On Not Writing Fiction During The Pandemic

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.

I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?

Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.

It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.

We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.

I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.

It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.

There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.

It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.

I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.

I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.

Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.

The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.

But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.

I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.

I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.

But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.

When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.

My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.

Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.

  1. Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. []

The Problem With Making the Cut

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

I did not love Making the Cut as I did not love Project Runway before it and for similar reasons: they favour the least interesting designers, who for some mysterious reason are almost always white.

I’ll admit straight up that I only watched two seasons of Project Runway and bowed out once they got rid of the interesting designers. So I’m not an expert on that show. Maybe it got better.

My reaction to Making the Cut was also coloured by having watched Next In Fashion shortly before it, which I loved. LOVED.

What was so refreshing about Next was that most of the interesting designers made it deep into the competition and the best designer won! Honestly, I almost fainted.

Also there was an episode on Next In Fashion where they actually discussed whether the judges might have some racial bias, and then they changed their decision because of it. I had to watch it again to believe it.

There were zero discussions of race or class or gender or anything else on Making the Cut. I felt like it’d gone back in time.

Next touched on issues around sustainability–not nearly enough–but Making never discussed fashion’s horrendous impact on the planet. The words organic, sustainable, circular economy, recycling, pollution were never mentioned. Unlike the seasons of Project Runway I watched which had a recycling challenge.

All the winning looks were available primarily in synthetics, which damage the planet in production, as well as every single time they’re washed. And those clothes were available for price points so low, there’s no way everyone in the supply and production chain were paid fairly.

The ethics of fashion was never discussed. On either show.

The winning collection from Next was also primarily synthetic and, while more expensive than Making, the prices were still too low for everyone involved to be paid fairly.

I loved that Next, especially in the latter episodes, showed far more of the process of designing and making the clothes, which is what these shows are supposedly about. I want to see more of them sweating the designs. I wanted more process. I wanted more of them dealing with one another. I really felt that I knew the Next contestants–far more than those on Making.

Making seemed to think viewers would be more interested in Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum fencing. This viewer was not remotely interested in the Tim and Heidi antics. Though I did enjoy watching Tim pack. I love seeing neat and tidy people being neat and tidy. Organisation is hot. I wish there was a show entirely devoted to different packing techniques from around the world. Ask me how I feel about Marie Kondo. #Swoon

Ultimately I don’t think Making the Cut knew what it was. It was looking for the next global brand and kept emphasising accessibility, but then designers would not make the cut for lack of originality.

Yet the show was won by one of the least interesting designers. Megan, who was cut, had everything they claimed Johnny had: her clothes were accessible, comfortable, and could be worn by a wide variety of body types. She was the one designer who fit the show’s unstated parameters: make clothes that look cool but not too intimidating. Be edgy but accessible.

I was not wild about Esther’s clothes. I don’t like all black. To me it screams arrested development. Leaven it with colour. You’ll look better. Truly.

That said, I thought her last collection was by far her best. She was robbed. As was Sander. Both of them deserved to win. And so did Megan.

In my reboot, Naomi Campbell is the only judge I’d keep. I loved her, not least for fighting for Megan. I’m not wild about Heidi, she reminds me of all the blonde school bullies I dealt with, but she redeemed herself by voting for Esther.

I’m waiting for the fashion design contest that looks for the most sustainable designs produced in the most ethical way. That lays bare the entire supply chain. We got to see that Johnny has his clothes made in Indonesia, but there was no discussion of why. That why is huge.

Watching these shows in the midst of a global pandemic, where there’s a huge campaign to get the biggest fashion brands in the world to actually pay their suppliers for clothes already made, so that garment workers in Bangladesh etc don’t starve to death, well, both Next in Fashion and Making the Cut seemed like they were set in Fairyland.

Prescience? Nah.

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

A friend recently told me they’d been thinking about my story “Elegy” because it predicted our currently distanced,1 isolated existence, stuck at home, avoiding our neighbours, occasionally venturing out to walk along empty streets. It’s like you knew, they texted me. Your dark fable predicted everything.

I laughed.

So many people knew: epidemiologists, virologists, futurists, novelists like me who’ve been making notes towards their end-of-the-world opus for decades, pretty much anyone who’s done more than ten minutes research on the likely causes of the end of humanity, will have learnt that it was likely to be a pandemic and/or climate change.

I’m not saying this is the end of our species. I’m quite sure we’ll survive this.

As for my story predicting our current lockdown, we’ve also known for a long time that the best way to control a pandemic–before there’s a vaccine–is to isolate. In 1918, more than a century ago, the city of St Louis came out of that flu pandemic with a lower death toll because the authorities implemented a lockdown, much as cities, states and countries are doing across the world now. Meanwhile Philadelphia was hit particularly hard because of its failure to do likewise. Just as we’re seeing dire consequences for regions that didn’t implement social controls quickly enough, or at all, in various parts of the world.

It requires zero prescience to have predicted these outcomes, just a glancing familiarity with humanity’s history. There have been many pandemics. In the fourteenth century it’s estimated that as much as a third of the world’s population died from the Bubonic Plague. European colonisation of the Americas and Australia introduced an array of deadly diseases devastating the indigenous populations there.

This will not be the last pandemic either. There will be more.

My story uses physical disease as a metaphor for depression, for the way it feels like something that consumes us, something over which we have no control, and our fear that it’s contagious.

At least that was my intent. Obviously other people will read it differently, but it’s no kind of prescient, unless you consider it prescient to predict that in the future there will be floods, droughts, and locust plagues. Somewhere all of those are happening right now.

Our planet is vast. Bad shit is always happening somewhere. What’s different about this pandemic, is that for the first time in a century, for the first time in a world with truly global, instantaneous communications, we’re all experiencing this together. But not equally. COVID-19 is, as pandemics always have, hitting the poorest with the least resources hardest.

That’s what we have to change. I want to believe we can.

  1. I’m not calling it socially distancing because, c’mon, it’s physical distancing. Many of us are doing our damnedest, via the internet, to make sure we’re not socially distanced. []

Life In NYC In The Time Of COVID-19

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

In Sydney the seven-year-old niece has cut her own hair. It looks pretty good. The kid has style.

Here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m lying in bed at 6am, straining to hear the sounds of the city, but there’s no planes above, no helicopters, no horns honking, no sirens–despite all the reports that say sirens are constant–no cars rolling by with canciones played ear-bleedingly loud, no yelling or laughter floating up from the street below.

No one I know has died of the virus or been hospitalised. Yet. But plenty of my friends have had it. Close friends. All their cases, but one, confirmed by their GP in a video call. There’s no where near enough testing here.

Their cases have ranged from losing taste and smell for a few days, to three weeks of fever, exhaustion, and a crushing vise on their lungs and knife in their heart. Both ends of that spectrum are officially described as mild.

If you don’t wind up in hospital on a ventilator, it’s mild.

I’m in full flare, unable to get out of bed. It’s my usual chronic illness, not the dreaded virus. It feels ridiculous to be lying in bed weeping over an illness that won’t kill me and isn’t contagious. Yet here I am.

Friends of mine have lost relatives–an uncle and a grandfather, so far. I know that list will grow. I pray the beloved elders and ill and immunocompromised in my life, of which there are many, will not join it.

I am, of course, one of them.

This flare has terrified me. Not because of the pain–I’m used to that–but because it’s reminding me forcefully of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable so many of us are.

I’ve been going out for long walks early every morning: across the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges into Brooklyn and back, along the East River Parkway and the mostly empty streets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District, Soho, the East Village.

Sometimes I walk for hours, masked and gloved, making sure that I’m home by eight am. If I walk any later than that there are too many people jogging the bridges and the Parkway, six feet of distance becomes impossible. Joggers run past almost touching me. I recoil.

I avoid the west side of the island altogether. Too crowded.

I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go outside again. I don’t think my body can cope with even a mild iteration of the virus on top of the illness currently ravaging me.

The last time I hung out with a friend in real life was back in early March. I visited Julia at her hat shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, sitting on a stool more than six feet away from her. We disinfected our hands and anything we touched.

We hadn’t seen each other in months, I’d been in Sydney, where I retreat each year for three months to see family and friends and avoid NYC’s winter. I hate the cold and lack of sunlight.

I told her about living through the bushfires, she caught me up on her life here in the city.

Showing far more foresight than is usual for me, I bought a turban. As my hair gets longer and more unruly without its once-every-four-weeks maintenance from Chereen in NYC and Julianne in Sydney, I’m wearing that turban more and more. As my hair turns into a mullet–*shudder*–I’m contemplating copying the niece and hacking at it myself.

I was with Julia in her gorgeous shop for more than four hours. Two people came in. One was getting the final touches on her hat for a formal occasion in May. (So not going to happen.)

She was annoyed by all the fuss about the virus and everything being closed. “Everyone’s over reacting. It’s just like the flu. It will only affect old people and sick people.”

As one of those sick people, I bristled.

Also? She was at least in her sixties. How did she not see that she’s in the endangered demographic?

The second person to come in was a delightful vintage hat collector, who was bringing some recent finds for Julia to repair. I collect vintage clothes. He was my kind of people.

He kept almost touching his face and stopping, muttering, Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.

The same admonition echoes through my head all day long.

I admired the gorgeous vintage brown wool Borsalino porkpie from the sixties he was wearing, flecked with gold and orange, and asked him hat questions, while he danced on the spot, not meeting my eyes, replying succinctly.

He kept his distance, touching nothing. He doused his hands in sanitizer twice in the short time he was in the shop.

The woman meanwhile did not keep her distance and touched everything with the surgeon’s gloves she’d clearly been wearing for hours. She did not once use hand sanitizer.

After she left we disinfected everything.

It seems a long time ago. I bet her attitude has changed. She lives in the city. She’ll know people who’ve had the virus, who’ve died. She may have had it herself.

At first it was hard for any of us to believe this was real.

Now everyone wears masks and keeps their distance. We give each other thumbs up and say, Stay safe. We all know someone who’s had it.

Increasingly many of us New Yorkers have had it ourselves and are wondering if that makes us immune. No one knows for sure.

No one knows much of anything about the virus. How many people are asymptomatic? Do masks help or give a false sense of security? I know I feel safer with a mask on. Should I?

We do know this will go on longer than any of us hoped. There will be no formal events in May. No WNBA season. No Olympics in July. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get to do my annual sojourn in the city of my birth come December. Will the airline industry recover? Should it?

When do we get our lives back? Do we get our lives back? Money earning opportunities disintegrate, we lose jobs and insurance and shelter and hope. Friends and family are remote and the internet only partially bridges that gap.

NYC is the epicentre of this plague in the USA, of the world.1 Yet here in my part of the city I can’t see the makeshift hospitals in Javits or Central Park, the hospital ship in the harbour, or the refrigerated death trucks.

If anything there are fewer homeless people on the streets.2 Only a handful of people have begged me for money since I got home. I don’t carry cash anymore. It’s too dangerous. All I can do is say sorry and donate to the organisations helping them.

I take the stairs to reduce my viral load. I’ve not seen anyone else in the stairwell. I rarely see my neighbours, or hear them cough, and when I do we nod to each other from different ends of the corridor. This catastrophe is happening behind closed doors.

We don’t ask how we’re doing. We don’t chat. We’re scared of each other now. We’re scared of everyone.

They could be dying in their apartments and I wouldn’t know.

It’s a lonely apocalypse. The only people I’ve talked to are my building’s lovely super and the masked and gloved clerks at Essex market during the early morning times reserved for the old and the sick.

I disinfect everything I buy. I keep running out of bleach. My hands have developed eczema. It seems a small price to pay.

I thought the bushfires were terrible and they were: the choking smoke blanketing my beloved Sydney, filling the hospitals with people who can’t breathe. Those fires are also part of a global crisis, of climate change, but one that hasn’t yet affected everyone.

But this silent, invisible COVID-19 disaster, has completely transformed all our lives. It’s isolating us, sickening us, and killing us.

And bringing us together. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out, checking up on me. I’ve been bonding with strangers online about vintage, sustainable, and circular-economy clothing.

This really is the worst of times, all over the world, and I know that no amount of dressing up in beautiful clothes changes that. But at the same time many of us privileged enough to shelter at home are being sustained by beauty, by laughter, and joy.

We’re finding new rituals to sustain us as we cope with isolation and disease. We make music and art and reconnect.

There are new sounds in NYC: bird song, louder and more frequent than I’ve ever heard it here, and the new ritual of the 7pm whistles and cheers and banging of pots for the health workers’ shift change. I well up every time I hear it but I smile too.

Suddenly I’m connected to my neighbours: seeing them on their roof tops, balconies, at their windows, down on the street, all of us full of gratitude for the ones working so hard to save this city, to allow it to be crowded and noisy and overwhelming once more.

The way it’s meant to be.

  1. Though do we really know that? So many countries are barely testing and are under reporting infection numbers. Do we really know what’s going on in Iran? In North Korea? []
  2. Which could be for scary reasons: surely the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable to this disease? []

Vintage Style Not Vintage Values

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

I’m not nostalgic. I don’t miss the days of my childhood, teens, or young adulthood.

I don’t love vintage because I long for white picket fences or white supremacy. For everything that’s terrible about the world now, there’s a tonne that’s improved. The past is mostly not a good place for indigenous people, people of colour, most white women.

There are indigenous TV programs on Australian TV. Representation is better in Australia and the USA than it’s ever been. (It’s a very low bar though.)

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are in jail. Me too is a thing. Thank you, Tarana Burke, and so many other courageous women.

There are racist, misogynist, climate change denying, (wannabe) autocrats in power in too many places. White people still live longest and have the most wealth and power. Indigenous resistance struggles like the tremendous #ShutDownCanada movement is barely covered in the mainstream media. The world is still shit. Just not as shit.

I wear thirties clothes because I love the lines, colours, patterns–not because I’m hot for fascism.

I wear fifties sundresses because they’re comfy, flattering and gorgeous–not because I wish to be a modest Stepford wife. I don’t long for men to be men and women women. Whatever that means.

Like Alok Vaid-Menon, I know there are many more than two genders. I’ve known folks who were neither male nor female since I was little. I wrote my PhD about the absurd reductiveness of the binary.

#VintageStyleNotVintageValues sums up my vintage aesthetics: beauty, glamour, joy, and dresses for whoever wants them.

I will continue dressing up most days, even through this time of COVID-19 and social distancing, because that is who I am.

Wear what you want. Wherever you want. Whenever you want. (Unless it’s harmful.) It’s what Emma Goldman would have wanted.

(Except espadrilles because ewww! Don’t @ me.)

Women of a Certain Very Stylish Age

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

I was inspired to start my public Instagram, @DrJustineFancyPants, by Sheryl Roberts of @indigostylevintage, Shelley of @fcfashionista, Jean and Valerie of @idiosyncraticfashionistas, and the glorious Lee Lin Chin and by the many other stylish women over forty, who just by being them, are putting paid to the lie that style and beauty are only for the young.

And by my mother, who is one of the most stylish people I know, and has always been the biggest style influence on me. She’s all about colour and comfort and has never feared mixing patterns.

It’s absurd that society keeps touting the stylishness of the very young. Let’s be real, most young people aren’t particularly stylish,1 and usually don’t feel they’ve found styles that work for them until later in life, if ever. That’s cool. I sure didn’t. But, hey, experimentation is fun.

When I was a teen, I didn’t always have the courage to dress how I wanted. I’d wear vintage and be laughed at for my “nana” dresses. It didn’t occur to me back then to point out that some of the most stylish women in the world are nanas. I swung back and forth between caring deeply about what my peers thought and saying, bugger it, and wearing what I wanted.

I’m much more confident in my sense of style, my sense of self, now than I was as a young adult. I don’t care about being the only one in the room who’s dressed up. I’m (mostly) not dressing to blend in; I’m dressing for joy.

I don’t care about arbitrary fashion rules. I will mix patterns. (You all need to check out the glorious Mis Papelicos for top-notch pattern mixing. She is the queen.) I will wear black and navy blue together, pink and red, black and brown. I will wear horizontal stripes (true fact: they actually make you look narrower, look up the Helmholtz effect–thank you @house_of_edgertor for that tidbit). I will wear multiple bold colours at the same time. I’ll wear red lipstick whenever I feel like it and no makeup likewise. I’ll mix gold and silver jewellery. I’ll wear clogs with evening wear, western boots with anything at all and eschew high heels altogether (except for the occasional photo).

There’s nothing I won’t wear because it’s supposedly too young for me. Mutton dressed up as lamb? Ageist, misogynist expressions like that are pathetic. I dress for me and for my fellow lovers of gorgeous clothes. We appreciate each other.

I’ll wear whatever I damn well please whenever I want. Including the occasional trip to the corner shop/bodega in my pyjamas and/or a ball gown. Because I can. Because it’s fun. Because it brings me joy.

  1. There are some fabulous exceptions. A friend’s son has been ridiculously stylish since he was, like, four. He’s given to wearing blazers and hats with striped leggings. []

Miss Manners Says: DON’T SHAKE HANDS DURING A PANDEMIC!

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

COVID 19 (coronavirus) is a big deal. It’s highly contagious and people over 70 and those who have chronic illnesses are particularly at risk.

People like me. I have a chronic illness. I guarantee you there are folks around you who seem perfectly well, who also have chronic illnesses. We are many. And we are vulnerable to COVID 19, to viruses and bacteria. That’s why we won’t shake your hand, or accept your kisses or hugs. We want to live.

We should all be washing our hands for at least twenty seconds. THOROUGHLY. That means back of hand, between fingers, wrists. Dry your hands thoroughly.

Wash your hands before and after going to the toilet, before and after touching food, before and after going outside, before and after being in any public space. If you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitiser, remembering that washing your hands is better.

Don’t touch your face! But if you do: WASH YOUR HANDS!

And really, really, really DON’T TOUCH MY FACE! Or anyone else’s that you’re not intimate with.

This should be everyone’s practise all the time. If we all did this flu deaths would plummet. But during a pandemic!? DON’T TOUCH ANYONE! WASH YOUR HANDS!

Come on, people, we can do this!

I’m Still Not Active On Twitter; Come Join Me On Instagram

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

This is for all the lovely friends texting me to ask when I’m coming back to Twitter. First up: Awwww! Thank you! I miss youse too.

I miss Twitter. I truly do. I miss the goofy convos. I miss tweeting cricket and basketball games live with other obsessives. I’ve met so many amazing people through Twitter. I’m so grateful. Twitter has given me so much. I’ll definitely be back.

But not yet. My mental health is so much better since I took this break. I don’t miss the trolls. I don’t miss the frequent petty and not at all petty fights. I don’t miss the drama. I’m not ready to return.

Meanwhile, there are lovely convos starting to happen on my brand-new vintage and sustainable fashion and mending instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants. Come join me there! We’re having a lot of fun.

Dr Justine Fancy Pants

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

I’m taking my obsessions with contemporary fashion, vintage clothes, and saving the world to a public Instagram account: DrJustineFancyPants.

You’ll be able to follow my journey through my various vintage finds, my latest designer, fashion historian, photographer, model and textile technician crushes, and watch (and laugh) as I learn to mend and embroider, and investigate what’s happening in the world of recycled, upcycled, organic, biodegradable, magic pixie dust, circular-economy fashion.

I’ll also be dispensing what-to-wear advice and railing against gladiator sandals, espadrilles, and other fashion atrocities.

Come join me, won’t you? (Apologies to Karina Longworth.)

Monday’s Post on Friday. What are Days Anyway? Climate Change is Fact.

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

This post was supposed to go up Monday after that night’s Q & A. Non-Australians you can click on that link to see what the TV show is or you can accept my brief description: the ABC’s Q & A is a TV panel discussion show, which is usually profoundly enraging, because they insist on having politicians on, who mostly obfuscate, lie, and completely avoid answering questions.

Monday night’s Q & A was the first show of the year, and the topic was Australia’s bushfire crisis, because that is always the topic here because, you know, apocalypse. You can listen to it here.

And here is my rant. Enjoy! I know I have several fans who live for me to rant. Well, here you both go:

Last Monday’s Q & A was excellent. Mostly. But it enraged me and I wrote the rant below and then was so exhausted by my rage and by writing that I neglected to press the publish button before passing out. Having a chronic illness has taught me that things I didn’t used to think of as exhausting now are. Though why I didn’t realise that writing or being furious were exhausting is a total mystery.

Except for the host, Hamish Macdonald, running with that axiom of bad journalism that all views must be respected, even when they’re wrong.

Macdonald chided the jovial US climate change scientist, Michael Mann, for saying that federal NSW Liberal1 senator James Molan’s brain had fallen out of his head, when Molan refused to admit that the science of climate change is settled and that we know that the accelerating catastrophic climate events of the last few decades were caused by humans. Up to and including our bushfire crisis.

James Molan said he was keeping an open mind on the causes of climate change, to a chorus of groans from the studio audience. He also literally said that he was ignoring the evidence. To groans and derisive laughter and that sound people make that basically means “no shit.” The studio audience and everyone else on the planet know that keeping an open mind on climate change is like keeping an open mind on gravity or water being wet. So the expert made the comment about his brain falling out.

At which point Hamish Macdonald said that our terrible, climate-change-disaster-obfuscating government had been elected by millions of Australians, who were in agreement with this government’s views, did that mean the climate change expert was saying everyone who had voted for them’s brains had fallen out?

Frankly, Hamish, I think that’s a more generous explanation than that those voters cared more about getting bigger tax breaks than preventing the apocalypse. But here we are.

Climate change, Hamish, is real and caused by us humans. We know this. You know this! There’s decades of evidence. Every reputable scientist says so. Anyone who denies these facts, including James Molan and the rest of the governing coalition, is functioning as if they have neither knowledge, nor memory, nor literacy, nor the capacity to process facts.

Believing climate change is either not real, or not caused by humans, is equivalent to believing the earth is flat or that Elvis is alive and misgoverning the USA from inside a Donald Trump suit.

Must we humour the people who believe that Elvis is Trump too, Hamish? You know, on account of that is as completely wrong as denying that we humans have irreversibly buggered up this beautiful planet of ours. Why do we have to resist mocking the people with completely wrong views about the causes of our climate crisis? Those views are contributing to how incredibly fast we are making our planet uninhabitable.

Actually the sweet climate scientist, Michael Mann, was more optimistic than me: he thinks we can save this planet.

My pessimism comes from media types like Hamish Macdonald spending more time chiding experts for being “mean” to lying politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel lobby than on challenging our political leaders for being wrong.

Fact checking, Hamish, that’s your job, not being a politeness monitor. And, honestly, under the circumstances saying Molan’s brain had fallen out was much politer than calling him a corrupt, lying tool of the fossil fuel industry.

The truth is frequently very impolite.

And now I’m exhausted again.

  1. in Australia the Liberal party is a conservative party []

Tweets I Would Tweet If I Were Still on Twitter

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

I may not be on Twitter at the moment, but I still sometimes think in tweets. What can I say? I was on Twitter for ten years. It warps your brain. So here are some tweets that I’d’ve tweeted if I were still there. In no particular order . . .

The Conversation says those wombat are not heroes rescuing other critters from the fires, they’re just tolerating unwanted guests. Excuse me? Tolerating unwanted guests in your home is top-notch heroism.

What I miss most about Twitter is the conversations with folks all over the world; what I miss least is being shouted at by folks/bots all over the world.

This is bloody marvellous news. The WNBA players are getting better revenue sharing, pay, maternity leave etc. Yay! And yet . . . I love the @WNBA but they deserve first class. No, they deserve flying chariots drawn by magic horses.1 But this is a fabulous first step.

This is my favourite bananas bushfire season conspiracy theory. Some are claiming the fires were set deliberately to create a corridor for fast trains. I admit I snort laughed. I would love me some fast trains all over Australia, though. Think of the carbon emissions that wouldn’t happen! Trains over planes. ALWAYS.

And here we have a faux tweet that you have to click through for because I don’t have the energy to figure out how to do an image + comment faux tweet in the middle of a blog post. My spoons are too low today for any complicated stuff. Or, let’s get real, pretty basic stuff . . .

I miss fashion twitter . . . Though fashion and vintage instagram are way better. I’m learning so much on there.

Ooooh! Look at The New Yorker appreciating one of the best living writers! Go, Nora! Seriously, if you haven’t read any N. K. Jemisin yet, get on that!

Please. Even if arson was the immediate cause of most of the fires–it wasn’t–that doesn’t contradict the fact that the conditions for this season’s catastrophic fires were created by climate change. It’s not complicated. Also: you’re lying. Most fires this season were started by lightning.

Could someone please fix the tag on Rashid’s jersey? Thank you! Adelaide @StrikersBBL #BBL09

I miss cricket Twitter . . .

Just when you think this Morrison govt can’t get more ridiculous they decide the most urgent matter in Australia today is not our apocalyptic bushfire season, but enforcing a dress code for citizenship ceremonies. At my citizenship ceremony I dressed up–a McQueen jacket over a silk dress with cowboy boots–as did everyone else that day. Citizenship ceremonies are a huge deal, you ignorant twats. People dress up for them!

Mostly, people dress up for them. I remember a friend telling me years ago that a couple of tipsy Englishmen turned up for their citizenship ceremony in stubbies, singlets and thongs with cork hats because they thought it would be hilarious. Their hilarity was not shared by anyone else present and they were asked to leave. To be clear: because drunk, not because of what they were wearing.

It’s wet and falling out of the sky. I’m confused. What is?

Something amazing that has come out of these bushfires: First Nations aquatic technologies further revealed.

I mean, sure, except for the part where the Greens have never objected to hazard burning. Also did you read where multiple fireys said the hazard burns weren’t that effective this year? The monster fires just blew past them.

The upside to being a spoonie: feeling zero guilt for lying in bed reading all day, then getting up to inhale a whole season of whatever I want!

This made me cry. The wollemi pines are awe inspiring.

I love my @ABCaustralia. (Except for Counterpoint.) This bushfire season, they’ve been saving lives.

You’re welcome, world! Carbon emissions go up because of Australia’s bushfires.

I know I’ve only been off Twitter for two months but already I’m getting more writing done and feeling less anxious. No, I have no immediate plans to return to Twitter. But I do see this as a break, not a permanent exit. I don’t think I could have handled the fire hose of Twitter this bushfire season.

The benefits of not being on Twitter right now definitely balances out no longer being in contact with so many fabulous folks. Hey, I’m still alive! You can text me! Or DM on instagram! Or email me! Or leave comments here!

The Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities is still going. First Nations Australians are getting a much smaller slice of the donations to the mainstream charities. They need our support.

  1. Lower emissions that way. []

Why I Left Twitter, or, the Last Day of 2019

Note: I’m not on Twitter. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

This has been a horrible year for me.1 Or, rather, it’s been a horrible two years–more than two years.

In June 2017, I woke up feeling weird. It was the beginnings of this chronic, incurable, non-fatal illness that now holds huge sway over my life.

Over the next few months, more symptoms manifested, the worst of which was losing my executive function. I couldn’t make decisions. Do you know what activity requires lots of decisions?

Writing novels.

I couldn’t do my job.

I’ve never had writer’s block. Ever.

Not being able to write, not being able to decide what to wear, or whether to leave the house, or pretty much anything, was a nightmare. I became depressed.

When I became ill, I’d written two thirds of a novel from the pov of a psychopath. It was already doing my head in writing the thoughts of a character who considered other humans to be pawns, not people.

After I got sick it was worse.

I’d be stuck reading the one scene, passage or sentence over and over, hating what I was reading, trying to find a way forward, failing, switching to a different scene, passage, sentence, clause, failing again, feeling worse and worse.

Every day I’d doggedly try to do my job. The words I’d already written, led me to choices I was no longer capable of making. Bleak choices. I’d stare, read and reread, and type nothing.

My depression deepened.

I broke out of it when we learned how to manage my illness. As my executive function slowly returned, I tentatively wrote again. Instead of plunging back into the novel, I went back to basics.

I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Le Guin is stern. I needed her strong, unrelenting, unforgiving voice to guide me.2 I did the writing exercises she laid out exactly as she told me to.

Every day I sat, read a chapter, tried the exercise. It was brutal. But gradually my fluency returned. The exercises started turned into stories.3

My agent, Jill Grinberg, who’s been amazingly supportive throughout, read the stories, said encouraging things, suggested one of them would work as a novel. So I did what she said. Being told what to do helped a lot.4

That exercise turned into a novel. Not a very good one. But definitely a novel-shaped text, with characters and exposition, a beginning, middle and end.

I’m currently rewriting that mess. It’s slow going–slower than I’ve ever written–but I’m writing.

I’ve learnt (yet again) that I’m happiest when I write. If I’m not writing, I’m not wholly me. I’ve learnt to work around my illness.

I’m not going to name it or talk about the many other symptoms. I don’t want to talk about it.

That’s not true.

Since June 2017, there have been many times when it’s all I can talk about. I’ve told random people on trams, trains and planes about it. Blurted out my symptoms to startled wait staff, acquaintances and strangers at weddings, parties, conferences and fundraisers.

I discovered that many of my friends and acquaintances have chronic diseases. Is anyone truly able bodied?

My friend with Hashimoto’s doesn’t really think about it that much–except when the price of meds goes up. God Bless the USA.5 Another friend doesn’t think about her illness except when she winds up in hospital.

I had no idea.

Why didn’t they tell me? Why have I stopped telling people?

So many reasons! Because:

Lots of able-bodied people don’t get it, we’re sick of talking about it, we don’t want your pity or revulsion, we’re sick of well-meaning people recommending treatments we’ve already tried or are pure quackery. No, being immunised did not cause this.6

Also we’re past the crisis stage, when we’re desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s all we think about.

We’re in the management phase. We know what meds to take, what diet/exercise/therapies work.

My family and friends know what’s going on. I love that they check in with me and support me and mostly treat me the way they always did. That’s enough.7

I no longer enjoy talking about my chronic illness.8 I talk about it far less. Though I have one friend with similar symptoms. We check in with each other regularly. She gets it and never says, “Hope you get well soon! I’m glad you’re getting better!”

What part of “chronic” and “incurable” do people not understand!?

I know, I know, our language around illness is rubbish. Folks mean well. Before I joined the ranks of the spoonies I said ridiculous stuff like that too.

I’m so sorry.

More than two years into this chronic, incurable, though not fatal, illness, I’m still learning how to cope with so few spoons. I still think like an able-bodied person, but I’m not. I’m a spoonie.

That’s why I left Twitter.

Things that were easy are now hard. Much of my resilience is gone.

I love Twitter. The conversations I’ve had on there with people all over the world have taught me so much and made me laugh and changed me.9

But after my illness, I started to hate Twitter. I lost my ability to brush off unjust criticism, to think through just criticism, or to tell the difference between the two. Even benign comments in my mentions upset me.

Twitter was wiping out all my spoons. I couldn’t tweet and write. Some days I couldn’t tweet and get out of bed.

So in November I walked away. I don’t know when I’ll return or if I’ll return. I’ve been doing better without it, though I miss the conversations around cricket and basketball and fashion and books and politics and TV. I miss my Twitter community.

I’ve been writing more, and getting out more, and learning about the new vintage clothes world on Instagram via my private account there.

Who knows? Maybe as I become better adjusted to so few spoons, I’ll return to Twitter. Or maybe I’ll start blogging regularly-ish in 2020?

I used to blog every day.

I used to write a recap of my year every 31 December and point forward to what I was publishing in the coming year.

I couldn’t do that in 2018. I published nothing and sold nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to get out of bed or not. I certainly couldn’t decide what to blog.

As it happens, I did publish this year. A bleak short story called “Elegy” for Emily X R Pan and Nova Ren Suma‘s YA anthology, Foreshadow. It’s an incredible anthology with many fabulous stories.

I will have a new story published next year. It’s called “When I was White” and will be in Adi Alsaid‘s YA anthology on immigration, Come On In published by Inkyard Press in October 2020.10

I wrote this year and I’ll write in 2020.

I have no idea when there’ll be a new novel from me. But given that I’m months from finishing this rewrite, it would be published in 2024 at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee it will find a publisher.11

All of which is huge progress from where I was a year ago, but It’s terrible compared to where I was ten years ago.

Things don’t always get better, but if we’re lucky, and have support from those who love us,12 we have a shot at learning to manage.

  1. And the world. I write this in Sydney, on a day when the entire South coast of NSW is on fire. Lives and homes and national parks and agriculture are going up in flames. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick here in the city there’s a Poor Air Quality Forecast from the NSW government and we’re being advised to stay indoors. It’s been like that off and on for weeks.

    Currently our AQI of 124 is worse than Beijing’s. All we talk about here is the drought, air masks, purifiers, and what we can personally do to ameliorate climate change and force our governments to do likewise. There are worse fires in the Amazon. There are environmental disasters everywhere. []

  2. It was also a way of mourning her death. She is a foundational writer for me. []
  3. Stories Le Guin would have considered woeful, but no matter. []
  4. Hilariously. I’ve always hated being told what to do. []
  5. Do not get me started on the US healthcare system. []
  6. I’m not interested in answering questions or hearing miracle cures unless they’re thoroughly peer reviewed and even then odds are I’ve already heard about it. Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. I consider Chinese medicine to be peer reviewed and as (in)fallible as Western medicine. For me acupuncture works great at bringing swelling down and various other things. It hasn’t worked on this illness. But then neither has western medicine. Both have helped manage the symptoms. []
  7. My seven-year-old niece’s concern breaks my heart. []
  8. Yes, in the beginning, when we had no idea what was going on, and my symptoms were weird, and weren’t disrupting my work or play, it was kind of fun to talk about, and shock folks with photos of the weirdness. []
  9. I found the people who think cricket is as funny as I do. []
  10. All you editors, who over the years have asked me for short stories, and I said I don’t write them? Turns out I write short stories now. Hit me up! []
  11. Fortunately, I’m working on other novels. So who knows? Maybe in 2030 there’ll be four from me at once. []
  12. Scott and my family have been incredible. I love them so much. []

Bye, Bye Twitter (For a bit)

Late Sunday night I realised I hadn’t looked at Twitter all day. That never happens. I’m a Twitter addict.

Sunday was wonderful. We cycled from the East Village to Red Hook and back, via Vinegar Hill and Dumbo, taking breaks to eat and explore the various neighbourhoods along the way. It was splendid and I didn’t look at Twitter once.

This is very weird for me. I look at Twitter every day. Multiple times a day. Sometimes I feel like I live my life on Twitter. But there I was, not having looked at it once, and, well, I also realised I wasn’t feeling anxious. There wasn’t a heavy weight on my shoulders or a stone in my gut. So I decided not to look at Twitter again until after the Memorial Day weekend was over.

I spent yesterday writing. I wrote more than I have in a day for ages. About halfway through the day I decided to take a whole week off from Twitter. Just to see how it goes and to see if I feel like Twitter’s taking more away than it’s giving me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter. It’s the only social media I’ve ever loved. I hated MySpace. I never even signed up for FaceBook because it seemed too much like MySpace and the initial invites I received were all from people I haven’t seen in years for very good reasons.

I love the brevity of Twitter. Perversely, I also love people’s long Twitter threads. I love having conversations with people all over the world about a myriad different things. I love the activism of Twitter. I love how much I’ve learned from Twitter. About history, politics, People of Color in European Art, Whores of Yore. So. Many. Things. I love, too, occasionally being able to teach.

But last year my writing slowed. The endless lead up to the US election was painful because of the way the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia of this country was spelled out in vivid colour daily. The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 917 hate groups in the USA. There are 47 of those in my state of New York. Hate won and we have the Hater in Chief in the White House.

Like many others I’ve struggled to write while the world is this horrible. Especially with news stories about hate crimes, corruption, treason etc. breaking, what feels like, every few hours.

Twitter amplifies that effect. It also provides welcome distraction from it. But for me lately the first has been overwhelming the second.

I’ve been working on the first draft of this novel for two years now. Which, for me, is ridiculous. I can’t go on like this because writing novels is how I make a living. I have to get back into the rhythm of productive writing. There are more than ten novels in my writing queue. I have to finish this one and get to them.

So, no Twitter for a week and then, depending on how that goes, I’ll try to modify my use to only an hour or so a day. Let’s see if I can become a restrained Twitter user and if separation from Twitter will snap me out of my post-election despair at long last.

Don’t worry, I’ll still be calling my reps and staying informed. I’m not opting out of civic life just out of Twitter for awhile.

Wish me luck finishing this bloody novel! (Let me tell you it doesn’t help that this novel is about a psychopath in this brave new world of ours.)

xo

Justine

PS If you need to contact me you can do so here.

Brisbane Writers Festival! This Weekend! I am in you!

Hello, Brisbanites, I will be in your fine city this weekend doing the following things at the Brisbane Writers Festival. All my events are on site.

SATURDAY 10 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
Panel: Psycho
Auditorium 2, SLQ
Justine Larbalestier, Caroline Overington, Caroline Kepnes moderated by Meg Vann
Nothing I love more than talking about psychopaths. This will be the best. I have so many theories about the fascination with psychopaths.

SUNDAY 11 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
In Conversation: My Sister Rosa
GOMACinemaB
Justine Larbalestier
Belinda Jeffrey
Even if you haven’t read the book you should attend cause I’ll be talking about psychopaths some more, which is really a conversation about what makes us human and what counts as human. Who doesn’t want to talk about that?

THE RE[a]D BOX
1:30pm – 2:00pm
In which I crash Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s reading of ILLUMINAE

3:00pm – 3:30pm
In which I am supposed to do my own reading but will probably just talk about psychopaths. Cause, seriously, there’s SO MUCH TO SAY!

Looking forward to talking about psychopaths with youse all! See you very soon, Brisbane!

White Fragility post + posting WisCon GoH Speech soon

Last week I had a guest post over at the fabulous Reading While White blog. (I would have posted about it sooner but I’m on a writing holiday.) As you will have noticed from posts like these white folks and race is something I think about a lot. If you haven’t already seen it do check out the post over there. There’s been a very strong response so far. Thanks to everyone who commented on the blog, on Twitter and shared the link. We really appreciate it.

On the 24th of August I’ll be posting my WisCon 40 Guest of Honour speech and links to the speeches of the other GoHs, Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar. It was Sofia’s idea that we three GoHs post our speeches on the same day. She chose the 24th because it’s James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday. Perfect.

I would share my view as I write this but you’d all die of envy. Writing holidays are the best.

Last Day of 2015

This is my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2016.1 By which I mean what’s going to happen in my publishing life. I am not Nostradamus. (Actually neither was Nostradamus. He was not an accurate prognosticator.) Nor would I want to be. I’m convinced being able to tell the future is the worst superpower. I’d rather be invisible and being invisible never ends well. Just read H. G. Wells!

Um, I digress:

Reading and Watching in 2015

One of the good things about being really sick is that I read a lot more than I usually do this year. I read so many wonderful books I don’t know where to start. I tweet about books and tv shows I love so if you’re looking for more recommendations you can check my Twitter feed.

As mentioned above I discovered the writing of Kirsty Eagar this year and was blown away. Everyone needs to read her NOW. I know many consider, Raw Blue, to be her best book, and don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent, but my favourite is Night Beach which is one of the best explorations of teenage female desire I’ve read.2 Night Beach takes on one of the dominant tropes in YA: teen girl lusting after a little bit older hot guy. The teen girl is not punished for this desire. She is not seen as freakish or slut-shamed. I could hug this book.

In Eagar’s version the guy turns out to not be perfect. He is not a wish fulfilment, but a real person with flaws, some of them misogynistic. I’ve been working on my own take on this trope and getting no where with it for years and years. Eagar has written the book I haven’t been able to and it’s amazing. She manages to write about the toxicity of masculinity, while portraying believable, not villainous, male characters. She shows how that toxic mix of masculinity and misogyny is harmful to men as well as women.

Another favourite huge favourite this year was Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda‘s Monstress. Wow. Words fail. The writing. The art. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read and we’re only two issues in. MORE PLEASE.

Then there was Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon. I’ve never read a book like it before. Big and sprawling with a million points of view, including sea creatures. It’s about an alien invasion that starts in Lagos, Nigeria but, really, that’s just the starting point. It’s about much more than that. It’s one of those books you’ll get something different out of ever time you read it. Yes, I’ve already read it twice.

I also loved Ashley Hope Perez’s heartbreaking Out of Darkness set in late the 1930s in a small town Texas. It should win all the YA awards.

This year I decided to read something I normally hate: a cosy mystery. You know one of those mysteries where everything is tidily wrapped up at the end and everyone lives happily ever after? An Agatha Christie kind of mystery. They are so not my thing. But then someone was raving about Barbara Neely’s Blanche White books and they sounded interesting. I read the first one, Blanche on the Lam about a black domestic worker who escapes after a judge gives her a custodial sentence for being late paying a fine. She winds up being housekeeper to a deeply dysfunctional wealthy white family, and solving their assorted crimes, while delivering much pungent, and often funny, commentary on racism and misogyny while resisting her employers’ desires to turn her into a mammy. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I also read much non-fiction this year. I re-read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a book every one should read, particularly Americans, as the USA is her primary focus. Her book demonstrates that white is not universal, that white is not neutral, that it has a history, which she eloquently delineates. It’s not often you finish a book understanding how the world operates better than before you read it.

I was wowed by Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, which is about growing up black and privileged in Chicago in the fifties and sixties. It was a window into an alien world. Obviously, I’m not black, but what was really alien to me was her family’s focus on respectability. I was never taught when to wear white gloves, what length skirt is appropriate. The only reason I’ve ever had to wear a hat is to avoid skin cancer. But I’ve known white Australian girls from wealthy families who were sent to posh private schools, who knew all of that stuff, and I think would recognise much in Jefferson’s book. What I related to most strongly was the sexism and misogyny she had to battle.

One of my fave new TV shows is Into the Badlands because martial arts staged well and magically and saturated colours and eye candy and coherent plot and world building. It has a strong diverse cast. Except, well, I’ve been noticing this a lot lately in US TV shows and movies, even when several of the big roles are given to PoC, the extras are still overwhelmingly white. And there’s never any world-building to explain why in the future the world is 90% white.

I also enjoyed Ready For This, which was created by the people behind Dance Academy and Redfern Now, and really it’s what you’d get if you crossed Redfern Now with Dance Academy. I.e. heaven.

How my books did in 2015

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareAt the beginning of the year my story, “Little Red Suit,” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin.

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy. We critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker: future Masterchef. I chortled. There’s not a single dud in Eat the Sky.3

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen published the North American edition of Razorhurst. It received four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus and em>The Bulletin of The Center for Children’s Books (BCCB). As well as making the Tayshas 2016 list.

Meanwhile in Australia Razorhurst was shortlisted for the following awards: Adelaide Festival Award 2016, Young Adult Fiction Award, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards 2015, Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2015, Golden Inky Award, Queensland Literary Awards 2015, The Griffith University Young Adult Book Awardand the Norma K. Hemming Award 2015. Razorhurst won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel.

The acclaim for Razorhurst means even more to me than usual because, let’s be honest, Razorhurst is weird. It sits uneasily in a bunch of different genres. Some said it wasn’t really YA. Thus making the shortlist for the Inkys—entirely voted on by teen readers—was particularly gratifying. We struggled figuring out how to market the book. I worried it was going to disappear without a trace. So as you can imagine the enthusiastic reception has been way beyond what I let myself hope for. For awhile there all I let myself hope for was that Razorhurst would get published.

Books Out in 2016

MySisterRosa_RCcvr.inddA year ago I thought my next novel would be out already. But then I had a nasty bout of pneumonia in January and it took forever to recover. Lungs, they do not like to be messed with. I give pneumonia one star and that’s for the silent p.

My Sister Rosa was bumped from the schedule. None of my books has ever been bumped before. It freaked me out. OMG! I’m never going to finish this book! It’s never going to be published! My career is over! But—spoiler—I finished the book. Turns out it’s better to take the time to write the best book possible than to rush into print something half-baked. In the end, I’m proud of Rosa but it was the most gruelling writing experience of my career.

My Sister Rosa is my eleventh book, my eighth novel, and seventh solo novel. It’s my sixth book with my Australian/New Zealand publisher, Allen and Unwin, which makes them the publisher I’ve been with the longest anywhere in the world. Thank you, Allen and Unwin, for sticking with me! Youse mob are a joy to work with.

For those of you who don’t know, My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed told from the point of view a seventeen year old boy whose ten year old sister is a psychopath. Spoiler: this does not lead to fun times. You can read the first chapter here and how I came to write it here. It’s my first novel that I can accurately describe in one short sentence. High concept! I finally managed it.

IMG_5796The Australian edition will hit shops at the end of January. So soon! The finished book is gorgeous. Look at that cover. It’s beautiful and creepy, which is perfect. Also it has the popping-est spine.

Okay, I admit it doesn’t look that popping in this photo, but trust me, in real life it totally pops. People are going to see it on shelves and be compelled to pick it up and take it home. It is the Pied Piper of book spines.

There will be not one, but two, My Sister Rosa launches. For the first time I’ll be launching with someone else. Kirsty Eagar’s brilliant new book Summer Skin publishes on the same day. I’m a huge Eagar fan so launching our books together is going to be amazing. The first launch is in Sydney, the second in Melbourne:

Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin book launch
with the fabulous Kirsty Eagar
We will discuss
Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A!
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

Wednesday 10 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch of My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin
With the brilliant Kirsty Eagar
By the wonderful Ellie Marney
Readings
309 Lygon St,
Carlton, Victoria

Hope to see you some of you there!

My Sister Rosa will be published in the USA and Canada by Soho Press in November 2016. That’s my second book with them. So far it’s been a very enjoyable experience working with the lovely folk at Soho. Wait till you see Rosa’s Soho cover! It’s every bit as good (and grey) as the Allen and Unwin cover but also very different. I’ve been blessed by the cover gods on this book.

What I wrote in 2015

I spent this year writing and rewriting and rewriting and going through copyedits and proofs of My Sister Rosa. This took longer than I thought it would and not just because of the pneumonia. Rosa was a tough book to write. For the first time in my writing life I struggled to find the voice of my protagonist. I didn’t get it right until I was well into the second or third draft. (Or was it the fourth? It’s all a blur now.) Since I’d already sold the book it was pretty terrifying. I had a finished draft and yet the narrative voice didn’t work. What even?!

Since this is my first book told entirely from the point of view of a boy some assumed it was his maleness that made finding his voice difficult. Not at all. It was how nice he is. Che Taylor is possibly the nicest point of view character I’ve ever written. He genuinely thinks the best of everyone. Even his psychopathic sister. Writing someone that nice is hard. Ridiculously hard.

I suspect this reflects poorly on me. I’m sure other writers have no difficulties writing nice. Oh, well. We all have our flaws. I got there in the end and the early responses to Che are very positive. So far no one finds him so nice they want to throw up. Phew.

I also wrote forty thousand words of a new novel this year. It’s told from the point of view of the least nice character I’ve ever written. She’s a psychopath. Yup, having written from Che’s point of view about living with a psychopath, and doing all the research to make that convincing, I started writing a novel from the monster’s point of view. It has its own difficulties but, I’m ashamed to say, it’s much easier writing from a psychopath’s point of view than from that of their empathetic opposite.

I continued blogging, but between illness and deadlines, did not manage to blog nearly as much as last year. I’m hoping to do better in 2016. I love blogging, even though apparently it’s still dying, and hate it when I have too much going on to do so regularly.

So, yeah, I plan to blog more next year, illness, weather, deadlines willing. Blogging, I love you no matter how out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2016

I plan to finish the psychopath novel. It’s unsold so I can’t tell you when it will be published. My experience with My Sister Rosa showed me, once again, that I have a much easier time of it if I sell my novels after I finish them, not before. I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to do that. I think I’ve finally learned to stop worrying about how big the gaps are between my novels’ publication.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. Being ill did make it worse. The fitter I am, the less trouble I have with it, and I lost a lot of fitness this year. But I’m almost back to being able to write as much as six hours a day now.

Travel in 2015

I was in the USA in April and May to promote Razorhurst and had a wonderful time. The Houston Teen Book Con was amazing. If you’re ever invited, fellow YA authors, go. It’s the first YA con I’ve been to that was overwhelming populated by teens. Wonderful!

For my travel plans in 2016 go here. I’ll be in the USA in May for the paperback publication of Razorhurst and to be guest of honour (!) at Wiscon. I’ll return in November for the North American publication of My Sister Rosa (and to complain about how cold it is).

2015 was awful but there’s always hope

I was sicker this year than I’ve been in years. It made everything else much harder. I spent the year behind on deadlines and everything else. It’s only now in December that I feel even slightly caught up. 2016 has to be better.

2015 was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. But then more awful shit happens and nothing is done to stop it from repeating. History, we are not learning from it.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. The new PM, Turnbull, while a vast improvement on his predecessor is not doing much, if anything, to slow that process done. Sure, he’s less anti-science and anti-culture than Abbott, but low bar, and there’s not a lot to show for it beyond rhetoric. We still have disgraceful policies on asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Last year I wrote: May you have a wonderful 2016 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way towards doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

I feel the same way now. Happy new year! May 2016 not be vile.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. Time zones. Who knew? []
  2. I’ve not yet read Saltwater Vampires I’m saving that as a reward for after I finish the books I have in my critique queue. []
  3. It’ll be published in North America but I don’t have more details on that yet. []

Our Heroes Are Fallible And So Are We

One of my favourite TV writers, Sarah Dollard, recently wrote some beautiful writing advice, which is applicable to all kinds of writing. Go read it!

I want to bring particular attention to this:

Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.

Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.

We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?

They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.

Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.

I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.

I write YA. It’s a genre that in Australia, the UK and the US is overwhelmingly about white, straight, middle-class teenagers and overwhelmingly written by white, straight, middle-class authors. The blind spots of my beloved genre are many. This is why we have organisations like Diversity in YA founded by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They have a whole section where they look at the statistics on diversity in YA. I highly recommend checking it out.

All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too.1 Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.

We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.2

Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties.3 I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.4

TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!

  1. Our own communities often judge us the most harshly. As an Australian the most vehement criticism I get of my books with Aussie characters and Aussie settings is that I’ve gotten them wrong. Aussies don’t talk that why! Why do you misrepresent your own people? Are you actually Australian? []
  2. I speak as a white author who has written African-American, Aboriginal Australian, Hispanic American and Chinese-American main characters. I know I’m part of the problem. []
  3. Although she may have been appalled by him being a vulgar colonial. []
  4. I just can’t read The Grand Sophy any more. []

YA is for Teens

The publishing category of YA (Young Adult) started as a category about and for teens. But it has always been controlled by adults.

Right now YA is one of the most profitable publishing categories in the USA. That’s largely because of the huge growth of the adult readership. Put it this way: the Hunger Games has sold more copies than there are teens in the USA. Adults reading YA has transformed it from a sleepy back water to a mainstay of publishing, film and TV.

But make no mistake, the initial readers of The Hunger Games who clamoured for it loud and long were teenagers, who bugged their friends and their siblings and their parents to read it. Teens are almost always the first adopters.

Before Harry Potter the big market for YA books was schools and public libraries. The trade market (bookstores) was relatively small. That meant that for a YA book to do well it had to sell to adult gatekeepers. Which mostly meant YA couldn’t have sex or too much swearing or be too weird. It also meant most YA taught a clear cut lesson. Rereading YA from the 1970s and 1980s I was struck by how moralistic and earnest a lot of it was. Reread The Chocolate War sometime. PREACHY! No wonder the Sweet Valley High books were such a hit. Those books ignored what adults wanted teens to read and gave teens what they wanted to read.

The schools and library gatekeepers were, and still are, under a lot of pressure to keep their book collections “clean”. You only have to look at the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged books to get an inkling of the kinds of pressures many school librarians are under. I salute each and every one of them. They bring those challenged books into their schools because the teens want to read them.

Like it or not, the influx of adult readership has expanded the range of YA books that can be published. It is now possible for a YA book with content that would keep it out of many school libraries to make money. Lots of money. This is a huge development and has led to the existence of books like The Hunger Games, Octavian Nothing, The Legend series and We Were Liars. In other words, all the books we now think of as YA.

Teens have more say about YA books now than they did when The Chocolate War came out.1 Publishers are listening to teens more because social media has given teens a bigger voice.

I write books that many adults say are more adult that YA. Yet I know I have teen readers who love my books. I tender as proof the fact that Razorhurst is currently on the shortlist for the Inkys, an award entirely chosen by teens. They choose the longlist, the shortlist and the winner.

It’s unlikely Razorhurst would have been published as YA in the olden days. I’ve already been told by librarians in conservative parts of the US that they can’t keep it in their library much as they want to. So I am personally very grateful for the ways in which YA has changed. Without it I would not be able to write YA.

It’s never been teens demanding YA be “clean”. That demand mostly comes from concerned parents.

This is the case with all the books that are popular right now with teenagers. YA as it is now exists because publishers stopped listening to adults about what teens wanted—moral lessons! upstanding characters!—and started publishing books teens wanted—plot driven! exciting! romantic! complex!—which had the ironic result of more adults wanting to read YA.

Adults still control YA and always will, but there never was a teen YA utopia where the books were chosen by teens. There are reasons me and many of my peers refused to read YA back in the 80s when we were teens. Those books were mostly unbelievably boring. We read Flowers in the Attic instead, which, I’m pretty convinced would be published as YA now.

  1. I know many of you love The Chocolate War. Imagine how amazing it would be if it was published now and didn’t have to be so preachy? []

On Being a Nice Author

Because of social media the contact between authors and readers is closer than it’s ever been. For me one of the many delights of Twitter is being contacted by readers enthusiastic about my books or blog posts. Wonderful! I have many readers from all over the world I’ve known for years through my blog and Twitter. We’ve become friends. I love how Twitter enables me to fangirl my favourite authors, such as Laura Lippmann and Courtney Milan.1

Twitter makes it easier to rave about the books I love. The thought of writing a proper review daunts me. Fortunately blathering on Twitter takes seconds. Why, yes, I have spent much time this year tweeting about how Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is one of the most complex, dense, witty, wondrous science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Seriously, people, READ IT!2

I also use Twitter to discuss politics, basketball, cricket, social justice, history, fashion, the publishing industry, Hollywood, food, wine, quokkas, So Many Things. I dispense and receive writing advice. I gossip with friends. I occasionally let people know when my books are out, share news about how my books are doing, especially when they’ve won an award or something like that, because, WOO HOO!

I don’t, however, view social media as a sales tool, or my readers as customers. I’m not on Twitter to sell books. I’m there to have fun and to learn.

There are authors who view Twitter differently, who feel it is a sales tool and that their job is to broaden their brand, and that part of doing that is to be as inoffensive as possible, as “nice” as possible—particularly to potential readers. Their golden rule is never be rude to a fan because they’ll stop buying your books.

I totally agree we authors shouldn’t be rude. I don’t think anyone of any profession should be rude. The problem, alas, is that no one can agree on what constitutes rudeness. Rude is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve only been accused of rudeness a few times on Twitter but it’s always for the same thing. Someone asks me to explain an acronym or phrase and I sarcastically remind them of google or ask if their google is broken.3 If the answer can’t be found via google which does happen occasionally I explain.4

Now the folks of the Twitter-is-a-sales-tool, my-every-book-sale-depends-on-being-“nice” camp are not fans of sarcasm. They see my reminder of Google’s existence as rudeness beyond redemption, they unfollow me, and tell me they will never buy my books again.

Which fair enough. There are plenty of authors I’ve unfollowed and whose books I’ll never buy again because I found what they say on Twitter appalling. If I’ve offended you by all means never buy a book of mine again.

Meanwhile, I find it rude when folks come at me on Twitter to lecture me on my supposed rudeness and on how to be a “nice” author. I think it’s rude to tell people you’re unfollowing them. Why tell them except in an effort to make them feel bad? How is that not rude?

Like I said, rudeness is in the eye of the beholder.

I also think their underlying belief that rudeness will lose sales is, at best, questionable. Most readers don’t look into what their favourite authors are up to online. To those of us who are online most of the time that’s a shocking idea. But it’s true, I swear. I’ll never forget being on tour for Liar in 2009. There was a huge online scandal about the book’s cover I was bracing myself to have to talk about it at every event. Not only had most of the readers who came to my events not heard of the cover scandal, quite a few of the librarians and booksellers hadn’t either. All most of my fans knew about me was what they’d gleaned from reading my books. It was quite the lesson on the lack of overlap between my online and offline book worlds.

You’ll notice I keep putting “nice” in quote marks. That’s because it’s a word I’m deeply suspicious of. Telling people to be nice is often a way to get them to shut up. Frankly, as a woman, I’ve had a few too many people tell me I’m not being nice when I express an opinion they disagree with. I cannot lie, there are days when I’ve wanted to take the word “nice” and beat it into a slurry. I know. I know. That really wouldn’t be nice.

The people who argue you should do folks’ research for them tend to also argue you should keep your opinions on controversial subjects like politics and religion and social justice to yourself. John Scalzi has a couple of cogent responses to that line of argument.

Twisting yourself in knots to conform to someone else’s notion of “nice” is not going to help you sell books and even if it did—at what cost? You’re so much better off being yourself. If you have strong opinions and enjoy discussing them, have at it. It’s what Twitter’s for. If you hate getting into arguments and want everything to be calm blue ocean then don’t. Do what feels right for you.

None of the bestselling authors I know are quiet about their opinions online. Being honest and themselves has not affected their sales.

As an author we’re going to offend people. Given that some people are offended when told of the existence of search engines it’s a low bar.

At the same time I believe in doing no harm. Being kind and thoughtful is not something we should do because it sells books, it’s something we should do because we’re human beings. When someone tells us something we’ve said hurts them, we should listen.

TL;DR: Be yourself! Be thoughtful and kind! Don’t be silenced! Sarcasm is fun but some people are never going to get it or like it. Book sales are not much affected by what you do online.

  1. When I was first reading novels it never occurred to me that I could get in contact with the people who wrote those novels. It barely occurred to me that novels were written by actual people. If I’d thought about it I’d’ve probably assumed they just showed up in the library as they were. Or were maybe harvested from book trees. []
  2. I’ve discovered so many wonderful books, movies, TV shows, anime, manga through social media. It has enriched my world. I can’t lie I adore Twitter. []
  3. I always mean to send them to lmgtfy.com but I always forget. []
  4. Google doesn’t know everything. Shocking, right? []

Last Day of 2014

The year is practically over so here I am again with my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2015.1

Books Out in 2014

This was my first year with a new solo novel since 2009. Five years in between solo novels!2 I was nervous but it seems to have gone quite well.

Razorhurst was published in July by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews have been blush-making. Including being named a book of the week by the Sydney Morning Herald, of the month from Readings Books and making Readings’ top ten YA books of the year and top 50 books by Australian women in 2014 lists, as well being the Australian Independent Bookseller’s No. 1 Children’s Pick for July. Although Razorhurst isn’t out in the US until March it’s already received starred reviews from the School Library Journal as well as Kirkus.

Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3

So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.

Books Out in 2015 and 2016

I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareIn India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.

“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.

Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.

Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.

I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!

The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.

The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.

What I wrote in 2014

I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.

And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.

Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.

I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.

I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2015

Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.

Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.

Travel in 2014

I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.

Reading and Watching in 2014

My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.

I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.

One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.

2014 was awful but there’s always hope

Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Argh. Make it stop!

May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. []
  2. Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. []
  3. If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. []

The Internet is Also Real Life

The distinction between Real Life and the internet is frequently made. Particularly by people for whom the internet is not a big, or in some cases any, part of their social lives. But the internet is not on a different planet. It’s right here on Earth it was created by people and is made up of people just like Sydney or New York City or Timbuktu.

The internet is a huge part of my life, and has been since the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the weird and wonderful World Wide Web. Oh, the glory of it.

I remember my very first email address. Hard to believe now, but back then email was a wonder. I could stay in touch with friends and family all around the world without stamps or envelopes or treks to the post office and without the insanely long waits.1

In those early days I spent a lot of time reading through various different rec.arts news groups. People exchanging opinions! As if they were in the same room! Except they weren’t! Woah! I joined loads of different listservs. I discovered weird and wonderful blogs and would lose days reading back through the archives. I even commented on some of them. By 2003 I had my own blog. Er, this one. In the last few years twitter has become a large part of my life and through it I have met many amazingly smart and witty an inspiring people.

Online I have found people who care about the same things as me. I’ve found communities I feel at home in. I loved it then and I still love it.

For twenty years now I’ve had many people in my life I think of as my friends whom I’ve never met in *cough* real life. But I know them. Not the way I know the people I’ve lived with. Not the way I know my closest friends. But in some cases I know my online friends better than some of my offline friends and acquaintances.

These online friends are not imaginary. We who spend big chunks of our lives online are real. We make each other laugh. We make each other cry. We annoy each other. We talk to each other several times a week. We fight bullies together. We share experiences. We care about each other.

When one of us dies it hurts.

Social media is not an abstraction. It’s real. It’s made up of real people, who live and die. Their deaths are real and painful.

  1. Okay, obviously, not entirely true. As with snail mail it all depends on how good a correspondent a person is. But in the first days of email we were all so excited we were amazing correspondents. Until the novelty wore off . . . []

On Ideas and Plots and Their Mutability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is My Audience?

On Twitter ages ago N. K. Jemisin asked “*do* white writers want only white readers?”

The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.

But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?

In order to respond I need to break it down:

Whiteness

I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.

What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.

Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.

Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.

When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.

For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.

I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”

I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.

All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”

White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.

Audience

When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.

I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.

All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.

However.

That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.

When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.

When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.

That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.

As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.

Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.

Addressing a White Audience

There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.

Writing to an Audience

But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.

Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.

It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.

My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.

Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.

I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.

  1. When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. []
  2. Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. []
  3. First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. []
  4. Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. []

What’s Real?

In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”

The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.

I call bullshit on several different fronts:

Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.

They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.

The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feel so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?

I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.

Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?

I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2

Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.

Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?

Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.

In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4

Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.

I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.

Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.

Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.

TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.

  1. Read this lovely post by Karen Jensen on what YA is and how contemporary realism never went away. []
  2. And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy. []
  3. We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable. []
  4. Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is. []
  5. Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing! []
  6. I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird. []

Online Conflict

There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.

Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.

I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.

I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.

Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.

Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.

I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.

As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.

More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.

I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.

But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.

Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2

Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism

  1. In the 1970s a friend of my mother’s was once excluded from a women’s group because she’d had a male child and was thus harbouring the enemy. I hasten to add that was a fringe view back then. []
  2. I mean today I do. There are days when not so much. []

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. []

Last Day of 2013

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

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

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

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

It’s all relative, eh?

So here’s a new section instead:

What I wrote in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books out Next Year

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

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

Writing Plans for 2014

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

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

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

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

What else happened in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Less Fun Side of Social Media

On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:1

For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.

It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.

I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 11,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.

Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.

But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?

Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.

This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.

At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.

A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.

It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?

I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.

The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.

My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.

It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.

I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.

We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.

Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.

  1. Julia Gillard is no longer Australia’s female, atheist, living in sin Prime Minister. But I remain proud that she once was and that Australia has universal health care (no matter how imperfect), strict gun control and mandatory voting. []

Learning to Write Romance

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

Everything.

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

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

Back to my story and moving forward a decade:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.

One of the points she makes is this:

women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.

I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”

How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):

To [Asimov’s] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.

I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.

The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.

N K Jemisin also observes:

[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.

I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?

The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.

I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.

Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.

Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.

NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.

  1. The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. []
  2. There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. []

Twitter Etiquette

So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?

But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!

In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.

Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1

NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.

So, Twitter.

Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:

Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.

And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2

At the other end of the spectrum:

Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3

Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!

Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4

Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow

Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.

This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.

Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.

To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:

TwitterConvo

I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you

Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.

For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5

Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!

Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.

I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.

If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you

I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.

Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!

Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.

It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.

If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you

I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.

Tweet what you care about

Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.

It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.

I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.

It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?

Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS

This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.

#hashtagsarefun

They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:

#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?

#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.

Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.

Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.

Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.

I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack

Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.

  1. Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. []
  2. What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. []
  3. And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. []
  4. I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. []
  5. Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! []
  6. Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. []

Dismissing Whole Genres

A few days ago I tweeted this:

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

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

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

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

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

What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bored now.

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

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Enjoy Critical Reviews of Your Own Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of your book is not a review of you

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

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

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

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

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

You have the power

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have the power!

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

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

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

Changing My Mind: On What to Do About Cranky Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

My theory may well be true for a handful of those at the extreme end of self-publishing but it does not explain the established, published-by-big-houses, several-books-into-their-career, New-York-Times-bestselling authors who also freak out about negative reviews in public.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling Yourself Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling Stratospherically

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

Um, no.

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

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

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

So why social media?

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

I digressed again! Sorry.

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

Do I think social media is essential?9

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Do About Cranky Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Blogging and the Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

THE OLYMPICS.

So far I have watched, in no particular order:

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

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

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

The Purpose of Bad Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Book Exorcisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4th of July

I hear this is a big deal over in the US of A. Given that many of my readers are from there and that I myself am now also a citizen of your fine country—dual nationalities for the win!—I thought I should blog in a USian way or about the USA on your day of celebrating being a nation.1

First I thought why don’t I tell you everything I think is wrong with that mighty nation. But given that I haven’t even been USian for a whole year it seems a bit premature. It’s all very well for me to go off on the dread wrongnesses of Australia2 as I have been Australian for quite some time. But as a mere eight-month old USian I shall keep it positive for at least another year.

So instead I will share with you some of what I love about the USA. Yes, folks, there are many good things about the United States of America.

The music. Seriously, people, this is the country that produced Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holliday, Blossom Dearie, Big Mama Thornton, Aaron Copland, Kanye, George Gershwin, Gangstagrass, Missy Elliot, Salt’n’Pepa, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Una Mae Carlisle, Dixie Chicks, Bix Beiderbeck, Jean Grae, Chuck Brown, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan . . .3

Oh, good grief. There are too many amazing musicians across too many genres! It’s completely impossible to even list 0.01% of my favourites. I mean I’m looking at that list and thinking what about Lucinda Williams? What about Janelle Monae? Gillian Welch? Mahalia Jackson? Johnny Cash? How could I have forgotten them?! What is wrong with me?

You know, even if the USA had given nothing else to the rest of the world it’s music is more than enough. But then there’s all the amazing literature. Geniuses like Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Flannery O’Conner, Zora Neale Hurston, Dawn Powell, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith and many, many others. I’m only listing dead writers. That way my genius writer friends won’t be insulted when I leave them off the list. Interestingly almost all my favourite US genre writers are still alive. Excellent, eh?

Then there’s all the wonderful movies. I am an obsessive devotee of Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties. Way too many to list. And then in the last decade or so there’s been an explosion of extraordinary television for which I am insanely grateful. *hugs The Wire to chest*

Of course none of this art happens in a vacuum. The USA is a hungry beast absorbing cultural influences from all over the world. Personally, I think that’s how the best art happens. Though it’s a long continuum and at one end is US artists going to, say, Brazil, and ripping off artists there and taking it back and selling it in the USA and not even crediting the source except with generalised mumbling such as: “You know, Brazil, is, like, so inspiring.”

What never stops amazing me about the USA is how big it is. How almost everything you can say about that country—good or bad—is true. They have the worst and best health care.4 Ditto food. Ditto music. Ditto, well, pretty much everything.

But I guess the main thing I love about the USA is New York City, which has given me so many opportunities and wonderful friendships and, er, a husband, and completely changed my life. Kisses and hugs to you, NYC! Never change!5

  1. It is still the fourth of July there even though we Australians have already moved on to the fifth of July. []
  2. Oh, I’m just kidding. We Aussies know that Australia is perfect in every way and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Don’t say “detention centres” or “asylum seeker deaths at sea” or “deaths in custody.” Shush! []
  3. You’ll let me know, won’t you, if one of them turns out to actually be Canadian? []
  4. And that best in the world health care can easily be yours. All you have to do is be really rich or have an amazing job with amazing health insurance. Simple! []
  5. Well, actually, NYC, I’d kind of like you to quit it with the stop-and-frisk program and it would be awesome if you created more low-income housing in Manhattan so it doesn’t totally turn into a theme park for the rich and if you . . . *cough* Positive. I’m keeping things positive. []

Team Human is Now Out Everywhere*

*If by “everywhere” I mean Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, which, um, I do. Sorry, rest of the world.

Team Human is real! Team Human is out in the world! *bounce bounce bounce*

This morning (Australia time) we did a twitter chat about Team Human and I can’t quite believe this happened, but, well, there’s proof. Our chat #THchat trended worldwide!

How surreal is that? Thank you so much everyone for your participation and amusing questions. Yes, @colorlessblue, I promise I will add writing a bunyip book to my list.1

In other Team Human news here’s the very droll trailer:

I love the Vampires Are Wrong bloke. He has the best voice ever.

If you missed out on today’s Twitter chat you can always join a chat between me, Sarah Rees Brennan and Scott Westerfeld at Figment.com this coming Sunday evening in the USA (Monday morning in Australia).

Sunday July 8
8PM US-ET (5PM Pacific Time, 10AM Monday AUS-ET)

We’ll be discussing what it’s like to collaborate on a novel. Click here to find out more.

Oh, and Team Human was boingled today!

You can read the first chapter of Team Human here. In the USA it is available in all electronic formats. In Australia it’s available in many formats. Full details here.

Happy book birthday, Team Human! May you stay in print a really, really long time!

  1. My list of books to write is really long. I make no guarantees I will get around to it. []

Day One of July Blogging Month

Well, this is exciting. A whole month of me blathering at youse. And, hopefully, youse lot blathering back at me in them there comments below.

I’m overcome with joy at the prospect. So overjoyed that I know that I said I wouldn’t blog on the weekend but this year the 1st of July is a Sunday and I couldn’t not blog on the very first day of my blogging month, now could I?

I thought I would start with some frivolity. Did you see #badwritingtips on twitter? There were some truly awesome ones. I loved Elizabeth Knox’s “Begin as many sentences as possible with a verb + ‘ing’, it makes everything so much more active.” Cracking good advice!1 You should all follow her.

Here are the bad writing tips I tweeted:

Repetition’s your friend. Really & truly repetition’s truly your friend. Repeat things or your readers really won’t remember.

Make sure you have a prologue. Make sure it’s as long as your book.

Ha, yes, @mysterysquid, a prologue is even better if it has absolutely no bearing on the book that follows it.

“Really” “you know” “actually” and “just” are the most useful and versatile words. Make sure you use them A LOT.

Don’t use specific details. Rather than describing actual smells call them “pungent” or “redolent”. Details slow the story.

It is always much better to use your precious writing time coming up with #badwritingtips than, you know, actually writing.

The last few huge bestsellers I read did all of these things.2 Seems to be the rule that to become a giant, world-wide, sell-millions-upon-millions bestseller you do, in fact, have to write in a way that the majority of the writers and readers I know would describe as “bad writing.”

The theory behind this is that for a book to sell in those insane numbers it has to be picked up by people who don’t normally read books. And that those kind of readers therefore haven’t learnt the reading protocols that frequent readers have. Thus clunky, obvious, repetitious writing works for those newer readers in ways it doesn’t for us jaded, sophisticated readers.

I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that. Because that does not explain all the hard-core readers who read the mega-bestsellers. They can’t all be reading them to point and laugh and write side-splittingly funny one-star reviews.3

Not to mention that there are mega-bestsellers that aren’t full of this kind of “bad writing.” The Harry Potter books for instance. Especially the third one.4 For my tastes, they do get too big and insufficiently tightly edited as they go on but even then they are not full of the cringe-inducing repetition and generic descriptions of more recent bestsellers.5

Basically I don’t think we can explain how these mega-bestsellers happen. It’s kismet.

Any of youse got some entertaining crappy writing tips?

So this is the first of almost thirty posts this month. Feel free to suggest topics in the comments.

I leave you with a link to this really funny musical number about internet trolls and bullies. It’s very NSFW6 as it includes language that I know upsets many people. I loved it. My apologies to everyone who’s already watched it a million times and is now over it.

Happy July Blogging Month!

Team Human Alert: So, um, I have a new book out, Team Human, which I wrote with Sarah Rees Brennan and which publishes in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA this very week!

You can read the first chapter or take a squiz at some reviews or read about how Sarah and I wrote it together.

This week there’ll be a twitter chat where you can ask us whatever you want about Team Human organised by our US publisher, Harper Collins. It will be held on Tuesday 3 July at 6pm US East coast time. (That’s 8AM Wednesday 4 July for East Coast Australian types.) The hashtag to use is: #THchat

There’ll also be an online chat with Figment.com. Sunday 8 July 8PM US-ET (5PM Pacific Time, 10AM Monday AUS-ET) Scott Westerfeld will be me and Sarah Rees Brennan about Team Human. Mostly we’ll be discussing what it’s like to collaborate on a novel.Click here to find out how to take part.

  1. I cheated and made my gerund a modifier. Whatever. []
  2. Well, okay, not the prologue thing. []
  3. Yes, one of my favourite things in the world is reading the most popular one-star reviews of the most popular books. They are an art form! []
  4. My favourite. []
  5. Which I am not going to name. Because I don’t diss living writers. Not on the permanent record anyways. []
  6. NSFW = Not Safe For Work. Yes, I know you know that but there’s always someone who doesn’t know and is bad at google. []

July: Blogging A Lot Month (Updated)

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

Tell Me What To Blog

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

I’ve had a few suggestions on Twitter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Digression

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

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

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

In Conclusion

In July I will blog a lot.

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

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

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

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. []

Feeling Good

Yesterday’s post on my lack of love for voice recognition software seems to have left some with the impression that I’m doing badly. Not so!

There are many people with RSI or other injuries like carpal tunnel much worse affected then I am. There are some who can no longer hold anything, let alone a pen. My RSI doesn’t impinge on many activities other than writing. Also I have the resources to get the help I need (physiotherapy etc) to manage my condition. I’m extremely lucky.

I am, in fact, in the best shape of my life. Strengthening my core muscles and shoulder girdle (boxing is excellent for that as one of the commenters yesterday noted) has helped a great deal with the RSI. I have abs and arms of steel,1 I tell you!

More importantly, I am writing fiction with my hands the way I like it.2 I love what I have been writing since Liar. I probably shouldn’t say it but I think I’m doing some of the best writing of my life.

I know there’s nothing new from me this year, but I did have a pretty good anthology last year! Also, and this is currently a secret because the deal has not been announced yet, there will be a new novel next year and then another one in 2013. You all promise to tell no one, right? Oh, and before you ask, no, it is not the New York book. I continue to write that book but I will not sell it until I have finished.

I might have been pretty silent here but that is because I have been saving my arms for writing novels.

I might hate voice recognition software but it did allow me to write yesterday’s post—and now this one—without any pain. I could never use it to write a novel but I can use it here. I do not know how often but I hope it will be more than it has been.

Thank you so much for all your kind words and suggestions yesterday. They were very helpful. I sure do miss this blog and all of you.

  1. Well, maybe gold . . . []
  2. I reserve demonic VRS for e-mail and writing posts like this and other non-fiction stuff. []

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. []

Farewell For Now

As some of you may have noticed I’ve not been around much online. Sorry! Thank you so much for all the concerned supportive emails. They are much appreciated. (You made me all teary.)

Here’s where things stand with me:

The good news: The original injury that caused me to cut back on blogging is completely healed. Yay!

The bad news: The RSI in my hands and forearms got worse.

I took four weeks off from the computer entirely. I have reorganised my computer setup. I’ve been doing a vast amount of physical therapy. I’m improving. Slowly and frustratingly but surely.

However, my time at keyboard remains limited and my top priority is my novel. All else—blogging, tweeting, emailing—is on hiatus until I can get through a day’s1 work without pain.

I see that all sounds depressing. But honestly I’m doing great. While I miss being in close contact with all my fabby online friends.2 I’ve been spending more time with friends in the real world. I’ve been reading more than I have in years. Watching lots of crazy good anime. Who recommended Moribito? I LOVE YOU.3 I’ve been cooking up a storm. And immersing myself in the WNBA, NBA, French Open, various cricket series and am ecstatic about the coming World Cup and Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Life is very good.

So this is farewell for now. Thanks for all the support. It means heaps.4

I’ll be back.5

  1. I.e. four hours. []
  2. A LOT. []
  3. Feel free to make more recs in the comments. []
  4. Thanks to the lovely folks who inquired after my health at BEA. Even if most of you were Team Unicorn. What’s up with that? []
  5. But not in a scary way. I swear that I’m not a cyborg from the future hellbent on wiping out humanity. Me, I like humanity. []