Too Young to Publish—A New Musing

I’ve just put up a new musing. Yeah, yeah, it’s been a long time between drinks, but I’ve been busy, okay?

Too Young to Publish

Recently I’ve had a number of letters from teenagers wanting advice on how to get their novel published and wondering whether their age will make it harder for them to get it into print. Specifically, would they be discriminated against because they were only thirteen or fourteen or fifteen or sixteen or whatever?

The simple answer is no. When you submit a query letter to a publisher or agent you don’t have to tell them how old you are. You’ll be rejected or accepted on the quality of your submission.

Continue reading Too Young to Publish.

Too Young to Publish

Recently I’ve had a number of letters from teenagers wanting advice on how to get their novel published and wondering whether their age will make it harder for them to get it into print. Specifically, would they be discriminated against because they were only thirteen/fourteen/fifteen/sixteen or whatever?

The simple answer is no. When you submit a query letter to a publisher or agent you don’t have to tell them how old you are. You’ll be rejected or accepted on the quality of your submission.

Being young can be an advantage in getting published. I was first published when I was nine. A short poem in The Newcastle Morning Herald (now The Herald). My mother sent it in and it was published with my age listed. While the poem was clearly a work of genius, odds are that if I hadn’t been nine, it wouldn’t have been published. As it happens I was more embarassed by the publication than I was proud. The kids at school teased me to buggery for the rest of the year. Happy days.

Up until I was 15, I had a number of other poems and stories published. Without motherly intervention even. Every one of them with my age beside my name. After that, nothing of mine was published until I was in my thirties.

What happened?

Another simple answer: I started competing with adults. I stopped listing my age and started sending to more grown up venues. My work was not as good as that of the grown ups. I didn’t find my way into print again until I was way past my child prodigy days.

The teenage me was cast into deep, dark despair by this. On my seventeenth birthday I had a midlife crisis. There I was seventeen years old and still no novel published! I was a complete and utter failure! What was wrong with me?

Another easy answer: I wasn’t good enough yet and I wouldn’t be good enough until I’d learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. Until I got past thinking my first drafts were perfect and that rewriting involves a wee bit of chipping at the surface of a story. It’s much, much harder than that. And, I’m belatedly learning, more fun too.

If you’d have told me back then I wasn’t good enough and had a lot more to learn about writing I would not have believed you. Actually come to think of it, people did tell me back then. But they were polite about it saying that I had a "great deal of promise" and a "bright future ahead". Blah, blah, blahdy blah. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to be published immediately! Before I hit twenty-one or, worse, thirty and was too decrepitly old to enjoy it.

Now, of course, I’m incredibly grateful that no one did me the disservice of publishing me back then. I’ve kept a lot of my juvenilia and, well . . . it shows promise.

I have a couple of friends who were not so fortunate. They were first published in adult venues when they were still teenagers. Both of them are horrified that their learning and growing as a writer has been done so publicly and that there’s nothing they can do to make all that evidence of early missteps go away. They both wish they’d spent more time honing their craft and less time desperately trying to get into print.

But how do you hone your craft?

Read a lot. Write a lot. In that order. There are very very few good writers who aren’t also good readers.

Never send off a first draft for publication. Even though the temptation to do so is enormous. I mean you wrote a complete draft! A whole poem/story/novel! It has a beginning, a middle and end! The sense of accomplishment is enormous you can’t wait to show your work of genius to the rest of the world.

Resist that feeling.

Wait a few weeks after writing something, then reread it, rewrite it (and I don’t mean just fixing typoes), then give it to some people you trust for comments. (Not your parents. Most’ll just tell you it’s wonderful no matter what.) If you have friends who read a lot give it to them. Or to a teacher you trust. Give it to as many people as you can think of. Trust me, most of them will not get back to you with comments.

Ask the ones who read it to tell you when they got bored. Ask them to tell you the plot. This is a great way to figure out if your readers are reading what you think you wrote. It’s amazing how often they aren’t.

When they get back to you with all their comments, rewrite it again. Many of the comments will be intensely annoying and boneheaded and will make you want to end the friendship with the idiot who said them. Resist your urge to do so. Resist the urge to tell them how moronic they are. Also resist the urge to cry (I still haven’t quite mastered this one). Instead look for parts of your story/poem/novel that all readers had problems with. Figure out how to fix it. Most likely the solution you find won’t be the one they suggested. (Later on when you’re published you’ll find this also applies to your editors.)

Learning to take criticism is one of the major prerequisites of being a professional writer. Once your work is accepted for publication, your editor will criticise what you have written and ask you to rewrite it. Usually many, many times. And after it’s gone through all those rewrites she will often forget to tell you good it is. There will be few gold koala bear stamps. Your editor’s primary concern is to get rid of that which sucks. It should be yours too.

Just as important: don’t get too caught up in the praise your readers offer you. If your readers only have good things to say about your manuscript, enjoy it, but then be suspicious. Very few pieces of writing are perfect first go. (I rewrote this essay several times and then gave it to Scott to read and it could still stand a bit more rewriting.)

Once you’ve made your manuscript as good as you can possibly make it—if it’s a novel that should take months, maybe even years—then and only then do you send it out for publication.

But how do you get a novel published?

With great difficulty. Getting published is very, very hard no matter how old you are. Most novels never find their way into print. Even really good ones.

Ian Irvine outlines the whole process in his essay, The Truth About Publishing (the link’s in the menu on the left). I strongly advise reading the whole document through to the end. It’s depressing, but it’s also very very useful. I wish I’d read it back when I was fifteen.

Good luck. Do not despair when you are rejected. Welcome to the club. There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t been rejected. Many, many times.

New York City, 13 August 2005

The Hebrew translation is here.

For those young writers who are angered by this please read my clarification.

How to Get an Agent

Of late I’ve been receiving quite a few emails asking me how you go about getting yourself one of those mythological creatures known as the literary agent. It’s a question frequently asked of most published writers. You should also take a look at Ian Irvine’s the “Truth about Publishing” which explains how the publishing system works (be warned: it’s depressing).

The short answer is that there is no one way to get an agent. Luck and hard work both play their part. But first you have to figure out whether you’re ready for representation. Don’t even think about pursuing agents until you have a finished novel. And make sure that novel is as good as you can possibly make it. Then make it a whole lot better. Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and then rewrite some more before you send it to anyone. And, yes, this does apply to you. And yes it applies to non-fiction proposals too. Even though you don’t need a completed book you do need the best proposal you can possibly write.

Scott got his first agent by first finding out which were the best agents representing adult science fiction. He did this by looking at the acknowledgments pages of his favourite writers, as well as looking up agents in the various writers’ guides available at the time (you’ve got it much easier these days; you can use Agent Query). He then spent a whole week writing the perfect query letter, before sending it out to every suitable agent (that’s important: do not be sending your YA cheerleader novel to someone who only handles adult non-fiction). He received only one request to see his novel. He sent it and she signed him up. At the time Scott had no connections, knew no one in literary publishing, indeed, he’d never met an agent before. This is the traditional method for finding an agent and it still works. But remember that query letter has to be perfect. Agents get hundreds and hundreds of queries a week.

I got my first agent because I like people. I always have. I frequently wind up in conversations with total strangers in the queue for the loo, at bars, restaurants, parties, wherever. Meeting new people is one of my favourite things in the world.

So my first agent? It was 1999, I had just flown from Sydney to NYC (via LA) to spend six months in NYC researching the New York Futurians for my post-doctoral fellowship. I arrived at JFK knackered out of my mind and found myself in the longest queue for cabs I’ve ever seen. The woman in front of me asked where I was heading. I said Manhattan. We agreed to share a cab. We got talking. Turned out that she was a writer too. A real one with a published book and eveything. Once in the cab we were already fast friends. Then the cab got stuck in traffic and it took almost two hours for us to get into the city. By the time we finally parted ways I felt like I’d made a friend for life. But as usually happens we never saw each other again.

We didn’t forget, though, and almost a year later I received an email out of the blue from a friend of Pang-Mei’s. She was starting up a new literary agency and Pang-Mei had described my Futurian project to her. She was intrigued and wondering if I had representation. She asked to see samples of my work. I sent them to her, she signed me up.

Before she emailed me, I’d already made an effort to get an agent for my first (written) novel (which to this day hasn’t sold, though it’s come close a few times). At the time I had no professional fiction publications (not even a haiku) and precious few of any other kind. My manuscript was rejected by three different agents. One in Australia, two in the USA. At the time I thought the novel was as good as I could make it (maybe it was) but I’ve since rewritten it several times and it’s much much better now. Did I send it out too soon? Probably.

All three of those agents represented friends of mine. They agreed to look at my novel because said friends had recommended it. I did not need to write a formal query letter. (To this day I have never written one and hopefully I never will.) Having that connection meant that my manuscript was read and that I got a prompt response. Two of the agents even took the time to sit down with me to explain in detail what they thought was wrong with the novel (an exquisitely painful experience, let me tell you—at the time I wasn’t used to criticism—years of living with Scott has since hardened me).

But did my connections get me an agent on that occasion? No, they did not. Unless an agent likes what you’ve written and thinks they can sell it, they will not take you on as a client. Not even if you’re best friends with J. K. Rowling. It’s that simple.

The common theme here is being connected. But how do you get connected? I did it by going to science fiction conventions and meeting lots of writers, other aspiring writers, editors, agents, publishers and fans. All of whom were full of gossip about the publishing industry and books and writers and who the best agents and editors are. After going to two or three conventions I was connected in a way I’d never thought possible. I’d had conversations with some of my favourite writers in the whole world. It was dizzying.

Without even intending to I was laying groundwork for my own fiction publishing career. (Remember though the most important groundwork for a writing career is to write and write and write.) But let me put it in perspective. None of this was instantaneous. I attended my first convention in 1993. I finished my first novel in 1999. I got my first agent in 2000. My first (non-fiction) book was published in 2002. My first professional fiction sale came in 2003 (the Magic or Madness trilogy to Penguin/Razorbill). My first novel was published in 2005. Not exactly greased lightning.

The not-intending-to part is important. Over the years I’ve seen ambitious aspiring writers go to conventions and try to make as many connections as possible as quickly as possible. I’ve seen them rock up to parties and just happen to have the manuscript of their novel in their bag, ready to hand over to the first agent or editor they talk to who expresses interest. Not a good look. Desperation and naked ambition make people on the receiving end nervous.

So, am I recommending that you go to conventions to make connections but pretend that you’re not? No. I’m saying that if you’re even vaguely a people person going to a convention or festival or other gathering of writers who write stuff similar to you (horror conventions if you write horror; romance if you write romance; sf for science fiction and fantasy; writers’ festivals for mainstream) you’re going to meet at least one or two like-minded people and become friends. After more than ten years involvement with the sf community, nearly half my friends are part of that community. The most important thing I’ve gotten out of attending conventions is friendship, becoming part of a community that extends over many continents. I have sf friends in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the United States (and I’m sure I’m forgetting some countries).

That many of these friends are writers, editors and agents is secondary, but, yes knowing them wound up making it easier for me to become a published writer. (But remember, some of them weren’t any of those things when I first met them.) I’ve been invited to contribute stories to an anthology just because I happened to be in the room with the editor who was talking about it. Most themed anthologies aren’t open submission, you have to be invited, and to be invited editors have to know who you are. If you’re unpublished—as I was at the time—it’s damned hard to get the invite. So far I haven’t had a story accepted for one of those anthologies. Like I said, being known gets your foot in the door, but it doesn’t get you published unless the editor loves what you’ve written. Established writers with many published books still get rejections.

The best panel I attended at WisCon this year was Common Questions for Pros. It featured the diametrically opposed Robin McKinley and Scott Westerfeld. In good spirit they disagreed about how to write (Robin: in one big, compulsive, mind-destroying burst; Scott: in the same place, at the same time, every day, with the goal of writing a thousand words), as well as about how to go about getting an agent, or published. Scott spent a lot of time talking about the community in a similar vein to what I’ve written above. Robin McKinley kept making the point that if you prefer the life of a hermit, if you can only handle people in small doses, then the becoming-connected route is not for you. You can, she insisted, get published without knowing a soul in the industry. After all she managed it.

I totally agree (and for the record, so does Scott). I’ve seen people at cons schmoozing because that’s what they think they should be doing and looking utterly miserable in the process. If you don’t like talking to strangers then don’t do it.

Here’s something else Scott and Robin McKinley agreed about: the writing is the thing. No matter how connected you are, if your writing doesn’t cut it then you will not be professionally published. Your writing must always come first. There’s no race to be published. I swore to myself that I would have my first novel published before I was thirty. It didn’t happen and I’m glad (though that’s definitely not how I felt at the time). Right now I’m a much better writer than I was at thirty. I hope that like Ursula K. Le Guin and Carol Emshwiller I’m going to be an even better writer in my seventies and eighties. That’s one of the great things about being a writer: there’s no use-by date.

Good luck.

New York City, 4 July 2005

Acknowledgements

Whenever I open a book I go straight to the acknowledgements. And then when I finish the book I return to them. For me the acknowledgements are a strange kind of map to the book I’ve just read, or rather a set of clues to where the book came from, how it transmogrified from a bunch of ideas in some writer’s head into a fully-fledged world that I can spend time in.

Acks are crucial. Yesterday, over at Tingle Alley the proprietress posted some interesting thoughts on this micro-genre. Those posts and follow-up comments got me thinking about exactly why I think acks are so important.

My default position is that no one writes alone and acknowledgments are the proof of that, the place where a writer gets to acknowledge their debts. The length of the acknowledgements section is directly proportional to how many people were involved in making the book happen. Thus non-fiction books have much longer acks than fiction ones. My first book, a heavily researched non-fiction tome, has acknowledgments that go for five pages. It had to because that many people helped me research and write the book over the many years between beginning my phd thesis in 1992 and the resulting book being published in 2002. My novel has only one page of acks because it took less than two years from conception to publication—trust me, in this business that’s amazingly quick—and thus required the assistance of many fewer people.

Acknowledgments admit that a book emerges not just from one writer, but from a community. Without these particular editors, copyeditors, librarians, friends, lovers, children, pets, this particular book would be a different book. There are different sets of fingerprints on every page.

Besides, finding your name in the acks is one of life’s great pleasures. Every time it happens to me I’m dead chuffed, why should I withhold that chuffage from the people who’ve helped and supported me?

In the Tingle Alley comments Jenny D talks about her embarrassment at the extreme length of the acknowledgments in her first novel. It took a long time to write and involved the input of many people, some of them very famous (like Joyce Carol Oates & J. M. Coetzee—I confess I haven’t heard of all the writers she mentions, but I’m plenty impressed by Oates & Coetzee) who Jenny D claims to have hounded for their input. She worries that her acks thus look like a horrendous name-dropping fest as well as reminding herself of her callow youth.

I have done exactly the same. I still flush with horror over the earnestness with which I harassed Janette Turner Hospital when I took her one semester undergraduate creative writing course. But here’s the thing: it’s one of the best ways to learn your craft—whatever your craft may be, plumbing, painting, singing, basketball—you go after older, wiser, better, more patient people than yourself and ask them to teach you. And sometimes they do. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, though, of course, both Jenny D. and myself are. But, you know, there’s not a lot the nineteen-year-old me did that I’m not embarrassed by now (not to mention the me’s at a whole raft of other ages, some distressingly close to my current age).

While agreeing that there’s much that is wonderful about acknowledgments, Ms Tingle Alley also enjoys

the pristine simplicity of a ‘To Véra’ and that, say, Lolita contains no references to librarians or pedophiles who were helpful in the writing of the novel. Yet when I ask myself why, I have no idea. Except that it’d be like finishing watching a play and having the costume designer and props guy come trotting out for a bow, like having the backstage come forward.

That it would ruin the magic of a novel you’ve been lost in to have the artifice, the underpinnings, held up for scrutiny?

Sometimes I feel the same, or not quite the same. But there are books that would be better off ack-less. There’s one (which I won’t name) that I love, yet the acknowledgments are so cringe-making I have to rush past them, pretend they’re not there. Trust me, I have thought about ripping the offending pages out, but I suspect that in their absence they would loom even larger. They are truly that embarrassing. One paragraph is devoted—in ornate language, liberally festooned with smatterings of Italian—to detailing how much this particular writer loves their spouse. It is to retch.

I imagine it is just this kind of acknowledgments that is spoofed here (via Tingle Alley) or that Salon spoofs in an essay on the acks of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s books (thanks, Ginger). But I can’t say because I haven’t read her books. Not even the acks. And though these spoofs are clever I could only half enjoy them, because I have written gushing acknowledgments, and can imagine mine being mocked in just that way, and because I believe it’s better to gush (however cringe-makingly) than not to acknowledge at all.

And yet, I know writers—generous, big-hearted, wonderful writers—who do not have acknowledgments in their books. I asked why. "Because," one told me, "I have thanked the people who need thanking, I see no need to do it publicly. They know who they are." Another said it struck them as unnecessary and somehow crass. Another maintains that most acknowledgments pages are show-offy: Look at me! I have a cat, a husband, a wife, friends, children, editors, agents! I exist! They feel that the book should be left to stand on its own. That once published, the writer should step out of its way, not loudly proclaim ownership for several pages.

I kind of agree, but when I look at the acknowledgments page of a book I’ve just read, especially if I’ve really enjoyed it, I’m looking at some hint of where it came from, who helped it into life. I’m looking for its place in a community, in several communities. I’m looking for the connections that mark it as part of the web of humanity. Perhaps, I’m looking in some small way for some other, more tangible way it’s connected to me. Not just because I love it, but because I also have family and friends and editors and agents. Or maybe I’m just vainly hoping my name is in there too and I’ll find it if I just look hard enough.

New York City, 10 June 2005

Mid-Career Writers

For the last few years Pat Murphy has organised a closed session at WisCon for writers who are in the middle of their career and need a space to talk about the issues that involves. The first problem in doing this was deciding what exactly a mid-career writer is. They decided that you have to be five years out from your first professional sale to attend.

Scott Westerfeld went to the first two workshops and got to discuss Secret Writers’ Business with some of my favourite writers in the entire world. Afterwards he and many of the others were red eyed and seemed to have this new and amazing bond. I confess I felt a pang of jealousy, but I knew I didn’t belong in that room. At the time of the first workshop I’d published a non-fiction book and had one semi-pro sale of a short story. Now, I’ve sold three novels, one of which has been published and I still don’t belong in that room.

Pat Murphy has now come up with a much better definition of a mid-career writer: someone who’s had at least one book remaindered. Ouch.

This WisCon I was involved in several conversations about the problems of being a mid-career writer usually with a bunch of writers who’d all been in the game much longer than me. In one conversation I started burbling on with first-novelist enthusiasm about the business cards I’d printed up, visiting bookstores, and other bits and bobs I’ve been doing to promote Magic. Their eyes glazed over. "Stuff business cards," their body language said. They started to talk about what to do when you’re remaindered, or when you’re told that you’ll have to change your name if you want to sell books for more money. Oh, I realised once again, I am not a mid-career writer.

Here’s why a closed discussion is necessary. People at my stage of their career just slow the conversation down. First-time novelists just don’t get where the mid-career writer is at. Neither do writers who are unpublished. Every time published writers try to discuss the problems with their publishing career online someone comes along (often way more than one person) and flames them. "You should be grateful to be published at all!" "I know loads of brilliant writers who can’t even get an agent!" Blah, blah, blah. Look at the vitriolic attacks on Jane Austen Doe.

I was in my thirties when I started making professional sales. I started sending my stories and poetry out when I was fifteen. I know just how hard it is to get published. I know several unbelievably talented writers struggling to get their work into print. That’s a problem. It just happens to be a different problem to those that mid-career writers have. It’s also a problem if your advances and sales are going down with each successive book (despite them being the very best books you can write). Writers in that position need to be able to talk to their peers without gormless first novelists burbling on about business cards or frustrated unpublished writers bitching at them.

I have a couple of friends who have been very successful with their careers and are now getting big advances, being pursued by Hollywood, sent on book tours, the works, and guess what? There are problems involved with success. The two most successful writers I know have barely been able to write a word in the last year. The amount of publicity they have to do for their publisher has increased by a factor of ten, as has the amount of mail they get, and books they’re called on to blurb. They’re barely home. They’re exhausted. They’ve forgotten what their families look like. But they can’t complain because the most common response they get is: "I wish I had your problems!" which is the same as saying shut up.

Supporting yourself as a writer is a difficult, fraught business with all sorts of different problems at every stage. If you say as an unpublished writer, "I don’t want to hear about your problems! You’re published! I have nothing!" you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you go on with your career, one day the problems of a mid-career writer will be your problems. The book that you have slaved over that is as good a book as you can make it, will die in the markerplace, will be remaindered. When that happens I doubt that you will consider yourself lucky to have been published at all.

So it’s probably worth listening—without envy—to those whose careers are further along than your own.

New York City, 2 June 2005

Something New

I’ve been writing musings here since 25 May 2003. Two years. I’ve written about my childhood, my career, basketball, cricket, and anything else I felt like.

I’ve noticed over the last year that shorter pieces that are more blog-like than musing-like have been increasing in frequency, and also that I say very little about the books I read, or the films and TV I watch, or the shows and exhibitions I see. So I’ve decided to start an actual, real, proper blog where I’ll write about some of that, with proper blogging software and comments and everything. You’ll find it here.

I plan to update it on something like a daily basis. In the same way that musings are added here on somewhat of a weekly basis. And, yes, I plan to keep on musing. Thanks for reading me over the past two years. Hope you enjoy the blog too.

New York City, 25 May 2005

Looking for an Agent: Progress Report

I’ve had a number of emails on the agent question, some from folks wondering how the search is going, wishing me luck or offering advice, and others wondering what on earth it is agents do anyway.

Thanks for the advice and agent suggestions and all the good wishes. Much appreciated. Here’s the answer to the two questions:

1) How’s the search going?

Not too foul. Nice lunches have been consumed, meetings have been held, there has been much talk of the future, of our careers, where we want to be headed and how best to get there. I’m starting to get a little weary of saying the same things over and over (Make me a star! Give me a career like Philip Pullman’s!). But fortunately the agents we’ve been meeting have been less tedious. Each one has been different and not one of them has been even a tiny bit creepy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve long been brainwashed by Hollywood into thinking all agents are unscrupulous and evil. Though, come to think of it, those were mostly Hollywood agents.

None of the seven agents we’ve met have done anything to get themselves crossed off the list: they’re all smart, interesting and fun to hang out with. I’m hoping I get to stay friends with the ones I don’t choose. (I wonder what the etiquette on that is? Christopher?) Every single one of them has met all eight items on my list. They all take the same percentage, offer the same services, go to the same important book fairs around the world. The more agents I meet the harder making a decision becomes. So I’ve decided that I’ll go with the agent who loves my adult novel (an historical set in twelfth century Cambodia) and my young adult books. That should narrow down the field some!

2) What on earth does an agent do to earn that fifteen per cent?

They act as a bulwark between you and your publisher. I negotiated my contract with Penguin/Razorbill myself, which was really awkward because Eloise Flood, Razorbill’s publisher, is a good friend. I don’t ever want to be in the position of bargaining with a friend again. An agent won’t be embarrassed about asking for more money, or to keep control of the movie rights, or the foreign rights, or whatever it is you want.

And your agent should know to ask for stuff you didn’t even realise you wanted. Agents have been negotiating with editors for longer than you. They know what scary clauses in a contract have to be crossed out. They know which publishers will do what for which writers and thus how to get you a better deal. Hell, agents understand contracts which already puts them a long way ahead of me. My eyes glaze over before I’ve hit the end of page one. (In my defence: contract pages are really long.)

A good agent knows which editors are actively hunting for which kind of books. They know who’d be right for you at all the major houses and most of the boutiquey, hip ones too. It’s their job to know all this. It’s a lot harder for a writer to be up on all that stuff, thus unagented books typically don’t get seen by as many editors and don’t get as good a deal.

If your publisher does something you’re unhappy with a good agent can fix it for you, or at least find out what’s going on and smooth things over. Just having someone run interference can be worth the 15% alone. Sometimes your publisher want to change the terms of the contract by, say, cutting one book into two, or publishing a book in paperback when they’d said it was going to be hardcover (neither of which has happened to me). That’s when you need to have someone who’s got your back to talk to, figure out how best to handle it, and then, best of all, go handle it for you.

Not only do agents understand contracts, they also understand royalty statements, which have to be the most incomprehensible things I’ve ever struggled and failed to understand. Trust me, I’ve really really tried, because your royalty statement is the statement that tells you how well your book is doing. They’re important! A good agent can spot when they don’t make sense, figure out what happened, and extract the outstanding money from your publisher. Useful, eh?

They also take you out to lunch at yummy restaurants and gossip with you. Yeah, yeah, I have friends I do that with too, but a) they don’t pay, and b) they’re not your agent so it’s not nearly as cool. "La, la, la, here I am at this fancy pants restaurant with my fancy pants agent. Look at me!"

To sum up: having an agent is all about looking cool.


New York City, 23 May 2005

Looking for the Perfect Agent

I recently parted ways with my agent. It was very amicable. She was, and is, a wonderful person, a great agent and a good friend. I’d have no qualms recommending her. She’s dedicated, smart and very good at what she does. But for all sorts of reasons it didn’t work out. So now I’m looking for a new agent.

Gulp. Much much easier said than done.

First of all there’s the researching, asking people in publishing—writers, editors, publishers, publicists etc. etc—about all the agents they know. Who does what? Who’s looking for new clients? Who handles Young Adult? Adult fiction? Both? Genre? Non-fiction? Who has a client list that I’d fit in with? Then there’s approaching them and seeing if they’re interested. Then meeting them. Then deciding who to go with.

Fortunately I’m not doing this alone. Scott is also in the hunt for a new agent. He’s gone agentless for several years and has decided that it’s time to have someone else take care of the parts of being a writer he’s least fond of (negotiating deals, checking contracts etc. etc.) and that it’s worth giving 15% away to have them do it. Even though we mightn’t go with the same agent, we decided to look together so that we could compare gut reactions, and point out cool career achievements the other one forgot to mention. "Scott just won an Aurealis." "Justine just got nominated to the BBYA list." (Always easier to have someone else toot your horn for you.)

While deciding which agents to approach we put together a list of what we wanted from an agent. Here’s mine (Scott’s was a lot less mushy):

Someone who

  • I can trust;
  • understands and enjoys my writing;
  • has long-term plans for my career and can give me advice on what projects to pursue next and how and when;
  • is based in New York City and on a first-name basis with most of the editors and publishers here. NYC is, after all, still the centre of publishing in this country. And also so I can see them face-to-face during the northern summer when I’m here. (I also plan to get myself a Sydney agent to handle my Australian career.);
  • knows the business inside and outside. Not just the people, but how the strange arcane business of publishing works;
  • responds to my calls and emails promptly;
  • understands and loves young adult fiction;
  • understands and loves genre fiction.

Not that huge a list really, and yet . . . It’s such a strange relationship, that of agent and writer. Some end up being psychologist, social worker, mother, father, editor and banker to their clients as well as everything I listed. I don’t want any of that. I got plenty of people in those roles already! But I do want someone I feel is looking out for me and will fight to protect my 85% as much as their 15%.

So ever since we got back to NYC we’ve been meeting with agents. All of whom have been lovely. Seriously, we haven’t met a one we haven’t liked. Still I’m not sure that liking your agent is the most important aspect of this particular relationship. My previous agent was the first agent to ask me. At the time I was unpublished and had been knocked back by the two agents I’d approached (one in Sydney, one in NYC) and could not believe my luck. It’s much much much harder getting an agent when you’re unpublished. It turned out that I liked her a tonne, but even so that wasn’t enough for our agent/writer relationship to be what we both wanted it to be.

The meetings, mostly lunches, have been very very weird. It’s like a first date except that . . . actually, no except, it’s exactly like a first date, right down to them bringing you a present (not flowers—much better than that—books! which is how I got to read Holly Black’s brilliant and amazing Valiant so early). It’s awkward and tense and exhausting. Just like a first date you’re wondering whether they like you, whether you like them, whether you’ll be good together, whether this has a future. You’re analysing everything they say and don’t say. Why did they pick this particular restaurant? Why this part of town? Why did they dress that way? Should you have dressed this way?

Still, it’s early days, we have the whole summer to decide and already we’ve both met an agent we’d definitely feel more than comfortable with. We both have high hopes it’ll work out okay.

In the meantime, if anyone out there who is an agent, or has an agent, has any thoughts on this peculiar, yet incredibly important relationship in a writer’s life I’d love to hear from you.

Wish us luck in our search!

New York City, 12 May 2005

Make Website Not So Very Hard

Scott’s website relaunched last night with a (mostly) whole new look. And guess what? We did it all by ourselves! Deborah Biancotti, who designed this site and the Midnighters section of Scott’s site, was too busy to do it, so we did it. Scott came up with a design, showed it to me, and I used my puny Dreamweaver skills to turn it into a reality that had a passing resemblance to what he wanted. And I think it looks pretty much okay. Yay us!

Of course, when I say we did it all by ourselves I stretch the truth somewhat. Deborah Biancotti answered my Dreamweaver questions every time I got stuck. What a fabulous person she is! And Chris McLaren was my WordPress guru, because Scott now has his very own blog which he’ll be updating on a near daily basis. If he manages it’ll be damned impressive. Remember this is a guy who still has two novels to write and turn in this year.

So for the past few weeks Scott has been writing great swathes of new content. I particularly enjoy his News section which has a potted (and very wry) history of his entire publishing career going back to 1996. Naturally enough it also includes the latest news like the fact that the Uglies trilogy just sold at auction in Japan! Yup, there’s going to be Japanese editions of all three books. There are also pages for his vampire book, Peeps, which will be out in September and, also for the Uglies trilogy.

Meanwhile I’ve been learning way more about Dreamweaver than I knew before and am now busily learning all about Cascading Style Sheets. Gulp. Who knows, some day soon I may even be brave enough to tackle doing some of the stuff Petey’s suggested I do.

Enjoy Scott’s new site and blog.

New York City, 12 May 2005

Hoops, Reading, Signing, Talking

I’m finally back in New York City. My brain has at last caught up with my body. This weekend we went to the first Liberty game of the season. Well, okay, not first of the season because the season proper doesn’t start for a week or two. First game of the pre-season. (Nope, this stuff doesn’t makes any sense to me either.) The Liberty played great. Up against last year’s WNBA champions, the Seattle Storm, we won! And we didn’t just win, we did it convincingly, spending most of the game at least five points ahead. They were a gazillion inches taller than us, totally outrebounded us, and we won the game with solid defence. Happiness. (No, I don’t care that it was only a pre-season game and thus doesn’t count.)

The Artemis Fowl and Co. ("Co." being me and Scott) event was fab. Its fabulousness was clear from the very beginning when the praise monster (all hail!) manifested itself in the form of Peter Glassman, the owner of Books of Wonder, who greeted me with the most amazingly effusive gush about my book, which he was three-quarters of the way through reading. I caught the words "brilliant" and "writing" in close proximity to each other. Blush.

The event consisted of me and Scott doing a short reading from Magic or Madness and Midnighters 1: The Secret Hour respectively. I read the scene where Reason steps through the door from the summer of Sydney to the winter of New York City and sees snow for the first time; Scott read the scene from the first Midnighters book where Jessica discovers the blue time and rain for the first time. We hadn’t planned to read such similar scenes. Actually until we read them out loud side by side we hadn’t realised they were similar. (For those wondering, that would be me plagiarising Scott.)

Eoin Colfer didn’t read from any of his books, instead he told a very funny story about why you shouldn’t tease six year olds, even if they do have big heads, not all their teeth, and in their swimming goggles resemble Golem from Lord of the Rings. He also explained in detail how "hurling" and "jumper" don’t mean the same thing in Ireland as they do in the US. This gave me an excellent later segue to promote my book as educational because it has a glossary of Australian English at the back.

Next there was Q & A. All the questions but one were asked by the actual demographic of our books. This was very exciting for me because I spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about children’s and young adult literature, but almost always with adults, hardly ever with the people for whom it is written. My first and only question was the first asked: "Is there really no snow in Australia?" To which I answered that yes there is, just not a lot, and mostly in places like the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania. It’s very easy to grow up in Australia without ever seeing it.

Scott’s one question came towards the end, "When is the third Midnighters book coming out?" You’ll find the answer here. All the other questions were for Eoin and they were all asked by kids (mostly boys) who displayed an intimate knowledge of his books and a huge thirst for more: there were many variations on the when-is-the-next-book-coming-out and will-there-be-more-books-in-the-series questions. For a writer those are very sweet indeed.

After the questions were all asked, the astoundingly large audience (given that it was mother’s day) formed a very long queue and we signed lots and lots of books. This was a big surprise because frankly I was expecting to sign at most four or five books (for my friends who came: Hey Liesa! Hey Eloise! Hey Tui! Hey Barry! Hey Will & Alice!), but for over an hour there was a steady trickle of people I didn’t know who wanted me to sign for them. Astounding! Wonderful! Happy making! Most of my signees were girls who looked incredibly young—twelve at the very most. One of them had already started reading my book and was impatient for me to hurry up and sign it so she could get back to reading. Happy sigh.

Next to me all the Midnighters fans had emerged to get Scott to sign their books and ask why they had to wait such a long, long, long, time for the next Midnighters book? And why were there only going to be three books? Scott was able to placate them by pointing to Uglies, and So Yesterday as possible substitutes while they waited.

Eoin (turns out it’s pronounced "Owen" not "Ian" as I had guessed—oops!) Colfer signed and signed and signed and signed. He was charming, entertaining, and wonderful with his fans, spending time chatting to every single one. There were a lot of them and most seemed to have every book he’d ever written, held in teetering stacks supported only by their small, wee, tiny, little hands. In fact, one kid came up to Scott and me after having his mountainous pile of Colfer books signed: he let out a weary sigh, slid our books onto the table, asked that we sign in exhausted tones, and explained that his back hurt from carrying so many books.

Quite a few of the kids who’d come to see Eoin Colfer also wound up buying Scott’s and my books. When the event was over we gave Peter a list of all the other writers we’d be more than happy to do an event with: Diana Wynne-Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Garth Nix, Phillip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, Jonathan Stroud etc. etc.

In the pauses between people wanting me to sign, I signed for Books of Wonder. First the lovely staff brought about thirty books, which I duly signed. Then they took those away and brought thirty more, which I also signed, expressing surprise at how many there were. "Oh," Sarah said, "these are the mail-order books. There are plenty more. We haven’t even got up to the store stock yet. I love your book, we’ve been handselling it like you wouldn’t believe." Were ever sweeter words heard from the mouth of a bookseller? A brief pause while yours truly blushed, coughed, and thanked Sarah profusely, then returned to signing. I have never signed so many books in my life. I loved it!

Another huge thrill was meeting Cassandra Claire. She’s just gotten a big, prestigious, three-book deal, agented by Barry Goldblatt, but much more importantly Cassie is the author of The Secret Diary of Aragorn Son Of Arathorn (and other secret diaries) which was circulating all over the internet a few years back and completely cracked me up every time someone sent it to me, which they did a lot. It continues to crack me up every time I think of the phrase "still not king". It was grouse being able to thank her in person and to sign a copy of Magic or Madness for her. Cassie Claire bought my book!

Oh, and Eoin Colfer showed me the worm in his eye ball which is exquisitely gross. I want one too!

It were a good weekend.

New York City, 9 May 2005

An Eoin Colfer, Scott Westerfeld and Me Event

This Sunday, Mother’s Day, I believe (hi, Jan!), me and Scott Westerfeld and Eoin Colfer (!) will be doing an event at Books of Wonder, the children’s book shop on 18 W. 18th St New York, NY (cross street: Fifth Avenue). We’ll be there from 1PM to 3PM. The event’s free and it’ll be fun—if you’re in the area come join us.

For those of who don’t know, Eoin Colfer is one of the best-known, best-selling, and popular writers of children’s books around. His Artemis Fowl books have put him up there with Lemony Snickett, Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi, Garth Nix and Jonathan Stroud. Exalted company indeed. It’s quite the honour for a total beginner in the genre like me to be on the same billing. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to impress one or two of Colfer’s legion of fans enough that they’ll want to check out my book. Fingers crossed and gulp.

I can’t tell you exactly what we’ll be doing because I’m not entirely sure. Books of Wonder events are varied and as the name of the shop would suggest—wonderful. I’ve seen writers and artists do short readings, discuss their books, their children, their life, interrogate their readers in the audience, draw the audience, answer questions, juggle and tap dance (okay, I may have made up the last two). I’m hoping this Sunday will be more of a laid-back chatting thing. I have no problems gasbagging about Magic or Madness, but for some reason I get very nervous when I’m asked to read from it. Nope, I don’t understand it either. I’m sure Eoin Colfer has no such problems, and I know Scott doesn’t. And this recent article full of advice on how to read in public has only made me more nervous.

Books of Wonder is my favourite bookshop in New York City. It’s huge, beautiful, full of books I’ve read or want to read, the staff know their stuff and are sweethearts. The shop is owned by Peter Glassman who has an encyclopediac knowledge of children’s literature and does his level best to read everything new that comes out. An impossible task, but if anyone gets close it’s him (or Joe Monti the children’s and YA book buyer for Barnes and Noble).

One of the things I love best about Peter and his wonderful shop, is the way they support writers. Books of Wonder has an event two or three times a week for most of the year. If you live anywhere near NYC, or you’re visiting, and you have even a slight interest in childrens and YA books you have to visit. And if you’re not being showered (or showering your mother) with presents and attention this Sunday why not stop by around 1PM?

See you there!

New York City, 6 May 2005

Australian versus US English

Pardon me while I geek out about the diversity of the English language.

One of the cool things about writing a trilogy populated by Australian and US characters, and attempting to use both vernaculars, has been coming across differences between Australian and US English. Yesterday, while defining "bitumen" for the glossary of Magic Lessons, I learned that not only do USians not know what "bitumen" is, they don’t call a road made from bitumen a "sealed" road. I don’t know why but it had never occurred to me that a sealed road could be called anything but a sealed road. Apparently they call them paved roads. Huh.

This is weird to an Australian because "paving" is something you do to garden paths, or around swimming pools, not to roads or streets. Unless they’re made of cobble stones and frankly, I’ve not come across many cobblestoned streets in Australia.

Here’s the Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s premier dictionary—I adore it) definition of "sealed road": a bituminised road. (That’ll explain everything to a bewildered USian.) And of "pavement": 1. a walk or footway, especially a paved one, at the side of a street or road. 2. a surface, ground covering, or floor made by paving.

Naturally enough, Webster’s and the American Heritage Dictionary don’t have a definition of "sealed road". But here’s how the American Heritage defines "pavement": 1.a A hard smooth surface, especially of a public area or thoroughfare, that will bear travel.

Not the same are they? To "pave" something in the US can include laying out asphalt on a road. The Maquarie Dictionary definition of "to pave" is you have to be laying out tiles, stones, bricks, the stuff that we refer to as "paving". It took many minutes of incomprehension between me and Scott before we sorted it.

I also had a US character say, "He wants in to the house". My editor queried it. I didn’t understand what the problem was, so I asked Scott, who changed it to "Looks like he wants to get into the house." To my ears that sounds too formal, but apparently in US English "to want in" can only mean that you want to be included, as in "Jo wants in on that bank robbery". In Aussie English "wanting in" can mean both wanting to be included and wanting to be (literally) inside.

At one point another of my US characters said that they were "made to go" there. Once again my editors cranked out the red pen, and once again I was confused. Turns out that to a USian if you say that you were "made to" do something, it means that you were created for the purpose of doing that thing, not that you were forced to do it. In Australian English we have both meanings, so that "I was made to write the first great Australian, feminist, monkey knife-fighting, cricket & Elvis novel" can mean either that you were created for the purpose of writing such a novel (which I was) or that that you were forced to write it (which I could be if someone would pony up the dosh).

I also learned that US English doesn’t include "a dog’s breakfast", "demountables", or "unco". Which made me sad for US English, until I remembered some of their great words and expressions, such as "write me", "geek out", "sketchy" and my all-time favourite: "discombobulate". Best word ever!

New York City, 2 May 2005

Transmission Resumed

Yes, this site was down for almost forty-eight hours and my jlATjustinelarbalestier.com address with it. Yes, I was tearing my hair out. And my beloved stats took quite a dip (sob). If any important mail to me was returned, you can resend now.

Even without the whole site going off air, you’ll have noticed I haven’t been musing a whole lot of late. And if you’re a mate, you’ll notice I haven’t been so great about email. I’ve been deadline busy, volunteer work busy, and travelling far too much. This month things should calm down and I should be able to catch up on my life.

Now, back to the (possibly) final round of rewrites on Magic Lessons: they’re due tomorrow!

New York City, 1 May 2005

Magic or Madness Really Truly is Real

Just before we left Sydney my foreign rights agent (doesn’t that sound posh?), Whitney Lee, wrote to tell me that Cheng Chung Books of Taiwan have made an offer for the Chinese (complex character) rights to Magic or Madness. Did I want to say yes? Oh yes. Very much so. Affirmative. Absolutely. Too bloody right. Yes, please!

My first novel has now sold in three different markets: USA, Australia, and now Taiwan (including Hong Kong and Macau). Magic or Madness is going to exist in a language completely unlike my own. Ideograms not alphabet! Top to bottom not left to right! I can’t wait to see what it’ll look like.

So I am now finally convinced that the book is real. Surely they wouldn’t have offered for an imaginary book? Besides I’ve been into four bookshops since we arrived in NYC and even through my jetlagged haze I could see that they had my book. They had them in their twos and fours and at Books of Wonder in their fourteens! I love that shop. At the Union Square Barnes and Noble there was a special section, Myths and Heroes (I may have that title arse up, I’m jetlagged, okay?), that featured Magic or Madness along with five other books including Holly Black’s fabulous Tithe.

Booklist gave the book its second starred review:

In this fierce, hypnotic novel, character, story, and the thrumming forces of magic strike a rare, memorable balance . . . Readers looking for layered, understated fantasy will follow the looping paths of Larbalestier’s fine writing, as graceful and logical as the coiled chambers of Reason’s ammonite, with gratitude and awe.—Jennifer Mattson

Sigh. Gratitude and awe . . .

Heh hem, what was I saying? Oh yes, Magic or Madness is real. Okay, just so you don’t think I’m irretrievably lost in the maws of the mighty praise monster (which, actually, I am) I also got my first review from a reader on barnesandnoble.com. He gave me a scant two stars and declared that the book is like a "bad Australian episode of Charmed". Brilliant turn of phrase, eh? I’ve been imagining Charmed a la Neighbours ever since:

Jane: Charlene!

A petite, curly-headed blonde emerges fron beneath a car dressed in overalls, holding a spanner. She wipes her forehead leaving a grease mark.

Jane: Whatcha reckon about that new warlock, Cole? Bit dodgy, eh?

Charlene: Too right. I don’t reckon he’s really you-know-who’s son. And what were you doing snogging my hubbie, anyway?! You witch!

If the movie rights to Magic or Madness ever sell, I do hope they get the Charmed/Neighbours combination right. Could be tricky. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that our Kylie’s available for the role of Reason.

Tomorrow I begin a brand new novel. One that hasn’t even been sold in English yet. Can’t wait.

New York City, 17 April 2005

What Do You Mean I Have to Wait a Whole Year?

Magic or Madness must really and truly be out because I’m already getting complaints that a year is too long to wait for the sequel. Yay! If a reader’s first response is to be eager for more then I’m doing my job. But, trust me, I understand about the whole waiting thing. Reading the first book in a trilogy and not being able to get my hands on the rest instantly drives me crazy. (Robin Hobb’s been torturing me for years.) But you should bear in mind that the wait for Magic Lessons is even worse for me because I’ve already written it (barring the last few rounds of spit and polish). I’m hideously impatient to see it as a finished book—to see the gorgous cover somewhere other than on a computer screen—and start reading the reviews, seeing it in shops, finding out what people think of it, but that won’t happen until March 2006. Sigh. So long . . .

Of course, I should be entirely focussed on Magic or Madness. It’s the one in the shops, being reviewed, and (I hope) being read right now. I should be doing what I can to promote and support my first born and stop thinking about the next baby (Magic Lessons) and the baby after that (Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!—no, I will never tire of that joke). But I haven’t forgotten Magic or Madness, honest. On the 8th of May I’ll be doing an event at Books of Wonder in New York City: me plus Scott plus EOIN COLFER (!!).

In that vein, yesterday I went into Galaxy Books in Sydney because I’d heard a rumour they had a couple of copies Magic or Madness. Said rumour was true. There were three faced out on the recent titles shelves and one shelved alphabetically (disappointingly, not next to Tanith Lee as I had fondly imagined). I signed all four—my first novel-signing in a real-live bookshop. I saw an actual customer who didn’t even know me, pick up the book and giggle as he read through the glossary. I ran into a dear friend who’d come to Galaxy specifically to buy my book (and Scott’s latest) and watched her do just that (bless her). And, yes, that was thrilling too. And I was asked, yet again, when the sequel would be out and why it takes so long in between books.

Here’s the answer as I understand it:

Typically publishers reckon that only libraries, obsessive fans (such as me—I won’t bore you with the list of writers I must have in hardcover) and rich people buy hardcovers. Most people wait for the paperback. Some say the main job of the hardcover is to be an advertisement for the paperback (though if none sold at all there wouldn’t be any paperback).

I’ve been watching this process with Scott’s first Midnighters book, The Secret Hour. The hardcover came out a year ago, now the paperback is out and selling even faster than the hardcover (which did just fine). At the same time he has a paperback original, Uglies, out. Together the two paperbacks are generating a lot more Scott Westerfeld attention, a steady flow of fan mail, and are driving sales of the newly-released hardcover Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness. Most excellent.

Ideally a publisher wants an author to write a book a year, so that once a year the author has a new (hardcover) book out at the same time as their previous book appears in paperback. That way the sales of paperbacks and hardcovers feed on one another in an endless cycle and the author is never forgotten. That’s the theory anyway.

Scott has gone even further: he’ll have four new books out this year: Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness and his vampire novel, Peeps (I reckon its his best YA so far), in hardcover, and Uglies and its sequel Pretties in paperback. On top of that there’s the paperbacks of last year’s Midnighters 1 and So Yesterday. Next year he’ll have three new books: Midnighters 3 Blue Noon (hardcover), Specials, the final book in the Uglies trilogy (paperback) and an as yet unnamed (and unwritten) hardcover followup to So Yesterday and Peeps. Then of course there’ll be the Midnighters 2 and Peeps paperbacks. Too much Scott Westerfeld is barely enough.

By which time Scott will have suffered a nervous collapse. Frankly, I don’t recommend writing at the pace he’s been maintaining for the last few years.* But it sure makes for some excellent cross promotion. You liked the Midnighters books? Why not try Peeps? You liked Uglies why not try So Yesterday? And so on . . .

Some publishers actually fear Scott-Westerfeld-style prolificness. They worry that if hardcover and paperback books by the same writer come out too close together it will cut into the sales of the hardcover books. They imagine readers staring at the shelves thinking, "I can only have one Westerfeld book. One costs US$6.99 and the other US$15.99. Hmmm, which will I buy?" In amongst the many Westerfeld books you’ll notice that there’s a year gap between the hardcover and paperback of the same title.

However, publishers are much more against too big a gap then they are against too small. They fear that if you wait 18 months or more everyone will have forgotten about the book and it’s author. But many (I’d say most) writers aren’t like Scott and just can’t write that fast, particularly if they’ve got a day job, and/or children, or value their health.

No matter what pace you’re being published at, it really helps to have some kind of track record. Scott’s sales are increasing as he has more books out and more people have heard of him, he’s being more widely reviewed, shortlisted for awards (not to mention winning the Aurealis) and finding his way onto best-of-the-year lists. One of the problems first-time novelists like myself face is that you’re brand new, haven’t won any awards, and you don’t have any obsessive fans yet. The only place an impulse buy is likely to happen is at a real world bookshop. Especially if you have the luck to be shelved face out as Magic or Madness is right now at Galaxy (Sydney), Pulp Fiction (Brisbane), Books of Wonder (New York City) and some Barnes and Nobles in the US. I’ve had a few emails from folks saying they bought Magic or Madness because they were struck by the cover and the title.

But the face-out shelving won’t be in all stores and won’t last long. There are too many newer books waiting for their moment on the new teen shelves. Sales after my books moves into the land of spine-out-only are generated by promoting your arse off (see the Eoin Colfer event mentioned above, all the cons I’ll attend this year, and all the many bookshops I plan to visit and say "Hi, I’m Justine with the unpronouncable surname. You might possibly, if I’m reallly lucky, know me from such . . . "), good reviews, being shortlisted for—or even better winning—awards, making best-of-the-year lists, and, of course, the ever-mysterious word of mouth. If I knew how that worked I’d be a very wealthy girl indeed (though I suspect Scalzi knows the answer).

To sum up: Having Magic Lessons come out a year later (accompanied by the paperback of Magic or Madness) is not a nefarious plan on the part of my cruel publishers to torture those who are dying to know what happens next. Rather it’s all part of a cunning plan to make the trilogy sell over a longer period of time, and for me to have a more-than-ten-minute-long writing career. Fingers crossed.

For those who really must know, email me, and I’ll send you a five-word summary of the next two books. Or not. Depends on my mood. Oh, what the hell: he dies on the bus.

Just kidding.

Sydney, 11 April 2005

*Though our mate Sean Williams seems to have managed an even more insane pace for a decade now.

A Brief Respite from Deadlines

It’s 7:30AM on Thursday morning and I’ve been awake for an hour, lying on the couch, watching a repeat of yesterday’s cricket in New Zealand (NZ versus Sri Lanka) and reading C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary. I watch Jayawardene batting beautifully, lots of lovely attacking shocks, including some quite exquisite cover drives while C. L. R. James (I love using all his initials) bitches about defensive, boring batting in the 1950s. (His theory: it was because the 1950s was boring.)

I’m having a lovely morning, not just because of wall to wall cricket (I’m also checking scores around the world on my laptop), but because I don’t have to feel guilty about it. The last few months have been work, work, work. But now I’ve met all my deadlines. I turned in the anthology last week and the latest rewrites on Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness) last night. For the next few days, before my pesky editors get back to me, I can do whatever I damn well please and I choose cricket.

Especially as it’s just this second gone live: the fourth day of play has begun. And even more especially because in just over a week I’ll be stuck in that cricket-free zone: the US of A with little hope of getting to England to watch Australia destoy them in the Ashes. So here’s to inswingers, yorkers, googlies, cover drives, front-foot play, back-foot play, silly mid-on, short square leg and french cuts. And to W. G. Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Learie Constantine, Peggy Antonio, Sid Barnes, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott, Keith Miller, Garfield Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Viv Richards, Micheal Holding, Bruce Reid, Zoe Goss, Makhaya Ntini, Adam Gilchrist, Steve Bucknor and Belinda Clarke. How I shall miss you all!

Sydney, 7 April 2005

Magic or Madness in Texas

This just in: the very first piece of documentary evidence of the existence of my book in the real world. Woo hoo! This is a photo by Stephanie Leary taken with her phone (I love the world we live in, don’t you?) of the new teen fiction shelf at Barnes & Noble in College Station, Texas.

Not bad placement, eh? I’m very happy about the eccentric alphabetisation which has me next to one of the hugely-selling Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants books and Boy 2 Girl which is all the buzz right now. (Me being suseptible to such buzz I can’t wait to read it.) And what book should be on the shelf below? It’s Scott’s second Midnighters book, Touching Darkness, which he wrote while I was writing Magic or Madness on our fantabulous San Miguel de Allende writing holiday.

Just looking at our two books together makes me teary remembering the wonderful time we had, the excellent tequila, the hibiscus quesadillas, the sopa azteca and Silvia and Luz and Alejandra. Sigh. I wish we could write all our books there.

Stephanie also snapped the rest of new teen fiction, revealing many copies of not just Touching Darkness, but also of Scott’s other new book, Uglies.

How about that? Larbalestier and Westerfeld conquer the universe! Or at least the new teen fiction section of Barnes & Noble at College Station in Texas. It’s a start.

Sydney, 24 March 2005

Geraldine McCaughrean: Genius Rewarded

I’ve just heard that Geraldine McCaughrean has won the contest to write the sequel to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This is astonishingly good news because Geraldine McCaughrean is a far better writer than J. M. Barrie ever was. McCaughrean is a genius. Every sentence she writes is pure gold. Here’s hoping that winning the contest and writing the wonderful book that she will, of course, write, is going to bring her the fame and riches she deserves.

And here’s hoping (double plus a billion) that her entire backlist of adult historicals are brought back into print. Although she’s best known for her children’s and YA (young adult) books, which are indeed all splendid, it’s her adult historical novels, The Maypole, Fire’s Astonishment, Vainglory, Lovesong and The Ideal Wife that blow me away. If I could write a book even a tenth as good I would be a very very happy vegemite. And if she would write some more, lots more, I’d be even happier. I’m sick to death of mentioning her adult books to people who are fanatic readers of historical fiction and them never having heard of her. It must end.

Here’s to a bloody brilliant writer getting the kudos and dosh she deserves.

Sydney, 19 March 2005

First Novel Delirium

For the last few months there’s been just one topic of conversation on John Scalzi’s blog: the publication of his first novel, Old Man’s War. He’s asked his readers to send in photos of it in the wild, he’s posted and discussed every single review that’s appeared, made his blog over so it looks just like the book (how tacky is that?), theorised about every slight movement the book has made up and down Amazon.com’s rankings. It’s been all Old Man’s War, all the time.

And you know what? Good on him. Go, Scalzi! When your very first novel is finally, finally (!) available in real shops and libraries for actual people who don’t even know you to purchase, borrow and maybe even read (!) then damned if you aren’t compelled to shout it from the rooftops. It’s a very big deal.

My first novel, Magic or Madness will be officially released into the wild in the USA on the 17th of March (the Australia edition comes out in September). That’s 13 days away (well, okay, fourteen on account of the whole time-difference thing). Less than two weeks! So soon!

My novel is going to be real. Not just an electronic file, or a pile of papers, or an ARC, but an actual finished book with a dust jacket and that fresh paper, fresh glue smell, and it’s going to find its way into the hands of folks who don’t know me! How about that?

I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’m happy. My stomach’s in knots. I keep giggling at inappropriate moments. Like while watching this TV show about parasites, Body Snatchers (best show ever), this man was lying on the grass beside the more than 2 metre long tapeworm that had been living in his bowels and I thought, eww!, and then I remembered that my novel was coming out and clapped my hands and laughed. Yay tapeworm! Yay Magic or Madness!

The only sad thing is that I’ll be here in Sydney not there in the US when vast quantities of my novel are unloaded from huge crates and arrayed on shelves (or, you know, the lone copy is slotted in between Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula Le Guin, either way). So I won’t be able to go to bookshops and gaze at MY novel for sale. This is where Scalzi’s genius idea comes in: if anyone out there happens to be in a real live bookshop that happens to stock my novel, and happen to have their camera with them, and just happens to take a photo of Magic or Madness in said bookshop, well, I’d just adore it if you sent it to me.

To further heighten my already fever-pitch excitement and make it impossible to think about anything other than Magic or Madness, reviews have started to appear. A friend of mine, an established novelist, who’s published many books and received many reviews, told me I should pay no attention to reviews. Good or bad, she says it’s unwise to let them affect how you feel about yourself or your work. This is especially true of good reviews. You must not let praise go to your head. I’m sure she’s very wise. Sadly I have not a skerrick of wisdom and I’m revelling in the good reviews, learning them off by heart. I just got a starred one (which even tops getting a gold koala bear stamp from your kindergarten teacher) in School Library Journal:

Australian author Larbalestier has wrought beautiful and fearsome magic in this novel, the first in a proposed trilogy. Reason Cansino has spent her life with her unusual mother in the bush, moving frequently, keeping to herself, and learning how to guard against her bizarre grandmother, Esmeralda. When her mother goes insane and 15-year-old Reason is sent to live with Esmeralda, she starts to question all the stories her mother has told her. Is Mere practicing magic, which Reason’s mother insisted was not real? Why have nearly all her ancestors died young? When Reason digs up a dead cat in the cellar and finds the key to a locked (magic) door, she escapes her increasingly frightening grandmother only to find herself halfway around the world in New York City, weak, in danger, and befriended by the mysterious Jay-Tee. Authentic teen voices from two continents reveal the fast-paced events and the conflicts faced by youth when powerful (and predatory) adults seek to take advantage of their ignorance. Readers will especially identify with Reason as she struggles to accept her identity and establish autonomy. Larbalestier’s sense of place and refreshing exploration of magic as a force for both good and evil make this novel unusual. By turns a fantasy adventure and a thoughtful examination of relationships, this radiant gem stands alone, but expect readers to be impatient for the rest of the trilogy.-Melissa Moore, Union University Library, Jackson, TN.

I plan to have a T-shirt made that says "radiant gem". Sigh. This review will sustain me through every bad one. Hell, I’ll be remembering this review when I’ve got one foot in the grave, my books are long forgotten, and I’m living on charity. "I was a radiant gem!" I’ll tell them. "A radiant gem!" I love School Library Journal. I love Melissa Moore. I love her library and the whole city of Jackson, Tennessee.

I don’t want you to think I’m naïve though. Well, okay, I can be naïve (when I watch Entourage I’m forever asking Scott if men really talk that way about women) but I’m not naïve about publishing in the USA. Having your first novel published does not guarantee anything very much. Having a sheaf of wonderful starred reviews doesn’t either. Many highly lauded novels have sunk without a trace. Many first novels sell poorly, rarely earning out their advance, and boy do I know just how small those unearned-out advances usually are. Though a recent survey by Tobias Buckell (who’s also soon to have his first novel published) did point to higher advances as your career continues. That is, if you’re career continues . . .

Many first novelists never sell a second novel. This is where I’m a teeny bit ahead of the game: I sold a trilogy. Whatever happens, I’ll have had three novels published. Cunning, eh? That is, if the first one doesn’t tank and the next two don’t wind up cancelled. But, I’m not worried, honest. My editors like the sequel and, hey, it already has a beautiful cover design! It’s got a scheduled publication date!

Besides, I’m a radiant gem. School Library Journal said so.

Sydney, 4 March 2005

Playing Wife

Scott Westerfeld is the final week tutor at Clarion South, an intensive six-week writing workshop for sf and fantasy writers. And I’m the tutor’s wife. This involves getting up at the same ungodly hour he does to make him breakfast, while he goes over his notes and scribbles on the stories that will be critiqued that morning. I kiss him goodbye as he grabs his bag and heads out the door. "Have a good day at work, sweetheart," I say.

"Sweetheart" is not a word that normally passes my lips. To me Scott is Scott not darling, sweetie, sugar, possum, love or anything else. Clearly, this playing wife thing is destroying my brain. I’ll start wearing gingham and aprons and long for a house with a white picket fence. I’ve been making him lunch and dinner as well as breakfast and doing all the washing up, cleaning, tidying and laundry. It’s just exhausting.

Or it would be if I was a bit more conshie about the whole thing. Fortunately I’m not. I let the dishes sit. And my version of tidying is more of a gather and dump process. I haven’t gone near the mop or vacuum cleaner or dusted or anything that requires true exertion. I’m a pretty crap wife, really.

One night instead of rushing back to cook dinner for knackered husband I sit around and drink beer with the students, gossiping and swatting blood-bloated mozzies, before belatedly dashing back to the flat and taking over the dinner-making proceedings from the exhausted and ravenously hungry husband. "Is that beer on your breath?" he asks, suspiciously. "I was near people who were drinking beer," I answer honestly. Scott is turning into a husband.

Neither of us quite realised how much work a Clarion workshop involves. Scott presides over the crit room from 9AM to 1PM where he and the 17 students dissect the day’s stories and he dispenses pearlers about writing that involve the following phrases: "first shoe", "Brechtian law of dialogue", "information assymetery", and "sweating commas". The students diligently write down everything he says. I worry this will go to his head.

Sometime between 1:10 and 1:30PM he comes home for lunch. We eat, briefly converse, then in the few minutes left before he begins the one-on-one sessions with students that will occupy the rest of the day (usually three or four one-hour session), he plunges into reading and re-reading more of their stories.

He returns for dinner. We eat and exchange possibly as many as fifty words, before he starts reading the next day’s stories: all 20,000 words of them. Long before he’s finished I go to bed, read, pass out.

While he’s away critiquing and being wise, I’ve been rewriting the Magic or Madness sequel, working on the Daughters of Earth anthology or slacking off. Slacking off is best. I had a lovely lunch with Kim Wilkins where we talked writing, babies, academia and frocks and I managed to douse myself with a glass of champagne, which the kind restaurant replaced without charge. I’d had only one sip before it filled my lap.

Mostly I went into the city to visit my mate, Ron Serdiuk, at his wonderful sf, fantasy and crime bookshop, Pulp Fiction. We gossiped and I watched him sell four, five, six or more books to customers who come in just looking for the one. Ron’s passionate and knowledgeable about those genres and it shows. He pays attention to what his customers do and don’t like and recommends accordingly. Very dangerous indeed. Yes, I bought books too. Louise Welsh’s latest (Ron got me hooked by loaning me The Cutting Room) and Devil in the White City.

I also helped out the young man from Mallorca with very little English who came in looking for Spanish-language books. I’m pretty sure I translated Ron’s directions to a shop that sells such books reasonably accurately. Though I do tend to get left and right mixed up. Still, we gave him a map, and I got to talk Spanish. By the time I got home I was exhausted. I took one look at Scott and revised my assessment of my fatigue to mildly peaked.

Yesterday I helped out Grace Dugan, Clarion South’s co-founder, with printing out the stories for the following day. There were four of them ranging in length from nine pages to thirty-seven. Just under 20,000 words. The author of the shortest manuscript neglected to add page numbers so I numbered the 153 pages by hand. The printer freaked out several times and started printing a line of garbage at the top of otherwise blank pages and would not stop until we’d done everything we could think of to fix it several times. At which point the stapler started buggerising around with us. Two hours later we had 72 copies of the stories to distribute to students and tutor. It gave me a tiny glimpse of the hard work that makes this workshop run. The conveners: Robert Dobson, Kate Eltham (the other co-founder), Heather Gent and Robert Hoge look every bit as tired as the students.

To recover from the printing ordeal I went swimming with Grace and Lily Chrywenstrom (one of this year’s students). It was rather gorgeous, despite the crushing disappointment of a short-course pool. I expect such mingy pools in the USA, but in Australia! The horror. The day was balmy and humid and lovely, the water warm strewn with leaves from the surrounding gum trees. We swam, laughed, floated, sank and gossiped, while I tested my new boardies, rashie and fins, and swam fast as Thorpie (or almost). We agreed that swimming is good, so is writing, and that hard work is best avoided. The last one may just have been me.

Grace led us to the path through the bush that connects the two Griffith Uni campuses, Nathan (where the workshop is held) and Mount Gravatt (where the swimming pool is), and we walked back past gums and paperbarks and grass trees and other plants that Grace knew the names for but I’ve now forgotten. We saw butterflies, bush turkeys, heard many different birds calling to one another, but saw only crows which we dubbed singed rainbow lorikeets (you had to be there). The walk was even lovelier than the swim.

Earlier in the week I spent forty minutes stalking a goanna, just shy of two metres long from head to tip of tail. It took a while to find just the right stalking distance; every time I got too close it froze, clearly hoping I would stop seeing it and go away. Only at ten metres did it believe I was gone. I watched the goanna being divebombed by birds when it ventured too close to their nests, and at last reaching its goal: a garbage bin. It climbed in and out of the bin always having some part of its body peeking out, tail, hind legs, or head, snout and eyes. A strange clicking hissing sound came from inside as if the goanna were torturing a cicada.

The goanna waddled rather than walked, its stocky limbs moving in a circular motion that made it resemble one of Tolkien’s grumpy dwarves. When it was startled by a group of US exchange students it ran half way up a tree, where it froze in its you-can’t-see-me pose. The Americans were transfixed, unable to believe the size of it. I told them it was still a baby and would grow much much bigger. Who knows? It may even be true.

When Ellen Klages, another—despite her many acclaimed stories, recent first novel sale (to Sharyn November at Penguin USA) and growing reputation—Clarion student, stumbled across a goanna, it reared up on its hind legs and hissed at her. Surely it can’t have been the same one. It was strange seeing Ellen here in Australia. I’ve known her for years, but only in North America, and only at conventions. This is the first time we’ve hung out together when her accent has been the odd one out. It’s most peculiar. She’s as exhausted and worn out as all the other students, who’ve not only been reading and critting the 20 thousand words of stories every day for the last six weeks, but have been writing a sizeable number of them too. I’ve never seen her happier.

It’s just after midnight, the beginning of Friday, the last day of Clarion South 2005. Scott’s reading the last and longest story for tomorrow. He’s not a fast reader. It’ll be at least an hour before he crawls into bed. The bags under his eyes are meeting up with the stubble on his cheeks. It’s not a good look.

He arrived knackered, worn done by a long hard year of writing way too many books, all of them written to his ridiculously high standards. I’m still not sure how he managed it. The Clarion South experience hasn’t exactly been a rest cure, yet he’s loving it here. He uses the word "rejuvenated" frequently, even though he’s so tired he stumbles over that many syllables. He’s full of praise for the smarts, sharpness, energy, creativity, and dedication of his students: Mark Barnes, Nike Bourke, Nathan Burrage, Alison Chan, Lily Chrywenstrom, Suzanne Church, Shane Jiraiya Cummings, Rjurik Davidson, Evan Dean, Ellen Klages, Tessa Kum, Deborah McDonnell, Anne Mok, Emma Munro, Trevor Stafford, Susan Wardle, and Kenrick Yoshida. He says he’s learned as much about writing as they have, has been forced to put into words ideas about the craft that had floated about in his backbrain but never surfaced before. He’s sad it’s almost over.

On Monday we go to Heron Island with Ron and Sarah. Six days without computers: no writing, no internet, no critiquing, just tennis, snorkelling and mango daiquiris. I’ll stop playing wife and we’ll be back to being Scott and Justine again. We can’t wait, but neither one of us would have missed this week for the world.

I crawl into bed now. Scott keeps scribbling in red.

Written Brisbane, 11 February 2005; posted Sydney, 21 February 2005

A Few More Words on First Novel Advances

Back in December I posted a little essay about first novel advances. Thanks to John Scalzi linking to it in three different places, but most especially at metafilter, thousands of people have now read all about what my mates got for their first novels and it’s been linked to all over the shop. The musing also seems to have served as a wee reminder to Tobias Buckell that he promised to put together a database of first novel advances in the sf field, based on Brenda Hiatt’s sterling work in the romance field. Well, now he’s done it. So, if you’ve sold a novel and haven’t already filled it in, go do so. It’s a fabulous project. Yay, Tobias!

(As with the first musing all dollar amounts are US unless otherwise specified.)

I’ve gotten a lot of mail on the subject, some from others like me who’ve just sold their first novel and were grateful for the perspective. They all expressed great relief to hear their advance was not nearly as bad as they’d thought. I had the same reaction myself!

Most of the mail came from unpublished writers, wanting to know more about what happens after the whole signing of contract, advance thing. I was tempted to write an essay in response, but then Kim Wilkins told me about Ian Irvine’s essay, "The Truth About Publishing" (you’ll find the link in the menu on the left, eleven down). Ian’s been in this game much longer than I have, and knows, way way more about publishing. Read it! Even if you’ve been published. Read it now. Read it all the way through to the end. Trust me, you’ll be wiser for it. I wish I’d read it before I sold my first novel.

One of my correspondents asked about the merits of self-publishing and vanity presses. I advised them to go check out Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light and the various articles there about some of the many pitfalls of vanity presses who pretend not to be vanity presses. There are good reasons for going to a vanity press. Self-publishing is perfect for small projects like publishing your family history to give to family members, or a book on how to turn toe-nail clippings into jewellery. You know you’ll be able to sell enough copies at all the toe-nail clipping fetishist fairs to make your money back, but you may have difficulty persuading any publisher of same.

Self-publishing is rarely the best route to get your novel into the hands of the reading public. Yes, some writers have had a lot of success self-publishing, Kelly Link is one. But she knew a tonne about the industry, and she and her husband started their own publishing company. They’d be the first to tell you they’re not exactly rolling in money as a result. Critical acclaim and good feeling, yes; dosh, not so much. Theirs is a totally different enterprise from some of those that Teresa Nielsen Hayden discusses. Be very very careful. As in any industry there are less-than-honest people out there.

A number of people objected to my survey, calling it unscientific and meaningless. On the first charge, yes, absolutely, totally unscientific, the sample size was micropscopic. Tobias is going to do it right. But I doubt that the results are going to be wildly different. No matter what actual number he ends up with, the average first novel advance in any genre is not enough money to live off.

There were also a couple of objections to my claim that the average advance for a non-fiction book is $30,000. First, I did say big NY publishing houses. Second, mea culpa, I didn’t specify what kind of non-fiction. I was referring to narrrative non-fiction (books like Longitude and Salt) and biography. The kinds of non-fiction that are closest to novels. And thirdly, $30,000 was a hand-waving figure. But I’ve since heard from more agents and a number of non-fiction writers who all say, yes, the average for those kind of non-fiction books is considerably higher than it is for fiction. If you’re writing computer manuals you’re unlikely to get within coo-ee of thirty thou. Or even worse, if you’re writing learned tomes for university presses, you’ll be lucky to get any advance at all.

Two people got back to me with great detail about how advances are worked out, author, Garth Nix, who was once an agent, and an editor who wishes to remain annonymous. I was fascinated because I’d thought advances were determined by how much your editor liked you. Apparently not. The amount I don’t know about publishing would fill all the world’s oceans. Which is another reason why you should follow all the links I’m providing to folks like Ian Irvine and Teresa Nielsen Hayden who do know what they’re talking about.

Here’s what Garth had to say (he’s talking Australian dollars):

Many publishers actually work out first novel advances using a rule of thumb that the advance offered is 50% of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run. The first print run of a novel for which the publisher has ordinary expectations is usually about 4-5,000 copies (surprisingly this is much the same in the UK and US as well as Australia, though the format will probably be different). Say it’s 5,000 copies of a $18.95 paperback with a 10% royalty, then the royalty earnings if the whole run sells would be $1.89 x 5,000 or $9,450, 50% of that is $4,725, in that case the publisher might round it up to a $5000 advance.

If the publisher is very confident or very keen to get the book (or the author, looking ahead), then both the estimated first printing, the format and possibly the proportion of the royalties calculation will result in a larger offer. For example, the publisher might decide the book can support a C-format paperback (or in the US or UK a hardcover) with a rrp of $39.95 and a first print of 25,000, and to get it they will offer an advance equal to 100% of the first printing. So in this case the advance would be $3.99 x 25,000 or $99,750 which would certainly be rounded up to $100,000 so it can be spouted as a ‘six figure advance’.

The editor goes into more detail:

I’d say that most first novel advances tend to be between $5,000 and $10,000. Some people use a more instinctive approach to determining advances, but I base it entirely on how many copies I think I’m realistically likely to net —there’s actually an easy equation for working out the advance based on cover price, royalty, and (presumed) copies sold. A really really simple version is that for a mass-market paperback, to earn out you basically need to net about twice as many copies as dollars paid for the advance, and for trade paperback, you need to net about as many copies as dollars paid for the advance.

If more authors knew the math that goes into it and the number of copies that adult genre authors actually sell, I think advances would make more sense. I’m definitely not out to screw anyone, but I am out to make sure my company doesn’t actually lose money. If it makes first time novelists feel better, I don’t pay established novelists more just because they’re established—I have to have a sense I can sell the right number of copies. If I think it will be a 20,000 copy mass-market seller, I’ll pay accordingly. In all cases, a driven agent can usually push me a little higher, but not further than I’m comfortable. I find good agents are straightforward with editors, and have the long term interests of their clients in mind. They ask for more $$ than I’d ideally pay, but have a good sense of when there’s no more wiggle room or when they’re setting their client up as a losing investment (unreasonable advance that won’t earn out, and a publisher unlikely to invest again), and they fight for the things they know a) a publisher will give up if pressed and b) will actually benefit the author to hold on to.

Lately I’ve been frustrated by the apparently widely accepted "rule" that a lower advance means your publisher isn’t going to do anything for the book. It does frequently work one way (if they spend a lot, they’ll do a lot), but that doesn’t logically mean the inverse is automatically true (if they spend little, they’ll do little). While it’s certain that a publisher will push an expensive book very hard because they have to make back the advance, I often pay less for a book with the idea in the back of my head that I’ll be able to spend more $$ on the packaging & promotion for a book that might not otherwise receive it. All of the money comes from the same place, so if I haven’t "used up" a lot of money on an unrealistic advance, we can find the money for a pricier package or some additional promotion. Often when I ask for something from my publisher, they first ask me how much I paid for the book—when that number isn’t too high, I almost always get approval for the "extras" I want. In my mind, if I spend more $$ on packaging/promoting rather than up front, the book is likely to sell more, and the author is more likely to earn out and receive royalties—so we both win.

Of course, for all my Pollyanna-ing, I’m sure it doesn’t always work like that in some places, or even [at my publishing house] all of the time. I definitely try to use a less-expensive advance as a springboard to other things, but yes, you can get a low or midlist offer and have your book thrown out into the market without much backing. In that case, I’d say the author should do whatever they can to make the book a success via personal promotional effort, forcing friends to buy it, whatever—if the book succeeds, the publisher will notice the previously invisible lowlist book & put more into the next one, or if the author hasn’t signed a multi-book contract, they can walk and go to a new publisher with a successful book that beat the odds under their belt.

For more gossip and information about the business of publishing go to the blog of "Max Perkins", Bookangst 101. The site is devoted to the many pitfalls and joys of publishing. Don’t forget to read the comments, where there are many fascinating (though sometimes uncomfortably bitter) stoushes. Enjoy.

Several people wrote to ask me, why, if the pay’s so bad am I trying to make a living as a writer? Good question. Because I’m insane? Because I prefer to live in a state of permanent stress about money? Actually spazzm (love that name) nailed the answer to that commenting in the metafilter discussion by editing the final sentence of my original essay thus:

"The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug’s game. Enter at your own peril."

Exactly.

Sydney, 5 February 2005

Wine

Deb Biancotti recently wrote about how much she loved the US movie, Sideways, while I don’t remotely agree with her about the film (love was not the emotion it roused in my breast), I did very much enjoy her thoughts about wine. She’s right: loving wine, appreciating wine, gets a very bad rap. It’s pretentious, it’s snobby, it’s blah blah blah. "That doesn’t really smell like passionfruit or taste of cat’s piss. You’re just making that up. Wanker."

Like Deb, I love wine. I love them, red, white, sticky sweet and dry as bone. I don’t care about the grape variety: pinot gris, malbec, cab sav, merlot (yes, merlot, I have no idea what that guy’s problem is), sav blanc, semillon, riesling, chardonnay, shiraz and so on. And I especially love wine with bubbles. Not just champagne, I’m also in love with heaps of Australian, New Zealand and Italian bubblies. What can I say? They tickle my nose and float across my tongue. What I care about is quality. Every grape variety can produce crap wine and they can all produce absolute glories.

I love the performance around tasting wine: checking out the wine’s colour in the glass, smelling it and trying to figure out what those smells are, what they remind you of, and then best of all, tasting it. Does the taste match the smell? Does it taste the same at the beginning as at the end of a sip, of a glass, of a bottle? (A bottle shared with others, obviously. Drink only in moderation.)

I totally agree with Deb: "It’s earthy and real. I think it’s a way to focus inwards on your body’s sensations and to feed those sensations through your brain and turn them into words. It’s sensual. Kinda—dare I say— sexy."

When we were in Buenos Aires recently we drank a lot of malbec, a red grape variety I’d never drunk before and this weird thing kept happening: the waiter would pour the taste, I’d sip, my mouth would pucker, and the first word that wanted to escape my mouth would be, "b’dna’gah!" or maybe "ack!" The waiter would smile and say, "Too much tannin?"

"Rather a lot, yes," I’d say, squeezing the words out of my shocked lips. The waiter would then assure me that it would taste fine in a few minutes. We just had to wait. So we did. Without fail the next sip would be smooth, almost creamy, yet still a big red, still with some astringency. I’ve never drunk wines before that changed so dramatically so quickly. Very very fabulous.

For my birthday last year, Scott gave me the most excellent present ever (except for all the other really great ones, like the watch I’m wearing, my silver wedding skirt, that tropical fruit basket, everything my sister and parents have given me ever, and all the stuff I’ve forgotten cause my memory is crap): Le Nez du Vin (yeah, yeah, it’s French and all about wine, colour it very prententious indeed, and no, he didn’t pay full retail price. Jeeze what do you think we are?). It’s a set of 54 wee bottles of the key essences found in wine: cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, cut hay, lychee, butter, mushroom and 43 other ones. Each essence is matched with a beautifully written and illustrated card that tells you its chemical components, history, and what wines it’s found in. And each essence smells exactly like what it says it smells like. The green pepper smells like green pepper (well, okay, it smells like green capsicum). Fresh, crisp and faintly like grass. The honey like a light, straw-coloured honey. Come on, you know the kind.

We’ve spent hours and hours learning to identify them all. (For extra kink value we’ve even done it blindfolded. Cor!) All our friends have been into it too (blindfolded and everything! Double cor!). It’s a tonne of fun and much much much harder than you imagine. Most people’s sense of smell doesn’t get the same kind of work out that sight and hearing do. None of the folk who’ve played with our kit has gotten even fifty per cent right first go. I kept finding myself holding the teeny bottle under my nose, going, "I know this! I know this! Tip of the tongue! It’s . . . it’s . . . Oh, oh, oh. Bugger. What is it?"

"That would be lemon."

"Aaargh! I knew that."

We’ve played with it so much we know the 54 smells off by heart. We’ve learned that after about the ninth one your nose packs it in and everything smells like cloves. The smell starts coating your mouth. You taste it. I started flashing back to my time in Jakarta and all those clove cigarettes (bloody kretek). Turns out Proust was on the money: memory and smell are intertwined. So many of the guesses began, "Oh, oh, oh! It smells like that summer at my aunt’s place and the ice cream factory down the streeet and the—vanilla. It’s vanilla!"

Both Scott and me have gotten a lot better at isolating different smells in wine, but not just in wine, in foods, in garbage (hmm, I believe that was once a stew flavoured with thyme), in pretty much everything. And our writing has changed—it’s a lot more pongy that it used to be. Used to be I’d go for pages and pages without hitting any odours. My characters would see, and see, and see, and also hear, touch, and taste, but rarely would they smell so much as their dog’s farts, and when they did they’d smell in familiar, unarresting ways. In similies, like clean hair, rosemary, vomit, whatever. I’d rarely take the smell apart, really describe it. There’s a reason for that. It’s really hard and using the chemical components rarely makes for evocative writing. Most people don’t know many beyond H2O and it doesn’t have much of a smell.

I’m still not very good at it, but the kit, and drinking and appreciating wine, has at least gotten me thinking about how to write smells better. Some day soon it should translate into words on the page.

Sydney, 28 January 2005

Pressing the Send Button

I did it! I finished my very first sequel! Magic or Madness 2 (working title: Chooks or Chokos) has been written, the send button has been pressed, one of my editors, thirty pages in, has said so far she’s loving it. I can open that champagne, drink, breathe deep, and then turn to the next (and also previous) project. Yay!

I started Magic or Madness 2
(working title: The Magic Puddle) on the 14th of June, 2004, and finished on the 24th of January, 2005. Seven months! Not quite the nine weeks that it took to write Magic or Madness. No Mexican writing idyll this time around: I had to do housework, deal with admin, work on other projects like editing Daughters of Earth, an anthology of feminist sf.* The first 25 thousand words of Magic or Madness 2 (working title: Magical Crazies Down Under) were written painfully and slowly in New York & Buenos Aires from June to early November; the remaining 40 thousand plus words were written lightning fast in Sydney in the last two months. Yes, I’m knackered, but not as knackered as Scott—he’s written three novels since last June.

Magic or Madness 2 (working title: Magic, Madness & Minties) was a much harder book to write than Magic or Madness. It took forever to get started, though my cunning plan of using "once upon a time" as the kickstarter ended up working. Here’s the first sentence:

Once, when I was really little, we passed a road sign peppered with bullet holes.

(Once is just shorthand for "once upon a time".)

Turns out that making the second book in a trilogy stand alone is not easy. There’s a whole book’s worth of backstory that you have to artfully drop into a sentence or two. I can see why some writers don’t bother. I wondered why I was bothering. It’s not like I’ve ever picked up the second book of a trilogy and read it first. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to start at the beginning (according to Julie Andrews it’s a very good place to start). Does anyone read trilogies out of order? (Write me if you have. Be nice to know all my efforts weren’t for nowt!)

I did my best, and Scott, and my first readers, Gwenda Bond, Pamela Freeman, Carrie Frye, Jan Larbalestier, Karen Meisner, Sally O’Brien, Ron Serdiuk, and Lili Wilkinson, let me know exactly where my best wasn’t good enough. Thank you! Now I just have to sit tight (or, er, get back to work on Daughters of Earth) and wait for my editors’ comments.

Meanwhile, the day Magic or Madness is published (17 March) approaches. Reviews are starting to appear. Kirkus just called it "A cleverly creepy fantasy with likable, complex characters and a sinister conclusion". Not too foul, eh? And I’ve heard rumours that it’s also getting a good review in the School Library Journal. People who aren’t my publishers or friends are reading it! Gulp, but also yay! It’s about time. I wrote it, like, a million years ago.

I have now written four novels, sold three (one, Magic or Madness 3, is not written yet, so, yes, there are two unsold ones), and planned about a thousand others. What to write after this trilogy? I’m thinking the world is finally ready for my great Australian, feminist, monkey knife-fighting, cricket & Elvis novel. Whatcha reckon?

Sydney, 26 January 2005

*I’d thought editing would be a complete doddle. Me with my feet up on the desk, while other people killed themselves writing. Not the case: editing that anthology has been much, much harder work than any novel I’ve written. Not editing again, me. I’m not cut out for hard work.

Some Award Ceremonies are More than Tolerable

I am bored rigid by awards ceremonies. Every single one of them. The Oscars are sort of tolerable, but only if watched with friends while drinking and mocking the frocks with the tellie on mute (because who wants to hear anyone thanking their agent/God/studio/husband/mother/children and blah, blah, blah). I’m baffled that anyone watches the Logies, the Golden Globes, or any of the myriad awards shows that get televised. What on earth compels people to inflect such tedium on themselves?

The only awards ceremonies I’ve attended have been at science fiction conventions, most of which (but not the joyous Tiptree Award) have rivalled the Oscars for brain-numbing length. They remind me of school assembly. In fact, I suspect this is why I loathe them so. Remember school assemblies? Row upon row of listless, cranky students sitting on uncomfortable, prone-to-collapsing, fold-up chairs/hot bitumen/the floor while the teachers and head master on stage took it in turn to drone on about school spirit (or as often our lack thereof), how much money the cake stall raised, our glorious sporting achievements, and how the area behind the demountables was not created for students to illicitly smoke/pash/plot revolution and anyone caught there would get detention until the end of time even if they were back there writing the great Australian novel. Each assembly would end (or was it start? Thankfully it’s lost in the fogs of time) with a droning, spiritless rendition of the school anthem set to the music of "Gaudeamus Igitur" or "Rule Britannia" or "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean" or "Pop Goes the Weasel".

I went to a lot of different schools, and experienced many different assemblies, but they were all the same: utter utter torture. Same exhortations and lamentations and threats, same lame school anthems (and the school mottoes were even worse. My favourite: Manners Maketh the Man. That’s practically commie. Be polite? Way to inspire the kiddies to go out and make their dreams come true. And what’s with the "maketh"? Lisping is somehow polite?).

There’s only one school assembly that I remember distinctly. A boy two rows in front of me started making strange noises. Loud strange noises. Like a baby dinosaur being strangled. Turns out the noises came from his very unhappy tum-tum. Seconds later he let loose with the most amazing projectile vomit I’ve ever seen (sorry, Ron, but sometimes these stories are necessary). A long arc of it, which managed to cover at least ten rows in front of him. Fortunately, the incident happened on PE day and all those, um, effected, by it had their PE uniforms to change into (and weren’t they overjoyed about that). Even better, it happened at the beginning of assembly. In the enusing chaos, not only did we miss out on assembly, but most of the class immediately afterwards. Most excellent. That boy became a hero.

So every time I go to an awards ceremony and find a seat amongst the row after row of listless, cranky science fiction people, the full horror of school assembly comes rushing back. I am possessed of a need to pass notes, make smartarse comments, and skip out as early as possible without the teachers noticing. Even when friends or myself are up for an award, on those occasions it just adds a little anxiety into the mix. Boredom plus nervousness, not a great combination. Perhaps that projectile-vomiting boy had been up for the post of monitor or something? (Not that such a post exists outside of Enid Blyton novels.)

Saturday’s Aurealis Awards in Brisbane run by Fantastic Queensland (an organisation which fully lives up to its name) was nothing like that. No boredom, no projectile vomiting. Just a very fetching animated alien called Bruce and well-edited, well-conceived short videos introducing each award. They made everyone giggle. The speeches from presenters and winners were short, and either funny or touching, or both. And Scott Westerfeld won, as did Cat Sparks and Sean Williams and Margo Lanagan (whose short story collection, Black Juice, is the best collection I’ve read in ages), which made it even more fabbie.

Aurealis Awards are pretty.

The theme of the night was community. Or as Jeff Fenech once put it: "I love youse all". Winners didn’t just thank individual people who’d helped them, but the whole community. Scott thanked the Australian sf community for welcoming him so warmly, and said that winning for the first book he wrote in Australia, Midnighters: The Secret Hour, was the icing on the cake of that splendid welcome. Sean Williams talked about community too, thanked all the various groups he’s part of, and warmly welcomed the Clarion South students to the fold. Cat did too, and neatly managed to guilt us all into buying copies of every anthology she publishes from now until eternity. I will, I promise. Their graciousness made everyone feel warm and welcome and, well, part of the Oz sf community.

Then we all went to the cocktail party and drank and ate and gossiped with old friends and made new ones (those frisky Clarion kids), and generally carried on like communities do, and it was more than tolerable.

I didn’t think of school assembly, not even once.

Sydney, 24 January 2005

All-New Justine Larbalestier Website

Welcome to the all-new Justine Larbalestier website. Deb Biancotti, goddess that she is, has designed two new sections, one for my first novel, Magic or Madness, (coming out in March in the USA; September in Australia & New Zealand), and one for The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. She’s also put together a new books page, completely reorganised my musings, and added a handy little subject index, so if you really want to read everything I have to say about, say, sport all at once, you can (so far only cricket, basketball, and a tiny touch of the Tour de France—my disquisitions on lawn bowls, darts and ballroom dancing will be up soon, I promise. But there’ll be no post on hurling. Cause, you know, what the hell?!).

I’m particularly happy to make these old letters to sf magazines available outside of my book. Isaac Asimov debates the role of women in science fiction in the pages of Astounding. It’s wonderful stuff.

For those interested in the publishing industry, this is an account of the making of my soon-to-be-available YA novel, Magic or Madness, from sale to writing through production. The Magic or Madness section also includes a glossary of the Australian English that appears in the book, as well as the first two chapters, and some answers to cool questions I’ve been asked about the book and about writing generally. If you have any questions or comments feel free to send them my way.

Enjoy!

Deb has been very very busy on my behalf. Thank you, Deb. You should all check out her new blog. Not only is she a fab web designer, but she’s witty, sharp and funny. Often all at the same time!

Thanks also to all my regular readers for your support. I love that there are people in Israel, Spain, the Netherlands, Iraq and Mexico who read me regularly! Not to mention Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the USA. You’re all goddesses.

Sydney, 18 January 2005

Twenty 20

Twenty 20 is a brand new form of cricket, which I—having spent most of 2004 in various non-cricket playing nations (Mexico, USA and Argentina)—had only barely heard of before coming home and hearing about it everywhere. Twenty 20 gets its name because each side faces only 20 overs (in the one-day form of the game they face 50). It’s a streamlined version of the game that takes a bare three hours to play, and that includes the 15 minutes in between the two innings. As opposed to the five days of test cricket match and eight hours of a one-day (pyjama cricket) game, that’s insane. That’s backyard cricket. In England, where Twenty 20 was invented, games have been selling out, and a third of those attending have never seen a game of cricket live before. New converts to cricket? Sounds good to me.

There are some nutty rules: the punishment for a no-ball seems extreme (two extra runs and the batter gets a free hit, ie, for one ball can’t get out except if they’re run out). Why is a no-ball so much worse than bowling wide? But the fielding restrictions make sense, encouraging free scoring, and I love the time restrictions. Each batter has to get to the crease within 90 seconds and the 20 overs have to be bowled in 80 minutes. This prevents cricketers using feet-dragging and procrastination as a tactic and it’s great to see. (Not that Shoaib Akhtar’s use of such tactics isn’t frequently hilarious.)

Yesterday night I got to watch Twenty 20 for the first time. Pakistan versus Australia’s second string team, Australia A. The first innings was a ripper. It was like cricket on crack (or "cracket" as Scott dubbed it). Australia A batted first, scoring fast and furious with a run rate of 9 an over, employing some of the most unorthodox batting I’ve seen in a while. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was entertaining. There were some speccie wickets taken, with Shoaib Akhtar exploding the stumps several times (including once on a free hit when, tragically, it counted for nowt). Seeing stumps cartwheeling and bails spinning through the air. Sigh. One of my very favourite things.

The second innings sucked. Pakistan just couldn’t be arsed actually batting. They looked like they thought Twenty 20 was beneath them, scoring at a rate that would have been slow for test cricket. Running between the wickets as if they were going for a gentle evening jog, not running flat out to save their lives (or, rather, their wickets). The four year old next door runs faster. And the result of their half-arsed running? Run out twice. On neither occasion were the services of the third umpire called upon. The only reason I didn’t switch channels to watch the test match between South Africa and England (c’mon South Africa!) is because I was determined to watch a whole Twenty 20 game no matter what. Australia A won easily. It was dull.

However, I don’t blame Twenty 20; I blame Pakistan. I imagine a game played between two sides who give a toss, who bat and run like they mean it, would be two innings of fun, not just one. It’s a game that addresses the problem with one-day cricket: the predictabilty and boring middle twenty overs. I hear yesterday’s game between WA Warriors (what a dumb name—why not the Sandgropers?) and the Victorian Bushrangers (Bushrangers? Please!) was fair dinkum. A ripper of the first order. Wish I’d seen it first, instead of last night’s fifty percent affair.

And anything that gets more people into watching cricket is just fine with me. Now I’ll get back to ridgy didge cricket: the test in South Africa.

Sydney, 14 January 2005

A Small Offering for the New Year

At the moment this is my favourite bit of dialogue:

"Is there anything you’re afraid of . . . apart from dragon hunters?"

"Dragon hunters are just men. It is iron weapons Danzi fears."

"So you don’t fear any creatures?"

The dragon was silent for a moment.

"There is just one creature dragons fear," Danzi said.

"What’s that?"

"Centipede."

"Centipedes?" Ping exclaimed. "Even I’m not afraid of centipedes."

"Centipedes crawl into ears. Find way to brain. Eat brain."

from Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson, Black Dog Books, 2003.

Sydney, 7 January 2005

Living by the Sea

I caught the ferry to Manly (a beach suburb of Sydney) with my friend Donna today. We walked along beside the ocean, watched waves splash against rocks, up on to the sandy beaches, watched hundreds of people snorkelling, swimming, splashing, playing in the water. But we couldn’t help trying to imagine what it would be like if all the water was sucked away and then a ten-metre high wave moving at 70 kph came crashing in on us all. Swimmers gone, snorkellers gone, hotels and bars gone.

What happened to the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives, Malaysia, Burma, the Seychelles, Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania yesterday is past imagining. So many thousands of people dead and missing and dispossessed, many of them doing the things people were doing in Manly today: playing, fishing, out on their boats, living by the sea. I have lived by the sea for the majority of my life.

My grandparents came to Australia in the late 1930s. They were jews from huge families, each with nine or ten brothers and sisters. Each of those brothers and sisters had children. After the war only four of their many nieces were left alive. Their parents, brothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and other nieces—everyone else was dead. Once, I asked my grandmother if she ever thought of going back to Kolomyya. "Why would I do that?" she answered, looking at me as if I was stupid. "Everyone I knew who lived there is dead. All my family, all my friends, what is there for me?"

All my life I’ve tried to understand what that must have been like. The majority of your family and friends dead, your world gone. I’ve never been able to. Now in parts of Southeast Asia, the subcontinent and Africa thousands of people have to face the life of a survivor who has nothing and no one. There are many places online where you can donate money to help them. I’m going to. I hope you will too.

Sydney, 27 December 2004

Average First Novel Advances

Skads of random people come to my website expecting reams of knowledge (and pictures) on topics that I do not, in fact, cover. The most common of these (after "my sister naked") is "first novel average advance" or some variant thereof. Every day four or more people come here hoping for guidance in this area. I imagine that they are people who are thinking idly about a career as a novelist and just want to make sure before they start typing that such a career is as lucrative as they imagine. Or perhaps some are first-time novelists who’ve just sent their babies out into the world and are wondering what they can hope for in return. Or maybe that wise and esteemed sage Google has been asked the question by some lass who’s just been made an offer and is in shock. "Surely, such a paltry amount of money can’t be normal? Surely this publisher thinks I’m a naive fool whose work can be bought for cowrie shells?"

I decided it was time I provided these questing souls with the answers that they seek, so I did a (very) little research. I emailed a bunch of people I know who have sold a novel and asked them what they got, half-expecting them to instead tell me where to go. Every single one answered—some within nanoseconds. Writers very much want to tell you what they got, no matter how little. I also emailed a few editors with the same question and heard back from none of them. (In their defence it is Christmas time and they may be on holidays and possibly haven’t seen said email yet. Still, interesting, eh?)

However, before I begin, I suspect some of you are only hazy on what exactly an advance is. An advance is a sum of money that is paid (or advanced) to a writer by a publisher against the future earnings of a book. I sold my first book (not a novel) to Wesleyan University Press for US$1,000. I got to keep that money no matter what happened, but I didn’t get any more cash from Wesleyan until the royalties on the book exceeded the $1,000 needed to pay Wesleyan back for this advance.

So what’s a royalty? It’s a percentage of the book’s sale price. In this case every time a copy of Battle of the Sexes sells I get 7.5% of the total, that is, about $1.50 a unit for a $20 book. Only after those $1.50 cuts added up to $1,000 did I start getting more money from Wesleyan. The royalty money comes (once or twice or four times year, depending on how the publishing company does their accounting) in the form of a royalty cheque. Given the peculiarities of the publishing industry (such as the returns system) it can take a long, long time (years) for royalty cheques to start wending their way to your home. A big fat advance up front makes a writer’s life a whole lot easier!

So to first novel advances: I asked fellow Aussies, folks from the UK, Canada and the US how much they got for their first novel. Because the majority are USian I’ve translated everything into US dollars. Here are the answers with year of sale. I have not adjusted for inflation because it kind of tells it’s own tale, doesn’t it?

1962: $1,000
1965: $3,000
1970: $10,000
1976: $700
1982: $7,500
1984: $7,500
1985: $2,500, $8,000
1989: $3,000
1990: $15,000
1995: $4,000
1996: $4,000
1997: $7,500
1999: $2,500
2002: $6,500
2003: $13,500
2004: $350, $10,000

Average advance: $5,920

Ah ha! See the pattern? No? Nah, me neither. Someone in 1970 got the exact same amount as someone in 2004. Except they didn’t, did they? According to the American Institute for Economic Research’s cost-of-living calculator, the lucky sod in 1970 received the princely sum of US$48,659.79 in today’s dollars. Ten grand went a lot further in 1970 than it does now.

The thousand-dollar advance in 1962 ($6,251.66 today) went to Samuel R. Delany for The Jewels of Aptor, the long half of an Ace Double. At the time Chip was paying "56 dollars a month, for a four-room 2nd floor apartment on the dead-end of East 5th Street on the Lower East Side." So his first novel advance paid for almost a year and a half’s rent. Scott Westerfeld’s $4,000 advance for his first novel Polymorph in 1996 was enough to pay four and a half’s months rent on his two-room apartment a mere three blocks (and thirty years) away from Chip’s old flat. (In the meantime that section of the "Lower East Side" had become "the East Village" and the rents had gone up and up). Nowadays, of course, getting a four-room flat in the East Village for less than $2,500 a month is a miracle of the first order. The larger of the two advances in my table from 2004 would cover four months’ rent for such a place, the smaller, 0.14 of a month (also known as four days).

The advances listed above were paid in four different countries and by a variety of different publishing houses. The $350 advance from 2004 was paid by a small but prestigious press, who offset their tiny advances with higher royalites, in addition to keeping none of the media or foreign-language rights. One of the authors wrote, "I’ve heard that in London at least, low advances for new signings have made a comeback in the last decade, but I don’t ask, and folks don’t usually tell. For your inquirers’ benefit, and in case they were even wondering, getting a low advance is a Very Bad Thing, and anything the publisher says to defend it, they are lying. Always ask for more money, just to see what happens. It’s counter-intuitive, but this is the only demand that never gives offence."

Another writer told me that "publishers will pay as little as they think they can get away with. I was royally screwed on my first sale and not just with the paltry sum offered: I was left with no subsidiaries either. Got myself an agent quicksmart after that."

The other thing to remember about these advances is that with one exception they were all paid for genre (fantasy, sf, YA, horror, children’s, crime) books, mostly by genre imprints. Everything I’ve read and heard tells me that mainstream novels still get more money than genre novels. And non-fiction gets more still (university presses like Wesleyan aside). One of my correspondents also writes non-fiction. Their first non-fiction advance was $20,000, considerably more than their fiction advance, indeed more than any of the advances listed here. An agent has told me that the average advance for a non-fiction book amongst the big New York publishing houses is more like $30,000.

Of the 18 people I asked, only seven are full-time writers (no, Samuel R. Delany is not one of them, he earns his dosh as a university professor) and of those only two of them are doing fine writing fiction (New York Times‘ bestseller, Shut-up! or I’m-getting-the next-round advances fine—definitely no longer worrying about where the next cheque is coming from). The rest are in their words "scraping by" or "barely comfortable" and depend overly much on their credit cards, except for Mr Scalzi who is smart enough to also make money writing non-fiction. The good news is that almost everyone got more money for their second novel than their first.

So my sage pieces of advice to someone contemplating a career as a novelist who begins by trying to find out what the average advance is? First I’d like to congratulate you—if you’re in this game for the money it’s a good idea to find out as quick as you can that there’s not a whole lot to be made writing novels. Find another way to make dosh. Personally I’d recommend plumbing.

For those who’ve just sent out their novel to the hard cruel world and are wondering how much dosh to expect. Well, gird your loins, expect rejection, not money. Because that will come first and more often. Scalzi has some choice words (scroll down to no. 7.) on the subject.

For the poor lass who just got the insultingly low offer? Well, I think the table above demonstrates that you’re in good company. My advice? Ask for more. If they offered $1,000 ask for $10,000. If $5,000 ask for $15,000. If $10,00 ask for $20,000 and so on. They won’t give you what you ask, but they most likely will give you more. But, if at all possible get yourself an agent. They know how to do all this stuff, how to make sure you don’t give away your subsidiary rights (that is, the film and TV rights, audio book rights, translation rights, graphic novel rights etc., etc.), how to protect you from selling a series of books that are joint accounted (that is, that all the books you sold have to earn out their advance before you get any royalties. This takes long enough when it’s one book at a time).

And there you have it: The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug’s game. Enter at your own peril. And don’t ever give up your day job (scroll to no. 10)!

PS I plan a followup musing, if anyone wants to comment, tell me what their first novel advance was etc., email me at the address below.

Sydney, 24 December 2004

UPDATE (25 Dec): there’s a fascinating discussion of this topic to be found at metafilter.

December is the Anaemic Month

It’s pouring right now. Buckets and buckets of lovely rain which I hope is filling Warragamba dam all the way up. (Sadly, it’s also raining in Brisbane which means no cricket. Sob.) I’m taking a tiny break from writing the second volume of Magic or Madness (tentative title: Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!—my compatriots will understand why that’s funny). The deadline of which just got moved forward. Gulp. That’s one of the reasons I’ve not been musing much of late. (A friend of mine is not sure about my use of the term "musing"—she thinks of it as a "loathesome, villain-chin-stroking or fantasy-heroine-in-a-reverie kind of word" which is kind of why I chose the word in the first place—it makes me giggle.)

I also haven’t been musing on account of all the work I have to do on Daughters of Earth, the collection of twentieth-century feminist sf I’m editing. As well as sundry other reasons that also have to do with the need to do paid writing rather than fun writing. Tingle Alley discusses the dilemma eloquently here.

Also I haven’t been feeling very "villian-chin-stroking" or "fantasy-heroine-in-a-reverie" of late, which puts a real damper on my ability to muse. Plus it’s December and I’m Australian and am thus hardwired to be lazy during this the first month of summer.

So basically what I’m saying is, there’ll be more here, but, you know, later.

Enjoy your holidays.

Sydney, 10 December 2004

Australia’s Not Perfect

Some of my regular readers and friends (and not just the non-Australian ones) have tentatively suggested that I might want, perhaps, to refrain from writing yet another one of my yay-I’m-back-home-in-Australia musings. They’re tired of my overly rose-coloured view of my home country and wish for me to start dishing the dirt. As one of them put it: "Australia’s not perfect, you know. Nowhere is. Not even your precious Sydney. Write something critical for a change. I’m bored."

Their wish is my command. Here are my trivial (not in the mood for being serious) objections to my homeland:

I was back home for less than two days before I heard an ABBA song. Did you know, my dear fellow Australians, that there are parts of the world where you can go months—months I tell you—without hearing ABBA once? Shocking, but true. Why, we were in Mexico for three months earlier this year and I never heard an ABBA song. Not one. (Okay, except for that time I got a wee bit tipsy, climbed on the roof and sang "Mamma Mia".)

Sydney is now infested with Starbucks and Krispy Kremes. They are a blight on the landscape. They are wrong, evil and produce horrible smells. (Can someone explain the Krispy Kreme thing to me? I mean, they’re doughnuts. Overly sweet batter fried in oil. I have eaten them in North Carolina—apparently the home of Krispy Kreme, where they are at their very best—I have feigned delight in doing so to appease my obsessive Krispy-Kreme-loving friends. But they were just doughnuts. Oily, sickly sweet, horrible doughnuts. I don’t get it.)

Many Australians are just the tiniest bit parochial about Aussie food. There is, in fact, I’m not making this up, people, good food available elsewhere on this fine planet of ours. Lots of it. All over the place. I can’t think of a country I’ve been to—even England—where I haven’t had some good tucker. Sydney and Melbourne are not the only sources of fine nosh. Truly.

And on that subject—and this one will come as even more of an assault to your delicate Australian sensibilities—but here goes: there’s even good wine to be had elsewhere. I swear on my grandmother’s grave. I’ve had spectacular wines from Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, even—and this one will shock you—the US of A.

It will never cease to make me sad that no-one in Australia ever says, "Don’t come the raw prawn with me", much less "stone the crows". Actually I say "stone the crows", but even I am aware that it’s a sad, pathetic attempt to keep the phrase alive. Someone else please, please join me. Do you people really want our language to die?

Everyone’s obsessed with real estate. At least here in Sydney they are. I do hope it’s just a Sydney thing. We’ll be in Melbourne and then Brisbane over the next few months, and I swear I’ll tear off my own ears and eat them if I have to listen to more natterings about whether it’s a buyer’s or a seller’s market, how much rents are, how much that cute little terrace in Redfern went for, or how much interest rates are going to shift. Aaargggh! Talk about something else, people! Some of us have never, and most likely, will never own property and we just don’t care!

When I’m home in this fine sunburned country it is impossible to forget that the British royal family exists. In the past year I’ve been to Mexico, Argentina and the USA. My friends in those countries—lucky buggers—have no idea what the names of Diana’s little boys, the British royal princes are. Well, I know. I don’t want to know, but I do. Here you can’t open a magazine, turn on the tellie, or listen to the radio without hearing about them. Who cares? I mean, honestly, does anyone truly care? And why? These are people whose only achievement is to be born. Well, I managed that. Come to think of it every single person on the planet pulled that spectacularly untricky accomplishment off. At least movie stars and pop singers and all the rest actually did something to get famous. Even marrying someone is a bigger achievement than just popping out of someone’s womb.

And, hey, people here vandalise sacred Dickens’ sites, (though they also fix them afterwards).

There you have it: my country not perfect. Happy now?

Sydney, 26 November 2004

Miss Havisham Restored

Eliza Emily Donnithorne, the model for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, has had her vandalised gravestone repaired. A report on the current affairs show, The 7:30 Report, tonight showed the gravestone being repaired by TAFE students and stonemasons. It looks almost good as new. Donations from The Dickens Society and the Rookwood Anglican Cemetery made it possible.

The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC also have the story.

Isn’t that grand?

Sydney, 25 November 2004

Judging Awards

As I write this I am home in Sydney, physically anyway. The jetlag thing is putting a glass wall between me and everything else; the world comes to me slowly and full of distorted echoes.

One of the pings that has gotten through is the winners of the US National Book Awards, and I got to thinking about awards and the judging process and the controversies that the major ones often seem to generate. I have been on the shortlist for three different awards and, more importantly, I have been a judge on a number of awards.

But first: I am so thrilled that Pete Hautman’s Godless won the young adult award. I loved it. Run out, secure yourself a copy and read it, people. Forget the young adult (YA) label—this is a book that should be read no matter how old you are.

Is Godless the best young adult title by a USian published this year? I don’t know because I haven’t read them all. More to the point, I haven’t read all the 180 books that were nominated for the YA award. This year I also loved Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bucking the Sarge and my husband’s Midnighters and So Yesterday and Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B: …And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World (which is really more of a kid’s than a YA book). There are also a bunch of books I’ve heard a tonne about that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet like Lois Lowry’s Messenger and Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s Orphea Proud. None of these books were on the shortlist, which means either they weren’t nominated (by their publishers) or the judges didn’t like them enough to list them.

Rarely is one book clearly superior to all other books published that year. It would be more useful if all these awards switched to publishing a list of five or ten fab books of the year. They could still have their big party of an awards’ night. The short list would be of twenty or fifty books and on the big night the select five or ten would be named. I know I can’t tell you which was the better book Godless, Bucking the Sarge, So Yesterday or Ida B. I loved them all.

Juried awards like the National Book Award are decided by a number of judges, usually five because that’s the perfect number. (Trust me, I was once on a jury of three and it sucked—two against three is no fair.) The judges read through all the nominees—all 272 if you happened to be one of the judges of the adult fiction National Book Award this year. The same group decides which five books should be on the final list and which of those should win. This can be a fraught experience.

When I was on the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award (which was mostly an absolutely wonderful experience) we decided that we didn’t have to agree about the books on the shortlist (and mercifully we were not limited to just five), but that we did about the final winner. (The Tiptree Award is a particularly flexible award in that every jury gets to change procedure if they want. Other juries in other years, I’m sure, did it differently.) So our short list was an eclectic mix reflecting the various passions of the various judges.

Agreeing to the final winner was hard. Some of us were passionate about books that other judges despised, muttering, "Over my dead body does that book win." We had a veto and we exercised it, which meant we were left with books and stories that we all loved, but about which, perhaps, some of us weren’t as passionate as we were about other, vetoed, books.

Because that’s the thing about fiction that knocks you out; the book that you adore will always have the exact opposite effect on someone else. This is particularly maddening if you happen to be on a literary jury together. I happen to think American Beauty is one of the worst films ever made, but I know lots of reasonable, smart, interesting people who love it. Equally I am passionate about Dorothy Dunnett’s books, but you just have to read a few of the reviews on Amazon to know there are people out there who want all her books burned. Getting five people in a room and getting them to pick the best, frequently leads to compromises, to the award going to the book that some of the judges liked second best. We were lucky in the end all five of us was happy with our choices.

But as with every award ever, some people weren’t. This happens again and again with awards. People get invested in one book that year and when it doesn’t win it’s an affront to God and the natural order of things. It’s not. The answer to what kind of books win awards entirely depends on what kind of people are on the jury giving the award.

This year the five National Book Award judges for adult fiction came up with a list of books written by "five women from New York." There has been much bitching in The New York Times and elsewhere about the apparent same-sameness of their books (I have no idea if that’s true as I haven’t read them—I’m on a YA bender—but the plot synopsises certainly don’t sound that similar. I’m just cranky The Jane Austen Book Club wasn’t on the list). Shouldn’t there be more variety? Shouldn’t there be a limit on obscure books? Before all the publicity, none of the five had sold more than 10,000 copies and some less than a thousand (now the winner, Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay, is in Amazon.com’s top one hundred). Certain people argued that their low sales figures disqualify them from making the shortlist. Others have said that rewarding so-called "literariness" over accessibility is a slap in the face to ordinary readers.

What’s interesting about this year’s controversy is that instead of the usual argument about who got robbed (though there was some of that—poor Mr Roth) what’s being discussed is this—what are awards for? Pointing out good books to readers? Supporting the publishing industry by rewarding the books that they’ve poured all their money into via big advances and a large advertising budget? Rewarding the best books regardless of how obscure or how popular they are?

A shortlist is not just a list of the books the judges deem to be best, it’s also a list that says something about the publishing industry that year. It’s a message from a small group of people (the five judges) who are (usually) passionate about books to the wider publishing, writing and reading community (not to mention the media and wider population of people who don’t think about literature except when it gets in the news) and when it sparks such a debate and the kind of thoughtful commentrary I’ve been reading all over the blogsphere then that’s a very good thing indeed, regardless of who’s on the shortlist and who wins.

Sydney, 19 November 2004

The Original Miss Havisham

Via Gwenda Bond, who prefers to be shaken and stirred

In my novel, Magic or Madness, two of the characters visit my favourite Sydney cemetery, St Stephen’s in Newtown (though I grew up calling it Camperdown cemetery), and look at the grave of the reputed original for Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations. Emily Eliza Donnithorne was jilted on her wedding day and left the wedding splendour, including the cake, to moulder for more than thirty years. Yesterday vandals broke Emily Eliza’s gravestone in half.


Photo by Brendan Esposito

Here’s how Reason (the protagonist of Magic or Madness) reacts to being taken to the cemetery for the first time:

The delight on Reason’s face pleased Tom so much that despite his resolve to kill his inner dag (must not be too enthusiastic), he clapped. Reason clapped too.

"Bloody hell," she said. "You’d hardly know you were in the city. It looks like a country graveyard. Only, I don’t know, spookier."

"Isn’t it great? You step from the street and the cars to this, and whoosh, everything’s changed. This place is so old they don’t even bury people here anymore."

The cemetery is full of huge old fig trees, surrounded by a high stone wall that blocks out many of the sights and sounds of busy Newtown. It’s a glorious haven from the city. I’ve been going there since I was a kid to walk, think, and hang out. I can’t understand why anyone would want to destroy it.

New York City, 11 November 2004

UPDATE: the gravestone is fixed.

One More Week

It’s almost summer back home in Australia and in just one week I’m going to be there. Home in Sydney where the jacaranda and flame trees and wattle will be in bloom and the cricket season already started, filling the air with the sound of leather on willow (cricket ball against cricket bat). New Zealand and Pakistan will soon be touring and I’ll get to sit in the stands at the SCG and scream my head off. Or more likely: remember not to scream my head off cause that’s more of a basketball thing than a cricket thing.

The water temperature is already rising to bearable levels and in just one week’s time I’m going to venture into the ocean at Clovelly to snorkel in search of the blue grouper. Well, okay, it’s not that much of a search given that the grouper is almost always around, but I haven’t seen him in well over two years.

In just one more week I can walk from Annandale Street to the Bicentennial Park admiring the gobsmackingly beautiful view of the city on the way. Then I can walk into the city or catch the fabulous light rail and go to the Botanical Gardens and pay homage to the flying foxes and native ibis. I can do and see and hear all the things I’ve been missing.

I’ve already said my goodbyes to New York City, stood on the roof and blown kisses to the Brooklyn Bridge, Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, the church next door, Tompkins Square Park, the East River Park, gone one last time to all my favourite restaurants and bars. Given my very first New York reading. Done the full round of farewell dinners, lunches and brunches with my friends. I am so so so ready to be out of here. It’s too cold already and everyone (including myself) is way too gloomy.

Now all that’s between me and going home is admin: getting my taxes together to file when I get home, figuring out what to take and what to leave, packing, finishing off all the work that must be done before heading to warmer, happier and homier climes. Then twenty-hour hours in two planes and I’m home. I can’t wait.

New York City, 8 November 2004

An Average Day

A few people who don’t actually know me read these musings. One of them sent me an email asking if I would write a description of an average day in my life, since I appear to write about everything but. What do I do on an average work day? Is it different depending on whether I’m in Sydney or New York City? My reader found it hard to credit that an average day for me involves sitting around contemplating the differences between Sydney and NYC after attending a Liberty game or a science fiction reading or convention or handing out voter registration cards during a blackout.

Point taken. (Except about contemplating the differences between Sydney and New York City; barely an hour goes by when I’m not thinking about that.) Problem is that I earn my living writing and an average day involves sitting in front of a computer tapping away at the keyboard. A writer’s working day just isn’t the most rivetting thing to write about.

Today I typed, yesterday I typed, tomorrow I will type. Words were written, words were deleted. Dictionaries and thesauruses and Scott (do Americans say "poxy"?) were consulted, as were various other reference books, and things were googled. Then there was more typing. And around about five or six I gave up and had a glass of wine, unless it was an alcohol-free day (curse them!) in which case I merely contemplated the glass of wine I’d be having on the next non-alcohol-free day.

You can see why Hollywood struggles so mightily to make writers’ lives look interesting. In the olden days they could show the typewriter (infinitely more photogenic than a computer screen). There was always the money shot of paper being ripped from said typewriter, crumpled and hurled in the general direction of the wastepaper basket. Mostly writers in Hollywood movies are not writing, but battling the dread writer’s block, and going crazy, and trying to kill their wife and children (Hollywood writers are almost always boys), or if they are writing it’s to pay off loan sharks (because publishers are simply legendary for always paying at the exact minute you hand in your manuscript). Give me films about musicians any day—especially fabby ones like Ray.

There you have it: a typical working day involves lots of typing and some contemplation of how terrible Hollywood depictions of writers are. (How come they’re so uniformly awful? After all they’re written by actual writers. I don’t get it!)

Does my working day differ when I’m in Sydney rather than New York City? I don’t think so. A writing day is pretty much the same no matter where I am: type, think, consult dictionary/thesaurus/Scott, google, think, type and repeat.

New York City, 7 November 2004

Different Worlds

One time Scott was taking his niece Renee for a ride through Times Square in a pedicab. They’d just seen a Broadway show. He leaned back in the rickshaw and stared at all the lights around him, the neon, huge TV screens, advertisements several stories high. Scott’s been a New Yorker a long time now, but living in the East Village he rarely does touristy things like Broadway shows or gaping at the electric splendour of Times Square, yet to his surprise he was loving it. From ground level, from the middle of the street, without having to crane his neck upwards, he could see how extraordinarily beautiful it was.

He sat in wonder staring, while Renee talked animatedly about the show and consulted her program. "Isn’t it gorgeous?" he asked her at last. She looked up, the briefest flick of her eyes, said "yeah," and continued to talk about the show. She was still caught in the wonder of the live show she’d just seen, unable to catch a glimpse of the sublime Scott had caught in the lights above them.

When I was fifteen my best friend, Emma Winley, and I would sometimes lie down in the middle of her floor to listen to music, closing our eyes, and then at the end of each song talking about what we saw. I’d lose myself in the lyrics, imagine who those people were, what was happening to them in that slice of life covered by the lyrics of the song, what happened afterwards. Emma was much more impressionistic, caught in the rhythms and melodies, hardly hearing the words at all. We never saw the same thing and it made us giggly happy.

Another friend of mine, Rebecca
Skloot
, recently had a lovely
article
in the Times about a town in West Virginia
where she often goes to write. Here’s what she says about her favourite
restaurant in town:

"To call Baristas a restaurant would be a serious understatement. It is a restaurant, but it’s also a barbershop. And a coffeehouse. And, of course, a massage parlor. . . . You can eat in the basement pub, with its low oak ceiling and stone walls. You can eat on the patio overlooking the Ohio River, in the garden next to the hibiscus plants or in the café surrounded by walls of local art. You can get a haircut or a bona fide Swedish massage while you wait, then sit at a table covered in quotes from Camus or Malcom X."

According to Rebecca the food there is wonderful, made from all
local, fresh ingredients. The Baristas’ hamburger is the best she
has ever eaten. But the most popular restaurant in town is a Bob
Evans. There are 576 Bob Evanses in 21 states across the USA and
they all look exactly the same with identical menus and identical
methods of serving the food. The meal you have at the Bob Evans
in New Martinsville, West Virginia is exactly the same meal you’d
have in "Orlando, St Louis or Baltimore."

Rebecca ate at the New Martinsville Bob Evans several times, sampling a variety of dishes and being underwhelmed by them all. She simply didn’t get it. After talking to some of the folks who loved it so, she started to get an inkling. They valued its lack of surprises, its sameness. After a few days she retreated back to Baristas wondering what made her a Baristas person and the others pure Bob Evans?

I’m all for different perspectives, different ways of living, of seeing the world. One of the glories of being in other places is seeing how varied the world is. I’m so relieved Buenos Aires isn’t exactly like Sydney. That there are places where people don’t know who Elvis is. Spending time in the US I am thrilled every time I discover pop cultural memories the yankees have that I don’t. Growing up in Australia I always thought I knew all about the USA, I could name all the states, knew a tonne about its music and movies and literature, but I didn’t, not even close. I still don’t really know this country, I probably never will. That makes me happy.

But the gulfs. All those Bob Evans people and Baristas people living in the same towns, same cities, sometimes shopping in the same stores, or going to the same churches, who can’t talk to each other, or if they do, can’t make any sense of what the other says. Whose different worlds are so completely incompatible there’s no room for each other in them. That makes me sad.

New York City, 3 November 2004

(Updated: 18 Jan 06 to correct factual errors. Thanks, JKC for pointing them out.)

Ray Charles, Democracy and the US of A

I watched Scott vote today. Went into the polling booth with him, pulled the curtain behind us, and watched him pull the big lever at the bottom from right to left, which turns on a light outside the booth to say there’s a-votin’ going on. Then he flipped little levers in a long column to indicate his choices for president, senator, and a whole raft of other stuff. When he was done and had checked it and doublechecked it and then checked it again, he pulled the big lever down the bottom all the way back to the left to make his vote good and turn the light off, clearing the way for the next voter.

It was nothing like how we vote back home. We Australians are a primitive people who rely on paper ballots and pencils; not polling booths that look like a cross between the Tardis and some kind of high-faluting time machine from the 1930s.

The polling station was doing a steady business. There wasn’t much of the crying and laughing and general high spirited this-is-the-most-important-election-of-modern-US-history vibe I’ve been hearing about from my friends in other parts of the country and reading about all over the web. I mean this is the East Village in New York City where everything is a foregone conclusion, but, hey it was still pretty nice. One of the women working there—her job was to take your voter card thingie just before you go in the booth—she couldn’t stop smiling. She asked me if I was feeling it. I said sure, but I’m foreign and not voting so I’m feeling it for you. She laughed out loud. I wished her and her country luck. She grinned and said it was going to be just fine and luck had nothing to do with it.

Out on the street, Scott yelled, and I yelled too cause his exultation was contagious. I’ve never felt exultant about voting back home where it’s compulsory and if you don’t vote you get fined. But Scott voted and we both got tears in our eyes. How about that?

Then we went home and obsessively surfed and read hundreds of fabulous voter stories from all over the country. Of people who always get to the polls early so they can be first to vote and suddenly found themselves behind a queue of fifty people. Everywhere people were turning out in record numbers and dancing when they voted, declaring that voting had never felt so good.

It wasn’t all good news: I got an email from a friend who’d had their right to vote challenged in New Jersey and had to vote provisionally (provisional votes very often get thrown out on technicalities). This makes my head spin. Like I said, back home you have to vote.

Today all anyone can talk about is voting, the unprecedented turnout, the election, what it all means. No one can sit still. I sure as hell can’t. I didn’t even try. Instead I left my diligent hard-working husband and went to the movies.

I saw Ray the new biopic about Ray Charles. Unbelieveable. I cried pretty much the whole way through. It’s extraordinary. The movie summed up everything I adore about this country. There I said it: I love the US of A. It also hit everything I hate about it too. The racism, the myopia, the—well, you all know the list. Who cares? Today I’m seeing the creativity, the music, the strength, the blind black man refusing to play in front of a segregated audience and getting banned from ever playing in Georgia again (a ban not lifted until 1979!). I just see the people getting out and voting despite all the obstacles placed in their way, despite the fact that it’s raining, or that some other folks are trying to stop them. They’re just going about their business of getting out the vote.

I love this place.

New York City, 2 November 2004

Good News from Home

I’m bouncing as I type, which, yes, makes typing tricky. I just heard the most wonderful news from back home: Penguin Australia is going to publish Magic or Madness. I’m finally going to have a book published in my own country.

The book’s set in my two favourite cities: Sydney and New York and has both Australian and US spelling, vocab and grammar (there are two Aussie point-of-view characters and one US). The thought of it being published in New York and not Sydney was hurting my head. But now balance has been restored. Big sigh of relief.

And how cool is it that my first novel’s already going to have two editions and it’s still not due out for another five months? Pardon me while I continue to bounce.

New York City, 29 October 2004

Justine Reads

Mely says I should announce this in my blog. So here it is:

On Monday, the 1st of November, me and Barry N. Malzberg will be the double act for the NYRSF reading series at the Melville Gallery in the South Street Seaport Museum, 213 Water Street (between Beekman and Fulton), in the downtown Manhattan part of New York City. Doors open at 6:30PM and the reading begins at 7:00PM precisely. I’ll be reading first cause I get too nervous if I have to wait. (Suggested donation $5.)


The Melville Gallery (pretty, isn’t it?)

I’ll read from Magic or Madness. For those of you who don’t know Magic or Madness is my first novel and will be published by Penguin’s new imprint Razorbill in March 2005. It’s a young adult novel (aimed at those who are 12 years old and up) set in Sydney and New York City. It’s about jetlag, cultural confusion, snot, magic and food.


The cover of my novel. Designed by mjcdesign.com (pretty, isn’t it?).

I may also read from my 12th Century Cambodian epic which I’ve just finished rewriting. It is most decidely not a young adult novel, though like Magic or Madness it deals with cultural confusion, snot, magic and food, but gives only scanty coverage to jetlag on account of they didn’t have jets back then. Or so my research tells me.


Angkor Wat

I hope to see some of you there. Bring your friends and relatives!

New York City, 26 October 2004

Keith Miller, 1919-2004

Keith Miller is dead.

One of the the greatest cricketers of all time is dead. He could bat, bowl, field like the devil, play brilliant cricket while completely hungover, and charm the crowd whether he scored a century, got five wickets, or out for a duck.

He was unbelievably physically gifted (he also played Aussie Rules brilliantly), gorgeous, funny, charming, and rebellious. He had Elvis hair that flopped across his forehead when he bowled, causing women (and, I imagine, not a few men) to sigh. He was tall (188cm) and built. The adjectives most frequently used about him are dashing, larrikin, and swashbuckling. Everything I’ve ever read about the man, makes me suspect that those writing about Miller were either in love with him or wanted to be him. His playing career was over long before I was born and yet I’m not sure which of those two camps I fall into. Probably both.

Miller had been a World War II fighter pilot. When asked about dealing with the pressure of playing international cricket he laughed. That’s not pressure, “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

Some say he was the best captain New South Wales ever had. He was never given the Australian captaincy because he had not mastered the art of sucking up to the cricketing establishment, and they took a dim view of how much fun he had on and off the field. (Bastards.) Ashley Mallet wrote of him that, “He loved tradition, but hated convention.”

Here’s the cleanest of my favourite Keith Miller stories. It dates from when he was captain of the New South Wales side. I have no idea if it’s true or not (for starters Harvey debuted with Victoria, not NSW):

Neil Harvey is playing in his first match, very young, very excited, very nervous. New South Wales is fielding. The team is walking out onto the oval when young Harvey notices there are twelve men. In cricket only eleven of the twelve play, the twelfth man is a glorifed fetcher-of-things. Tentatively Harvey points this out to his captain pretty sure that he’ll be the one demoted, “Er, excuse me, sir. But there’s, ah, twelve of us out here.” Keith Miller looks around, verifies the number of men, shakes his head, and yells out so everyone can hear, “Will one of you lads bugger off?”

He will be missed.

New York City, 11 October 2004

This is a Blog

This is a blog. What I said earlier, about this not being a blog, forget it. Almost as soon as I posted that much-lamented musing, my friend Ray wrote me to point out that I’d "made the same kind of mistake that Langford documents in his ‘As Others See Us’ sections [of Ansible]. ("It’s not really science fiction. It’s the world 30 years from now, in which for 18 years no human child has been born, for unknown reasons…’)."

Guilty as charged. The logic runs like this: science fiction/blogs are not good therefore this cannot be science fiction/a blog. What a load of rubbish. I’m embarrassed that I fell for that line of thinking while I tied myself in knots trying to prove that I had not fallen for it. (Plus—talk about writing tickets on myself!)

So, this is a blog.

That musing is the only one I regret. But at least one good thing came of it: an old uni friend of mine, Petey Sefton, was inspired to write this. Sadly, no-one has written that software for me yet. Bastards! On your bikes!

New York City, 8 October 2004

Two Weeks in Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires almost everyone I met eventually talked about La Crisis, about waking up one morning and finding that they had two thirds less money than they had had the day before, about having to drop out of university, about losing their jobs, their apartment, their house.

One woman was in Germany in 2001 at the time of La Crisis. She rushed to the bank to get out what money she could, but from the time she joined the queue to the time she got to the bank teller, the Argentinian peso had dropped even more. Her life savings were no longer enough to pay for a ticket home.

A taxi driver told me that he was part of the largest social class in Argentina—those who once were middle class, but no longer. "I still think that way," he told me, "but what does middle class mean when you are in your forties and you and your wife and children live with your widowed mother in her one-bedroom apartment?"

He wanted to know about the cost of living in Australia. How much is a cup of coffee? What is the average wage? How concentrated is ownership of Australia’s wealth? How widespread is poverty? He was able to reel off statistics about Argentina. To my shame I could not match him. What did I think about Chavez in Venezuela? he asked me. What did Australians think about him? I didn’t want to tell him that most Australians had not heard of Chavez.

I told the story several times of how, but for a bureaucratic decision, I could have been Argentinian: In 1938 when my grandfather had to get out of Poland in a hurry, he applied to migrate to both Argentina and Australia. Argentina was his first choice, it seemed more European, less far away. The Argentinian consulate turned him down, the Australian didn’t. (Of course, if my grandfather hadn’t wound up in Australia and adopted my father, there’s every possibility I wouldn’t be the me that I am. I didn’t mention any of that. It ruins a good story.)

I had the similarities-between-Argentina-and-Australia conversation many times. Sheep, cattle, wine, immigrants, colonialism. The conversation always ended in a moment of silence as we contemplated the differences between the two countries. There has (so far) been no La Crisis in Australia. While poverty back home is disgraceful, it is not on the scale of Argentina, where more than fifty per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line. There has never been a military coup in Australia.

Back in New York City, I told an Argentinian friend how impressed I was by the book culture of Buenos Aires. How many bookstores there were, how incredibly well stocked, how beautiful. How many streets were named for writers. How everywhere I went I saw people reading. I had experienced none of the anti-intellectualism that is so common back home. When I told people I was a writer they were not bemused, they did not ask if I was published or not, they understood and appreciated what it means to be a writer. "Ah yes," he said. "Books. But that’s about all that’s left. All the major publishing houses have closed or been bought up by Spanish companies. The universities are crumbling. Twenty years ago they were the best in Latin America, now the students don’t know whether their professors will turn up or not."

He sighed. The same sigh I heard many times during my two weeks in Buenos Aires. The sigh of the waitress who told me that, "Of course, I can’t ever travel. Not to Australia or Europe or Asia or North America or Africa. Those doors are shut for us now. Airplanes are too expensive and when we arrive our money is not worth as much as the paper it is printed on. We have to do whatever we can here." She waved her arm to take in the bar, and beyond that Palermo, the rest of Buenos Aires, of Argentina. "And if I want to know what those places are like, I talk to tourists like you."

"Doing whatever we can here" is in evidence in all the trendier parts of Buenos Aires. Fabulous new restaurants and bars, gorgeous clothing and design shops are everywhere. The street markets are overflowing with really wonderful clothes, pottery, jewellery, toys, art, books—all made by the person selling them to you for embarrassingly low prices. We bought more than we could afford, because everything was so beautiful and so cheap, and because we were trying to salve some of our yanqui-dollar guilt by contributing to the fragile economy.

New York City, 4 October 2004

O Happy Day!

I have discovered the cure for homesickness: watch the New York Liberty live at Madison Square Garden come back from nowhere to beat the Detroit Shock (last year’s WNBA champions) and win the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Apologies to my Texas relatives, but: we BLOODY won!!!!!

I cannot tell you how badly we played in the first half. We sucked. Almost none of our shots went in, we developed a deep seated fear of going into the paint. We were beyond timid and into cowardly in defence. Nobody was hot, nobody was defending well, or making shots. They out scored us, out rebounded us, out pretty much everythinged us and the only reason they were only 13 up at the end of the half was because they also turned over the ball way more than we did. That first half was truly horrible.

And for most of the second half things weren’t looking that great. We were better than the first half, but we were still missing shots, our defence was still wobbly, but Detroit started to crumble—by the last five minutes they could not bribe their way into making free throws. Our field goal percentage started to inch its way up from an abysmal sub thirty per cent. We started to look decent, Crystal Robinson and Becky Hammon started making shots when we really, really needed them, helping to claw our way within four points of Detroit. And then in the last few minutes tie it, and then lead. And then it was tied again . . .

The final miracle, Bethany Donaphin, who had buggered up a whole series of plays for most of the game and missed ridiculously easy shots made a turnaround jumper in the last 0.5 seconds to put us two points ahead. Unbelieveable. We won!!!

Here’s what really made the difference: we, the crowd, screamed ourselves hoarse. I’ve never ever seen us go nuts like that. Everyone was leaping up, yelling, applauding, screaming, singing, stamping our feet. It was unbelievable. My ears are still ringing, my hands hurt and my heart is beating way too fast. If it hadn’t been a home game the Liberty would’ve lost, for definite. But it was and we didn’t.

We were home in time to watch the end of the LA Sparks v Sacramento Monarchs game. The Monarchs slaughtered them and are now through to the Western Conference Finals against my favourite West Coast team, the Seattle Storm, starring the divine Lauren Jackson. I am not fond of LA, not as an idea, not as a place, and definitely not as a women’s basketball team. Seeing Sacramento beat LA made a perfect night even perfecter. Here’s to a WNBA final between Seattle and New York.

Right now, I’m not feeling homesick at all, me.

New York City, 29 September 2004

Homesick

I’m homesick.

I wrote in a café today and at the table next to me, three women—none of them native New Yorkers—talked about their immigrant experience, about living far from home. A huge wave of homesickness washed over me, for a moment I could smell the jasmine and honeysuckle coming into bloom in Sydney, see the view from the bottom of my parents’ street, of the timber yard, Bicentennial Park, Rozelle Bay, the Glebe Island Bridge and the city beyond it. Glass skyscrapers reflecting the intense daylight (never mind that in Sydney it was dark and the wee hours of morning), container ships loading and unloading, the enormous Moreton Bay fig trees by the water, and maybe some pelicans floating in the bay. My longing for home was so intense that I had to bite my lip and dig my fingernails into my palms to keep from crying.

September’s hard. It’s so beautiful back home and it’s my birthday month. Birthdays have always been a very big deal in my family. It’s never quite the same being birthday girl far from home. I miss my family and my friends and my bicycle. I miss Bowen Island breads, James Squire’s Amber Ale, Coonawarra reds, Tasmanian sparklings, Victorian stickies, Hunter semillons, and the fantastic organic garlic that we found at this health food store on King Street—so fresh that they practically peel themselves. I miss the sound of flying foxes at night and rainbow lorikeets during the day. I miss the smell of the harbour.

I miss being surrounded by people with accents like mine who know what a jumper is and understand that there’s a dipthong in "no" and have heard of Paul Keating and Miles Franklin and Shane Warne and Judith Lucy. I miss no one finding my accent even slightly cute.

I miss the light and sense of space—horizons everywhere you look. I miss the tannie gardens with their ibis and flying fox infestations. I miss playing lawn bowls and drinking really cheap beer. I miss cycling everywhere. I miss hills. I really, really miss the cricket (even if the poms did just beat us at the loser pyjama version of the game).

Hell, I’m even missing the current election campaign. Surely it can’t be as bad as the one here? I miss everything and everyone, but especially all of you.

New York City, 27 September 2004

Good Weekend

I am in the middle of writing a new novel and rewriting an old one. My mornings are spent in the Magic or Madness universe; my afternoons in 12th-century Cambodia; the rest of the time I sleep. Both books must be finished scarily soon. So musings here? Not so much.

For those complaining about their lack, and my shocking tardiness in responding to emails, here’s what I did on the weekend:

I helped Scott put together this very cool site: the first three chapters of So Yesterday with New York City photos. If you like any of them, those are most likely the ones by the very talented Robin & Trish Cave. All hail Simpleviewer!

A recommendation of So Yesterday was posted on boingboing.net causing a HUGE improvement in the book’s amazon.com ranking. All hail boingboing!

I wrote a vast deal, read large chunks of it out loud to Scott for critique, and there was much praise, and much happiness.

Scott cooked me a dinner of angel hair pasta and black truffles with a salad of farmer’s market greens and heirloom tomatoes. Decadent and delicious. I do adore autumn here. I’ve never eaten better tomatoes in all my life.

I saw the New York Liberty vanquish the Washington Mystics at Madison Square Garden (so, so, so good to be back there!) and vault into second place in the Eastern conference, securing them homecourt advantage, and cementing their place in the playoffs. Shamika Christon, our incredibly promising rookie, finally got beyond promise and did, did, did. My happiness is beyond measure: Let’s Go Liberty!

New York City, 20 September 2004

So Yesterday

Scott’s latest book, So Yesterday, came out this week. Among other things, it’s a love letter to New York City. He started writing it not long after we arrived back here last summer after almost two years of living in Sydney. He was supposed to be writing the second Midnighters book, but instead So Yesterday came rushing out.

Scott had to write it. He was so happy to be back in his city to stay for awhile. He hadn’t been here for more than a couple of weeks since December 2001 and he was hurting. We had to visit all his old haunts, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, bookshops, movie theatres, and make sure they were still there, still with his favourite wait staff and bartenders. We had to mourn the closing of a favourite coffee shop across the street and a used book store around the corner, and sit in Tompkins Square Park to chuckle at the NYU students walking by.

Our first few weeks here were one long sustained sigh of relief for Scott. Writing So Yesterday was another one. He poured all his love and irritation and fears and delight in New York City onto the page, writing about a seventeen-year-old kid, Hunter Braque. The kind of kid Scott might have been at the same age if he’d been living in Manhattan, rather than Dallas, and had been a little savvier and, well, cooler. Hunter’s a cool-spotter, living in New York City, loving it, and working hard to pass as one of its hip inhabitants even though a part of him will always be convinced he’s a daggy kid from Minnesota. Which he isn’t. (I kind of have a crush on Hunter.)

So Yesterday is the first book Scott has written since we got together that I’ve seen move from conception to sitting on the shelves of a bookshop. I was with him when he was rewriting Succession (The Risen Empire + Killing of Worlds), and I was there for the first draft of Midnighters, but its outlining stage had been a long one, starting way back before we’d even met. I saw the entire gestation of So Yesterday—all ten minutes of it. Scott over the breakfast table, sipping his coffee, saying, “You know what would be fun to write? A novel about a cool-hunter in New York City.” After breakfast he started writing it. Several weeks later (told you it just poured out of him) I read an extremely polished first draft. And a year and some later there it is, prominently displayed at Books of Wonder and Barnes & Noble.

So I’m stoked, and not just because I was there from woe to go, not just because it’s fabulous, not just because my book will be published by the same imprint, Razorbill, next March, but also because it’s Scott’s first book to be published in Australia. It comes out back home next month. I can’t help feeling that being published in Australia cements his relationship with my homeland just a little bit more. First he married an Australian, then he became a permanent resident, and now he has an Australian editon of one of his books. Here’s hoping it’ll be the first of many.

New York City, 14 September 2004

Noreascon Revisited

This year’s WorldCon was wonderful and, in stark contrast to last year’s, beautifully organised. Not once did I show up to a panel only to be told it had happened three hours earlier in a completely different room. My only snafu was that word didn’t get to the other panellists on "What Should Good Fantasy Do?" that I was unable to attend. This, compounded with my non-attendance of parties that night (I was too knackered), led to a rumour that I was dead. My first such rumour!

Charles, Delia, Eliani, Eileen, Ellen, the other Ellen, Jonathan, Karen, Kelly, Lauren, Liza, Mari, Martha, Sarah, Scalzi, Suzy, Tom, Tricia and many, many others) met some fabulous new ones, such as Justina Robson and Jane and Shara Zoll, and best of all finally got beyond "Hi" status with Karen Meisner. In fact we got so far beyond it that Lauren, Karen and I started planning a ConHunks calendar. (We won’t embarrass anyone by telling you who made our final cut.) But enough name dropping—Mely says it’s boring, she only wants to hear about the panels. Be warned though, I didn’t take notes and I have a shit memory:

Thursday 12:00 noon "Archetypes in SF: First Contact"
Jim Frenkel (Moderator)
Walter H. Hunt
Ed Lerner
Karen Traviss
Justine Larbalestier
In culture clashes between aliens and humans, the humans aren’t always the good guys…..discuss the archetype, the ways it’s been used, and how to turn it upside down.
It was kind of slow. One of the first panels of the convention with the panellists (most especially me) all clearly trapped in a what-do-I-do-on-a-panel-exactly head space. But by about the midpoint we were firing on more than half a cylinder. I managed to mention both the stories I wanted to (Tiptree’s "And I Awoke on the Cold Hill’s Side" and Eleanor Arnarson’s A Woman of the Iron People) as well as getting in a plug for Gwyneth Jones’s White Queen. There was much talk about how to write convincing aliens and a wee bit on colonialism.

Thursday 4:30pm Justine reads for half an hour from her coming-out-next-March novel, Magic or Madness
Or, um, fifteen minutes. I think it went okay. Fifteen people showed up and none of them left mid-reading. Certainly it was less traumatic than my last reading. I spent the remaining fifteen minutes fielding questions and nattering about writing the novel and my insane decision to have Australian vocab, grammar and spellings for the two Aussie pov characters and US for the US one. This has led to much copy editing and proof-reading pain. If my subsequent readings are as unfoul as this one I imagine that in about thirty years I’ll start enjoying them. The best bit was this lovely New Zealand woman (whose name I didn’t catch) who told me she only came to my reading because she thinks I have a fabulous name (I hope discovering I’m Australian wasn’t too awful a shock for her). Here’s hoping the attractiveness of my name will translate into copious book sales: "Hey check out this author’s name! I am so buying this book." The second best bit was Cory Doctorow’s deep shock that I squandered fifteen—fifteen whole minutes—nattering with the audience when I could’ve been reading to them. I swear I’ll never do it again, Cory. Honest.

Thursday 7:00pm "The Seven Deadly Sins of SF and Fantasy"
Geary Gravel
Rosemary Kirstein
Justine Larbalestier (M)
Scott Westerfeld
Admit it—some SF motions just don’t make sense…and a lot of them become standard background elements in the genre. Discuss a bunch of them (well, at least 7—and invent some new ones of your own, if you want!), why they’re so terrible, and how they get established. Is it just that People Don’t Think, or are there other reasons for these lousy ideas?
This started off great. All the panellists on the same page about what pisses them off: universal translators, matter transporters (like on Star Trek) that don’t completely transform the societies they’re used in, worlds without money that seem to have no economy of any kind, fantasy novels supposedly set in other worlds that just happen to be like Disney’s version of fairy tale Europe. Then Scott made the fatal mistake of mentioning wheat. Turns out there were a whole bunch of people in the audience who are deeply attached to wheat and no matter how many times we tried to explain that the point was not to get rid of wheat per se, but that the mere fact of including wheat in a Medieval world meant to be non European kind of defeats the point. As Scalzi says: the panels "I did see were memorable, particularly the one on literary clichés, in which we learned that apparently a substantial number of readers really really really like wheat, and are prepared to defend it against all those who would seek to expunge it from the various fantasy worlds. So those writers who yearn for a gluten-free universe, beware." Someone else out there in the blogsphere (lost the link, sorry) also noticed our pain and said that all the panellists looked like we desperately wished to be anywhere but sitting up on the podium dealing with irate questions about the sanctity of wheat. Tragically for Scott the wheat meme went on to haunt him for the rest of the con. He is now considering going on the Atikin’s diet.

Friday 12:00 noon "Archetypes in Fantasy: The Princess, Alone"
Ellen Datlow
Michelle Sagara West (M)
Jo Walton
Justine Larbalestier
Despite our consensus before starting the panel that none of us had a clue what to say, this panel went well. Largely because of the utterly wonderful Jo Walton. I plan to buy all her books. She has the most wonderful deep resonant voice and fabulous Welsh accent and she said really really smart things about all manner of subjects including what she called the weight of story. How hard it is to write against traditions filled with passive sleeping women and active rescuing men. That said, the first half of the panel was concerned with pointing out that there are alternative traditions with active princesses.

Friday 1:00pm "The Two Cultures in F&SF: Science Confronts the Humanities"
Ctein (M)
Matthew Jarpe
Nancy Kress
Justine Larbalestier
Decades ago, C.P. Snow defined the "Two Cultures" of technical intellectuals and literary intellectuals. The split is still with us. How does it influence our fantasy and science fiction? What works, what authors manage to bridge the gap? What works or authors make it deeper?
For some reason I can barely remember this panel. I honestly have no idea what anyone said except that I managed to sneak in a crack about the US allergy to the theory of evolution and Nancy got in a crack about deconstruction and a lovely woman in the audience answered my plaintive pleas for popular science book recommendations.

Friday 4:00pm "Do Women Write Differently?"
Suzy McKee Charnas
Theodora Goss
Eileen Gunn
Elizabeth Anne Hull (M)
Justine Larbalestier
This was just wonderful and no surprise: look at the panellists (myself modestly excluded)! Geniuses all! We laughed, we cried. Dora Goss tellingly pointed out that perhaps a more interesting title for the panel would have been: "Do Men Write Differently?" We all pointed out that the answer very much depends on which women and which men they’re writing differently than. Eileen, Betty and Suzy all had funny yet horrifying anecdotes of being "praised" for writing like men. We had a lively discussion about James Tiptree, Jr., ably abetted by the knowledgable, engaged, and smart audience who filled the room to the point of overflowing. And I got to use Kelly Link’s line that women write differently because they tend to do it sitting down.

Saturday 4:00pm "Lyrical Language"
Fruma Klass
Kelly Link
Terry McGarry
Delia Sherman
Justine Larbalestier (M)
Is it a good idea to bounce the reader out of the story by making
her aware of how beautifully you write? Define "beautifully." And,
under any circumstances, is "style" really so necessary?
This was my second favourite panel and my toughest moderating job. Fruma Klass came armed with lots of research and some wonderful quotes she wanted to read out loud. This is not normally how these panels work. I was worried about getting the balance right between not having Fruma read for too long and lose the audience, but still giving her space to do her thing. Fortunately her quotes were wonderfully well chosen and the other panellists had fun bouncing off them. We decided that separating "style" from "story" is a fool’s errand. Kelly and Delia spoke eloquently about the untransparency of so-called transparent writing. The audience was lively and engaged and didn’t mention wheat once.

Sunday 1:00pm "The Justine and Scott Grand Literary Beer"
Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld
This too was fun. The two of us got to talk about our favourite subjects: us and writing to a table full of people who were interested in having us do so. Our audience included a few die hard Westerfeld fans, some folk who’d seen us on panels and thought we seemed interesting, including two who were at the wheat-is-sacred panel. I’d definitely do a literary beer again even though we didn’t manage to talk about truly important things such as Elvis, Buenos Aires, interface design flaws, women’s basketball, or cricket.

New York City, 8 September 2004

Author Photos

I’m one of those people who’s not wild about having their photo taken. I’m not neurotic about it, like certain folk who cover their face, turn their back, or run away (how do they escape in a world where phones take pictures?). Even so, there are many things I prefer to do with my time: clean public toilets, eat thumb tacks, become a politician, ghostwrite a book for a big-name author whose work I loathe.

I blame my sister, Niki Bern. She’s a visual effects artist who’s worked on films like The Quiet American, Charlotte Gray and Matrix Reloaded. She started as a photographer.

She first caught the photography bug in her early teens. We lived in the same house, so I was her model. I was also her older sister, her mean, vicious, evil older sister who’d cruelly tormented her from the day she stopped being a cute compliant baby and started talking and expressing opinions, some of which were not in total accord with mine.

Niki picked up her first camera, looked at it, looked at me, and smiled. Revenge at last.

She started slowly, getting me to stay still just a bit longer than I’m good at (say, 45 seconds or so). “Can you hold that position?” she’d ask sweetly. “Got to check the light.” Gradually she built up my tolerance so that I was statue-like for minutes at a time while squinting into the sun as Niki barked instructions at me. Then there were the photos up trees with scratchy bark while a small boy’s soccer team watched and laughed. The Twister photos, the naked photos with hats, the romp with vicious biting cat photos.

I didn’t twig until the middle-of-winter photo session where Niki swathed me in a full-on-goth velvet dress and had me lie in a bathtub filled with cold water—she claimed anything warmer would create steam, wrecking the photos—and hold my whole body under for as long as possible. She’d taken less than ten photos before she cracked up completely. Laughed so hard she almost dropped her precious Hasselblad.

Humiliated, frozen and very wet, I finally realised what she’d been doing. I was no longer fooled by the fact that these session produced decent photos. (Actually, really good photos.) Niki had been inventively punishing me for my evil older sister ways. I deserved everything I got.

So I’m not wild about having my photo taken. But now I write books and apparently there’s a law somewhere that says all books must have author photos (APs) on the back. Apparently books with author photos sell better. I’ve been told this by almost everyone in publishing: booksellers, editors, agents, publicists, writers. But like Nathalie Rachelle Chica and Lorie Boucher I have my doubts. I’ve never been persuaded to buy a book because the author looks like a babe, though I’ve hastily put books back on the shelf because the AP was too scary.

Most author photos are hilarious. I know this because Scott and me recently spent a ridiculous amount of time peering at the back cover flap of many books in several homes, as well as a vast number at Abbey’s Books, Better Read than Dead, Galaxy Books and Gleebooks. We pulled book after book off the shelves, laughing ourselves silly and starting to hate writers who didn’t have a photo, swearing that we’d never buy any of their books because they were wasting our time. We saw so many APs our eyes almost dribbled out of our head, our jaw muscles seizing up from laughing so hard. Out of that lot we saw three that were good and ten more that weren’t too foul. The rest! Oh my.

Here’s what we learned:

Never stare straight at the camera. Not unless you really want to look like you’re in a police line up. Check out Scott’s author photo for Evolution’s Darling, an excellent example of the I-am-a-criminal-who-writes-books-on-the-side look. (Sadly, Scott wouldn’t let me scan it for the reader’s enjoyment.)

Keeps hands away from the face. Why is Rodin’s “The Thinker” the sole model for so many author photos? Especially serious non-fiction or “literary” books. For a glorious example, check out my author photo on the back of The Battle of the Sexes. No doubting that deep, deep thought went into the book: Look! She’s still frowning and her brain is so large and heavy she has to hold it up with her fist. (Sadly, I wouldn’t let me scan it for the reader’s enjoyment.)

Why did we torture ourselves looking at so many awful, try-too-hard APs? Our publisher (Penguin/Razorbill) was asking for APs of our very own. Weather and our tight schedule in NYC mean that we couldn’t get them done by Phyllis Bobb (She took our wedding photos. They were wonderful.) Instead, a good friend of Niki’s, Samantha Jones, took them. My sister swore blind she wouldn’t torture me.

She didn’t. Not too much anyway. Sam had this cunning plan. She used whoever wasn’t being photographed as her asssistant, which meant we had to hold up the big sun deflector thingie, our arms slowly developing pins and needles and falling off. All of a sudden having our AP taken seemed like motza fun. Well, okay, not, but less foul. Sam was a very calming influence and managed to distract me from thoughts such as, “Is this the kind of expression that will make lots of people want to buy my book? Or will it make them run screaming from every bookshop in the land?”

We kept our hands away from our faces and looked anywhere but at the camera. And the photos were great.

At least I thought they were until a few days later, when we went through each one carefully deciding which we could live with on the back of our books. This elicited such observations as:

“No way. My forehead’s practically glowing.”

“It looks like I’m smelling that dog shit you trod in.”

“There’s no nose in that photo.”

“Way too smug. Who’s going to buy a book written by some smug bastard?”

“Are you kidding? Not that one. Looks like my bladder’s about to burst.”

The process of elimination was dead easy. The few remaining photos, those without glowing foreheads but with noses, we sent off to New York.

That’s when I had my stunning realisation (to me—I can be a bit slow). It wasn’t the photos that were a problem, but the context. We both look great in most of our wedding photos because we were happy as hell and not thinking about what effect those pictures would have on our future economic well-being. Author photos are used to help sell books. That’s why most of them are hilarious. Serious literature can’t have a smiling or giggling author. A goofy book has to have a smiling or giggling author. Being on the back of a book makes any photo look bad, no matter how good it might be elsewhere. Beggars never look good.

APs are a mug’s game.

Sydney, 29 March 2004

Ten Things I Learned about Buenos Aires

1. Global warming has (mostly) stolen the winter.

2. There are no fat people.

3. “Sh” is the new “ll” and “y”.

4. It’s possible to be a vegetarian; it’s just not much fun. (This place is an Atkins dieter’s paradise.)

5. The cemeteries are amazing. Necropolises rule. (Here, literally.)

6. Their SoHo is better than New York’s or London’s.

7. Porteños speak faster than Italians and are proud of it.

8. Their Exposición Rural is just like the Royal Easter Show only with more chinchillas, llamas, and meat, meat, meat, and less lamingtons, akubras and show bags. Horses pretty.

9. Never eat oysters on a Monday. (Though I hear that one’s a universal.)

10. In the Plaza de Mayo even when the Madres de la Plaza Mayo (Mothers of the Disappeared) aren’t there it feels like they are.

Buenos Aires, 7 August 2004