My Next Published Solo Novel: RAZORHURST!

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

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

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

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

Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:

RazorhurstOzCover

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

What is Razorhurst about?

Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it called Razorhurst?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What inspired you to write Razorhurst?

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

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

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

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

On Writing Short Stories

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

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

But novels are so much longer than short stories!

That is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short stories do my head in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 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. []

Zombie versus Unicorns Banned in Texas

It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.

The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.

As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?

Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.

Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.

The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.

There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.

Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.

So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.

One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.

Let books roam free!

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Movie Premiere

tmipremier

Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop.1 Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.

If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world,2 and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.

Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.

Here’s the event page on FaceBook for those of you who, unlike me, are on FaceBook. And here are the details for the non-FB types like myself:

WHEN: Thursday, 22nd August at 6:30pm

WHERE: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney

DRESS: Prizes for best costume

COST: $18.50

Tickets are on sale now and are strictly limited. Purchases can be made at Kinokuniya (at the cashier counter) or over the phone: 02 9262-7996.

Be there or be extremely sad you missed a wonderful event.

P.S. For those of you in Melbourne and Brisbane we will be there very soon at your fine writing festivals. Click here for my Melbourne events and here for my Brisbane events.

  1. My favourite Sydney bookshop—aside from all the other fabulous ones—if you live here and have never checked them out time to do so! []
  2. Other than all the other really good ones. []

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. []

Please, Please, Please, Give Your Protag Friends, a Sibling, Parents

All my favourite fiction, whether novels or television, features strong relationships. I’ve started to think that for me the hallmark of good writing is, in fact, the strength of the relationships. So many books/movies/tv fail for me because the protag either doesn’t have any relationships or because those relationships are constructed out of cardboard.

And, no, I’m not solely talking about the lerve and the shipping. I’m talking all relationships: with mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and most especially, friends.

One of the things that attracted me to YA as a genre is that so much of it is about friendship and family relationships. It’s why every time I read a YA book that doesn’t feature those strong relationships I’m deeply disappointed. To me, it’s like the author failed to understand the genre. But then I came to YA via authors like M. E. Kerr and Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. Yes, there’s romantic love in those books but there are also other very strong relationships, particularly with family members. Think of Sophy and her sisters in Howl’s Moving Castle and Laura with her brother and mother in The Changeover.

The core of the Uglies series is not Tally and whoever her love interest is either boring David or sexy Zane.1 It’s her friendship/hateship with Shay. In the Leviathan trilogy there are multiple wonderful relationships beside the central lerve one. My favourite is Derryn’s relationship with the boffin, Nora Barlow.

These other relationships are what make the central characters so rich. We know Sophy and Laura and Tally and Derryn through their relationships to other people. Our friendships are a large part of who we are as people.

Strong relationships keep me going watching a show even when the rest of it isn’t really working for me. I was very disappointed by Homeland which despite being touted as groundbreaking television I found predictable and mostly uninteresting. But I loved the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and her mentor boss played by Mandy Patikin and it kept me watching despite Homeland‘s average script and the way the show kept pulling its punches. Oh and the special and visual effects were so cheesy. Least convincing explosions I’ve seen in ages. I thought Showtime had money? Weird.

Another disappointing show was the BBC’s The Fades, which was visually stunning. OMG. That show is beautiful. It’s a pity about the incredibly boring central character—well, boring when he wasn’t being annoying—and the overloaded and out of control script. Too much stuff, people! Much of it wonderful—enough to keep several shows going but not all crammed together in the one show! Stakes WAY TOO HIGH. Pare it down, already. Also another chosen one story. *yawn* Can we retire “awkward weird guy hated by everyone—except for that one gorgeous girl with no personality—turns out to have awesome powers and be the only one who can save the world” right now, please? Thank you.

But I loved the main character’s best friend and his sister and their relationship with the really boring protag were the only times the protag was even vaguely interesting. Their relationship with each other was the best thing in the show. Those relationships kept me watching.

I often hear beginning writers complain that they’re not sure what happens with their protagonist next. That they’re stuck. Often part of the problem is that their book does not have enough relationships in it. They’ve left out the parents, made their protag an only child with no friends. The only other characters are the love interest and the villian. And none of the characters are coming to life because they’re only in the book for one reason: to be the Love Interest, to be the Villian, to be the Protagonist.

There has to be more. You get the more by complicating things. Let’s say the protag’s best friend is the villian’s sister. Already that gives both the protag and the villian another dimension: their relationship with their BFF/sister. Both characters suddenly became a lot more interesting.

I know it’s convenient—not to mention a longstanding trope—to get rid of the parents but parents add all sorts of fabulous complications and depth to your books. They can arbitrarily ground your character or be indifferent to their goings on. Or have a mysterious job. Or turn out to be the villian. Or be there full of love and advice and patching up or, all of the above. Ditch them at the peril of writing a less interesting book.

Also siblings. They complicate things too. Personally I adore them.2 The protag’s little sister in How To Ditch Your Fairy is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever created. I’d love to give her a book of her own some day.

In conclusion: Please don’t write novels with one character in a white walled room. Family and friends are good plot thickeners and givers of dimensions to other characters.

  1. Uglies trivia: I came up with Zane’s name by the way. []
  2. And not just because my sister is the best which means I want everyone to have a fabulous sister. []

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. []

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? []

Becoming a Brand Versus Writing What You Want to Write (Updated)

This is a discussion that comes up every so often. Is it better to do what you can to make yourself a brand name author, i.e. write books that are very similar, say like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, or that are all set in the same world, like say, the Left Behind books, or have the same characters, like pretty much every popular crime series ever from Sherlock Holmes on. Or are you better off writing what you want to write from urban fantasy trilogies, to realist crime, to fantastical comedies, to historicals to whatever.

The argument is that you are much more likely to build an audience and keep them if your audience knows what they’re in for when they pick up one of your books and you deliver it. An author who is all over the shop in terms of genre and mood: fantasy one minute, realist the next; comedy, followed by tragically serious—a writer like that is only going to be able to build the kind of audience who doesn’t mind surprises, and will happily read across genres and moods. That is a much smaller audience.

I look around at my genre, YA, and I can tell you that argument is absolutely true. The brand names in my genre are writing books that are, mostly, recognisably like their other books. And when they write something that is very different from their regular books they don’t sell as well. They do much better with books that are, *cough*, core to their brand.1

But here’s what such discussions leave out: Most of the so-called brand name authors didn’t start out by sitting down and deciding what their “brand” would be and then writing accordingly.2 Most of them were not instant successes. Many wrote varied books before the book or series that became their brand took off. No one chooses to be a brand. It just happens.

If it were that easy than how do we explain all the series that did not succeed? I began my writing career with a trilogy. The first book, Magic or Madness, sold quite well. The two books that followed did not. Had I tried to persist in building my brand by writing more books in that series I suspect they would have sold even worse. No one was asking for more of those books, not my publisher, not my agent, no one.3

Most series do not take off. Unsurprising given that most books don’t take off either. The vast majority of us writers who have written more than one book set in the same world or telling the same story do not become brand names. Instead we watch with sinking hearts as each successive book sells in fewer numbers than the proceeding one. The sad fact is that more series get cancelled by their publishers than turn their writer into a brand name.

So if you have staked your career on writing this one kind of book over and over and no one wants that book you’re in a pretty bad place. Those writers who have lots of other books they want to write can move on from an unsuccessful series to something new and different.

Or to put it more succinctly: Very few writers become brand names. Building your career around the expectation that you will be one is kind of, um, not sensible.

So let’s scale back expectations. Let’s be realistic. When I look around me at the YA authors who I consider to be successful4 i.e. their agent is able to sell each book they write, which is to say there is a market for their books, even if it’s small compared to the big name brand writer, I see writers who have mostly written the books they want to write. Sure, for some of them that means writing all comedies, or all sf, or all fantasy, or all whatever. But that’s because that’s what they like writing and what they’re good at writing not because they are hellbent on becoming a brand.5

Most writers do not want to write books in every single genre in a wide variety of styles and modes. Most writers, like most readers, tend to stick to one or two genres. Now I know you’re all going to chime in and say, “Not me! I like all sorts of different books!” That’s awesome. I, too, am a varied reader. But we are the exceptions, not the rule. Trust me on this.

And those brand name writers? Most of them are also writing the books they want to write.

So, yeah, in the great becoming a brand-versus-writing-what-you-want-to-write debate I’m suggesting that those are not either or propositions. The first one, becoming a brand name, is an extremely unlikely hit-by-lightning thing that there’s nothing you can do to engineer. Might as well plan to win the lottery. But the second is something that you might build a career on.6

Because frankly why would you want a writing career that meant you were stuck writing novels you didn’t want to write year after year? This is such a tough business, it’s so hard to sustain a career, why would you make it any harder for yourself than it already is?

Update: Okay, I seem to have done a piss-poor job of making my point with this post. As I’m getting many responses from people saying, “Oh noes! I could never write the same book over and over again. I am doomed.” That is not what I was trying to say. So let me try again:

Most writers that we’ve heard of in all genres have had a fairly uniform body of works. Jane Austen’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, William Faulkner’s, Georgette Heyer’s, Dawn Powell’s, Sylvia Plath’s, Jackie Collins’, Stephen King’s etc. etc. Writers have particular styles and preoccupations which lead to writing particular kinds of work. They do not necessarily do this in order to build a brand but because that’s the kind of writers they are.

There also exist writers who write across genres and styles. Within my genre off the top of my head I’d name Libba Bray, M. T. Anderson, Robin Wasserman, myself. Although we’ve written mostly YA within that genre we’ve been all over the shop writing realist, fantastical, science fictional, historical.7 But we’re not delivering the same kind of book each time. We’re writing what we want to write and we’re making a living at it.

You do not have to stick to writing the same kind of books to have a successful writing career. You can write what you want to write. That’s what I do. I may never be a brand but for almost ten years now I’ve made my living as a writer.

Besides that is also what most of those authors who from the outside look like brands are doing: they are writing the books they want to write.

In other words whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.

The end.

  1. Please forgive me for that phrase. Though I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive myself. []
  2. I suspect none of them did. []
  3. Okay, except for some of the fans of the Magic or Madness trilogy, for which, BLESS YOU! []
  4. In the sense of career. Not necessarily creatively. []
  5. And occasionally when broke, they’ll ghost write books for other people. But it’s not under their own name so it doesn’t count. []
  6. Remembering that a huge percentage of writers who publish a first novel never publish a second. []
  7. I’d argue that you can also see similarities across our body of work. []

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. []

I Love Bad Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Mafias & Other Things You Don’t Need to Worry About

Holly Black recently posted on the subject of the so-called YA Mafia, which apparently is a “cabal of writers who give one other blurbs, do events with one another, and like each other’s books.” Also if you cross them they can ruin your career.

In her post Holly said such a cabal does not exist. I suspect she’s right. Certainly none of the YA writers I know are involved in such a group. However, there are many YA authors I don’t know. Could be a few of them plot darkly together. Who knows?

Thing is plotting ain’t doing. As Holly points out, YA authors do not have that power. I have recommended twenty or more of my writer friends to my agent so far she’s taken on one. You see? I have her twisted around my little finger! Oh. Wait. And if I told her not to take on so-and-so as a client I shudder to think what she’d say. Probably that I’d lost my mind. Rightly so.

Here’s what I think is going on with the upset over the idea of a YA mafia. As Phoebe North says in an eloquent comment in response to Holly’s post there has been some nastiness online from authors to reviewers and sometimes vice versa:

I’ve seen countless blog posts that purport to be talking up positivity, but also include veiled threats (one post said that an author would ask her agent not to sign a writer who has negatively reviewed her friends books, even if they were fair reviews). I’ve seen authors post comments on negative goodreads reviews (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this go well). I saw someone who had been book blogging for three years–and had hundreds of followers and who genuinely loved book blogging–shut down her blog because an agent said that she’d never sign a book blogger as an author. And this woman wasn’t . . . snarkbaiting, I promise. She wrote great, thoughtful, and generally kind reviews.

What it boils down to, right now, is a lot of reviewers feel threatened. It’s uncomfortable, because they’re readers, too, and they love books, even if they don’t like particular books. But all of this feels silencing, even for reviewers who never want to be authors. There’s this air of intangible hostility around the whole scene. It feels like many authors generally don’t like reviewers or bloggers generally.

That sucks. I hate any kind of silencing. And I hate that there are reviewers and bloggers who think all authors hate them. Not true!

But here’s why I don’t think you should be worried:

  1. I guarantee you that the vast majority of agents or editors seeing their author making veiled threats would be having words with them of the DO NOT DO THAT variety.

    Some authors do go nuts in the face of bad reviews.1 This is why I have long been on the record as advising them to kick their pillow around, or run around the block, or do anything that will keep them from expressing their insanity online.2 Making threats of the YOU WILL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN ilk is definitely in the nutso category. When you see writers do that best to look away and hope it’s temporary. If it’s a continued pattern of behaviour? Don’t buy their books! Authors hate that.

  2. Most of the people making these threats online do not have that power. Very few authors do. Allegedly back in the day Enid Blyton used to threaten her publisher to stop them publishing her enemies. She was her publisher’s biggest seller. Hell, at the time she was one of the biggest selling children’s writers in the universe. Allegedly they did what she said. And more shame on them if true.

    These days, maybe Stephenie Meyer has that clout. But I’ve never seen her online making those threats. Nor are we likely to see her do so—from all accounts she’s lovely. People who threaten to destroy people’s careers are not lovely. They’re nasty and likely delusional.

  3. There are many reputable agents out there who would happily take on a blogger as a client. Jennifer Laughran represents the wonderful book blogger Gwenda Bond. I’m sure there are gazillions of other examples. What one agent says does not hold for all agents. I know agents who won’t represent books where children are killed. Another who can’t stand vampires.3 That’s why there are loads of different agents.
  4. The blogosphere is not as big as you think it is.

    Here’s the thing—and I suspect many of you are going to have trouble believing me—many YA agents and authors and booksellers and librarians and readers do not live their lives online. They’re too busy or oblivious or full of hate for computers to have that kind of active engagement. Yup, I know people who hate going online. I have friends who if you google them you find nothing. Shocking, but true.

    What happens in the blogosphere may seem like the biggest deal in the world but it is a tiny, tiny blip that the vast majority of people interested in YA are unaware of. Indeed many people who are active in your blogosphere also regularly miss the scandal de jour.

Phoebe North continues:

I guess I really wish book bloggers and reviewers and authors could all sit down and share beer or coffee and remind each other that there are people behind the text on the screen.

I think she’s dead on. There’s even a name for what she’s talking about: online disinhibition effect: people being astonishingly rude and cruel online in ways they wouldn’t be offline.

But I can also report that offline me and many other authors regularly share a bevarage with bloggers and reviewers and readers and librarians and booksellers and all sorts of other folks who care as passionately about YA as we do. Why some of my best friends are bloggers and reviewers.

All hope is not lost! Truly.

NOTE: Nope, this is not me returning to regular blogging. Yup, still dealing with RSI. But am getting loads of writing done and am doing well. Also I have been very fortunate to not be directly affected by any of the disasters in Australia or New Zealand though thanks for asking. And if you’ve got any spare money now’s a good time to donate it to the Red Cross in New Zealand and/or Australia.

  1. Including me. []
  2. Letting a reviewer know that they’ve made a factual errors is fine. Though even then I often think it’s better to let it go. I have seen such attempts turn into full on flame wars. Not pretty. []
  3. Well, okay, many agents. []

A Moment of Vainglory

You’re going to have to excuse this post (and the crappy photo) but I can’t help myself. A package just arrived from my wonderful Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. It made me scream. In a good way.

This is what was in it:

That’s the official Children’s Book Council of Australia short-listed book sticker and it’s on Liar! And it’s not a joke or an accident!

*Faints*

Um, I may have mentioned that the CBCA awards have always been a huge deal for me. Ever since I was a tiny person. This really is a dream come true.

And on that cliched note1 I am off to attempt to write my next book. I may have to hide the stickered Liar. I keep fondling it . . . *cough*

Me. Writing. Now.

  1. Hey, they’re cliches for a reason. []

Seven Years of Freelancery + CBCA Shortlisting + Debut Novel

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

- – -

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

For my own benefit some stats:

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

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

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

*Heh hem*

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

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

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

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

Teenagers & Reading

I have been asked for my take on last week’s question about teenagers and reading. To be honest, it’s difficult to know where to start because there are so many assumptions embedded in those questions. I’ll start by unpacking them.

    1. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all teenagers are the same.

    2. There’s also an assumption in all these discussions about YA that it is primarily read by teenagers.

    3. Another assumption is that a) only reading fiction counts and b) reading is better for you than any other pastime.

    4. Then there’s the assumption that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing and we all agree on what those are.

Teenagers

Let me take numbers one & two first and point out the bleeding obvious. Not all teenagers read fiction. Of those that do read fiction, many are not reading YA at all. A sizeable proportion of those reading YA are 12 or younger or 20 and older. The age range of YA readership is every bit as broad as any other genre. Yet almost every discussion of the genre acts like it’s read only by teenagers.

So when there’s a discussion of the pernicious effects of a particular book on those young easily disturbed teenagers I have a range of conflicting responses. One of them goes very much like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ response: I read Flowers in the Attic and Angelique and many other even worse books as a sub-teen and teen and am now a fully functioning member of society. Those trashy books did not corrupt my delicate brain, thanks very much.

How much damage can reading a book do to you? If books can damage you, are you truly only vulnerable when nineteen or younger?

I have friends who are disturbed by almost every book they read, every movie they watch, everything that happens to them. I suspect they have been that way all their lives. Some people are simply way more sensitive than other people.

I used to be the neighbourhood babysitter. There were some kids I could tell the Grimm version of fairy tales too, who were gleeful about the blood on the snow, and some kids who couldn’t handle them at all. I tailored my storytelling to the kids.

I still do this with book recs to my adult friends. There are several friends I’m actively warning not to read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale because I know these books would gut them. I have friends who are allergic to a particular kind of bad writing. I don’t recommend my favourite bad book reads to them.

I don’t think there is any difference between teenagers and adults in this regard. There are only differences in particular individual sensitivity. When we talk as if teenagers are more delicate or sensitive we do them an enormous disservice. They are not identical robot people who suddenly become individuals at the age of 20. Indeed, until very recently, “teenagers” did not exist, they were adults.

Reading

What is so important about reading fiction? How is it superior to reading non-fiction? To reading newspapers, magazines, airplane manuals, the back of cereal boxes? Why is reading for pleasure so routinely exalted? Why is there so much panic about those who don’t read for pleasure?

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love reading fiction. Even more than I love writing it. But I also love Elvis Presley and Missy Elliott and I don’t think it’s a sign of moral failure that others don’t love them. Why is not reading for pleasure a cause for panic?

This is particularly invidious because I keep coming across teens, who read voraciously, who have teachers and librarians and parents freaking out that they’re not reading. Why? Because they’re not reading novels. They’re reading manga, or graphic novels, or books about cricket, or baseball, or jet engines, or World War II, or something else those well-meaning adults have decided doesn’t count. Sometimes teens have told me of well-meaning adults encouraging them to stop reading YA and start reading “real” adult books. You can imagine how I feel about that.

Illiteracy is definitely something to get wound up about. People who can’t read or write are at a horrible disadvantage. I am all for literacy. But that is not the same thing as reading fiction for pleasure. Many people who don’t read for pleasure are extremely literate and go far. I’ve met fabulous, smart, wonderful teens who don’t read fiction. I am not worried about their future.

I would love it if more people read fiction for pleasure—in particular I’d love it if they read more YA—because that’s how I earn my livelihood. I have a vested economic interest in people reading YA, but I don’t confuse that with thinking it’s morally good for them. Frankly, I’d be horrified if anyone thought reading my books would improve their moral fibre. Ugh.

(The ironc thing about all of this is that there have been many past moral panics about the perniciousness of reading novels.)

Is it really better for a kid to stay inside reading a book than it is for them to go outside and play cricket? How do we compare such activities? They’re both wonderful. I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities. Sadly, few of us have the time or energy for that. More’s the pity.

Good Books v Bad Books

There is no consensus on what makes a good or bad book. I think Patrick White is a shockingly overrated purple prose producing misogynist, misanthropist hack. He is studied at almost every Australian university and widely admired. I think his autobiography Flaws in the Glass is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It is incomprehensible to me, likewise, that there is any place for the works of Henry Miller in any canon ever. Unless it is a canon of badly written misogynist crap. In which case he’s in with a bullet. (Any defences of White or Miller in the comments will be deleted because it will give me great pleasure to do so.)

So I say potatoe and you say potatoh. Whatever.

Fashions in good writing ebb and flow. What was consider great in one decade may not last into the next. Some of the most admired writers of a century ago are no longer read. And so it goes.

But even if we could reach a consensus on good writing—so what if a teen is only reading books you consider appalling? Plenty of adults are doing ditto. The pleasures of bad books are many. The pleasures of reading a book your parents don’t want you to read are even greater.

I’ve seen a lot of concern about girls in particular reading books where the female characters have little agency and spend the whole book mooning about some bloke. This could describe pretty much every Hollywood film of the last few decades. I mean, if they actually have any female characters in them at all. So, sure, limited depictions of women worry me. However, YA is much much much much more diverse than Hollywood. There are gazillions of bestselling YA books with complex female characters, who have female friends, and concerns beyond their love life.

Also I read heaps of appalling sexist crap growing up and it was, if anything, a spur to my feminist politics. Thank you, crappy books of my youth.1

So my response to the question

What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

is to say: does not compute.

  1. That’s a special shout out to you, Enid Blyton. []

Two NYC YA Events

If you’re in NYC in the next couple of weeks here are two YA events you might want to check out:

The latest New York Review of Science Fiction Readings features

Barry Lyga, Marie Rutkoski, & Robin Wasserman
curated by Carol Cooper

Tuesday, 6 April, Doors open 6:30 PM, event begins at 7:00 PM
SoHo Gallery for Digital Art
138 Sullivan Street (between Houston & Prince St.)

Admission is by a $5 donation. (If circumstances make this a hardship, let them know and they will accommodate you.)

Me and Scott will be taking part in the Read This Books for NYC Schools Day on the 10th of April. Read This collects books for people who need them, especially schools without libraries, hospitals, homeless shelters, troops overseas, etc.

Justine Larbalestier, Bennett Madison,
Scott Westerfeld, & Cecily von Ziegesar
Reading and Q&A
12:30PM-1:15PM, Saturday, 10 April
Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street, Second floor
(between Madison & Fifth Ave.)
NY NY

The price of admission? Your donation of two or more new or gently used board books through grade 12.

The readings will be short. Just five minutes each.1 I’ll be reading a letter from the 1930s novel (the novel I’m mostly working on right now) by my favourite character, Lizzy.2 Scott may or may not be reading a sneak preview from Goliath. He says it will depend on the crowd and his jetlag.

Hope to see some of you there.

  1. My favourite kind of reading. []
  2. Well, she’s one of my favourite characters. I kind of love them all. []

A Question for You, My Dear Readers

The wonderful Kathleen T. Horning sent me a link to this discussion of Twilight on NPR in which much mock is made of the writing style of Twlight. Judging from the comments if you love Twilight then the NPR people are being condescending meanies and if you hated Twilight1 then their comments are hilarious and spot on.

Now, I do not want a discussion of the merits or otherwise of Twilight here. In fact, I will delete any comment trashing Twilight. We do not diss living authors on this blog. What I’m interested in is a broader discussion of adults’ attitudes to YA literature.

My question is this: What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

Here’s what the folks at NPR had to say in response to that claim:

Linda: One thing we haven’t talked about much, except in the comments, is the fact that for a lot of people, both the quality of the writing and the content of the story, as far as its nonsensical aspects, are really irrelevant if the book is intended for or appropriate for teenagers.

This is an argument I would find a lot easier to swallow were it not for the facts that (1) I don’t think Meyer necessarily meant it as YA fiction and I think she’s said that; and (2) it is read by many, many adults who take it quite seriously. It seems to me that it has been embraced as fiction by enough adults that it’s legitimate to look at it that way. And that’s true EVEN IF you accept that it’s okay for things to be bad if they’re for teenagers, which I … don’t.

Marc: Of course. It’s wildly insulting to teenagers to insist that it’s acceptable to foist inferior product on them because . . . why, exactly? “This is a terrible book. Give it to your daughter.” How is that not a terrible abuse of kids’ minds?

In the comments on their Twilight posts there were many claiming that it was wrong to criticise Twilight at all because it’s popular and has gotten teens reading. I’m curious to hear your responses to that claim as well. Are such claims made about equally-criticised-for-bad-writing books by the likes of Dan Brown?

NOTE: Remember I want this to be a broad discussion of attitudes to YA literature. I’m not kidding about deleting any Twilight bashing.

  1. Even if you haven’t read it—how do you hate a book you haven’t read? []

How to Get Published? Don’t Ask Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Alaya Johnson: “What My Dad Said”

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

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer, whose short story in Zombies v Unicorns, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is jaw-droppingly good. Her next novel, Moonshine, out in May is my fave New York City vampire novel. I love it so much that it’s been killing me waiting for it to come out because I’ve been dying to rave about Moonshine to youse lot. Trust me, you want this book.

- – -

Alaya Dawn Johnson
dated a zombie once in high school, but it didn’t stick. Her first novel was Racing the Dark, the first in a trilogy she decided to call The Spirit Binders once her publisher told her trilogies needed names. The second book, The Burning City, is due out in June. She is also looking forward to the May 11 publication of Moonshine, her 1920s vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Alaya says:

What My Dad Said

When I first showed my dad the new paperback cover of Racing the Dark, I was pretty proud of it. I thought that it evoked the book and was fairly striking. I won’t lie, I pretty much expected him to pat me on the head and say, “Looks great, honey.”

Instead, he picked it up and turned it over a few times. His face took on that serious, thinking expression I recognized meant he was considering how to phrase something important.

“Alaya,” he said, “the art is lovely. The image and everything is great. But are you sure you want to limit yourself like that with this cover?”

“Limit myself?” I asked.

“White people are going to be way less likely to pick up a book with a cover featuring a brown person. That’s just the way the world works.”

I told my dad (with some annoyance) that I didn’t think that was true, and anyway, my book is about a brown person, so these hypothetical white people would just have to suck it up.

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.

At least I was in good company. On the shelves surrounding my book were works by Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I’ve looked through this peculiar hybrid section before, and I’ve always been bewildered by the mish-mash of genres and writers all sandwiched together on two narrow shelves. Would someone like to tell me what on earth Zane and Toni Morrison have to do with each other?

Dad and I stared at the book in dismay. “I can’t believe they did this,” I said.

“Honey, I told you,” he said. “You should have had a more generic cover.”

I couldn’t really disagree with him, at that point.

So Dad picked up the book and we physically marched it over to the Fantasy section, where we left it, cover side out.

“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”

Considering that we had just seen the physical evidence of my being shoved into that category, I just nodded and went back to my food.

It stuck with me, though. And I realized that my dad’s point of view hasn’t really been in much of the ongoing discussion about cover art and whitewashing.

In a lot of discussions about race, my Dad and I suffer from a pretty profound generational gap. My dad is of the Old School, which we could call “determined pragmatism.” As far as my dad is concerned, he grew up in a world where he couldn’t sit down at half the lunch counters in Richmond, where he had to sit in the balcony of the theater, drink from labeled water fountains and sit on the black side of the court house.

Now, in his sixties, my dad owns a business that actually works with the same governments that supported Jim Crow laws. He’s moved into that small percentage of the black upper-middle class, and as far as he’s concerned, race is something you deal with and move on. If you have to change something because white people don’t like overt blackness, then you do that. It’s not that my dad doesn’t understand my points about how frustrating and degrading it can be to always have non-whiteness relegated to this unwanted subcategory (or, even worse, an exoticized one). He does. He just feels that if the world works this way and if I’m just a writer struggling to make a living, then I ought to find a way to help myself within that existing power structure.

Now, I still don’t think he’s right. I still like my cover and I’m still very happy that it very clearly features my non-white main character.

But I will say that it felt like a gut punch to see Racing the Dark shelved—with such a contemptuous lack of care for its content or its audience—in the African American section of Borders.

Guest Post: Lauren McLaughlin on Babies & Novels

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

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

- – -

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

Lauren says:

Greetings Larbalestians!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Ask the Alien Onions

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

Today’s guest bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3

- – -

The Alien Onions say:

Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
 
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.

So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
 
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
 
ANY GIVEN FRIDAY at the HOUSE OF ONION
  
Susannah
 
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone.
7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost.
7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby.
8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS.
8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self.
8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague.
8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up.
9.10:  Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer.
9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5
11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor.
11.05: Ask for opinion from colleagues on recalcitrant sentence.
11.10: Copyedit.6
11.15: Scramble to find the per-unit cost of a recently reprinted book so the Rights Department know if they can make a special overseas sale.
11.20: Copyedit.
11.25: Give opinion (solicited) to colleagues about matt lamination versus gloss and how it will effect the colour of already dark artwork.
11.35: Copyedit.
11.37: Give opinion (unsolicited) to colleague on e-book revolution. Ask opinion from colleague on same.
11.40: Copyedit.
11.45: Stare out window. (Where I can just catch a glimpse of the light towers of the MCG. That’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground for you USians. Where they play the cricket, you understand.) Chastise self.
11.47-12.30: Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.
12.31-12.50: Eat lunch. Noodle around on favourite kid lit blogs (also Cakewrecks). Formulate an idea for Alien Onion post.
12.56: Advances of picture book arrive in reception. Squeal. Gallop downstairs.
12.57-1.20: Rip through 17 layers of packaging to reveal advances. Squeal. Admire. Congratulate self. Gallop upstairs to show publisher. Squeal, admire, congratulate selves. Ring author. Squeal down phone. Congratulate author.
1.21: Return to desk. Too het up for copyediting.
1.22-2.00: Write design brief for YA cover.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Update publicity/advertising/marketing copy for three books.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Sigh with relief that no books have to be sent to the printer today.
4.03: Panic that three books have to be sent to the printer next Friday.
4.04: Keep panicking.
4.05: Argue with tall designer over the relative merits of hyphenating a word at the end of a line of text and thus making it difficult to read, versus keeping word whole and having too much white space in the line.
4.10: Reach compromise with tall designer.
4.11: Read email reminding everyone that 4.15 on Friday afternoon is a good time to archive some of that paperwork from now-published books.
4.12: Look at towering piles of paperwork.
4.13: Place head on desk.
4.15-5.10: Resign self to Fridayafternoonitis and resume reading excellent manuscript. Do internal happy dance.
5.11: Confer with colleagues about readiness to downtools and have a small glass of wine.
5.11 & 30 seconds: Retrieve wine and glasses while colleague emails office.
5.15-? : Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
Eventually head to tram stop, hop on tram and read excellent MS all the way home.

 
 
 
Jodie
 
7.45: Look up from laptop rested on knees to discover it is well-past time to stop checking emails and GET OUT OF BED. Chastise self. Continue with email management.
8.01: Narrowly avoid tripping over pile of unread ms beside bed.
8.41: Arrive at station. Discover train not due for ten minutes. Procure caffeination from conveniently located coffee emporium.
8.52: Lean against train doors, juggling coffee and e-book reading device (which is MUCH easier to juggle than coffee and unwieldy ms—praise Mothership for facilitating test-drive of e-book reading device).
9.12: Walk through Fitzroy Gardens enjoying lovely morning while making mental to-do list.
9.22: Arrive at office. Transcribe list of to-do items into notebook while computer boots up.
9.27: Consider list. Hyperventilate. Highlight in orange items that truly need to be completed today. Hyperventilate.
9.30: Refine blurb for graphic novel design brief. Compose email to designer explaining both design brief and why so many elements of design brief are still to-be-confirmed.
9.45: Save design brief email as draft in hope that to-be-confirmed items are confirmed by afternoon.
9.46: Consider next item on list. Hyperventilate. Compose replies to backlog of emailed author enquiries instead. Save replies as drafts to allow thinking time.
11.20: Respond to Rights colleague about request from Korean magazine for editorial article to accompany Korean publication of book.
11.25: Solicit opinions about the matt lamination. Ruminate on responses.
11.30: Check over contract to ensure all details of accepted offer are correct before sending to agent.
11.37: Engage with colleague, who has taken up residence in comfortable chair in office, about imminent e-book revolution.
11.40: Return to contract checking.
11.46: Catch sight of to-be-read ms pile. Try to keep guilt at bay.
11.47: Consider second coffee. Will tall designer to have second-coffee craving too.
11.49: Send draft-agreement email to agent.
11.50-12.48: Open New Book Notes template to complete so assistant can enter details of three new books into production database. Become distracted by recollection of MS number one. Email author to gush about brilliant, heart-wrenching ms. Save New Book Notes as draft.
12.49: Email colleague to say she is genius and should upload clever, funny Alien Onion post immediately.
12.50-12.55: Check next item on list. Hyperventilate. Open Publishing Proposal template and compose pitch for fabulous picture book ms to be presented to publishing acquisitions team. Save as draft.
12.56 : Hear squeal from colleague’s office. See colleague gallop downstairs. Hope colleague doesn’t trip.
12.57: Catch sight of ms to-be-rejected pile. Fail to keep guilt at bay.
12.59-1.03: Admire colleague’s GORGEOUS brand new advance copy of picture book. Squeal over endpapers.
1.03-2.00: Return to desk. Consider pros and cons of publishing fabulous picture book proposal while eating lunch. Do costing for fabulous new picture book proposal. Hyperventilate. Open PDF to reacquaint self with fabulousness of picture book proposal. Do happy dance. Complete Publishing Proposal and send to publisher colleague for comment before distribution to wider team.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Check over long-lead information for October 2010 books. Meet with editor to hand over ms for February 2011. Relay editorial discussion with author so far, enthuse about vision for book, confirm specifications and suggest cover ideas. Confer with colleague about titles to be pitched at Bologna Book Fair.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Check in with editor about progress of three books scheduled to go to the printer next Friday.
4.03: Confirm specifications for exciting new box set project.
4.05: Send replies to authors after adding ideas that have percolated over day.
4.15: Ignore email reminder about archiving.
4.15-5.10: Open New Book Notes template with aim of completing notes for second and third new book projects before overwhelming Fridayafternoonitis sets in. While writing pitch for new teen fiction, get distracted by recollection of how good ms is. Do happy dance. Save New Book Notes as draft. Congratulate tall designer on short-listings in Book Design Awards (Link is pdf).
5.11: Confer with colleague about readiness to downtools and have small glass of wine.
5.11: Email office to inform all that it’s time to celebrate successes (or drown sorrows) by gathering in reception with conveniently chilled wine.
5.15-6.30: Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
6.30: What happens after 6.30 on a Friday stays after 6.30 on a Friday . . .

  1. Which is why they say lovely things about my books. []
  2. You can tell from the frequent mention of trams. Sydney is tram-less alas. Also the mention of the MCG. Here in Sydney we have the SCG. Both are most excellently wonderful places. If I had a view of the SCG from my office I would get no work done. I have a view of the lights of the SCG from our deck and that’s bad enough. []
  3. Just reading the two posts you’ll notice terminology differences such as in Australia a “blurb” is what they call “cover copy” in the US. In the US a “blurb” is a quote recommending the book from a reviewer or author that appears on the book jacket. []
  4. Manuscript. []
  5. *GASP* ON SCREEN? Yes on screen. Always on screen. On screen is my friend. *Drowns out cries of, ‘The horror the horror’ with the efficient clacking of the keyboard.* []
  6. Clearly, this is a copyediting day. Anytime the word ‘copyedit’ appears in this timetable, it could be replaced on any given day by: structural edit, structural edit, structural edit, or check corrections, check corrections, check corrections, or meetings, meetings, meetings, or photo research, or blurb writing, or permissions chasing, or proof checking, or manuscript reading, or author/illustrator phoning/emailing. You get the idea. []

Guest Post: Lili Wilkinson on Sex

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

I have known Lili Wilkinson for many years now. She’s one of the most talented, driven, organised people I have ever met. I am in awe of her. (Yes, even when I’m asleep.) She has had many wonderful books published in Australia as well as the UK and Germany. Her first novel to be published in the US is Pink which is one of her very best. It will be out in Fall of this year from Harper Collins. Trust me, USians, you want this book. Her post today is a wonderful follow up to Sarah Rees Brennan’s post on double standards in Hollywood.

- – -

Lili Wilkinson is the author of five books, including Scatterheart and Pink. She tends to write nerdy chick-lit for teens. She’s currently enjoying Battlestar Galactica and likes making monsters out of wool. You can find her at www.liliwilkinson.com, her blog, and on twitter.

Lili says:

SEX.

There, I said it. Lots of other people have been saying it lately as well, particularly in Australia. Because a couple of weeks ago the leader of our Opposition party, Tony Abbott, told the Women’s Weekly> that he hoped his daughters1 would wait until they were married until they had sex, and that a woman’s virginity is “the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving.”

That was the beginning. Then 17 year old YA author Alexandra Adornetto weighed in in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. She said some reasonably sensible things about self-value and the desire to have meaningful experiences. Then she said that “virginity is not highly valued among teenage boys” and that girls had to protect their reputations, which I kind of thought was a bit sexist and disrespectful to all the boys out there who are also looking for meaningful experiences.

Then 16 year old author Steph Bowe wrote a response on her (awesome) blog. I must restrain from quoting the whole thing here, but Steph’s basic opinion is, “if sex is legal, consensual, and there’s mutual respect, I really don’t see the issue.” I highly recommend her piece.

Reading the comments on these two articles are almost as enlightening as the pieces themselves. They cover both sides of the argument, and frankly both sides are offensively judgemental.

Anyway, I’ve got some opinions of my own on the matter, so I thought I’d take this particular forum to share them. So without further ado, here are the six things I’ve learned about sex.

We have to respect other people’s choices. If someone chooses to wait until they’re married, then good for them. If they don’t, please don’t inform them they’re going to burn in the fires of Hades.

There’s a lot of talk about people wanting their first time to be special and amazing and perfect. I totally respect that, but let me tell you from experience – there’s a strong chance it won’t be. You know how the first couple of pancakes are always a bit weird, until you get the consistency and heat just right? Well it’s a bit like that.

Virginity is not a gift. Losing your virginity is an important experience, but it doesn’t define you as a person. It’s like losing your baby teeth. Does anyone ever say “I want the first time I lose a tooth to be really special”?2

Sex is a gift. I don’t want to sound like someone’s slightly batty aunty here, but sex is something important that you should share with someone who you trust. It should be fun. It isn’t something that a girl sacrifices for a boy, never to have it back. It is, in fact, the gift that keeps on giving.3

People make mistakes. Some of them involve sex. I think if we didn’t place quite so much mystery and awe around the whole thing, this might not happen so much.

You are totally allowed to disagree with my opinions and my choices, just as much as I’m allowed to have them in the first place.

As a writer I’ve never included an actual sex scene in a book, because they’re REALLY hard to write. But there’s some implied sex. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. Some of it will be regretted. Some of it won’t. Because I think that reflects the reality of sex. There can’t be any blanket rules of you have to be THIS old or THIS mature. It just doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, for further reading I recommend you check out the comments on this matter on Insideadog, and Gayle Foreman’s excellent post on sex in YA books.

  1. One of these daughters referred to her dad last year as “a lame, gay, churchy loser”. I’m just saying. []
  2. This has led me to some peculiar thoughts about the Tooth Fairy and whether there is Another Kind of Fairy… actually, never mind. Bad thoughts. []
  3. I really just said that, didn’t I? Sigh. []

Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

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

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

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Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

Guest Post: Randa Abdel Fattah on Writing & Identity

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

Today we have Randa Abdel-Fattah and not just because she’s a Sydneysider like me. She’s one of those amazing writers who manages to produce novels while holding down a demanding job and looking after her kids. (Little known fact: the majority of novelists have day jobs.) Enjoy!

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Randa Abdel-Fattah is the award-winning author of young adult novels Does My Head Look Big in This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me and Where The Streets Had A Name. She is thirty and has her own identity hyphens to contend with (Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian-choc-a-holic). Randa also works as a lawyer and lives in Sydney with her husband, Ibrahim, and their two children. Her books are published around the world. Randa is a member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Palestine. She writes on a freelance basis for various newspapers and has appeared on television programs such as the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, ABC’s Q and A and SBS’ Insight. You can find out more about Randa or contact her through her website.

Randa says:

A couple of the guest posts have discussed books and race/ethnicity and it’s a topic I feel very passionate about so I thought I’d add my two cent’s worth. I’ve presented some parts of my post below in various talks but have added some more to it as well (once I get started on this issue, it’s very hard for me to stop).

It sounds trite to say this (forgivable in a blog post?) but a love of books transcends race, culture, ethnicity, colour. To be uplifted by words, moved to tears of joy or sorrow by a story, travel through the past and present, knows no nationality or religion. Books have the ability to transform people. As writers we wield immense power and there is something at once magical and terrifying about this. About our power to create subjects and objects; judges and judged. We take our pens (okay, our keyboards) and purport to portray individuals, communities, cultures and races using a frame of reference that can sometimes do little justice to those we seek to portray.

Okay, so it’s no secret I’m Muslim so I’m going to offer my insight into this problem from my personal point of view. That kind of power represents one of the difficulties Muslims have faced in the sea of books that have sought to characterise, sermonise and describe them, as though we’re some kind of crude, monolithic bloc. I mean, how many times do you trawl through the shelves of bookstores only to see that Muslim women only ever feature as protagonists or characters in crude orientalist-type narratives in which women achieve ‘liberation’ because they have ‘escaped’ Islam or are victims of honour killings, domestic violence and oppression because of Islam? I have a habit (I can’t let it go) of checking out bookshelves just to annoy myself. You know the shelves, holding a list of unimaginative but prolific titles: Beneath the Veil, Under the Veil, Behind the Veil, The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Princess, Desert Royal, Sold, Forbidden Love, Not Without My Daughter , Infidel . . .

I’m conscious that the fact that I’m Australian-born, that I’m a Muslim, that I have a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother who have both lived longer in Australia than they have in either Palestine or Egypt, has both closed and open doors for me in my life. I’m conscious that I’m neither part of Australia’s dominant culture nor part of a minority. I‘m conscious of the fluidity of my identity because it is an impossible demand of a country founded on immigration to expect a pure demarcation between citizenship and heritage, between minority and majority.

Despite the fact that I’m Aussie-born, I’m sometimes deemed to be part of a minority because of my Muslim faith and my Middle-Eastern heritage. Growing up, and sometimes even now, I have felt both marginalized and included. I have felt that I belong and I have felt like an outsider. But when it came to the books I read as a child and a teenager, and the movies I watched, I only ever felt that that part of my identity that was Muslim and Middle-Eastern was strictly slotted into a minority status, invariably represented in terms of crude stereotypes. I learned fairly quickly that I would not, as a Muslim of Arabic heritage, survive the country in which I was born and was being raised without choosing how I would define myself. Without demanding the right to self-definition I was a nappy head, a tea towel head, a wog, a terrorist, a camel jockey, a fundamentalist, an oppressed woman, a slave to Muslim men. The negative imagery of Islam and Muslims I saw saturating the arts pushed me to insist on my own self-definition and to take a proactive approach. I was motivated to provide readers of contemporary fiction with an alternative narrative and to give agency and a voice to a Muslim female character who defied the usual stereotypes.

When I wrote my first YA novel, Does My Head Look Big In This?, I wanted my readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and engage at a very personal level with a Muslim teenager, Amal, and her journey of self-discovery. I wanted to invite my readers to challenge their preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims and encounter a story in which a Muslim teenager explores what it means to come of age in the sometimes stiflingly conformist world of the young.

Using humour to tell Amal’s story was strategic. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? I was acutely conscious that given the breadth of stereotypes and misconceptions I wanted to confront, there was a real risk that I could sound boringly preachy. I therefore found that Amal’s self-deprecating, humorous outlook on life was the best way to humanise ‘the Other’ and avoid preaching to my readers. Humour enabled me to confront people’s misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims without plaguing my characters with a victim complex (oh, plus the fact it’s rare to think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘humour’).

But hang on a second. Let me make it clear that I’m no apologist and I certainly don’t seek to write novels which selectively present the ‘cream of the crop’ of Australian Muslims, denying the existence of Muslims who distort Islamic teachings to oppress women or who confuse culture with religion to exact an appalling abuse of Islamic teachings (plenty of examples of that happening around the world).

My second novel, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is a novel in which I sought to confront the reality of Muslim teenagers who experience great difficulty straddling between their Aussie, Muslim and Arabic identities and who withdraw to the safety of anonymity in order to achieve acceptance by their peers. The novel also addresses the sometimes sexist rules applied to brothers and sisters by their parents and the dishonest conflation between culture and religion (you know the kind, ‘the girl has a curfew but the guy has no limit to when he gets home’ etc). To write from a platform of legitimacy and to be taken seriously requires an honest insight into what is happening in Aussie Muslim communities (interestingly, I’ve received mail from around the world from teenagers of all different backgrounds, not just Muslim, who identify with Ten Things I Hate About Me).

I’ve always been concerned about identity issues for young people and as an Aussie-born Muslim I feel I am better ‘qualified’ to give expression to young people’s experiences than somebody of non-Muslim background who writes about Muslims through a prism of us/them, subject/object.

A critic once implored me to see the importance of writing about issues faced by all sorts of Australians, rather than limiting them to those of my culture. I reject this. Anglo writers do not attract that same instruction.

Australians of Anglo background are not defined as ‘Anglo writers’ (that applies to any westerner). It almost sounds absurd. And yet I am sometimes described as a ‘Muslim writer’. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me my objective was firmly set in my mind: I wanted to write about the lives of two Australian girls. I wanted to challenge the typical definition of the mainstream, of dominant culture, and show that these two girls, one who wears the veil, one who is of Lebanese descent, are a part of the mainstream, rather than interesting deviations from the norm. I wanted to normalize their experience, demonstrate that it is embedded in their Australian identity and life, rather than migrant or foreign identity.

There is no doubt that my first three novels have centered on my own personal world (my fourth novel to be released in Oz this year is a crime fiction/legal thriller for teenagers but that’s another topic, with its own issues, altogether).

So far I’ve been navigating identity struggles, family politics, community and relationships. Although works of fiction, I’ve drawn on my own religious identity and ethnic heritage, not because I seek to add another title to the ‘exotic Islamic/Middle Eastern’ bookshelf, but because I believe it is high time contemporary fiction recognised Muslims as human beings and dispensed with the one-dimensional Muslim caricature. For me, it’s about taking ownership over how my faith is represented and narrated.

Guest Post: Doret Canton on Books Being Television Shows

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

Doret Canton loves sport as much as I do. In fact, I interviewed her about that very subject right here on this blog and she said many smart and sensible things. (Except about American Football not being boring.) The reviews on her blog are amongst my favourite online reviews. Do check them out.

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Doret Canton is a bookseller who likes many of her customers. The others she runs and hides from. After working at a bookstore for so long, she has turned avoiding would be problem customers into an art form. She updates her blog TheHappyNappyBookseller regularly.

If This Book Was A Television Show

I loved Dia Reeves’ debut YA novel Bleeding Violet. It was beautifully strange. Check out this great review by The Book Smugglers. Seventeen year old Hanna heads to her mom’s hometown of Portero, Texas after knocking her aunt out cold. Portero, like Hanna, is far from normal. Before arriving in Portero Hanna only speaks to her dead father, now she can see him as well. Everything that happened in Portero was so out there I loved it. Halfway through Bleeding Violet, I couldn’t help but think—if this was a television show it would get cancelled. It would go something like this:

    Week 1: Watched by a few people with nothing better to do.
    Week 2: Only half return.
    Week 3: Some convince a few friends to check out the weirdness that happens in Portero. More people tune in
    Week 4-8: Word is spreading about this strange show. Friends are getting together to watch.
    Week 9: A made for TV movie airs.
    Week 10: The show is bumped again. Some fans begin to worry
    Week 11: – A rerun. Many aren’t exicted about this but at least its back.
    Week 12: Another rerun.
    Week 13: Another reun. By now the smart fans are catching on. They know the network is merely screwing with them by showing reruns.
    Six Months Later: The incomplete complete box set (with never seen before episodes) is available.

So many great, not-the-same-as-everything-else shows get cancelled. I still miss Arrested Development, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me

Thankfully Bleeding Violet is a book and not a television show. Though once this idea was in my head I started thinking about how other novels would fair. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful YA novel A Wish After Midnight would be passed over by all networks, large and small. They would totally miss its great miniseries potential. Many of my co-workers read YA. Like me, one enjoys Maureen Johnson’s novels. I asked her, If Suite Scarlett and its follow up, Scarlett Fever, (which was so worth the wait) were a television show how would it do? If the show stuck to the book, my co-worker gave it two seasons. Sadly, that sounded about right. That’s why we have TV on DVD, and, better yet, books.

Since this guest post might be read by people in Oz I shall end with a question. I loved Melina Marchetta’s newest novel Finnikin of the Rock. The year is young but I already know it’s a top read of 2010. If Finnikin of the Rock was an Aussie TV show how would it do?

Guest Post: Ah Yuan on the Importance of Diversity

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

Today we have one of my favourite YA lit bloggers, Ah Yuan, whose blog, GAL Novelty, should be on your blogroll if it isn’t already. I love how no-holds-barred her reviews are. Thoughtful, smart and conversation provoking. If you want to know a bit more about Ah Yuan before you read this moving post check out this interview on Reading in Color.

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Ah Yuan, also known as wingstodust, is your average Asian-Canadian female blogger tolling away as a liberal arts undergrad. When not being bogged down by school or work, she spends her spare time thinking, breathing and talking about fictional stories: anything from novels to manga to to movies to tv shows. The only thing she finds more enjoyable than a good yarn is to be able to talk about stories with others. She can be found on her book blog called GAL Novelty, her general/fandom blog on dreamwidth, and her twitter feed.

The Importance of Diversity

There’s been recent talk about race in fiction, and the predominance of a white-as-default cast in English-language novels. All in all, I’m pretty happy that we’re having this discussion because diversity in the stories I consume is very important to me. There’s the basic reason, because I believe stories that show worlds with diverse characters is just more honest, and then there’s the other reason, long-winded and messy and personal, which I tried to put into words for y’all today.

Growing up in a predominantly English-speaking part of Canada, I tried my best to seek out Asian representation in my novels. I would look for covers with East or South East Asian faces, squint at last names shown on the spine and trying to guess whether or not that this time, I’ll get lucky and find a story with a protagonist that had a physical resemblance to myself. Sometimes these methods would work, but more often than not I would turn up with absolutely nothing. The years went by and I mostly stopped trying to look for these novels. For a moment in my high school life, I ended up trying to replace my desire for East Asian faces in novels with East Asian movies and dramas, anime and manga. And I loved these shows, these comics—always will. But somewhere down the line this stopped being enough for me. I wanted more—but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, nor how am I to get what I couldn’t name.

You may find it bemusing then, wherein I hereby confess that I fail to buy into an argument I hear about ‘relate-ability’. The white audience won’t buy POC covers! White people are reluctant to read about a Protagonist of Colour because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to ‘relate’! In fact, if I must be perfectly honest, I find it quite laughable.

Because—no one would ever make the vice versa argument. No Person of Colour is ever going to go “Gee, I’m afraid I can’t read this novel because I don’t think I can relate with a white protagonist!” Relating to a white protagonist is expected, not just out for the white audience that the English-language publishers dominantly cater to, but to the rest of us POCs in the audience as well. POC are expected to relate to a white protagonist, but we can’t expect the same the other way around? Really?

At the same time, I do to a certain degree understand the whole ‘relating’ thing. As I’ve mentioned earlier on, I constantly searched and searched for a story that I can ‘relate’ to. Note that even while doing so, I was never averse to reading about characters who didn’t share my physical resemblance (If I was, the amount of novels I would have read would be an abysmally low count). Stories with non-Asian protagonists probably made up more than ¾ of what I read, even with my younger self’s dedication for Asian representation. What’s available on the library shelves influence and/or limited what I could read, after all, and I remember my elementary school shelves being predominantly whitewashed.

Then you may go, why aren’t you satisfied with your East Asian stories then? Look—Asian faces! You got what you wanted! Why are you still not happy?

See, those stories too, they don’t have room for someone like me either. My hyphenated background is as follows: Malaysian-Chinese Canadian. Tell me, can anyone think of a story with such a background for a protagonist? I’ve searched high and low and to this day I still only know one singular title (and I didn’t even enjoy that story. Representation doesn’t always equal reading enjoyment). In China my ancestors were too poor and low-class to make even a footnote in its history. In Malaysia my family is segregated by law for being ethnically Chinese. In Canada I am invisible. There is no voice for me, for my experiences.

The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese shows I love so much, they still mean something to me. They showed me that you don’t need Awesomely Coloured Eyes and have Blond or Red Hair to be beautiful. They showed me that Asians can have adventures too and be awesome, the hero of the day. But they also showed me that I don’t quite fit with this picture. Being an ethnic Chinese is different from being Japanese or Korean, and in China there is no voice for the Diaspora population. Getting Malaysian media in general is extremely challenging for me and even when I do find ones that feature Chinese-Malaysians, they may come sans subtitles and I would only half-understand the story with my garbled, faint understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin, never mind other Chinese dialects or Malay itself. The day Canada uses a POC protagonists, never mind even just Chinese-Canadian protagonists, in their narratives, is the day hell freezes over and the dead decides to come back to the living. And even with stories that do have the hyphenate identity of being a Chinese-American doesn’t quite hold. A Chinese-American is similar but NOT the same as a Chinese-Canadian, and a Chinese immigrant who came from the Mainland is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Hong Kong is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnan . . .

I’ve stopped holding my breath for characters that will be representative of my heritage. In my entire lifetime I do not expect to come across any more such protagonists and/or stories than what I can count on one hand.

There is no voice for someone like me, but I thought and thought about it, and a few years back I realized that all I really wanted was a story that said it was okay to have a diverse population. That everyone around you didn’t have to come from the same monolith culture in order to have a story to tell. Stories in English language novels that have a white default, stories in Japanese/Korean/Chinese shows that show a monolith culture, all these stories don’t have room for me in them. But a story that features and even stars a character that isn’t part of the dominant race default, wherein minorities of the country have a voice, that’s a kind of world wherein I have a possibility of existing. I am not saying that I read diverse books in order to find a Malaysian-Chinese Canadian within it, because I’ve long since stopped believing in such a story. What I am saying is that in stories that show a world wherein marginal voices are given centre stage and deemed worthy of a story, I as a jumble of hyphenates, a marginal group in every country my family have ever been part of, can have room to dream. I, in this world, can only carve out a space for myself as myself in a world that acknowledges the existence of people that don’t fit in the dominant fold. A diverse population is the only place wherein I as a marginal voice can exist, and that is why stories that reflect such diversity is important to me.

And I guess, this is the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it means to ‘relate’ to a world that is reflective of my own.

Talking Writing with Sarah Reees Brennan

Irish writer, Sarah Rees Brennan, and I spend a lot of time IMing each other. We talk about many, many different things—including the superiority of Ireland and Australia to all other nations1—but mostly about writing. Recently when I was unwell SRB cheered me up by telling me the story of two of her not-yet-written novels. It was better than chicken soup! As any of you who have read her novel, Demon’s Lexicon, or her blog know, SRB is a wonderful storyteller.

It was not the first time SRB had told me the complete detailed plot of an as-yet-unwritten novel but this time I started wondering about how she does that. When I write a novel I know very little before I start writing. I figure it out as I go. My method is the winging it method. SRB’s is outlining. (Thogh really it’s so much more than that.) Which are the two basic approaches to novel writing. I decided it might be fun to ask her about her methods. And it was.

JL: I am so amazed at how you can reel off a whole written novel like that.

SRB: Oh I like to tell stories.
 
JL: Though it bewilders me.
 
SRB: I think in past times I would have been a bard.
  
Sad about my singing voice tho.’
 
JL: I think you would have been too. (I have not heard your singing voice.)
  
I used to tell a tonne of stories as a kid. But I got out of the habit.

SRB: I think our natural storytelling gene kicks in early and then you know, as you say, we get into habits.
  
I used to think i could never write straight onto a computer.
 
JL: Ha. I’ve been doing that since I was fourteen. I don’t really know how to write with a pen anymore. I think with my fingers. All the words are in my ten typing fingers. (Yes, I even use my thumbs!)

SRB: Occasionally I still write on paper.
 
JL: I am shocked. But I have a bad relationship with paper. We hate each other. I’ve been known to get papercuts on my nose.
 
SRB: I guess this is because you were wee when you started to write only on the computer? Whereas I was . . . the lofty age of seventeen?
 
JL: It’s not so much the age of starting as the amount time spent writing that way.
  
I’ve been writing on computers for more than 20 years. You haven’t even been writing that way for ten.
 
SRB: That’s true. ‘Habit becomes second nature and a stronger nature than the first’ — Anthony Trollope speaking of alcoholism.

ALso now I have writer friends, the ability to tell the whole story is super helpful. I told Holly [Black] the story I told you in Mexico and she was like ‘VILLAINS, we must take your villains apart.’

 JL: She started making suggestions about an unwritten novel? And you were okay with that?I
  
I’d worry it would interfere with you figuring it out yourself. I don’t think people are allowed to stick oars in until the thing is written.

SRB: See, it helps me
  
As I also gleefully reject anything someone says that goes against stuff I have decided.
  
I say no to many suggestions. Though sometimes I am very wrong about that.

JL: Hmmmm. Whereas because I work stuff out on the page and have such nebulous ideas about the story before I start writing that talking about it with someone else will just destroy it.
  
Which is why I mostly don’t.
  
Or if I do I say, “Don’t make any suggestions! Just nod and smile!”
 
SRB: See, if I don’t know where I am going to end up I float on a sea of horror. HORROR.

Mostly what I have is a firm start and end, and islands in between and I make bridges between the islands by telling people or making a chapter plan!

JL: Whereas if I knew my story as well as you know yours before you start I would never write them. I can’t see the point. It’s done already. Hardly anything left to work out. Why bother?
 
SRB: Well, I want to see how it plays out, and what will change. ;)
  
Plus I want to write the scenes I already love so I can see them. I admit they are rarely as beautiful as I picture them being, which is sad.
 
JL: I think writing a novel is like having an adventure. Without a map. I love finding out what the novel is about as I write it. It’s one of the main reasons I write novels. If I knew what it was about before I started it wouldn’t be an adventure.
 
SRB: Well that is a good metaphor and one which I can relate to.
  
Whereas I like buying a travel guide and planning out some stuff and thinking to myself WOW that picture of a temple is beautiful when I get there I’ll have so much fun. I’ll do this and this and this. (Which is hilarious, as actually in real life travels, I am the least organised person ever, and get carted about by my friends from place to place going ‘Oooh’ in a vague way, usually in inappropriate clothing.)

JL: (I can imagine.)
  
But you don’t just have an outline. When you tell me the plots of your unwritten novels you describe whole scenes and dialogue. So it’s more than just knowing where you’ll go and when. It’s knowing exactly who you’ll meet and what you’ll do.

SRB: Well, I admit some of my dialogue is written on the fly and some of it i keep, and some i do not depending on whether it sticks in my head.
 
JL: Which is the other part of your method I find utterly alien: your memory!
  
That all of this stuff is in your head, not on paper. (Well, at least not until I make you tell me the plot via IM.)
 
SRB: I do have an exceptional memory for useless stuff which is what the stories are in my head.
 
JL: Novels are not useless!

SRB: But in my head, they are. I still do not believe I get to do STORIES for my living. Mostly they have been just something I harass my friends with. Endless yapping about stories in my head! About as useless as my remembering stuff like it is legal to shoot someone with a bow in Scotland for trespass.
 
JL: But you can’t shoot them with a bow for other reasons?
 
SRB: Not legally, alas.Then they arrest you for ‘murder.’

JL: Seems grossly unfair. What if the person you shot had interfered with your hamster?
  
But I digress.
  
Do you remember when you first start telling stories?
 
SRB: (We have no legal recourse to protect our hamsters. We have to move outside the law like Robin Hood.)

Well, in fact, in keeping with the theme of your novel, LIAR, I began my career as a storyteller by telling tremendous lies.
  
Crazy, elaborate lies.
  
I mean, I recall drawing a house, and having a small story about the house beneath it at the age of five and then informing my sailor grandpapa, a much muscled and tattooed man, of my many years of toil over this fine scholarly work. I remember the lying as my start, more than the house story
  
And you too did this lying thing did you not?

JL: The elaborate stories? Yes, indeed.
  
I would make up stories to entertain my younger sister, Niki. But there were also the outrageous lies I told to pretty much everyone, of which I was often the heroine. But I never wrote those down. I only wrote down the stories that I would make up for Niki.
  
The proper stories.

SRB: See, I find you writing down stuff for your sister very beautiful and fitting. It reminds me of the Brontes and Diana Wynne Jones who all did these things.
  
HOWEVER, my siblings are ingrates and did not let me participate in this flow of souls. They would never have in a fit read anything I wrote down for them. Happy though I would have been to do so!
  
My sister Genevieve however did like me to come ‘talk her to sleep,’ which may mean, I was so insanely boring she used me as a tonic. But I was ready to do it at all times and indeed to be fair to Genevieve she also read a couple of my books once I typed them and printed them out and bound them for her. And, indeed, is my only sibling to have read my published book.
 
JL: (It should be noted at this point that both SRB and me are the oldest sibling.) Oh, my sister never read any of it. I had to read it to her.

When she was little, I mean. Niki has read all my published books. And the unpublished ones, too, for that matter. She is most good sister.
 
SRB: (Why does anyone ever have brothers? Even among the Brontes, Bramwell was the bad seed.)
 
JL: (It is a mystery. Though I should not really express opinion as I do not have brothers.)

SRB: Putting stuff on paper does legitimise stuff in a way now
 
JL: I think Niki was pretty young when I stopped making up stories for her.
 
SRB: We understand as Homer would not have that REAL BOOKS are on paper.
 
JL: Yes! That’s probably why I shifted into purely writerly form for my stories.
 
SRB: And why we rush to do that when we have the storytelling urge.
 
Plus, once I write something I can forget about it.
 
JL: That might be why I am so bad at remembering stuff.
 
SRB: Think of those olden days bards who had to remember hundreds of stories.

JL: Literacy destroys memory. (I would like to claim that this is an original thought but I think Walter J. Ong would be cross with me.)
 
SRB: I COULD have done it, I think. Remembered all those stories. But good god the alternative is nice.
  
So now if a fan says ‘I loved that bit where’ sometimes my brain offers me up nothing! I venture a ‘good?’

JL: I could not have been a bard! Even as a small child my memory was dreadful.

Yes, people ask me detailed questions about my books all the time. I have not the faintest clue. I wrote them so long ago now. (Though for me even a week ago is outside the scope of my memory.)
 
SRB: I imagine that will happen to me. Should I ever be lucky enough to have five books published.

I like that we end up in the same places (the temples!) but one of us wants a map and plan and the other voyages to adventure!
  
JL: I have seven books! Two don’t count though as they’re non-fic. However, I don’t remember anything about them either when asked.

 SRB: (I feel people asking questions about non-fiction would be cruel and unusual.)
 
JL: (I get asked about the non-fic all the time. I remember nothing! It was more than a decade ago that I worked on those! I was a different person then. That was in another country and the wench is dead!)

So how did you start writing down your stories? And how did that not stop you from continuing to tell your stories?
 
SRB: Well, I was always aware that this was what you did. Wrote stories down. And also, I could spend happy days alone in my purple room writing. Whereas to tell stories to a person for days I would have had to drug them and tie them up, and as a deprived child, I had little access to chloroform.
 
JL: (Though you had a purple writing room. *Is jealous*)

Probably illegal. Like using a bow on hamster interferers.
 
SRB: There just isn’t a bardic culture anymore. Or a court where people all read Chaucer together, which in some ways makes me sad!
 
JL: We’re not as good at listening as we used to be.
 
SRB: Short attention spans, given the variety of amusements available.
 
JL: But I also think people aren’t as good at telling stories either.
  
There aren’t many people I would suffer to tell me their entire novel.
 
SRB: I blush, m’lady.

We do not have the memory-recall of the bards of yore. And, you know, the beautiful bits of writing—description and the like—we have to think about those. I couldn’t tell someone those bits.
 
JL: I am still wondering about your telling of novels. My zero drafts are very tender delicate creatures. I show very few people.

And basically only in a cheering squad capacity. They can cheer my first baby steps, not criticise the wobbliness and pigeon toes. (There’s nothing wrong with pigeon toes!)
  
My novels can’t bear the weight of criticism until I’ve figured out what they are. And that doesn’t happen until there’s a whole draft.
 
SRB: I tend to find criticism always helpful.
 
JL: Oh, criticism is essential.

SRB: Unless I disagree with it of course . . .
  
JL: But someone criticising a zero draft is kind of like someone criticising a souffle on the basis of a few of the ingredients laid out on a table, but not yet made into a, you know, souffle.

I can’t stand people weighing in before I know what it is I’m doing. Before I can see the souffle. Because then they’ll try and make it into a cheesecake or, I don’t know, an aardvark or something.
 
SRB: While I am kind of like, as I can already visualise the souffle I like your idea of adding cinnamon.
 
JL: I am, of course, now envisioning a cheese souffle so am horrified by the idea of adding cinnamon to it.

SRB: Well, I have never made a souffle so cinnamon may be inappropriate to all souffles
 
JL: (Would be fine for a chocolate one.)

How soon do you start telling someone a novel idea?
 
SRB: Hmmm. There is usually a space. I mean, I will tell people I have an IDEA and then I will ruminate for some time. Sometimes unconsciously.
 
JL: There’s a long time while the novel gestates when it can only be me who knows about it. Maybe the difference is your gestation happens in your head and mine on screen?
 
SRB: Maybe! That would make sense. I do start telling people bits of novels before I have it all worked out: beginnings, backstory.
  
I told a lot of my friends the backstory for Demon’s Lexicon before I had a book.
 
JL: Cause telling it out loud was part of your process of figuring it out?

SRB: Yeeeees. It is one way of fine-tuning, building the bridges between the islands. Very tiresome for my friends however . . .
 
JL: Not for some of them. I know plenty of writers who like to stick their oars into other people’s books. I love it!

SRB: I remember being very surprised when Holly was like TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOOK!
  
I was a baby publishing intern at the time. She was a Big Deal Writer Lady.

I was very pleased though: usually I had to coerce people. TALK LOUDLY OVER THE SOUND OF THEIR PROTESTS.
 
JL: Lucky you have such a penetrating voice. :-)
 
SRB: Possibly this is how I developed it . . .
 
JL: Holly really loves telling novels. She and Cassie Clare too.
 
SRB: This is how we all work.
 
JL: I had never come across that method before I met you three. I admit I was appalled at first.
 
SRB: So us in a pool in Mexico plotting novels in detail really works Plus we can fill in each other’s steps. If I have a gap and cannot proceed along the way. Holly or Cassie can fill it in for me and from there my ideas can snowball
 
JL: The first time I saw (heard) Holly & Cassie doing that I was shocked and appalled. But now I enjoy watching them at it. I had to let go of my fear of spoilers. And I learned not to breathe a word of what I was working on them lest they start interfering with it.

I’m already permanently spoiled for Scott’s books. Now yours and Holly’s and Cassie’s are also on that list.
 
SRB: Sometimes my process is too chaotic for them. I scream out something that seems insane to them. Then ten minutes later we reach a brainstorming point where my insane scream makes sense.
 
JL: I think what appalled me is that from my viewpoint you’re all sharing something that has always been intensely private for me. I do all of that stuff on my own.

SRB: I guess since it ends up public it seems right to start it with friends.
 
JL: Well, that’s the part you can’t control—when it’s published. So I like as much control as possible before then.
 
SRB: on the other hand, while I do not mind people showing me their babies. I would be very discomposed if they had sex in front of me.
 
JL: Ha! Interesting way of putting it.
  
YET YOU HAVE SEX IN FRONT OF CASSIE & HOLLY ALL THE TIME!
 
SRB: I FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEM? I GUESS!
 
JL: EWWWW!!!!!

SRB: Wow, now my own rash metaphor has transformed me, Holly and Cassandra into immoral orgiastic maeneads.
 
JL: You said it, not me.
 
SRB: Whereas you are the decent lady. (Sorry, Holly and Cassie!)
 
JL: Well except that you tell me your novel plots all the time. Sometimes I even beg you to. (I get Diana [Peterfreund] to tell me hers, too.)
 
SRB: So you are a decent lady with a peephole. Or I am the maenad who sometimes has orgies on your lawn?

JL
: I look but don’t touch. (I fear we have taken this too far.)
  
Do you like talking on the phone? (Not in a sexy way!)
 
SRB: Hmmm, not that much.
 
JL: I would rather IM than talk on the phone.
 
SRB: I mean, I am perfectly happy to do it
 
JL: Holly & Cassie are phone people and they don’t like IMing.
 
SRB: I have never IM’d with Holly, it is true
 
JL: IM is my fave form of communication. Other than face to face.

I had a theory linking preferring to talk on the phone to telling stories rather than writing them first. But you have blown it by preferring IM.

*shakes fist at SRB*

SRB: Well, there is the fact I always live pretty far away from people. I like most forms of communication to a degree.
  
(Curse my own metaphor, now I am the sluttiest of all!)

JL: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a slut.
 
SRB: Naturally not! But I could wish others would join me in my scandalous preferences.

JL: Don’t look at me! I is good, sweet, innocent writer.
 

  1. Just kidding. []

Most Influential YA of the Decade

Omnivoracious, Amazon’s book blog, has an excellent post on the most influential YA of the decade. It is a very good list, indeed. I agree to a certain extent with almost all the entries, but—you knew there was a but, didn’t you?—I don’t think Paolini belongs on the list, and I feel strongly that Holly Black and Ellen Hopkins do.

Now before I get going, let me set out what I understand this list to be. It is not about the quality of the books involved, but about their influence on the publishing field of Young Adult fiction. I believe that there is no question that Stephenie Meyer was the most influential writer of the decade. She created gazillions of readers and there is vastly more paranormal romance and urban fantasy published in YA than ever before directly because of Meyer’s success. As someone who primarily writes YA fantasy in contemporary settings, Meyer has single-handledly increased my chances of continuing to be published. I am extremely grateful. I have even learned to take with grace people telling me I am ripping Meyer off. It helps that I know they’re wrong. :-)

Paolini, on the other hand? Sure, he sells strongly, but what is his lasting influence on the field? Where is the explosion in YA high fantasy? Nor has there been a huge wave of successful teen YA writers in Paolini’s wake. I call one-off and no big influence.

On the other hand, the success of Holly Black’s Faerie Tale books, especially the first one, Tithe (2002), paved the way for many, many writers such as Stephenie Meyer, Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Melissa Marr, Malinda Lo, me, and too many others to name. I was shocked that Holly’s name was not on the list.

Then there’s Ellen Hopkins who showed that novels in verse are more than viable in YA, they can be bestsellers. That’s certainly not true in adult fiction and Hopkin’s phenomenal success is a huge part of it. Another shocking omission.

I am also saddened by how white the list is. Is it an accurate reflection of the whiteness of the field? I would like to think Christopher Paul Curtis, Angela Johnson, Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson have had a big influence across YA (and middle grade). Christopher Paul Curtis had a huge part in shaping my idea of what I can write. (I didn’t read the other three until more recently.) Certainly all four of these very different writers have had far more influence on YA than I have. Yet I am mentioned on the supplementary list and Christopher Paul Curtis, Angela Johnson and Jacqueline Woodson are not. Very weird. For the record: I have no place anywhere on that list.1

I also wonder about so-called street lit, a decent chunk of which is definitely YA, which grew up way outside mainstream publishing. How do you measure that influence? I’ve come across many teens who found their way to reading via books they bought on the subway.

I also ponder David Levithan’s influence in terms of the last decade of GLBT YA books. It is a quieter influence, yes, but it’s definitely there.

What say all of you?

STERN WARNING: Please remember that we’re not talking about quality! I will delete the comments of anyone who starts bashing any of the writers discussed. We’re not discussing which books we love, we’re discussing which books and writers have made the YA genre what it is today. Nor do I want to hear about whether that influence is good or bad. You have been warned.

  1. Maybe next decade. Fingers crossed. []

A Very Small Post of Gloat (updated)

Gloating is wrong, I know, but I can’t help myself. I have the new Megan Whalen Turner book to read and you don’t! Mwahahahahaha.

I shall read it immediately. But I won’t tell you a thing because the book isn’t out until the end of March and I know you all hate spoilers as much as I do. So, yes, I will kill anyone who spoils it in the comments.

And now I’m off to read!

Update: Finished. It was good.

On Romance & Rereading Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover

My romance reading project continues and I realise that I haven’t explained what the project is. Very remiss of me! A few of the many books I’m writing at the moment are romances. I’m using that term very broadly to mean not just the publishing genre, but pretty much any book in which the romance between two or more characters is a big part of the overall story. To put it in fandom terms, I guess I’m talking about the kinds of stories that lend themselves to shipping.

For a long while now I’ve been aware that writing romance is not my strong point. While I love many of them as a reader, somehow I’m not quite able to write that magic myself. So I decided to school myself in the ways of good romance writing. Which involves me reading and thinking about my favourite romances, like those by Jane Austen. And now I am on to the marvellous Margaret Mahy, who, along with Diana Wynne Jones, is my favourite YA writer. They’re two of my faves across any genre. Unusual, awkward but beautiful romances are Mahy’s specialty. I heart them.

Now I can assume that most people have read all of Jane Austen’s novels or at least seen the movies and so know the plots.1 But I can’t make such an assumption with Margaret Mahy’s oeuvre. Although she is one of the most influential YA writers of all time, there are still an astonishing number of mad keen YA readers and writers who don’t know her work. Seriously, people, you need to fix that. If you have not read Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynne Jones than there’s a ginormous hole in your understanding of the genre.

Okay, I’m off the soap box now. But if you have not read The Changeover (1984) you need to go away now. I am about to spoil you something rotten.

Every time I re-read one of Mahy’s books I’m struck all over again by what a gorgeous writer she is and I decide that whichever book I’m re-reading is my fave. But The Changeover really is my favourite. The family life is so vivid and real. The Chant family reminds me of many families I’ve known even a little bit of my own. All of Mahy’s characters are vivid and real. The relationship between Laura Chant and her single working mum, Kate, is perfectly drawn as is the relationship between Laura and her wee brother, Jacko, whose magically induced illness is at the heart of the book. And it’s funny. Mahy’s wit is sly and clever and warm. Oh, and scary and chilling. The moment when the evil Carmody Braque stamps poor Jacko is creepy as hell.

But I’m here to talk about Laura Chant and Sorenson (Sorry) Carlisle. I mentioned in my comments on Persuasion that one of the things I love so much about Anne & Wentworth is that they are equals. What about Laura & Sorry. For starters Sorry is 18 and Laura 14. He’s a knowledgeable witch from a family of them. Laura’s only just discovering her powers. Her decision to become a witch is one of the changeovers referred to by the title. So he’s older, more knowledgeable, and possibly wiser. (Though only in some areas). He’s also broken and Laura is not. One of the more moving changeovers is Sorry’s gradual transformation into someone who can feel again.

I also love that The Changeover is all getting-to-know-you romantic tension. You see them falling for each other, but Laura and Sorry do not get together at the end of the book. At the end Sorry goes off to work with wildlife and Laura continues on at school. Which, well, good. She’s fourteen! She can settle down later, say in ten or twenty years time. Most of us do not meet our one true love when we are fourteen.2

Together forever or not, Laura & Sorry are one of my favourite YA couples. Up there with Sophie & Howl.

So what do I take away from this re-read? Nothing particularly new. Just more confirmation that for this reader a romance only truly works if the characters are warmly and convincingly written. I need to know and care about them to care about them in order to care about their love life. I also need to see and believe that they would fall for each other and that it’s more than physical desire. (Northanger Abbey did not work for me on that front.)

What’s your take on Laura & Sorry?

  1. Though, people, seeing any of the movies—even the good ones without Gwyneth Paltrow in them—is NOT the same as reading the books. []
  2. Actually, most of us never meet them. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true. []

Books Like Liar

Some of the people who enjoyed Liar have started telling me that they want to read something else like it. I’m not sure what to tell them. I can’t recommend one of my other novels because they bear no resemblance to Liar and readers would just be disappointed.

Here are three novels that people have compared to Liar:

  • Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly. This is hugely flattering. Softly is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I think Liar has some of the emotional intensity of Softly and it shares an NYC setting—with Central Park playing a key role in both novels. If Liar evokes New York City even half as well, then I’ve done a bang up job, haven’t I? This book will not satisfy the urge to battle with an unreliable narrator, however. Though it will gut you.
  • Roger Cormier’s I am the Cheese. If I have read this it was so very long ago that I don’t remember it. Maybe someone will say what the points of similarity are in the comments? NO SPOILERS.
  • John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. Again I haven’t read it. All I know is that it features not one, but two, unreliable narrators. I can tell you, though, that the Marsden books I have read I’ve liked a lot.

Anyone got any other suggestions for Liar read alikes? Thank you!

I’m Not Your Target Audience (Yes, You Are)

Much of the fan mail and comments I get from adults includes this phrase “I’m not your target audience” before continuing to say how much they enjoyed one or more of my books in (sometimes) slightly embarrassed tones. As if they’re a tad worried to find themselves reading and enjoying a book published for teenagers. How did that happen? they wonder. Does it make me less of an adult?

I understand the anxiety. Before I became a published YA author, I was unaware of how disdainful many adults are towards teenagers and anything that smacks of teenager-y-ness, such as books marketed at teenagers. Looking back, I now find it weird that I was unaware of this. Firstly, I once was a teenager. How did I manage to forget the way many adults treated me?1 Secondly, I stopped reading books for teenagers when I was twelve because I decided I was too good grown up for them. So, yeah, I seemed to have imbibed adult disdain for the things of childhood and adolescence at a very early age. Yet I got over it enough to forget such disdain existed until I started writing YA.

At which point, wow, did I learn it all over again.

So, yes, I understand why some adult readers of YA feel a bit apologetic about it. But, truly, you don’t need to apologise to me. I am very happy to be writing the books I write and to be published as YA. Every day I wake up and cannot believe my luck to be in such a fabulous genre.

Also it so happens that I don’t write for a target audience. When I’m deep in the writing I’m not thinking about audience, but about writing the best book I can. Unless by “target audience” they mean “subject matter”. Absolutely, adolescence is the central matter of my work. But that’s a subject of interest for those who are about to be adolescents, for those who are adolescents, and for those, like me and the readers who say they are not my target audience, who were adolescents. From the fan mail I see that my books are read by all three of those groups, which makes me very happy.

Or in other words: I happen to think that everyone is my target audience.

You’ve been warned. I’m aiming at YOU.

Heh hem. As you were.

  1. How come so many adults forget this? []

The Audience of Leviathan

I recently tweeted a really interesting review of Leviathan by Tansy Rayner Roberts. It’s my favourite review so far partly because she puts into words something Scott and I have been noticing:

I find it interesting that so many people are talking about this as the latest Scott Westerfeld novel without really acknowledging that this is such a departure from his more recent work. I would not be surprised if some of the audience for the Uglies and Midnighters and Peeps books (at least the teenagers) were less interested in this new series, even as Leviathan draws in an entirely new generation of readers. It’s always interesting to see an author whose work you admire move on to pastures new.

Note: she’s NOT saying that teens aren’t reading Leviathan, she’s just saying that some of the teen fans of Scott’s other YA books will be less interested in the new series. But that a whole new audience will be.

This is exactly what we’ve been finding. Especially amongst the hardcore Uglies fans. Many of whom won’t read any of Scott’s books other than the Uglies books. Here’s a conversation Scott had at almost every stop on his recent tour:

Fan: OMG! I love the Uglies books SO MUCH. You are my favourite writer in the entire world! *hands Scott multiple editions of every Uglies book to be signed plus extra copies to be signed for friends*
Scott: Thank you! So many Uglies books. Amazing!
Fan: When will you be writing a new book? I can’t wait for the next one!
Scott: Well, I’m on tour for a new book. *points to giant stack of Leviathan*
Fan: *looks at Scott blankly*
Scott: Leviathan is my new book.
Fan: Um, when will there be a new Uglies book?

Now, Scott has plenty of fans who read every single book he writes. There are even a few who’ve tracked down his very first publications: kids books about Watergate and the Berlin Airlift. And a few more who are proud owners of Scott’s choose-your-own-adventure Powerpuff Girl books. However, there are a substantial group who are not Westerfans per se, but fans of only one of his series.1 Especially when it comes to the Uglies books.

Now, this is not at all uncommon. There are plenty of Dorothy Dunnett fanatics who only read her Lymond books and have zero interest in the others, Scalzi fans who only like the Old Mans War books, McCaffrey fans who ditto the Pern books and so on. I myself am a Georgette Heyer fan who only likes her regency romances. I won’t touch her straight historicals or detective fiction with a barge pole. So I totally get it.

It is, in fact, a small percentage of readers who will follow a prolific and diverse writer throughout their career and read all their books. This is true even for writers like Stephen King. Plenty of his readers read only the novels and ignore the short stories and non-fiction.

I frequently describe myself as a huge Margeret Mahy and Diana Wynne Jones fan. Yet I have not read all their books. Most, but not all. There are fans and then there are fans.

What’s been so interesting about Leviathan is that it seems like the same percentage of Uglies fans that didn’t pick up Midnighters or the three New York books2 are also not picking up Leviathan. The difference is that a whole bunch of folks who never really heard of Scott before are picking it up in their place. Leviathan really does seem to have brought Scott a whole new audience.

Broadly, we’re noticing way more boy readers than before and a much wider age spread: from eight year olds up through eighty year olds. Scott toured with Sarah Rees Brennnan, Robin Wasserman, Holly Black and Cassie Clare. At pretty much every event, boyfriends of these other authors’ fans, who had come along in a suffering kind of way, saw Scott’s presentation and wound up buying Leviathan, stunned that something could possibly interest them at such an event. Leviathan has also drawn in two specific groups who’ve had little interest in Scott’s books previously:

  • Steampunk fans
  • History buffs

Obviously there’s a big overlap between those two groups. But it’s been fascinating to watch the audience of his tour events change. Scott’s always had people coming along dressed up like Tally or Shay or other characters from his books, but this tour he had people showing up in full on steampunk garb. Fabulous. So far pretty much all the steampunkers are dressing in a generic steampunk way. I’m hoping that will change for his 2010 tour. I can’t wait to see the first person showing up dressed like Derryn or Alek.

Now before any of you jump into the comments and say “I’m a bloke! I love military history and steampunk and I’ve ALWAYS read Scott’s books!” I’m not saying you don’t exist, I’m just saying that before Leviathan you were only a teeny tiny slice of Scott’s audience. Now, you’ve got lots more company. Enjoy! We sure are.

  1. There are adult readers who’ve only read The Risen Empire and have no intention of ever touching that smelly YA stuff. []
  2. So Yesterday, Peeps & The Last Days. All three books are set in the same world, by the way. It’s just that Hunter (of So Yesterday) is totally unaware of all the vampires running around. See how the world of products and advertising distracts you from what’s really important? Let that be a lesson for you. []

Wrongness on the Internet

This goes out with love to some dear friends of mine. You know who you are.

There’s an xkcd cartoon so famous that many refer to it by its number, 386. It’s my favourite and one that is referred to frequently in the Larbfeld household.

“OMG!” I will yell, looking up from my computer.

“Is someone wrong on the internet?” Scott will say, making me feel a wee bit foolish, and deflating my outrage by at least 50%. Thank you, Randall Munroe.

duty_calls

Turns out that it’s not as famous as I thought it was. Recently I discovered that my sister, who makes a living in the visual effects industry, had never heard of it or xkcd. Now, there aren’t many geekier professions or industries than my sister’s. And yet she did not know xkcd. I did a wee survey. Many of my friends, who spend as much time online as I do, had never heard of it.

Which leads me to my point: Internet famous is not the same as world famous. The internet may be vast, but it still isn’t as vast as the real world. Much that feels big and important online, that the whole world is paying attention to is, in fact, unnoticed by anyone but you and your online friends and enemies.

When you are caught up in some drama or other that has broken out on a list (or loops as some people call them), newsgroup, twitter, comment thread it’s easy to forget that. Many of these conflagrations are about incredibly important matters like race, gender, inequality etc. etc. Some are not. But no matter how grave the matter, getting caught up in an online shitstorm, or worse, being at the centre of one, is hellish. It can eat days or weeks of your life, mess with your head, and get in the way of work.

It’s easy to lose your sense of proportion and forget that the vast majority of people have never heard of the storm that’s been encircling you. Not only do they not know about it, they’ve never heard of the site where it took place, or the game it was about, or the field it’s part of. You will have friends and colleagues in your field who have no idea it ever took place.

The interweebs are vast. That’s true. But they’re also tiny and fragmented.

When I was on tour, I met countless booksellers who had no idea there’d been any storm surrounding the cover of Liar. These were YA specialists who make a living buying and selling YA.

The vast majority of people who read YA do not know about the YA lit blog world. I did many school visits. Most of the students I talked to had no idea that some writers blog, let alone that there are active communities and blogs solely devoted to discussing YA. So they certainly weren’t reading any of those blogs. Some of the librarians and booksellers and teachers ditto.

When you’re caught up in an online conflagration is exactly the time to remember that it’s a speck of sand in the scale of things. Sure, it’s important to argue for what you believe is right and to do so for multiple audiences. But don’t do it at the expense of your work and your mental health. Don’t think that the survival of the universe depends on your doing so. Let yourself back away when you need to.

Because one of the wonderful things about the intermawebbys is that you can back away. You can turn it off. Something it’s a lot harder to do with conflict in the real world.1

Besides for many of us around the world it’s holiday time. Enjoy yourself out in the sunshine!2

This is me turning off the internets and starting the xmas cooking.

Hope you have a wonderful break from work. I know I will.

  1. To be clear, what happens online is real. But it’s a real that’s a lot easier to turn off than conflict at work or at home. []
  2. Or out in the snow and cold and misery if you are unfortunate enough to live in the wrong hemisphere. []

Is This Thing On? *tap* *tap*

Well, that was a long break, wasn’t it? I return refreshed and ready to resume blogging activities.

First boring admin: I have yet to tackle my mail, given all the totally urgent work on my plate, I won’t get to it until the new year. Resend if urgent. I do try to answer all mail so if I still don’t answer in January could be my spam filters ate it.

And now some commentary over at the Misfits’ Book Club on the new covers of E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver books. It made me really happy for two reasons:

  1. It’s a very interesting discussion of covers. I’ve been working on a big fat post about covers for a while now. One of the things I talk about the divide between the way people who’ve read a book see the cover as opposed to those who have not. People forget that most covers designs are aimed at the people who haven’t read the book and haven’t heard of the author. Cassandra Mortmain’s1 discussion of the rejacketing of the Ruby Oliver books perfectly illustrates that divide. She’s unhappy with the new jackets but also hopes that it will bring in new readers. Her and me both.
  2. I’ve thought for ages that the Ruby Oliver books were being overlooked. Just because they’re fluffy and light does not mean that they don’t also have a lot to say about sex and gender in high school. It bugs me how often light books that tackle serious subjects just don’t register with many critics and award committees. For my money every one of the Ruby books should be garlanded with every award going. Cassandra Mortmain agrees with me. Most pleasing.

If you haven’t read the Ruby Oliver books. I strongly recommend that you do so. Rather than me explaining them, let Ruby tell you about the first book, The Boyfriend List:

WHAT HAPPENED, YOU WANT TO KNOW?

In the same ten days I —

lost my boyfriend (boy #13)

lost my best friend

lost all my other friends

learned gory details about my now-ex boyfriend’s sexual adventures

did something shockingly advanced with boy #15

did something suspicious with boy #10

had an argument with boy #14

drank my first beer

got caught by my mom

lost a lacrosse game

failed a math test

hurt Meghan’s feelings

became a leper

and became a famous slut.

Enough to give anyone panic attacks, right?

I was so overwhelmed by the horror of the whole debacle that I had to skip school for a day to read mystery novels, cry, and eat spearmint jelly candies.

The Ruby Oliver book in order are: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, Real Live Boyfriends (out next year). Read them!

That is all.

  1. This is a pen name. For those of you who don’t know Cassandra Mortmain is the protag of the marvellous I Capture the Castle. Yes, my feet are in the sink as I write this. []

Quick Note on Yesterday’s Post

I’m very sorry that some reviewers of YA were upset or worried by yesterday’s post. I truly was not talking about you. If you’re reading my blog. odds are you know and care about the genre, which is something the people who write those kinds of reviews are often lacking—especially the knowledge.

There are two groups who are writing the kinds of reviews I was mocking:

  1. Reviewers for trade mags/journals/newspaper who are being asked to review outside their area of expertise
  2. Amateur reviewers whose gateway drug to YA was Twilight

The vast majority of specialist kidlit bloggers and trade reviewers are mad keen lovers of the genre who are knowledgeable about its history and don’t make idiotic mistakes like accusing L. J. Smith of ripping off Stephenie Meyer. My post was not aimed at any of you. The kidlit bloggers and reviewers do a wonderful job of keeping people like me informed about our genre and what books we should be reading.

Keep up the good work!

Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo (updated)

I have a rule that I never respond to bad reviews. I have blogged on several occasions about why I think doing so is pointless. However, I can’t help noticing a certain tenor in many Paranormal/Fantasy YA reviews lately. Everything seems to be talked about in terms of Stephenie Meyer’s Twlight books.

On the one hand it’s inevitable given that they are the most popular books, not just in YA, but in the entire world. Meyer’s had a huge influence and, yes, there are many Twilight knockoffs out there. But on the other hand, people seem to forget that Meyer’s books are very new. Twlight was first published in October 2005. YA fantasy had already existed for decades before Meyer. There were even YA vampire books before Twilight. Thus the constant accusations of ripping off Stephenie Meyer and jumping on the “paranormal bandwagon”1 are a bit rich, particularly when aimed at say, L. J. Smith, whose vampires novels were first published in the 1980s 1991. Pretty hard to rip off a book pub’d almost 20 years before yours.

The constant accusations have led me to develop a bingo card so all us writers of YA Fantasy/Paranormal can tick each item off as we are accused. I admit I got the idea because I was recently accused of jumping on the paranormal bandwagon and ripping Stephenie Meyer off with my debut novel, Magic or Madness. As you’ll see below I get bonus points because MorM was first published before Twlight.2

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the urge to educate people about the timescales of publishing. Not to mention how influences, trends and fashions work. But not today. Today I am in a mocking mood.

So here is my (Sarah Rees Brennan, Diana Peterfreund and Carrie Ryan contributed) list of squares on the Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo Card.3 See if you’ve gotten a review that allows you to cross off each one. I suspect pretty much all of us who write YA fantasy will be winners.

  • Twilight ripoff (Extra points if the book that is accused of this predates Twilight)
  • Jumping on the paranormal bandwagon (Extra points if the term “paranormal” did not exist outside the Romance genre when your first books were published)
  • Being accused of rippping off a book published after or around the same time as your book
  • Being accused of jumping on a bandwagon that’s hardly a bandwagon such as the steampunk or killer unicorn bandwagon. Shouldn’t there be at least a dozen books before it becomes a bandwagon?
  • The line “haven’t we seen this before” appears in the review
  • Says vampires/werewolves/zombies/fairies/[supernatural being of your choice] is old hat
  • Claims your protag is a ripoff of Bella and/or Edward and/or Jacob
  • Criticises your character for not being as wonderful as Bella
  • Criticises your character for being as drippy as Bella
  • Complains your hero is not dreamy like Edward
  • Complains your character is drippy like Edward
  • Complains your vampires are inauthentic because they do not sparkle
  • Is unaware vampires existed before Twilight came out in 2005
  • Says your book is great because is exactly like Twilight
  • Says your book is great because is nothing like Twilight

I’m sure I’m missing some. Do please suggest more in the comments.

NOTE: Please don’t bash the Twilight books in the comment thread. Stephenie Meyer and her books have been an enormous boon to the field of YA. She’s created more readers than anyone since J. K. Rowling. The fact that the criticisms above keep happening is testament to that.

Update: Aja went and made the bingo card! Bless!

BingoAja

You can see it bigger here. Thank you, Aja!

  1. “Paranormal” is also a pretty recent literary term and was not used at all outside the romance genre until pretty recently. []
  2. Not twenty years before like L. J. Smith but seven months prior is still before. []
  3. Someone with photoshop skills can turn it into an actual bingo card. []

NaNo Tip No. 24: Writing While White

Lately many white writers have been asking me about writing characters who aren’t white. Quite a few are doing NaNoWriMo, so I decided I’d put my responses into the NaNo tips.

I’ve been asked the following questions: Why should I have non-white characters in my books? How do I write about non-white people if I’ve never known any? Should I write about non-white people at all?

I’ve already addressed some of these questions a number of times. I’m not sure if any of my responses are adequate. These are complicated questions that I wrestle with myself.

And, of course, I feel very weird being put in the position of giving people permission to write. No one can do that for you. Least of all me.

In a few cases, I’ve been tempted to tell these well-meaning askers, “No, don’t put non-white characters in your fiction.” Reviews like this one by the fabulous Doret Canton definitely make me feel that there are white writers for whom writing outside their social circle is a bad idea.

As a general rule you should never write about anything you are ignorant about. If you want to write about an African-American character living in NYC, say, and you don’t know any, and you’ve never been to NYC, odds are you’re going to do a bad job. Which is why Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk is so good. He’s drawing on his lived experiences.

Now, you may point out (if you know me at all well) that I have repeatedly written about things about which I know practically nothing. Mathematics in the Magic or Madness trilogy, as well as luge in How To Ditch Your Fairy and biology in Liar. I did a lot of research to be able to write about them but I was shockingly ignorant starting out.1

So what’s the difference?

Mathematics, luge, and biology are not people. They can’t be hurt.

What we all have to remember when we write about people—any people—is that the risks of reinforcing stereotypes and thus hurting people is very high. So the onus is on us to do the very best job we can. We also have to remember that even when we do a wonderful job, even if we are a member of the group we’re representing, there are still people who will be offended.

There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. For example, there’s been much discussion on this blog about representations of women and the way women characters are held to different standards. I recently saw a discussion of Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful debut novel Demon’s Lexicon where Mae was referred to by a commenter as a “whore,” which is, aside from everything else, factually incorrect. The much more sexually active character (also not a whore), Nick, was discussed in approving terms.

None of us want to perpetuate those attitudes about female sexuality but even when we’re writing strong2 3D female characters, like Mae, readers are still calling them whores. Which is to say it’s really hard bucking centuries of negative representations of women and particularly of their sexuality.

None of the white writers asking me these questions wants to hurt anyone or reproduce racist stereotypes. They’re asking because they’re concerned and they want to do the right thing and because they recognise that most of the novels being published in the USA are about white characters. Outside of bookstores like Hue-Man the shelves of most bookstores in the USA are groaning with books about white people.

However, when I ask them what they mean about not knowing any non-white people it usually turns out not to be true. Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as “white”3 and forget that they’re Hispanic or of Japanese or Korean or Indian ancestry. I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

Writing should challenge the way you perceive the world. You should look harder and longer than you ever have before. Notice that the sky at night is not black, that eyes are not one uniform colour and that car engines don’t “growl”. I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

  1. Sadly once the books are written all that I gleaned in order to write them drops out of my head. []
  2. By “strong” I do not mean “arsekicking”. See Diana Peterfreund’s comment for further explanation. []
  3. Which is a whole other problem. []

Ebooks of My Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Night’s Event

The event at Books of Wonder with Libba Bray, Kristin Cashore, Suzanne Collins, me and Scott last night was astonishing. Several people said they thought there were around 200 people there. I could not possibly guess from where I was sitting, but it did indeed appear to be many.

Here’s my bad fuzzy photo of the many:

It was pretty overwhelming to be on the bill with such popular writers, especially Suzanne Collins. For those who don’t know, her two most recent novels, Hunger Games and Catching Fire are currently, and have been for some time, numbers one and two on The New York Times bestsellers list, selling bajillions of copies a week. The Books of Wonder appearance was organised around Suzanne because it was her only signing for Catching Fire. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Peter Glassman (the owner of BoW) thought to ask me to take part. Here’s Suzanne in action (with Libba Bray listening carefully):

I’d never met Suzanne before. She’s lovely, smart and gently funny. She, me and Libba had a fun conversation about the joys (meeting wonderful teens, booksellers, librarians) and travails (food poisoning) of touring. She’s also extraordinarily generous, giving up a big chunk of her presentation to talk in detail about how much she’d loved Liar, Fire,1 Leviathan and Going Bovine. Thank you, Suzanne.

I’d never met Kristin either and she also turned out to be lovely. I don’t know what it is about the YA world but almost all the authors I’ve met have been fabulous.2 It’s such a wonderful community to be part of.

It was only overwhelming at first then it quickly became relaxing. For most of my tour, I’ve done solo events with all the attention on me, but last night I could sit back and watch how other YA authors answer questions about how they come up with names, where they get their ideas, and which characters they like best.

Suzanne and Kristin were both so thoughtful and smart, providing little glimpses into how they work. They both have detailed maps of the imaginary worlds they’ve created. It sounds like Kristin’s world encompasses gazillions of countries and large swathes of time. Very Tolkienesque. Libba Bray remains one of the funniest people on the planet and I don’t just say that because she’s a dear friend of mine. As does Scott.3 Last night’s event made me want to stick to doing events with other people. Not just because it’s more fun for me, but also because it felt like the audience gets more out of it too.

What do you think?

One event I’m dying to do is me and Libba talking about unreliable narrators. For those of you who haven’t read Going Bovine you really should. We wrote Liar and Going Bovine at the same time and commented on each other’s early drafts. I can’t tell you how deeply eerie it was to discover we were both writing unreliable narrators and how many resemblances there were between our books even while they were also extremely different. Going Bovine is hysterically funny; Liar not so much. I think our two books work amazingly well side by side. Turns out I am not the only one to notice this.

Maybe some time next year we’ll be able to talk about our books, their unreliability, and how hard they were to write side by side. Fingers crossed!

  1. As Kristin said, “Look! Our books rhyme!” []
  2. Another contributing factor to why I never want to write for the grown ups: I’d have to hang out with the cranky adult literature authors. Ewww. []
  3. Yes, I know he’s my husband but he truly is hilarious. []

Adults Reading YA

Today Louisville’s Courier-Journal has a most excellent article about adults reading YA by Erin Keane. I don’t just say that because I was interviewed for it, but because the article is smart and non-sensationalist, and includes some actual facts:

Young adult fiction’s appeal has grown way beyond the school library. What was once considered entertainment for kids has become big business for adults, who are increasingly turning to the children’s section for their own reading pleasure, according to publishing experts.

Nielsen’s BookScan predicted U.S. book sales will remain flat this year, but amid this industry slump, sales of young-adult titles are expected to continue to rise. It’s not only teenagers who are browsing the shelves

There’s no hint of panic about this anywhere in the article. In fact, you get the impression that adults reading the amazingly wonderful YA books out there is a good thing.

Pinch me now.

Too Many Books About NYC?

Ever since I first became a part of the YA world, I’ve been noticing complaints that way too many YA books published in the US of A are set in New York City. Why can’t other cities get a look in? they ask. Off the top of my head I can easily name many, many US YA books that are not set in NYC. But I think most people would concede that there are more YA books set in NYC than any other city or place in the USA.

There are lots of reasons. There’s the famous New York City bubble. People who live in NYC find it hard to believe there is anything of interest outside her five boroughs. (And most of them are unconvinced there’s anything cool anywhere expect the borough they happen to live in.) I don’t share that opinion, but hey, I’m from Sydney that’s where all the cool stuff actually is.

I have never heard anyone bitch that all Oz YA is set in Sydney. That’s beacause a) it isn’t and b) the publishing industry is mostly in Melbourne. But neither is most OZ YA set in Melbourne. Actually, an astonishing number of Oz YA novels are set in country towns. This is especially astonishing given that Australia is the most highly urbanised country in the world.

I think the preponderance of NYC YA makes sense given the huge population of the city and that it’s the centre of publishing and thus has a long long history of writers living here. Er, like me.1 I’m one of those writers who needs to have been to the places I write about. My five novels are set in Sydney, NYC, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok, Dallas as well as a city, New Avalon, I invented and thus know really well.2

Are any of you annoyed by all the USian YA set in NYC? Do you not read it cause you’re so sick of it? Or is it more that when you’re picking a new book you’ll pass if it’s yet another one set in NYC?

If you’re not from the US, are you annoyed by the setting of any of the YA in your country? Is too much French YA set in Paris? Too many Bangkok YA novels in Thailand?

  1. For half the year. []
  2. For me the hardest to write were Dallas and Bangkok cause I’ve only been a couple of times and don’t know either city especially very well. Fortunately it was just a few short scene set in either city. If I were to write whole novel set in either I suspect I’d have to live there while writing. []

A Wish After Midnight

First I must make a confession: I was very nervous about reading Zetta Elliott‘s A Wish After Midnight despite all the good reviews it’s had. I was nervous because it’s self-published and I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published books. Midnight does show a few (minor) signs of not coming from an established publisher such as the margins and line spacing too tight. However, within a couple of pages I stopped being bothered by them, and a few pages after that I stopped seeing them at all because I was lost in the story.

I feel like A Wish After Midnight was designed with me in mind. Because it does so many things I love as well as working as an homage to one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler. It’s a time travel story set in New York City between now(ish) and the Civil War. Both time periods are vividly realised. You can smell and taste and feel the very different NYC (mostly Brooklyn) landscapes between then and now. I adore historical novels that are clearly well-researched and yet all that research is not obvious. It permeates every scene, every sentence of the book, but it never feels like the author was showing off. Story came first. I love social realism that is also genre. Wish covers multiple genres seamlessly.

Then there’s the protagonist. I absolutely adored Gemma Colon. She’s smart, strong, resourceful, but also very young. She’s an outsider at school and doesn’t get on with her two oldest siblings. Her mother is fighting hard to keep the family afloat but that involves working around the clock. Funny how economic stability and emotional stability sometimes work out to be incompatible. If you’re a single parent working two jobs you don’t get to spend enough time with your children. Gemma is in a lot of pain but she channels it all into working as hard as she can at school and at home. She maintains a huge capacity for joy and hope. Can you tell I adored her?

A Wish After Midnight is influenced by one of my favourite books of all time, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. You could almost say that it’s a YA reworking of Butler’s brilliant book. Butler has had an enormous influence on my writing. So when I say that Wish evokes Kindred without ever being overwhelmed by it, that’s a huge compliment. In fact, I was left wanting to re-read Kindred and Wish back to back.

My biggest question about Wish is why it had to be self-published. This is great story telling, it’s totally commercial—i.e. I could not put it down—it’s also an ethically compelling book about race, class and gender. It’s not like other books in the marketplace. I don’t understand why a big house has not picked it up.

As you can tell my streak of reading extremely good books continues. I’d love to hear what you all thought of A Wish After Midnight espeically those of you have also read Kindred.

Problem Novels

Pixelfish wants to know what a problem novel is. My own definition until fairly recently was: “a contemporary realist YA novel that I don’t like because it’s preachy and condescending and defines teenagers in terms of their ‘problems’ (which half the time I would not define that way) and most teenage readers hate.” (Here is a more useful definition.)

The problem with my definition, other than it’s way too personal, is that it’s not true. During the past few years of talking to teenage readers and school librarians I’ve learned how incredibly helpful many find problem novels. Readers told me over and over again that they were able to find someone like themselves in the main character dealing with abuse, with an alcoholic mother, a drug addicted father, or what have you. Librarians talked of being able to put the right book in the hands of a struggling teen, which not only got them reading, but every bit as important, gave them a way to talk about what was happening to them and thus get help.

When the reader finds the right problem novel for them it does a world of good. I am now for these novels even though I still find some of them overly preachy and boring. But, hey, what genre is a hundred per cent fantastic? None of them.

Also something has happened to the problem novel since I was a teenager. They’ve gotten so much better. Books like M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow, Coe Booth’s Tyrell, Varian Johnson’s My Life as a Rhombus touch on abuse, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, and an assortment of other “problems” and they are brilliant, moving, funny, touching, wonderful books that I highly recommend.

I still have a knee jerk reaction against them. What can I say? I have a deep fear of preaching. But I have come around so much that I would actually argue that my latest novel, Liar, is a problem novel.

What do youse lot think of them? I’m particularly interested in stories of how problem novels have helped you or your students.

My Life as a Rhombus

If you haven’t already read My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson I’m really going to have to insist that you do so. As usual I won’t be revealing too much about the plot mostly because I think any plot summary makes Rhombus sound like a problem novel,1 which it really isn’t. It’s a character study of a wonderful, smart, engaging, confused teenager, who’s a total maths geek and wants to go to Georgia Tech to become an engineer.2 It’s a quiet story about surviving high school, working hard, about friendship, love, and family relations that touches on all sorts of big stuff—class, privilege, power—without ever being preachy or obvious.

I adore how not preachy Rhombus is. It’s a gentle book that is never for a second boring. (I made the mistake of starting it when I went to bed. Didn’t put it down till I finished—just shy of 5AM.) I love books where there really aren’t any villains. There are people who behave badly in Rhombus, but you understand why and where they’re coming from even. I felt almost nourished by this book. I hug it to my chest.

Another thing I loved about My Life as a Rhombus: the tables and mathematical formulas and postulates throughout the book. They were funny and wry and even innumerate me was able to understand them.

You want this book! You want to read it! Immediately!

My reading only good novels streak remains unbroken. W00t!

If you’ve read Rhombus I’d love to talk about it with you in the comments. So I guess that’s a warning that the comments might be spoilery.

  1. I have a huge prejudice against problem novels which I may have to reconsider since the last few books I read that could be considered problem novels were all fabulous. []
  2. I kind of wish I’d gone to school with Rhonda. We could’ve obsessed about basketball together. I could introduce Rhonda to the WNBA, which she seems not to know about. []

In Which I Apologise to Megan Crewe

Several months ago, the agent Kristin Nelson got in contact with me via my agent to ask if I would take a look at the debut novel of one of her clients with a view to blurbing it. I agreed to do so, mostly because I love Nelson’s blog, but warned that I rarely blurb cause I only do so when I’m excited about a book. I am picky.

But the book—Megan Crewe’s Give Up the Ghost—hit all my sweet spots. For starters it was a ghost story. I adore a good ghost story. Secondly, it wasn’t the same old, same old ghost story. It surprised me. It was fresh, original and sweet and I cried when it ended. So, yeah, I blurbed it.

Yesterday, was the release day for Give Up the Ghost so in order to let people know that a really beautiful and moving ghost story is now available for them to read, I tweeted it. Unfortunately, I had not had a good night’s sleep. In my first tweet I got Megan’s name and the name of her book wrong. In my second corrective tweet I got only the name of her book wrong. Aarrgh.

I would like to hereby formally apologise to Megan Crewe, who I’ve never met, but might be wondering how someone as hopeless as me can even manage to tie up her own shoe laces. (Hey, I wonder that too.) I am so sorry, Megan! Your book is wonderful and did not deserve me mangling both your name and its name.

Now, everyone, run out and get yourself a copy.

YA & Girls Playing Sport

Back in early August, Doret Canon of the wonderful blog, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, wrote to thank me for linking to her and ”put in a request for a YA novel featuring girls playing sports. Any sport will do.” I misread her as asking for recommendations for such YA novels when she was in fact asking me to write ‘em. (What can I say August was kind of mental for me.) I was ashamed to discover that all I could think of was Catherine Murdock’s Dairy Queen series and my own How To Ditch Your Fairy. It transpired that Doret knows more about YA sports books than anyone else on the planet. We soon got to talking about books, sport, and YA about girls playing sport.

Justine: What came first for you a love of sport or a love of books?

Doret: Oh, man, that question is hard. I’ve loved sports and books for so long. Though I have to say books.

Justine: Me too. Do you remember the first book you read that was about sport?

Doret: Growing up I didn’t read sports books. It wasn’t until I started to work at a bookstore that I started to combine my love of both. In the mid 90′s a children’s biography of Satchel Paige by Lesa Cline Ransome and James Ransome—that book stopped me cold and said come here. And, I was like Shut Up, a bio on a Negro League Player, here I come. I had to read it right there.

Another biography—Wilma Unlimited (Wilma Rudolph) by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by David Diaz. Again I had to read the book on sight. I loved both biographies and I quickly learned sports and books go so well together.

Justine: How did you come to love sports?

Doret: I get it from my dad who is a big sports watcher himself. Baseball is my first and favorite. Growing up I used to love watching baseball games and giving my dad the scores. Any sports fan knows there is an art to giving the score.

Justine: Absolutely. That’s very similar to how I got into it. Watching cricket in the summer with my family.

Which are you most obsessed with? Or are you an equal opportunity sports lover?

Doret: Yeah, I pretty much enjoy watching any sport. In high school I would set my alarm so I could wake up to watch the Wimbledon finals. At the time I was also really into the NBA and would stay up late to watch West Coast playoff games.

I wasn’t born with the coordination to play but I have the mind for them. The announcer could be speaking Portuguese but I’ll still watch and understand. I’ve just always gotten sports.

Justine: Ah. So you have what I call “sports brain.” You can sit down and pick up any sport lickety split and then you have to be careful not to get addicted. (During the last Olympics I kind of got addicted to handball.)

Are there any sports you don’t like? (I can’t come at golf or American football.)

Doret: What? No American Football? I love the strength of that game. With the Olympics it’s usually volleyball that gets me in. Car Racing. I get the excitement in the last 5 laps but 500? That’s too much.

Justine: American Football seems designed to fit ad breaks on TV. Also I don’t hold with a sport that has entirely different teams to play offense and defense (and where most of the key decisions are made on the sidelines). One of the things I love about cricket is that you get to see players struggling to do something they’re not that good at: i.e. the fast bowler struggling to bat. It’s why I don’t approve of the designated hitter rule in baseball. It’s fun to watch the pitcher struggle with a bat.

I don’t like car racing either. But then I hate cars. Volleyball is awesome. I even like beach volleyball.

Doret: Have you heard of Beach Tennis? Just learned about it last week. Still not sure what I think of it.

American Football designed to fit ad breaks on TV? Man, that’s harsh. Think of football players as position specialists with something to prove. Football players don’t want to let the other side down. That’s especially evident on a 4 and goal play. Both sides are so determined for that one yard, it’s beautiful to watch. We may never agree about Amercan Football but we will always agree about Baseball. Pitchers should hit. I hate the DH rule as well. Some pitchers are actually starting to look halfway decent with a bat. Evolution at work. Did you know, this year in Japan for the first time a female pitcher was called up to the majors? Eri Yoshida, she is 17. I don’t know how she is with a bat but she’s supposed to have a wicked knuckball.

Justine: Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on Gridiron. Glad you hate the DH rule though.

Beach tennis? Ha! I’ll have to check it out. I love regular tennis. Especially doubles.

Did you have to go searching for YA and middle grade books about girls playing sport?

Doret: A few months back I went on a serious reading kick with book featuring girls who play sports. It started because a sports blog I visit mentioned the 37th anniversary of title IX. The book and sport loving female that I am I didn’t think the anniversary should be ignored. I did have to make an effort to find a lot of the books but it was worth it. I discovered some wonderful new books. Though it’s frustrating that there aren’t more books about girls playing sports. The ones that are out don’t get much exposure. Girls playing and loving sports is not a new concept it goes well beyond 37 years. YA is geared towards girls and maybe even Middle Grade fiction to some extent, yet there’s such a limited amount of books featuring female athletes. I am so over the let’s put a girl on the boys’ team. It’s nice that male authors are recognizing female athletes but it’s not enough. Publishers need to realize girls play and love sports too.

And on a side note—Last year I read a book called Out of His League by Pat Flynn, an Australian author. The main character is a great Rugby player in Australia he moves to Texas to finish high school. He joins the football team and even introduces a few rubgy plays. It was a very fun read. Is it easier to find sports books with girls in Australia?

Justine: I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know whether there are many girl sports books at home. Hopefully people reading the interview will be able to tell us.

Justine: Could you explain a little bit what Title IX is? (Quite a few of my readers aren’t from the US.)

Doret: Explain a little bit about title IX? You didn’t say anything about homework!

Justine: I’m sneaky that way.

Doret: I will happily do it and go for a little extra credit while I am at it. Title IX was passed in the United States in June of 1972. It requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding. Title IX extends past the field into the class room. As far as sports goes money must be fairly distributed for boys’ and girls’ teams. Before its passing girls’ schools teams were under funded or completely ignored. Even with the passing of Title IX, many people still dismissed female athletes including tennis champion Bobby Riggs. In Sept 1973 Billie King defeated Bobby Riggs in three sets. 40 million people watched that match know as Battle of the Sexes.

“I just had to play . . . Title IX [the ban on gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs] had just passed, and I . . . wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation.”

You gotta love what Billie Jean King said and did. There are some moments in sports that transcend beyond the game. In the U.S. King defeating Riggs is definitely one of those moments.

Justine: You get the extra credit! Thank you.

What do you think of the theory that girls who like sports don’t read? (I’ve had several girls write and tell me that they loved How To Ditch Your Fairy despite all the sport in it. On the other hand, I had another girl write and tell me she loved it because she’s a point guard. She comes from a family of basketball playing twins.) There does seem to be a conviction that girls have zero interest in sports books.

Doret: I haven’t heard that theory. Though I have heard that sports books featuring girls don’t sell. How can girls buy books they don’t know about. I always feel bad when a girl comes into the bookstore still in uniform mind you, searching for sports book and I have nothing to show them. It totally sucks. Also it sends an awful message to girls who play sports, that they must hunt down stories that reflect a big part of who they are. Let’s just hope that sports self esteem is working because under representation is bad for anyone’s psyche.

Justine: You said it. I can’t think of any girl sports books that have sold really well. I’m hoping that’s just ignorance on my part. Can you think of any really popular girl sports books?

Doret: No, you’re right there aren’t any sports books featuring girls that have sold really well. But, they haven’t been given a chance. It seems like such an obvious market and I don’t know why it’s being ignored. There are readers waiting and wanting and I am not just talking about the athletes. There are others like myself who simply enjoy and appreciate the games.

I would like to think the idea that girls don’t like sports is changing. A few years ago I was in a store and saw pink baseball gloves. Last Saturday while waiting for the train I saw a dad tossing a football back and forth with his little girl. They were on their way to a college football game. The other night on ESPN highlights, they showed a dad giving a foul ball to his daughter, she threw the baseball back onto the field. These girls may never play but there is no denying that they being raised to enjoy and appreciate sports. If girls don’t like sports then who are the pink gloves for? If girls don’t like sports, why is the WNBA still around? Hmm I wonder what would happen if a basketball book was marketed to female fans at a WNBA game or a softball book at the Softball World Series.

“For the past several years ESPN has televised the Big League Softball World Series, yet the competition has garnered so much attention that the network has decided to move this year’s final game into prime time television.”

People must be watching (and playing) softball for ESPN to move it to prime time, and it can’t be all men. Woman are all over ESPN as players, fans announcers and analysts. My television is constanly turned to that channel, so the idea that girls don’t like sports sounds ridiculously outdated to me.

Justine: I so agree! The idea that no girls like sports is nuts. Sadly, it persists in publishing. I wonder if it’s part of the whole boys don’t like to read thing. The idea being that boys would rather be outside playing sports (or their X-box). So that even if girls do like sports then they won’t like reading because sports-obsessed kids don’t read. I am unconvinced. Reading and sports are not opposites.

Do you get a lot of girls looking for sports books?

Doret: We get a few girls looking for sport books. Probably more girls aren’t seeking out sports books because they are conditioned not to, a reader can take “no we don’t have anything for you” until they just stop looking. That whole boys don’t read thing is ridiculous as well. Anyone who thinks a sports-obsessed kid wouldn’t like books about sports, has never read a sports book. If they did they’d know sports books are written by fans, athletes and players. They would realize that the best sports books describe the indescrible plays, making fans and players feeling lucky for getting it, and feel sorry for those who don’t.

Justine: So true! Publishers have to be more proactive. If the books aren’t there then people can’t find them, and you’re right, they stop looking. The publishers have to stop using the “there’s no audience” excuse when they have no evidence that that’s true. Drives me nuts.

Doret: Yes, it’s an awful cycle, I always get mad thinking about it.

Justine: I have been very interested to see that many of the reviews of HTDYF did not mention that the book is set at a sports high school and almost all the characters are athletes. The focus is on the fairies.

Doret: I loved the idea of an all sports school in HTDYF. I was very happy at the mention of cricket, don’t get much of that State side. Though I must say I felt teased. There was wonderful talk of cricket in HTDYF but no match. My sports brain was all ready to enjoy a game. I could see reviewers talking over that part of the HTDYF if they only cared more about the fairy aspect. I know sports fans would love the idea of a sports school though they would want more games. Writing that I realize, it must be hard for authors to satisfy all readers, sports related or not.

Justine: It is, indeed, tricky. Though I did fail with HTDYF. There was a lot more sport in the earlier versions but descriptions of games really bogged the book down and I wound up having to cut them. (Much to my sadness.) I found it really interesting that I couldn’t find a way to have it be a true spots novel and also be the novel that it is. I truly did try. I do have plans for a basketball novel—WNBA to be exact—at some point in the future. It’s on the list. (It’s a very long list though.)

Doret: A WNBA novel? Sweet. As much as you love basketball I know it will be great. I used to love basketball until the Knicks wouldn’t stop drafting guards. Bastards, took my joy. Now I just do playoffs and March madness.

Justine: But you could follow the Atlanta Dream! Their transformation this year has been totally amazing. From worst in the league last year to making the playoffs this. And I love their shoot and run style of play. They have Angel McCoutrey (not sure I’m spelling that right. Spelling’s not my strong suit.) who’s been on of the best rookies this year and has a hell of a career ahead of her. Frankly I enjoy the WNBA way more than the NBA. (Though I just watched the worst game ever on ESPN 2. Damn those refs.)

And, yes, the Knicks are a disaster. Have been a disaster ever since they traded Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy left. They have truly horrendous management.

Doret: Maybe I will watch a few of the playoff games. When the WNBA started the Liberty drafted Rebecca Lobo, (I am from NY) I always thought she was just okay player, and not someone to start a team around sure enough the LA Sparks seemed to win all the time. At the time Atlanta didn’t have a team so I couldn’t watch or go to any games. I do enjoy women’s college ball. Refs can be awful sometimes, all I can do is scream at the TV, and it makes me feel slightly better.

Justine: Ugh. Refs. I mean, yes, it’s a tough job. They don’t get paid enough. And the fans hate them. But I have seen too many games ruined by over officiating. I quite like Lobo as a commentator but, yeah, her pro basketball career was underwhelming. You do not want to get me started on the management of the New York Liberty!

Let’s end on a positive note: What are your five favourite girls playing sports books?

Doret: Boost by Kathy Mackel—Basketball, fans of Murdork’s Diary Queen series will enjoy this.
Soccer Chicks Rule by Dawn FitzGerald—A must for girls who enjoy Meg Cabot and playing on their field of choice.
Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park—Baseball, like me this protagonist isn’t a player, simply a lover of the game.
Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr—Basketball, a very beautiful multi-layered story. It’s one of the few featuring people of color.
A Strong Right Arm by Michelle Green—A biography of Mamie “Peaunt” Johnson. One of three women to play in the Negro Leagues and the only pitcher.

I am going to try and be smooth here and slip in two more, making 7 the new 5:
The Ring by Bobbie Pyron—Boxing and Twenty Miles by Cara Hedley Hockey.
I really enjoyed both books. I love that both have female protagonist playing sports that some wouldn’t consider lady like. No one should be limited by gender or race.

Justine: That’s exactly the note to end on. What Doret said, No one should be limited by gender or race.