Lian Hearn’s Otori trilogy. Pretty sellar company, eh?

This is the first foreign language sale for Liar. I am dead excited. Can’t wait to see what cover it gets in Taiwan. I am hoping that Liar will be a many covered book.

If you look at the left sidebar you’ll see that the Oz & USian covers of Liar have been added. So that I’m not seen to be favouring one publisher over the other they will randomly switch back and forth. Sometimes the Oz Liar will be in front and sometimes the USian Liar. Thank you, Stephanie!

Hardcover versus Paperback Redux

Recently I observed that back home in Australia, the vast majority of books are published in paperback. Hardcovers are exceedingly rare. But here in the US of A there’s a huge emphasis on hardcovers.

When I first asked about it I was told that paperback originals don’t get reviewed. Thus the hardcover is more prestigious because it generates more attention. Many good reviews can lead to awards, and best book of the year listings, and lots of sales. A paperback original goes into the world unheralded and unreviewed and thus disappears into oblivion.

I’m not convinced this is as true as it once was or that prestige is as important as people think it is. I believe that fewer and fewer buyers of books are paying attention to what old media reviewers say. Partly this is because the book review section has been disappearing from newspapers all over the USA, just as newspapers have been disappearing.1 And partly because there is such a long lag time for reviews of YA in old media. Whereas there are blogs, whose reviews I respect and trust, reviewing YA before the books are even out.

How To Ditch Your Fairy is my best selling book. It had very few reviews in old media venues. It’s won no awards, nor been shortlisted for any, and has made precious few best book of the year lists. Magic or Madness won awards, was shortlisted for others, had starred reviews, and was very widely reviewed in old media places and made lots of best book of the year lists. HTDYF has already outsold MorM in hardcover even though it’s been out for five months and MorM‘s been out for four years.2 I suspect (hope!) that HTDYF will do better in paperback.3

What HTDYF has had more than any of my other books is a smart publicity and marketing campaign4 that has generated plenty of word of mouth. I’m convinced that the word of mouth has especially been pushed along by all the blog coverage5 While HTDYF didn’t get much old media coverage, it was extremely widely reviewed in new media places. There are so many online reviews I’ve lost track of them all.6

The majority of bloggers don’t care whether a book debuts in hardcover or paperback. They are not going to refuse to review a paperback original because it’s not prestigious enough. They don’t think they’ll be sullied by its mere presence. They just care whether they like it or not. I suspect this partly because that’s how I feel— after all I’m a blogger who sometimes reviews YA—but mostly because I’ve seen it in action.

Debuting in paperback can be an enormous start to a series or a career. Off the top of my head I can think of two series that got a massive kick in the pants because they were paperback debuts: Scott’s Uglies series and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.7 At US$10 or less the first books in these highly addictive series were cheap, attractively packaged, and there was a less-than-a-year wait for the next book in the series, which was also a cheap paperback. Readers got hooked—at which point the evil publisher switched to hardcover.

Which leads me to the second reason publishers like hardcovers: the profit margin is higher. In order for a paperback to be profitable it has to sell vastly more copies than a hardcover book. How much more? An average royalty for hardcover is 10%, and for paperback 6%. So pbs are a smaller percentage of a smaller amount of money, which means on average you have to sell three times as many to earn out. Let me show you the maths: Say you have a $10 pb, that’s 60c per copy. If the advance was $20,000 you’d have sell more than 33,333 copies to earn out. If your hc retails for $17, you’d only have to sell 11,764 hardcovers.

That’s a huge difference and a big incentive for both publisher and author to want hardcover. In fact, I think this is the only solid argument for going with a hardcover.

However, you’ll only earn out faster if the hardcover sells. When a hc costs close to twice what a pb costs people are less likely to buy them—especially in the middle of a recession.8 Book sales are down across the board in the USA. I predict that if sales keep going the way they are9—hardcovers down; paperbacks down a bit, steady or, in some cases, climbing—we’re going to see a lot more paperback originals.

Overall, that’s probably a good thing, especially for debut authors. And also for series where the books are already written—that way the books can come out cheaply and in quick succession. This has long been a successful formula for romance and mysteries. I won’t be surprised if the USA winds up like Australia and the UK with very few hardcovers at all.10

Here’s one reason it can be a good thing: Guess what frequently happens to books that don’t sell in hardcover? They aren’t published in paperback. They don’t get their second shot. This has happened to many wonderful books, which despite awards and glowing reviews didn’t sell, and thus the publisher decides that a paperback version is not viable. Holly Black’s first book Tithe didn’t sell well in hardcover, but sold spectacularly in paperback. What if her publisher hadn’t taken the risk?

On the other hand, if a book is a paperback original that’s typically the only chance it gets. If it doesn’t do well then that’s it. At least with hardcover a book has a pretty good shot at a second life as a paperback. And often it will go from hc to trade pb to mass market pb. Three chances to go out there and sell.11

As you can see it’s a complicated set of decisions a publisher has to make when they’re figuring out whether to go hardcover or paperback. You have to sell way more copies for pbs to make a profit. But expensive hcs can kill a book. Keep in mind that the majority of books do not earn out.

I’d love to hear what youse lot think. I’m especially interested to hear from those making this decision and from those of you who’ve had different experiences in one format over the other.

  1. And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. []
  2. Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. []
  3. Especially with it’s fabulous new cover. Hint: look at the top of the left-hand side bar. Or go here for a bigger view. []
  4. Thank you, Bloomsbury! []
  5. Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. []
  6. Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. []
  7. Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. []
  8. Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. []
  9. I know this link leads to an article on sf book sales but all its links go to reports of sales across the board. It was the most recent round up I could find. []
  10. Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. []
  11. Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. []

Make it the best book you can

There’s a certain misery in the air right now. I’m reading it on other writer’s blogs. I’m feeling it myself. Seeing it in tweets. Hearing it in late night conversations in bars. It’s kind of everywhere. So many writers I know, or who I follow on line, or in interviews, are grappling with their own self worth as writers. If I’m not selling am I still a writer? If I can’t get published am I still a writer? If my contract got cancelled am I still a writer? If my next book doesn’t do as well as my last book am I still a writer? If I don’t win awards am I still a writer? If reviewers hate my books am I still a writer?

I myself have thwacked a few writer friends with pep talks in the last few weeks.

Actually, it’s just the one pep talk and it goes like this:

You can only control the book you write.

You can’t control whether you sell it. You can’t control how big the advance is if you sell it. You can’t control how much is spent promoting it. You can’t control how many copies Barnes & Noble takes or whether they take it at all. You can’t control whether punters buy it when it finally appears on the shelves. You can’t control the reviews. You can’t control the award committees.

Spending time and energy angsting about any of that stuff will only do your head in.

All you can do is write the very best book you can.

It will get published or it won’t. It will find its market or it won’t. It will sell or it won’t. It will win awards or it won’t. None of that matters if you’ve written the best book you can.

Books with huge advances and the biggest marketing and publicity budget in the world sink like a stone. Books with nary a sheckle spent on them take off out of nowhere. Books you think are terrible do great; books you worship sell fewer than a thousand copies. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Do not let it do your head in.

Because if you believe that your worth as a writer is tied up in how well your books do even success won’t help. Do not be gloating that your book is doing better than so and so’s. That you can write full-time while they need a day job. Tables turns. So what if your current book is the hugest hit ever? What happens if the book after that isn’t? What happens if your biggest success is already behind you? Does that mean you’re not a real writer? That you’re a failure?

Elizabeth Gilbert touches on all these issues in her recent wonderful talk on genius and creativity. If you haven’t already, you really must check it out for she argues that you cannot let your sense of self get tied up in how your books do and also that it’s a pernicious myth that a creative person must be insane or damaged or both and that ultimately your art will destroy you.

It dovetails neatly with my thinking of late. Because I’ve been wondering if all the angsting that I and so many other writers do is fueled by a belief in those myths. Do we angst because we think we should? Because that’s what we’ve learned writers do? Deep in our subconscious do we believe that we’re not a real writer if we’re not suffering?

I believed it growing up. When I was young I obsessively read and re-read Katinka Matson’s Short lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self-destruction and the work of all the writers included in that book. I honestly thought that in order to be creative I would have to suffer and be self-destructive.

It bewildered me that any time actual bad things happened I found myself unable to write. I was not inspired by them, I was devastated. I have always written more prolifically and better when I’m happy. Later, much later, I could make sense of the bad things, but never at the time. Conversely I am always much happier when I’m writing a lot. When the writing is going well I’m way happier than any award or review or book sales have ever made me.

I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success. How To Ditch Your Fairy was the easiest and most fun book to write, thus far it’s been my most successful. Despite my struggles on the rewrite of the liar book it’s still been a much easier and more fun book to write than Magic’s Child, which was (other than my PhD thesis) my most unhappy writing experience. Rewriting the liar book’s been hard, but it’s also mostly been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes I’d really like not to be in the narrator’s head, cause, well, she’s a compulsive liar, but the tricky structure has been an excellently brain stretching experience. I’ve learned so much writing the book; I think I’m a better writer because of it. That’s very happy making.

If the liar book does well in the real world that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, I still know it’s the best book I could possibly make it.

I will admit that I have talked about writing the liar book as though I were suffering. Because I kind of thought I should be. Which is nuts.

The myth of the suffering artist is very pervasive.

But Liz Gilbert is right: it’s a stupid myth. We should forget about it. Write because you love it. Write because it’s your job. Write to produce the best books you can and to be happy with them. No matter what happens after they’re out of your control you will know that you made them as good as you knew how.

That’s the part of being a writer that is in our own hands; that’s the part that truly matters.

Cricket weather & the Littlest MorM and Magic Lessons

I was just sent notification that Wunderground now has a cricket weather page. We can all check out what the weather is for any ICC game in the world. Ordinarily I ignore any such advertising but this one’s actually cool and useful.1 I’m also chuffed that my intermittent nattering about cricket is on anyone’s radar.

Sadly, it does not have the weather for any women’s international matches. Including the current world’s cup where shockingly the English women are ahead at the moment. NOES!!! Also it gives the weather in both sensible Celsius and the other weird temperature measurement scale. Why? No one who follows cricket knows or cares what that F nonsense is about. Honestly.2

In even more important news (and not a total segue for cricket gets a passing mention in the first book of the trilogy) I now has six copies of the Japanese edition of Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons. They are tiny! I adores them. They are the smallest books ever to have my name on them. It is ridiculous how excited I am by their teeny tininess and yet I am.

Here they are with the US hardcovers for scale:

So. Adorable.

  1. I have learned that the temperature in the world of cricket is much better than it is here. So. Not. Fair. Not that I didn’t already know that. []
  2. All comments from people claiming to follow cricket and the F nonsense will be deleted because you’re clearly lying. []

Clothes question

Jenny Davidson asked:

I am not a clothes person—I see why nice ones are nice, but I hate shopping and really I just wear jeans and a cotton shirt every day. BUT your description in the opening pages of Magic or Madness of the pants that Tom makes for Reason is so good (and the pants are so much what I would like for myself!) that I cannot resist asking you—yes, I know that really they are the creation of his magic talent . . . —BUT do you think there is a store I could go to in New York where I could get an approximation of those pants?!?

Good question. Cargo pants with lots of pockets. There was a point in the 1990s/early 2000s when they were everywhere. But I have not seen them in such quantities for awhile. I had a pair that I bought online cause they were featured on boingboing (sorry can’t find link). But I wouldn’t recommend them. While I loved them, and they were way cool, they fell apart after not many wears. There was sadness. Plus those were men’s pants, which for me is often a better fit than women’s (I really hate low waists) but not so for most women.

Google cargo pants many pockets and you’ll find a range of them. Though I have to say that after going through a page I found none that I liked. There was this pair. Not many pockets, but. Not a great colour. Also way low waist. *Shudder*

That search pulled up many many pages so you might find something. Plus I am extremely fussy.

Do any of my dear readers have any suggestions? Know of a great online or NYC shop that has a tonnes of many-pocketed cargo pants?

Tiny change + Japanese covers

Inspired by how much fun I’ve had with the month of writing requests I’ve decided to make a few changes around here. Basically I’m no longer blogging about stuff I think I should blog about. From now on I only talk about what I want to talk about.

I always figured that I had to let you know when my books get good reviews etc. even though I find writing those posts the most boring thing in the world. Not to mention embarrassing. I always feel like I’m saying, “Hey look at me! I’m fabulous!” My heart was never in it. Thus there will be no posting about reviews of any of my books unless the reviewers raises an interesting point I want to riff on. If you’re interested in that kind of thing you can find pull quotes for each of my books in their review section. I will continue to add them as they come in.

Note: My not blogging about reviews does not mean that I’m against other writers doing so. I’m not criticising any of you. I find some writers’ discussions of their reviews fascinating, some a train wreck1, and some unreadably dull. Just like blogging about any subject really. I would never blog about cakes and yet Cake Wrecks is one of my favourite blogs.

More and more readers of this blog are here, not because they like my books, but because they like this blog. So overall I will be blogging less about the publicity aspects of my career. Though I will continue to bitch and moan and be rapturous over my struggles and joys in writing those books.

I’ll also continue to let you know about upcoming events because otherwise how will I get to meet you? But you can always check here for details.

And nothing can stop me posting about other editions of my books. Because that’s my favourite thing about being a published writer: I has books in different languages and different covers! Bliss! Joy! Happiness! For example, my foreign rights agent, Whitney Lee, just sent me links with the Japanese covers of Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons and they’re fabulous!

I love that Reason is wearing the outfit I describe her wearing and that Tom is surrounded by fabric. It’s as if the cover designer had actually read the books! Made my day! Whatcha reckon about these covers? I still love the German ones best, but these are up there.

Speaking of great covers. Just wait till you see the cover for the paperback edition of How To Ditch Your Fairy. It’s the best cover I’ve ever had. Bless you, Bloomsbury!

  1. Though that’s still fascinating. []

JWAM reader request no. 25: Pacing

Rachael Says:

I was hoping you might talk a little bit about pacing. What are your thoughts on it? What kind of methods do you have for making sure things move at a proper pace; how do you tell if it’s too slow or too fast at certain points? Whatever you can tell me about this subject would help. Also, if you feel like passing this around to any of your other writer friends who blog (or if you know of anyone who has already blogged about this), I’d be curious to hear their answers, too.

I don’t think much about pacing until I have a finished draft. Then it becomes all I think about. No doubt about it pacing is hard. And you will never satisfy everyone. I’ve had quite a few people tell me—especially teenagers—that they found the beginning of Magic or Madness and How To Ditch Your Fairy boring, but that once they got into they were fine. I’ve also had some folks complain—all adults—that both those books move too fast and they do so at the expense of depth and literary worth. Whatcha gonna do?

As instructed I asked around my writer buddies and here’s what they came up with. Listed in the order that I received them:

    Cory Doctorow: Things get worse on every page = reason to turn the page.

    E. Lockhart: I am always trying to fix the pacing issues created by my philosophy of “just write it stupidly the first time and fix it later.”

    Robin Wasserman: I’m horrible at pacing—my editor used to tease me that my first drafts always have about thirty chapters of nothing, then two really ACTION PACKED chapters of CHAOS, then boom, THE END. It’s vaguely embarrassing. For me, I’ve found the best ways around this are outlining (I outline before I start writing, but I think it would be equally, maybe even more helpful to outline your first draft once it’s finished, so you can see very clearly the dead zones where nothing happens). I also outline other books that I feel are structurally similar to my own, and try to figure out how the authors move around their characters, where and when the action scenes fall, etc. I still suck at this, but I’m working on it.

    Sherwood Smith: The old structure of action-reaction is a good rubric. If reaction starts stretching out too long, especially when reaction turns into the character(s) planning the next action—which requires some new information, may as well insert it here–I sense the pacing slowing, slowing, slowing. Reaction and planning scenes need to have the motivation (with its attendant emotion) right up front. When the emotional logic is as convincing as the physical logic then the pacing ramps up correspondingly. I think.

    Ellen Kushner: Pacing is entirely subjective. Just the way an hour spent talking with an old friend can feel like a minute, while ten minutes in the dentist’s chair can feel like ten lifetimes, so good pacing is about whether the reader is having a nice time or not. How that time is spent almost doesn’t count as long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind that needs to be answered. It can be immensely trivial-seeming (“Will she accept the party invitation?”) or huge (“Will they get the serum to the town in time to save her life?”) or personal (“Why on earth did the hero insult her when she seems so nice?”) . . . as long as there’s something I want to know, I’ll keep going. You, the writer, get to decide what it will be.

    Ursula Dubosarsky: I remember an eleven year old boy in a workshop, when I asked what sort of problems they had writing stories, saying: “How do I make my story last longer? Like, I wrote this story about a boy climbing up to the top of the volcano and then he fell in and that was the end.”

    Makes you feel like an agony aunt, that sort of question. How to delay the obvious gratification of having your hero fall headlong into a volcano…perhaps he stops on the way and has a sandwich? looks at a flower? remembers his last meeting with his aging grandmother? Only after all that your readers may well toss it aside . . .

    Pace is very fascinating. I think it’s all about experimenting. When I write there’s a lot of coming and going, trying this and that and seeing how it reads—like balancing hundreds of different sized bricks on a scale—until you feel it’s just about right and then you tiptoe away very quietly…(Crash!)

    Margo Lanagan: I think this one’s really a practice thing—reading a lot of differently paced stories, particularly ones that change pace internally, so that you get a feel for the kinds of details that get left out/included in order to speed up/slow down the telling. Where do authors make the cuts (e.g. how is a hot-pursuit scene put together)? Where do they start letting their characters pause and look around and register the smell of the roses/drains (e.g. when the character is home free/dying/waiting for the next burst of activity)?

    How do you know when a scene is moving too slow or too fast? You just know, from experience. Too fast, and you get confused (sometimes you have to ask someone else to tell you whereabouts they get confused); too slow and you find yourself thinking about shopping lists, or yawning, or not caring what happens to this dreary character in his overdescribed cave that has nothing to do with the plot. There is no quick recipe; you just develop a feeling for pacing by experiencing lots of examples of good and bad pacing.

    Diana Peterfreund: 1. “Get in late, get out early.” That means start the scene at the latest possible moment you can and end before it gets boring. Try to end on a “hook” too—keeps things moving.

    2. Elmore Leonard said “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Good advice. That means no scenes of hair brushing, unless it’s important to the plot (the only time I can think of is in The Snow Queen.) You can also skip the scenes of people going from one place to another, most times. Just put in a scene break and then put ‘em there.

    3. If things are getting slow, throw in an explosion. That’ll hold ‘em.

    Melina Marchetta: Pacing’s hard. If I’m writing an action packed scene, like one of the fight or chase scenes in Finnikin, I use continous verbs (-ing words—flying, thumping, connecting, roaring etc) and I tend not to use punctuation, soo it seems as if the chase or fight is neverending.

    Scott Westerfeld: Pacing is like a monkey on fire: you either have one or you don’t.

Wow. How cool is it seeing those different takes side by side? I wish I’d written all these writing posts like this. So much less work!

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.

JWAM reader request no. 15: Copyright fears

Michelle Madow Says:

A lot of my friends have been asking me to email them what I’ve written so far, and it’s started me thinking about copyright. I want to show my friends what I’m working on so I can get their input, but don’t want to hurt myself in the end by doing so. Also, if I ever get published, I don’t want to have to deal with copyright lawsuits! How do I go about obtaining copyright, and how does copyright work for an unpublished author??

Kt Says:

I’m finding that its incredibly difficult to write fiction that theoretically occurs in a “real” world, that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the timelines and reality of said world. Sometimes i feel like it would be so much easier just to create an entirely imaginary world even though realistically that is a lot harder to develop. I can think of several writers who have done well by anchoring a “fictional” town in a “real” place. I’m debating between if i need to do that or if i can just fictionalize real places to be what i need them to be. i don’t even know if there are legal issues with that, i remember being very confused reading pride & prejudice with all the ____shires etc to avoid naming actual places. What do you find to be the best way to deal with this when there really is a need to anchor the story to at least a specific area?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not an intellectual property lawyer.

But my gut response is that neither of you has anything to worry about. I’ve been in the writing game a long time. As an amateur unpublished writer I showed my work to gazillions of people and as a published writer I’ve shown it (pre-publication) to even more and no one has ever stolen a single idea, or character, or setting of mine. Nor have I ever heard of it happening to any of the other many many many writers I know.

I’ve seen cases where one person was inspired by the story of another writer in their crit group to write a story in response. In which case they told the writer what they were doing and asked if it was okay. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. Writers inspiring one another!

I’ve also seen unpublished writers posting published work and claiming it as their own fan fiction. This has happened to Scott’s Uglies and many other writers. Here’s the thing though, it had zero effect on Scott or his sales, because fans recognised it instantly and began harrassing the plagiarist to take it down, which they eventually did.

And just to repeat what I said in this post and many others: ideas cannot be stolen. They’re there for the taking. Plagiarism refers to the theft of words, not ideas. Did I mention that ideas can’t be stolen?

It depresses me that there’s so much worry about copyright nowadays. I’ve had kids as young as twelve ask me how to protect their writing from being stolen. Maybe I’m completely sheltered but I’ve never had anyone try to steal my work. Unless you count this kid who tried to copy my maths homework when I was in year seven and boy did that go horribly wrong for him. (I’m innumerate.)

Perhaps that’s part of the copyright concern? Cheating by copying other people’s homework?

But I think it’s more likely that it’s because there is so much misinformation about copyright. I keep coming across people who think that ideas and plots can be stolen. No, they can’t. Many people think that Eragon violates copyright because of its similarities to Star Wars and the Anne McCaffrey Dragon books and Lord of the Rings.1 No, it’s not. Paolini may have been influenced by those books—and, please, show me one published novel that is uninfluenced by previous novels—but his words are his own. You can accuse him of being unoriginal, but not of being a plagiarist. Ideas, plots, even character types, can’t be stolen.2

Let’s say a novel is published that’s a relatively original take on, for example, uni***ns, and then a couple of years later someone else writes a very similar book about uni***ns, and for some reason, even though it’s not as original or well-written as the book it was inspired by, the second book does much better than the first.

So not fair! Fans of the first book are really pissed with the author of the second. But unfairness doesn’t make it plagiarism. Words were not stolen, ideas were borrowed. There’s no copyright violation.

And what often happens is that the first book gets a lift in popularity on the back of the first one’s success because fans of it are desperate for more cool uni***n books. I call that win-win. (Of a sort.)

Not to mention that what’s imitation and what’s an original riff on an existing book is in the eye of the beholder. I know people who find Eragorn refreshingly original and are appalled that anyone could think otherwise. People read differently. Why, I know readers who do not acknowledge that Angela Carter is a genius. Insanity!

Michelle, you should send your work out to your friends. First of all, if they’re anything like me or my friends, most of them won’t get around to reading it. Secondly, the more people who see your work the safer you are from theft because all your friends will know that you wrote it and will call the thief out. But I have to emphasise that I haven’t seen this happen. The fear of someone stealing your work is WAY out of proportion to actual instances of that happening.

Feedback is crucial

When you send your work to other people or post it online, you get critical responses that not only helps that piece of work, but all your subsequent work. The benefit is real, immediate, and lasting. The chances of having your work stolen are, in contrast, vanishingly small and apply only to that one piece of work.

If someone is so uncreative and unoriginal that they have to steal someone else’s words eventually they’re going to get caught. (The intermanets has made it much easier to uncover plagiarism. Witness the Kaavya Viswanathan case.) Whereas you, who are creative and original, will continue to write wonderful stuff. The more you write the more evident that will be. The way of the plagiarist is unsustainable.

Scott puts it this way:

    You are the goose that lays the golden eggs, and you’re just getting started at the whole egg-laying thing. Don’t worry so much about what happens to every single egg at this point; worry about getting better at making eggs.

    As Cory Doctorow likes to say, the problem for the artist is not piracy, but obscurity. If you hide your work, you’re making yourself obscure.

    Art is a conversation. By keeping your work from other artists, you are cutting yourself off from that conversation. The costs of losing that feedback and those connections with other artists are about a million times greater than the risk of plagiarism.

Copyrighting your work

As I understand it (and remember I’m not a lawyer) copyright only applies to completed works. So it’s not something to worry about until you have a finished work. And even then I wouldn’t worry. I have never applied for copyright. It never occurred to me to do so. Once a publisher buys your novel they apply for the copyright and get your ISBN numbers too.

When you start submitting your work to agents and editors. DO NOT put a copyright sign on it. That makes you look like an amateur. No reputable agent or editor will ever steal your work. The internamanets allow you to thoroughly check out any agent before submitting. Writers Beware and sites like it are your friend.3

And now for Kt’s question about whether you should set your book in a real place or not:

My first novels—the Magic or Madness trilogy—were set in the real world. In parts of the Northern Territory, Sydney, New York City, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok and Dallas to be precise. It never crossed my mind that could be a problem. The vast majority of novels published every year all around the world are set in the real world using real names of streets and places, as well as made-up ones. Some of the restaurants and cafes in the trilogy are real, some are not. I bent things to suit my needs. That’s one of they joys of novel writing—no footnotes. As far as I know there are no legal issues involved in setting your book in a real place. (But remember I’m not a lawyer.)

When it comes to institutions like universities and specific businesses I think the common practise is to be a bit cautious. Especially if you’re writing a book where some of your characters are thinly disguised real people and it’s pretty clear your novel is an expose of the dirty world of Princeton or Vogue magazine or Harvey Norman or whatever. But I believe simply renaming them takes care of that. Any intellectual property/copyright lawyer want to step in here?

I have no idea why Jane Austen and many of her contemporaries did the whole ____shires thing. Though I’ve always wondered. But I have too much on my plate to start googling around to find out. Any of my genius and well-read readers know?

My main message is that you don’t need to be overly concerned about copyright. Put those thoughts aside and get on with your writing. Focus on writing perfect sentences, coming up with cracker plots, and crafting unputdownable novels. Trust me, getting that right is much more of a worry than being sued over setting your story in a real place or one of your friend’s stealing your ideas, (which CAN’T be stolen, did I mention that?)

One last thing: I am all for copyright. Its existence means that I am able to make money from writing. My copyrighted work has sold in ten different territories, earning me extra money in each one. Copyright is a very good thing indeed.

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. Disclaimer: I have not read any of Paolini’s books so I have no idea if that’s true or not. []
  2. Anyone who tries to start a flamewar pro or con Paolini gets deleted. []
  3. I have a bit more to say on how to check whether an agent is legit here. []

JWAM reader request no. 7: The storyless character

Dahlia Says:

Justine, what do you do when you have a great character but no story to put them in???
It’s a question that’s been bugging me for about a year, which is the amount of time I’ve had a plotless character in my head that I really want to write about… but can’t.
I don’t have anywhere to put her.

Hmmm. Tricky. I do touch on this with the ideas post and also the one on how to get unstuck. There’s much about plot generation there.

Maybe you should plonk your character down in a fairy-tale plot and see what happens? Holly Black did that with Valiant, reworking “Beauty and the Beast” to most excellent effect. (I adore that book.)

One of the satisfying things about rewriting a familiar story is how it can surprise you. Because your character is not Cinderella or Puss’n'Boots when you put them in their shoes you’ll find your character has transformed the story so that’s it’s almost unrecognisable. It took me awhile to realise that Valiant was a rewrite of “Beauty and the Beast”. (I can be thick that way.)

It could be that the book for this particular character of yours just isn’t ready yet. Perhaps you need longer than a year to think and mull and let the story grow. It took me three years before I was ready to write the Liar book.

Often I just start typing in the character’s voice and the story starts to unfold and take me in unexpected directions. How To Ditch Your Fairy started with Charlie ranting about how much she hates her parking fairy. Her voice was clear and strong right from the beginning. I knew instantly who she was, but I had to figure out where she was, why she wanted to get rid of her fairy so much, and what would happen when she did. What is now the third chapter of the book was the first thing I wrote.

On the other hand, I’ve also started writing a character and gotten no further than that. Back in the olden days, I had loads of characters who never found a short story to live in, let alone a novel. They were nothing more than character sketches. But they taught me a lot about writing people and dialogue.

As I’ve discussed, there are many ways to generate story. Throwing things at your character teaches you a lot about them (Aristotle’s drama is character revealed through action yet again). Make their life complicated. Give them relatives, friends, impediments, responsibilities, a shitty job.

When I started Magic or Madness, Reason was on her own a lot. It was really boring. So I added another character, Tom, who pushed the plot in all sorts of interesting directions. There’s nothing more boring than one person in a room. Add another one. Add two. Why not four? Have them argue. Right there you have the plot engine of Scott’s Midnighters series: five midnighters arguing with each other for three books.

More people = more complications = more plot.

Whenever I’m stuck I throw more stuff in. That’s the engine of all novels: more stuff being thrown in. Take Pride & Prejudice. Pretty early on you learn that there’s a husband and a wife with five daughters. She’s hellbent on getting them married off. He’s worried about them not being provided for, though is too lazy to do much about it. Two new marriage prospects come to town. One of the daughters falls for one of them and he for her. One of them is slighted by the other new bloke in town.

More and more stuff keeps happening. More blokes are thrown into the mix, as well as aunts and uncles, also illness, vapours, marriage proposals, refusals, acceptances, elopements, miscommunications, lies, zombies. More and more complications. So it goes until the book reaches its climax, resolving the miscommunications and complications, and rushing (too quickly!) to its end.

Your character needs other people, other stuff, a quest, a band, a mission, a zombie apocalypse to react against in order to have a story. Your job is to get them out of the blank white room and into a wider (and hopefully exploding) universe.

Good luck!

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.

JWAM Reader request no. 4: On getting published (Updated)

I’ve had a couple of questions that are about publishing, not writing. I have disqualifed such questions from this month’s advice though I might run a publishing questions month later in the year.1 But since I’ve already gotten two such questions I’m grandfathering them in.

But I will answer NO OTHER publishing questions! From now on: questions about the process of writing only. Thanks!

beth says:

I’d be interested in looking at the differences in submissions from when you were first starting to now. Could you share your query letters? Could you show us a real-life synopsis that you used when publishing one of your books? As someone with a complete novel and complete lack of success in publishing, I’d love to know more about the nitty-gritty of publishing, what it looked like for you when you sought publication, etc.

And, of course, I’d love to see your zombie attack plan

Beth, I can’t answer your second question because this is not zombie questions month. Save it for later.

Mitch Wagner says:

The one that’s really got me stumped: How do you sell a first novel? Does you really need to get an agent first? If so, how can you tell who the good agents are and who are the crooks? There’s so much writing advice out there, it all sounds authoritative, and I don’t believe any of it. I have friends who are established writers, and I don’t even believe THEM, because all they can tell me is how they got started 10 or 15 or 39 years ago, not how to get started today.

These quessies are variants on how to get published. Please take into account that I am not an editor or an agent and have, in fact, never worked in the publishing industry except as a writer. Thus I am not the best qualified person to answer these questions.

Like, for example, I have never written a query letter. Although I spent twenty years trying to make my first professional sale, I was trying to break into the genre short story market. The markets I was submitting to didn’t require a query letter more complicated than “this is my story it is x words long”.

By the time I started to shop my first completed novel in 1999, I had made enough contacts in the publishing industry that three agents and two editors agreed to look at it without my querying them. They all passed on it. That novel remains unpublished. So does the novel I wrote after it.

My path to publication was accidental. Eloise Flood listened to me pitch the Magic or Madness trilogy and then bought it from the proposal2. It helped that she’d read an early novel of mine so she knew I could write a complete novel. It also helped that she had a brand new imprint at Penguin, called Razorbill, and was desperate. I learned later that she was very nervous about the risk. Lucky for her and for me it worked out.

That is not the usual path. When I tell unpublished writers my story they tend to respond by saying. “Oh, so it’s not what you know it’s who you know.”

Which bewilders me. They seem to not hear the part about spending twenty years trying to get into print. TWENTY YEARS, people!

Or the fact that my contacts turned me down flat. Having contacts might3 get your work looked at faster, but it still has to be good, and they still have to love it enough to publish it.

I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t relied on my scant contacts, if I’d done it properly and queried lots of agents and editors, instead of just five. Maybe I would have gotten published faster if I’d tried the old fashioned way?

The vast majority of pro writers I know found their agent and got published by doing a lot of research to figure out what agents suited them best and then sent out query letters. Scott did it that way and he did it in the days before the internet made the search for an agent easier with site likes Agent Query. Maybe you should ask him about query letters? Though that was back in 1996.

I do know a bunch of people who’ve debuted in the last few years or about to in the next few. Every single one of them sent out query letters to get an agent.

I’m not sure if there are any big NYC houses left that officially accept unsolicited manuscripts. I do know though that they all have slush piles made up of the unsolicited manuscripts. I hear that very very very very very occasionally some plucky editorial assistant finds gold in them there hills. But it’s probably the most difficult way to get published. A manuscript from a reputable agent gets read much much quicker. My agent, Jill Grinberg, started getting responses from editors about How To Ditch Your Fairy less than a week after it went out.

Reputable agents make things happen faster. When you get an offer they protect you from signing a pernicious contract. I did not have an agent when I signed with Penguin for the MorM trilogy. That deal was much less favourable to me than the one brokered by Jill for HTDYF and the Liar book.

How do you know who’s a reputable agent and who isn’t? The easiest way is to check who their clients are, and what their sales record is. Here’s a random agents’ site and look it’s not even based in NYC. (Yes, there are good agents who are not based in New York City.) But who are their clients? Why New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is one of them. Well, I’ve heard of her. A quick check on Publishers Marketplace reveals that it’s quite a big agency with a lot of agents and many recent sales.

AgentQuery allow you to find agents for your specific genre. If an agency doesn’t have any writers you’ve heard of in your genre be concerned. I assume that you are very familiar with your genre. How else could you write a book in it? Writers Beware is a great place to check if you think an agent might be dodgy. Never query an agent who charges fees of any kind. Reputable agents don’t.

It’s also a good idea to check out agents’ blogs. Kristin Nelson‘s is a particularly good one and has links to many other agents’ blogs. She often shares her clients’ successful query letters and explains what it was about them that attracted her attention.

It sounds to as if Mitch and Beth above have already been down the querying salt mines without luck. Trust me, I know how much it sucks. I’m about to get all my stuff out of storage here in Sydney and one of the things I plan to do is go through my dispiriting collection of rejection letters. Even now that I’m published and have a wee bit of a career just the thought of them gets me down. I’m not yet ready to celebrate them the way that Shannon Hale does with her long roll of laminated letters. Being rejected sucks and publishing is a world of no.

My biggest piece of advice is not about agents or editors. It’s to keep writing. Beth and Mitch appear to have written only one novel. Beth says “a completed novel”. Mitch says “first novel”. A while back Tobias Buckell ran a survey and discovered that only 35% of published writers sold their first novel. I suspect if he’d gotten a bigger response that would be an even lower percentage.

My first two novels remain unsold. I have friends who sold their tenth first. Selling your first novel is the exception, not the rule.

There comes a time when you need to set your first novel, your baby, aside and move on. Doesn’t have to be forever. I still have hopes that one day my first will find its way into print. But you have to shift your focus to the next novel. If you get no where finding an agent for it, write another.

Keep writing novels. You’ll get better with each one. It’s okay to take a break from submitting and sending out queries. You can even stop altogether. Getting published is not the thing, writing is.

Yeah, I know. That was said to me during my twenty years of trying and it was annoying as hell. But, you know what? I kept writing. And if my career comes to a grinding halt, which statistically it’s likely to, that won’t stop me either. I will always keep writing. I can’t not. (Though I’m really good at taking long breaks from it.)

I guess the other advice—which I really wish I could take myself—is to not take rejection personally. The agent isn’t thinking about you at all, but about whether they like your book, and whether they think it’s saleable.

I realise that I did not touch on synopses. My quick and dirty advice is to think of the synopsis as an advertisement for the book, not the book itself. Though you should really ask Diana Peterfreund for synopsis advice. She is much better at them than I am and claims to love writing them. I do not.

Update: Bless Diana for she has now written a post on writing synopses. And it is very good.

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, but I will not be answering any more on publishing.

  1. Though I am far less qualified to answer publishing questions. []
  2. Which consisted of the first three chapters, a detailed synopsis, and bits of back story []
  3. It doesn’t always—one of my contacts never got back to me. []

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. 1: Choosing povs

Malcolm Tredinnick Says:

Picking a point of view and how you learnt to work with the different types would be something I’d be interested to hear about. As a reader, I kind of know when the point of view works for the story and when it doesn’t, but I don’t really know how consciously writers make the choice or how you do it.

Hmmm, a tricky one first up. Curses!

I think I may have mentioned that for most of my writing life i.e since I was five and first started, I wrote short stories, not novels. I’d start many but not finish them. But I finished hundreds of short stories. None of them were much good as stories, but they were excellent for learning stuff like how to use the different points of view.

And, wow, did I. I even have a few stories written in second person. Those were on purpose experiments, but in my early days I did lots of experimenting without knowing what I was doing. I would change points of view willy nilly. One minute a story would be in first, and then in limited third, and them in omniscient. I’d write from Jack’s pov, then Chan’s, then Jill’s, then Kara’s. Sometimes all in the one paragraph. Those stories were mostly unreadable, but slowly I started to learn my way around the four basic povs.

In those early bouncing-around-all-over-the-place stories I had no control over what I was doing with pov. I didn’t notice the constant changing. That was something I learnt by writing all those bad stories.

How does that translate to what I write now?

The first draft of Magic or Madness was written in third person. I also thought the book was going to be entirely from Reason’s pov. I wound up with Reason’s voice being in first and the two other pov characters, Tom and Jay-Tee, being in third. I’m not sure how that happened. Reason just wasn’t working in third. Her voice seemed flat. As soon as I tried shifting it to first, the book took off. I’d found the right voice.

I think my struggle to find the right voice for Reason stems from the trilogy beginning life as a set of ideas, rather than with a specific character. Both How To Ditch Your Fairy and the Liar book began with the strong voice of the protag. Both are in first person. It never occurred to me to change. Didn’t need to.

Scott says he uses first person when the book is more digressive—So Yesterday, Peeps—it allows him to stop the narrative and say, “Hey, let me tell you this cool thing.” He uses third when the narrative has more of a straight drive, like the Midnighters and Uglies books.

My current novel is (at least partly) in omniscient. It’s big with a large cast of characters. I believe that omniscient is the point of view best suited to epics. I think Dunnett’s and Pullman’s1 deployment of it is a large part of what gives those books their distinctive epic feel. If I can make it work even half as well as they do I’ll be home and hosed.

I’m loving writing in omni. I love being able to move from a close in view of a character’s thoughts all the way out to a sweeping view of the city and that character’s place in it. Omniscient feels like the most metaphysical point of view. The most flexible too. It allows for straight driving narrative, digressions, whatever I want to do with it. Right now I am deeply in love and feel that it is perfectly suited to the huge story I am attempting to tell. Bless you, omni!

Hope that answers your question, Malcolm.

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. in His Dark Materials []

Up to date correspondence & the joys of fanmail

I am now almost up to November answering my correspondence. There’s only a hundred more emails to answer! Yay!

If you’ve written to me this year and not heard back from me, that means I either didn’t get your email, or you did not get my response. Either way best thing to do is to write me again.

I received more fan mail this year than all previous years added together. (Which, admittedly, was not hard as I received very few until this year.) Of all the fabulous things that have happened to me in 20081 those letters are by far the best. The majority were about posts and essays on this website—especially requesting writing advice. The next biggest group of letters were about the trilogy, and lastly about How To Ditch Your Fairy. Though to put that in perspective HTDYF has already attracted more letters in the few months since it was published than Magic or Madness did in its first 18 months of publication. Yay, fairy book!

Thank you so much for the wonderful letters. Each one gave me a tremendous lift. Even if I was already in a good mood they made me happier still. While I’ve always wanted to be a writer, until my first book came out, it had never really occurred to me to think about what that would actually mean, about what it would be like to have readers. I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I was so focussed on my writing, and on getting published, that I just hadn’t considered that part of the equation: that being published means being read by people I’ve never met. I’m glad that part didn’t occur to me ahead of time. I think it would have spooked me. But it turns out to be fabulous.

Thank you for all the letters pointing out the typos and errors in my books and my blog. I really appreciate them and do what I can to fix future editions. Keep ‘em coming!

Thanks to everyone who wrote and begged for more books in the Magic or Madness and HTDYF universes. I’m pretty sure that HTDYF is a standalone and the MorM series a trilogy, but I’m thrilled my books left you wanting more. The best way to get more is to write it yourself. There are gazillions of wonderful fanfic sites out there. You could add your own stories about the further adventures of Tom and Charlie. Go forth and create more fanfic! Mash up MorM with Buffy or Nana. Or HTDYF with Naruto! What would be cooler than that?

Thanks for all the tips on quokkas and mangosteens and cricket and 1930s fashions and photo sites. Much appreciated! Though I’m horrified that any of you are settling for dried mangosteen or mangosteen juice. Ewww. There are no substitutes for the actual fresh fruit!

Good luck with your writing. Yes, sometimes it can be hard and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. That happens to the professionals too. The only thing you can do is keep pushing through. Don’t give up. But remember to have fun with it too. One of the best things about not being published yet is that you have heaps of time to experiment. Write the same story in all the different points of view. See which one works best. Try writing a story backwards. Starting at the end and working your way towards the beginning. Write in lots of different genres. Muck around! Have fun!

Thanks for your letters, your comments, and all your support. It means the world to me.

xo

Justine

  1. Of which more on the last day of the year. []

Publishing doom and gloom

Here in the USA’s publishing capital, NYC, there are many signs of a publishing downturn: reports and rumours that books sales are down and that the big chains are ordering less books. A few of the big publishing houses are laying off staff, cutting expenses, not acquiring books, and various agents are seeing a slow-down in their sales, especially for debut novels.

Of all the genres children’s (which includes YA) seems to be the least affected. Sales have slowed but not nearly as drastically as in adults. The Times reports that while parents are curtailing their own spending they’re still buying their children presents. It’s interesting that the recent Times article that covered Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s freeze on acquisitions did not mention that the freeze does not apply to children’s books.

Children’s books are relatively inexpensive. Especially compared to adults. An average YA hardcover is US$16 while an average adult hardcover is US$24. Quite a difference. Adult books are also given higher advances (on average) and earn out slower, if they earn out at all. Several people told me that way more of their children’s list earns out than their adults. You hear that? We are profitable.

While sales are down, every single children’s division has at least one bona fide hit. Not all of those hits are as insanely huge as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, which have earned every employee at Little Brown a bonus, but they’re still doing very nicely. Not to mention that Meyer’s books have also benefited other authors by creating a demand for “more like that, please!” I’ve gotten quite a few letters from Twilight fans telling me they turned to the Magic or Madness books because they’d run out of Meyer’s. I am very very very thankful to Stephenie Meyer. She and J. K. Rowling are a huge part of why children’s is as profitable as it is. Bless you both!

That said, we are in (at the very least) a recession. Libraries are seeing big increases in traffic and more and more people are borrowing when before they might have bought (which as I argued yesterday is far from a bad thing for authors). Like I said, sales are down. They’re down all over and for many things not just books. (Unless you make Spam, that is.)

So am I worried?

Well, sure. But not that much more than usual. Publishing is a risky business even when the economy is booming. Genres go in and out of fashion, as do authors. I know writers who were doing brilliantly in the 1980s, who are now only published in the small press world. How many of the super popular children’s writers of the eighties and nineties are popular and publishing now?1

Most writers don’t make a living writing even in the best of times. Unpublished writers who are freaking out that they’ll never break through in such tough times are forgetting that their odds aren’t great anyway. It’s not just the unpublished who have trouble. The vast majority of authors with one published book never publish a second. Even long established writing careers go into decline.

Publishing is a tough business no matter what the economic climate. But at least we’re in the strongest part of our industry, and at least we’re not on Broadway, or making cars.

  1. Judy Blume, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, J. K. Rowling and, um, probably heaps of others I’m not thinking of right now. []

What Ally Carter said

Ally Carter has a wonderful post on asking the wrong questions about writing.1 She is a HUNDRED PER CENT correct! Go read her!

I’ve been asked every one of those questions many many times and I always struggle to answer them but I couldn’t figure out why exactly. Thank you so much, Ally Carter, for figuring it out for me.

So many beginner questions at writers conferences are more concerned with marketing than they are with writing. This is putting the cart so far in front of the horse it ain’t funny. Questions like—How long should a YA novel be? Should I blog to promote my book? (NO! Blog because you enjoy it.) How do I find an authentic teenage voice?—are coming at things from the completely wrong direction. (Read Ally Carter’s post for the right questions and excellent answers.) Especially when these questions come from people who haven’t finished a novel yet.

Write the book first.

Write in a genre you know and love and understand. Do not attempt to write a YA novel if you’ve never read any YA novels. My first novel is an adult historical. A genre I know and love. It didn’t sell. My second novel was YA. Another genre I’d read obsessively for years. It also didn’t sell, but it was seen by an editor who took a risk on buying an unwritten trilogy from me because she loved the concept. She’d seen that I could write a good novel so she trusted me to write three more.2

As I wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy I did not think about word count. I just wrote the book and it was as long as it needed to be, which happened to be 65 thousand words. I have never worried about the length of any of my books. They’ve all been the length they needed to be. YA novels range in length from as little as 40k words to as long as—what was Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing?—25 billion zillion katrillion words? Right then. But they were good words. The book is unputdownable even though it’s so heavy it could break your wrist.

When you’re writing your first novel your job is not to worry about word count, or any of those other irrelevancies, like how it will be marketed, your job is to write the best book you can. If it’s a billion zillion katrillion words long then fine as long as those words aren’t boring and crap.

Writing comes first. Always.

I have said this many times and sometimes I get the response that I must be lying because that person sent their extremely long novel out and it was widely rejected. The reason given was that it was too long.

I doubt very much that the agent/editor was saying that the book was too long for YA. There are many very long YAs.3 What they probably meant was that the book was too long for the novel it was. I.e. it wasn’t well-paced. The book needed cutting—not because it was YA—but because it was boring. If you’re getting that same comment over and over again then it’s time to stop sending the book out and go over it to see if they’re right. Are there sentences/chapter/sub-plots that could do with cutting and or trimming?

Or is it time to let that book rest and move on to the next one?

I’m always astonished by the people who say they want to be a writer who stop at one book. Well, it didn’t sell, they’ll tell me. THEN WRITE ANOTHER ONE. If you’ve written the book and it’s as good as you can make it then move on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. One of my friends wrote more than a dozen novels before they finally sold one. I sold my third novel. My first and second remain unpublished. It’s just how it goes.

It could be that your first novel was not ready to go out. It could be that now is not a good time for it. There are many many reasons books get rejected. Ninety-five per cent of the time it’s because they suck. Don’t worry, if you’ve been paying attention to the criticisms you’ve been receiving, and reading lots of really good novels, and working on your rewriting skills as well as your writing skills then your next novel will be much better. By the time you get to your tenth you’ll be rocking out loud.

Did I mention that it’s the writing that’s the thing?

  1. Via PubRants. []
  2. Which is a good thing to keep in mind. Sometimes even when you’re being rejected the editor/agent remembers you, because while they may not like that particular book, they see a glimmer of talent and hope that the next book might be more to their taste. Editors and agents are always looking for new and exciting writers. It’s a big part of their job. []
  3. By the likes of Libba Bray and Cassandra Clare. []

Two wondrous things

1) The fabulous Guarina Lopez, who is a genius with the camera and took my author photo as well as Diana Peterfreund’s, now has a truly gorgeous website showcasing her beautiful work. Check it out!

2) The Magic or Madness trilogy has sold in Korea! Woo hoo! Chungeorahm Publishing have made a very lovely offer for the trilogy and I have said yes! For those keeping count the trilogy is now published in eleven different countries: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. My happiness is huge. All hail Whitney Lee of The Fielding Agency who made the majority of those sales. She’s incredible.

I wish I had studied maths

I stopped studying maths in Year 7. Before that I’d made a bit of an effort but in my first year of high school (in New South Wales high school starts in Year 7) I downed tools. I was bored, annoyed, and couldn’t see the point so I quit. Technically I kept going to maths class—it was compulsory until the end of Year 10—but I failed each year and was never made to repeat. I didn’t learn anything new after Year 6.

At the time I thought it was excellent that I could get away with it. In class I read novels under the desk. I never studied and finished my maths exams quicker than anyone else cause I guessed all the answers. Thus giving me more time to read novels.

Now I regret it. My regret is very very very big. Because now I don’t have the underpinnings to understand even the most basic mathematics and science. (I also stopped studying science very early.) Writing the Magic or Madness trilogy was a nightmare. It’s very difficult to write a character who is a mathematical prodigy when you yourself are a mathematical moron.

My current regret, however, is fuelled by the Rethinking Basketball blog. Quentin who writes it is a numbers boy. He has all sorts of fancy formulas and statistics to map the performances of different WNBA players and teams. Like how to take defence into account when figuring out who the Most Valuable Player should be.

I understand almost none of it and that fact fills me with despair. If I could go back in time I would tell the bored and cranky twelve-year-old me that maths would come in handy later on and I should really pay attention to the nice man. (My Year 7 maths teacher was a sweetie, who did not deserve me as a student.)

But plenty of people—including my parents—were telling me that at the time and I ignored them. I probably would have ignored the adult me as well. Sigh.

So it’s now more than a little bit ironic that I am in the position of telling twelve year olds that they should pay attention in maths class. But you really really should. Who knows when or where it will come in handy. But trust me, it will. Don’t be as stupid as I was.

This has been a public service announcement. You are most welcome.

Thank you and sorry

Lately, I’ve been receiving a slew of lovely fan letters mostly about HTDYF but also about the trilogy. More than I’ve ever received before. Thank you so much.

I’m really sorry I haven’t replied yet. Right now there are more than three thousand emails in my inbox. And lots and lots and lots of other more pressing matters—you know, the kind that pay bills—have to be dealt with before I can get to the non-urgent email. Please forgive me.

Obviously I’m not very good at managing my time, but I’m working on it. I will get to your letters I just don’t know when. Please bear with me.

In the meantime, I remain committed to blogging every day. So if all else fails you’ll always hear from me here.

I just wanted you to know that your letters and comments make my day. Thank you.

And if anyone can loan me a time-enlarging device, I’ll be your best friend.

FAQ updated + good news

Thanks to everyone for all the questions. I have now updated the FAQ by incorporating the new quessies and dividing it into four sections:

Personal
Writerising
Magic or Madness Trilogy
How To Ditch Your Fairy

If you have more questions feel free to ask them over there.

There are spoilers in the MorM FAQ but they are at the bottom under a spoiler warning. There are no How To Ditch Your Fairy spoilers. Aren’t I good to you people?

Speaking of which, I just found out that HTDYF is a Junior Library Guild selection. This is quite the honour as they have a reputation for picking books that go on to be award-winners and bestsellers. If you look through their book selections you’ll recognise many fabulous books.

There was also a gorgeous new review over on the Ravenous Reader Reviews. I’ve never had so many reviews and comments and fan mail about a book before it was even published. I could get used to this!

Though publication is very soon: 16 September in the US of A. That’s nearly almost two weeks away!

Notice anything different around here?

Why, yes, my site has had a redesign. Isn’t it gorgeous? The fabulous Stephanie Leary has remade it so that it all fits neatly in WordPress.1

My request for the redesign was pretty simple:

  • Make it look as much like the existing blog as possible. Only, you know, better.
  • Keep it clean and simple and easily navigable.
  • Set it up so I don’t have to turn to a designer every time I have a new book to add.

Stephanie succeeded on all fronts. I love it. SO MUCH.

Not only is it beautiful but there’s loads more stuff such as:

The musings, which were my pre-blog blog, have been added to the Archives so they’re much easier to access than previously. They stretch back to 2002. Some of them are quite revealing and some embarrassing. A few I’m very proud of.

I was sad to leave my old site behind. It was a gorgeous design and I’ll miss it, which is why I have this page to commemorate the old site and thank its designer, Deb Biancotti, for all her work.

Please have a bit of an explore. Let me know what you think and report any typos, broken links, weirdnesses that you find. I wants it to be perfect, I does!

Here’s hoping you like the new look as much as I do.

  1. I never have to deal with Dreamweaver again! My happiness is huge. []
  2. Yes, all my novels come with glossaries. []
  3. It’s better than a DVD! []

Happiness is . . .

. . . a really lovely fan letter.

See, when I mentioned here that I get more fan mail from adults than teens it was said wistfully—with a little sadness even. One of my teen readers saw and understood:

In your latest blog post, you said that most of your fan mail comes from adults. Because of this, I believe that, being the teenager I am, I should send you fan mail.

So, here is your fanmail from a teenager:

I luuuuuurve the Magic or Madness trilogy. Each one is incredibly fawesome. I made the mistake of bringing them to school this past year, where I could not read them straight through. (Side note: Fellow classmates give you weird looks when you’re reading a book entitled Magic Lessons.) I had to wait until I finished my work to read them. I did not want to wait. They were too awesome.

So, yeah, I loved them a lot. I can’t wait to read How to Ditch Your Fairy. It too looks awesome. Good luck finishing your new book.

Oh, and in regards to the last line of your latest post: You better stay a YA writer. I will be sad if you don’t. D:

– Khy

Thank you, Khy, you made my day. Week, really. No, month. Actually you may have made my entire year. Bless!

I especially liked that she talks about how she read the trilogy. It reminded me of when I was still in school and would read books under my desk when teachers weren’t looking. Yeah, I know, I was bad to the bone. When I was caught up in a book it was pretty much impossible to stop reading so International Studies and Maths be damned I was gunna keep reading till I finished even if there was a class going on.1

Like Margo Rabb says one of the most amazing parts of writing YA is the gorgeous letters you get from adults and teens—but especially teens. They’re who I write for after all.

  1. Apparently, Khy is more disciplined than I was. []

Locus Awards 2008

This is old news to many of you but I just found out that Scott and me are finalists for the Young Adult section of the Locus Awards. And the woo hoos ring out across the Larbfeld world!

YOUNG ADULT BOOK

Extras, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)
The H-Bomb Girl, Stephen Baxter (Faber & Faber)
Magic’s Child, Justine Larbalestier (Penguin Razorbill)
Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt; Gollancz)
Un Lun Dun, China Miéville (Ballantine Del Rey; Macmillan UK)

Quite the strong list, eh? Being on a shortlist with Ursula Le Guin makes me feel faint. Let me fan myself a moment. For those who are wondering this is not the first time me and Scott have been on the same shortlist. We’ve been up for Aurealis, Ditmar and Norton Awards at the same time and now the Locus. Wow, I can’t believe our books have been on so many shortlists! It’s ridiculous and wonderful and the most excellent good luck.

The Locus Awards honours much fabulous work this year (as it does every year) but I was particularly thrilled about two mates of mine making the Best First novel list. Congratulations to Christopher Barzak who made the list with his brilliant and very moving One For Sorrow and Cassandra Clare for her unputdownable hilariously funny City of Bones. They’re geniuses both and I’m stoked other people have noticed! YAY!!!

Seen in Germany + some news

Look what I saw in an actual bookshop, RavensBuch in Friedrichshafen! Isn’t it gorgeous?:

Yup, it’s the German version of Magic or Madness. It’s even more beautiful in real life. Sigh. The book next to mine (the yellow one) is by John Marsden. Two Aussies together in Germany. I’ve been stunned by how many Aussie books I’ve been seeing in translation on our travels. Oodles of them by the likes of Trudi Canavan, Sara Douglass, Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, Garth Nix, Marcus Zusak etc., etc. World domination!

Speaking of Germany. Random House Deutschland has just made an offer for How to Ditch Your Fairy. A very enthusiastic offer and they’ll be publishing it in hardcover. I am very happy. I met my German publishers in Bologna and they’re all lovely. Possibly because they’re all named Susanne.

This is the first time one of my books has sold to another market before publication. Very exciting. HTDYF will be out in the US in early September. And I may be sharing the cover with you some time soon . . .

Magic’s Child in paperback!!

Constant travelling, crappy intramanets, writing, and fun have kept me from announcing the best news ever:

The ENTIRE Magic or Madness trilogy is now available in paperback in North America!!

Oh, happy day. Outside of a library, borrowing from a friend, or stealing it1 this is the cheapest way of reading my books. Yay for paperbacks!

In other news we are in Bolzano. It is beautiful. I write this on my phone thinking about all the snow we tromped through yesterday. Pictures when we find working wifi and can use our computers. Snow remains cold. If they could just fix that I’d prolly like it.

And now the train to Innsbruck.

Will answer email and comments in the future.

  1. Which I do not encourage—the stealing I mean—libraries and friends are good. []

Elsewhere such as Indonesia

Sartorias aka Sherwood Smith continues the cranky discussion. Both threads have really excellent comments. Fascinating stuff. If only I weren’t in computer hell, I’d be contributing to said discussions. Once things stop sucking in computerland I’ll plunge in. There’s LOTS more to be said.

In other news I just found out that the Magic or Madness trilogy has now sold to PT Gramedia in Indonesia. I’m particularly stoked about this sale as I studied Bahasa Indonesia for four years in high school. It’s a country I’ve always been fascinated by. For those keeping count—I know I am—the trilogy has now sold to ten different countries.

I don’t think about it like that, honest . . .

Interviews hurt my brain. Being asked to talk about my work in the abstract feels weird. Especially when I’m asked about what message I wished to convey, what I want to teach people, how I want to change the world, and why did I have this bit of my book symbolise x, y, or z.

The truth is I don’t think about any of that stuff when I’m writing a first draft. Nothing in any of my books is meant to symbolise anything. As far as I’m concerned my zombies are just zombies. I don’t set out to teach anyone anything and I have no overt messages to convey.


(The secret message of my books is that mangosteens are the best food in the universe, quokkas the cutest animal, and anyone who lives somewhere cold should have their head examined.)

If other people see my zombies as representing the corruption of Western capitalism or the horrors of commodification or whatever. That’s cool. If they learn something that’s fabulous, too. One of my favourite things is hearing what readers take out of my work. Mostly it’s not anything I intended. My readers teach me stuff.1

But I didn’t do that on purpose. Truly. I don’t write like that.

I know writers who do, though. A friend of my carefully plans all sorts of symbols and always talks about the message of their book. Not me, though.

I just had to answer a set of questions from the members of the Teen Advisory Group of the Kingsbridge Branch Library in the Bronx via their Young Adult Librarian, Andrea Lipinski. Their questions were awesome. There was nothing about metaphors or meanings or messages. Bless you all! They wanted to know if I believe in magic, whether I like Sydney or NYC better, who I think is the better writer me or Scott, whether my trilogy’s going to have a fourth book, and which of my characters is most like me.

So much more fun answering those kinds of questions! Especially as the answer to all of them is “Maureen Johnson.”

  1. Except for the loony readers. You know who you are! []

Eine Kleine Madness and Magic

All three volumes of the Magic or Madness trilogy will be out in Germany in the next few months. Here’s what they look like:

These may well be my favourites out of all the trilogy’s covers.

Talk about eye-catching! She even looks a little bit like I imagined Reason looking. Though the nose is wrong, the face too narrow, and Reason doesn’t have facial tats or elf ears or blue-black hair and eyes . . . details, details.

Here’s the first page in German:

Last Day of 2007

The year two thousand and seven was another good year for me personally. My third novel, Magic’s Child, was published in March which completed the Magic or Madness trilogy. The trilogy also finally earned out! That’s right. When the royalty statements come now there’s money attached. Woo hoo! The trilogy also sold in Japan.1 Surely the manga version can’t be too far off?!

I went from never having won a literary award to winning three. The Norton Award for Magic or Madness and the Atheling and Susan Koppelman for Daughters of Earth. So I’m legitimately an award-winning author! Now I just need the best-selling to go with it. :-)

I sold my fifth and sixth books—the fairy novel and an as yet untitled (and largely unwritten) book—to a brand new publisher, Bloomsbury USA.

I love my new house. Everyone I’ve met there—the editors, publishers, sales & marketing, publicity, just everyone—is fabulous. Their excitement about my fairy book makes me very very happy. I am very proud to be a Bloomsbury girl. And hopefully early next year—just a few weeks away—I’ll be able to share all sorts of cool news about the fairy book. Its new title! Cover! Exact date of publication! It’ll be all fairy news all the time!

And to speak of someone else’s success for a second: I’m thrilled to see how well Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing is doing. I saw exactly how much work she put it to that book. Seriously, for a while there I thought she might not survive the experience. But she did and now the book (by far the best of the trilogy) is selling out of control. Yay! Congrats, Libba, you totally deserve it.

Non-professionally, I reckon the best thing that happened all year was the change of government back home. Did that happen only last month? I’ll be coasting on the joy of that for some time to come. Right now it seems that every time I read an article about home something new and fabulous has happened. To which I can only say, “YAY!”

This time last year I said my goal was to finish two novels, which was my goal the year before also. So, um, how’d that go?

Not so much. Time to pick a new goal, methinks.

I rewrote the fairy book many times—so many times that it felt like writing more than one book—but I did not finish any other novel. Le sigh.

I did, however, write two short stories both of which come out in 2008. The first, “Pashin’, Or the Worst Kiss Ever” is in First Kiss (Then Tell) edited by Cylin Busby for Bloomsbury and due for publication in January: i.e. tomorrow. It’s very gross and (I think) funny. The other stories in the anthology are awesome but what would you expect with the likes of Cecil Castellucci, Shannon Hale, David Levithan, Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Robin Wasserman and Scott Westerfeld contributing?

The second story is considerably longer and much more romantic. It’s called “Lammas Day” and will be in Love is Hell edited by Farrin Jacobs for Harper Collins and due out around September. The other stories are by Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, Scott Westerfeld and Gabrielle Zevin.2

I also wrote an article for an Australian pearl magazine3, the beginning of several novels, a proposal, an appreciation of John Scalzi, many many emails, comments and blog posts. If I added them all up I reckon it would be as long as a whole other novel . . .

For 2008 I have a novel due in August. I honestly can’t see myself writing another one after that but maybe if I don’t make it a goal to write two novels next year I’ll do it accidentally?

In addition to the August novel—which may or may not be any of these—I have three sekrit projects on the go. All collaborations with sekrit writers. One of these already has a proposal written so I’m very confident it will happen. The other two consist of enthusiasm and late night conversations. I am full of optimism but I wouldn’t lay odds on their completion just yet.

My 2008 publications:

    January: the short story I mentioned above, “Pashin’, Or the Worst Kiss Ever”.

    February: the paperback version of Magic’s Child hits the shelves! Which means the entire trilogy will be available for cheap! Plus there’s a mini-essay on writing the book at the back. Bonus! I am VERY excited about this!

    September (or thereabouts): the fairy novel for Bloomsbury! My first new novel in 18 months! Woo hoo! Dance and sing and party!

    And also the other short story mentioned above, “Lammas Day”.

You should also get hold of Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes when it comes out. It’s the sequel to City of Bones and is even better. I loved it! Seriously, I read it in one sitting. When can I read the third one, Cassie? I need closure!

Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett will be out in May. One of her best. In fact, if it had vampires or demons or zombies in it, I would say it was her very best. But for now I love it second only to Devilish.

E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is total genius. Remember how much I raved about Dramarama? This one’s even better. The only way she could surpass herself would be to throw in some zombies or demons or vampires. I’m just saying, E.

You’ll all be stunned to hear that my favourite book of 2007 was Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger. If you haven’t read it already, why not? Run to your nearest library or bookshop and get it NOW!

And make sure you all go see the Spiderwick movie. I can’t wait! Yay, Holly Black!

I think 2008 is going to be fabulous. But then even when I have really crap years I’m always full of optimism for the next one.

Happy new year, everyone!

  1. Bringing the number of countries the trilogy’s been published in up to nine. []
  2. I’ve only read Scott’s—on account of I don’t think there are ARCs yet—but it’s brilliant and worth the price of the anthology alone. []
  3. don’t ask []

Signed books

If you’re in San Francisco, Seattle, or New York City you can find signed copies of my books here:

Borderlands
866 Valencia St
San Francisco
415.824.8203
They not only have the Magic or Madness trilogy but also Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth

Books Inc Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness
San Francisco
415-776-1111

All For Kids
2900 N.E. Blakeley Street
Seattle
206.526.2768

Books of Wonder
18 West 18th Street
New York
212-989-3270

If you’re hankering for a signed copy of one of my books but don’t live anywhere near those shops—they all do mail order.

And because I’m curious how many of you like to have all your favourite books signed by the author? Do any of you collect signed books even if you’ve not read the book in question?

Just quickly

To all of those who wrote asking for my insomnia cure: I promise I’ll write about it as soon as I have time. Last week was insane. And next week looks like more of the same with all the Aussie events and deadlines and blah blah blah1. Don’t forget to come see me and Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix and Scott and Jonathan Strahan at Books of Wonder.

Yesterday I did an appearance with Scott out at the Bronx Library Centre. It was fabulous! The ninth graders are part of the Gear Up program and if they’re an example—that program totally works. They were one of the smartest, funniest, and most engaged group I’ve had the good luck to hang out with.

I’ve been trying for some time to figure out a way to write about how incredibly moving some of these events we do with teenagers can be but I just don’t seem to be able to express how I feel about them without coming across all saccharine and cloying. When someone tells you that they feel like they are one of your characters or that before they read your book they’d hated reading . . . well, words really do fail.

Let’s just say yesterday was incredible. I wish I had remembered to let them know that Jay-Tee (the character a few of them identified with so strongly) is from the Bronx! I am such a der brain.

Thanks so much, Jack and Carole, for inviting us.

And thanks, too, for all the fascinating responses about sleep and dreams. You make me want to go back to bed perchance to dream of the best novel or manga idea of all time.

Okay, now back to work!

  1. The blah blah blah is the worst part! []

The Former Me

In my previous life I was an academic. Not a very successful or prolific one. I spent four and a half years researching and writing my PhD thesis, while on a scholarship and doing paid-by-the-hour teaching (what’s known in the US as being a TA) as well as IT support. After that I was awarded a three-year post-doctoral fellowship that my university extended for nine months. In that time I wrote and published one book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, and edited a collection of stories and essays, Daughters of Earth as well as writing a bunch of essays and papers (and on the sly I wrote short stories and a novel.)

Twas an eight-year-and-three-month career that ended more than four years ago. Yet, people write to me disturbingly often asking me my opinion of the field I studied, about what books I think are at the cutting edge, and curly questions about my two scholarly books which I wrote ages ago and can’t remember a thing about.

I haven’t read any scholarly work since it stopped being my job. I have no idea what the latest work on science fiction is. I don’t even read science fiction novels anymore. It was never my favourite genre and having to read it for more than eight years put me off for life. Though I don’t mind YA science fiction. I pretty much enjoy YA everything.

Not having to read scholarly work any more is one of my greatest joys. Too much of it is turgid and boring, which is why I’m so relieved I don’t have to write it any more. I hated having to second guess every possible objection to every sentence I wrote. It’s a joy not having to write as if I have constipation or to footnote every single argument.

The only things I loved about being an academic—research and hanging out with like-minded people—I still get to do. For the Magic or Madness trilogy I read a scary amount of books on mathematics and number theory (I’m not saying I understood ‘em). For the book I’ll be writing after The UFB I’ve been going back and reading gazillions of ballads. I even plan to crack open some ballad scholarship. For the book after that I’ll be doing lots of research on [redacted for reasons of spoileration] and [also redacted for the same reason].

The glorious thing about research for fiction is that if the research doesn’t fit I can ignore it. I’m writing fiction—most often fantasy—so I twist the facts to fit my books not the other way round. Such bliss!

I’ve written five novels since I quit being an academic. I can’t remember my research for the Magic or Madness trilogy so I really can’t remember any of my scholarly projects. I’m not alone in this. I remember hearing Jonathan Lethem say that when Motherless Brooklyn came out he was taken up by the Tourette’s Syndrome community. But by that time he was onto the next book and had forgotten all his Tourette’s research. We writers are a fickle short-term memoried lot.

To sum up: please don’t ask me about my scholarly books. I know nothing.

Does she have to be black?

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I’d been criticised for making the main character in the Magic or Madness trilogy black when the story isn’t about her being black. I said I’d write more about it and then didn’t. Mostly because there are so many disturbing assumptions in that criticism that it makes my head explode. And also because I was secretly hoping someone else would post about it.

Well, yay! Tempest did:

Why, they ask, does the character have to be non-white if the story isn’t about being non-white? Because, I say, every story of my life isn’t about my non-whiteness. Sometimes it’s about my ability to let go of a crush, or figure out what raptor birds are doing on my fire escape at night, or what I plan to do with my life after college, or why I love the view from on top of a mountain yet fear the way up. If that’s true for me, it’s true of other non-whites, too.

And, you know, there are lots of non-white people in this world. It’s all right to have a few stories where they just exist, okay?

Specifying race helps to fill a character in, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the filler is standard and clichéd. When the reader first reads that Brenna is of a specific ancestry rather than a general, unspecified one, it makes her more real. Same with Reason. That’s what it adds to the story.

Many white writers are nervous about writing characters who aren’t white and seem to think that if they do so there must be a reason for it. They fear being criticised for writing people who have a different skin colour to them, they fear getting it wrong. On the other hand they worry about being criticised for having no non-white characters. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

To which I say, well, der. Of course, you’re going to be criticised. If you write and people read the words you have written some of them will not like those words. Doesn’t matter if you’re posting on your blog, writing an email, or publishing a novel.

My trilogy has been criticised for being too Australian and for being not Australian enough, for getting the American characters completely wrong, for getting Sydney and New York City wrong, and for many other things. That’s what happens when stuff you write is out there where people who don’t know or care about you can read it.

If you’re not going to write something because you’re afraid of criticism why bother writing at all?

As for why Reason has to be black: It’s because she is black, okay?

Also, Tempest, you have raptor birds on your fire escape at night? Really? That is so cool.

Magic or Madness in Italian


I know I said blogging about writerly achievements is tedious but I have to share when my books are translated. That’s not a writer skiting thing; it’s a publishing geek thing.

I love seeing what books are called in other markets. In this case Magic or Madness, the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy, becomes The Revelation, book one of the Blood of the Witch trilogy.

Dark Magic is the name of the imprint. Also published on that list is none other than Margaret Mahy (!). Quite possibly the world’s finest living YA writer (along with Diana Wynne Jones). Not too shabby company, eh?

But what’s with the cat on the cover? There are no (living) cats in the trilogy! There is a key, but.