Guest Post: YA From a Marginalized Young Adult’s Perspective

A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.

All the words below are hers:

——–

My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.

Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).

The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.

In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.

I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.

I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1

Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).

In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.

There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.

Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:

  1. No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
  2. Nothing too complex.
  3. No adults.
  4. Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.

Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?

I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?

  1. Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
  2. Young adults are unintelligent.
  3. Young adults have no adults in their lives.
  4. Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.

Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.

When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”

Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.

I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.

You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.

I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.

How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.

Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?

Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.

Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.

More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.

Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.

Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.

We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.

We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.

I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.

Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.

Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.

But I don’t want to quit.

The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.

YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.

If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.

We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.

  1. See also: #weneeddiversebooks []
  2. Heavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find? []

My Next Published Solo Novel: RAZORHURST!

My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.

I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.

Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*

Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.

Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:

RazorhurstOzCover

Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.

What is Razorhurst about?

Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:

The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.

Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.

Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.

When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .

Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count.1 It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.

Why is it called Razorhurst?

Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:

Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .

Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .

Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!

As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.

Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Magistrates.2 Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.

What inspired you to write Razorhurst?

I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history.3 Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.

I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.

TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.

  1. Mind you, that was not hard to achieve given that no one dies in my trilogy or in How To Ditch Your Fairy or Team Human and the death in Liar takes place before the book starts. (Or does it? And was there really only one death in Liar? I could be lying but only because I’m contractually obligated to do so.) So, really, a body count of one means that Razorhurst is bloodier than my other novels. []
  2. Truth, Sunday, January 3, 1932. []
  3. It’s very much not like that anymore. Check out this little characterisation of Surry Hills these days. As a resident I would like to point out it’s not entirely like that either. []

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. []

On Letting People Know You Are Eligible For Awards (Updated x 2)

Adam Roberts wrote a blog post on why he doesn’t write a blog post letting everyone know what awards his work is eligible for. John Scalzi responded writing about why he does do that. They both write science fiction for adults.

I don’t write such posts and never have because, as Scalzi puts it, that kind of self-promotion makes some of us feel squicky. It doesn’t make him feel that way; but it surely does me.

However, and this is a big however, I write in a field, Young Adult, where there is no popularly voted award that has as big an impact as winning a Hugo does. In science fiction the Hugo is the big deal.

All the game changing awards in my field are juried awards:

The biggest in the US is the Newbery Award. Win a Newbery and your book will stay in print forever. YA isn’t actually eligible for it but many of us YA writers also write books that are more middle grade and are thus eligible. The Printz and the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature division are the big YA awards. Neither has the impact of a Newbery win.

In Australia the big awards are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards which also has an effect on sales, though not on the scale of the Newbery. Then there’s the much more recent Prime Minister’s Literary Awards which includes a YA category. Get shortlisted for one of those and you get $5,000 tax free. Win one and you get $80,000 tax free. How good would that be? Very.

So it’s a pretty easy decision for me to make. In my world popularly voted awards are pretty irrelevant and juried awards aren’t going to be swayed by me posting a LOOK AT WHAT I WROTE THIS YEAR VOTE FOR ME VOTE FOR ME screed. Au contraire. I can imagine how the Newbery jurists would respond to a Dear Newbery Jurists post. Or an ad in Publishers Weekly addressed to them. *shudder*

To be honest, I don’t worry about awards or pin my hopes on them. I won’t lie: it’s lovely to win one. It’s lovely to be shortlisted. I’ve written about how much being shortlisted for a CBCA meant to me.

But I’ve been a juror for some awards so I know first-hand how random they can be. How it depends on the interactions of the jurors. I’ve seen great books not make short lists because I was the only one on the jury who recognised their greatness.1 We’ve discovered months after the decision process was over that, in fact, one or two wonderful books weren’t even nominated. We jurists never got to see them. Aaargh!

At least in the world of books, there is no system of deciding who wins awards that is fair and just and guarantees the very best books triumph.2 That’s because no one can ever agree on what those books are.

That’s why I think it’s best for us writers not to worry about it too much. I try to restrict my worrying to the stuff I have control over. I figure the best thing I can do for my writing career is write the very best books I can, whether they win awards, and sell tonnes of copies or not.

Tl;dr: Awards are random, life is short, write the books/stories/poems/blog posts that you want to write.

Update:

I have had a few more thoughts on this subject after reading Amal El-Mohtar’s excellent piece on it. Here’s a little snippet of what she says:

Recently I went on a tear on Twitter because I saw women for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect speak up about how difficult they find it to overcome shyness and low self-esteem enough to talk about their work, and what an ongoing struggle it is for them to find value in their art, to think of it as in any way contributing anything to the world.

. . .

You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.

I completely agree with El-Mohtar. The ones who are least likely to blow their own horns3 are the ones who most need to, the ones who people like me and El-Mohtar most want to hear from.

But I can’t lie. I’m really glad I’m in a field where popularly voted awards are no big thing so I don’t have to make others aware of my work come award time. Even after what El-Mohtar says in her cogent post. Even knowing that it’s largely socialisation that makes me feel squicky about it in the first place.

I do write an annual post on the last day of the year to keep track of what I’ve been up to professionally. Somehow that doesn’t feel squicky because it feels more like it’s addressed to myself. I feel the same way about the anniversary of going freelance posts I write. Those are for me, not to spruik my books or myself, which would be tacky.

Why do I think it’s tacky?

I’m a writer. I make my living by writing books. Why do I think it’s tacky to remind people about that and have them buy said books? Why don’t I have any buy buttons on my website? Why I do find everything associated with selling my work uncomfortable? Yes, I do think a large part of it is because of my socialisation as a woman. Particularly as an Australian woman. I definitely think that Australians and British people, on the whole, are more uncomfortable with the whole selling thing than those from the USA. For me it’s partly gender and partly culture.

But there are plenty of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people from the USA who are also mighty uncomfortable with the whole process.

On top of all of that there’s the whole ridiculous notion that we shouldn’t be making money out of art in the first place. Artists being above all that.

Amar El Mohtar is so very right. She ends her piece by calling for us to stop this stupid debate:

Can we please just accept — and make widespread the acceptance! — that making lists during Awards season is fine? That it’s standard? That there is a vast difference between stating one’s eligibility and campaigning for votes? That lists are extremely helpful to nominating parties who are rigorous in their reading and want to see conversations in fandom expand and diversify? And that rolling one’s eyes about the whole process helps precisely no one while in fact hindering many?

I’m with her and am going to try very hard not to give into my feelings of squickiness at self promotion in the future.

Update the Second: And now Gwenda Bond has joined the discussion with this passionate post. She begins by talking about how she almost didn’t write it:

So…I almost talked myself out of making this post, but then, hey, I said I was going to start blogging again and these are the kinds of things I’m interesting in blogging about. Even though it is a little scary, for reasons the post will make clear. The thing is, publishing books is—even though our books are not ourselves—extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear.

All too many of us stay silent for those reasons.

Do read the whole post because Gwenda beautifully articulates so much of what this discussion is actually about. Not merely who does and doesn’t self-promote but how we are perceived when we do self-promote.

This blog post began with me talking about staying quiet about achievements because of choosing not to blow our own horn.4 But as both El-Mohtar and Bond make clear, there’s a tonne of silencing going on. Women being attacked for speaking up about their own worth and it really has to stop.

I strongly recommend you read both El-Mohtar and Bond’s posts.

  1. Shocking, I know. And I’m sure the other jurors felt the same way about the books I did not recognise the greatness of. []
  2. Popularly voted awards have their own sets of issues. []
  3. Ahem. []
  4. So to speak. []

Some Thoughts On A Writer’s Intentions

Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”

I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.

I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3

The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5

Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?

I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.

When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.

The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.

However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.

Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8

But that’s not entirely true either.

The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.

However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.

How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9

With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.

I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.

In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.

Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.

Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.

To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.

This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.

To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12

The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.

I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!

In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.

Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.

  1. As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. []
  2. When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. []
  3. But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. []
  4. Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. []
  5. I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. []
  6. Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. []
  7. No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. []
  8. That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. []
  9. Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. []
  10. Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. []
  11. Which is plenty of engagement, by the way. []
  12. Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy. []

To Self-Publish Or Not To Self-Publish (Updated x 3)

I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.

To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.

What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.

Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.

I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).

Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.

Ask Yourself This Question First

Why do you want to be published?

There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.

But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.

In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.

This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.

Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First

I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.

I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.

Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.

Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me.1 My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.

I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE.2 I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.

Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.

Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.

You learn to deal with rejection.3

Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.

You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.

My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.4

You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one.5 But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.

All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.

Always have a novel on the go.

When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.

Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.

Never stop writing!

People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.

They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.

True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.

Rejection: it just keeps on giving.6

You Learn How To Write

In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.

I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.

(Here’s a post on how to find people to critique your work. Check out the comments as well.)

Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.

Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)

Once You’re Published

This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.

I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.

Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.

Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.

Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.7

They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.

You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.

Self-Publishing

There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.

An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.

When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.

Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.

Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.

I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.

However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.

Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!

And keep on writing!

Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.

Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.

Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.

  1. I do know a couple of people who were picked up by an agent and whose first novel sold basically within minutes of sending out. That’s unusual. Also annoying. []
  2. I wonder if self-publishing had existed back then if I would have gone ahead and published my work as it was? Back then I was pretty sure what I was writing was genius despite all the rejections. Reading it now I know it was rubbish and it being published back then would have been at best really embarrassing. []
  3. Which is not to say you ever learn to like it. I hates rejection, I does. HATES IT! []
  4. But let’s just say I’m not barracking for any Eastern European football teams in the World Cup. []
  5. Oh, the tears this profession of mine has made me weep. Fortunately a fair few of them have been tears of joy. []
  6. Show me the profession that doesn’t involve waiting and being rejected. I suspect it does not exist. []
  7. Yes, there are exceptions. Horrible exceptions. No industry is perfect. Least of all publishing. []

Learning to Write Romance

The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks1 typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?

Everything.

Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel.2 I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.

Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.3

Back to my story and moving forward a decade:

Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.

My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.

When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.

I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.

However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas4 I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.

I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa5 immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.

Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.

Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.

There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.

None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day.6 Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.

The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.7

I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.

Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.

Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.

Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted.8 Wish me luck.9


  1. I honestly can’t remember how long it was now []
  2. Or how to write a short story. But I was blissfully unaware of that back then. []
  3. Romances published outside the category are allowed to have sad endings. []
  4. And also Jo Bourne who I didn’t ask because I have not read her work. Looks Like I’ll have to now. []
  5. I feel like we’re now on first name basis after several Twitter exchanges. []
  6. Though if there is one point me to it cause that would be fascinating. []
  7. I ranted on Twitter recently about how people are always claiming stuff about YA with nothing but anecdotal evidence and here am I doing the same thing. Sorry. If anyone knows of any actual research that has been done on this I’d love to hear it! []
  8. Well, except for that attempt at 15 which I hardly think counts. []
  9. But don’t hold your breath. I just started a new YA and have many other books on my to-write queue before I get to having a go at writing an adult historical romance. []

Small Word Count Goals

Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.

Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:

For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.

Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.

At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which made me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.

Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.

But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.

At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)

On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.

The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.

At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.

What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.

Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.

The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.

Enter Scrivener

I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.

If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:

Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:

ProjectTargets

The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.

The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!

To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.

To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.

You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.

Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.

Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.

Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!

Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.

  1. Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury []
  2. Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were. []
  3. Days I don’t write don’t count. []

Ten Years of Writing YA Novels For A Living

It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.

I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!

And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:

I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.

I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.

Here is my traditional anniversary post writing and publishing stats:

    Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
    Books published: 9
    Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
    Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
    Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
    Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
    Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
    Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
    Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
    Books about to be finished: 1
    Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
    Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)

For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.

I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2

Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.

I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.

Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?

But so much has changed since then.

My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be

For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.

I do now.

Wow, have I come a long way. I have had books remaindered. That’s right someone could gleefully recite Clive James’ brilliant poem, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”, about me.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)

Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.

It has now.

Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.

I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.

Um, no.

I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.

In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6

Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7

Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.

It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.

Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*

The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those two tomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8

The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.

YA Publishing Has Changed

Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9

Money

Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.

There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.

They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.

I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.

So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.

YA Has Changed

I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.

That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12

(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)

For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.

New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.

I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.

Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.

I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):

  • commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
  • gorgeously written books they think will win prizes

Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.

Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.

This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.

Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops

There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.

But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.

I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.

I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?

I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.

It Was Ever Thus

I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?

I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.

I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.

There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.

In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13

Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.

Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.

Writing

But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?

All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.

Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.

At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.

And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?

Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.

All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.

None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.

My writing is more important.

I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.

I was wrong.

Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.

Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.

I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19

If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.

To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.

Community

Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.

One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.

The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.

Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.

My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.

Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!

  1. Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. []
  2. I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. []
  3. Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. []
  4. I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. []
  5. Those job titles work differently in Australia. []
  6. And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. []
  7. Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* []
  8. Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. []
  9. Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. []
  10. Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. []
  11. I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. []
  12. There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. []
  13. Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. []
  14. In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. []
  15. That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. []
  16. She said euphemistically. []
  17. Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. []
  18. Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. []
  19. Okay, they might blink. []
  20. That’s for all my grammar nazi friends who freak out at the thought that the mighty “whom” will not be with us for that much longer. []
  21. Though I’d like to point out to said grammar nazi friends that the contortions needed to use “whom” made for a way ugly sentence. I’m just saying . . . []

Girls Who Hates Girls

In yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.

The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1

Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.

Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.

These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.

No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.

Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!

There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.

The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:

Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”

Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”

Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”

Woman-hater: *silence*

As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2

Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.

I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.

The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.

But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3

Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?

Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.

I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.

Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.

I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.

Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.

Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.

This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.

The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.

But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.

Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.

They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.

  1. Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering. Maybe the book turns out to be a critique of that stance. []
  2. I’m not against judging. I’m just against inaccurate judgeiness. []
  3. Gone With The Wind is appallingly racist but one thing it does well is skewer its woman-hating protag. Scarlett is so awful she doesn’t even notice until Melanie is dying that Melanie is the one who loves Scarlett best and never does her a single wrong. Why Melanie is so loyal to such a narcissistic psychopath is a whole other question. My theory is that owning slaves breaks everyone’s brains, not just their ethics and morality. []
  4. Other than gymnastics, dressage, netball and other girly sports. []

Lessons From Hollywood: Never Marry Someone In The Same Industry As You

We’ve all seen A Star is Born, right?

Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify.1 He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.

Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.

There’s the 1937 version, the 1954 version, and the 1976 version.2 Then there’s What Price Hollywood? from 1934, which is the exact same movie except instead of the swim the washed-up actor shoots himself.

My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.

Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.

*cough* I digress.

Where was I?

Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned3 film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.

Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.

If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.

  1. Yes, that’s a real word. Oh, hush. []
  2. They tried really hard to get Elvis Presley rather than Kris Kristofferson. Can you imagine? Maybe he wouldn’t have died in 1977 if he’d starred in it. Or maybe he would have died sooner. We’ll never know. []
  3. I can too make words mean anything I want them to mean. []

On Getting Notes From First Readers

As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I recently finished the first draft of my Sekrit Project novel. And, yay verily, I was full of joy. There was dancing. Bouncing. Happiness and even more joy.

After the joy I spent a few days tinkering with it, fixing the egregiously rubbishy bits, adding things that needed adding, moving chapters around. As you do.

Then I sent it off to my wondrous, fabulous, worth-more-than-their-weight-in-mangosteens-and-other-precious-things first readers.

Then I kicked back and watched loads of Olympics and blogged and did many things that have nothing to do with Sekrit Project. And there was more joy.

After a week there was still some joy on account of OLYMPICS OH HOW I LOVE THE OLYMPICS but there was also creeping OMG THEY ALL HATE IT WHY HASN’T ANYONE GOTTEN BACK TO ME ABOUT IT NOT EVEN MY OWN HUSBAND IS IT REALLY THAT BAD thoughts.

Then yesterday one of my readers got back to me. She liked it! PHEW.1

But more importantly Meg had really smart, useful notes for me. And I got to talk with someone who was not me about Sekrit Project and most especially about the second half of the book and the ending.2

I think I got a little giddy. It was such a pleasure to finally talk about it. Poor Meg. I plied her with a million and one questions. And she answered them all for me in really useful ways. I have a much better idea of what is and isn’t working and how to fix it. Scott also came through with notes on the first half of the book. There was bouncing and dancing.

Both Meg and Scott’s notes were full of questions about character’s motivations, aspects of the worldbuilding that didn’t make sense to them, why certain things happen when they do and so on. Questions that make me realise that I had not achieved what I thought I had. All too often the book was too subtle, too opaque, too confusing. All of which I am now brimming with ideas for how to fix.

This world and people I have created changes once other people have seen them. Meg and Scott’s comments and questions have changed how I see them too. I love this part. I love how it gives me a million and one ideas for making the book better.

Have I mentioned that rewriting is my favourite part of the writing process? This is why.

I know there are lots of writers who can figure out all this stuff for themselves. But I really depend on feedback. I need to know how readers respond to what I’ve written because all too often what I think is there is not there. And I can’t discover that by reading and rewriting my book over and over again. I can’t do it alone.

So now I can rewrite to deal with all those problems and work towards the general embetterment of the book. And once that’s done I send it off to my agent. Then when both she and I are happy it gets sent out to editors. Who will in turn send me their own notes.

At least that is how I do it.

Trust me, every writer has their own methods. Some never show anyone anything other than their agent and editor. Some talk constantly about their book and what happens in it as they write and have several people read it as they go along. Some, like me, only let people read it once they have a complete draft. Some have everyone in the world read it and comment. Others none.

Whatever works for you is how to do it.

  1. Yes, no matter how many books I’ve written I am always nervous about how the people whose opinions I value most will respond to my latest one especially in its raw state. []
  2. Usually as I write the first draft I read chapters out loud to scott every three or four days. But this time he only got to hear the first half because he was overseas while I wrote the second half and totally rewrote the first half and he has not yet finished reading the complete draft. []

Getting Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procrastination is good

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

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

Research

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

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

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

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

Many books at once

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

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing to the Market

Last week I very much meant to respond to Sam X’s comment on my post about becoming a brand versus writing what you want to write but last week was crazy busy. Plus I soon realised my thoughts were many and it was going to have to be its own post.

Here’s part of what Sam X said:

Still, I think there is a bit of a complication in wha t you wrote. “…whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.” Writing as your job does require at least a token thought to the story’s marketability, and perhaps some changes to the overall story you’re telling so as to buttress that marketability–in which case it’s not purely the invention of your imagination, but a combination of that and market concessions.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, simply a factor that needs to be understood when critiquing stories. Yet it does take a little away from the romantic notion of simply writing what you want. But you’re a working writer: Maybe you can illuminate this for us?

What I didn’t make clear in that post was that I was largely addressing people who aren’t published yet. As it’s mostly amongst aspiring-to-be-published writers that I see these conversations taking place. I truly think it’s a total waste of time for any writer—published or not—to be worrying about whether they should concentrate on “being a brand” but it’s especially pointless for those who haven’t found their own voice and writing style. Before you’re published is the time to be experimenting and exploring and honing your craft and figuring out what kind of writer you are.1

Once you’re published, yes, there are ways in which you do have to think about the market and whether what you’re writing is commercial or not. If you write a romance with an ending in which the hero and heroine do not get together no romance imprint is going to buy it. But maybe a non-genre fiction imprint will. There could still be an editor out there who adores your book. It’s just that what you’ve written is not a romance.

Which is to say that once you’ve written your book or proposal and it’s as good as it can be is when you and your agent should start thinking about who will be a good fit for it. If it goes out and no one bites then you start thinking about whether you can change it to make it more commercial. Maybe you can engineer it so heroine and hero get together at the end and thus find a home for it at a romance house.

When I say “commercial” I simply mean “will sell”. What is or isn’t commercial is not a static thing. When I was writing Liar, which has a deeply unreliable narrator, who keeps changing her story, and is, um, prickly and is a book that does not have a clear-cut ending I was convinced it was deeply uncommercial. I worried that my publishers were going to hate it and would end the contract and demand the advance back. To date it’s my bestselling novel. So what do I know?

Zombies versus Unicorns was done as a lark. I never thought it would sell as well as it did. Anthologies notoriously don’t sell well and are more a prestige kind of publishing project. I suspect the draw of Holly Black’s name had a lot to do with ZvU‘s success. Not to mention the unbelievably great design and fine array of contributors.

My point is that no one knows what’s commercial. Not really. So if someone, even a published writer, is advising you too change x or y about your unpublished novel to make it more commercial and you feel in your gut that those changes will make the book worse? Don’t do it. So often we authors are the last person to know whether a book is commercial or not. We’re plague to all sorts of doubts and second guessing. It’s much better we get on with the writing and worry about that stuff later.

Also often people will tell you they’re passing on your book for reason x. When the real reason that they’re passing is that your book is not a strong enough example of that particular genre/storyline/whatever. If they had liked your book more than reason x would not have been a factor.

And, of course, too weird, too left-field, too unclassifiable is only one of the reasons that a good book can fail to find a publisher. More often books go unsold because there’s a glut of that particular kind of book.

When Team Human was being shopped around by our agents both Sarah and I were nervous that it wouldn’t sell because so many in the industry are convinced that the most recent wave of vampire obsession is over. And, indeed, some publishers passed on it citing that reason.2 Or that they already had too many vampires on their list already. So far Team Human has not sold in many non-English language markets. Often the reason given is that they have a vampire glut. Or that their market doesn’t like funny vampire books. Personally, I don’t think vampires will ever completely lose popularity no matter how over them editors might be. I cite this n-gram as proof of the continued demand for vampires.

It’s really hard to plan for gluts given that for most of us it takes at least six months to a year—if not longer—to write a book. Say when you started there were no dystopian books around but by the time you finished half of the shelves in the YA section were now dystopian novels and all the editors were groaning and saying, “Send me anything but a dystopia!” It sucks but there’s nothing you can do but write the very best dystopia book you can. Often there’s still space in even a saturated market for a truly excellent book about whatever the done to death thing de jour is. Just write the very best book you can.

I have twice changed a book to make it more commercial. I wanted How To Ditch Your Fairy to have a shot at being picked up by the Scholastic book club so after I had a first draft I took out all the swear words. I did this because the book had no sexual content and it skews younger than any of my other books. I reasoned that if it was what the Scholastic book club considers to be “clean” than it would also be clean enough for middle school libraries in the USA and other swearing-averse markets. Given that I had already invented slang for the book it was dead easy to get rid of any real-world swear words and replace them with invented ones. Frankly, I think it improved the book. How To Ditch Your Fairy was picked up by the Scholastic book club. I was right about it skewing younger too. Most of my fan mail about that book is from 9-14 years old.

Given that experience, when we were writing Team Human, I was insistent that we also avoid strong swearing. Again the book had no sexual content and I thought it would work for some younger readers. (Though it doesn’t skew quite as young as How To Ditch Your Fairy does.) It hasn’t been picked up by Scholastic’s book club but it still might. HTDYF had been out for over a year before it was picked up.

Contrary to what many believe, the cleaner a book is the greater its chances of being more widely sold and/or purchased by places like school libraries—especially middle school ones—and certain book clubs as well as by various retailers like Walmart and Target.3 One of the questions that librarians and teachers and parents often ask booksellers is whether or not a book is clean or suitable for younger readers. It was important to me that they be able to say yes about both those books.4

I have no problem taking out swearing if it doesn’t stuff up the book. For instance, there’s no way I would clean up Liar because that’s Micah’s voice. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t using real world swear words. The book I just finished the first draft of, ditto. It’s dark like Liar and skews older.5

I do know some writers who consult their agent before they start writing their next book. They run their different ideas past them and the agent will tell them which ones intrigue them most. I’ve heard of a few agents who will adamantly veto some of their clients’ ideas. My agent tells me all my ideas sound great, which is lovely, if not totally necessary in my case given my tendency to bounce around genres so much.

However, although I have written urban fantasy, science fictional, realist, comedic and not-remotely-comedic books and have just finished the first draft of an historical—every one of those books is YA. I think it would be a lot more difficult if my books were marketed to adults. But even then there are ways around a penchant for writing different genres—like using a different name for the different genres a la Nora Roberts and J. D. Robb.

Do remember though this is just my experience within my genre of YA having published books with a handful of publishers in Australia and the USA. I’m sure writers working within other genres or across them and in other countries will have had different experiences.

To answer Sam X more succinctly, thus far I have been able to write what I want to write with some minor swear word removal to make two of my books more saleable.

Who knows if that will continue? There could stop being a market for my YAs. At which point I would switch to writing books marketed at adults or at children. I’m fortunate in loving almost every genre. I’d happily switch to writing thrillers or romances or historicals or westerns or whatever. I’d have no problem with doing so under a different name if my own name developed a sales track of doom.

Just as long as I got to keep writing. And, yes, I would keep writing even if every publisher under the sun rejected my work no matter what name I wrote it under. I wrote for almost twenty years before I made my first sale. Been there, done that.

For me—like so many other writers—writing is the thing that I can’t not do.

  1. You continue to do those things after you’re published but it’s much easier to veer across genres when you haven’t sold your first book and there are no expectations. []
  2. Though remember they could also have simply not liked Team Human and being over vampires was just the excuse for passing. []
  3. Though those two have cut down massively on selling books in the last year or so. []
  4. Though, of course, there were people who did not consider HTDYF to be clean because there are gay and lesbian characters. To them I can only stare in disbelief. I will never ever pretend only straight love exists. []
  5. Yes, I did it again. I followed up a light, funny book with a nightmare stab to the gut kind of book. I am a marketing genius! Sarah, the co-writer of Team Human has been much smarter. Her next book, Unspoken, which is out in September is pretty much the perfect follow up to Team Human. Featuring another Nancy-Drew-like sleuth, who is every bit as wonderful as Mel from Team Human. If you loved Team Human, you’ll love Unspoken. And, no, that wasn’t Sarah being all calculated about the market. She got the idea for her Unspoken trilogy years before we got the idea for Team Human. []

Finished the First Draft; Time for the Real Work to Begin

Yesterday, as I predicted, I finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. And there was rejoicing throughout the Hills of Surry.1 Well, at least throughout my little corner of it.

It’s the first solo novel I’ve written since Liar which I finished lo those many years ago in 2008. I shall admit that given the RSI and other injuries and annoyances I had begun to wonder if I was ever going to finish another solo novel again. Had I lost my mojo? Would I have to do collaborations for the rest of my career?2

But I have my answer: I can! I did! All is good!

Pretty much every moment up until the completion of the first draft I am uncertain that there will be a finished book. But once I have a complete draft I know it’s going to happen. Even if it is radically rewritten. Even if I have to throw away large chunks. There will be a book.

I love this part. Because this is where I get in and get dirty. The real work of taking those words and turning them into an actual novel of goodness. As opposed to a novel-shaped thing.

Finally I have all the bits of the novel. I know what it’s about, who all these people are, and what they want. Now all I have to do is make it so people who aren’t me know and care about all those things when they read it.

Back in the day it used to be that I liked writing first drafts best of all. Rewriting was an onerous task. I wrote the book already? Why do I have to do any more work? Waaaahhhh!

Mostly I hated it because back then I had no idea how to do it, which is why I wrote a guide to doing so. In fact, before I was published I was barely passable at rewriting. It’s the part of my writing that has improved most dramatically since I started working with professional editors. Wonderful editors like Eloise Flood, Liesa Abrams, Jodie Webster and Anne Hoppe are the people who taught me how to rewrite.3

I slowly transitioned from someone who hated editorial letters and dreaded the whole process to someone who couldn’t wait to get started rewriting. Who viewed the first draft as the thing that had to be done before you could get going on the hard work of making a novel.

Don’t get me wrong writing the first draft can be a lot of fun. But it’s no where near as fun. I always find that tickle of uncertainty of whether I actually will finish the damn thing tugs at me in sometimes uncomfortable ways when I write the first draft. But once I’ve written that draft I am all certainty. No matter how many drafts it takes to make this as good as I can possibly make it—and on track record it will be at least five—I know it will be done.

What parts of the novel writing process do you like best?

  1. As in Surry Hills in Sydney. Not the hills of any other Surry around the world. I hear there other ones. []
  2. Not that there’s anything wrong with collaborations. Writing Team Human with Sarah was a joy and I’m dead proud of that book. []
  3. Listed in chronological order. Eloise and Liesa worked on the Magic or Madness trilogy with me. Jodie on all my books after the trilogy and Anne on Team Human. []

I’ll Know I’ve Made it as a Writer When . . .

. . . I finish a whole manuscript.

. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.

. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.

. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.

. . . I get an agent.

. . . I get five rejections from publishers.

. . . I get ten rejections from publishers. (Would you believe twenty rejections? How about thirty? One hundred? One thousand? One million?)

. . . I start writing my second/third/fourth/fifth/etc book despite the fact that the first/second/third/fourth etc book hasn’t sold yet.

. . . I get an offer from a publisher.

. . . the deal is announced in Publishers Lunch.

. . . I get my first real editorial letter.

. . . I have my first hissy fit about my first editorial letter.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book.

. . . I get my second real editorial letter.

. . . I have my second hissy fit about my second editorial letter.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book. Again.

. . . (And repeat. Or not. Depending.)

. . . I get my first copyedit.

. . . I have my first hissy hit about my first copyedit. (Only robots speak without contractions! “Me and LJ” is how my character would say it NOT “LJ and I” because my character is not the FREAKING QUEEN OF FREAKING ENGLAND!)

. . . I get my first ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of my very own book with my name on the front and EVERYTHING. Oh my Elvis! It’s real, people. Book by me! *faints*

. . . I get my first page proofs and am overwhelmed by the urge to completely rewrite everything and make the book, you know, ACTUALLY GOOD!! (Also notice that I use the word “actually” way too much and that is BY NO MEANS the only word I use WAY TOO MUCH. Wonder if I have also overused CAPS and italics and exclamation marks!!! Consider getting publisher to cancel book. Actually.)

. . . I get my first good review.

. . . I get my first bad review.

. . . I get my first meh review.

. . . I am enraged by an eleven year old who enjoyed my book but wished it was as good as [redacted]‘s bestselling piece of [redacted] about [redacted].

. . . I get my first box full of my own finished actually TRULY REALLY book what I have written MYSELF!!!

. . . I open said book on a page with a typo of “actualy” and the CAPS and italics in the wrong places.

. . . I realise that it is the last book in the entire world I wish to read.

. . . I go to my local bookshop and there is my book in a real actual book shop.

. . . I get a query from my publisher wondering where my next book is.

. . . I miss a deadline.

. . . I miss two/three/four/five/etc deadlines.

. . . I get my first query from Hollywood which goes nowhere.

. . . I am sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I bitch and moan about being sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I am not sent on tour.

. . . I bitch and moan about not being sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I get my very first fan letter. Someone read and enjoyed my book enough to write to me! Best. Day. Ever.

. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so moving.

. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so illiterate.

. . . I get more fan letters than I could ever possibly answer.

. . . I become a New York Times bestseller.

. . . I am disappointed when my next book only reaches no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.

. . . I am not a New York Times bestseller.

. . . I think about killing those entitled bastards who whinge about their books only getting to no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.

. . . I quit my dayjob.

. . . I can live off my advances.

. . . I can live off my royalties and don’t have to sell books on proposal anymore.

. . . I have to live in a garret and eat ramen in order to keep writing.

. . . all my friends are writers.

. . . I don’t have to hang out with writers anymore.

. . . I win the Nobel Prize.

. . . I do an event and half the crowd is dressed up as characters from my books.

. . . one of my books is optioned to be made into a movie.

. . . my book becomes a movie.

. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to complain about how Hollywood destroyed it.

. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to go to all the Hollywood parties for it and stand in the corner because no one’s interested in talking to a writer. Even a nobel-prize winning New York Times bestseller who can live off their own royalties.

. . . all my books are optioned to be made into movies.

. . . all my books are made into movies.

. . . my first book is remaindered.

. . . all my books except the most recent are remaindered.

. . . I fire my first agent.

. . . I move to a different publisher.

. . . even people who don’t read know my name.

. . . only people who read my genre know my name.

. . . only some of the people who read my genre know my name.

. . . I have to change my name and genre in order to keep being published.

. . . I write a book that I am truly happy with.

Writing Goals Reduxing the Redux

Back in 2006 I posted my writing goals. Then I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out.

My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize.1 Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something anyone can control,2 but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, really.3

So the following are categories that I plan to publish a book in. When I publish a book in a given category I cross that category out. I also randomly add categories when they occur to me. Mostly, to give me the pleasure of crossing them out.

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Gothic
  • Mainstream or litfic4
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA

I have added a new genre: Gothic. This is Sarah Rees Brennan‘s fault. She has written a Gothic, Unspoken, the first of a trilogy, which comes out in September. I love this book SO MUCH. It reminded me of all those Victoria Holt5 books I read by the truckload when I was wee. Of how much I have always adored the Brontes.6 And Shirley Jackson.7 And how I have always thought Georgette Heyer’s one Gothic novel, Cousin Kate, is much overlooked. Me, I am dead fond of it. I even read some Barbara Michaels on SRB’s recommendation and enjoyed them mightily. Though as a genre reader they are a bit frustrating. I kind of hate it when the Creepy Stuff Happening in the House has a really boring logical explanation. It’s too much like a Scooby Doo episode. Anyways, SRB has given me a powerful urge to write my own crazy, scary house novel, which is a metaphor for female imprisonment and yearning. Only in mine she’ll get to blow said house up, which even though it has been done before, will make me very happy.

All I have left is western, historical, horror and Gothic. Though a friend says I can cross horror off because Liar scared the crap out of her. But she is the biggest wuss on the planet so I declare that cheating. Liar isn’t scary at all. Wait till I write my slugs book. Now that’s scary. Though if some more of you think Liar counts as horror I may use that as an excuse to cheat and cross it off.

I am hard at work on a novel set in the 1930s so I suspect historical will be the next one to get the old strike through. But it may take some time . . .

I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Omniscient

The 1930s novel makes much use of omni. When it’s finally done I will conquer the entire list!

Lastly:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series
  • Collaboration

A series is a sequence of more than three books that: 1) have the same character or set of characters but each book tells a separate story. You could argue that Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe books are a series of that kind. 2) are a large story that is told across more than three books.

Some people classify trilogies as a series but I think they’re their own thing. I also admit that that’s very hair splitting and may be heavily influenced by my desire to have one extra thing on this list. Hey, it’s my list. I get to do that.

I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying. Or a duology. At which point I would add duology to the list.

The collaboration is a new addition to the list. I admit that it doesn’t really fit this list but I couldn’t think what other list to put it on. So, you know, whatever. I added it, obviously, because I get to cross it off. Thanks to having written Team Human with Sarah Rees Brennan which will be published in July. So soon, people!

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?

Disclaimer: This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.

  1. Though I am not against those happening to me. I mean, wouldn’t that be grouse? I would not say no. Hmm . . . can you say no to being a best seller? Also is bestseller one word or two? []
  2. Well, not unless they’re hugely wealthy or know hugely wealthy people who are willing to buy gazillions of copies of their books from New York Times reporting stores. And then you wind up with the * meaning this book QUITE POSSIBLY CHEATED. []
  3. Well, except that I’m only counting them once they get published, which is not actually something I can control. It’s something I hope (fervently) will keep happening. []
  4. You know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis. Though I have never written such a book nor will I. But enough of my readers declared Liar to be literature that I decided to cross it off the list. []
  5. Yes, I am aware that “Victoria Holt” is one of the many nom de plumes of Eleanor Hibbert and that her most popular books were written under the names Jean Plaidy and Phillippa Carr. I loved all those books as well. []
  6. Yes, all of them. Even the much neglected Anne. Well, okay, not Branwell. AT ALL. But then he didn’t write any books, did he? I love all the books by Brontes. []
  7. I worship Shirley Jackson, actually. []

Last Day of 2011 (Updated)

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2012. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.)

This was not a fabulous year for me but it was a whole lot worse for so many other people around the world that whingeing would be tacky. I’ll focus on the good:

Finally, finally, finally we were able to announce, Sarah Rees Brennan and I, that we wrote a book together, Team Human, which is all about how having your best friend fall in love with a vampire SUCKS.1 We had to keep that secret for well over a year and it nearly killed us. It comes out in July in Australia (with Allen & Unwin) and in the United States of America (with Harper Collins). Oh, and it’s totally a real book and not a hoax despite what that lying minx Maureen Johnson says. See, actual real people have read it!

Sarah Rees Brennan has been crazy busy. Not only did she write a book with me but she also sold a whole new trilogy. The first book, Unspoken, will be out in September 2012. (Yes, she has two books out within three months of each other. Yes, she has superpowers.)

It’s SRB’s best book so far. I loved her Demon trilogy2 but Unspoken is even better. I cannot wait for more people to read it so we can all talk about the fantastic things she does with all those delicious Gothic tropes. Seriously, it’s wonderful and I’m convinced that SRB is going to start a Gothic revival.3 In fact, SRB’s made me want to write my own Gothic, which obviously I will have to dedicate to her. It will have an insane house that . . . oh, actually, I think Shirley Jackson wrote that book. Hmmm. I guess I should update that list of writing goals to include Gothic.

Books out this year

There were no new books by me in 2011. It was the first time since 2005 that I went book-less. Turns out I am no longer capable of a book a year. And to think I once attempted two books a year. It is to laugh! From now on it’s more likely to be a book every five years. Maybe.

Books out in 2012 and 2013

Well, except that I will have a book a year for the next two years: Team Human and Team Human: The Sequel of Awesomeness.

Thank you, SRB, for being the best and hardest working and paitentest collaborator a writer could hope for. Without you it would have been an eighteen year gap between my last book, Zombies versus Unicorns in 2010—another collaborative book—you do all see how my lovely writer friends are saving my career, right? Thank you, Holly Black—and my next solo book in 2028.4

RSI

Often after a new post from me I get a few people saying, “OMG! You’re writing again! You’re all cured! That’s awesome!”

To which, thanks! It’s really lovely to know that my online jibberings have been missed. But, sadly, no, I am not cured. Still with the RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Alas and alack. I’m pretty much where I was when I wrote about it a year ago.

What I’m doing is managing the RSI. Figuring out how to get the maximum amount of writing done with the minimum amount of pain, which involves a lot of time and money. I swear I practically have my own staff: physiotherapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, masseur, trainer, pilates instructor.5

I am extremely grateful to all of them while also resentful of the time it takes to buy me a few hours of writing. It does get me down. On the days when I don’t type I have virtually no pain at all. On the days I do type, even if only for a short while, there’s pain. For some strange reason feedback like that is more conducive to lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself than it is to writing.6

Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely fortunate. There are plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money to be able to deal with the ailments that are making their life hellish. Whose ailments are far worse than mine, whose symptoms cannot be managed. I know writers who write with multiple sclerosis, while recovering from strokes, with serious heart conditions, with cancer and so forth.

There are people out there getting all sorts of amazing things done despite the most horrendous obstacles in their way. I admire each and every one of them.

Other Things I am Asked About

Q: How’s your 1930s book going?

A: I am still at work on my 1930s novel. Slowly but surely. I even read a small section of it at the lovely Sirens conference I attended this year. The reception was most pleasing. If you ever have an opportunity to go to Sirens—Do. A smarter, more interesting crowd of readers and writers does not exist.

But, no, the 1930s novel is not any closer to being finished. Best, really to forget I ever mentioned it. Instead watch the wonderful new US tv show SRB said I had to see: Revenge. The heroine is a wicked Nancy Drew, who’s in the Hamptons to revenge her unjustly imprisioned father and she has ninja super powers and the people she gets revenge on are, like, hedge fund managers. I love her so much!

Q: How’s your garden?

A: My garden is doing great. Thanks!

Well, there was the small matter of the accidental drought when the battery went on the irrigation system. But most of the plants survived. It was kind of amazing. All the native violets laid down and died and then the second they felt sweet, sweet water they sprang up and were green and flowering again. Life, I tell you, it’s a miracle.

Those few plants that died I replaced with passionfruit. Because, well, yum. Also it turns out that passionfruit are like triffids. They move when you’re not looking and grow REALLY fast. Though, so far they have not attempted to eat me.

And the drought made my poor freaked out where-has-all-the-water-gone Tahitian lime tree fruit for the first time. Fruit! On a tree! In my garden! Um, yes, I am excited.

And I am starting to win my battle against the slugs. Apparently, they love corn meal. EVEN THOUGH IT KILLS THEM. Mwahahahahah!:

What? They totally deserve it. They were killing my basil and my poor benighted flowering eucalyptus! I have to KILL THEM ALL. NO OTHER PUNISHMENT IS ENOUGH. And, no, I’m not channelling Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge because she would think that merely ruining the slugs was sufficient. SHE WOULD BE WRONG. THEY MUST ALL DIE.7

Slugs and accidental droughts aside, my garden is one of the great pleasures in my life. We use the herbs daily. Currently, thyme, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, majoram, oregano, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. There are native bees and rainbow lorikeets sipping from our grevillea flowers. It looks and smells amazing. Every time I get stuck I walk out there breathe deep, kill a few caterpillars, smell a few flowers, chew on some mint and everything is just fine.

Happy new year, everyone! Here’s hoping 2012 will be what you want it to be.

Update: I forgot to put my usual disclaimer at the bottom of this post, which led a few folks to write and suggest I use voice recognition software. So here it is:

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

  1. Pardon the truly terrible pun. []
  2. Because, well, Sin and Mae and Jamie and Nick. And SRB even got me to start liking Allan by the end of the final book. []
  3. Yes, that was another bad pun. []
  4. Which is when the next total eclipse that can be viewed from Australia takes place. Clearly, it will be the best year ever. []
  5. I will say this: Damn, am I fit! []
  6. Crap. I said I wasn’t going to whinge. Sorry! []
  7. Also, Emily/Amanda is way too classy TO SHOUT IN ALL CAPS. []

Seven Years of Freelancery + CBCA Shortlisting + Debut Novel

NOTE: I am in Sydney, Australia where it is already April Fool’s Day. However, my blog is set to NYC time cause I was too lazy to change it.

- – -

April Fool’s is the day I began my career as a full-time freelance writer. Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the completely insane plunge. The first year did not go well, but since then it’s mostly worked out great. I’ve been very lucky indeed.

For my own benefit some stats:

    Books sold: 81
    Books published: 72
    Countries books have been sold in: 153
    Countries said books have been written in: 64
    Published words: 400,000 (Guestimate.)
    Books written but not sold: 25
    Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
    Ideas collected: 2,372,456 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)

This week, as if in celebration of my seven years of freelancery, I discovered that Liar has been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2010 Book of the Year. I fell over I was so shocked.

Let me explain: For those of you who did not grow up in Australia, the CBCA awards are the most prestigious and longest established awards for young readers in Australia. USians: think Newbery. As a kid I would read the award winners and most of the shortlisted books every year. When I was nine I wrote a letter to the editor I was so indignant that the latest Patricia Wrightson6 book had not been considered for a CBCA because the judges decided that it was too old.7 Nine year old me’s head would have exploded to learn that one day something I wrote was going to be shortlisted for a CBCA. Frankly, the me of 2010′s head is not exactly in one piece having learned the news.

*Heh hem*

Congrats to everyone else on the shortlists and to the notables as well, which include my partner in crime, Scott Westerfeld8 and many, many, many other wonderful writers.

Today is also the day Karen Healey‘s first novel, Guardian of the Dead is published in Australia, New Zealand and the US of A. Set in New Zealand, NOT AUSTRALIA AS SO MANY MISGUIDED USIAN REVIEWERS SEEM TO THINK,9 Guardian is one of the most original and unputdownable novel debuts I’ve read in ages. In fact, I was just discussing how cool it is with Melina Marchetta. How could you not buy a book that Melina Marchetta is recommending? I’m not going to tell you anything more about the book except that you should all run out and grab a copy. RIGHT NOW. OR I’LL JUST KEEP SHOUTING AT YOU. AND NO ONE WANTS TO BE SHOUTED AT.

That’s all. Happy April Fool’s day! Don’t believe a word anyone tells you today.

  1. One non-fiction tome, two anthologies, five young adult novels. []
  2. 8 in September []
  3. Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA. []
  4. Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA. []
  5. One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER. []
  6. Who was my favourite writer in the entire world and died recently. A sad day for Australian letters. []
  7. This was before an older reader’s award was created. []
  8. For those wondering how Scott is eligible he is an Australian resident. Most Australian literary awards are open to residents as well as citizens. []
  9. Newsflash: they are not the same place and have very different histories. []

Writer as Career v Writer as Identity

Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:

Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naïve.

There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).

That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”

I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.

If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.

Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.

Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.

That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.

If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.

You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.

All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.

  1. Hello, HSC year. []

How to Get Published? Don’t Ask Me

There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2

Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?

Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.

So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.

Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.

That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.

I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.

I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and brand new YA authors and from those on the verge of being published.

  1. Before you yell at me for this statement you should know that I spent twenty years trying to break into mainstream publishing. I know how it feels. Also very few of those unpublished writers are bitter about it and decide that the big publishers are evil. Most suck it up and keep trying. []
  2. No, the way to break into YA is not to publish short stories first. That may apply to science fiction (though not nearly as much as it used to) but there is no YA short story market except for anthologies that you don’t get invited to submit to you unless you’re already published. I got my first anthology invitation after having three novels published. []

Guest Post: David Levithan on Why He Writes

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.

David Levithan’s a writer, an editor, and class president of the NYC YA scene. He got the YA drinks night going and the NYC YA Lit Festival. He does not sleep and must be at least part cyborg. (Or there’s more than one of him, which his interview of himself below strongly implies.) This post came at just the right time for me because it’s all about loving writing. I confess that right now I am head over heels in love with writing so his interview with himself made me smile and go “awww” and nod in recognition (and be really glad that I was enjoying summer in Sydney, not enduring smelly winter in NYC).1

- – -

David Levithan writes books by himself, writes books with other people, and edits books written by other people. His latest book is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written with John Green, which will be out in April in the US and in May in Australia and New Zealand. You might be able to find him on facebook.

The two Davids say:

Q: Why do you write?

A: I write because I am in love with life. Or I write because I want to be in love with life. I think it’s always one of the two.

Q: What do you mean?

A: It’s nearing the end of a long winter. I don’t mind snow, but I’m tired of boots. I don’t mind cold, but I’m tired of the way we can’t talk about anything else. I feel the desire to retreat becoming more pronounced. But at the same time, I recognize that when I do retreat, when I do hole up in my home, I do so because I want to reconnect with the most elemental parts of my life. Writing is like that, too. You escape life to discover life again. And I can’t help but love that. Or be in love with that.

Q: You often write love stories. Conventional love stories. Two people falling in love. Why?

A: I think I write about that – a lot – because loving another person is a manifestation of loving life, or being in love with life.

Q: You keep talking about being in love with life . . .

A: It’s like synesthesia, without the wires crossed. Instead of seeing red when you hear a note of music, when you see red you really see the red, and when you hear a note of music, you really hear the note of music. I guess I truly believe the world is made of marvels. Horrible things, too. Awful things. But mostly marvels. And I rely on writing to help me capture them in some way. For myself and for others. Other people find their marvels in science, or math, or other arts. I understand that. But for me, the words get me closest to the true experience of life.

Q: You sound too happy.

A: I used to worry that you had to be in pain to be a great writer. I’ve gotten over that.

Q: But doesn’t a writer need to have an edge of despair?

A: That’s the popular conception. I’m getting over that too. It can certainly be there. But I don’t think it’s required.

Q: Why do you write?

A: I enjoy these words. I enjoy the sensation of sitting at this laptop and seeing which words float to the top from the depth where all possible words are kept. I think it’s strange that we rarely talk about this enjoyment, perhaps because we’re in awe of it, or perhaps because we feel to be a good warrior, you need to go through the wars and have the scars to prove it.

Q: You never write out of anger? Hate? Fury?

A: Of course I do. But it’s only because I believe in the right things that I can write about the wrong.

Q: Do you worry that words are losing their meaning?

A: In what way?

Q: Does technology devalue words, detach them from the marvels?

A: No. Well crafted phrases still show a love for life.

Q: For example?

A: I had cereal for dinner. It’s hard to imagine a more banal sentence. But if you can attach the sentence to its sensations, it will make you more in love with life. Tonight, I had cereal for dinner. It made me feel like an adult, but on childish terms. I walked around my apartment with the bowl in my hand, felt the cereal crunch in my teeth, drank the leftover milk when the cereal was gone. As I did, a trickle ran down my chin. I felt I was seven years old and thirty-seven years old at the same time. All of which is contained in the sentence, I had cereal for dinner.

Q: Why do you write?

A: Because I love that life is a puzzle and we only have a small chance to figure it out. Because it’s memory. Because I can make things exist that don’t exist, and I can also choose to show things as they exist.

Q: What do you want people to know?

A: That it’s okay to openly love writing, even when it’s hard. That it’s okay to be in love with life, even when it’s hard. That there is no reason to anything, and thus you find your own reasons. I never get a chance to talk about how much I love what I do. I really love what I do.

  1. What? I get to gloat! []

Guest Post: Lauren McLaughlin on Babies & Novels

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 blogger, Lauren McLaughlin, is a crazy talented YA writer, who has one of the more unusual backgrounds of all the YA novelists I know. She used to be a Hollywood producer. This means that she has more confidence than anyone else I know and is extraordinarily good at saying “no” and meaning it. She is also one of the most focussed and driven people I’ve known. I am all admiration and awe.

- – -

Lauren McLaughlin is the author of Cycler and (Re)Cycler, both YA novels about a teenage girl who turns into a boy for four days each month. She can be found all over the internet, but tends to materialize most frequently at her blog and
on Twitter. She strongly encourages people to read things for free whenever possible and has thusly provided the first three chapters of Cycler as a free download here.

Lauren says:

Greetings Larbalestians!

The wise and wonderful Justine herself has invited me to occupy some air time on her blog, which I am only too thrilled to do, being a friend, as well as a fan.

I’m still fairly new to the world of publishing, having only published my second novel, (Re)Cycler, in the fall of 2009. But I’m even newer at being a mother, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what it’s like to be a rookie at these two endeavours.

Novels and babies can both be challenging, but if I had to crown one the Supreme High-Maintenance Pain In The Butt, I’d have to go with the novel. Babies spend the first three months in a semi-vegetative state and have no problem whatsoever about informing you, quite loudly, when they’re in need of something. Novels, on the other hand, never inform you of anything, but rather sit there dumbly while you work your tail off. And only after you’ve invested a week/month/year/lifetime in their progress do they casually scream that you’ve COMPLETELY FAILED AND HAVE TO START OVER!

You can’t start over with babies. They have to adjust.

Also, novels never look up at you in blind dumbstruck love then grab a fistful of your hair and suck it while nuzzling into your shoulder. (I know, it sounds gross. Trust me, it’s transporting.)

Because of deadline pressure, I had to work through the first four months of my daughter’s life. It was difficult at times, squeezing in writing sessions between the frequent feedings and changings, but luckily my husband was around to pick up the slack. And when I turned in that final draft, I took two whole months off, something I’d never done before. In fact, I’d never had more than two weeks in a row off in my life.

It was strange indeed to face each day without a gaping blank page staring back at me. The only thing staring back now was my daughter. And without the pressing need to squeeze four hours of writing into each day, life seemed to open up for us. I could truly focus on her and enjoy our time together without ever feeling crunched.

Alas, after two blissful months of full-time motherhood, my editor delivered her rewrite notes and it was time to be a writer again. But something had changed. My novel was a futuristic story about teenagers and surveillance, and all of a sudden I realized I wasn’t just writing about the future. I was writing about my daughter’s future. My editor, brutal genius that she is, had already done a bang up job of pointing out all the little ways I had failed. And now, I found myself adding to the list. The novel lacked seriousness. It lacked a clean persuasive connection to the current state of affairs. And worst of all, it lacked color. Everyone in it was white.

But my daughter is not. My daughter is mixed race. What kind of a literary heritage was I creating for her if I kept situating my novels in the thinly fictionalized version of the all-white New England suburb where I grew up? The world had changed. Even that suburb had changed. When I was there, it was all Stacy’s, Kristin’s, Jonathan’s, and Patrick’s. But now it was sprinkled with Rojit’s, Jayla’s, Shinya’s and Yuri’s. I had to stop being so lazy. I had to open my eyes. I had to learn how to write my daughter into my fiction.

I had tried this in the past. Tried and failed, unfortunately. In an early draft of (Re)Cycler, one of the main characters spent four months as a thirty-five year-old African American woman before I realized that, although she was a fantastic character, she was in the wrong novel. I give myself no extra credit for the try, incidentally. Both Cycler and (Re)Cycler are overwhelmingly white.

But my next novel will not be. The main character is mixed race. And I have a feeling my days of setting novels in the white-washed suburb of my past are over. Of course, I’m only at the beginning of this journey and I expect plenty of bumps along the way, but I’m committed to it nevertheless. I could have made this commitment at any time, of course. Perhaps I needed the confidence of completing two novels within my teenage comfort zone first. Perhaps, I needed to read other writers’ attempts at writing outside their race. Or maybe all it took was for my daughter to look up at me, a chunk of my hair in her tiny fist, then smile at me with that blind dumbstruck love.

Guest Post: Varian Johnson on Battling Time Suck

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.

Varian Johnson is not only a wonderful writer—you must read My Life as a Rhombus—he’s also an engineer who builds bridges. Real ones that you can walk or drive on. Why, yes, I am very impressed. Varian’s yet another writer who has a job in a completely unrelated field and still finds time to write novels. I begin to suspect that the one can be very inspiring for the other.1 Though writing at 5AM? Eeek.

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Varian Johnson is the author of My Life as a Rhombus and the forthcoming Saving Maddie. He’s a fairly lazy blogger, though you can find him on Twitter quite a bit. He is also active with The Brown Bookshelf, which he strongly suggests you check out as soon as you finish reading this post.

Varian says:

When Justine asked me to write something for her blog, I immediately said, “Yes.”

Then I said, “What the hell am I thinking? I don’t have time to write a post.”

After spending an hour or so thinking about how I didn’t have time to write a post, I decided to write about exactly that. Making time out of no time. Time management.

Because, Lord knows I’ve dealt with my share of time management issues. For all practical purposes, I have three “jobs”, all of which I’m juggling with varying degrees of success. Among other things:

1. I’m trying to write a new novel (due to my editor in seven months, which may seem like a long time, but as this is the first uncompleted novel I’ve sold, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time completely freaking out).

2. I’m teaching a course on Children’s Literature at a small liberal arts university. (Love the students, love the teaching, but the grading . . . grrr. I’d rather eat Lucky Charms.)


Lucky Charms

3. And I happen to also design bridges. (And “bridges” isn’t a metaphor—I mean honest to goodness, concrete and steel structures, like this.)

Of course, I haven’t listed all the other writing-related things I do—promotion for the new book (which hits stores in March—eek!!!), author events, tax stuff, etc. And I have a lovely, beautiful wife that I actually like to see every now and then, and a lawn to maintain, and—well, you get the picture. I have a lot going on.

So, clearly, I should know a few things about time management. Except I don’t. I mean, I have a few tricks that work from time to time, but in general, I often fiddle with my schedule, trying to tweak it just enough so I can make it through the next book without a nervous breakdown / heart attack / dismemberment by axe-wielding wife.

For what it’s worth, this is what I try to do:

SET UP OFFICE HOURS: I write—or at least attempt to write—every morning, at the ungodly hour of 5:00, when I’m the freshest. I type away a bit on my manuscript, answer a few emails, send a few twitter messages, and down a gallon or so of coffee. From 8:00 to 10:00 that night, I wash, rinse, repeat. Ditto for Saturday and Sunday mornings. It’s a bit painful, but it works. And slowly but surely, I chop away at my novel.

Of course, there are times when I have to miss office hours, but I really try to plan this in advance, so I can still get my core hours in. So, if Mrs. V wants me to spend ALL DAY SATURDAY looking for the perfect shade of (overpriced) granite for our kitchen, I’ll do this, as long as I get those hours back on Sunday.

And here’s the other thing with office hours—you have to be heartless when it comes to distractions. If the phone rings, don’t answer it. If the spouse knocks on the door, promising chocolate and ice cream, don’t open it. If you hear little Johnny attacking little Kevin with a baseball ball, well, let them go at it, and consider it a life lesson (and really, little Kevin will be just fine with one kidney).

When it comes to protecting your writing time, you have to be cold. Heartless. Merciless. Ruthless. Remember, you’re not Fredo Corleone. You’re Michael. 


SET UP REALISTIC GOALS: I used to think I was the type of author that could crank out 20,000 words a month. Ha! If I get 30 decent pages written, I’m usually ahead of the game.

TURN OFF THE INTERNET: I find Twitter, Facebook, and blogging an important part of being a published author. But when I find myself spending more time on Wikipedia than on my manuscript, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my laptop. And when that doesn’t work, I unplug the router.

DON’T GET JEALOUS OF OTHER AUTHORS: Everyone’s situation is different. Some authors make enough money from their books or have a home situation which enables them to write full-time. Some don’t. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point in pouting about it, because I’ve tried that, and believe me, that crap doesn’t fly with Mrs. V. All you can do is figure out what works for you, and do it.

FIND A WRITING COMMUNITY: You can’t stay holed up in your writing cave forever. You eventually have to come out, bath, and interact with the real world. When you do, it’s helpful to hang with other people that feel your pain. I consider my critique group meetings like a form of group therapy, where we spend the first hour or so either celebrating successes or talking about how screwed up this industry is. Plus we drink a lot of wine and eat chocolate.

MAKE TIME HOWEVER YOU CAN: In order to stick around in this business, you have to really want to do it. You have to want to write more than you want to play Wii Sports, more than you want to sleep, more than you want to hang out with your friends as you watch Matthew McConaughey movies.

It’s lonely. And a lot of times it sucks. But sometimes . . . it doesn’t suck. And sometimes it’s even fun. And if you work hard enough, and maybe with a bit of luck, you’ll finish a manuscript or two or three.

Again, this is what works for me. I’d love to hear if anyone else has any ideas.

  1. At some point in the future I will write a whole post about it. []

Guest Post: Karen Healey is Waiting for the Miracle

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 is debut author, Karen Healey, whose first book is coming out quite soon, I believe. She may mention it in her post below. Possibly. She’s a busy woman. She’s prolly not paying much attention to things like that. I can tell you that her debut novel, Guardian of the Dead is a corker. I read it all in one big gobble. Grab a copy soon as you can. Be kind to her in the comments—debut authors are a bit nuts, er, I mean sensitive.

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Karen Healey is a New Zealander living in Australia and writing a dissertation on American superhero comics. Her diet comprises apples, chocolate brownies, Diet Coke, and novels about teenagers doing awesome things. Her first novel, Guardian of the Dead, is a YA urban fantasy set in New Zealand and deeply influenced by Māori mythology. It will be out on April 1st in Australia, New Zealand and the USA, and is available for pre-order now. She has heard all the jokes about that date.

Waiting for the Miracle

I have never possessed anything remotely resembling patience, and at the time of writing, my first novel will debut in 48 days.

This is not a good combination.

I’ve never been good at waiting. I was that kid who went to bed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, in the hope that the time between now and Santa would disappear in sleep. I was then the kid who got up at five and proudly showed my parents the results of Santa’s generosity.

Now I am a supposedly adult woman, and sometimes it feels like I have spent all the time in between those Christmases and this day waiting, for things both good and bad. Waiting in airports for delayed planes that will take me to dear friends. Waiting in dentist’s offices for the pleasure of getting holes drilled into my teeth.

Waiting is far from the worst thing in the world, but I cannot stand it. I am prone to jumping off trams in heavy traffic, though even a momentarily stalled tram will get me to my destination faster, because I long for the illusion of moving, going somewhere, getting closer.

My Year Thirteen1 English teacher carefully explained that the final words of The Great Gatsby are supposed to be a poignant underscore of the tragic impossibility of the American dream.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Sad! Tragic! Pointless!

WHATEVER, seventeen-year-old me thought. Sure, futile effort, impossible dream, but at least they’re taking action. They’re not just sitting in the stupid boat!

Now I’m sitting in the boat. And the boat is actually going forward, carrying me on to publication and beyond, but I can’t affect its pace. Nope, the current is going at its own sweet speed, and not even diving in and swimming is going to get me any closer, any faster.

Not that I don’t try to find the illusion of action.

SCENE: A motel living room, in a small New Zealand town. All is dark and silent. OUR HEROINE, whose brother is to be wed in a few days, creeps in and furtively opens a black laptop. She stares into the blue-white glow of the screen, tapping a few practiced phrases, switching between tabs.

OUR HEROINE’S FATHER wanders in with an empty glass in his hand, and recoils at the ghostly sight.

FATHER: What are you doing?
HEROINE: I’m checking icerocket.
FATHER: What?
HEROINE: Someone might be saying something about my book! Hm. No. Well, maybe technorati . . .
FATHER: Do you do this often?
HEROINE: Oh, ha ha ha, goodness no! That would be the act of a dangerously obsessed and insanely impatient person!
FATHER: Well, yeah.
HEROINE: YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. NO ONE UNDERSTANDS. DO YOU SEE MY PULSE FLUTTER IN MY THROAT? SIR, I MAY SWOON AT YOUR SHOCKING LACK OF SENSIBILITY. OH, WOE, WOE, ROSEMARY AND RUE.
FATHER: I’m going to put the cricket on. Can you keep the impassioned writhing to a minimum?

But even my most impassioned writhing doesn’t bring the publication date a minute sooner! In this strained time, I like to think about the words of the poet John Burroughs:

Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
I rave no more ‘gainst time or fate,
For lo! my own shall come to me.

Specifically, I like to speculate on what he might have been on, and to wonder I could get my hands on any. Serene waiting? Uncaring waiting? Waiting without raving? Impossible! I think the poem’s narrator is dead, which might be a clue—I imagine that if I ever find waiting easy, it’ll be then—but that doesn’t help me now.

How about you, Justine’s readers? How do you handle waiting for things? Do you also rave against time and fate, and specifically time for moving so damn slow, or are you calm, serene hand-folders? And if you’re the latter, can you teach me how?

In the meantime, I might have to go with the classics. I’m going to go home, change my sheets, fluff up my pillows, and curl up with my teddy bear for 48 days, until I get something better than Santa could ever bring me.

It’ll be worth it.

I just wish I didn’t have to wait.

  1. The final year of high school in New Zealand. []

What Novel I Wrote Next

Searching for something else entirely, I stumbled across this old post from March 2007 where I asked my faithful readers to help me choose what to write next. I decided it would be fun to do an update. Fun for me, anyways.1

First on the list of possibilities is this one:

The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.

Sound familiar? Why, yes, it’s the book I wrote next: Liar which published in September this year. As it happens it involved no outlining at all. But I was right it was hard. Much harder than I knew at the time. It also generated more excitement than I anticipated.

The other now completed item on the list was this one:

Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!

The story was “Thinner than Water”, which was published in 2008 in Love is Hell. You can find a bit more about the story here. Even if I do say so myself it is an actual good story. I’m proud of it. But it was many years work and I think I’ll be sticking to novels from here on out.

I don’t know why the 1930s book isn’t on that list. I was already thinking about writing it in October 2006. Though the specifics didn’t come together until a fortuitous conversation with Cassie Clare in 2007. (Thank you, Cassie!)

The other idea on that list I’ve made a substantial start on is this one:

Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight years old) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.

I have, in fact, recently resumed work on it. Though as I am at work on many other things that does not mean the lodger novel will be finished any time soon.

Actually none of the other things I’m working on is included on that list. Mostly because I hadn’t thought of them way back then. Which just goes to show you that ideas really are a dime a dozen. Why, I just got a new one yesterday that I’m valiantly struggling against given that I already have four novels on the go. Five would be too many.

It was lovely looking at that list from almost two years ago and realising that in the intervening time I’d written two of them. Novels take ages and for me short stories take even longer. It will be many years before I write all those books. If, indeed, I write them at all. Most likely I’ll forgot about them and move on to other shinier ideas.

Because it’s not about the ideas, it’s about what you do with them. My barely sketched out idea of Liar from early 2007 does not invoke the completed book. There’s no mention of murder, no sense of what Micah is like, and no hint of why she lies. The book you write is never a perfect match with the imaginary book that was in your head before you began.

And now I must go and do some of that writing thing. Hmm, lodger novel? 1930s? Or that shiny new idea from yesterday . . . ?

  1. Hey, it’s the holidays no one’s reading this right now. []

Writing Goals Redux (updated)

A while ago I posted about my writing goals. I updated it a year ago with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy. But now I have published Liar which is in a whole new genre and allows me to cross even more off my lists.

My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize. Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something I can control, but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are about. Simple, really.

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller)
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Mainstream or litfic (you know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis)
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA

The publication of Liar allows me to knock three genres off that list. Though cheatingly I only just added one of them—problem novel. What? It’s my list! I can add to it if I want whenever I want. I could have added unreliable narrator and pretended it was a genre, too, you know. But I didn’t.

All I have left is western, historical and litfic. I’m writing an historical right now. The western is still aways off but will definitely happen. I also have a couple of ghost stories in mind so horror will also get knocked off. I don’t think I’ll ever manage litfic. Unless you think I can claim Liar as litfic? If more than one of you says I can then I’m crossing it off.

Update:
More than one of you said I could cross of litfic. Thus it is now crossed off. I love collusion.

I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Omniscient

Why, yes, Liar does allow me to cross off another one: second person. Go, me! And the 1930s novel makes much use of omniscient. I will conquer the entire list! W00t!

And the last list:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series

Which sadly remains unaltered because Liar is a standalone. But I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying.

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?

What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Why do so many people have an obsession with how old people are when they make art?

Hmmm. I think that sentence demands a bit more context. I keep seeing comments like, “OMG, Buffy is amazing and Joss Whedon was only in his early 30s when he first created it.” Or Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most influential French poets ever and he quit writing when he was 19!”

There must be something wrong with me cause I think, “So what?”

Either the art is good or it isn’t. Who cares how old the person was who created it? Doesn’t make it any better.

Not to mention that there’s an argument that the only reason people are still talking about Arthur Rimbaud is because he wrote all his poetry before he was nineteen. According to this argument his work was amazing for a teenager and that’s the only reason we remember him today. Well, that, and his truly crazy life, which makes for astonishingly entertaining biographies.1 And the fact that his lover, Paul Verlaine, was a one-man publicity campaign, who would not shut up about Rimbaud’s supposed genius.

*Heh hem* I digress. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer amazing because Joss Whedon was only in his early thirties2 when he started working on it or is it amazing because it’s amazing?3 I say it’s simply amazing and Whedon’s age is irrelevant.4

If a book or a poem or a movie or a computer game or a painting or whatever blows you away why does it matter how old the person was when they made it?5 If they were 62 does it stop being amazing? How about 72? If they were only 20 does that make it more amazing? Why? Explain to me cause I don’t get it.

Some people write their best work when they’re young. Some when they’re old. Some when they’re middle aged. Some are pretty consistent throughout their career. Some, like Georgette Heyer, have mixed careers, dotted with marvellous and indifferent work throughout. No matter how old you are you can only do the best you can at that moment in time. Not to mention that no matter how old you are, what you think is your best work, others may think is your worst.6

I think what bothers me about this constant, “OMG this book is amazing! And the author was only 12!” is that it undercuts the idea that those of us who make a living writing (or creating other art) work really hard at and strive to improve. It feed into the myth of genius, of someone just producing great work full blown out of no where, without an apprenticeship, without any hard yakka, or learning, or improving. I happen not to believe in genius. I don’t believe art comes out of nowhere.

I do, however, understand the feeling of panic when you realise that, say, Georgette Heyer’s first novel was published when she was a teenager. By the time she was fifty years old she’d published close to 40 novels. Many of my favourite writers have prodigious and enviable outputs. Patricia Highsmith for one. I still haven’t read all her novels and short stories. Diana Wynne Jones has also published an astonishing number of wonderful books and they keep coming. Yay! On the other hand, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter have a relatively small volume of work. All of which I treasure and clutch to my chest. My favourite Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published when she was in her seventies. If I can write half so well when I’m in my seventies, well, I’ll be very happy indeed.

I do envy writers like Wynne Jones and Heyer. I’ve published five novels, but my odds of writing another thirty-five before I turn fifty are, well, forget about it. Or even before I’m seventy. I’m not a super fast writer. I was able to keep up the one-novel-a-year pace for five years and in those years I was trying to write two a year. But next year there’ll be no new novel from me. I doubt I’ll ever write as fast as one a year again. But I have just as many ideas as I ever did. Sometimes I freak out realising that I may not live to write them all.7

But never for very long. Because, honestly, there are other things I’m more worried about not doing before I die. Like spending enough time with the people I love. Doing as much good as I can. Watching my friends’ children grow up. Eating more mangosteens. Stuff like that.

  1. I recommend the Edmund Wilson one. No, I haven’t read it. But, hey, Edmund Wilson. []
  2. And when did accomplishing something in your early thirties make you a prodigy? Please. []
  3. Except for those of who don’t think it was amazing. []
  4. Except for all of season seven, and too much of seasons four, five and six, which are the opposite of amazing. []
  5. For the purposes of this rant, I’m ignoring the fact that many works of art are not created by a single person—Whedon did not make Buffy alone—especially not movies or television or computer games. []
  6. I think the best novel I’ve written is the first novel I wrote. It’s unpublished. []
  7. You know when I’m not freaking out about this world I live in melting into the sea. []

Why I Love Strange Horizons

Since everyone else is professing their love for Strange Horizons and urging folks to support their fund raising efforts I thought that I would jump on the band wagon. What can I say? I’m a sheep.

Like Scalzi and Nora, my first fiction sale was to Strange Horizons way back in 2001. At the time I had been trying to sell one of my short stories for just about a gazillion years. I thought it would never happen. So I would love them for that alone. But that is not even close to the best thing about Strange Horizons I love it and read it because it is a breath of fresh air in the stale and fusty world of adult genre. N. K. Jemisin puts it this way:

I love the speculative fiction genre, but it’s sick.1 Not dying—that’s crap—but not healthy either. The problem is societal, but because SF is the genre of society’s idealism, the symptoms of the sickness tend to be more visible here than in mainstream fiction. The cure for this sickness is, IMO, for the genre to take some collective purgative and restorative measures, like jettisoning old business models that don’t work and old attitudes that are actively harmful, and try something new.

SH represents this newness. They’re a new-paradigm speculative fiction market in every sense of the word: online not print; nonprofit not commercial; collaborative and not One Single Editor’s vision; weekly not monthly/quarterly/whenever the people involved get around to it. They actively seek out voices within the SF community that don’t get heard enough, whether those voices be newbies or PoC or writers from non-Western countries or literary writers or socialists or whatever. The fact that they’ve managed to stick around this long, in an era when SF magazines are dropping like flies, speaks volumes to me about the sustainability of their model. They offer a desired service to the community, ergo they’re still in business. And the fact that their authors (and the magazine itself) keep winning awards speaks to the quality of their work.

This, to me, is what an SF magazine should be and do.

I love Strange Horizons‘ diversity—in all senses of that word. So many adult genre anthos and magazines are the same voices over and over again. I quit reading them. I never know what I’m going to get when I read SH. That goes for the fiction as well as the non-fiction. It really is the best.

Do I think it’s perfect? No. For obvious reasons I wish they did a better job covering the world of Young Adult and children’s as well as manga and graphic novels. However, I’m well aware that they are an entirely volunteer organisation and they can’t do everything and what they do they do better than any other publication out there.

Bless you, Strange Horizons.

  1. I actually don’t think the whole genre is sick. I agree that the adult literary wing of the genre is in trouble. Children’s and YA are doing great, manga and graphic novels ditto. []

Fan v Pro

The discussion in the fanfic post got me thinking about the differences between writing to make a living, as I do, and writing solely for fun.

Many people in that thread talked about how writing fanfic was a learning experience that prepared them for becoming a professional writer. And there’s no doubt that that’s how fanfic has worked for many pros. However, the vast majority of writers of fanfic not only don’t become pros, they have no desire to do so. They write fanfic for a variety of reasons: fun, community, because writing is something they can’t not do and so on—they don’t do it as some kind of apprenticeship for becoming a “real” writer.

I know professional writers who also write fanfiction. So clearly it’s fulfilling a need that their paid writing isn’t. I also do a lot of unpaid writing. You’re reading some of it right now. Often I enjoy writing posts here more than writing novels.

Or, rather, I have a much less stressful relationship to this writing than I do to my novel writing because there’s not much riding on this blog, whereas my ability to pay my rent, buy food, stay in the profession that I love is tied up in the novels I write. Sometimes it takes awhile to push that stuff aside and just write. For me blogging is a relaxation; writing novels is an economic necessity.

Which is not to say that it can’t be fun. It can. I wouldn’t swap my job for any other job in the world. I love it. But it’s still my job and comes with all the stresses that any job has, including anxiety about losing said job.

Not everyone who spends a lot of time writing wants to be a professional writer. Frankly, I think that’s sensible. It’s very hard to make a living as a professional writer. Even if you do manage it’s just as hard to make it a sustainable career. I know lots of writers who’ve been able to support themselves for a year or two or four or ten but then demand for their work dwindle, fashion in the publishing world changes. In the 80s horror was huge, now not so much. YA’s big right now but who knows were it will be in ten years. Romance is pretty much always the biggest selling genre and yet it has the lowest advances. I know of romance writers with multiple bestselling books who only get around 20k per book.

The majority of pro novelists, who are making a living, write a book a year. Many write two or three or four a year. For many writers that’s an impossible pace to sustain and it can suck the fun right out of the writing. There are lots of reasons for not making writing your main profession. Most of the published writers I know are not full-time. Many of them claim to be happier that way.

When writing becomes your full time job it completely changes your relationship to writing. It becomes a business. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to force it when you’re not in the mood. You have to meet deadlines. You have to think about whether there’s a market for what you want to write. You can’t just write whatever you feel like unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a market for what you feel like writing.

In which case you’re probably Nora Roberts. Lucky duck!

Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []

Where to get your work critiqued

Several people have written asking if it’s not kosher to ask pros for help where can they get their work critiqued?

That’s a very good question with many answers.

For most of my years of being unpublished almost no one saw my work.1 Thus I did not improve much. But in the five or so years before publication I started swapping my work with other unpublished writer friends.2 What a difference having a few readers makes!

I was lucky enough to live in big enough cities that finding other beginning writers wasn’t too hard. (Sydney and NYC.) But I know many of you are more isolated than that. Or you’re too shy to admit that you want to be a published writer.3 For you I recommend online critique groups. Personally, I have never tried them because back when I was starting out they didn’t exist. But I know many people who’ve had great experiences with them. The Critters workshop for science fiction & fantasy is one I’ve heard good things about.

Anyone want to share their online critting experiences and/or recommend some good online worshops?

I also know many people whose writing lives have been dramatically changed by going to real life intensive workshops such as Clarion (also for sf & f) which operates in Australia and the US of A. Does anyone have other real life workshops to recommend?

Of course, something like Clarion lasts six weeks and isn’t free. Many people can’t afford that amount of time or money so it’s not going to be possible for everyone. Fortunately most online workshops are free.

And remember that crit groups and workshops don’t work for everyone and that they’re not all created equal. Just as some critique partners will work great for you and others won’t, and that may also vary from story to story.

Please chime in with any other suggestions and recommendations.

Thanks!

  1. For those who don’t know it took me twenty years to get published. []
  2. Here’s the story of how I wrote my first novel thanks to my wonderful critique partner Johanne Knowles. []
  3. It took me years to admit it to any but my closest friends and family. []

Last day of 2008 (updated)

Yup, it’s my annual what-I-did-this-year skiting post. I write these mostly for myself so I can easily keep track. Hence the last day of the year category. Thus you are absolutely free to skip it.1

This year was exceptional. I’m still pinching myself. My first Bloomsbury USA book, How To Ditch Your Fairy, was published and seems to be doing well. I was sent on my first book tour, which was fabulous. It’s insane how much fun I had and how many fabulous schools, book shops and libraries I visited in California, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Thank you to everyone who came to see me while I was on the road. It was a blast getting to meet you all! I loved hearing what fairies you all have!

Now this is going to sound like the acknowledgments page but bear with me cause I thanked my fabulous editor, Melanie Cecka in print, but not the wonderful publicity and sales and marketing folks because, well, I didn’t know them back then. Deb Shapiro is the best and funniest publicist I’ve ever worked with, Beth Eller is a genius of marketing, and all the sales reps who’ve been flogging the fairy book mercilessly across the USA are too fabulous for words. Extra special thanks to Anne Hellman, Kevin Peters, and Melissa Weisberg.

HTDYF also sold (along with the liar book) to Allen & Unwin in Australia. This is a huge deal because it’s the first time I’ve had a multi-book deal in Australia and A&U publishes many of the best writers in Australia, including Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Penni Russon and Lili Wilkinson. My editor and publisher, Jodie Webster, is a joy to work with. So’s Sarah Tran and Erica Wagner and Hilary Reynolds and everyone else on the Alien Onion team. Bless!

Both Bloomsbury and A&U seem even more excited about the liar book than they were about HTDYF. Which is a huge relief to me because, um, it is not the most obvious follow-up to the fairy book. Older, darker, scarier, completely different. Stuff like that. Here’s hoping that not too long into the new year I’ll be sharing the title, the cover, a sneak preview, and other such fabulous things.

The fairy book also sold in Germany to Bertelsmann, who published the Magic or Madness trilogy there and gave it the best covers ever. It was awesome getting to meet the two Suzannes: Krebs and Stark in Bologna. Thank you for believing in my book so strongly that you bought it when it was still in manuscript. I still can’t quite believe it.

Speaking of the trilogy it sold in Indonesia to PT Gramedia and in Korea to Chungeorahm Publishing, which means it’s now published in ten different countries and eight different languages. All of it Whitney Lee’s doing. It’s astonishing to me how well the trilogy is doing more than three years after first publication. Fingers crossed that will continue.

I also had two short stories published. A rarity for me. My last short story was published back in 2004. These two were the first I’d written since then. Short stories are not my thing. They’re so much harder to write than a novel. ““Pashin’ or The Worst Kiss Ever” appeared in First Kiss (Then Tell): A Collection of True Lip-Locked Moments edited by Cylin Busby and was universally declared to be the grossest story ever. “Thinner Than Water” is in Love is Hell edited by Farrin Jacobs. I’m proud of them both for very different reasons. But don’t expect any more. Writing short stories hurt my brain.

Last year I was wise and only aimed to write one novel in 2008. Just as well because that’s all I did this year no stories, no articles, nothing else. I wrote the liar book and began the 1930s book. It’s very clear that I’m a one-book-a-year girl.

I also mentioned in that one-year-ago post that I had three sekrit projects. The first is no longer a secret: the Zombie Versus Unicorn anthology that I’m editing with Holly Black, which marks the first time I’ve edited original fiction. Am I excited? Why, yes, I am. It will be out from Simon & Schuster in 2010 and we’ll be announcing our insanely excellent line up of authors in the new year. Truly, you will die at how great our writers are.

One of the other sekrit projects morphed into a solo project (the 1930s book) and I’m still hoping that the last of the sekrit projects will go ahead some time next year. Here’s looking at you co-conspirator of my last remaining sekrit project! You know who you are.

Next year will be taken up with writing the 1930s book and editing the Zombie v Unicorn antho. The 1930s book is the biggest most ambitious book I’ve tried to write since my very first novel set in ancient Cambodia. I’m loving the researching and writing. Immersing myself in another era is the most fun ever! I think my next ten books will all be set in the 1930s.

My 2009 publications. This is a WAY shorter list than last year:

    Update: Possibly September: paperback of How To Ditch Your Fairy

    September: the liar novel for Bloomsbury USA.

    October: the liar novel for Allen & Unwin.

Yup, just the one two novels from me and one a reprint. Sorry! You should also get hold of Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass when it comes out. It’s the final book of the City of Bones trilogy and the best of the three. I read it in one sitting on my computer.2 Then later in the year there’s Robin Wasserman’s sequel to Skinned. You know you want it! Yet another book I read in one go. Also on my computer. Think how much better it will be between actual covers.

Then there’s the three YA debuts I’ve been talking about by Peterfreund, Rees Brennan and Ryan. If you read no other books in 2009 make sure you read those three. I’m also dying to read the sequel to Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, which was my favourite book of 2007.

Last, but not least, the old man has his first novel in two years, Leviathan, coming out in September. Fully illustrated by the fabulous artist Keith Thompson and better than anything else Scott’s ever written. I’m so proud of him and of this book. You’ll all love it. Seriously, it’s worth the price just for the endpapers!

I travelled way too much this year. Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the UK, France, Canada, all over the USA, and home to Australia. Again. Looks like the same for next year. I have no idea what to do about that. I guess when you try to live in two different countries at the same time that’s the price. Oh, and lots and lots of offsets. We try to be good.

This is where I usually say that I think the coming year’s going to be fabulous. But this year I’m not sure. The economic news back in the United States has been dire. Friends have lost their jobs, their editor, their imprint. It’s scary in publishing right now and it’s even scarier in many other industries. I really hope good governance in the USA will make a difference world wide. But I just don’t know. I had great hopes for the Rudd government and here he is botching the fight against climate change and trying to put up a filter for the internet in Australia. Ridiculous. Surely Obama’s government will not be so stupid.

Here’s hoping 2009 will see a return to sanity all around the world, but especially here in Australia.

Happy new year!

  1. I would if I were you. []
  2. Actually I was lying in bed. Whatever. []

YA book recs for the holidays

Quite a few people lately have been asking me for book recommendations. They want to know what new YA they should be buying for the holidays. Sadly, I am in less of a position to help than usual.

For most of this year I have been solely reading books about (or published during) the 1930s. The only non-1930s books I’ve read have been manuscripts I’ve critiqued for friends. This means I have not read Hunger Games yet. Or the second Octavian Nothing or the National Book Award winner, Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied or Coe Booth’s Kendra which I hear is every bit as good as the wonderful Tyrell. Or anything, really. Nor will I be reading any of these, even though I dearly want to, until I finish the first draft of my thirties book in September.

Thus the only recently pub’d books I can recommend are the ones that I read ahead of time:

    Holly Black Kin. Part one of the best graphic novel ever. Faery and betrayal. Twelve and up.

    Cassandra Clare City of Ashes. Second book in the City trilogy. Sequel to City of Bones. This is the series I recommend to people who are looking for something to read after they finish the Twilight books. And guess who one of their biggest fans is? Stephenie Meyer. There’s love, action, adventure and it’s really funny too. Twelve and up.

    Shannon Hale Rapunzel’s Revenge. Also the best graphic novel ever. A non-wimpy Rapunzel. Hurrah! Twelve and up though I think this one skews in both directions. I think many ten year olds would love it. Adults too.

    Maureen Johnson Suite Scarlett. New York family living in falling apart hotel. Funny, witty, joyful with excellent pratfalls. Spencer may be my fave new character. Twelve and up. But I know many adults who are smitten.

    Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels. Can’t describe it. Beautiful, poetic, ferocious, excellent. Sort of a fairy tale but not. I think I have changed my opinion of bears. Listed as fourteen and up in the US. Personally I agree with Allen & Unwin’s decision to publish it as adult.

    E. Lockhart The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. The best book she’s written and I love all her books. A National Book Award finalist. This book is so amazing that I’m rendered dumb trying to come up with the words to describe its wit, genius, and splendiferousness. Just read it. Twelve and up.

    Lauren McLaughlin Cycler. Gorgeous sex-changing screwball comedy. Fourteen and up.

    Lauren Myracle Bliss. Clever creepy scary excellence. *Shudder* I have not been able to stop thinking about this book. Fourteen and up.

    Robin Wasserman Skinned. My favourite YA science fiction novel of the year. Philosophical and page turner-y at the same time. What does it mean to be human when your body is not your own? And how do you cope with high school when you’ve gone from being Queen Bee to the loseriest loser ever? Twelve and up.

That’s all I got, however, and I know many other fabulous YA books came out this year. So why don’t you tell us about them?

Don’t just give titles. Tell us why you’re recommending them. Don’t recommend mine or Scott’s books. I know about those. If you could also mention what age their publisher thinks they’re suitable for. Many of the people asking for recs are parents.

Thank you!

Deadline: Next Friday

I am currently not answering my phone or text messages, responding to emails or IM invites, or answering the door. All forms of communication are turned off. I am incommunicado until next Friday1 when the rewrites of the Liar book are due.

Rewriting the Liar book is all I am doing right now. It is the beginning and the middle and the end of each day. It doesn’t matter how much I want to play in my brand-new, shiny, shiny 1930s novel, or how much I want to gallivant about town, I’m not allowed.

I will probably still blog. If I don’t blog my head explodes. But I am unlikely to respond to your gorgeous comments. Though I will read and cherish them as I always do. Of course once I’m finished with the rewrites I head to Texas.

Right then, back to the grindstone goes me.

  1. Or, um, possibly next Monday. []

A most excellent day

The sun is shining, the sky is clear, you can see the entire length of the avenue, the Chrysler Building gleams and last night the New York Liberty made it into the conference finals. Let’s go, Liberty! (And San Antonio got through to their conference finals. Oh, how I long for those two to meet in the WNBA finals. That would make my year!)

My editor loves my new book, work is going great on the even newer book—how much fun is it researching NYC in the thirties? VERY FUN—and HTDYF keeps getting lovely reviews. In my world everything is fabulous.1

How about youse lot? I had to shut down the old Good News post on account of evil spam so why not tell me your good news and sources of happiness here instead?

Me, I’m turning the computer off and going out to enjoy the glorious, glorious day!

xo

Justine

  1. *Cough* It helps to not read newspapers or news blogs. []

Preview of How To Ditch Your Fairy (with notes)

Today is the official publication day of How To Ditch Your Fairy in North America. To celebrate I am doing what I did for Magic’s Child: sharing the first sentence of each chapter of HTDYF.

As usual my concern is to protect you, the potential reader of the novel, from unnecessary spoilerage. Because there is nothing worse. NOTHING. Hence there is a small amount of redaction. Trust me, it is for your own good.

Without further ado, behold the How To Ditch Your Fairy first sentences:

1. My [redacted] looked funny in the [redacted], which is odd because my [redacted] are tiny.1

2. I had chocolate and strawberry in a crunchy nut and brioche cone and [Redacted]2 had lemon and lime in the vanilla cone.3

3. I have a parking fairy.4

4. It was such a long walk home that I almost wished I’d accepted the lift with [Redacted].

5. [Redacted: too spoilery]

6. “Just salad?” [Redacted] said, peering at my lunch.5

7. [Redacted] cornered me as I made my way to [redacted].

8. Dad was waiting outside the main gates, sitting on a fire hydrant, sketching.6

9. On Tuesday at first recess, [Redacted] and [Redacted] dragged me out onto the lawn over looking the outdoor [redacted].

10. While I love this school more than anything, there are aspects of it that are less than doos.

11. [Redacted] cemetery is the biggest and oldest in the city.7

12. By the time I got [redacted] the door to [Redacted's] room was closed and no light seeped out.

13. [Redacted] was outside, sitting on my front steps, bouncing coins off the back of his hand as if they were jacks.8

14. [Redacted: too spoilery]

15. By Saturday I had racked up eleven (eleven!) additional [redacteds] , bringing my grand total to seventeen, or it would have except that my ten hours of [redacted] got me down to seven and kept me from getting any more game [redacteds].9

16. Walking through the city even at 8:30AM on a Sunday there were cars everywhere.10

17. [Redacted: too spoilery]

18. [Redacted: too spoilery]

19. [Redacted: too spoilery]

20. [Redacted: too spoilery]

21. [Redacted: too spoilery]

22. [Redacted: too spoilery]

23. [Redacted] came into the library during first recess.11

24. [Redacted: too spoilery]

25. “Well,” I said at last.

26. I put the heavy pile of [redacted] on the floor in front of me and turned the [redacted] [redacted] over, carefully placing it on the floor on top of the [redacted] [redacted].12

27. “Isn’t there a closer bathroom?”13

28. [Redacted: too spoilery]

29. [Redacted: too spoilery]

30. “You look bouncy,” [Redacted] observed.14

31. [Redacted: too spoilery]

32. [Redacted: too spoilery]

33. [Redacted: too spoilery]

34. [Redacted: too spoilery]

35. [Redacted: too spoilery]

36. [Redacted: too spoilery]

37. The [redacted] felt weird and uncomfortable and itchy.

38. [Redacted: too spoilery]

39. [Redacted: too spoilery]

40. It was my first [redacted].

41. [Redacted: too spoilery]

42. [Redacted: too spoilery]

43. [Redacted: too spoilery]

44. [Redacted: too spoilery]

45. The [redacted] [redacted] passed [redacted] like a [redacted], except that [redacted] [redacted] were [redacted], I [redacted] most of it, and my [redacted] were [redacted] to [redacted] [redacted] on.15

  1. You’ll have to read the book to find out what [redacteds] are. Although I worry that it is only too clear from context. []
  2. I don’t know about you but I hate finding out the names of characters ahead of time. So spoilery! []
  3. A Justine Larbalestier novel without food in it? I don’t think so! []
  4. I would have redacted this sentence except that it’s all over the back of the book, is quoted in most reviews, not to mention you being able to read this chapter right here on this website. Sadly, the matter of Charlie’s fairy is no longer a secret. For which you have my apologies. Honestly, if I could spare you from knowing anything about my book before you read it, I would. []
  5. I toyed with redacting this sentence entirely. It is a bit spoilery to know about characters’ eating habits before reading the book. But since this is not exactly a usual choice for her I decided it was okay. And in order to add to its non-spoileriness there are several lies in this footnote. Or are there? []
  6. Knowing that there is a character called “Dad” is only a tiny bit spoilery so I decided not to redact him. I was more worried about the fire hydrant. Pretend you didn’t read that. []
  7. It’s true that “cemetery” is a bit spoilery. If there’s a cemetery then there will be vampires and/or zombies. Or it means this is one of those YA problem novels about dealing with death and grief. But HTDYF isn’t any of those things. I mean I don’t even like zombies! I would never put them in a book. []
  8. You know, the word “redacted” is starting to look really strange. []
  9. Numbers are spoilery, too, aren’t they? I may possibly come back and redact this whole sentence. []
  10. Should probably redact the time and day, too. Pox! Why am I giving so much of my book away? What was I thinking? What’s the point in reading it now?! []
  11. I’m starting to love the word “redacted.” I think that’s going to be the title of my next novel: REDACTED by Redacted Redacted []
  12. “Heavy” is a spoiler, isn’t it? This is such a TRICKY game to play. I despair! []
  13. I figure most eveyone needs to go at some point, right? []
  14. I did debate redacting “bouncy” and “observed”. Those words carry SO MUCH MEANING. []
  15. A big risk I know including the first sentence of the last chapter. Here’s hoping my judicious redaction will keep you spoiler free anyways. []

September is HTDYF month

On 16 September How To Ditch Your Fairy will find its way on to the book shelves of the USA and Canada. I am vastly excited.

Why am I excited? you ask.

I mean, yes, this is my fourth novel. You would think that I’d be jaded and bored with the whole thing by now and yet I am not. Here’s why:

  1. This is my first novel in 18 months. Yes, it’s been a veritable drought!
  2. It’s my first non-Magic or Madness novel. I will confess that by book three I was bored out of my gourd with Reason and Tom and Jay-Tee.1 It was a huge pleasure to write something completely different.
  3. And trust me it really is completely different. For starters it’s funny. Also there are no mathmatical geniuses to hurt this poor writer’s head. There’s lots of sport, even cricket. Not to mention mangosteens and ——s. I know how much you lot love ——s.
  4. Even if you hate sport you will still enjoy it. I road-tested it on several of my sport-hating friends2 and they didn’t even notice the sport. Cunning, aren’t I?
  5. It’s my first novel with my brand new publisher Bloomsbury and they’re sending me on my very first tour. I know! How exciting is that? Vastly! I only have a few dates confirmed so far but will let you all know as soon as I know.

There’s an extract from the book here, also a list of known fairies, and a glossary.

So I don’t seem like a total self-promoting bore let me mention some other books that are out this month.3 Books that are so brilliantly awesome your brains will explode with joy as you read them:

    Kin by Holly Black
    Part one of the best graphic novel ever. Faery and betrayal.

    Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale
    Also the best graphic novel ever. A non-wimpy Rapunzel. Hurrah!

    Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin
    Gorgeous sex-changing screwball comedy.

    Bliss by Lauren Myracle
    Clever creepy scary excellence. *Shudder*

    Skinned by Robin Wasserman
    A different kind of creepy excellence. My favourite YA science fiction novel of the year.

Although these books could not be more different they all have one thing in common: I read them in one sitting. Completely unable to put the book down. Go forth and read!

And while you’re at it check out Scott’s interview with Lauren.

  1. I don’t know how authors of long-running series do it. I think I’d kill myself. []
  2. Of whom I know way to many []
  3. Or just came out. []

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 []

Writing goals

A while back I said that one of my writing goals was to publish a book in every one of the following genres. Here’s the updated list with more genres crossed off cause I done ‘em in How To Ditch Your Fairy:1

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller (the John Grisham, Tom Clancy etc etc genre2
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy (do you call ‘em comedies if they’re books?)
  • Horror
  • Mainstream (you know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis)
  • Western
  • YA

For those keeping track I crossed off “romance”, “comedy” and “SF”. Three down with the one book! How clever am I?

I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Omniscient

Sadly, HTDYF is in first person so nothing to cross off there. Poo. But soon, my pretties, soon.

As well as these:

  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series

Score! HTDYF is a standalone. Now I only have to write a series and that list will be taken care of. Piece of cake.

Crossing things of lists is my favourite thing in the whole world. Almost as good as passing the 65,000 word mark on your latest novel. 65k is a landmark for me because that’s how long my first three published novels are. I passed it today. Woo hoo!

  1. Yes, I know HTDYF isn’t pub’d yet, but, c’mon, it’s only a month away! []
  2. I’m using “genre” and “category” interchangably cause now that I’m no longer an academic—I can. []

Notice anything different around here?

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

My request for the redesign was pretty simple:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying for clarity

A number of people seem to be under the impression that in the previous post I was recommending against MFAs. My post was about undergraduate, not postgraduate study. I made no such recommendation.

As it happens, I know a number of people who’ve found certain MFA programmes extremely useful. The Vermont one, for instance, has been a wonderful experience for several friends of mine. But the vast majority of full-time professional writers do not have MFAs. Nope, I don’t have statistical evidence to back that up, but I’d be very surprised if I was wrong.

My post was in response to teenagers who asked about majoring in creative writing for an undergraduate degree. They seemed to be under the misapprehension that such a degree would automatically lead to a career as a full-time professional writer. It will not.1 Or that it is the best preparation for such a career. It is not.

There are a million different paths to being a writer. Most writers have had (and have) a huge variety of different jobs and studied (if they did at all) a wide variety of subjects. There are as many different experiences and backgrounds as there are writers. And don’t forget the vast majority of published writers are not full-time writers. They have other jobs.

Garth Nix, who confessed to having an undergraduate degree in writing, did not graduate and instantly become a New York Times bestseller. First he worked as a bookseller, an editor, an agent, and, I’m sure, many other things. He read and read and read and wrote and wrote and eventually was published and later still became a New York Times bestseller.

Do I think if you do major in creative writing that you’ve made a dread awful mistake and your life is over? No, of course not. Everything that happens in life is useful to a writer. The good, the bad, the ugly and the boring. I have a friend who swears she learned way more about human nature in a critique circle than she did travelling through Europe and Asia.

If I’m asked the question again will I answer the same way? Sure. I think there are way more useful things to major in as an undergraduate. Something that hones your research skills, for instance.

You can study anything at all, do any kind of job, and still become a writer. All I am saying is that studying creative writing is not a prerequisite to becoming a writer.

  1. I’m sure there’s some exceptions somewhere but they are so rare as to be irrelevant. []

In which I answer a question (Updated)

Lotti asks:

I would be rather happy right now to get a rejection letter. It would at least be a start, because I have never plucked up the courage to go down the publishing road. What inspired you to get published?

The answer to this question is long and requires backstory.

My earliest publications required no courage at all. The first one came when I was nine because my mum sent a poem of mine to the local newspaper. I have mentioned elsewhere that this kind of horrified me because kids at school teased me for many weeks afterwards demanding that I show them how to fly. The poem was called “I can fly”.

But I also loved seeing my name in print and the approbation I got from the teachers. As a kid I was more often in trouble than not so it was a refreshing change.

After that I was published in school magazines and lots of other youth publications. My parents or a teacher would send my stuff in. Or I would be asked for something cause I now had a reputation as the kid who wrote. The pinnacle of my juvenile career was having a poem in a great big hardcover book called Our World by the kids of Australia, which was published for the International Year of the Child.

As you can see when I was first being published I never had to pluck up any courage except to deal with teasing from my peers.1 Thus the transition to me actually sending my own stuff out did not seem like a big deal. I also fully expected to be published. Because that’s what had happened up till then.

I was not.

From the time I first submitted to an adult market until 2001 I did not have a single story accepted. Every rejection was a crushing—and in the beginning totally unexpected—blow. I was too stupid to realise that some of those rejections were quite encouraging and asked to see more work. All I could see was that my work was being rejected and they clearly thought I sucked too.

That’s when I learned to dread sending stuff out. Indeed, for large chunks of time—years even—I didn’t. The only people reading my writing were family and friends and no one was reading my attempts at writing novels until I got talking with a relative stranger many many many years after I first started writing novels.

So I kept writing, but only rarely sent my stuff out. Sometimes a friend would push me into. Sometimes I’d come across a new magazine that I thought was cool and that would fit my stories.

Every single time I sent a story out would require a ridiculous amount of courage. And the whole time that story was out there I’d be thinking about it and worrying about it and waiting for the rejection and finding it really hard to write something new. Or, you know, sleep.

To be honest I’m still a bit like that and I still get rejected. How to Ditch Your Fairy was sent to many publishing houses. Only two of them made an offer, which means all the others rejected it, which is obviously MUCH better than none of them wanting it, but there’s still a sting. And to this day no publisher in Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country has wanted any of my books, which breaks my heart because it’s the only language other than English that I can read.2 Not to mention Lichtenstein. I don’t know what it is with Lichtenstein hating me so much, but I’ve noticed guys and it hurts.

Rejection is a huge part of this business whether you’re published or not. I know some people say that if you’re neurotic about rejection you shouldn’t try to get published. But I can’t think of a single writer I know who isn’t neurotic about it. Obviously, some more than others, but we all feel the sting of rejection. We all fear it.

It’s just the way things are.

I hope that answers your question, Lotti.

Update:
I have shifted the FAQ stuff to its own post as it was getting lost here.

  1. Which is a LOT of courage. You all know what that was like! []
  2. A little. Not that well. []

Post-a-Rejection-Letter Friday

Tempest Bradford links to Shaun C. Green who has declared today post-a-rejection-letter Friday. Tempest also links to an INSANE rejection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant Left Hand of Darkness which is one of my favourite books of all time. The person who wrote that letter clearly read an entirely different book. Possibly one by Ayn Rand.

My rejection letters are in a filing cabinet in Sydney. The only bit I can remember from them is from a rejection I received in the 1980s that included the following PS:

If you insist on writing under a pseudonym it is best to also include your real name. Thank you.

The crazy outlandish pseudonym I used? Why, that would be “Justine Larbalestier”. I know! What was I thinking?

I do have a few rejections from Strange Horizons—they do everything electronically—but they’re all super nice and encouraging so that’s no fun. Sidenote: If you write sf or fantasy short stories I strongly recommend them as a market. They publish great stories, they respond promptly, and their rejection letters are really nice even when they clearly hated your story.

I just remembered another one, which came from an English magazine. It went something like this, “You write beautifully but this story is completely pointless. Please don’t waste our time again until you learn to plot.” Ouch! They were right though. Sigh.

Post a rejection letter of your own! The club of those who have received them is a very very very big one.

The next novel

A bunch of questions are being asked about the next novel both here and in emails. Here are some answers:

When is it due?

August

When will it be published?

September 2009

Who is publishing it?

Bloomsbury USA

What is it about?

Lies

What’s it called?

As mentioned the working (and I hope permanent) title is the same as a song from the 1990s by an all-girl band. Feel free to guess. No one has gotten close so far.

Is it a sequel to How To Ditch Your Fairy?

No

Why isn’t it a sequel to HTDYF?

Because

Will there be a sequel to HTDYF?

Maybe

How long do you think it will be?

75,00-85,000

How long is it now?

54,013

Wow, you have quite a few words to go and August isn’t very far away—are you panicking?

Aaargh!! Damn you!! Leave me alone!! STOP asking questions!!

You seem a bit tightly wound—have you thought of maybe getting a massage or something?

I kill you. I kill you with my bare hands.

I is sorry

That I haven’t answered emails in ages and ages or done many many other things I’m supposed to do. Like respond to comments here. But you may have noticed from some of my posts of late that I has book.

I has unfinished book.

Which must be finished before not too long.

Thus I am only capable of two things:

  1. Writing said book.
  2. Complaining about writing said book.

All else—communicating with other peoples, washing clothes and dishes and floors and self etc, paying bills, following the Tour de France, functioning like normal human being—all is on hiatus till book be done.

That is all.

Brief note to the lurkers and newbies as well as general excuses

In the last few weeks there’s been quite a bit of delurkification as well as some new commenters. Ordinarily I would respond in the comments and welcome you personally but, well, I has deadline. And book for deadline is scary and complicated and not genre and I may be out of my depth and um,

PANIC!!!

But I hate to be rude and I love to see new folks here. So,

WELCOME!!!

To everyone else: sorry for not responding as much even though I read all your comments,1 also for being months and months behind with email, for not having done that thing I promised I’d do for you, and for generally being as slack as, um, a very slack person.

Book comes first! Before hygiene, friends, nutrition, changing polls, health, admin and pleasure. Is just how it is.

  1. Except for the ones about USian gridiron. Boring. []

How I finished my first novel

Often when people find out what I do it turns out that they harbour ambitions of writing a novel too. Mostly they just daydream about it. But sometimes they confess that they’ve had a whack at it but not very successfully. “How do you actually finish a novel?” they’ll ask. “Starting’s easy but how do you finish?”

I cannot tell you how many novels I started but did not finish before I finally managed to complete one. Not because I don’t want to tell you, but because I honestly don’t know. On the hard drive of my current computer there are fourteen unfinished novels. But there are others that didn’t make it to this computer. Not to mention many notebooks that are lost or in storage. I started my first novel before I was twelve, started many more in my teenage years, not to mention my twenties, but I kept stalling.

Every. Single. Time.

I could write beginnings. Some of them are corkers. I could even get some of the middle stuff happening. But I could not get to the third act. Hell, I couldn’t even finish the second act.1 None of my unfinished novels get anywhere near the climax, let alone the actual ending.

There were lots of reasons why. My short attention span was definitely part of it. I’d think of some other shiny shiny idea and start on that instead. Or I’d get bored with the work in progress and go read a book instead. Or I’d get stuck and have no idea what happens next. Or I’d decide the whole thing sucked and realise I could never show it to anyone else because of its hopelessness and give up. It could also have been the absence of a deadline—I find they concentrate the mind quite fabulously well.

I also suspect part of my problem was that I never had a clear idea of the whole book. I’d just start writing a conversation, or describing a scene, and figure out who the people were and what was going on as I went. I had never heard of outlining so it never occurred to me to do so. Maybe it would have made a difference and I’d have finished a novel much earlier. I’ve always imagined that writers who figure out the plot ahead of time, who know who their characters are and what they’re going to do before they start typing have a much easier time finishing their first novel.

Left to my own devices I suspect I would never have finished. I’d still be an academic. Or possibly a rabbit farmer. Or a stringer for National Enquirer.

But one fateful day I got talking with an acquaintance, who happened to work at a book shop in Sydney where I fed my book habit frequently bought books. I’d been going there for years. We’d chatted many times but didn’t really know each other. On this occasion we both confessed that we were wannabe writers. I remember how embarrassed I was by the confession. How stupid it sounded. But she was embarrassed too, which encouraged me to admit that for all my ambitions I’d never managed to finish a single thing. Turned out she hadn’t either. Somehow we ended up agreeing to read each other’s stuff.

Once every one or two weeks we’d meet, swap pages, have lunch, talk about what we’d written, offer (very gentle) criticism, and cheer each other on. Within six months I’d finished my first novel. Or the first draft of it anyways. A novel I’d started in 1988 was finished in 1999. Greased lightning!

I could not have done it without her. Writing can be a lonely, frustrating business. Having someone who’s in it with me made a huge difference. Because back then I had no idea whether I could finish a novel. And not knowing if that was possible made finishing really really difficult.

Now when I start a novel the fact that I’ve already finished six makes me pretty (not wholly) confident that I’ll finish this one too. Even if it is turning out to be longer than expected.

  1. Possibly because I have never thought of my books in terms of acts. But whatever. []

Little round up

Firstly, the polls: I thought you all should know that the result of the poll was that Nevada is our chosen smoking state of the US of A. Closely followed by Wyoming. Hope you’re happy, Mr Williams!

The new poll is on fashion atrocities. I’m a bit cross that no one has voted for espadrilles yet. Oh, how I HATE them! Soles of shoes are not supposed to be made of rope! It’s UGLY, people! Are you all blind?! (Poll is to your right.)

Matter the second, the word count discussion has been interesting and enlightening. In fact, it made me realise more fully the why of my word count dislike. I do not care to share my day-by-day process. Don’t get me wrong I adore talking about process. But I like to talk about it overall: here’s some thoughts on rewriting, here’s a very silly set of suggestions for writing a novel, here’s how I wrote this book, here’s how I find looking at other people’s writing incredibly useful and so on and so forth.

But posting daily on my struggles or successes in the writing coal mine? Nah. Too close to the bone. I feel like I’ll come across as a massive whinger (Oh my Elvis writing this book is killing me! Why are leopard ballet sequence so bloody difficult?! What was I thinking?! I’m a hack! A talentless hack!!) or the most conceited self-satisfied writer in the universe (Wow, I am a genius! I am the Lord Barham of writing! Look at these pearls of unspeakable genius that I crafted today! How could perfection such as the crystalline words that coruscate from my fingers exist in this oh so imperfect world?! It astonishes me!). So I confine such thoughts to myself.

Oh, hang on—wooops!

Look over there: Leopards dancing! Flying giant woolly squirrels playing badminton with quokkas!

There is no matter the third.

As you were.

Word counts

I’m curious: Are any of you interested in reading about writers’ word counts? And if so why? Cause I confess I’m not sure I entirely get the point of blogging about it. And those who post ‘em on your blog why do you?

Don’t get me wrong I keep an eagle eye on my word counts. They are the measure of my days.1 I’m aiming to hit 60 thou by the last week of July. But, you know, it’s housekeeping. I don’t keep people posted on how many dishes I’ve washed, meals I’ve cooked, or hours I’ve spent exercising.2

Now, I know that I blog about many things that people find deadly dull such as quokkas and sport of any kind and that doesn’t stop me—actually it provokes me to further bloggage on topics of annoyance to the complainers. However, I can defend and explain why I blog on those topics. So to repeat my opening: why do you blog your word counts if you do? And does anyone other than the blogger of the word count get anything out of it?

Coming up soon: my post on the sport of quokkas.

  1. Better than coffee spoons. []
  2. For the record: today I’ve washed no dishes, put together two meals, and spent an hour at the gym. I’ve also bitten off all my fingernails and failed to find my favourite T-shirt. Every second of today, er, yesterday, was a thrill ride! []