On Ideas and Plots and Their Mutability

Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:

Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?

I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.

My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.

However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.

I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed me. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.

These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.

I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.

It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.

Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.

Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!

What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!

Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.

  1. Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath. []
  2. For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea. []

On Writing Short Stories

I find writing short stories much, much harder than writing novels.

Every time I say so someone looks at me as if I have lost my mind and says something along the lines of:

But novels are so much longer than short stories!

That is true.

The shortest length people give for a novel is usually around 50,000 words. Though pretty much only YA and Children’s goes that short and still calls it a novel.

The longest length I’ve seen given for a short story is 30,000 words.

So, yes, novels absolutely are longer than short stories.

However, I do not find the number of words I’m dealing with the most challenging thing about writing fiction.1 In fact, the more words you have, the more space you have.

Look it at this way, when you tell a story to a friend, if it’s about people they don’t know, the first thing you have to do is explain who the people are, then you have to explain where the story takes place, and then, and only then, can you tell the story.

The less the person you’re telling the story to knows about the who, where, or when of the story the more you have to tell them in order to tell the story.

Say I’m telling my sister a story about mutual friends. It could go something like this:

Magpie did that thing again. Yeah, in front of everyone, and you know what her dad’s like.2

Seventeen words and my sister is laughing her arse off. But if I was telling that story for an audience that doesn’t know Magpie, or what “that thing” is, or who “everyone” are, or what her dad’s like, then it’s going to take considerably longer.

When you’re writing a short story, mostly your audience isn’t going to know anything. They won’t know who your characters are, where they are, or what’s going on. You have to convey all of that to them in not many words. The fewer words you have the harder it can be. You start having to make decisions about what the audience really needs to know. If you’re telling your story set in a world that’s not like ours then it’s even harder.

Obviously, I’m speaking of how I write and tell stories. There are writers who are naturally spare with words, who have never struggled to say everything they wanted to say in a mere three thousand words. I’m not one of them.

What mostly happens to me when I start a short story is that it turns out to be too big for that small frame. My fourth novel, How To Ditch Your Fairy began life as a short story. I was writing it for a series Penguin Australia does called Chomps, which are around, I think, 20,000 words. It swiftly became apparent that it was not a short story. Too many characters, too much world building, too much going on. The final novel was 65,000 words. Which is not a particularly long novel but it is not a short story by anybody’s measure. 20,000 words did not allow me the space to tell the story I wanted to tell.

I find that all that extra space makes the novel a much more forgiving form than the short story. A novel doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful; a story needs to be pretty close to perfect.

Think of it this way: a few mistakes on a huge, detailed quilt are not nearly as glaring as mistakes on one square of that quilt that you hold in your hands. Your eyes can only take in so much with a large scale detailed work like a quilt, or a novel. But with a small square, or a short story, the flaws are glaring.

When I write a short story I want every single sentence to be perfect. Obviously, I’d like that for my novels as well but I know it to be impossible. (A novel is, after all, a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.) Because a short story is smaller, I wind up spending way more time going over and over and over and over and over every clause, every sentence, every paragraph, trying to make them perfect. Even though I know perfection is impossible.

Short stories do my head in.

I have yet to write a single short story I am happy with. Obviously, if I could go back in time there are things I’d change about my novels, but I’m basically happy with them. They don’t itch at me with their many imperfections the way my short stories do. And they don’t take me nearly as long to write either. I have many short stories I’ve been working on for more than thirty years.

I’ve been given loads of great advice over the years from wonderful short story writers such as Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan.3 Margo keeps telling me to stop trying to tell the whole story and hone in on the most important part.

Makes perfect sense, right? But it turns out I can’t do that because I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it by which time it’s a novel not a short story. I’m one of those writers who works out what they’re writing on the page. I don’t outline, I just type.

I have learned to accept that I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist. Many writers are good at one and not the other. Many are good at both such as the aforementioned Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan. There’s no shame in not being able to write short stories, or not being able to write novels. It is what it is.

So there you have it. That is why I find writing short stories much harder than writing novels.

Tl;dr: Short stories are too damned short not enough space! Also: perfection evades me. I have novel brain.

  1. Though, yes, that does have it’s challenges. []
  2. Names and genders and relationships may have been changed. []
  3. And, yes, they’re not bad at novels either. A bit rude really to be good at everything. []

Overused Words

This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)

I will be editing it from time to time to add more evil words.

When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*

These are the offending words:

And
before
eyebrow (raise, lift)
eyes
glance
good
got
gotten
had
head
just
laugh
look
mouth (open, close)
nod
really
seem
shiver
shrug
sigh
slowly
smile
so
still
stood
suddenly
then
very
walk

None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.

For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.

“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:

Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:

Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.

Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.

I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.

My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”

You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.

The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap of the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.

(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)

Racism in the Books We Write

It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.

We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.

Often that is a not good thing.

When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?

First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.

Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.

Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.

We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.

What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway: Continue reading

  1. Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. []
  2. Hello, Megan! []

The Point of Process Porn

I don’t know who first called it process porn but me and many of my friends like, Gwenda Bond, call talking about how we write “process porn” and have done so for ages.1 There’s something delicious about getting together with a bunch of writer friends and talking about how we dealt with this or that problem. “Once I realised the mc hates water the whole book opened up!” “The switch from third to first person was what nailed it.” “Wrong pov. 30,000 words in and I realised it should be from the sister’s not the brother’s pov. Aargh!”

It feels wicked and indulgent but also practical and comraderly. Like we are a bunch of carpenters comparing our joinery and carving tools. It’s fun.

Gwenda received this wonderful piece of advice from Tim Wynne-Jones: “The most important thing every writer learns is her process.”

That is so true. When I started trying to write novels for the first time I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never read a single word about how other writers did it. I just started typing.

And I didn’t finish.

So I started typing something else.

And didn’t finish that either.

And so it went.

I didn’t finish my first novel until many, many, many years after my first attempt at writing a novel. The first draft of that first novel took eleven years to write. And I was only able to finish it after I had written my PhD thesis and discovered that, yes, I was capable of finishing a really long document.2

That is I had to learn how to finish. I had to discover my process for finishing novels.

I didn’t sell my first novel until more than a decade after that and it was not that first book I wrote. Or the second one. It was, in fact, a proposal for three books that I hadn’t written yet, the Magic or Madness trilogy.

In the meantime I started to learn to rewrite. A long and agonising process that I’m still undergoing only I really enjoy it these days. Both the rewriting and the learning how to do it better.

And the way I did that was to read what writers I admired wrote about writing. Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Jean Bedford all guided my learning how to write before I ever met them.3 And, eventually, when I met other writers, I was privileged enough to have those delicious process porn conversations and ask those other writers about how they rewrote.

But mostly I learned to rewrite from, you know, rewriting. And I discovered that for me a key part of that is having other people read over what I’d written and tell me what they didn’t understand, which bits were boring, etc. etc. See yesterday’s post.

So what Tim Wynne-Jones said a million times. Learning how to write is learning how you, in particular, write. What your process is. For most of us writers it is incredibly useful to know how other people write. It shows you that there is no One True Way. And exposes you to other ways that you can try. They may not work for you but they may help you discover something else about your process.

One hugely reassuring discovery for me was that I do not write every book the same way. That I cannot write every book the same way. With the novel I just wrote I got stuck and found myself having to outline to figure out how to move on. Me, who hates outlining. But, whatever, it worked.

In conclusion: we writers talk process because it is delicious and fun and because it helps us become better writers. There are a million and one ways to write a book. You do not have to stick to the one way. Unless that is what works for you.

P.S. I wrote “point” and “porn” in the title of this post. Tee hee. I really hope my spam filters are working.

  1. Is it from that Pat Cadigan book where every obsession is called some kind of porn? []
  2. More than 100,000 words for both the thesis and that first novel. None of my published novels has been that long. []
  3. I have only met Samuel R Delany and Ursula LeGuin. []

Writing Dialogue

One of the posts I was asked to write when I undertook January Writing Advice Month—lo those many years ago—was how to write dialogue. Somehow I never got around to it.

Actually I know exactly why I never got around to it. I find writing dialogue easy. Most of my first drafts are pretty much all dialogue. Because it’s not something I’ve struggled with like rewriting or writing action scenes I haven’t thought about it much so I find it very difficult to figure out how I do it. I just do it. Like breathing.1

What follows is not how I write dialogue. Like I said I just write without a lot of conscious thought involved.2 Rather it’s a little bit of stuff (very little) that might be useful if you’re struggling to write believable dialogue. And if it’s not useful then, um, sorry bout that.

One of the simultaneously best and worst pieces of advice about writing dialogue is to listen to how the people around you speak. It’s great advice because you can’t hope to capture how people talk if you don’t, you know, listen to them. It’s terrible advice because when people speak their conversations are full of ums and ahs and repetitions and trailing offs and non-sequitors and missing words and those should be used only sparingly in writing.

Think about how hard it can be when overhearing someone else’s conversation to figure out what they’re talking about. That’s because the people talking know what they’re discussing so they don’t say useful things like “the bloody fight at Uncle Danno’s last week” but rather “it” or “that” or “yeah” or “what happened.” They know what they’re talking about so they don’t have to be precise in order for weirdo writers who are eavesdropping to understand.

On top of that people who know each other really well develop also sorts of shorthands and code words and even made up words that only they are privy to. All of which makes directly transcribing dialogue for your novel problematic.

The dirty secret is that good dialogue is almost never a direct copy of the way people speak. Yet it has to bear some relationship to how we talk or it becomes ludicrous.3

So, yes, listen to how people speak. Especially those you know well. Try to pick out their idiosyncrasies. Do they utter statements as if they were questions? Do they have a particular favourite word or phrase or grammatical structure? Other than the sound of their voice how can you distinguish how they talk from other people? Do they call everyone “possum” or “petal” or “poophead”?

For me the ultimate goal in writing dialogue is for the reader to know who is speaking without attribution. This is much harder than it looks. Also you have to battle most editors/copyeditors who are often very addicted to attribution and want every bit of dialogue clearly pinned to its speaker in order not to confuse the reader. I, on the other hand, feel that I have failed if attribution is necessary. It’s a battle I usually lose.

Here’s some dialogue from Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You with little attribution:

He heard Vere say, “I didn’t tell you about our thwart.”

“Which is?”

“Ness is coming back.”

“My dear! What will they do without her at Hampton Court?”

“They will be undone.”

“Is Cousin Ettie coming too?”

“But of course. They are lashed to each other, she and Ness.”

“Is Cousin Ettie still in the money, Vere?”

“Rolling.”

“I thought no one was any more.”

“Oh, girl, Ettie’s evil husband bought shares in everything in the year one—things like Broken Hill Mining and Dalgetty’s and wool and shipping and little unimportant stock like Woolworth’s!”

“My dear! I suppose one day Ness will cop the lot.”

The lot! That’s why she has stayed lashed to Ettie all these years.”

Part of what makes who is saying what so obvious is that one character has all the information and the other does not. One is a “my dear”-er and the other is a “girl”-er. There’s also the matter of their shared idiosyncratic language. “Thwart” which is defined in the book as:

She pronounced it to rhyme with “carted.” . . . It was always a “thwart” and never a “thwort.” “Thworted meant having warts.

Which is a lovely way to use word choice to point to the intimacy between these characters and to give you an idea of how they see the world.

That’s what you want to do with dialogue. At a minimum it should be doing double duty. Here it’s serving the purpose of telling what is going on (i.e. plot) but it’s also revealing the intimacy between the two speakers, their attitudes to the people they’re talking about, and a bit about themselves. Such as that they are clearly not in the money.

Crappy dialogue only does a few things and does them clumsily. Infodumpy dialogue is often dreaful. In early science fiction stories infodumping was so common that it came to be known as “As you know, Bob” and led to exchanges like this, which I made up ages ago to illustrate a different point:

Scientist’s daughter, Lotte Fairface: Hank, why are you throwing sand into that well? It seems to be affecting that strange contraption over there.

Hank: Funny you should ask, Lotte, but, you see, that’s not sand, it’s magnesium calumbanate. It causes the water molecules to bind to the calumbanate to form a reinforced ectoplasmatic force field, which is emitting invisible salitrucic waves that are impacting with the Rooseveletereen engine—not a strange contraption at all, Lotte—and causing its pistons to fire.

Lotte: Oh, Hank! You’re so marvellous. I’m so proud that you’ve invented something so very clever! Um, why is the Rooseveletereen engine turning red and expand—

Yes, I made that up. But truly if you read sf from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s you’ll find even worse examples. Do not infodump in dialogue unless you really, really have to. Almost no one speaks like that.

I hope that helps. And I really really hope that some other writers leave some excellent tips for writing dialogue in the comments. That would be awesome.

  1. Though, on the other hand, I am so bad at action scenes that I still haven’t figured out how to do them well and no way could I give anyone else any useful tips. Other than not to do what I do. My action scenes require a million drafts and many helpful suggestions from people who are good at writing them before I can make them kind of okay. Stupid action scenes! I love them. Why can’t I write them as effortlessly as I can read them? Waaah! []
  2. Idiot savant, that’s me. []
  3. Which is fine if that’s what you’re going for. []

The Purpose of Bad Books

I’ve had several folks respond to the discussion of bad reviews and bad books pretty much as Trudi Canavan did in the comments: “I stop reading. Life is too short for bad books.”

To which I can only respond, well, yes, obviously. One of the great pleasures, for me anyway, of being an adult is finally realising I am under no moral compulsion to finish every book I start. I can put boring books down! I can walk away from bad books without being sullied by reading the whole thing! Oh happy day!

On the other hand—and I know this is not just me—sometimes I really enjoy reading a bad book. It has to be a particular kind of bad. Boring bad, for instance, need not apply. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand remains one of my favourite books because it is so campily ridiculous. You cannot read the dialogue out loud without dying laughing. No one in the history of the universe has ever talked like that. But the idea that somewhere, somehow, people are talking like that makes me laugh my arse off.

I am also very enamoured of Flowers in the Attic, which I adored when I was a kid, and genuinely thought was the best book ever. As an adult I deeply enjoy its insanely over the top plot, its risible dialogue and its jaw-droppingly improbable descriptions of pretty much everything. These traits hold true for all the V. C. Andrews books. Well, it does for the ones she actually wrote herself. She was a bad writing genius. Reading those books is really fun. It’s even more fun to read them out loud.

I have previously detailed a wonderful train ride with such YA luminaries as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld in which we took turns reading aloud an excruciatingly bad book. That’s how I know I’m not alone in this sick enjoyment of badness.

It is, of course, more than their campy dreadfulness that makes bad books useful. Without bad books we would not be able to appreciate good books.

You need context to be able to see when something is really well done and when it is a disaster. Part of learning to read is learning to be a discerning reader. Like I said, as a kid I had no idea that Flowers in the Attic was bad. I loved it. I thought it was genius. This is pretty typical of many beginning readers. We love a lot of what we read. We often think what we’re reading is the Best Book We’ve Ever Read. And, you know what, when you’ve only read a few dozen books, that could well be true.

We writers can learn a lot about writing from reading bad writing. When a book is not working for you it is revealing a lot about its construction. It’s much harder to figure out what makes a good book tick because you get so lost in it every time you read it that you stop seeing how the words are chosen and put together. With bad writing all of that is up front and centre there’s no gorgeous phrasing to distract you. Just before you put the next bad book down in disgust ask yourself why. What was it that made the book unreadable? This is a really excellent way to figure out what not to do in your own writing.

I am, of course, talking as if we all agree about what’s good or bad in a book. Would that it were so.

Nah, not really. Where would the fun be in that? Spirited arguments about the goodness or not of Moby Dick are part of the spice of life.1

Are there any other uses of bad writing that I missed?

  1. “Spice of life”?! Cliche alert! Yes, I know, one of many. It’s a blog post! I don’t have to get all fancy. []

Bad Book Exorcisms

Following on from my post about bad reviews there’s been a spot of conversation about how to exorcise the horrific experience of reading a truly bad piece of excrement masquerading as a book. Some of us write eviscerating reviews and some of us imagine or actually practice violence upon the offending item: I mentioned my desire to stab them. N. K. Jemisin says she throws them across the room.

I have a group of friends who compete to find the very worst books and then read them out loud in order to point and laugh and marvel at how truly bad they are. It is incredibly entertaining. We end up weeping we laugh so hard. It’s also educational. Nothing like reading out loud to truly expose the badness. It’s an extremely entertaining lesson in how not to write. I highly recommend it.

For an out of copyright truly terrible book may I recommend The Shiek by E. M. Hull:

The two men left standing by the open French window that led into the hotel ballroom looked at each other and smiled.

“Some peroration,” said one with a marked American accent. “That’s the way scandal’s made, I guess.”

“Scandal be hanged! There’s never been a breath of scandal attached to Diana Mayo’s name. I’ve known the child since she was a baby. Rum little cuss she was, too. Confound that old woman! She would wreck the reputation of the Archangel Gabriel if he came down to earth, let alone that of a mere human girl.”

“Not a very human girl,” laughed the American. “She was sure meant for a boy and changed at the last moment. She looks like a boy in petticoats, a damned pretty boy–and a damned haughty one,” he added, chuckling. “I overheard her this morning, in the garden, making mincemeat of a French officer.”

Lots of wonderful bad writing tics: flat, unevocative, stage-direction like description; laugh transformed into a verb of utterance; unnecessary repetition “laughed the American” “he added, chuckling,” and un-dialogue like dialogue.

This passage is from early on in proceedings. It gets much much MUCH worse-er after Diana is kidnapped by the Shiek. The dialogue in the book starts over the top but ratchets up from there. Until basically you’re reading a novel where everyone is SPEAKING IN ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS AT EVERY TURN!!!!!

Reading it out loud and laughing is the only way to cope.

So, dear readers, how do you cope with the truly bad books you’ve had the misfortune to run your scared orbs across? Do you have any handy bad book exorcisms to share?

Bad Reviews & Being Nice

Recently on Twitter I mentioned having read the first chapter of A Very Bad Book. As usual people asked that I name it. As usual I did not.

I don’t name books I hate, or authors I think are talentless,1 for lots of reasons. The main one I give is that as an author it’s hard to do so without looking jealous if your target is more successful than you are, or like a bitch if you’re shredding a less successful book.2

Now loads of authors I know write critical reviews of other people’s books and I support their right to do so. More than that I think they’re doing the community a service. I don’t think they’re jealous or mean. Critically taking apart other people’s work is a fantastic way to improve our own writing.

Every time I read a book I hate I spend a vast amount of time trying to figure out why. What when wrong? How can I avoid that? When someone writes a thoughtful critique of a book they deem unsuccessful—even if we don’t agree with them—they’re helping all of us. Thinking critically about words and language, about art, and why we do or don’t like it, is wonderfully useful to the entire community of writers and readers.

Beyond that, we authors are allowed to not like things. Particularly books. Because if there’s one thing we know a truckload about, and care deeply about, it’s books. That’s why we’re writers. It’s absolutely fine for us to express those opinions.

Frankly, I LOVE a well-written critical review. I also love well-written vicious snark.3 I am absolutely not of the “be nice” school. I even enjoy vicious reviews of my own books.4 So why am I letting others’ perceptions keep me from sharing my views?

Because I can’t write a well-reasoned critique. When I don’t like a book I want to tear it to pieces and jump on it. I want it NEVER TO HAVE EXISTED. I find it nigh on impossible to be dispassionate. So when I’m figuring out where a book went wrong? I’m doing it in a nasty vicious way that would absolutely make the author and their fans weep and/or go after me with an axe. I feel this way because I’m offended that such a piece of crap was published in the first place. How did people not notice how COMPLETELY RUBBISH it is? Have they collectively lost all critical judgement? Aaarrrrgghhh!!!

Rational me knows that there is no one universally shared standard of excellence. And, yet, confronted with a book I deem truly awful I cannot keep that in mind. I just have to stab it.

If I was capable of calmly and dispassionately discussing the faults and shortcomings then I would write critical reviews. But I just can’t do it. It is a character flaw, I know. But there it is.

In conclusion: My not writing critical reviews or speaking ill of living writers in no way means that I think no one else should do that. Or that I think doing so is a terrible thing. We writers are grown ups, we can take it. To be honest I’m much more concerned by the “be nice” culture than I am by snarky reviews. Historically the women who have been told to “be nice” and keep their mouths shut are the ones saying the most interesting things.5

  1. Unless they’re dead. YOU SUCK HENRY MILLER! Every single thing you ever wrote was the crappiest, most self-indulgent, most misogynist filth ever written. Moby Dick is the most boring pile of poo ever published! Though I am fond of Melville’s short stories. If only he had stuck to that length. []
  2. And, yes, I use the word “bitch” advisedly. I do think the perceptions are very gendered. []
  3. And I should admit that sometimes I am incredibly amused by sub-literate snark as well. But in more of a point and laugh way. Yes, I’m a bad person. []
  4. Well, some of them. []
  5. Obviously, I am not at all cool with things like death threats. Just to be absolutely clear. []

Australian Slang

This post was requested by @WanderinDreamr. My apologies for its crapness.

So, it turns out I really don’t have a lot to say about Australian slang. Or rather I don’t have anything to say that wouldn’t bore you. I did start writing this post and it rapidly turned into an old person cranky rant about how US slang is overtaking Australian slang. For example:

Why do Oz teenagers not know that “rooting for your team” is not something Aussies do because typically it’s not an activity that helps other people. I mean not unless they’re taking part, which, well, let’s not go there. Aussies “barrack” for their team. Except that I keep hearing Aussies under twenty-five using “root” in the US meaning of the word. AND IT FILLS MY HEART WITH DESPAIR. Why take on the language of the Yankee infidels? Why abandon your own rich and glorious venacular?! What is wrong with you?!

Which was only going to end with me waving my cane around and screaming at kids to get off my non-existent lawn. Not to mention fill me with shame because tedious adults were ranting about the exact same thing when I was a kid. And according to older friends of mine, not to mention my parents, they where hearing rants about insidious US English taking over the Australian vernacular from the 1940s onwards.

I so do not want to be that person. *shudder* I rejoice in the vibrant living, changing thing that is language.

Not to mention that some of our words are spreading out beyond our shores. “Bogan” for instance is now in the OED:

An unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, esp. regarded as being of low social status

And apparently not only has “bogan” spread from Victoria to the rest of the country but it’s made the leap over the Tasman to New Zealand. Hey, Kiwis, are there old cranky people waving their canes and yelling at you lot not to start using Aussie slang? Or do they just rant against US slang too?

Though I would argue with that definition of “bogan.” While there’s definitely a class component to it. I don’t think it neatly fits with whether the person labelled thus is poor or not. I.e. of “low social status”. There are many people who would get called “bogan” who are very well off indeed. Though I guess the modification of “cashed up” takes care of that.

What are your favourite examples of Australian slang? Living or dead examples. I admit to loving “smoodge,” “drongo,” “as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike,” “zambuck,” “daggy,” “date,” and “bosker”. Some of which are so obsolete you probably won’t be able to google them and others of which I say on a daily basis. And, no, not giving you definitions. Research! It’s good for you.

In conclusion: GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

A Story What I Wrote in My Late Teens! Avert Thine Eyes! Run for the Hills!

Below is a story that I wrote in my late teens. I remember the day I finished it. I was so full of joy and pride in my genius. It was the best story I had ever written. (True fact. I was rubbish back then.) Maybe even the best story anyone had ever written!

Or, so, I thought on the day I finished it. I don’t remember whether I sent it anywhere to be published. I do remember that at some point, not that long after finishing it, I decided it was, in fact, the worst story ever written and consigned it to the “this is crap” file.

It is pretty awful. But more in a bad-boring than bad-entertaining way. Nevertheless, I thought it might be educational for aspiring writers to see what this particular published author’s juvenilia looks like. I’m sure there are other authors out there who wrote unbelievably great stories when they were teens. I, alas, am not one of them. Wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I wrote anything halfway decent. Some of us are slow learners. Very slow.

The good news is that it’s relatively short—just shy of 2,000 words—the bad news is that it seems a LOT longer than it is. Sorry.

I have added footnotes throughout to explain to you just what is so terrible about the writing. Not that it is even slightly difficult to figure out for yourself. I have resisted making any corrections because, really, the only remedy for this story is to take it out the back and shoot it. I’ve also placed it behind the cut so that you don’t have to sully your eyes with it unless you really, really want to.

Continue reading

Why I Cannot Write a Novel With Voice Recognition Software (Updated x 3)

Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful transformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!

I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.

I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?

I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.

But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:


1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.

Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.

Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”

The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2

2. Flow is incredibly important.

Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.

Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every clause appears I wind up with sentences like this:

    Warm artichoke had an is at orange night light raining when come lit.

Rather than

    When Angel was able to emerge into the orange night Liam’s reign was complete.

Which is a terrible sentence but I can see what I was going for and I’ll be able to fix it. But that first sentence? Leave it for a few minutes and I’ll have no clue what I was trying to say.

However, checking what the VRS has produced after Every Single Clause slows me down and ruins the flow.

3. It’s too slow.

I am medium fast typist. I’ve been typing since I was fourteen. I can get words down way faster and more accurately than VRS.3 Its slowness is very, very frustrating and is yet another factor that messes with my flow when writing.

Obviously, none of this is a huge problem for e-mail. I do persevere with it for blogging too despite the fact that means I am at most blogging once a month. Using VRS for those kinds of writings does save my arms. I’m grateful.

But for my novel writing? It’s a deal breaker. I can’t do it.

VRS is going to have to take giant strides to get to a point where it allows me to write fiction without grief and frustration and the hurling of head sets across the room.

Again, I’m really glad that it has helped so many of you. I have been hearing lots of wonderful stories about the ways VRS has changed lives since I started writing cranky posts about it. That’s all fabulous.

But for me? No, not yet.

Update: I should have also noted that every time I write one of these posts I get lots of people trying to help. That is very sweet of you and I totally get why. I have the same impulse. We all want to make things better.4

But, yes, it is also kind of annoying and overly helpy. This has been going on for years now. You can safely assume that unless you are suggesting a very recent breakthrough or a very left-field obscure idea—WEAR A ROTTEN WOMBAT ON YOUR HEAD—I have heard it all before and tried it all.5

So if you were wondering—everything suggested in the comments?—been there, done that.

Update the Second

Am getting many folks telling me that the error rate in the orange night example above is crazy high. You got me. I deliberately chose a super bad example because it’s funnier. My bad. Next time I rant about this I promise to choose a less crazy and amusing one, okay?

Funny thing, though, even the best VRS error rate I’ve ever managed is incredibly annoying and slows me down.

Update the Third

Thanks so much for all the lovely letters & comments of sympathy, support, me toos, and commiseration. Means the world to me.

  1. Very few humans are one hundred per cent accurate at the task. Even court reporters make occasional mistakes. []
  2. Actually I’m now thinking of all sorts of ways in which it would work for fiction but you get my point, people. []
  3. And, wow, am I not the world’s most accurate typist. []
  4. Unless we have an evil streak a mile wide. Ha! VRS rendered “a mile wide” as “a mild way.” Bless. []
  5. Well, not the wombat thing. But only because I can’t get past the smell of roadkill. And the fear of putrescence dripping down my face. []

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

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

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

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

It’s All English to Me

You’ve undoubtedly heard . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think I’m exaggerating?

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

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

Coda: A Few Words on the Word ‘Mob’

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

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

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

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

END of Message

(Sorry Military past intrudes haha—old habits!)

Guest Post: Doselle Young on Everything (updated)

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

Today’s guest blogger, Doselle Young, is not only one of my favourite people on the planet, he’s also every bit as opinionated as me. (Though frequently wrong, like his love of Madmen and Henry Miller. Ewww.) I enjoy Do holding forth on any subject at all. He’s also a talented writer of comic books, stories, movies—anything he turns his hand to. Enjoy! And do argue with him. Do loves that. Maybe it will convince him to blog more often? I’d love to hear about the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr. Fingers crossed.

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Doselle Young is a writer who hates the whole cliché about how writers ‘lie for a living.’ He thinks it’s boring, pretentious, and only meant to promote the author’s self-image as some kind of beast stalking the edges of the literary establishment. Whatever. Get over yourselves, people! Please! We’ve all gotten exceptionally lucky and you know it! When the meds are working, Doselle writes film treatments for Hollywood directors, comics like THE MONARCHY: BULLETS OVER BABYLON, the upcoming PERILOUS, and short crime stories like ‘Housework’ in the anthology The Darker Mask available from Tor Books. Read it. It’s not bad. And, after all, how often do you get to see a black woman with a ray gun? If, on the other hand, the meds aren’t working he’s probably outside your house right now planting Easter Eggs in your garden. Bad rabbit. You can follow him on twitter. He’d rather be following you, though. It’s lots more fun that way.

Doselle says:

Before we begin, I feel there’s something I must make clear: while I write a lot, one thing I am not is a blogger.
Not that I have no respect for bloggers. Hell, some of my best friends are bloggers (and I mean that with a sincerity that borders on relentless). It’s for that reason I’ve lurked here on Justine blog pretty much since the day I met her.
This is a good place, this here blog o’ hers. A smart place and a place with personality, wit, snark, truth, and, when appropriate, outrage.

Wicked outrage.

Kind of like a good local pub without the hooligans, the gut expanding calories and that obnoxious bloke at the end of the bar who smells just like the sticky stuff on the floor just outside the men’s toilet; although, there may be analogues to all those things here. It’s not my place to judge.

What I’ve noticed when trolling though the blogs of authors I know is that, as far as I can, what people fall in love with aren’t so much the personality of the authors but the personality of the blogs, themselves; the gestalt created in that grey space between the author and the audience. An extension of what happens when you read an author’s book, maybe.

And so, as I’m currently sitting here beside a roaring fire in lodge somewhere in South Lake Tahoe and bumpin’ De La Soul though a pair of oversized headphones I paid waaay too much money for, I feel a responsibility to engage with the personality that is Justine Larbalestier’s blog; which is not Justine, but of Justine, if that makes any sense.

On the subject of sports:

I don’t know a lick about the sport of Cricket. Justine loves it (almost as much as she loves Scott, I suspect) so there must be something of high value in the poetry of the bat and the ball, the test match, the teams and the history; some inspiration and beauty to be found there.

The sport that makes my blood race, however, is boxing.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it: brutal and beautiful boxing. Corrupt, questionable, brain damaging, violent boxing.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing but growing up black and male in the 1970s here in the U.S. of A. meant that Muhummad Ali was practically a super hero. Hell, there was even a comic book where Ali fought freakin’ Superman and won (and, yes, I still got my copy, best believe.) Like most everyone, I loved Ali’s bravado, his braggadocio, and his genius with extemporaneous word play. All that, and Ali’s unmistakable style, in his prime it seemed that Ali’s neurons fired to the best of jazz rhythm and when he got older, jazz slowed down to the Louisiana blues tempo—a little sad and melancholy, sure, but nonetheless beautiful.


Update: Image supplied by Doselle in response to Diana’s question

In each of the best fights I’ve seen since, I’m always looking for a hint of those rhythms that make my skin tingle to this day.

On the subject of chocolate:

Not a big fan, myself. I love the taste of vanilla bean and the scent of cinnamon. I love bread pudding and oatmeal cookies and the unholy joy of a well-executed Pecan Pie, but beyond that, whatever.

Screw chocolate. Chocolate still owes me money, anyway.

On the subject of LIAR:

If you’re reading this, I prolly read it before you did, so, nah-nah nah-nah and half-a-bazillion raspberries to you and you and you over there in the corner with that absolutely awful Doctor Who t-shirt.

I loved Liar when I read it and loved it even more when I re-read it. I loved every question and every turn. I loved Micah and her nappy hair and would love to see her again and again. If LIAR were a woman in a bar, I would approach her slick and slow, and be proud be as hell when she took me out to the alley behind the bar and stabbed me through the heart.

In short, LIAR is a killer book and that’s all I have to say about that. Nuff said.

I think Patricia Highsmith, as awful a person as she was, would be proud of LIAR and hate Justine for being the one to have written it.

On the subject of RACE and IDENTITY:

There is no monoculture among people of color or people, in general. Sure, there are tribes, cliques, groups, social organizations, concerns, movements, etc. and I can speak for absolutely none of them.

I can only speak personally. Will only speak personally. Could never speak anything but personally on something so emotionally charged as race and identity.

Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, “I was born a poor black child.”

For the first eleven years of my life, my favorite TV shows were super hero cartoons, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, All in The Family, M.A.S.H. Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. Even if you’re not Usian (as Justine likes to say), the U.S. exports every piece of television we have so I’m sure most of you will be aware of some of those shows, if not all of them.

I listened to Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Louis Jordan’s Jump Blues, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
Most of my friends growing up were Jewish and the most horrible acts of racism I personally experienced growing up were perpetrated by other people of color.1

All of which should be considered prologue to finding myself at last year’s World Con in Montreal sitting on yet another panel about race (as an African American author I somehow find myself on race panels even when I haven’t requested them on the programming).

I’m sitting there, halfway through a sentence, when I have an epiphany, of sorts: one of those moments where everything comes into a different kind of focus.

The truth is: I don’t have anything to say about race that I can put in a short blog post. I don’t have anything to say about my experience with race and the perception of race that I can tweet. I don’t have anything to say about race on a sixty-minute panel at a science-fiction convention.

My personal thoughts on race and identity (ethnic or otherwise) are just that: personal, and as complicated, convoluted and tweaked as the catalog of experiences that shaped them.

How about yours?

On a related note, when I requested to NOT be put on the race panel at World Fantasy 2009, I ended up on the queer panel and had a blast.

Life’s funny that way.

On the subject of Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

The show’s over, homey! You really need to move on!

On the subject of writing:

Have a life that feeds you. Lead a life that challenges you. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Research. Steal. Invent. Be brave. Be honest about what terrifies you. Be honest about your regrets. It also helps if you can spell.

On the subject of God:

Sorry. I still can’t get that jerk to answer the phone.

On the subject of Zombies Versus Unicorns:

Honestly, I make it a rule to never discuss pornography in public.

On the subject of books:

I’m reading Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN. The back of the paperback dubs Abbot “The Queen of Noir” and, honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Her books are violent explorations into the ruthless worlds of film noir and crime fiction, delving into the cold hearts of the grifter gals and femme fatales who, until now, have only existed at the grey edges of the genre.

If you like books like LIAR, I think you’ll like Abbott’s stuff, as well. Pick up QUEENPIN or BURY ME DEEP. You won’t be disappointed.

Another book I’m reading now is a biography: THE STRANGEST MAN – THE HIDDEN LIFE OF PAUL DIRAC, MYSTIC OF THE ATOM.

If you don’t know, Dirac was a theoretical physicist, one of Einstein’s most admired colleagues and, at the time, the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Dirac made numerous contributions to early work in quantum mechanics and was the first to predict the existence of anti-matter (the same stuff that makes The Enterprise’s engines go ‘Vroom.’) Dirac was, as you might expect, also a bit of an eccentric and a very private man who shared his tears with very few if any of the people closest to him. Written by Graham Farmelo, ‘The Strangest Man’ a meticulously researched piece that, nevertheless, maintains its focus on the often-enigmatic heart of its subject, Dirac. If you’re a science fiction fan, take a peep. After all, if a couple of social misfits hadn’t put chalk to chalkboard, we never have split that atom. Boom.

The last book on my nightstand, for the moment, is John Scalzi’s THE GOD ENGINES, published by Subterranean Press. Before I go any further, I should disclose that this book is dedicated to me but I didn’t know that until after I got a copy of the book. So, with that in mind, attend.

THE GOD ENGINES is a dramatic departure from both his Heinlein-inspired military SF and his more tongue-in-cheek material. While using SFnal tropes, the story is, at heart, a dark fantasy; one set in a world where an oppressive theocracy uses enslaved gods as the power source to drive their massive starships. Brutal, fierce and tightly laced with threads of Lovecraftian horror, 
this is Scalzi’s best book by leaps and bounds. I hope to see more of this kind of work from him—even if I have to beat it out of him, myself. I’m calling you out, John Scalzi. Remember, I’ve still got the whip!

Well, I guess that’s more than enough for now. Nine subjects. One post.

Guess that means the caffeine’s working.

As I said: I’m not a blogger. I have no idea how this stuff is supposed to work. I’m sure this post is way too long. I mean, I didn’t even get to address why the show Madmen doesn’t suck just cause Justine says it does; why Henry Miller looks cool standing beside a bicycle on Santa Monica Beach; The Terrible Jay-Z Problem or the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr.

Oh, well, maybe next time.

In the interim, let’s be careful out there and remember: just because its offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Best wishes,

Doselle Young

P.S. Those boots look fabulous on you, Justine! Absolutely fabulous!

  1. Being called ‘The N-Word’ by another PoC felt just as crap as being called the same by a white man. That just how I felt and I can make no apologies. []

Writing Physical Pain

Pain is extraordinarily hard to write about. Chronic pain is hardest of all. How do you write about a character whose every day, every moment, is shaped around constant pain? And not wear out the reader’s sympathy.

It can be done. It has been done.

And when it is done convincingly; those are often difficult books to read.

Half the time we don’t want to know about the pain of people we know in real life. Part of us wants them to suffer in silence. We’re embarrassed by others’ suffering, bored by it, made to feel helpless in the face of our inability to do anything about it, afraid it might be contagious, upset by it, angered, and a gazillion other complicated feelings.

It’s even hard to write about relatively minor injuries. There are gazillions of books out there where the character suffers an injury only for the writer to forget about it for the rest of the book or totally minimise it. I am guilty of this. Reason is injured in the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Somehow telling the story kept getting in the way of showing Reason’s injury and how she dealt with it. (Since the book takes place over a short period of time the injury would not have healed entirely.) If I could go back and rewrite the trilogy that’s one of the many things I would fix.

Pain is something we all go through to a lesser or greater extent. It’s something we all know intimately. Yet it’s so hard to describe and write about. It’s hard to push beyond “it hurts” and not wallow in it and also hold your reader.

I’d be curious to hear about your experience writing characters in physical pain. (For some reason emotional pain is easy as pie.) And also your experiences reading characters in pain. Are there any writers or books you think handle it particularly well?

In Which I Run Around Like a Headless Chook

Today is a day of much stuff of admin-y tediousness. But it must be done. Le sigh.

So while I’m running around like a headless chook1 I would like to ask some more questions of you, my beloved brains trust:

  • How do you feel about unreliable narrators? I have now heard from three different people that they’re not going to read my novel, Liar, because they hate unreliable narrators. But I have not been about to get out of them what it is they hate about them. Do any of you feel that way? Why?
  • What’s the most unpleasant food experience you’ve ever had? Mine was scooping up what I thought was sugar but turned out to be salt.
  • What’s your favourite word? Mine is currently flibbertigibbet. Scott’s is feculent. And Ben, who’s staying with us, likes spigot.

Have a fabulous day. Think compassionately of me running from boring task to boring task. Later!

  1. If you don’t know what a “chook” is then google it. []

Language Wars

One of the best books I ever read about language is Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene, which was published way back in 1995. It’s a wonderful look at the way people try to regulate language to make it functionally, aesthetically and morally “better” and how insanely outraged and angry they get about it.

There are people who are completely wedded to the Latin-ification of English grammar that began in the 1700s, thus they are wedded to “he” as the universal pronoun, believe that infinitives must not be split, and are deeply in love with the subjunctive mood, which is on its way out in English.1

There are those who are appalled by changes in the spelling and meaning of words. They’re outraged that “alright” is becoming as common a spelling as “all right.”2 They mourn the loss of the distinct meaning of the word “disinterest” etc etc.

There are those still wedded to what their English/MFA teacher taught them in primary school/university. Never use passive voice! Never end or begin a sentence with a conjunction! Avoid adverbs! Use adjectives sparingly!

A large chunk of my university training was in linguistics. I was trained in descriptivist traditions. That is, I was learning how to describe language use not how to police it. We never discussed wrong usage ever. That concept just didn’t exist. I studied how various different groups used language. We looked at language acquisition in small children as well as those learning English for the first time as adults. We looked at the way language changes. How what was once non-standard becomes standard and vice versa. Things like that.

I learned to listen to what people really said and to think about how and why. This is reflected in the novels I write. I use “alright” in dialogue because that’s what I hear many people saying, not “all right.” Particularly younger speakers, which is who most of my characters are. Many of my characters split infinitives, don’t use subjunctive, don’t say “whom” and thus commit what some consider crimes against language. Yes, I have gotten letters to that effect.

It is fascinating how intensely invested people are in language use. Especially writers. Whenever I discuss this with writer friends we don’t get very far because many of them are wedded to one or more of the uses I observe disappearing. Don’t defend the “alright” spelling in front of John Scalzi, for instance. I get that passion. I’m sad about “disinterest” losing its specific meaning too. But not that sad. There are other ways to say the same thing, which don’t confuse as many people. Sadly, they’re usually longer and less elegant.

I’m as invested as they are in my understanding of how language works and how it is deployed, which is why I get into so many heated discussions with my writer friends and protracted battles with editors, coypeditors and proofreaders, who are almost all prescriptivist. Like Geoffrey Pullum, I think The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is an amusing but insane set of self-contradicting rules: if you try to match rule with examples your head will explode. But I know people who find Strunk & White useful and have learned to write clearly from it.

English is a contradictory sprawling mess. Any attempt to map it out with a set of rules is doomed to self-contradiction and insanity. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is as bad as Strunk & White. But has also been useful to many floundering in the mess that is English. Even attempts to merely describe the language are doomed. It’s too big, too unwieldy and growing too fast.

That’s part of why the English language makes me so happy.3 I can’t spell it very well, according to many I abuse its grammar rules, but English lets me break it open, pull out new words, mash up old ones. I get to play with how it looks and sounds and feels.

Like those who stand tall to defend English from the likes of me, I love it.

Just, you know, my love is more fun. :-) 4

  1. Though I will confess that I am using subjunctive a lot in my 1930s novel, whose omni narrator is on the pompous side. []
  2. (For the record, I think “alright” and “all right” are often used as two different words and deploy them thus in my books, giving my copyeditors major headaches. []
  3. Not that I have many points of comparison given that I’ve never been completely fluent in any other language. I had a decent grasp of Kriol when I was very little but that’s long gone. I learned some Bahasa Indonesia in high school and first year uni. Also mostly gone. And then learned Spanish while living there for five months many years ago. My Spanish is also disappearing from lack of use. []
  4. That smiley isn’t going to save me from the haters, is it? []

Hurtful words

There are many words I like the sound of, really enjoy saying out loud, that offend and hurt people. I was once quite addicted to the word “spaz.” When it was pointed out to me (I was young) what it actually meant and how it could hurt other people I tried really hard not to use anymore.

I slip though.

I used to use “gay” to mean uncool. Despite having grown up with lots of gay and lesbian friends. I didn’t even make the connection till I started hearing people at school use “gay” in deliberately hateful, homophobic ways. I stopped using it pronto.

I have used the word “girlie” and told people not to behave like a girl. I am a girl.

“Spaz” and “lame” and “mongy” and “crip” and “gimp” are all words that say being able-bodied is in every way better than not being able bodied—that the non-abled bodied people aren’t as human.

And these are just the obvious words. There are so many ways in which assumptions about sexuality, gender, able -bodiedness, skin colour are woven into our everyday metaphors. “White” is good in a million different ways. The “white hats” are the good guys. (And all too often white actors are the good guys in movies. Don’t get me started on the casting of the Avatar movie.) White lies are less bad lies. “Are you blind?!” “Are you deaf?!” are often asked in situations where there is a moral failing in not seeing and not hearing. It’s not far off implying that there’s something morally wrong with being blind or deaf.

But I have gay friends who use “gay” to mean uncool. I used to fence with a paraplegic guy who called himself “mongy”, “para” and “crip”. If they use those words that then way why can’t I?

Because they have earned that right. Because they are the ones who are hurt by those words. Because they are mocking themselves, which is entirely different from being mocked by someone else who does not understand or care about them. Who is saying these words makes all the difference in the world. And, yes, white, straight, affluent men should be held to a different standard. They should be more careful about what they say. They have far more power to hurt and discriminate.

The problem with talking about hurtful words and language is that so often it’s contextual. There are times and places where you can deploy these words without causing offence. Although I am fond of swearing I don’t on my blog because I know it offends some of my readers. Of course, I still run into trouble over what constitutes swearing. I have offended people using words I don’t even think of as swearing. It’s tricky. All of this stuff is tricky. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all work hard not to offend people. Especially people who are in weaker positions than we are.

I have no problem with people calling me a honky or calling me an Aussie as though that’s a bad thing because there’s no long history of discrimination for being either of those things. Nor do I feel even slightly bad about referring to English people as “Poms”. That is not a word with a long history of oppression. English people are not being beaten up, kept out of jobs, and denied their civil rights because of their Englishness. And, yeah, I do think people who whinge about it should get over themselves. Besides, you pommy bastards, you know we Aussies say it with love and affection and no Colonial resentment whatsoever. Some of my best friends are Poms . . .

I still love the sound of “spazmatron”. I love how it feels exploding out of my mouth. But that pleasure pales compared to the pain it can cause. I wish “spaz” had a different origin so I could keep using it. But it doesn’t and it really does hurt people.

My real world policy on hurtful language is that I try to avoid using it. I try to avoid causing offense. Sometimes I fail. Probably often I fail. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think anyone is a a bad person for saying thoughtless things.1 I think you’re a bad person if you don’t care that your words hurt people.

How does all of this translate into my fiction?

I have seen many authors attacked for deploying words in their fiction that people are offended by. Often there seems to be a confusion between the views of characters in a book and the author’s views. Many people seem to think that authors believe every single thing every character in their books say.

That view is absurd.

In Magic’s Child Jay-Tee and Tom have a debate about religion. Jay-Tee is a devout Catholic, Tom is an atheist. If authors’ views and characters’ views are identical then I must be a devout Catholic atheist. And my head must explode several times a day.

I have created teenage characters who use “lame” and “spaz” without thinking. Just as many do in the real world. They say and do things I don’t approve of. My foremost responsibility in writing stories is that they be true. That I avoid as many false notes as I possibly can. Sometimes my characters use hurtful words and behave badly. And frankly, if they were perfectly behaved at all times it would be a lot harder generating any plot, and the books would be extremely dull.

Although many of my books have fantastic elements I work very hard to ground them in the real. To accurately reflect the world I live in. Using words that some people find hurtful is part of that. Writing about the ways people hurt one another is also part of that.

You could almost say that’s what my job is.

  1. You can be thoughtless and hurtful and out and out vicious without using a single word one of these words. []

Dungarees

I have an older character, who lives in upstate NY and has pretty much her whole life, who refers to jeans as “dungarees”. I had her use that word after consulting with friends from upstate who remembered people of their grandparents’ generation and older using that word. I have been challenged on this by someone who thought the word was Australian. Absolutely not.1

I’m looking for more evidence than just my upstate New Yorker friends’ say so. Thus far I’ve found this in wikipedia which lists the word as archaic for the New York City area. But am coming up blank on other supporting evidence.

Can any of you help me?

Thanks in advance!

  1. I suspect I’m going to cop that a lot with the Liar book—people assuming I’ve gotten things wrong—like having New Yorkers saying they’re waiting “on line”—when, in fact, I’ve gotten it right, but they just don’t happen to know some of the local New Yorker dialect. Many USians assume that all USians talk the same. So not true! []

Outlining v winging it

One of the conversations that I have most frequently with my good friend, Diana Peterfreund, is about our different writing methods. She’s an outliner; I wing it.

Tis most excellent fun talking writing with her precisely because we could not be more different. So different that we frequently wind up talking at cross purposes. Last time we had this discussion we got hung up on the phrase “first draft”. Turns out that what she means by “first draft” is not what I mean.

Because Diana outlines she figures out much of the novel before she begins writing. I figure things out as I write the first draft. Thus my first drafts—zero drafts really—are frequently messy conversation spines. A large part of what I do when I rewrite my first draft is make it coherent. Describe where the conversations are taking place, illuminate thought processes—flesh the skeleton out.

Diana’s already figured out most of that stuff before she types a word. She has a clear vision of her book before she starts writing. I have only the haziest of notions, which changes as I write. I had no idea when I started writing How To Ditch Your Fairy that a large part of would take place at a sports high school in an alternative universe in the city of New Avalon. I found all of that out as I wrote.

Diana’s “first draft” is much closer to the final book because she wasn’t figuring stuff out as she went along; my “first draft” is a mess. So when she says she doesn’t like to change her first draft too much I think she’s insane. Because I keep forgetting that her first draft is not a broken mess like mine.

On occasion I am made to write an outline or a proposal by my agent or editor. I hate writing them more than anything in the whole world. I would much rather write the book than a description of it. The reason for this is that I don’t know what the book will be until I write it. Writing a description of the book before writing it is pretty much impossible for me.

Diana, on the other hand, loves proposals, outlines and the like. They make her excited about writing the book. Whereas I see them as something that gets in the way of writing a book. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy before I wrote it on the basis of a proposal, which consisted of the first three chapters, an outline, and short descriptions of the world. It was some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Writing the first three chapters was easy. Writing the rest of the proposal was nightmarish. The only way I could do it was to tell myself that the outline was an advertisement for the book, not a description of the book.

I never looked at it again. It did its job of selling the book; I did mine of writing it. Never did the twain meet.

I’m not exactly sure what Diana’s planning and outlining looks like, though she has posted pictures of her plot board. It seems crazy detailed. I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing that. Though sometimes I make notes before I start writing.

My notes for the Liar book start on the 24th of February 2005. I wrote seven short notes—jotting down ideas and a few lines—before I started writing in earnest at the beginning of this year. Those notes amount to a few hundred words (to put that in perspective this post is more than 900). That was my planning. Except that the first time I read those notes again was for writing this post. The point for me is not the notes, but the act of writing them. I remember because I wrote them down, which means I don’t have to look at them again.

It’s not until I have a completed first draft that I get serious about planning. In my pre-Scrivener days that’s when I’d start using a spreadsheet to map out the structure of the book and see where and how it was broken. With Scrivener the structure is plain to see—on the cork board—-making the spreadsheet redundant.

So my outlining and planning stage comes after writing the book. Diana’s comes before. Which makes me wonder if our novel-writing methods are actually that different. What she works out in her head, or on paper, or plot board before beginning the actual writing; I do during the writing. I nail down the structure once I have a draft. Whereas Diana does it before she begins the draft.

All the same things are happening just in a different order.

Maybe winging it and outlining are identical methods put into practice in a different order? Maybe all novelists write in the exact same way but merely change the order? Maybe we are all the same?! Me and Diana and Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov, all identical!

Or maybe not.

Heh hem.

Either way my method is the best method. I’ll get back to applying it to my latest novel now.

Later!

Word stuff

Who among you uses the nouns “shellacking” or “argy-bargy”? Please to tell how you use them and where you are from. Not just your country, but what state and/or province, what town and/or city or igloo number or whatever?

If you’ve never heard of these nouns you have my condolences.

Another moment of clarity: copyeditor edition

I finally figured out why I always often get into mega fights disagreements with my copyeditors.

Eureka!

Thus far all my novels have been in first person or limited third. I view these as the colloquial points of view and write them to mimic the character’s speaking voice as much as possible. That way, if I do it right, the reader will feel like the protag is talking to them because the language I use is conversational.

And there I fall into arguments with many copyeditors (not all of them—certainly not YOU). They wants everything to be gramatically correct and conform to house style. I wants for it to be colloquial, flowing, rhythmic language. Sometimes that means flouting conventional grammar rules and house style.

And leads to stet wars.

I also don’t believe that any one word is inherently “weak”. I do not believe there are “weak” adjectives or verbs or nouns. Or anything. Even words like “good” or “nice” have their place. Their use reveals a tonne about the character saying them.

There are very few grammar rules or commandments that I think are always and for all time. I is all about context. One of the reasons I love the English language so much is on account of how crazy flexible it is. I can bend and twist it. Sometimes make it go SNAP and BANG and BROKEN. But it always bounces back good and nice.

It’s the job of copyeditors to disagree with me. Which is for the best. Having them query my language messing, forces me to check that I’m doing what I think I’m doing, and that it actually works.

I can’t believe it took me so long to figure out why me and they is so often at loggerheads. It’s because our jobs be quite different.

Which is a good thing. Excellent even.

Popular versus critical acclaim

There’s an excellent post by the whip-smart1 Sherwood Smith on this hoary toothed and clawed subject generating much excellent discussion. It’s mostly been said over there but I cannot resist adding my tuppence worth.2

Firstly, the discussion over there is in terms of “award winning”. As Sherwood acknowledges, I think this is a problem because all awards are not created equal. There are a number of awards such as the Quills for example which explicitly go to popular books. Some awards are voted on, some are juried with a different jury every year, some have the same jury for years. Some awards have huge amounts of prestige, some no one’s ever heard of. Some awards will make a book popular if they win it. The Booker in the UK and the Newberry in the USA create bestsellers every year and keep books in print for decades. “Award-winning” and “popular” are not (necessarily) oppositional terms.

But the question is usually a hypothetical and assumes that you can have one or the other but not both: Would you rather be a bestseller or be critically acclaimed?

Every writer I know says bestseller because that means money and making a living. The question winds up sounding like, Would you rather eat well for the rest of your life or have one perfect meal and then starve? Most sane people are gunna say, “No to starving. I wants to live!”

The question also makes assumptions about the kind of books that are critically acclaimed versus those that are popular. I see many DREADFUL shockingly written books get critical acclaim and awards, while there are also gorgeously written books that sell bucketloads.3

The concept of the “commercial fiction” writer comes up in the discussion on Sherwood’s blog and how they are generally not respected etc. etc. This has a lot to do with what field you write in.4 Commercial fiction is usually taken to encompass the genres: crime, romance, fantasy, sf etc. It’s a bit of a misnomer because some genres sell better than others—sf is in the doldrums right now and most sf writers are hardpressed to make a living. Does that still make them commercial? And what about literary writer Cormac McCarthy writing a science fiction novel? Does that make him a commercial writer? Cause he sure is making a lot of money. Also in crime in particular there are many writers who are critical darlings such as Richard Price. Does his award-winning critically-acclaimed work lift him up from being a “commercial” writer and deposit him in the lofted halls of the literary?

I am a commercial fiction writer producing YA. Within my field I have won awards, been totally ignored by other awards, been critically acclaimed, been critically dumped on, and had one book sell bigger than expectations5 as well as in many non-English speaking markets, as well as had books sell only so-so, as well as totally bomb in some markets6. In my very small way7 I’m both popular-ish (though by no means a best-seller) and critically acclaimed-ish.

Within my field I’m slightly known; outside my field, of course, I am unknown. There are at most three YA writers with name recognition outside the land of YA: Stephenie Meyer, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling. There are, of course, other big names in my field: Meg Cabot, Sarah Dessen, Garth Nix, Christopher Paolini, Scott Westerfeld. But, trust me, when I mentioned their names to readers who don’t know YA8 they’ve never heard of them.

What does this all mean? I have no idea. I’m thinking out loud here. *Heh hem.*

The two categories are slippery. How popular do you have to be to merit the term? How critically acclaimed? The category of bestseller is notoriously slippery. The New York Times‘s methods for deciding border on voo doo. I know people who are USA Today bestsellers but not NYT bestsellers and vice versa.

Most of the writers I know don’t obsess as much as you’d think about being either a bestseller or critically acclaimed. They want to be able to make a living at writing and they want to be able to do it while writing the best books they possibly can. Naturally, we all mean something very different by that. Both what it takes to make a living and what constitutes a good book.

Those two things are a big enough struggle. The vast majority of published writers do not make a living from writing. And most of us struggle to meet our own standards of good bookness. Though writing the best we can is usually the only thing we have any control over.

Speaking of which, I have a zero draft of the Liar book to make good.

Later!

  1. What is so smart about whips? []
  2. I realise that I have never in my life so much as seen a tuppence. Never mind . . . []
  3. Why, yes, I am not going to give examples. You know I don’t say mean things about living writers. Well, okay, I have mentioned my disagreements with OSC but I have not dissed his books on account of I haven’t read them. []
  4. Romance writers are not dissed for being commercial writers within the romance field. []
  5. The expectations were low. []
  6. France and Taiwan. []
  7. At this moment in time. It could all go pear-shaped. []
  8. And who don’t have teenage kids []

Words I can never remember the meaning of

Saturnine, which I’m convinced means Byronically handsome. But when I look it up seems to just mean “dark” or “gloomy”.

Pusillanimous, which I’m always a hundred per cent certain means “stingy” but turns out to mean “cowardly”.

Chiaroscuro, which I have long confused with kaleidoscopic, but which actually means black and white. Or a kind of drawing in black and white. Or something. To be honest it’s a word I now avoid.

I know I’m not alone on this. What are yours?

Pronunciations that drive you insane (Updated)

NB: The following post is not intended to be taken seriously. I do not want to change the way anyone speaks. Please stop sending me ranty emails and comments lecturing me on my presumptiousness and lack of understanding of the diversities of the English language. Thank you. Note to self: never write about language differences again.

So I just listened to John Waters going off about people who pronounce “picture” “pitcher”. That one does not bother me. But I cannot stand the way USians say “shone”. Seriously, it makes my ears bleed.

I should confess that for years I thought it was just Scott. He’d pronounce it all wrong when he was giving a reading and I’d be deeply embarrassed for him. I figured it was one of those words he’d never heard said out loud so he just didn’t know better. When I was little I had the same issue with “epitome”. But he’s a wee bit older than twelve now—time to pronounce “shone” correctly. So finally, a couple of weeks ago, I pointed it out to Scott, and taught him how to say the word properly.

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Justine, that’s how us Americans pronounce the word.”

“No way,” I said.

Scott is sometimes wrong about these things. He’s lived in Australia too long to be an authority about his own people. So I did some research. I asked everyone I know of the USian persuasion how they pronounce it. Tragically, Scott was right. Everyone in the entire country says “shone” incorrectly. I’m still stunned.

I’ve also been asking friends what hideous pronunications drive them spare. Top of the pops is “nuclear”. What pronunciations drive you insane?

Update: I’m dead pleased so many of you have entered into this in the spirit intended. However, some seem to be taking this WAY too seriously and to avoid flamewars—yes, there’s already been one ridiculously angry exchange—I’ve taken the liberty of deleting the cranky comments.

One of the many joys of English is that there is such a variety of accents and dialects and grammars. Everyone on this thread knows and loves that, including me. So please to hold your lectures. And, if someone does get cranky, please don’t respond in similar vein, okay? This is meant to be fun not a noo-kly-yar war.

No more nouns

I’ve decided that I’m against ‘em. Ugly, nasty, smelly! Too hideously leaden and concrete. I’m done with them. Pronouns, however, are absolutely fine.1 From now on you must write without them!

  1. Yes, I’m aware that “pronoun” is a noun. What of it? []

Writers and fans

Thanks for all the deeply smart and thoughtful comments to yesterday’s question. You lot are awesome.

Youse lot have gotten me thinking muchly on the topic. On the one hand, I am a fan of many writers I’ve never met, like, Denise Mina, Meg Cabot, Geraldine McCaughrean, Walter Mosley, Megan Whalen Turner, Peter Temple and would probably embarrass myself by breathless gushing all over them if we were ever to meet. On the other hand, I’m a working writer who knows a lot of working writers and knows that we’re not particularly different from everyone else. (Well, except for Maureen Johnson . . . )

I put it like this to Holly Black:

It does not surprise me in the slightest that Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin are friends. But it surprises me HUGELY that I am making a living as a writer and therefore I have many writer friends. I constantly have to pinch myself. How on Earth did I get here? Please don’t let anyone take it away!

That fear is real: many writers don’t make a living at it for their whole lives. It takes a long time for most of us to get published (took me close to twenty years) and then once you are published there’s no guarantee that your books will keep selling. Styles of writing go out of fashion. So do genres.

Your comments were all so useful, I thought I’d respond in more detail:

Danica’s point is a really good one: “I guess we (meaning non-writers) don’t always think of publishing as an industry and don’t realize that most writers must be connected somehow.”

That’s so true. I remember the first science fiction convention I went to back in 1993. I was astonished to see all these writers and editors I’d heard of in the one place. All of them clearly knew each other and were, in fact, a community. A pretty big community that consisted not only of those whose living was directly tied to the publishing industry (writers, editors, publishers, publicists etc) but also readers and fans and a handful of students and scholars. Long before I sold a single short story I was becoming friends with the likes of Ellen Datlow, Samuel R. Delany, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Terri Windling. It was astonishing.

That community—of science fiction people— is the oldest genre community I know of and has roots that go back to the late 1920s. There are also romance communities, crime fiction communities, YA communities etc., and to a lesser extent mainstream lit fic communities (though I suspect that the easy access of fans to pros is not so strong in the lit fic world).

Tole said: “Perhaps it’s not so much that we are surprised that you know each other, as much as amazed at how lucky you are to not only have the talent and perseverance to write a novel, but that you have an amazing set of friends as well.”

I am also amazed by that. I mean, yes, I said above that we’re not that different from everyone else, but my writer friends understand the ins and outs of this weird job we have better than anyone else. No matter what questions I have there’s someone I know who’s been through it before and can help me out. “My book’s been remaindered! Does that mean my career is over?” “Barnes & Noble aren’t stocking my book! Does that mean my career is over?” “How do you write action scenes?” “What’s the best writing software?” and so on and so forth. When I have a success that’s hard to explain to people outside the industry (my book is on the BBYA) my YA writer friends get it and can celebrate with me and vice versa.

Having peers is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And when your peers are as talented and amazing as mine. Well, it’s pinching yourself time.

JS Bangs made two excellent points:

1) People think of authors as solitary geniuses scribbling away and living on water and crusts of bread, without any contact with others of their kind.

2) It feeds people’s fear that the publishing industry is all about who you know.

1) There are writers like that. There are definitely working writers who live a long way from their peers and don’t ever meet them at conferences and convention and so on. But I think they’re getting rarer. The internet has allowed more and more people in the same industry to be in contact with each other and break down that isolation. Is very good thing!

2) Oh, yes, that old bugbear. Pretty much every industry from medicine to the building industry to agriculture has a certain amount of who-you-know going on. The world runs on personal relationships. What most people who are paranoid about the publishing industry don’t get is that an unpublished writer knowing some editors may get them read but guarantees nothing beyond that. I’ve had editor friends since 1993. A decade later I sold my first novel.

I know plenty of writers who started selling before they’d met a single person in the industry.1 Knowing people in the industry means that it’s easier to figure out how it works—you have friends you can ask—but it doesn’t mean anything if you have no talent.

Camille expanded on the solitary point: “I think, too, it’s because you can write from anywhere. With lawyers and professors and the like, generally you have to congregate in a place to get anything done. (Less now, with the Internet, but still, predominantly people go TO work.) You HAVE to physically associate with your colleagues. Writers can live anywhere and yeah, somebody above said we think of writing as being a solitary exercise.”

That’s true. Part of my knowing so many writers has to do with my living in two very big cities: Sydney and NYC. And in both cities the writers in my genre have made an effort to make contact. Because so many of us write alone, I think the need for community is much stronger than those who work with people in their profession every day.

Of course, there are still writers out there who don’t know other writers and aren’t part of any writing communities.

Herenya: “I think it’s because we know who these other writers are. If I started talking about who my friends are, people would look at me blankly because none of my friends have done anything to warrant that sort of recognition (yet!) But you talk about your friends, and I think ‘oh, yes, I know who they are, I was reading one of their books yesterday.’ It’s a bit like the same sense of surprise you get when you find you and a friend / acquaintance ‘know’ someone in common, but with the awe factor involved, because we only know them through their writing and not personally.”

That makes a lot of sense to me and jibes with my own experience. The awe factor is nicely summed up by Bill: “Myself, I’m still so amazed that certain books exist at all (say, Stranger in a Strange Land) I can’t rationally believe that it was typed by hand by a human being named Robert Heinlein. Books, especially books that change your life, are inherently mystical objects to those of us on the receiving end.”

Even though I write books myself, I still feel that way about the books that move me. There is something fundamentally mysterious about the process of creating (no matter what you create). I think that’s why so many writers struggle to explain where they get their ideas.

On that note, I should probably get back to doing some creating of my own.

  1. Scott Westerfeld and John Scalzi are two that come to mind. []

Cranky

The world is causing me to shred rope this morning. With my teeth.

I am cranky and have decided to share my crank with you my gentle and not-at-all cranky readers. I know that I’ve written this rant in different forms already. I fully expect to write it again. Here goes:

Ever since I because a YA writer I have been hearing certain people accusing me and my colleagues of writing books solely for the sake of being as dark/bleak/shocking/perverted/[insert your own personal bugbear in adjectival form here]. “Why did you have to put x into your book?” is a question that almost all of us seem to hear at one time or another.

It drives me nuts.

YA writers who write about anything that isn’t considered to be squeaky clean or uses language stronger than, “Oh, bother!” get this a lot. We’re often accused of writing “dark,” “edgy,” “controversial” books in order to increase our sales.

Newsflash: the inclusion of swearing and sex and drugs and the other things that render YA books less than squeaky often, nay, usually, has the opposite effect. Book clubs won’t pick them up, Wal-mart and Target won’t stock them, nor will many school libraries, and lots of conservative parents won’t let their teens buy them.

Sure, you can point to teen books that have sex and swearing and drugs that sell; but there are just as many that don’t. It is not the automatic sales shot in the arm that so many people are convinced of.

I have never written anything for the sake of being “dark” or “edgy” or anything else. The YA writers I know think long and hard about including anything “controversial” because nine times out of ten it will reduce their sales, not increase them.

Valiant by Holly Black is often accused of being deliberately shocking; it’s her worst-selling book.

Of all the YA books I’ve read, Valiant is the closest to my teenage experiences. I recognised so much in that book. I found it moving, honest, beautiful, scary, dark and brilliant. It made me weep in sadness and, by the end of the book, in joy. I’ve read it four times so far and each time it has gotten better.

I’ve been wondering what it is about the book that bothers people. Perhaps they don’t like it because they didn’t recognise anything from their teenage experiences, therefore the book seems to them deliberately and inexplicably dark. They grew up safe and happy behind their white picket fence and weren’t interested in reading about teens that didn’t. But my friend Diana Peterfreund disagrees because she had a white-picket upbringing and she adores Valiant.1

Maybe the Valiant haters recognised too much and that made them uncomfortable?

I should point out that these are all adult complaints about the book: The teens who don’t like Valiant are mostly annoyed because it isn’t a direct sequel to Tithe.

All the adult complaints I’ve heard about books like Valiant and Looking for Alaska seem to stem from discomfort with the reality of some teen lives. Have they forgotten how traumatic teenage years can be? Have they forgotten that many teenagers swear, that they not only think about sex, but some of them have it, some of them drink and take drugs? I’ve met and talked with enough teens over the past three years2 to know that many of them are extremely grateful to have their experiences reflected back at them in the books we write—whether those experience are dark or light or a mixture (which is most people’s experience). Once I would have argued against problem novels because I personally don’t like them. But I’ve heard too many teachers and librarians tell me tales of students finding comfort and guidance in a book about child abuse, or a teen with alcoholic parents, or anorexia or whatever.

Recognising yourself in a book—in any work of art—is extremely powerful. It’s one of the ways we learn we’re not alone.

Some teenagers grow up in very dark places. Some of them go through dark, scary times. Some teens have friends and relatives who’ve overdosed, been murdered, raped, tortured, deported, gaoled, executed. Teen lives are as varied and scary and wonderful as adults’ lives. Those stories deserve to be told just as much as the story of Anne of Green Gables.

Some of us cope with the dark times by re-reading Anne of Green Gables. Some of us cope by reading stories that touch on our own horrible experiences or that are even worse.

Valiant, however, is not a problem novel. It’s a fairy tale with the requisite fairy tale ending. It affirms that even in the darkest of times a fairy tale ending is possible. I love it; I would have loved it even more as a teen.

I know that writing for teens is a huge responsibility. I take that responsibility seriously, which is why I believe it’s my duty to write books as honestly as I can.3 Whether it be the froth and bubble of How To Ditch Your Fairy or the darkness of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Pretending that teens aren’t people with as wide a range of desires and aspirations as any adult is dishonest.

Okay, I feel slightly less cranky now. Slightly . . .

  1. I should point out that my family life was great; it was my school experiences that were dark and miserable. []
  2. Since my first teen novel came out. []
  3. You know what? I also think that’s the duty of writers of adult books. []

Faerie, fairy, fey, whatever . . .

If I decided that the current poll was a wee bit of market research I’d be feeling quite happy that my next book1 is a fairy book. Thing is though that it’s not a f-a-e-r-i-e book. It’s a f-a-i-r-y book.

What’s the difference you ask? Well, in YA and children’s publishing land there are dark, scary faery like those that Holly Black writes about, who would as soon gouge your eyes out as look at you. And then there’s your pink, glittery, tinkerbell kind of fairy. A la all those of the Disney books etc. etc.

My fairies are probably more Disney than Holly Black. But they’re not pink. They’re not even visible. And um they help you do specific things. Like there are good-hair fairies and loose-change-finding fairies. You can’t fall in love with them, they can’t break your heart, or gouge out your eyes, and they don’t wave their magic wands to make pages turn.2 Like I said you can’t even see my fairies.

Thus I’m not sure the overwhelming popularity of Faery in the poll oppposite is going to help me any. It’s also made me a bit despondent about my Zombie Quintet. Not to mention the snow-boarding werewolf epic. And the daikaiju versus ghouls manga series.

Just as well I have an genuine certified-as-real-by-Holly-Black faerie story coming out at the same time as my fairy novel. It’s called “Thinner Than Water”3 and you’ll find it in the pages of Love is Hell edited by Farren Miller. I’m sure there are other faerie stories in there, too. Though Scott’s isn’t, but if you squinted as you read it, you could convince yourself it was . . . Sort of.4

Though if the poll were accurate vampires would be in the lead, given that there are way more vampire books than anything else. So bugger the poll! I’ll write my Zombie Quintet anyways and the snow-boarding werewolves and the daikaiju/ghoul manga. Maybe I’ll work my way through the list. I’ve already written about witches (Magic or Madness trilogy), and as mentioned above both faerie and fairy. I have a devil story, but that’s not on the poll. It just means figuring out a new take on vampires . . . Piece of cake.

I’ll go back to writing my next novel, now . . . Hava good weekend and don’t forget the aerogard!5

  1. coming in September of this year and no longer called The Ultimate Fairy Book []
  2. A very old person reference. My apologies to those under thirty-five who read this blog. []
  3. previously titled “Lammas Day” []
  4. Other stories are by Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, and Gabrielle Zevin. []
  5. Not that you need it where I am right now . . . []

Posh?

Thanks so much for all the responses to the grandmother question. Fascinating! Plus I might use some of your responses in my next book, which has surprised me by being set entirely in the US of A with no Australian characters. Gulp.

I just read the first few chapters to Scott and he reckons my only misstep was the word “posh”, which I had my teenage protag use to describe a super-expensive private school. Which left me wondering what word you’d use instead. What’s the USian equivalent of “posh”?

I’ve had “classy” suggested but it doesn’t work for me because “posh” also has connotations of being a bit stuck up, and hard to get into, not merely expensive. Something can be “classy” but not expensive; a person can be “classy” without being “rich”. Scott says “fancy schmancy” or “hoity toity” but those sound to me like they come from the stone ages.

I suspect I’ll be asking more such questions over the coming months.

Who’s your grandmother?

I’m from Sydney and I called my grandmother “nana”; Scott’s from Texas and he calls his “mee-maw”.

To be honest, when I first heard him say it I thought he was making it up. He has more than once tried to convince me something was USian or Texan that was merely Scottian. He likes to trick the dumb foreignor. But then I heard his nieces calling his mother “mee-maw”, so unless he briefed them ahead of time and they’re amazingly good actors, I’m ready to believe some Texans really call their grandmothers “mee-maw”.

Scott’s convinced that calling your grandmother “nana” is an Eastern European thing, but I know plenty of other Aussies with no Eastern European background who call their grandmothers “nana”.

So I’m driven to do some empirical research: Where are you from and what do (did) you call your grandmother? For extra credit: what do/did you call your grandfather? I called mine “papa”; Scott called his “grampa”.

Writing = hard

Fellow writers, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re looking at your manuscript covered with line edits by your editor and you come across something like this:

I could feel felt . . .

And you stare it. Really? Really? I wrote “I could feel” when I could simply have written “I felt”? What was I thinking? Why is my editor a better writer than I am? Gah!

And then there’s this:

I could still feel the warmth of where his thumb had been1

I wrote “the warmth of”? I’m, like, the WORST writer ever. I totally deserve all the paper cuts this stupid manuscript is giving me. Every single one. Even the one across my nose. Maybe especially the one across my nose.

  1. On her forehead, okay? Don’t go thinking rude thoughts. My fairy book is very chaste. []

Sorry

I was asked today why I say sorry so much.1

It’s true. I do say it a lot. I say “Sorry!” even if I am not even slightly at fault: like when, say, someone has bumped into me, or spilled something over me. I say sorry for pretty much everything. Even when I’m not at all sorry. Mostly when I’m not at all sorry.

As to the why of all those sorrys. I used to think it was just me. That I have this weird sorry-saying nervous tic. But I now know it’s cultural. I say sorry all the time because I am an Australian girl.

I realised this when I was living in Spain and one of my friends there blew up about it. She yelled at me that if I said sorry one more time it would drive her insane.2 That I could keep my “sorrys” and my “thank yous” and “pleases” and shove them [somewhere unpleasant]. She never wanted to hear them ever again. After that it became a joke between us. Every time I slipped up I would say—you guessed it—sorry. She would glare at me and then I would say sorry for saying sorry for saying sorry.

The Spanish, I learned, do not say “sorry”, “please” and “thank you” a million times a day.

When I went back to Sydney I noticed—for the first time—that I was not alone. Pretty much every woman I know says sorry just as much as I do. More even. It was quite the revelation.

I have since noticed that many English women suffer this malady. And quite a few USians—especially the ones from the South.

I have no idea what it means. But I have dark suspicions.

  1. not for the first time []
  2. ¡Me vuelvas loca! []

Sherwood Smith on World Building

Because I am very behind on reading blogs—and pretty much everything else in my life—I missed this lovely riposte by Sherwood Smith. She’s responding to M. John Harrison dismissing world building. He’s not, though, he’s dismissing bad world building. Just like all those people who say that omniscient narration is evil and wrong. Nope, only when it’s done badly.

You should go read Sherwood because what she says is exactly so:

My objection is this, that worldbuilding is one of the ways humans play. Just as reading is a form of play.1 Many people don’t even know they are worldbuilding. Children worldbuild all the time. They will establish with a few quick rules what each item in the yard represents, and play at that a while, testing that everyone’s on the same page, and then someone begins a “what if?” “What if we all turned into ponies?” “What if the ponies fly?” “What if race cars had brains?” My son, at four, who never willingly reads a book, had had the living room converted to a world that was internally laid out–he didn’t tell us what was what. We could only guess by the sound effects he made as he motored about; then at one point he got the pots and pans out of the kitchen, laid them carefully out into a man shape, pointed the TV changer at it, expecting it to come to life. He cried, the world crashed down, and we had to explain where his rules and this world’s rules clashed, but it was clear that that giant robot had had a role in his ongoing story.

What she said. Read the whole thing. The comments are pretty fascinating too.

  1. The argument that reading ought not to be play, but ought to be useful and informative and force one to think is, I believe, just another form of the great clomping foot of the puritan ethic. []

Post no. 755

Why is it often such a nightmare trying to come up with the right title? Why can’t I just call my next article “Article no. 25,” my next short story “Short Story no. 3,” and my next novel “Fourth Novel,” and the one after that “Fifth Novel”?

Don’t you think that has a ring to it? Sixth Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, better still: Two Hundredth and Twenty Seventh Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, how about: Just read it, already! by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, It’s a Book, Stupid. What did you think it was? by Justine Larbalestier.

Stupid titles. I kick them all.

Making the words good after you already writ ‘em

I’ve had a few requests lately to explain how to edit a book once the first draft is done. I’ve started a long and exhaustive post on just that, but it’s not finished, plus Maureen already wrote about it. In the meantime David Louis Edelman has a really useful ten-point guide to line editing:

1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both “weasel” words that lessen the impact of your prose and useless modifiers that emphasize for no reason. Words like possibly, simply, really, totally, very, supposedly, seriously, terribly, allegedly, utterly, sort of, kind of, usually, extremely, almost, mostly, practically, probably, and quite. Why write “It was quite hot out that day” or “It was extremely hot that day” when the sentence “It was hot that day” accomplishes the same thing? The more clutter you can get rid of, the better your sentences will be.

What he said. Add “actually” and “just” and “though” to that list. But remember there are always exceptions. Like many of those words are dead useful in dialogue for conveying dithering etc. For example:

“Actually, I was totally going to set the zombies on the unicorns. Seriously I was! But I was possibly maybe almost kind of sort of distracted by the troll invasion. They’re really big!”

Edelman’s list—like all such lists—is a guide not a set of rules.

Dude!

A negative review of Poppy Z. Brite’s Soul Kitchen takes issue with her dialogue:

dialog—atrocious. do you realize that Rickey never once calls G-Man, his life partner, by his name? its always “Hey, dude.” “Yeah, dude?” “Dude!” between them. holy Bill & Ted! is that believable? is this how lovers talk?

A whole bunch of peoples—including Poppy Z. Brite—show up to say, “Yeah, Dude, that is what I call my lover/spouse/life partner/best friend/random acquaintances/vet/dog/neighbour etc.”

It is funny.

Personally, I do not call Scott “Dude”; I call Scott “Scott”. But he calls me “Dude” and a billion other things, but almost never “Justine”. Americans seem to have this weird allergy to calling their spouse/partner/lover by their actual name. It’s all “sweetie” and “sugar” and other weird things I can’t even bring myself to type. I am not much for cutesie names. I prefer “Dude” to “Darling”. But I like being called Justine best of all.

What do you call your main squeeze?

And, by the way, the reviewer of Brite’s book is smoking crack. She couldn’t write a bad sentence if she tried.

A Partial View (updated)

What makes a character real and believable?

When you describe someone you always leave so much out. Physical descriptions often touch only the obvious: skin, hair, eyes and only broadly. I don’t remember the last time I read a description of the size of pores, the unevenness of the skin colour—nobody is the same colour all over—unless it was of a villian.

But if you were to describe absolutely everything you saw. Your writing would bog down. The aim is to suggest, not catalogue. But even the most cataloguey of writers—like Dorothy Dunnett and her glorious lists—always leave details out. The world’s too infinite to be exhaustively captured on a page.

There are all sorts of conventions that get in the way of describing what we actually see. I once tried to describe a very beautiful woman I used to know. She had very light almost fuzz-like hair all over her face, like a peach. You could only see it in certain lights, but it was distinct. The minute I described her like that no one would buy that she was beautiful. Gorgeous women do not have fur on their faces. But, trust me, she was—and I imagine still is—stunning.

In the 6 August New Yorker Louis Menaud takes some potshots at those who write biographies:

If we think about the laughable mess that is our own life—in which (even with the prevalence of cell-phone cameras) only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded, and the record that does exist is incomplete, or distorted, or captures states of mind that are transient—we may wonder whether the bits and pieces on which biographical narratives are often strung are not a little arbitrary. William James’s diary entry “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” which makes a starring appearance in almost every life of him; Henry James’s dream of a chase through the Louvre, whose Freudian unpacking is given a prominent place in Leon Edel’s celebrated five-volume biography; Dickens’s story, first told to his biographer John Forster, about his experience in the blacking factory—once these “pivotal moments” or primal episodes get established in the literature, they acquire an unstoppable explanatory force. But what if William James decided the next day that free will was overrated but didn’t bother to write it down, or if Dickens later had a really good experience in a bluing factory, and never told anyone about it? All any biographer can hope, and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in the book bears some resemblance to the person who actually lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about. A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.

What he said. It’s also true of fiction. No writer can give a complete picture of a character. And we fiction writers are even more shackled than the biographers because at least readers know that real people contradict themselves on occasion and change their minds. Trying to convey that in fictional characters is hard and if you bugger it up—and sometimes even if you don’t—will lead to accusations of inconsistency. And comments about “not buying that the protag would behave like that.”

In fiction, unlike real life, characters behave in ways that make sense. There are first shoes1 for later actions. Nothing comes out of nowhere. And if it does readers will complain that the book is badly written.

Fiction is more modelled on previous fiction than it is on real life. Readers’ expectations of where a story will go is shaped by how they understand story and how they understand the behaviours of characters in that particular kind of story.

No one’s life divides neatly into three or four acts which is why biographers often have such a hell of a job wrestling their sprawling material into a readable shape.

I guess these are reflections on rewriting. On trying to wrestle my novel into a readable whole that sits properly within story conventions but doesn’t bore me. I do, after all, write commercial fiction. It’s difficult and fun and exhausting.

I have a week left.

  1. Update: Several people have asked what I mean by “first shoe”. It’s a writing term I picked up from Scott and we use it so often I forget there are people who don’t know it. It comes from Damon Knight. Carol Emshwiller explains about halfway into this interview. But basically first shoes are things that happen early in the story that set up something that will happen later. Like if a character coughs early on that sets up their TB death by the end of the book. Or having a gun in a drawer early on means that at some point it will go off and the reader’s just waiting for when. []

The writer’s life: 1930 compared to 2007

Somerset Maugham meditating upon the writer’s life:

It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with good will to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Cakes and Ale (1930)

Leaving aside that Maugham is under the delusion that everyone is male except wives and those in need of marital advice, how does all of that apply to us pro writers now? Or, rather, to this pro writer in particular.

Tribulation? Check.
Fickle public? Check. Why can’t all of them love all of us all the time? Or even know who we are!
Mercy of journalists who want interviews? Of bloggers yes. Of journalists not so much. But frankly I kind of like it that way.
Of photographers who want to take the writer’s picture? Hah! If only Maugham had lived to the current day when almost everyone in the first world has a bloody camera and feels compelled to plague everyone else with it and will not accept the idea that some people do not want their photo taken. Is there anyone left who’s never been photographed? Are there any souls left unstolen?
Editors who harry the writer for copy? Oh, yes. Just the same! Bastard editors!
Tax gatherers who harry a writer for income tax? How odd. I didn’t realise that in 1930 only writers had to pay tax.
Persons of quality who ask the writer to lunch? Are my editors and agents “people of quality”? Are librarians? I’m gunna say yes.
Secretaries of institutes who ask the writer to lecture? I imagine that still applies. Not to me though. No secretary of any institute has ever asked me to lecture. Rotters!
Women who want to marry the writer? Now, I’m bummed. No woman or man has ever asked me to marry ‘em just cause I’m a writer.
Women who want to divorce the writer? But, here’s the upside: no one’s ever asked me for a divorce on account of I write words that turn into books on shelves. Poor Mr Maugham!
Of youths who want the writer’s autograph? This has happened occasionally. And, oh, how I loves it! More, please!
Actors who want parts? Parts of what? Most definitely does not apply.
Strangers who want a loan? Do letters from Nigeria count?
Of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs? Actually, because I wrote this piece I have had a handful of people asking for advice on their love life. None of them gushed though and they were boys as well as girls.
Earnest young men who want advice on their compositions? Check. Though not all earnest, not all young and not all men.
At the mercy of agents? Check. I guess. But my agents, Jill Grinberg and Whitney Lee, are so lovely and so very good at what they do it’s hard to think of it that way.
Of publishers? Check.
Of managers? Writers had managers back in 1930? I didn’t even think they had them now. How strange.
Of bores? Check. But just a tiny percentage of the number I had to deal with when I was an academic.
Of admirers? Check. There’s one or two. Bless their every breath.
Of critics? Check. One or two of them and all.
Of their own conscience? Huh? What is this “conscience” Maugham speaks of? And why would I be at it’s mercy? I am confused!

As for Maugham’s one compensation:

Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Maybe I’m more neurotic than Maugham—figures, it’s more than seventy years later, neuroticness has definitely grown—but just writing about a trauma or experience does not expunge it for me. Or maybe that’s just because I haven’t really done it. I haven’t written about the people I love who have died. I haven’t typed for hours to make it go away. I am not free.

Though I’ll wager that my writer’s life is heaps happier than Maugham’s!

I do agree with him, though, that the writing part is by far the most wonderful thing about being a writer.

That, and the champagne.

The F-bomb

USians sometimes talk about the “f-bomb”. A euphemism I heard for the very first time last year from a librarian whose full time job is to fight censorship. We were on a panel (at WisCon) discussing book banning and censorship in front of an audience of adults. I was the moderator and in my introduction I used quite a few of the words that are likely to cause a book aimed at teenagers to run into trouble. It didn’t occur to me not to given that the panel started at 10PM and was in front of an audience of adults.

For less than a second all the air went out of the room.

And then the librarian laughed and said as how she had been tiptoeing around those words for so long that she could no longer say them out loud. Everyone else laughed too.

You’ll notice I’m not using any of them in this post either. That’s because I happen to know that some of the readers of this blog would be offended and I do not wish to offend them.

Chris Crutcher in his keynote speech at the Humble Teen Literature Festival last February eloquently defended his use of “cuss words” (tee hee! Sorry, it just makes me giggle) in his books without using any, but making it clear which ones he was talking about. It made me wonder what the difference is between making it clear what the word you’re not saying is and simply saying that word. It’s obviously a huge one because I’m pretty certain that if Chris Crutcher deployed any of those words in his speeches he would not get as many speaking gigs as he gets and he would lessen his power in the fight against censorship.

Ironic, innit?

I happen to like swearing. Some of my favourite words are offensive to many people. And so are those of Chris Crutcher and Holly Black. The enjoyment comes not from the shock value. Frankly, none of my friends or family are offended by swearing. The pleasure is from—to borrow a term from the land of wine and food lovers—the mouth feel.

I love the way many rude words feel in my mouth. I love their explosiveness. I love to use them as punctuation, as intensifiers, as poetry, as song.

I love getting creative with my swearing. I love using old standards. I love the age of these words. The majority of the rudest words in English go back to the beginnings of the language. I love that feeling of longevity. Words like these have been exploding out of people’s mouths for centuries.

I would love to write a book for teens that used the kind of language that I hear them use every day. That I use every day. I would love to capture those rhythms and cadences. But such a book would probably not get published.

I’d also love to write a book that did everything I want it to: was exciting, dramatic, moving, fun, and populated with recognisably teen characters but also managed to not offend anyone. What would such a book look like?

There would be no swear words in it. Everyone would speak uncolloquially and without grammatical errors. Characters would only fall in love with people of the opposite sex and same race and religion, yet they would not have sex. They would not smoke or lie or cheat.

But I know people who are offended by books that create worlds in which the ten per cent of the population that isn’t heterosexual do not exist.

I’m not sure a book that offends no one is possible. After all, I’m deeply offended by unicorns and by books in which the heroine keeps falling over and has to be rescued by the big handsome hero. That’s right, passive heroines drive me spare. But lots of other people just gobble them up.

I do not wish to have those books banned. I just wish people wouldn’t gobble them up. I also wish never to be subjected to the foul smells of coffee, petrol and perfume ever again, but I don’t fancy my chances.

I don’t want to offend anyone but as long as I’m writing books I don’t see how I can avoid it.

Adelaide

Am in the pretty churchy city of Adelaide for a wedding. What larks. I love weddings! And these two crazy kids are great together. But internet access is not so much limited as BLOODY EXPENSIVE. Stupid gouging hotels! Colour me outraged.

So quickly: “gaol” is an another spelling of that place where people are locked up which is usually spelled “jail”. It ain’t slang. It used to be the only way the word was spelled but is on its way out. I cling to it out of love and perversity.

And thanks again for all the congrats on the Norton win. I can’t believe I’m still getting them! Yay! And an even bigger yay for the impact it’s had on my Amazon sales and my secret NYC bookseller friend who told me she has some people come in and ask for the Norton winner. Who knew?

Have any of you read any Jacqueline Wilson books? Some of you must have given that she’s sold gazillion billion trillion copies. I’ve been reading and really enjoying her Girls in Love books. Lovely.

And now I go before they demand my first born child.

Doobalackie

Apparently “doobalackie” is not a universal word for “thingamybob”—you know, that thing for which you do not have a name, that “doohickie”. I had no idea it was just us Australians who reach for doobalackies.

Is it just us? Any South Africans or New Zealanders or Jamaicans or English or Welsh or Irish or Scottish people care to weigh in? What do you call the thingie for which you do not at that moment have a name?

I learned the non-Americanness of doobalackie from the the livejournal devoted to Megan Whalen Turner’s fabulous Attolia trilogy which recently discussed my worship of said trilogy1 and wound up discussing a bunch of different Aussieisms.

The whole thing got me curious so I looked up “dooberlackie” in the Macquarie Dictionary and discovered it’s supposed to be spelled “dooverlackie” or “doovahlackie”. To be honest I’ve never seen it written down before, only heard it. That aside, spelling is not my strong point. Dunno if I’m gunna budge from dooberlackie, but. That’s how it sounds in me head. You should never mess with your own head.

It’s amazing how many words I thought were universal turn out to be Aussiesm or, at least, not much known in the US. Usians don’t do the whole brekkie, pressie, chrissie, journo, muso thing. They have no mates called Dazza or Shazza. They don’t squiz at stuff or chuck a right. They’re never lizard flat-out. They don’t know what bitumen is. And the way they pronounce “condom” is deeply strange.

How many of you English speakers have discovered that some of the words and expression you thought were global English turn out to be just from your part of the world? What words were they? Share!

In other news: it stopped snowing but it’s still too bloody cold. Also I am reading the second Buddha and I am in heaven. I heart Osamu Tezuka. Thanks, Anne!

Oh, crap, now it’s snowing again. Aaargh!!!

  1. Are there still any of you who haven’t read Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy (The Thief, Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia)? If not, why not? On your bikes! []

Of fans and geeks

El and Rachel Brown correctly surmised that the fan half of my question was inspired by the bruhaha about whether John Scalzi should be nominated for a fan writing Hugo or not.

For the record: yes, Scalzi should, and I hope he wins for all the reasons that have been described in great detail here, here and here. I’m also not comfortable with people telling other people that they are or aren’t “fans” or “geeks” or anything else. Those are the kind of labels you get to choose for yourself.

The geek half was inspired by my being asked to contribute a story to an anthology about geeks and geekery. My instant response was to say, “No.” Not just because I can’t write short stories, but because I couldn’t begin to think of a geeky story. (Plus no way am I biting the head off a chicken. Ewww.)

Also I was just curious about how you lot define those words. Part of what’s interesting in the great Is-Scalzi-a-Fan debate is that there were so many different definitions of what a “fan” is, which led to much talking at cross purposes. Seems thesame is true of “geek”. Veronica defined it the way I would, but Cecil defined it the way I would define “fan”.

A number of people take “fan” to mean someone who loves something uncritically. I can’t help but laugh at that when I think of the number of letters I’ve had from self-proclaimed Magic or Madness fans who tell me in minute detail the stuff they don’t like about the trilogy, just as much as the stuff they do. Clearly, these are slippery, slippery terms.

Thanks everyone for such fascinating responses.

So why do I call myself a fan but not a geek?

Let’s take the word “fan” first. I’m not a fan of science fiction, which may sound odd for someone who did a Phd on it, which became a book. To be honest the whole PhD thing was never a passion. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but as everyone knows there’s no money in that, so I went for an academic career to support my writing habit. The subject of my PhD was an accident. I’d read sf as a kid but I’d read lots of other things too and, honestly, I think the vast majority of sf (film, television or film) is on the nose. Many of the so-called classics of the genre like the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek or Blade Runner leave me cold.

It’s the world building that does it for me with science fiction, being transported to somewhere that is not like the world I know. I get that just as readily from books about places I’m unfamiliar with: Japanese crime books fascinate me; Australian ones not so much. I also get that button pressed by books from the past (Jane Austen, Tale of Genji,1 Elizabeth Gaskell, Miles Franklin et al) historicals, fantasy, westerns and so on. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson create worlds that are almost completely alien to me. I adore their work.

I love the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Maureen McHugh and Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’m not convinced that it’s the science fictioness of their work that does it for me. I’m just as happy when they’re writing fantasy or memoirs or criticism or blogging or whatever else they choose to write. I love the way they string their words and sentences and paragraphs together. Yum.

If I were to be banned from reading one genre it would be less of a hardship for me if that genre were sf rather than fantasy or historicals. (Naturally, I exempt manga from all these categories.)

I’m also not a fan in the sense that Ulrika is talking about. That is I’m not a member of a community that came together around a love of science fiction in the late 1930s and is still going strong today. Or am I? I definitely feel like I’m a part of the WisCon community. For years I helped with the running of that particular science fiction convention. I was on the ConCom. Can you get much more fannish than that? And, like John Scalzi, I feel very much at home with many members of the science fiction community who definitely consider themselves to be fans.

However, I’ve never written fanfiction. So I’m not part of that thriving aspect of fandom. Nor do I read it. Though there are definitely books and stories I love, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, that are a kind of fanfiction—but the kind that plays around with out of copyright texts and thus gets to be published.

I’m happy to call myself a fan not just because of the WisCon thing, but because there are a lots of things I love. Elvis Presley’s voice. Cricket. Madeleine Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan’s clothes. The writing of way too many people to list here. I love Bring It On and Deadwood and Blue Murder and My Brilliant Career and ES and Nana and Osamu Tezuka and mangosteens and the food of countries like Spain and Mexico and Thailand and Japan and Italy and Ethiopia and the great wines of Australia and New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa and Italy and France and Spain and many other places.

I don’t think the word “fan” implies uncritical love. There are clothes of Vionnet and Chalayan’s that I think are naff, Cricket matches that bore me, Angela Carter books ditto, and Spanish food and French wine I’ve had to spit out.

So why aren’t I geek?

First up, the word is American and doesn’t have much resonance for me. I never heard it as a kid nor “nerd” neither. Not outside of a John Hughes movie. (That’s not true of younger Aussies.)

The people I know who are self-described nerds or geeks have passions for stuff that bores me. Video games, role-playing games, board games and the insides of computers. I have many friends who are into these things and, well, I am not like them in this regard. I do not know what “chaotic good” is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.

I’ve had flirtations with various computer games over the years, but my attention span for them is microscopic, and ulimately I’d much rather be reading a book.

Once I got into Go for about a year, to the extent that I was playing it with a bunch of Go fanatics on servers in Korea, and reading books on it. But it was largely research for a novel I was writing. When I finished writing the book my interest in playing Go lapsed. It’s still by far the best game I’ve ever played, but I doubt I’d even remember how anymore. I haven’t played since 1999.

Many of my geeky friends are also collectors.

I hate stuff. I spend a large chunk of my life recycling and throwing stuff out. I hate things that sit on the mantlepiece and serve no purpose other than to collect dust. I see no point in them. Nor in stuffed animals, or dolls, or collectable cards, or any of that. I love cricket but I have no desire for cricket stuff cluttering up my house and am endlessly giving away the cricket tat people give me (clothes excluded).

If I collect anything, it’s books, but I cull them ruthlessly and often. If I’m not going to reread it, or I’ve had it for more than a year without even cracking the spine and there seems little likelihood that I will, then out the book goes.

Also I have a terrible memory. Always have had. I can’t tell you what year Bring it On came out, or who directed it, or who all the actors are without looking it up. I have to read a book a billion times before I can remember any details about it and even then I’m pretty crap. I just did a test on Pride and Prejudice I don’t think I’ve read any book more times than that one. I got 5 out of 10. I would not be able to tell an original Vionnet gown from a knock off. I do not have the trainspotting gene.

So, yes to “fan” and to “enthusiast” (thanks, Bennett), no to “geek” or “nerd”. I’m also quite happy to be called a “dag”. Yes, I am also a “spaz”. (Though, Christopher, I say to you: Know thyself!) And “dilettante”? Oh, yes, that’s me. I have the attention span of a gnat.2

  1. I confess I have never finished The Tale of Genji despite repeated attempts. The bits I’ve read have been fabulous. It’s just that the book is so damned heavy and hard to read in bed. I know, I know . . . dilettante. []
  2. Except for blogging, apparently. Bugger but this was a long post . . . Sorry! []

Fans & Geeks

A question for you all:

Would you describe yourself as a fan, or a geek, or both? And if you do describe yourself in that way what do you mean by it? What’s your idea of a “fan”? Or of a “geek”?

For the record I’m a fan but not a geek.

Swearing

Scrotumgate and the never-ending debate about what words are appropriate for what age groups made me realise something very important: You USians talk funny!

See, in Australia where I grew up the words that some people think you should never say and others use all the time are called “swear words” and the act of using them is “swearing”. Here in the United States of America they are “curse” or even odder “cuss” words and when you say them you are “cursing” or “cussing”.

Both of which sound unbelievably quaint as well as kind of cute to my ears. It’s as if I’ve been chatting with folks who appear to be from the twenty-first century and then—Bam!—all of a sudden a time machine has landed in their mouths, taken control of their tongues, and they can now only say words from the 1700s. “That blasted sea dog cussed at1 me!”

Okaaay, I think, backing away slowly.

And I use words like “hence” which makes many USians think that the time machine’s grabbed my tongue. These fun linguistic differences are why I keep coming back here. Such larks! (Oh, okay, and the fact that my fella is a Seppo. Details, details!)

Here are my favourite USianisms (some are regional; some have spread far beyond her borders):

    Discombobulate (Best. Word. Ever.)

    Copacetic (A fancy word for “okay”. Who knew? So euphonious. Pleasure in my ears!)

    All the myriad different words for a bad sandwich such as “hoagie”, “hero”, “grinder” etc etc

    Sketchy (Meaning “dodgy”—obviously “dodgy” is better than “sketchy” but it still ain’t too foul)

    On line (As in “Are you standing on line?” I’ve only ever heard this one in NYC)

    Burglarize (Hah! I giggle every time I hear it. Scott has the same reaction to “removalist” back home)

Can’t think of any more right now. What are your favourite American words? Am I alone in finding “cuss” antiquated?

  1. Cussed on me? Near me? See? I don’t even know what the right preposition is! []

Zombies, unicorns, scrotum (updated)

What have I started? Arguments about the relative merits of zombies and unicorns rage across the intramanets. And on each thread someone suggests the zombie-unicorn hybrid. Great minds think alike? Or fools seldom differ?

I was greatly distressed that lovely friends of mine like Holly Black, Cecil Castellucci, Meg McCarron and Literaticat have fallen pray to the false glittery charms of unicorns despite the fact that being virgin fascists unicorns would have nothing to do with them. I guess it falls into the whole desiring-what-you-can’t-have camp. Perhaps to resolve our issues Holly and I should collaborate on a Zombies vesus Unicorns novel? I will write the zombies and she can have the unicorns. Though I’m not sure how well that will work given that she won’t read about zombies and I won’t read about unicorns.

Some school librarians are saying that they won’t have Susan Patron’s Newbery Award-winning novel, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, in their library because it contains the word “scrotum” (in reference to a dog). Apparently “scrotum” is an offensive word. I had no idea. I thought it was an anatomical term for a part of the male body. I’ve never heard anyone use it as a swear word and I come from a swearing people.

The New York Times also covers the story but seems to think that authors sneak words like “scrotum” into their novels solely to offend.1 Um, what now? Rosemary Graham responds eloquently to the extremely unbalanced Times coverage. The best reporting on the whole story can be found at Publishers Weekly which points out the role Jordan Sonnenblick and Asif! had in drawing attention to it.

I write novels to tell the best stories I can for teenagers. I try very hard to write characters who are believeable and I choose the language they use accordingly. I do not set out to offend anyone. I’m sorry when that happens, but I’m not going to write less believable stories in order not to offend people. That leads to the worst possible kind of censorship: When you start second-guessing yourself. Can I use the word “pom”? No, that will offend English people. Can I use the word “pink”? No, that will offend pink-haters (and possibly also pink-lovers). How about “jasmine”? No, Margo Lanagan will come gunning for me. When does it end?

Librarians and school librarians in particular have an incredibly hard job. I admire them tremendously. I just wish we were living in a world where people’s response to being offended was to talk about why, to explain the history and context of the word, and how that has made it offensive to them, rather than trying to wipe the books that contain the word off the face of the earth. I mean I am not advocating banning books about unicorns. I just won’t blurb them.

As soon as it is warm enough to go outside I’m off to buy a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky from my local children’s bookshop.

Update: Scott adds his two cents’ worth.

  1. For the record, if concerned adults can find the naughty words we wicked authors sneak into our books then we clearly haven’t been sneaky enough. []

That word does not mean what you think it means

This one breaks my brain.

From the Sydney Morning Herald the Australian cricket team responds to accusations of being arrogant, rude, sledging bastards:

“The way I look at cricket, you do everything possible to win. Some people like the verbal side of the game, some don’t, but you just get one with what your job. I take what Vincent is saying as a backhanded compliment.”

Hayden, Clark’s Australian teammate, was equally indignant.

“If he considers that to be the case, I’m not unhappy about it, to be honest,” Hayden said. “It’s a great clash between New Zealand and Australia and long may it continue. It doesn’t matter what sport—we could be playing kick a cockroach from here to the wall and we’d want to be competitive.”

You know last time I looked “indignant” meant “cranky”, “pissed off”, “ropeable”. It did not mean “bemused”.

Talk about sloppy journalism of the let’s-try-to-manufacture-controversy-even-if-the-quotes-don’t-fit variety. That or the journo truly doesn’t know what “indignant” means. Well, whoever wrote that, I am indignant at your use of the word indignant.

Though maybe they were just being a smartarse? Cause Hayden is just as indignant as Clarke, i.e. not at all.