Don’t Do What I Did: On Writing Historicals

I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.

I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2

But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.

I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.

Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.

I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.

And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.

(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)

Don’t do what I did.

If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.

Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.

TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.

  1. I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties. []
  2. Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I? []
  3. Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one. []
  4. “Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia. []

In which I speak of Razorhurst in front of a Camera

As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes.1 It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.2

The good people at Allen & Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:

Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.

  1. The alliteration is in homage to Truth Sydney’s fabulously over the top tabloid of the period. []
  2. Which may I point out is less than a year away! []

Getting Away

One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.

Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.

I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.

Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.

I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:

Photo taken by me from the rock I leapt on to get out of its way.

Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.

This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.

Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.

Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.

At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:

megalongvalley

And it was good. Really good.

TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.

  1. After their relieved that the goanna has gone away. []
  2. Did I mention the bellbirds? I love them []

Writing Under Different Names

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my writing career it would be to sell How To Ditch Your Fairy under a different name. And then Team Human would also be under that name.1

Justine Larbalestier would be my author name for my older, less funny, scarier YA and Something Extremely Catchy would be the author of my lighter, funnier, younger books.

All too often fans of HTDYF or TH pick up Liar and, well, it does not go well. But usually it goes way better than the other way around. The people who read Liar first tend to run the gamut from Huh? to THIS IS THE WORST BOOK EVER when reading HTDYF or TH.

When people fall in love with Liar and ask me what they should read next I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly or any of these books. I don’t suggest any of my own books because none of them are like Liar.2

Most readers like their favourite authors to stick to writing within the one genre. When they pick up a book by Favourite Writer they like to know what to expect and they get annoyed when they don’t get it.

Yes, there are also readers like you, who love the writers who do something different with every book. But you are a rare creature. I know you’re thinking, “But different names will just make it harder for me to find all your books and read them!”

Not so. The kind of readers who read all my books, sometimes even my scholarly ones, are usually the kind who read my blog and follow me on Twitter. You can rest assured when I start writing under another name this website and my Twitter feed will loudly proclaim it. It will also be noted in the bio on the books: Awesome Pen Name also writes as Justine Larbalestier. Rest assured I will not make it hard for anyone to find all my books!

Think of Nora Robert who also writes as J.D. Robb. It’s not exactly a secret, is it? Or Seanan MacGuire writing as Mira Grant. In fact, the only writers who try to keep their pen names secret are the likes of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Super famous and popular already. Lucky bastards.

I cannot judge these readers who want one kind of book from their favourite writers because I am that kind of reader. When I first picked up one of Heyer’s detective novels I was horrified! I’d expected a bubbly and delightful regency romance, not a leaden, predictable, detective novel. It was a nightmare.

I like knowing which writers to turn to when I’m in the mood for something very specific: smart, feminist, sexy Victorian romance (Courtney Milan), being scared shitless (Stephen King), erudite, treacherous, complicated historicals (Hilary Mantel), having my heart broken (Jacqueline Woodson). Etc.

So, yes, I wish I had managed my writing career as my reader self would have liked it. Justine Larbalestier for my older books, a different name for my younger ones. If I ever start writing adult romance or adult crime, you can bet I’ll be using a different name.

Writers, readers, publishers what’s your take on this?

  1. Different Name and Sarah Rees Brennan, obviously. []
  2. Though that will change in July when Razorhurst comes out, which is definitely closer in feeling to Liar than anything else I’ve written. []

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 Likeability

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.1

Here’s what I have noticed:2

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4

V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.

VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.5

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9

In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.

I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

Jenny Thurman added:

There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.

Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.

Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.

The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.

If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.

V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.

So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.

VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.

What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.

  1. This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject. []
  2. As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject. []
  3. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism. []
  4. Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about. []
  5. It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist. []
  6. Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere. []
  7. There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example. []
  8. Not literally. That would be terrifying. []
  9. I know, right? What is wrong with them?! []
  10. Except for the lovers from her one and only upbeat book with a happy ending: Price of Salt aka Carol. []

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. []

Last Day of 2013

And, lo, another year has passed and it is time for my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life this year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2014. I do this so I have a record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)

For me, 2013 was wonderful personally and professionally. I wrote heaps and heaps and heaps and I liked what I wrote and the resulting pain was manageable. Yes, there will be a new novel from me this year. And a short story for an extremely cool anthology. More on those below.

I usually start this post with a section on what books I had out and how they did. But, um, I had no books out this year. None. Not only no book, I did not publish a single thing, not so much as a haiku, let alone an article, or a story. This blog and my tweets are the sum total of my public writings this year.

I’ve now had two book-less calendar years since my first novel was published in 2005: 2011 and 2013. It’s as if I think I’m a fancy writer of Literachure or something. Yes, when I freak out about the two year gap between my last book and the one that’ll be published in 2014, my romance writer friends look at me with pity and horror, my YA writer friends say that’s a bit of a worry, my crime writer friends ditto, but my literary friends congratulate me on my exceptional productivity. A book every two years! So fast! You’re amazing, Justine!

It’s all relative, eh?

So here’s a new section instead:

What I wrote in 2013

I rewrote my Sydney Depression-era novel in preparation for its imminent publication of which more below.

I also wrote 40,000 words of a brand new book that came out of nowhere. As my novels so often do.1

I continued to work on the never-ending New York Depression-era novel. *sigh* It will never be finished. I’ve accepted that now. As well as working (a little) on my fairy godmother middle grade, which would have been finished by now if I hadn’t gotten distracted by the brand new novel. What? Some of us don’t have long attention spans, okay?

I also wrote a short story. This is very very very unusual for me. The last time I had a short story published was 2008. I can’t tell you much about the anthology except that I was so intrigued by the concept I couldn’t refuse despite the fact that writing short stories is insanely hard.

Yes, they’re much harder than novels. In this case there was a 2,500-word limit. Many of my blog posts are longer than that. How do you build a world and tell a story in 2,500 words?! Madness. Yet many other writers have managed it. So . . . I have given it my best shot. Which at the moment involves a first draft that is more than twice the length it should be, doesn’t make much sense, and is begging me to turn it into a novel. All this despite much excellent advice from Margo Lanagan.

You may have noticed that I also resumed blogging. At the end of October I started blogging roughly once a week. Go, me! I plan to do that even more consistently next year. I.e. tomorrow. Hello, 2014, I will blog in you. Even though blogging is dead. What can I say? I like dead things. Mmmmm . . . zombies.

Books out Next Year

At last a new novel from me! It will be published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014. That’s right, Australians and New Zealanders, only six months till you get to read my first solo novel since Liar! It’s been a while between drinks, eh? Um, five years. Gulp.2 It will be my seventh novel and tenth book.

The novel is called Razorhurst and takes place over a winter’s day in 1932. There are no zombies or vampires or unicorns or werewolves or witches, but there are ghosts. I’ll have heaps more to tell you about it in the coming months. This website’s going to get a spruce up as well courtesy of Stephanie Leary. That way it will be sparkly and new in time for the sparkly and new book. Exciting, eh?

Writing Plans for 2014

Well, obviously, there’ll be copyedits and etc for Razorhurst. I’ll be finishing the short story. It is due 1 Feb, after all. The anthology it’s in will be published by Allen & Unwin either later in 2014 or early 2015. Again, I’ll let you know more when I know more. It’s a stellar line up of authors and, as I said, a very cool concept.

Then I plan to finish the novel that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows what will take my fancy? Back to the New York Depression-era novel? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere. Knowing me, the safest bet would be the last one.

I may finally have a good idea for an historical romance. So I might write that. I did talk about how much I’ve been wanting to write one of those and then got myself a master class on how to do so by some of the very best in the business. Isn’t twitter an amazing thing?

All of this writing is possible because the RSI management is continuing to go well as I described last year. I have been able to write as much as six hours a day, which I thought would never be possible again. Dance of joy! I continue not to push it and to always have a couple of rest days each week. As well as exercising. I am so very good. (Mostly.)

What else happened in 2013

I was in the US briefly. Most of which I spent sick with the flu. Fun! My favourite part, other than seeing all my wonderful friends, was teaching at the Alpha writing workshop for teens. The students and staff were fabulous. If you get asked to teach there, do it!

Other than that, all my travel was in Australia, including attending several Writers Festivals. My favourites were the Adelaide and Brisbane Writers Festivals. They had innovative topics for their panels and, stunningly, programmed YA writers with folks who write for grown ups, as well as mixing up writers from different genres. Shocking, I know, but it worked really well. The diversity of the panels was reflected in the diversity of the audiences. I would go back to both those festivals in a heart beat. If you’re invited say YES. They’re fabulous.

I hung with friends and family. I gardened. I cooked. I read a tonne and listened to loads of new music and watched vast amounts of TV.3

My fave new TV show is Sleepy Hollow because it’s insane and the dynamic between the two leads is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

My favourite new (to me) romance writer is Cecelia Grant, who, like Courtney Milan, seems to delight in writing historical romances that break the rules. No bad sex4 allowed? Right then says Cecelia Grant and writes some of the funniest terrible sex ever. The hero can’t be a virgin? Ha! say Courtney Milan and makes one of her heroes a professional virgin. Romance has some of the most rigid rules in fiction so finding authors who are brilliant at messing with those rules, while still writing a romance, is a great joy. Cecelia Grant is brilliant at it and every bit as good a writer as Courtney Milan. I cannot wait for her next novel.

Another new-to-me author was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her latest novel, Americanah, after being blown away by her wonderfully witty Ted talk on why we should all be feminists which was recommended to me by just about everyone whose taste I trust on Twitter. Americanah has the same wit and wisdom and I loved it. Remember, I read very little realism—especially not for adults—it’s so not my thing. But this tale of the one who migrated to the USA (though she returns) and the one who stayed, and of their relationship to each other, was fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down.

I related to the novel strongly as I am someone who migrated to the USA, but then went home, and will go back again. Like her main character, I have dual citizenship, and continue to live my life in two countries. Yes, Nigeria is very different to Australia, and the specificity of the characters’ experiences in the USA, and back home, are different to mine. But there’s also a lot of similarity. What can I say, this novel really spoke to me. Adichie is a gorgeous, smart, insightful, funny writer, and I’ll be reading everything else she’s ever written.

My three favourite albums this year were Dessa’s Parts of Speech, Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé.5 There’s not a bad song or dud note on any of them. These three were the soundtrack to my year.6

Make sure you read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. It’s her best book yet and comes out early 2014.

And now it’s time to party! Oh, how I love New Year’s Eve.

May you have a wonderful 2014 full of whatever you love best.

  1. For those counting my published out-of-nowhere novels are How To Ditch Your Fairy, Team Human and now the Sydney novel. []
  2. In my defence there were other books. Such as an anthology with Holly Black and a novel with Sarah Rees Brennan. []
  3. But not movies I’ve basically given up on them. The last three I saw were unspeakably terrible. Except for Byzantium. That was quite good but would have been vastly better if it were a TV show. []
  4. To be very clear “bad sex” does not mean rape. Bad sex is consensual sex that’s ungood. []
  5. Yes, the Beyoncé album is what spurred me to read Americanah because of her sampling of the speech in “Flawless”. []
  6. Oh, okay, the second half of my year. Dessa’s album didn’t come out till June, Monáe’s till September, and Beyoncé’s hasn’t even been out a month yet. []

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. []

Pjs, Pockets, and Purses

I spend a great deal of my time in front of my computer in my pyjamas. Thus I wear pyjamas more than I wear any other clothing. They are my work uniform. All my novels have been written while I was wearing pjs. I think about pyjamas a lot.

I like mine to have three pockets, two on the pants, as well as a breast pocket. I like them to be soft and loose fitting, and deliciously comfortable. It’s a bonus if they can also have goofy, gorgeous or gelid1 patterns on them.

I mentioned on Twitter that most women’s pjs do not have pockets and the sadness this fills me with. How I am forced to mostly wear men’s pyjamas which typically do not have as interesting prints as women’s. Soon we were in a discussion about the paucity of pockets in women’s clothing, the awesomeness of pockets, and of pjs, and there was much bonding.

Though there was also some who made distinctions between kinds of pjs. For them pjs are what you wear to bed and lounging pjs are what you wear to write in. Okay . . . sounds very Katherine Hepburn-y, and I love her, so I’ll go with it. But I do not make such a distinction. Then there was mention of “house dresses” which I’d only ever heard of in ye olde Hollywood movies. Must be a thing of the USA.

But there was also a distinct minority who questioned the need for pockets in pjs. I admit to being bewildered by the question but it swiftly became apparent that there are people who only wear pjs to sleep in.

I know. I was shocked too.

Then it turned out that there are people who don’t like pockets. Who don’t want pockets on any of their clothing. There was talk of pockets always having holes, ruining the lines of clothing, making people look fat (!).

I must confess at that point I fainted from shock.

Where do they put their phone? Their keys? Their sekrit decoder ring (when not in the company of people where it can be worn freely)? I don’t understand!

The answer was in their bags (or purses as those from the USA call them). Don’t get me wrong. I have handbags, I have backpacks. I use them. I even have some I love dearly but in my heart of hearts I wish everything I needed when I left the house would fit into my pockets. That I could be unencumbered by bags.

For bags weigh me down, pulling on one shoulder, or the other, or both in the case of backpacks. I am always inadvertently whacking into things with bags or being whacked with them. They are little violent, destructive beasts.

Worst of all bags eat my stuff.

I know the only pen I’ve ever liked is in the bag I bought in Rome many, many years ago. The first fancy bag I ever bought myself. And Italian bag! My Italian bag. I still have that bag though it is faded and frayed and somewhat less fabulous than it once was. The pen should be in there. But can I find it? No, I cannot. That stupid Italian bag ate my favourite pen. I have never found a pen like it since. I no longer like pens. All because of that bag.

In conclusion: Pyjamas are the best WITH pockets. Purses (bags) are the devil. The end.

  1. They only need be gelid in summer. In winter I prefer warmer patterns. []

On Writing Characters

It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1

Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2

There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.

But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.

Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.

Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.

Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.

Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.

Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.

It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?

What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.

Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.

Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.

Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.

But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.

Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4

Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.

Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.

But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.

This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.

All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.

None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.

  1. Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life. []
  2. Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain. []
  3. Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out. []
  4. I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world. []
  5. Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters. []
  6. With a tiny bit of Spanish. []

(The Non-existence of) Perfection in Politics and Writing

One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?

Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.

Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.

It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?

If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.

Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.

My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.

I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.

Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.

I think that’s a good thing.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.

But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.

Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.

They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.

This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.

Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!

  1. I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast. []
  2. Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me. []

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. []

Overused Words

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

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

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

These are the offending words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 . . . []

Torment and Writing

One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:

[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3

Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?

Yes, it totally could.

But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.

Yes, you can!

Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.

Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:

The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.

The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.

The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.

Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.

I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6

The boring truth is that writers, on the whole, are a pretty happy bunch. Why, look here, writing even made it on to this list of the ten happiest jobs. Contrary to most people’s expectations we don’t feature on the lists of the most suicidal professions or the most alcoholic.

The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.

Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.

You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.

Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.

You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.

So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.

But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8

Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.

At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.

Bad things happen to all of us.

I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.

My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.

I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.

Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?

No.

But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.

Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.

That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.

That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.

Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!

To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.

  1. Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best. []
  2. They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical. []
  3. Not an actual quote. You’re shocked, right? []
  4. Hell, I write and I don’t even like coffee. []
  5. Yay for rewrites! []
  6. Lightweight. I know. Don’t care. []
  7. Wish I could find that reference. []
  8. Though sadly it can be a result of trying to make a living as a writer. Writing is also not on the list of the most lucrative professions. []
  9. Obviously, I do not mean that I was non-stop Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Who is? Just that there was more happiness than not. []

Me at the Adelaide Writers Festival

In early March I will be at the Adelaide Writers Week. Which is the oldest and most prestigey1 writers festival in all of Australia.

I’ve never been before. Indeed, I’ve never done any events in Adelaide unless you count going to a friend’s wedding.2

Here are my events:

GIRL POWER: ISOBELLE CARMODY, JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, VIKKI WAKEFIELD
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – SUNDAY, MARCH 3 2013
USA/Australia
West Stage, 2.30pm

The readership for YA fiction continues to grow and grow. Yet for young women today questions of identity, sexuality and friendship remain as problematic as ever. This session asks – how do women write for girls? Join Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar, and Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown for a spirited conversation about women and words.

Isobelle is one of Australia’s most popular YA fantasy writers. Her fans span generations and all clutch her books to their chests like they are precious babies. She’s wonderful and funny and genuinely does not think like anyone else I have ever met. I did a panel with her at last year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival and it truly was awesome. Mostly because of Isobelle. So if you’re in Adelaide you want to see this.

I’m looking forward to meeting Vikki Wakefield. I’ve heard good things about her debut novel All I Ever Wanted. Yes, it’s true, not all Australian YA authors know each other. But we’ll fix that after a few more festival appearances.

My other event is:

SEXUAL POLITICS: JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, BRYONY LAVERY, CHIKA UNIGWE
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – MONDAY, MARCH 4 2013
Australia/USA/Nigeria/Belgium
West Stage, 3.45pm

As the debate about what it means to be a feminist is ongoing, this session brings together three writers, all of whom identify as feminists. Justine Larbalestier is a YA and fantasy writer, playwright Bryony Lavery is the author of iconic works including Thursday, and Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel On Black Sister’s Street, about a group of African women in the sex trade.

This panel marks the first time I’ve ever been on a panel with writers for grown ups (i.e. whose audience is presumed to be primarily adults, as opposed to mine which is presumed to be mostly teens) at a literary festival. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a festival in the world that is actively breaking down boundaries between genres and writers and readers. Honestly, I was so surprised when I saw this I thought they’d made a mistake. Then I looked at the whole programme. And, lo, it’s full of such inter-genre cross over panels. Way to go, AWW, way to go!

I like that they list all the panellists’ nationalities. I was excited when I saw there was a USian on both my panels. But a little bewildered when I looked the other panellists up and discovered none of them were from the USA. I’d been looking forward to asking where they were from, and if they knew NYC or any of the other cities I know, we could compare notes. Which is when I realised that I am the USian on those panels.

Oops.

In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.

TL;DR:3 I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!

  1. Yes, that’s a real word. Shut up! []
  2. Which, no, I don’t. It was a lot of fun, but. I love weddings! So much love! So many wonderful speeches about love! So many opportunities for it to all go horribly wrong! Especially at doomed weddings between those Who Should Not Marry. Someday I’m going to write a Doomed Wedding book. Though to be clear: the Adelaide wedding was not doomed. Um, I think I’m digressing. []
  3. For the old people that stands for: Too long, Didn’t Read. You’re welcome. []

Dismissing Whole Genres

A few days ago I tweeted this:

I am sick of people who’ve never read a romance or a YA novel casually dismissing the entire genres. Do some research, you tedious people.

It was in response to yet another casual dismissal of YA in the middle of a discussion about something else entirely. So often does this happen, particularly in regard to romance, that I scarcely even register it anymore.

I’m happy for people to hate whatever they want to hate. Go, for it. I mean, yes, I think it’s kind of silly to dismiss an entire genre. All genres have good and bad and mediocre examples. Yes, including, Ye Mighty Literachure. I could give you a long list of literary writers I think are awful and/or overrated. Living and dead.

I can give you the same list for every genre with which I am familiar. Yes, including YA and romance.

What bugs me is when the people doing the dismissing have no idea what they’re talking about. Such as this ancient op ed by Maureen Down where she dismisses chicklit on the basis of a handful of books and the only one she actually quotes from, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, isn’t even chicklit.

What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:

I only read good books. Because I am endowed (pun absolutely intended) with a superior mind, which those poor pea-brained readers and writers of chicklit/romance/YA/fantasy etc will never understand. I pity them. And must do so as publicly and often as I can. Or how will everyone know of my vast superiority?

And, yes, the go-to genres for dismissal to prove superiority are almost always ones tainted by girl germs.

Though science fiction also has a long history of being in this category. I would argue, however, it has started the journey towards respectability. That path upon which crime fiction is much further along. Yes, there are still people ignorantly dismissing both these genres but not as much as they used to.

Lots of people don’t read particular genres because they don’t like them. Well and good. I don’t like cosy mysteries at all. I’ve bounced off several highly recommended, gorgeously written ones. They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like their neatly wrapped endings. I don’t like, well, their coziness. I like my crime fiction gritty and disturbing.

I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler. If it’s published as a romance the two protags will get together by the end of the book. Whereas if they read a book that has a romance in it but within the context of another genre there’s the possibility that it will end miserably. Narrative tension!1

I know heaps of people who really only like realism and non-fiction. They don’t have the reading protocols for fantasy or science fiction. They can’t get past the whole zombies, dragons etc are real thing. I feel sad for them, but I get it. They don’t judge me for loving fantasy. They’re just kind of bewildered.

I have said more than once that I hate science fiction. Most recently on Twitter:

See, I get to hate science fiction because I spent a billion years of my life reading it: the good, the bad & the mediocre. #stupidPhd

Yes, writing my PhD on science fiction and particularly focussing on excruciatingly bad examples of the genre turned me off the whole genre. Even though when I started Ursula LeGuin was one of my favourite writers. She still is. But the book of hers I wrote about for my PhD, Left Hand of Darkness, I haven’t read it since and it is one of the best books the genre has ever produced. One I used to reread regularly. I still highly recommend it. She’s a genius.

So even though Scott writes science fiction, as do many of my closest friends, and even though I myself have written a science fiction-ish novel. Yes, even though I love many sf books and films and tv shows, I react with dread and trembling to those two words together: Science + Fiction. GET IT AWAY FROM ME. The flashbacks! They burn!

No, it’s not rational at all. But at least I know what I’m talking about. Science fiction, oh I has read it. More to the point I do not think less of those who love sf best of all.

I wish people like Maureen Dowd would look at their motivations for dismissing a whole genre. That they would actually think before they open their mouths, ask themselves some pertinent questions:

Am I dismissing this genre of which I have read few examples, and those culled randomly from a bookshelf, without getting recommendations from people who know and love that genre, because I want to feel superior?

If the answer is yes then perhaps that says more about me than it does about the genre in question. Perhaps I am cooking the results before beginning the research? Perhaps I should shut my mouth on this subject in future?

I don’t care if they cling to their ignorance and prejudice. All I ask is that they stop blathering their nonsense in places where I can hear them or read them.

Bored now.

  1. I would argue that good romance has loads of narrative tension but it’s generated by the “how” not by the “if”. []

On Characters Coming to Life

If there’s one thing I hope I have made clear in the ten years (!) I have been sharing writing advice here it’s that there are as many different ways to write as there are writers. If some writing advice doesn’t work for you, then ignore it, try something else.

Some writers plan, some writers wing it. Some writers compose their drafts in their head and only when they deem it to be perfect do they start typing words. Some writers do their first drafts with pen and paper (shudder). Some writers start at the end of their story and work backwards.1

We also conceive of what we do with a giddying array of different metaphors. Take for example this lovely piece, Where Character Come From, by Cory Doctorow. It’s wonderfully clear2 and Scott pointed it out because it rang so true for him.

“Yes,” Scott said, “that’s what I do.”

Here’s a sample:

As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters “catch,” they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.

“Oh,” I said. “That is not even slightly what it’s like for me.”

Though until I read Cory’s piece and discussed it with Scott I didn’t realise the following:

I can’t start writing unless the characters are already there.

For me there is no “catching” moment. Unless I know the main characters I cannot write a word. My characters never feel like puppets to me. Not ever. Even in clumsy drafts like this first draft of the opening chapter of Magic or Madness. It certainly reads like I’m a really bad puppet master. Yet even then, the pov character, Reason, was absolutely fully formed in my head. I was just struggling to get her down onto paper.

I wonder if this is a difference between writers who begin with ideas rather than with characters?

Almost every novel I have ever written has started with the voice. The first few thousand words of How To Ditch Your Fairy came pouring out of me while on deadline for another book. Those words, almost unaltered, form the third chapter of the final published book. The main character, Charlie, is exactly as she was on that first day she popped into my head.

The two exceptions are Liar and Team Human. As Team Human was a collaborative novel it departed from all my usual modes of writing and was its own JustineAndSarah thing. But even then those characters never felt like puppets, nor did I ever feel like I was putting words in their mouths.

With Liar I got the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a compulsive/pathological liar first. And had a few stabs at writing that went nowhere until Micah showed up. But even in those earlier attempts the pov character felt real, just not remotely interesting enough to keep writing about.

Confession: I have abandoned (killed?) gazillions of fully-formed characters because they bored me. Yeah, yeah, I know who am I to judge? But if they bored me then they were going to put my readers into comas. Not a great strategy for selling books.

And if a character ever felt like I was making her speak in a funny squeaky voice then no way would I be able to write her. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. Other than horrible.

What do I mean by “real” when I say my characters feel like real people?

I certainly don’t think they are real people. I am not one of those writers who gets confused between characters they’ve written and their real-life friends. To be honest, once I’m done with a book I start to forget everything I knew about them. When readers ask me questions about my books they usually know far more than I do seeing as they’ve read them more recently than I have.

In a weird way my characters feel alive to me only when I’m writing (about) them. When I think about Micah Wilkins now she’s like someone I used to know. Or, rather, like some character from a series I used to be obsessed with ages ago and haven’t thought about much since.

Cory has a metaphor for the whole process:

I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.

This, he says, is how we create characters:

This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out.

It’s a very clear metaphor and one that I think will make a tonne of sense to many writers. It certainly did for Scott. But I find myself shaking my head. I see what he’s saying and I know I do very similar things but I don’t think about it like that. Cory’s metaphor does not work for me.

However, right now I don’t have a better one for the whole process of how I create characters. All I’ve got is: I just do it. Obviously, I need to think about it some more. Read other writers’ metaphors for describing the process. I’ll get back to you when I find a metaphor that works for me.

In the meantime I’d love to hear how youse lot think about creating characters.

  1. I’d love to try that last one but as I never have any idea how my books are going to end until I’ve read most of them I can’t see it working. []
  2. Cory really is a fabulous non-fiction writer. He’s about the only one who makes the complexities of copyright law clear to me. []

Last Day of 2012

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life for the year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2013. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)

Last year was not a happy year for me so you’ll be pleased to hear that 2012 was lovely. There was some huge personal changes and they were all very very good indeed. What I’m really saying is this post contains no whingeing. Phew, eh?

Books Out This Year

This is the first since 2009 that I had a new novel out. Woot! Mine and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Team Human. The response has been truly wonderful. Starred reviews! Acclaim! Rose petals! Best of the year lists! My favourite review is this one by Thy because of the wonderful fanfic Twitter conversation between Team Human‘s main characters Mel, Cathy and Francis. It’s seriously funny.

Books Out in the Future (The Distant Future)

Note that I didn’t call this section Books out Next Year. That would be because I have nothing scheduled to be published in 2013. Sorry about that. I remember the days when I thought having only one book published a year was embarrassingly slow and was aiming to ramp it up to two a year. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

So, yeah, I only had one book out this year, and even though it was co-written, it still counts as the first novel by me since 2009. I know, I know, SO SLOW. It’s like I’ve turned into a writer of literary novels for adults. Those lazy, lazy types who think it’s fast to publish a novel every five years. My romance writer friends are deeply ashamed of me. I am deeply ashamed.

But I have been writing. This year I finished a complete draft of a new novel. It’s my first book set in Sydney since the Magic or Madness trilogy and involved oodles of research. Fun! And even though it’s at least two drafts away from being sent out to publishing houses I’m feeling good about it.

But I’m taking a break from it for the moment while I turn to another novel. The Sydney novel is intense and more complicated than I had intended. It takes place over one day. I figured that would be easy. I WAS WRONG. SO VERY WRONG.1 It was supposed to be a relaxing, easy break from the 1930s New York novel! Stupid tricksy books acting like they’re all easy and then being super insanely complicated! Grrr.

So now I need a break from the novel that was supposed to be a relaxing break from the overcomplicated and intense New York novel. If the novel I turn to winds up being more complicated than I thought and I have to start another novel to take a break from it and then that novel winds up being too tricky and I have to take a break and work on yet another novel . . . then, um, actually I have no idea what will happen. Either the world will blow up or I’ll never finish any novels ever again and starve.

Funnily enough the book I’m turning to now was also started while taking a break from the New York novel.2 It’s a middle grade I started in 2009, which involves a chaotically neutral fairy sort-of-but-not-really godmother and is set in Bologna and is wryly funny.3 (I hope.) I had a lot of fun writing it and only stopped because I had to work on Zombies versus Unicorns and then Team Human.

As for the 1930s New York novel I do keep working on it. On and off. In between all these break novels. It grows ever longer—I suspect it’s more than one novel—but it remains a long way from a finished draft, which is why I keep turning to other novels. Or something. What? Not all of us are super focussed types. And I’m not listening to your suggestion that maybe the NYC novel isn’t finished yet because I keep turning to other books. That’s just silly.

Since I started the NYC novel in 2007 I’ve begun work on five other novels, one of which is now published, Team Human, and another of which is close to finished, the Sydney novel. Not to mention writing the bulk of Liar and putting together Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black.

In conclusion: I am writing. A LOT! There will be new novels from me. In the future.

The RSI

I’m doing a lot better. Not only am I now a total pro at managing my pain but I found a therapy that seems to be making my arms better and not merely managing it: active release. (Here’s the wikipedia article, which points out that very few studies have been carried out. So it’s mostly anecdotal evidence thus far.) The therapy is only good for soft tissue damage. It’s early days so who knows if the improvements will keep happening but right now my arms are in the least pain they’ve been in for ages. But I’m not going to be stupid and push it. (Been there done that.)

The plan it to slowly push to writing five hours a day. So I may start blogging again more frequently. Yes, I have missed blogging. SO MUCH. Twitter is fun and easy. But it’s not the same.

The last paragraph was written more than two months ago since then I’ve been on the road for six weeks and home for two and have had the longest break from writing in a very very long time. And let me tell you: my arms feel great! So really the best things for them is for me not to write.

But that’s not going to happen.

In conclusion: I’m doing much better but I am not going to push things.

Garden Update!

The garden is still totally wonderful. The passionfruit are flowering but not fruiting I am about to commence Operation Hand Pollination. Will let you know how it goes.

Travel

Most of the year I spent happily ensconced in Sydney. And it was good. Then there was a brief trip to NYC last month where I voted in my first US election and, lo, it went how I wanted it to. Woo hoo! Well, the results did. The voting process was chaotic and insane and wow does the USA need the Australian Electoral Authority to take over and fix stuff for them, like, NOW.

Then we went to Sao Paolo and Rio in Brazil and Santiago in Chile. My love for South America grows. It’s warm when it’s supposed to be warm. None of this insane cold Christmas rubbish. The Southern Hemisphere rules, yo!

Truly Brasil, in particular, was AMAZING. I shall blog about it more in the new year. But in short our publisher, Editora Record, spoiled me and Scott rotten. Ana Lima, the executive editor, was so helpful and kind and fun to be with and we learned so much about Brazilian publishing—Editora Record has their own printing press (!)—and about Brasil. If you’re an author and you’re ever invited to Brasil. Just say yes. The fans are smart and funny and so enthusiastic. They are both legal and very fofa. See? I learnt a wee bit of Portuguese! I can’t wait to go back. Oh, and the food. How I miss the food and the caipirinhas and the cachaca. We just ran out of the bottle we brought back. Waaaah!

I hope your 2012 was as productive and fun as mine. And that your 2013 is awash with fabulosity.

Make sure you all get hold of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new book The Summer Prince. Best YA book of 2013. Oh, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which is most definitely the best adult book4 of 2013, probably of the century. You heard it here first. Both books are pure genius.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!

  1. I may blog about what exactly is so hard about having the action confined to one day. []
  2. How To Ditch Your Fairy was also a break novel. What can I say? I’m easily distratced. []
  3. So did I use the D&D term correctly? You know what don’t tell me if I didn’t. []
  4. No, not Fifty Shades of Grey adult. Get your mind out of the gutter, people! []

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

My mate Diana Peterfreund had an excellent post on some truly terrible publishing advice doing the rounds at the moment. In passing she mentions that “as someone who has now published with four NY publishers and the aforementioned small presses—every publisher does things a little differently.”

I have not seen that pointed out very often. I’ve seen oodles of folk point to how writers all write differently. That there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novels. But in most discussions about publishing the assumption is that all publishers are the same. Or at least the only differences is between small presses and big presses. Between the Big Six1 and everyone else. Between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

What Diana says is so so so so true. Let me repeat it: every publisher does things a little differently.

Like Diana I’ve published books with several different publishers in the USA: Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Wesleyan University Press. I also have a close working relationship with Allen and Unwin in Australia.2 So that’s six publishers I’ve been through the whole publishing process with.3

The biggest shock for me was going from Penguin to Bloomsbury. So many things I assumed were standard to all publishers turned out not to be.4 Fortunately Bloomsbury has5 a welcome letter for its new authors where it lays out how it does things. Most useful document!

One of the biggest differences between houses is their culture. Some are far more corporate than others. Some are more like families. It takes a while as a new author to get a handle on your new house’s culture, which of course, also varies within publishing houses. A big publishing house is not one entity. There’s also variation between the adult and children’s divisions and between the various different imprints within each publishing house and how those imprints interact with sales, marketing, and all the other departments. Some publishing houses are more like a feudal country than a corporation or a family.

Every publishing house has different procedures for editing, proofing and copyedits. Some do hard copy, some electronic, some a mixture. Some are done in house. Some not. Some allow quite a long time to get those edits done. Others want a two-minute turn around. This is related to how big a lead time the house has, which also varies widely. It also varies a lot from editor to editor.

Each publishing houses has a standard contract. In which their preferences on various thing are laid out. Stuff like how advances are divided up. For some publishers the standard split is into thirds. Some advances are split into sixths. And there are other variations depending on the house and how negotiations go with the agent. Some houses offer bonuses (to some of the books they sign) if they list in the New York Times or USA Today or win certain prestigious prizes. That’s only happened to me with one deal and boy did I feel fancy despite none of those bonuses ever coming into play. I’m sure there are further variations I’ve never heard of. For those of you who don’t know what an advance is I explain in this post.

Then there’s the speed with which publishers pay you, which also varies a lot. There’s one house that used to be notorious for having the slowest contracts department in the known universe. There are other publishers whose accountants departments have been equally notorious. I know of one publishing house which sometimes pays its authors within a week or less of signing them.6 Any freelancer in any trade at all will know how this goes.

Some publishing houses have separate marketing and sales departments. But the sales department at one house doesn’t always do the same things as a sales department at another house. Many of the smaller houses have one person doing all the sales, marketing, and publicity. Over the last ten years or so the majority of publishers have been getting smaller and their sales, marketing, publicity and other departments have been contracting. So who handles what has been changing.

Every house I’ve been with has had its positives and its negatives. But given the speed with which publishing has been changing and contracting. What I know about how, say, Penguin, operates probably isn’t true anymore since I haven’t been published by them since 2007.

The growth of ebooks and Amazon and independent publishing and the disappearance of so many book shops both here in Australia and in the USA—though ebooks are still a much bigger deal over there—has transformed publishing in ways I could never have imagined when I sold my first novel back in 2003. What I know about publishing is mostly about the Big Six New York City publishers, who are not as dominant as they once were.7

The internet is so much more important to publishing now than it was back in 2005 when my first novel came out. I remember being asked back then, by someone quite senior in publishing, “What’s a blog?” These days the idea of a publicity campaign without the internet is, well, inconceivable.8

All of this is why, I suspect, so many discussion about publishing between those who work for or are published by the Big Six and those who are part of the independent, self-publishing explosion so often go awry. Our publishing worlds are different so our assumptions are different. But I’ve also seen authors published only by one house have conversations at total cross purposes with other authors who’ve published with more than one mainstream house.

Publishing is big and confusing no matter which part of it you live in. When I became an author I had no prior experience in publishing. My friends who worked in publishing first have a much better understanding of how it all works than I do. But even they are frequently confused. Coming from editorial doesn’t mean you understand how other departments operate and vice versa.

In conclusion: Publishing is complicated! Not everything is the same! Things change! Boxing is awesome!

  1. Hachette; Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan; Penguin Group; HarperCollins; Random House; Simon & Schuster []
  2. Although Penguin Australia published the Magic or Madness trilogy they bought it from Penguin USA so all the editing was done in the USA. []
  3. While I’ve met some of my non-English language publishers and have occasionally been consulted about translation questions and so on I mostly hear very little in between saying yes to the sale and the translated book showing up. []
  4. Going from Wesleyan University Press to Penguin was not a shock. I assumed a big fancy publisher would be different from a small university press. I was right. []
  5. Or maybe had? I don’t know if they do that anymore. []
  6. Yes, it’s a small house. []
  7. Though they’re still pretty dominant. []
  8. And, yes, I do know what that word means. []

Why I Love Rewriting

My last post may have given the impression that I am not a fan of rewriting. So not true! I loves it.

For me the first draft is the least fun because I’m never quite sure I have a novel until there’s a complete draft. The Sekrit Project is the first solo novel I’ve finished since 2008 so finishing this year was a HUGE RELIEF. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would. If I knew how to write novels anymore. That made the first draft—even the most fun times of writing it—stressful.

So no matter how unfun some parts of the rewriting process are I have none of that anxiety: because I have a manuscript. I mean, yes, it’s a less than optimal manuscript but I now know I’m going to finish and make it the best book I can. I will figure out how to make it better.

I really enjoy taking shitty sentences and engoodening them, tweaking character’s arcs until they make sense to people other than me. It’s very satisfying. And when I get stuck on one bit of the book there are countless other bits to fix.

I also LOVE finally being able to talk about the book with other people. Other than Scott, I mostly don’t show people my books until I have a complete draft. So it’s just me and the book. Getting other people’s takes on it is so important. I can only go so far on my own. Other people frequently show me in about ten seconds what I’ve been blind to for months. Gah! But also: AWESOME.1

I also enjoy how hard rewriting is. Keeping track of a complete novel is keeping track of an entire world and its people. I love that feeling of total immersion. I love the power of life and death! I can KILL YOU ALL! *cough* I love pushing myself to the limits of my ability.

Sekrit Project is the most challenging book I’ve written so far.2 It required an enormous amount of research. The plotting is much trickier than any other book. Several of the characters push me WAY outside my comfort zone. I love it! So exhilarating and fun.

Yes, even when I have several weeks of not being able to figure out how to fix some of the structural problems. But that too is part of the challenge and there’s nothing more enjoyable than managing something you didn’t think you’d be able to. Am I right?

In conclusion: Writing is hard but that’s a really, really, really good thing.

  1. That’s what I was attempting to say yesterday: first readers are worth their weight in gold. []
  2. Other than the still-unfinished 1930s New York novel. []

Epiphanies, Other Opinions and Listening

Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine.1 The sounds weren’t quite as lovely. Spring seems to be the season of renovations in Paddington so the hills were alive with the sound of jackhammers. That and really pissed off birds. One of which shat right in front of me: had I been a fraction faster . . . splat of eww on my head.2

Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.

Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.

Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.

And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.

Plan to fix book was not hatched.

Not exactly.

My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.

Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.

Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.

Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.

This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.

This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.

Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.

Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.

It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.

I am so grateful to Scrivener which allows me to keep track of everything. Seriously have no idea how I wrote a novel before Scrivener.

In conclusion: writing is hard.

  1. Sorry, Margo, but it truly did. []
  2. No, I don’t care that it’s meant to be good luck. []

Racism in the Books We Write

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

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

Often that is a not good thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Enjoy Critical Reviews of Your Own Work

I write this from my perspective as someone who has published nine books and received many critical reviews.

I know that’s obvious but I think it needs restating up front. I know what I’m talking about. People have loathed each one of my books with the fire of a thousand burning suns. People have wanted to throw them across the room, to burn them, to make sure they never get into the hands of impressionable teenagers, to remove them from library bookshelves, and have been bored into a coma by them.

I used to be really upset by negative responses now not so much. I was even upset by what is now my all-time favourite punter review: “Like a bad Australian episode of Charmed.” When I first read it I was incensed. Now, I giggle.

Here are my tips towards enjoying negative reviews of your work.

Not every book or art show or radio play or short movie or whatever it is you have made1 gets reviewed

Most books—even from mainstream publishing houses—don’t get widely reviewed. Getting any reviews at all should be a matter for celebration. Your book is getting coverage! It’s being read! Discussed! It may not disappear without a trace! Woo hoo!

Treasure the good ones, the bad ones, the meh ones: they all mean there is a conversation about your book. You know, the same book you were mostly alone with FOREVER. The book that when you tried to talk about it with other people their eyes would glaze and they’d change the subject. Most folks find other people talking about the book they’re writing the most boring thing in the world.2

Yet, here you are, lo these many months/years later, and now other people know about your book. What’s more they want to talk about it. You don’t have to force them. They have opinions! What could be cooler than that?

A bad review does not necessarily mean people won’t buy your book

Loads of authors automatically assume that because a review is negative it means no one who read that review will read that book. So not true. There are reviewers, who I won’t name, who hate the things I love. A bad review from them is as good as a recommendation from someone I trust.3

There are reviewers I’m unfamiliar with, who in listing the reasons they hate a book, fill me with a strong desire to read it:

This book is anarchist, atheistic, feminist filth about a werewolf in love with a militant unionist troll. The werewolf was not believable. Werewolf men should all be alphas. And the troll? In the real world she would never get a husband. So bossy and annoying. Blood Teeth Explosion is quite possibly the worst, most immoral book I have ever read.

C’mon, who would not want to read such a book? Now I totally wish I hadn’t made it up. Someone write Blood Teeth Explosion for me!

Then there are the completists in the world who don’t care if your vampire/angel/Mormon/atheist/whatever love story is considered rubbish by the majority of reviewers. You have written the thing that they collect. They must have it.

A review of your book is not a review of you

I know it feels like it is. They hated your beloved book that you spent years working on. They read it and dismissed it as nothing! Why don’t they just kick you in the teeth, already?!

But truly they’re responding to words on the page. Their response emerges out of their life experiences, the way they see the world. Yes, you put those words there but your life experiences and the readers’ are different. Odds are they are not going to read those words the way you do. Odds are they’re not going to be thinking of you when they read the story you wrote. And thus their reaction has nothing to do with you.

It’s the book they’re responding to, not you.

Yes, sometimes reviewers write things like “this author could not write their way out of a paper bag” or “author has a weird obsession with astroturf” or “author is a sick sadist to subjects their characters to horrors that should never be written of—I close my eyes and I still see those nylon, lime-green formal shorts.”

“The author” they’re talking about? Not you either. “The author” is an imaginary construct of the reader. Just as this “reader” I’m talking about is my imaginary construct. We know as little about them as they know about us.

You have the power

Someone hated your book enough that they were compelled to tell the whole world about it. Congratualations! You have the power. The book you slaved over? The one you thought would never be published or read by anyone you weren’t related to? Total strangers have read it and not only that they have had a passionate response to it! They want to stab it with a fork! You got to them! Woo hoo!

And the ones who keep going on and on about your “immorality” and “man-hating” ways every time anyone mentions your book anywhere online? They’ve clearly set up a google alert so that they can yell about your book everywhere. You really got to them.

There’s a certain breed of reader who hates all books by women in their genre. I am not making this up. They view every woman-authored book with seething hatred. Just by being a woman who has the temerity to have written in their precious, boys-only genre you have pissed them off. The better your book, the angrier they become, because they have to contort themselves into all sorts of weird shapes in order to prove to themselves that your book is rubbish. And in their heart of hearts they know your book is good and it DRIVES THEM INSANE.

I have had only one example of this particular kind of review. My first trade review was of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction was written by exactly the kind of male science fiction fan the book discusses, who is appalled by the presence of women in his beloved genre, and considers feminism to be a foul bacteria that destroys everything it touches. I still treasure that review.4

In this vein, I once had a reviewer go off about one of my books written in first person.5 First person, this reviewer contended was always a sign of bad writing. And my book was a particularly hideous example because the word “I” appeared on almost every single page. The horror!

So every time we write a book in first person we have the power to annoy that particular reviewer. I don’t know about you but that makes me giggle and rub my evil first-person-point-of-view-typing hands with glee.

We have the power!

In conclusion: Critical reviews can be amusing, prove that you have the power to annoy the annoyable, are not about you, and really just be grateful you’re getting reviewed at all.6

Hope that helps. Would love to hear other coping mechanism for dealing with our books not being loved for the perfection they clearly are. :-)

  1. For the rest of the post just assume “book” stands in for “created thing.” []
  2. Other than hearing about someone else’s dreams, that is. []
  3. Okay, I’ll name one: David Stratton. If he hates a movie it’s pretty much a guarantee I’ll love it. All these years later I still cannot believe he gave Fun no stars. Such an excellent film about female teenage rage. Something, obvously, Mr Stratton knows zip about. Also he loves Woody Allen. Enough said. []
  4. Or, you know, I would if I could remember where it appeared and had ever seen it again. Reviews are so ephemeral; my memory is so crap. []
  5. Honestly, I can no longer remember which book. []
  6. I was going to have another section on how reviews can also be useful when they point out failings in your writing that you had not noticed yourself. But it got really long. Will post it in the not too distant future. []

Changing My Mind: On What to Do About Cranky Authors

Recently I argued that the best way to deal with a cranky author coming after you for writing a less-than-glowing review about their work was to delete the review but say why you had done so. My argument was that obscurity is the worst thing that can happen to an author. No reviews = no attention = no sales = no career. Bye, bye author.

Kat Kennedy (and others) responded in the comments (and on Twitter) to say that while she could understand responding that way she personally would not do it for three reasons: 1) She was proud of her reviews. 2) Some authors badgered reviewers into taking down their negative reviews. Why should they be given what they want? 3) Readers deserve to see the full range of reviews.

Today I woke up to the latest online storm around an author and their fans going after negative reviews which culminated in the reviewer receiving threatening calls. It is so petty and so stupid I just can’t even . . . Aaargh!

What is wrong with people that they can’t take in a simple very obvious fact: we all have different opinions.

Didn’t I just write about this the other day?1 You can’t control what people think of you or your books. I guess I should have also said and if you try you’ll look really, really, really bad. You’ll look like you’re abusing your powerful position as a bestselling, popular author. You’ll make people not want to buy your books far more than any one-star review ever could have.

I have a theory that there’s been a lot more of this kind of bullying from authors lately because there are far more authors who publish themselves without first going through the process of submitting to agents and editors and experiencing rejection. Authors whose work has not been workshopped or critiqued or, in some case, even edited before publication.2 They’ve only being read by people they aren’t related to or are friends with, Then they start being reviewed by strangers. Thus their first experience of criticism happens in public with unfortunate consequences.

My theory may well be true for a handful of those at the extreme end of self-publishing.

But it does not explain the established, published-by-big-houses, several-books-into-their-career, New-York-Times-bestselling authors also freaking out about negative reviews in public.

How on earth can they think a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads is going to have the slightest effect on their career? What exactly are they afraid of from less-than-stellar reviews? The more widely read your books are the bigger amount of bad reviews you’re going to get. Simply because more people are reading you. Bestsellers are pretty much always the most hated. How many haters of Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey are there? Surely there in their gazillions. As are the lovers of those books. It goes with the territory.

It’s the sheer quantity of reviews and responses and other indications of your being read that fuels further sales because they mean your book is being talked about. Many reviews means word of mouth is happening. Whether they’re negative or positive is neither here nor there.

Look, I get that there’s a lot of pressure on those bestsellers for their next book to outsell the last. For them to always be a bestseller. I know it’s very stressful.3 But seriously? Siccing your fans on an Amazon reviewer? Why?

So, yes, I’ve changed my mind. Too many of these cranky authors want negative reviews to not exist. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them bully you into taking down your reviews. Be strong. And make sure as many people as possible know that you’re being bullied. Authors have to stop doing this.

I think the other strategy is only effective for books that are already obscure. In the real world my plan of them having no reviews at all and disappearing into obscurity is not really going to happen.

You should do what works best for you. Being in the centre of an online shit storm is horrible. I’ve been there. For most of us life is too short.

The fact that any amount of an energy is being spent on this is so ridiculous. The fact that readers are nervous about sharing their honest opinions about books is also ridiculous.

You publish books, you get bad reviews. If you don’t want bad reviews don’t write books.

  1. Why isn’t everyone reading me and obeying?! []
  2. This is absolutely not true of all self-published authors. Many of whom are extremely professional. []
  3. Not from personal experience—I’ve had no bestsellers—but from observation. Friends have been/are in that position. []

What to Study to Become a Writer

Lucy Says:

Hi Justine! Firstly, thank you for all your posts about writing novels and the basics; I’m a young writer and your blog has really helped someone so inexperienced!

I’m in high school in Sydney and if you grew up around here I assume you completed the HSC? Or an equivalent, if it’s more recent than I think. I was just wondering what subjects you chose. English is obviously essential for any student who wants to be a writer, but did you find any other subjects particularly helpful? Thanks!

Thanks for your kind words. So glad I’ve helped.

I would definitely advise doing some kind of tertiary study, be it at university, or some kind of trade school. Getting qualifications so you can get a decent paid job is a really good idea. Because the vast majority of published writers do not earn enough to make a living. So those who want to be writers need to figure out what is the best job to enable them to write on the side.

I am on the record as not being a huge fan of studying creative writing. Do read that post and especially make sure you read the comments because plenty disagreed with me including Garth Nix.

Back in the day, I decided that being an academic was the best way to support myself while I wrote. And that’s what I did until I became a freelance writer in 2003. I went to university got two degrees: BA (Hons) and a PhD. In the course of doing so I had many other jobs: I worked retail, I was a receptionist, cleaner, admin assistant, researcher, IT help and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten. I had a scholarship to do my PhD and also taught at the university part-time. I then got my first real full-time job as a postdoctoral researcher.

While all of that was going on I was doing my own writing on the side.

That’s one of the many cools things about being a writer. It is the most transportable of talents. It can fit in with any other job you can name. It can be done anywhere and anytime.

I know other writers for whom technical writing is the main job. I know writers who are also lawyers. One who works in a museum. One who’s an ambo. And many who are teachers and librarians and journalists.1 And even more who work in the publishing industry. Mainly as editors.

I know writers who look at having to have a job other than writing as a burden and a penance and it drives them nuts. But I also know plenty who find that their day job feeds into their writing and who say that without it what would they write about?

It’s a good point: the more experiences you have the more you see of the world and how it works, the better equipped you are to write about it.

I do not know a single full-time pro writer who has not at some point in their life had a different job. We have all worked at something other than writing novels.

As a writer you can do any job you want.2 I would strongly advise not planning your course of study at high school or university around writing. As it really is one of the very hardest jobs to make a living at. While at the same time being, unlike, say, acting, one of the easiest to keep doing while holding down another job.

Deciding what to study for your last years in high school should be shaped by a few things:

Do you want to go to university? What do you want to study there?

If you want get a degree in something with a high entrance score3 then you need to pick the courses that are required for that degree and you need to pick subjects you’re good at and likely to do well in. Maiximise your chances of doing as well as you can so you have your choice of universities and courses.

Don’t forget about the sciences. There’s a huge demand for scientists, not just in this country, but all around the world. And every science is brimming with cool ideas. Perfect for a writer.

If you don’t have a bent for scholarly study or are good with your hands then consider a trade. There are loads of tradies who make more money than your average university-degreed person. Skilled plumbers and electricians and carpenters etc. are always in demand. Plus how many novels are there from the plumber’s point of view? Or the sparky’s? The world needs more of those novels and NO MORE novels from the point of view of middle-aged male university professors. I’m just saying . . .

Other than writing what are your passions?

I have a friend who has always loved the sea. She was a trained scuba diving instructor while still in her teens and now has a PhD in marine biology and a career she loves. Yes, she writes too.

It could be you have a skill, like scuba diving, that could lead you to a career perfect for you.

My sister has always been visually gifted, good at photography. She went on to study art and wound up in the visual effects industry. She has worked on blockbuster films like those in the Matrix and Harry Potter series all around the world.

Many people will tell you that studying art is useless. It wasn’t for my sister.

If you do go to university why not pick subjects you think are cool? That fit into your passions. Who knows where it will lead you? I know plenty of people who are now doing jobs that didn’t exist when they were in high school.

But maybe writing is all you can do and all you want to do. Fine, then. Do what Garth Nix says.

But whatever you decide remember that no one path is irrevocable. You an always change your mind. Most people these days wind up with more than one career during their lifetime.

Good luck, Lucy!

P.S. I did, in fact, do my HSC here in Sydney. A. Very. Long. Time. Ago.

  1. Though that last one seems to be a dying job. Or if not dying a transitioning one. []
  2. Within reason. Could be you live somewhere with high unemployment. []
  3. I’m keeping this generic so it applies to people outside NSW where the HSC does not exist. []

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. []

Selling Yourself Online

Seems to me to be bleeding obvious that tweeting and facebooking and blogging and whatever other social media is the flavour du jour do not automatically equal vastly increased sales. Of any kind. But I’ll talk about books that being what I am in the business of selling.

So I agree with Nick Earls’ post about how social media works for us author types. Except I don’t have a cat and have never had a cat and will never have a cat.1

Loads of authors are being told that they MUST tweet, blog, facebook, tumblr, whatever. Because if you do not have a social media platform NOT ONE BOOK OF YOURS WILL SELL EVER. And they freak out and do it and notice they have hardly any followers and no one’s clicking on the buy links and it’s not working and clearly their career will be a total failure and AAARRGH.

Here’s everything I know about authors promoting books via social media:2

No one knows how to sell books. Not for sure. Not online and not offline.

Many books have had the full weight of their publisher behind them, big publicity budget, huge tour, saturation marketing online and off—the works—and died on their arse. Or, sold well below expectations.3

It’s really easy to look at, say, Hunger Games and declare, “Of course it did well! Look at the promotional campaign behind it.” Sure. But what about all the other books who got the same or bigger campaigns and haven’t sold anywhere near as well?

Some books catch with the wider reading public. Some don’t. A big campaign behind your book sure does help but guarantees nothing. Unless that good old word of mouth takes off your book is not going to shift many units.4

There are also books that come out of nowhere and do really well. Most recently, Fifty Shade of Grey. When it was a self-published ebook—before mainstream publishers picked it up—there was no huge publicity campaign making it sell like hotcakes. Word of mouth did that magic.

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

Which means that publishers and publicists and authors tend to latch on to whatever they can in the hope that it will generate that blessed word of mouth. Telling authors that they should social media their little hearts out has the virtue of giving them something to do. Something that, occasionally, does work.

I know two authors for whom social media has been crucial to their success as writers: John Scalzi and John Green.

Data point: it helps to make it via social media as an author if your first name is JOHN! *considers changing name to John Larbalestier*

Obviously there are loads of writers who use social media really well who sell loads of books.

However, unlike the two Johns, I see no straight line between their use of social media and their sales. I reckon most of them would sell just as well if they had little online presence. Suzanne Collins certainly does. Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love sold stratospherically without either of them having much of an online presence and much of a publicity campaign on first publication.

And many of these successful authors were selling fabulously before social media existed. Most of their followers follow them because they are fans of their books. Not because they’re good at Twitter.

There are also many authors who are amazing at social media, have loads of followers, but don’t sell stratospherically. For some there seems to be an inverse proportion between their sales and their number of followers.

I follow heaps of writers whose books I’ve never bought. Just because I find their tweets witty and amusing doesn’t mean I’ll find the kinds of book they write appealing.

Plenty of people have told me they’ve bought my books because they’re enjoyed my blog or my tweets. Which is lovely. Yay! But I doubt they’re a big percentage of the people who buy my books. I’ve had many more people tell me they read my blog and/or tweets because they like my books.

I’m not saying having a social media presence doesn’t help. I’m sure it does. I’m just saying that there is not a direct impact on sales of books.

Selling Stratospherically

I think part of the problem is that all too many aspiring authors look at the success of a Suzanne Collins or an E. L. James and think that’s attainable for any author.

Um, no.

The vast majority of published authors do not make a living from writing books. I’m talking about novelists published by mainstream presses.5 Most writers have another job. Or supplement their novel writing income with school visits, teaching, other kinds of writing etc.

Most of us feel like we’re doing well if we can support ourselves from just writing novels. So the idea that if you only devoted more time to online marketing than you do to the actual writing you will become the next E. L. James is nutty.

Becoming an author to make bank is nutty. Social media’s not going to make it happen any more than any other form of marketing will. And the fact that it worked for one in a million6 doesn’t really prove the case.

So why social media?

I am not on Twitter because my publisher told me to be.

Okay, actually, I think I am. I was very resistant to Twitter at first. But a publisher said I should so I did. Even though they also told me I had to myspace7 and I hated it and gave it up pretty quickly. Or, at least, forgot about it. Perhaps that myspace page is still there. Is myspace still around?8

I digress.

I stayed on Twitter because it’s fun. It’s a great way to keep up with sport and politics. Especially women’s sport that mainstream news sources do such a terrible job of covering. I really enjoy tweeting with a wide range of people from all round the world about politics, sport, books, film, TV, publishing, random silly stuff. Worst place to get a mostquito bite? Your eyelids. Clearly.

I have come to love the brevity of Twitter. It certainly is way less tough on my RSI than blogging is.

It’s fun to field questions from fans. It makes my day when someone is excited that I followed them. Hey, I was dead excited when one of my favourite basketball players started following me. I so get it. Though perversely I hate being asked to follow people. I’ll follow you if I want to! Sheesh.

I was offline—not blogging and not tweeting much or anything—for almost a year. I saw no effect on my books sales. I came back to it partly because I had a new book out and felt I should. A lot of the publicity Team Human‘s publishers organised was online.

I found that I’d really missed blogging. Even though hardly anyone comments anymore. *pines for the old days* *is super grateful to those of you who do comment* *realises I don’t comment much on people’s blogs either* *shame spirals*

I digressed again! Sorry.

Has returning to the wonderful online world led to increased sales? I have no idea. Certainly it’s led to some. It’s been a useful way to let people know I have a new book out. Though I suspect my publishers’ efforts in getting advance copies of Team Human to book shops and libraries and other important places all over Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA has been even better at letting people know it exists. Their reach is way bigger than my reach.

Do I think social media is essential?9

If you have a well-known publisher behind you, who can get your book widely distributed and reviewed then, no, I don’t think it’s essential. Do it if you’re good at it and enjoy it. It will lead to some sales.

Don’t do it if it feels like a chore. If you resent it because it takes you away from writing. If you don’t enjoy it people can tell. Especially if your every tweet, blog post, facebook entry is about your book and where to buy it and how good it is and how we should all buy it. Don’t do that.

The audience for my blog before I stopped blogging was much bigger than it is now. You can build up an audience but it will vanish if you don’t keep feeding it. After a month back blogging those numbers are slowly growing again but they’re nowhere near where they used to be.

Those numbers, however, can be misleading. It’s easy to fall into thinking that there’s a correlation between visitors to your blog and sales of your books. Even though I had thousands of people visiting here daily back in 2009 I wasn’t selling thousands of books every day. I was selling around the same number of books per day as I am now with the much diminished blog audience.

Basically all my going away did was reduce the number of people who read my blog. Not the number who read my books.

The big effect of returning to blogging has been reigniting my love affair with blogging. *hugs blog*

In Conclusion

The link between online presence and books sales is a hard to prove. It depends on so much. We are still in the very early days of the online world. We’re all pioneers and early adopters and none of us really know how this is going to transform publishing. It’s like people driving in the 1920s. The new car-centred world hadn’t fully formed yet. Neither has the internet-shaped world of publishing.

Right now the people who are most successful at selling themselves online are the ones who do not seem to be selling themselves online. Neither of the Johns, Scalzi or Green, are standing up shouting BUY MY BOOKS. They’re doing what they do, being themselves, and it works. They’re a natural fit, and they started their mostly inadvertent platform building early on in the truly pioneer days. And it worked.

But there are millions of others who started blogging and youtubing around the same time for whom it has not paid off the way it has for the Johns. Two successes do not a model for success make.

The one true path towards a successful writing career is to write. Write a lot. Write well. Spend at least 80% of that precious writing time on writing, not on marketing. And only do it because you love it. Because you can’t not write.

And try not to freak out too much about social media as book marketing. Try to enjoy it for its, you know, socialness. Follow people outside of your industry, who have nothing to do with selling books or marketing, who aren’t useful to you. Follow fabulous,10 wild,11 interesting people12 and crazy all-caps newspaper feeds. Have fun!

  1. Apparently pets would not be down with the whole going back and forth between Sydney and New York City thing. []
  2. I was very tempted to leave the rest of this post blank. But aren’t you lucky? I’m going to ramble on anecdotally instead. Woo hoo! []
  3. No, I’m not going to name the books. It seems kind of rude. []
  4. “Shift many units.” Tee. I’ve always wanted to say that. I feel like a 1950s A&R man. []
  5. For self-published writers it’s even harder. []
  6. Or is it one in a billion? There are an awful lot of books being published these days. []
  7. Back in the day. []
  8. My experience with myspace is why I’m not on facebook. []
  9. However, for self-publishing I imagine that it is essential. But that’s an area I know very little about. The people I know who self publish, such as Courtney Milan, started out with a mainstream publisher and were well-known before they switched. []
  10. A lawyer from Perth, Australia. She cares passionately about refugees in Australia and cricket and Bollywood. She makes me laugh. No, I’ve never met her. []
  11. She’s an awesomely cranky NYC lawyer who likes to argue about social justice. No, I don’t know her. Discovered her via @sunili. []
  12. He’s tweeting small fates from 1912 culled from NYC newspapers. Some are pure poetry. Though of the limerick variety. []

What To Do About Cranky Authors

A friend of mine, a librarian and blogger and reviewer, has had a handful of authors attack her because she wrote what they considered to be bad reviews of their books.1 She did not enjoy it.

This is not an isolated incident. Reviewers have had authors dummy spit2 at them, sic their fans on them, and generally make them wonder why they’re bothering to write reviews.

What can bloggers do when wrathful authors and their hordes descend up on them?

Here’s what my friend did. She took down those reviews. Good idea.

What these authors don’t realise is that their worst enemy is not critical reviews; it’s obscurity. No reviews is way, way, way worse than bad reviews.

Someone hates your book? That’s a good thing because it means they actually read it. (Even better you got a passionate response!) No one reading it. No responses? That’s the fast track to out of print and gone and forgotten.

That’s what I fear: not being able to sell my books because I have no audience. I do not fear people hating my books. Jane Austen is hated. Every writer I love is hated. It’s a feature, not a bug!3

So here’s my advice: if an author has a go at you for a less than gushing review of their book—take it down. And if it’s possible leave a polite note explaining why. Something like:

This space was occupied by a review of X by Cranky Author. Cranky Author was incensed by the review so I have removed it and will no longer review anything by Cranky Author.

See? Everyone’s happy. Cranky Author’s eyeballs are no longer assailed by your shocking blindness to their genius.4 You don’t have to deal with their crankiness.

And maybe if everyone does this, those authors—and fortunately they are small in number—will get the message and knock it off.

As a general rule, authors, do not respond to reviews.5 They’re not for you, they’re for readers. And especially do not attack the authors of those reviews! Leave reviewers alone!

  1. Mostly, of course, these were not bad reviews but more like three-star, has-some-good-points-has-some-bad-points kind of reviews. []
  2. USians: look it up! You are online. You can find out the meaning of any unfamiliar word or phrase in heartbeat. Embrace this gorgeous future we live in. []
  3. Hell, I even have favourite bad reviews of my books. I have quite the collection for Liar. Wow, do the people who hate it REALLY hate it. It’s also, so far, my best-selling novel. Take from that what you will. []
  4. Not unless they go hunting down the cache. []
  5. If you must respond do it generally in a post on your own blog. []

The Point of Process Porn

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

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

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

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

And I didn’t finish.

So I started typing something else.

And didn’t finish that either.

And so it went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. []

Pro Writer versus Pro Academic (Updated)

Hmmm, I wonder if Holly Black would be interested in editing an anthology on that topic? It’s almost as catchy as Zombies versus Unicorns. *cough*

@ronnidolorosa said that she’d “be really interested to read about your experiences in academia, and how it compares to being an author.”

I was raised by two academics. Two lovely, smart, politically engaged and engaging, argumentative and enthusiastic academics. They both have PhDs. I kind of thought everyone got a PhD when they grew up. It’s the main reason I have one. The majority of adults I knew when I was little were academics teaching and researching in universities around Australia and sometimes the world. I don’t know when I first realised there were people in the world whose jobs were not to teach and argue and write about ideas. But it was a bit of a shock.

All I ever wanted to be was a writer of stories, not of academic tomes, but I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time, professional, could-live-by-writing alone writer. Thus I didn’t believe it was possible. But I knew plenty of people who were academics and wrote on the side. They’d use their long summer holidays to write. It seemed like the ideal solution. I like reading and researching and arguing and writing. And that’s a huge part of what you do as an academic. At least so I thought.

What I hadn’t factored in—despite having lived, for many years, with actual academics working in actual universities—is that reading and researching and arguing and writing are not, in fact, the biggest part of being an academic. Administration, politics, grovelling for money in the form of applying for grants,1 and teaching are what takes up the lion’s share of most academics’ lives. I really hate administration, politics, meetings, grovelling for money, and teaching.

Okay, I don’t hate teaching. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let me recalibrate, I’m a good teacher if you’re enthusiastic, smart and engaged with what I’m teaching. I’m absolutely terrible if you’re not. Someone who’s only good at teaching the people who want to be taught, the people who are not struggling with the subject, is not a good teacher.

As a professional writer my life consists of writing and reading and researching.

It’s everything I loved about being an academic with almost none of the stuff I hated. There are very few meetings in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had even one this year.2 The admin is a pain but not nearly as bad as when I was an academic and it’s mostly taken care of by my agent. I don’t have to write any grant applications. On those rare occasions when I teach it’s people who want to learn more about writing and/or publishing.3

Back when I was an academic money was a huge issue. Funding was going down, class sizes were getting bigger, tutorials were being phased out. It was a really depressing time to be an academic. In the many years since I quit it’s gotten worse. Money is even tighter, class sizes bigger. The morale of staff is worse than when I left. And it was pretty bad back then.

In contrast Young Adult publishing is booming and has been booming for more than a decade now.4 It’s an exciting business to be part of. Morale is mostly pretty good. Even with all the seismic shifts in publishing caused by the beginning of the ebook boom and the concurrent growth of Amazon and various forms of independent publishing. Publishing in ten years time is not going to look much like it does right now. Even so most YA writers are happy and enjoy what they do.

I mean, yes, we get angsty and doom laden, but we’re WRITERS. Writers are neurotic. However, compared to the academics I know. Well, there is no comparison.

So, no, I don’t miss the world of academia because I’m doing all the stuff I loved about it plus no ENDLESS MEETINGS.

I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky. The vast majority of writers of novels, no matter what they’re genre, cannot do so full time and still pay their rent etc. If not for my extraordinary luck I would probably still be an academic, writing on the side. It wasn’t really that bad. It’s only in comparison to my ridiculously fortunate life now that I’m so down on it. I’m sure when the YA boom ends and I go back to being an academic I’ll remember everything good about it.

Update: I forgot to mention that before I became a full-time novelist being an academic was BY A HUGE MARGIN the best job I’d ever had.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there are happy, content, non-angsty academics out there who get all the funding they need and teach very small classes. I’m talking only about my experiences. I only really know how things are in Australia and the USA and only at a handful of universities therein.

  1. Of all the genres I am absolutely terrible at, the grant application is right up the top. []
  2. Unless you count me and Scott over dinner and wine discussing the novels we are working on. []
  3. Occasionally a few of those people will want me to tell them that they’re geniuses and should be published without any editing or further work on their manuscripts. But even those tend to get over themselves. []
  4. I’m not stupid though I know the YA boom will end. Just as every other genre boom has ended. E.g. Horror in the eighties. []

Duty of Care

More than any other writers1 we YA writers get grief over our subject matter. We are frequently told that we should not be writing about subjects such as sex, drugs, cutting, suicide, anorexia nervosa, etc. because our audience is vulnerable and easily swayed and it is our duty of care not to lead them down such scary paths.

Now, there are a tonne of smart, cogent ripostes to this argument. But I just want to say that we YA authors do not have a duty of care. It is not the job of YA writers to teach or guide teenagers. That is their parents’ and guardians’ job. Their teachers’ and coaches’ job.

Our only duty is to write the best and most truthful stories we can.

Which is, frankly, hard enough without taking on responsibility for the world’s teenagers. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I salute all you parents! It’s way harder than writing YA books. So imagine how hard it would be if we YA writers really were responsible for all the teenagers who read our books? We would all die.

Too often those adults with the duty of care look to us to not write things they consider inappropriate for the teenagers they are looking out for. How on Earth can we YA writers be the judge of that? I don’t know your teenager. I don’t know what will freak them out. Frankly, the teenagers I do know are not freaked out by what I write. I’m freaked out by more stuff than they are.

Sometimes I don’t think parents know what will freak out their teenagers either. And I say this because parents I know have told me they have no idea what goes on in their teenagers’ minds. Somehow they think that because I write for teenagers I might have some helpful hints for gauging the mysteries of the teenage mind.

Sorry. Teenagers are as varied as adults. Half the time I barely know what’s in my mind, let alone anyone else’s.

To be totally honest I mostly write for the teenager I was and the adult I am. I write stories that interest and engage me. That those stories fall into the publishing niche that is YA is a happy accident. And that some teenagers find them entertaining/useful/inspiring/whatever is an even happier accident.

I am sorry that we YA writers are not portraying the kind of world you think is suitable for your teenagers. But I have a solution. Why not write your own books?

Why not write the world the way you want it without all the bits you find objectionable, without any scary conflict, or teenagers doing things you wish they wouldn’t? And then every time the teenagers in your life pick up what you consider to be the wrong kind of book you can give them yours instead. Who knows? Maybe it will be a bestseller and start a whole new genre.

  1. Except for those who write for children, obviously. []

On Blogging and the Olympics

So here it is the final day of my blogging every day of July effort and I have succeeded!1 And it was fun. So much fun that I’m going to keep on blogging. Not every day but at least once a week. Turns out I missed it way more than I realised. Missed you commenter types both here and on twitter. I think we had some really cool and interesting conversations over this month and I hope we’ll have many more. *hugs blog* *hugs commenters* *cries*

I didn’t do all the posts I promised I would. I know. I am badness. But I will do them. In the future. In the not-too-distant future even. If you ask me to opine on something here or on twitter eventually I will do so.

I did not, in fact, use voice recognition software. I tried and gave up in anger and frustration. But I will do the post I promised @SirTessa in which I use that dread software without correcting any of the mistakes.

However, not using it was really positive because I also finished the first draft of a novel this month2 and thus between that and blogging every day was typing more than I had for ages and doing so in a managed way. Some days, yes, I was very sore. But I never pushed through and typed more than twenty minutes at a time. And the frequent breaks—including at least two days off per week—and stretching and strength work and treatment kept the pain manageable. Turns out I can write more than I think I can. To which, well, YAY + DANCE OF JOY.

And my reward for finishing the first draft of a new novel and blogging every day?

THE OLYMPICS.

So far I have watched, in no particular order:

  • shooting—for the first time and it was way more interesting than I thought it would be
  • hockey—the Aussie men are RIDICULOUSLY good what a pleasure they are to watch
  • basketball—the US women ditto. I mean, they could field an entirely different team from the WNBA and they’d still win gold. Hell, they could go all the way down to, like, the fourth, fifth, and sixth team options and they’d still medal. Depth? Oh, yes, my second nation has it. Total pleasure to watch them play. Especially Seimone Augustus. Oh, how I love her. And yes I adore the Opals and I want them to win but without Penny Taylor? I mean, even with Penny Taylor it was a long long long long shot.
  • badminton—shuttlecocks are freaking awesome, I love how they are at once faster and slower than a tennis ball. I also love that serving has no impact on the game
  • weightlifting—has to be the most stressful sport of all. I am always afraid their eyeballs are going to pop out of their skulls, that muscles will rip from bone, that their heads will explode. I love the slapping and screaming and other weird stuff they do to psych themselves up and how cool is it when they manage to keep that insanely heavy bar above their head and their feet in line and not moving? Very. And some of them are lifting three times their own weight. Let me repeat: THREE TIMES THEIR OWN WEIGHT!
  • gymnastics—you know, every other sport I kind of feel like I can do a much crappier version of it. I could shoot and play hockey. I have played basketball and tennis and table tennis. I’ve lifted weights. I’ve been training at boxing for almost a year now. I have dived into pools. I’ve swum, run, rowed, canoed and jumped. These are all possible things. Admittedly everyone at the Olympics is doing them a gazillion times better than me. But the gymnastics? I cannot do any of those things. Not a one.3 Gymnasts fill me with awe.
  • table tennis—watching high level table tennis is for me like watching high level snooker. I have played this game in friends’ basements, backyards and the pub. The game I play has nothing in common what I see before me on the television machine. Wow.
  • diving—ditto. With even more wow.
  • beach volley ball—anyone who says this is not a real sport deserves a smack. Yes, they’re wearing bikinis so do many of the track and field athletes and no one’s dissing the 100 metre sprint.
  • boxing—I know. I know. It’s brutal and evil and violent and gives people all sorts of horrible brain damage and only barbarians could possibly like it. But, well, colour me barbarian. I’ve always liked boxing but learning how to do it has increased my appreciation and respect for its practitioners a hundred fold. It is so hard and so technical and so much more cerebral than I realised. Can’t wait to catch some of the women’s matches because I’ve never seen one before.
  • canoe slalom—This is CRAZY. I love it.
  • rowing–I have rowed. It is really hard. These athletes are incredible.
  • swimming—I swam with a swimming squad for quite a few years. Getting up at 5AM to train, having the coach go over the finer details of all the strokes with me.4 Doing endless laps with kickboards etc etc. Thus my empathy for what the swimmers put themselves through is very, very, very large indeed. And watching technically perfect swimmers gives me large amounts of joy. Plus underwater cameras? I love you.

The time difference between Sydney and London is kind of perfect. Live coverage starts at 5:30pm in Sydney and the last events are winding up at 9am the next day. So I can watch until I go to bed and then wake up around 7am in time to watch a live game of basketball. Then I can go about my normal day of gym, boxing, writing etc. I admit it, this particular sports lover is in heaven. I kind of wish the Olympics was on every single day of the year.

  1. Weekends do not count. No one is online on Saturdays and Sundays. Scientific fact. []
  2. *bounce* *bounce* *bounce* []
  3. Well, okay, I can do some of the goofy dance moves in the floor routines but other than that? Nope. []
  4. Why does that always sounds so rude? []

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. []

YA Novelists Are In It For The Money

I’m not going to link to where I saw this particular bizarre notion. Mostly because it’s not something that’s found in one place. I’ve come across the same sentiment in various locations offline and on- over the last ten or so years. So it’s kind of irrelevant who said it most recently.

But here’s gist of the argument:

YA writers only do it for the money. They don’t care about the effect their [insert negative adjective] work has on children only about making money.

I’m fascinated that this argument gets made at all ever. I don’t know a single writer who became a writer to make money. Everyone I know is a writer because they can’t not be a writer. It’s a compulsion. A vocation. Something they do whether they’re paid for it or not. This is true across genres.

The idea of becoming a YA writer to make bank? Crazy.

Most of the YA writers I know don’t make enough money from writing books to do it full-time. They have other jobs. Those writers I do know who earn enough to write full-time, like myself, are not exactly rolling in the big bucks. Gina Rinehart would not bend over to pick up what I make in a year. And, frankly, most of us full-time YA writers can’t believe our good fortune. We know way too many brilliant writers who aren’t making enough to do it full-time. We are very aware of how lucky we are.

I know only a handful of writers who are earning what I consider to be big money from writing YA novels. They are the tiny minority. And the odds of them continuing to make that kind of money in a decade’s or twenty year’s time is pretty low. Look at the bestselling books of 10, 15, 20 years ago. Very few of those books are still selling now. Making good money from writing books and continuing to do so for a lifetime? Very rare.

If someone really decided to become a YA novelist solely to make big money then they’re an idiot with incredibly poor research skills. Choosing to write novels—in any genre—as a path to riches is about as smart as buying lottery tickets to achieve the same.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that YA writers are all making vast bucketloads of cash.1 How does making lots of money for writing books automatically mean you will do it contemptously of your audience? Where does that idea come from?

I’m particularly bewildered because the vast majority of people who make this argument are from the USA. Isn’t making loads of money supposed to be a good thing in the USA? Something you should be proud of? Something that qualifies you to run for president?

It swiftly becomes apparent that it’s artists, not just writers, but any kind of artist, who shouldn’t earn money from their work. Apparently money taints art or something. I’ve never quite understood the logic of this argument. Personally, I’ve always thought that starvation puts the biggest crimp on creating art. You know, on account of how it leads to death. It is incredibly hard to create art while dead or while living in poverty. Art’s something that’s much easier to do when survival is not the biggest issue facing you every day.

The fact that there are people out there living in poverty who still manage to create art fills me with awe. People are amazing. But that does not make poverty a necessary condition for the creation of art. It’s a major obstacle that a few people are (rarely) able to overcome.

So, yes, I call bullshit on this particular claim. Only a fool would get into writing YA novels to become rich.

For the record here’s why I write YA: because that’s the publishing category the books I write fit into. I was writing YA before I even knew the genre existed. Making money from writing those novels and perverting the minds of innocent teenagers is just a happy accident.

  1. And maybe when I wake up tomorrow it will be true! Think of all the ball gowns I’ll own. I’ll wear a different one EVERY SINGLE DAY. Um, I mean I will give loads of money to worthy charities and help eradicate malaria and all other eradicable diseases from the planet. WHILE WEARING AN AWESOME BALL GOWN. What? I like pretty frocks, okay? []

School/Author Visits/the Glories of Q & A/Fake Blind Bank Robbers

Yesterday I did my first school visits in Sydney.1 I went to Willoughby Girls High and Ravenswood Girls School on the North Shore.2 I was dreading it as I always am when I have to speak in front of people I don’t know. Why can’t I stay home and write?! Waaah! I hate public speaking! I hate school visits! Etc.

But then, as always, I got to Willoughby Girls High and everyone was lovely, especially the school librarian, and my talk on how Team Human went from idea to finished book didn’t seem to put anyone to sleep. Not even the teachers.3 I didn’t faint or vomit or drop my water or show the wrong images and best of all the question and answer portion of proceedings went exceedingly well.

I love Q & A.4 That’s the part where I get to hear what other people are thinking. I know what I think. I spend all day listening to my thoughts. I rarely get to hear what schools girls on the North Shore are thinking and interested in. Willoughby Girls High Years 8 and 9 did not disappoint asking many smart questions.5 I think we were all disappointed when the bell went that we couldn’t keep on asking and answering questions for a few more hours. Though that might be because their next class was maths.6

In fact, yesterday’s talk was inspired by questions I’d been asked at previous such talks. People outside publishing are always bewildered by how long it takes for a book to go from sold to a publisher to being in the bookshops. I’m frequently asked how long it takes me to write a book, and how I made my books’ covers. So I took them through the whole process. And I even brought some cover elves along to demonstrate how a cover is made. They went over a treat.

Afterwards me and the librarians and some of the teachers were talking about how we’d never had author visits back when we were in school and how lucky these kids were. Back in the day we hadn’t even been aware that people who wrote books were alive. Much less someone you could meet and ask question of.

Then on the way home I remembered that I had in fact had an author come to my school. I was stunned I’d forgotten about it because it was totally scarifying. In a good way. When I was in Year 10 at the Australian International Independent School7 there were two boys in our class who were on the verge of getting into serious trouble. They were at the minor breaking of the law stage. But they had started to steal cars and go for joy rides. Our teacher decided to scare them straight by getting the author of the book that the movie Hoodwink was based on to come in and talk about life as a prisoner.8

This guy was the leanest, hardest looking bloke I’d ever seen. He walked into that room and we all went quiet and we were a noisy lot. He told his story. That he’d been a bank robber, that he’d gotten caught and been sent to prison. Loads of time. He said being sent inside was not an occupational hazard but an occupational certainty. He didn’t know any bank robbers who weren’t done eventually. He’d gotten early release by pretending to go blind and fooling everyone including eye specialists. He had a bit of a grin on his face describing it. It’s an amazing story and we were amazed.

He talked in great detail about how awful it is in gaol. How it breaks you and hardens you. He spared us no details. He talked about how the young blokes were always raped. You could feel the air go out of the room when he said that. When we got to the Q and A part he went out of his way to deglamorise every aspect of his outlaw life. What living in hiding is like. How you make almost no money from being a bank robber. And even when you do get a big haul and get away with it you get busted as soon as you spend it. Etc.

I raised my hand to ask what it was like in women’s prisons. Surely that wasn’t as bad as the men’s? No, he said, it’s much, much worse and went into detail about just how awful it was.

I don’t know about the two boys at risk but that author visit certainly scared me into total law abidingness.

In conclusion: Don’t rob banks! Read books! Author/school visits are educational and fun and sometimes scary! Ask questions!

Did any of you have an author visit that has had a big impact on you?

  1. Actually, they were my first visits as an author to any school in Australia. That’s because for the duration of my writing career I have mostly been in Australia during the summer when schools are not in session. []
  2. Or as we inner city types think of it Here Be Dragons. []
  3. True fact. I have seen teachers nod off during these things. Yes, while I was talking. []
  4. So much that every Monday I find myself watching the ABC’s Q and A and yelling at the television set and swearing that I will never watch that damn show again. And yet there I am the following Monday yelling at the tellie. []
  5. Unfortunately, I got the timing wrong at Ravenswood and there was no time for Q and A. :-( My bad. []
  6. Seriously, high school students everywhere, maths will be really useful later on and if you’re like me and paid no attention whatsoever and are a maths moron you will be lost at tax time and understanding stuff like royalties and other number related things that are important to you and oh, how you will regret your decision that maths was stupid lo those many years ago. /lecture []
  7. A hippy school at North Ryde that was all about internationalism and peace studies. It was excellent. But full of kids who’d been chucked out of other schools or were gently asked to leave. *cough* []
  8. I have done some limited googling and failed to find the name of the book or the author that the film was based on. If you know please to tell me! []

Writing Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

“Ness is coming back.”

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

“They will be undone.”

“Is Cousin Ettie coming too?”

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

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

“Rolling.”

“I thought no one was any more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. []

State of the RSI

Since so many of you have kindly inquired about how I’m doing1 I figured best to answer you all in a post. Also Sarah Zarr recently posted about her own trials and tribulations, which reminded me yet again of how common these injuries are.

Yes, I am still dealing with pain. My RSI2 has not improved, but it has not gotten worse, and I have learned to manage it by getting strong and fitter, with physical therapy, and by limiting keyboard time and making my work space totally ergonomic. All of that has had all sorts of other health benefits. I am in amazing shape,3 which really does make everything else easier and less stressful. Though the time & money involved in all of that is scary. I recognise that I am very lucky to be able to afford to deal with this. There are plenty who can’t.

However, probably the most important thing for me over the last year or so has been realising that this is forever. That if I don’t maintain my fitness and core strength and manage the pain it will get worse. But even if I do all that it’s not necessarily going away. Accepting that management was the best I could do was really hard and incredibly depressing. But once I did accept that it made everything a lot easier. I stopped waiting for the magic cure, stopping putting stuff on hold, and got on with the rest of my life.

Some days it gets me down. But mostly it doesn’t. I am especially feeling good right now because I am nearing the end of the first draft of my first solo novel4 since Liar which I finished writing in 2008. Long time between drinks, eh?

So that’s where I am at. For those of you who are starting to have the first little twinges of pain from writing—I beg of you—do something about it right now! Actually, for anyone writing long hours every day take frequent breaks,5 make sure you are set up ergonomically, take at least a day off writing a week, though two is better, get fit! Seriously, it will see you through to a long and pain-free writing life.

Which is what we all want, right?

  1. I appreciate it. Thank you. It really makes a difference to know that I’m not alone with this. []
  2. Repetitive strain injury. Basically RSI describes a whole host of different conditions that are caused by a repetitive action such as typing. But many others get RSI too: house painters, factory workers etc. etc. []
  3. If I don’t say so myself. *cough* []
  4. That’s right the real work is about to begin! Can’t wait. []
  5. Drink loads of water so you need to pee a lot. It’s an excellent way of ensuring many breaks. []

The Purpose of Bad Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: On Writing Scripts for TV in Australia and the UK

In the comments on Writers and Editors, Sarah Dollard delivered a fascinating treatise on how TV scripts are produced and what a script doctor does. I could not let be lost in the comments so here it has its own post. Take it away, Sarah:

As requested, here’s a rundown of how the process differs in television.

The job of the TV script editor can vary wildly from show to show, genre to genre, country to country. I can only speak about working on soap in Australia, and on numerous dramas here in the UK, as both writer and a script editor. From my limited understanding of the system in the US, things seem very different there; they don’t strictly have ‘script editors’ at all.

In Australia, I’ve found that the script editor job is openly acknowledged as one of re-writing; an editor will literally write whole new drafts of the work after the hired writer has finished on the episode. Next, a supervising script editor will do a polish and, after that, if any changes need to be made for production reasons, it is once again the job of the script editor to step in. This is the norm on high-output shows like soaps, where the writer only has one chance to get it right, and from then on the script is taken into the script department to be fostered through to the shooting script stage.

As far as I know, this type of script editor does not exist in an official capacity in the UK; here, a script editor would not change a writer’s work unless that writer was trapped under something very large and heavy, and even then you’d have to get their permission first. But that’s not to say that re-writing doesn’t happen. For whatever reason, on some shows it does fall to script editor to step in and re-write; maybe the writer hired for the job can’t get the script up to scratch and the head writer isn’t available to take over; perhaps a writer dropped out and couldn’t be replaced; perhaps the script is already being shot and changes need to be made on the hoof. However, when this does happen in the UK, it’s done very much on the quiet. Personally, I’ve never heard of a script editor getting credited for their writing, even if the shooting script contains little of the original writer’s work. Whatever the reality of the situation, script editors are not supposed to re-write in the UK; it’s not the ‘done thing’, and they’re certainly not paid for it.

If anyone is interested, what follows is a rundown of the *usual* experience of a script editor working on drama in the UK. I’ve been inspired to write all this down because I was having a drink with my current script editor the other night and when someone heard what she did for a living, they asked, “So, what, you like correct the writer’s spelling and stuff?”. To her credit, she did not punch this person. She just calmly replied, “It’s a bit more than that, actually.” And then I bought her a large drink.

While it does vary, usually a script editor’s job starts early, before a freelance writer is even brought on board to write an episode. Working with a small team (usually the head writer and the producer, maybe a script producer if there is one), the script editor will help to storyline the overall arc of the series and create a basic plan for each of the individual episodes. Sometimes he/she might have a say in which writers are hired, and which episode each is best suited to.

Once a writer is on board, the script editor will help brief him/her on the overall arc for the series and – along with the head writer/producers – talk through the basic plan for his/her episode. The writer goes away and writes up an outline (anything from five to ten pages, describing the story in full but without dialogue). The writer then meets with the script team again to talk through any problems with that outline. The script editor will write up notes based on the meeting. Sometimes the script editor’s *only* job is to write up those notes, but more often he/she will be fully involved in the meeting on a creative level, giving their own feedback and helping to find solutions.

The writer then does another draft of the outline, and another, and possibly another, and each time the script editor gives written notes, sometimes with a face to face meeting first, sometimes without, until the outline is considered solid and workable and ready to ‘go to script’. These notes are probably very much like those an author gets on a manuscript; there will be feedback on character, structure, tone and style. The big difference is that with TV, the writer doesn’t ‘own’ the story and the characters; they must pour their heart into the work, of course, but ultimately their vision must comply with an already established world; their episode must fit in with the continuity of the episodes that come before and after.

This cycle (writer writes draft –> feedback meeting –> notes from script editor –> writer writes new draft) works in much the same way once the writer has gone to script, only now there will also be notes on dialogue and action, as well as character and structure. There can be any number of script drafts completed before anyone outside the script team looks at the writer’s work. But once the script team is happy with the script, it will be shown to an executive-producer, or similar, to get a fresh perspective. Then the cycle of notes/meeting/new draft continues!

The whole way through this process, the script editor needs to be available to the writer to answer questions via phone or email, to help chat through any problems, and to communicate any new issues that might arise due to changes in other episodes.

The next stage happens when the production team gets a hold of the script for planning purposes. Necessary changes to the script might arise due to restrictions (or exciting new possibilities!) with locations, costumes, casting, stunts, etc. The script editor will communicate any necessary changes to the writer, and the writer puts them on the page.

Sometimes changes must be made due to notes from the network/broadcaster. These notes can be regarding creative issues, or to do with the classification of the program – usually because the swearing, violence, gore or sex needs to be toned down. Personally, I’ve never had a broadcaster ask for more nudity, cursing or carnage, but I’m sure it does happen! Oh, and it’s also the script editor’s job to liaise with the nearest legal-boffin-type-person and make sure that any names or products mentioned in the script are ‘cleared’.

Once the script is actually being shot, the script editor works with the writer to make any necessary day-to-day changes to the script. Perhaps a scene will need to be tweaked because it’s raining on the day of the shoot, and the scene had to be moved inside. Or perhaps the episode has turned out a little short, and the writer will have to write new material.

I hope all of that was of interest to someone! Perhaps I will direct my parents here and they will finally understand what I’ve been doing for the past eight years.

As discussed in the previous post this could not be more different than the process of writing a novel, which is far, far, far, far less collaborative. I do not think I could work on TV show.

Does anyone have experience of working on TV shows in the USA or any other countries? Would love to hear about the differences.

Writers & Editors

Last month I got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. Crusie thinks NOT AT ALL and I completely agree and said so, which led to a back and forth with a good editor friend of mine, Juliet Ulman, who said she rewrites her authors. I happen to know many authors who’ve been edited by Juliet and love her editorial style1 and it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about the same thing.

There were also many folks commenting on Jennifer Crusie’s blog and on twitter who were like NO ONE CAN TOUCH A WORD OF MY WRITING EVER. And I was pretty sure that we weren’t talking about the same thing either.

What I think was going on is that we all seem to mean something different by “rewriting”. So I’m going to write about what I mean by rewriting and about how I view the writer/editor relationship.

Let me start by saying: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever substance it is that you love most.

Every single one of my published books have been rigorously edited. They have been vastly improved by working with an editor. Without all those editorial interventions they would be much, much crappier.

Editors have improved my books by pointing out where the story bogged down, pointing out things that made no sense, suggesting I cut characters/scenes/story arcs. They’ve also argued passionately to see more of particular characters and story arcs. They’ve made me expand scenes, add scenes, add chapters, strengthen characters’ story arcs. They have made me rewrite the endings of several of my books many, many times until we were both happy with it.2

Editors have improved my books in ways that I’m not even thinking of now. But they have never done it by replacing my words with their words. That is what I mean by editors not rewriting my work. Every word in every novel I’ve published is there because I wanted it to be there, because I wrote it. Or because Sarah wrote it.3

Now this does not include micro edits of the “their” for “they’re” or “there” variety. I have a tendency towards misspelling my own characters’ names as Sarah Rees Brennan can attest. While working on Team Human I kept writing Frances, when I meant to write Francis. I have to be watched like a hawke!

Nor does it include editors deleting redundant words like “just” and “really” and “actually.”4 Or supplying missing words. Sometimes I type so fast words don’t make it onto the page. Or words come out as homonyms “no” for “know.” Or more bizarrely I’ll type one word but mean an entirely different word “flirt” for “razor,” “quokka” for “effulgent.”5

This kind of editing is done not only by the editor but also by the copyeditor and the proofreader. The goal is that the final book will have no such mistakes in it. Alas and alack a book with no mistakes in it is rarely if ever achieved. Best to think of those last few typos as the flaw in the Persian carpet.

I have had a few editors write their own words as a suggestion to try and get across what they want me to do with a particular passage in a book and I have had pretty much the same reaction Jennifer Crusie described. I really hate it. Get your hideous words off my book! The horror! The horror!

But most of the editors I work with don’t do that. They’re more likely to write something like: Do you really think they would be quite this passionate given that they’ve only just met? Seems a bit quick. Rather than Alfonso should say . . . Basically I want my editors to tell and not show. Those editors I’ve worked with that do show only do it rarely. Over the years I have learned to simply not see those words. My brain looks at the suggested wording and goes: Editor no like this bit. Me fix.

I hope that’s made what I mean by “rewriting” a bit clearer. But if not please demand further explication in the comments.

However, I do not believe that every word, every phrase, every sentence I write is a precious, precious thing that cannot be fixed. I think everything can be improved. SHOULD be improved. And that working with a good editor is absolutely vital in that process. However, the editor’s role is to suggest, my job is to do.

Which is why every published novel of mine has gone through multiple drafts.

In the course of the twitter discussion Peter Mattessi requested that I “mention things like whether editors should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” Peter comes from the television side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing.

The process of editing one of my novels kind of goes like this:

Editor reads sends writer editorial letter which usually focus on the big picture stuff: stuff that doesn’t make sense, pacing, character likeability etc—>
I read and make changes (where I agree with them) based on editorial letter + stuff I’ve noticed that I want to fix—>editor reads this version—>
Editor writes next ed letter which is usually pushing me further with changes I’ve already made: be less subtle. As well as finer detail and more small picture stuff: this character use the word effulgent too much, why is everyone grimacing—>
I read ed. letter and make changes I agree with + other stuff I want to embettermerate6 —>
Editor reads this version and asks for further changes or passes it along to the copy editor.

It would be lovely if Peter and/or Sarah Dollard, who is also a TV writer, could write in the comments about how that’s different from what happens to produce finished TV scripts.7

To answer Peter’s questions. Yes, I actually do think editors should be credited. But they mostly are. It’s a very rare author who doesn’t thank their editor in the acknowledgements. It helps other writers figure out who they want to work with.

What am I thoughts on the relationship of Raymond Carver to his editor, Gordon Lish? I’m not really the right person to ask because I’m not a huge fan of that kind of minimalist writing. By which I mean I have never finished a Carver story. I find them unemotional, flat and unengaging. Yeah, I know, blasphemy. However, I’ve never compared the edited-by-Lish version with the pure Carver version. So I don’t know if he improved them or not.

Personally, I would loathe working with an editor like Lish. My gut reaction is that someone having their ego that tied up with someone else’s writing is more than a bit off. From the little I have read about the relationship, basically this New Yorker article, they seemed to have a pretty dysfunctional relationship. But many, many, many people love those Carvers stories so who am I to say?

It sure is an interesting relationship.8 And there are examples, though for some reason I’m failing to think of a single one, where a male writer’s work was supposedly largely written by his wife. Or at least edited by her in a Gordon Lish kind of way. Should they have gotten credit? I would think so. Lish should probably have been credited. It’s inarguable that he had a HUGE impact on those Carver stories to the level of being a near collaborator. But, on the other hand, those stories would never have existed without Carver. None of the stories Gordon Lish wrote on his own have had any where near the impact of the Carver stories.

So, um, actually I have no idea.

In conclusion: Good editors, I love them. But don’t ever agree to changes you don’t want. They are your words, own them.

  1. I had my editor submit my one adult novel to Juliet because I’d heard such good things. It didn’t work out but I mention this because I want to make it clear how much I esteem Juliet’s editorial acumen. []
  2. Endings are the hardest part. Always. []
  3. Truly we became as one while writing Team Human. Every word in that book is our word. []
  4. No, they’re not always really redundant just most of the time. Actually. []
  5. No, I don’t know why. Brains are really weird, okay? []
  6. Yes, that is too a word! Damn you, copyeditors! []
  7. In their ample spare time, I mean. []
  8. Further to what I said above: any editor worth their salt would tell me to delete this sentence because it adds nothing. They would be correct but I’m leaving it there to make this point. My blog posts are not edited, except by me, which is seriously not enough, and that’s why they’re not as well written as my books. This post is full of redundancies. There aren’t enough commas and etc. []

Bad Reviews & Being Nice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Team Human Fanart!

StreetAngel has done it again. In fact, she is producing a whole week’s worth of fanart to celebrate Team Human landing on 2-3 July.1

I am beside myself. These are so lovely and full of so many details from the books and oh! I know, I know, I am very daggy about fan art. It’s just so new for me to have any.

I have placed the art below the cut because I know some of you want no spoilers no matter how tiny. For the rest of you—feast your eyes! Continue reading

  1. Depending on whether you’re in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the USA. I have heard rumours that some copies have already been sighted in the wild. []

July: Blogging A Lot Month (Updated)

I have decided to put this here voice recognition software to the test in the month of July by blogging every day.1 Yes, I will blog every single day of July 2012.

Tell Me What To Blog

If there’s anything you would like me to blog about please let me know! The comments are below in the manner of most blogs.2

I’ve had a few suggestions on Twitter:

@SirTessa wants me to write a complete post without correcting any of the voice recognition software mistakes. I WILL DEFINITELY DO THAT.

@WanderinDreamr wants me to write about Australian slang “the rest of the world is confused by”. My problem with that is, well, how am I supposed to know? Australian slang does not confuse me. Though I do love many of the words that are unique to these fine shores so I may just write about my favourite ones.

@ben_rosenbaum suggested I blog tongue twisters on account of the voice recognition software. I am ignoring him.

@nalohopkinson wanted me to “opine on bubble skirts”. How could I resist writing a horrors & joys of fashion post? Oh, bubble skirt, I shall SO opine about you.

I also recently got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. I think NOT AT ALL. Turns out that people mean different things by “rewriting”. I spluttered about on twitter in a way that I think was mostly confusing. A post is in order to clarify my thoughts. @pmattessi requested that I “mention things like whether eds should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” He comes from the tv side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing. I suspect my post will be about the writer/editor relationship with a little touch of the thankless work of the copyeditor.

Another interesting discussion concerned the way English-speaking cultures are so full of hatred for children & teenagers and how that is not the case in places like Spain, Italy, and Thailand.3

Many years ago I promised a post about writing dialogue. If any of you still want such a post I may attempt to finish it. It’s just that it’s hard because I’m not really sure how I write dialogue. You know, other than I type it and make sure there are quote marks around it. (And sometimes I use italics if it’s dialogue that’s not being directly said.)

Is challenging voice recognition software the only reason for blogging every day of July?

Nope. I really miss blogging. Not blogging hardly at all for such a long time has left me with many pent up THOUGHTS and FEELINGS that do not fit on twitter. I miss sharing them with you. But mostly I miss the wonderful crew of commenters who once hung out here. I miss your wit and your wisdom and your snark and your sincerity and your sarcasm and your silliness. I am hoping some of you will return. Even though blogs are so beginning-of-this-century and everyone’s on twitter and tumblr these days. I don’t care. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still love them.

Also my newest book, Team Human, written with Sarah Rees Brennan, will be published on 2 July in Australia and New Zealand and 3 July in Canada and the USA. This means I will be doing a fair number of interviews and the like about said book all over the internets. But while I love TH dearly and am very proud of it and over the moon with joy that the early responses to the book have been so positive the idea of talking about it non-stop for a month makes me feel a bit tired. This will be my online respite.

A Digression

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that by the time a book is published and it’s time to publicise it we authors have spent so much time with the book that it’s the last thing in the world we want to talk about. When I’m really itching to talk about my books is during the drive towards the finish of the first draft—when I know I’m going to finish it and talking about it won’t jinx it and the book becomes the only thing in the world I want to talk about. And—most of all—during the first few rewrites when it has become the only thing in the world I can talk about.

Unfortunately that is when very few people have read it and they’re all bored with me asking them questions about what they thought of the world building or the main characters and whether they think I should get rid of the gilded-wings subplot or expand the diabolic-exploding-hairclip subplot. They are so over my book and, by extension me, in fact, that if I ring them they no longer pick up. And my emails to them start to bounce. Waaaaaahhhh!!!!!!!

Fortunately there’s Scott and my lovely agent Jill and my editor who are always happy to talk endlessly about my book during these times. Bless them!

In Conclusion

In July I will blog a lot.

Update: @Marrije has also requested via Twitter that I “do a post on How To Find The Good Food In Any City? Isn’t this your superpower? Can you teach us?”

@MalindaLo has requested: “I blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

  1. Except weekends. Cause, come on, no one is on the intramanets on the weekend. Scientific fact. []
  2. I thought about having them above but my web designer said no. []
  3. And I’m sure in many other places I’ve not been to. []

Monsters I Have Loved

Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*

Here it is:

Monsters I Have Loved

Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson

Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.

Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.

Excellently recursive, yes?

I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.

Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.

Nah, not really.

When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:

Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis

Am I right?

I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.

No?1

Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.

Me and Elvis

My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.

The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.

I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.

I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).

Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.

(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)

I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.

That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”

A thousand times NO!2

What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.

What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3

It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.

My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.

I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.

My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.

From http://www.outbushpitchas.com

This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.

Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4

Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.

The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.

I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.

Appropriation

I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.

Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.

Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)

They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?

Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:

I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.

Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.

Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6

Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?

Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?

Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?

Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.

But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.

I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.

Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.

Originality

My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.

Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7

In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.

He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”

“Angela Carter.”

“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”

He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?

It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.

At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8

And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.

Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.

But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.

I am no more original than Elvis.

Can Feminists Love Elvis?

But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?

He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.

How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)

In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.

No! Yes! Um, maybe.

Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.

Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.

I adore it.

SO MUCH.

US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.

Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.

I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.

You all make up stories that go with songs, right?

That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)

Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.

I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.

But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.

So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11

Recursively Speaking

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.

And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.

My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .

Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.

Thank you!

  1. At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. []
  2. I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. []
  3. Check out these accounts of discovering you are black or white (though mostly black). They’re from Baratunde Thurston’s tumblr for his book How to be Black which you should all read because it’s smart and insightful and funny as. The book and the tumblr. []
  4. I recently re-watched Stay Away Joe and it turns out to be jaw-droppingly bad and not just because it is sexist and racist. There is, in fact, nothing good about that movie at all. []
  5. I was little! See photo above. []
  6. For about a week to be totally honest. []
  7. Dissenting comments will be deleted. []
  8. As you do. []
  9. Yes, including the farts. []
  10. By the way there’s increasing evidence that cave humanity was not as cavemanish as we think but I digress []
  11. Courtney Milan has written several historical novellas along these lines. They are delicious. []

Cassandra Clare on the Myth that Authors Automatically Condone What We Depict

Cassandra Clare has written an important piece called Rape Myths, Rape Culture and the Damage Done. If you haven’t read it already you really should. Be warned: she discusses much which is deeply upsetting.

What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:

[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.

What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.

The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER!3

But I digress the most annoying part of the “you wrote about it therefore you must approve of it” argument is that it shuts down discussion. If to write about rape or war is to approve of it than there’s nothing else to be said. The actual debate should be about how such fraught parts of human existence are written about.

Which is to agree again with Cassie. Context is everything. Arguing that merely depicting something means condoning it strips away all context, strips away the why and how of the depiction. It says that a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved is exactly the same as any of John Norman’s Gor books. After all there’s rape and slavery in both of them.

  1. Complaint letters about Liar make up the bulk of the specific complaints I get. []
  2. True fact, I goofed. And since there wasn’t a second edition it’s never been fixed. []
  3. Mostly though teenagers don’t write to complain, which is why I write for them. Just kidding. Sort of. []