How to Conduct an Interview

I’m always very flattered when someone wants to do an interview with me. I jump with joy. People are interested in what I think! They want me to blather on! I am a woman of many opinions so being offered the chance to opinionate in multiple places is most pleasing. Thank you everyone who’s ever asked. I truly appreciate it.

However, many of the questions I get could be asked of any writer. Sometimes they could be asked of any person. It’s a bit lowering to suspect that the interviewer doesn’t really care about my particular pearls of wisdom—they want any old writer’s wisdom.

Let me make it clear that I don’t mind being asked generic, could-be-answered-by-anyone-with-a-pulse questions if the interviewer forewarns me. Just today I got a very sweet email from someone who runs a writing website for kids and teens. She specifically said she was writing to many writers and getting their response to one of a long list of questions. I will definitely be answering one or more of those questions.

I just wish the people who ask for an interview, but then send the same questions they send everyone, would preface their request by saying “My blog has five questions I send all my favourite writers. Here’s the link to the questions. Let me know if you want to take part.” Rather than, “I think you’re wonderful! I love your work! Please let me interview you!” Followed by the same five questions they ask everyone.

My friend Scalzi just ranted about this. Another friend, who I won’t name,1 gets cross about it too. They feel that the interviewer is doing zero work, but expecting them do loads, that the interviewer just wants easy content for their blogs.

Now, while I agree with some of what they have to say, I think there’s more to it than that. I’m convinced that the biggest problem is that most of these interviewers have little experience with interviewing and don’t know how to go about it. Learning to be a good interviewer takes time. It’s a skill. And not one that many people are taught.

Thus I thought I would share my tips. While I’ve never been a journalist, I was a researcher for many years, and that involved interviewing gazillions of writers, fans, and publishing people.

Justine’s guide to conducting a cool and interesting interview with a writer:

1. Research your subject. Read as many of their books as you can find. Read reviews of their books. Read all the previous interviews you can find. If they have a blog—read it. Yes, the entire thing. Or as much as is available online. If they’ve been blogging since the dawn of time (i.e. 1998) at least read a year or two’s worth of the archives.

2. Ask questions that are informed by this research. Rather than asking generic questions such as “where do you get your ideas” look at their responses to that question in previous interviews. Here’s Maureen Johnson talking at length about where she gets her ideas:

Almost every writer I know hates this question. We are, by nature, a lazy people. Hard questions disturb our state of mind. This is one of the hardest of the hard, topped only by things like “How do you write a book?” and “Why are there so many headless girls on the covers of your novels?”

Instead of asking her the question she hates being asked you could ask her why she thinks writers hate this question so much. Because, clearly, it’s not because writers are by nature lazy. Maureen Johnson certainly isn’t—ten seconds of research on her will reveal that fact. But, wait, she’s already answered that question:

I always try to make something up . . . some weird, cobbled-together, IKEA-quality answer that will definitely fall apart the second you attempt to deconstruct it. This is because, for me, there IS no answer.

The ideas just come from my brain. I store stuff up there, and the brain monkeys play around with it and put together different combinations. They come to me with stuff all the time, as your brain monkeys must do for you.

So why not ask why she thinks there’s no answer? Or why she thinks this question is asked so often. Writers seem to emphasise that the ideas are the least important part, yet people who aren’t writers seem convinced it’s the most important part. What’s up with that?

3. Conduct a subject-specific interview. One of my favourite recent interviews is over at Racebending.com where I was interviewed about the casting for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of the interviews I’ve conducted I’m most fond of this recent one with Doret Canton of the Happy Nappy Bookseller blog about YA & girls playing sport as well as this one on lying and the links to being a novelist with John Green. Having a specific topic helps you focus your interview and often leads to really interesting exchanges.

4. If you’re conducting your interview via email try to start with around five questions. More than that can overwhelm your interviewee and cause them not to answer straight away or, you know, ever. I know my heart sinks when I’m sent interviews of hundreds of questions. Even if they’re really good questions. Actually, especially if they’re really good questions because those are the questions that make you think and as well all know thinking is hard. Also fewer initial questions allows you to ask fun follow-up questions that bounce off the answers you’ve been given. This can also make an interview seem more like a conversation than an interview, which is always a good thing.

5. Think about doing an interview via IM. Now, some authors are going to shudder with horror at the very idea. It is a considerable timesuck. If they agree, many will probably tell you they’ll only give you 30 mins or an hour. But the results can be very pleasing. Scott has done several IMterviews on his blog. Here’s one he did with Robin Wasserman and here’s one of my fave interviews, conducted by Tempest Bradford, of me and Ekaterina Sedia about being foreign writers in the USA.

Since I said that any more than five questions is overwhelming I think I will stop at five tips. I’m sure the experienced interviewers who read this blog will add more in the comments. I hope mine will be helpful to some of you.

  1. Cause they’ve only said it offline. []

New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

I know many people are all bah humbug about new year’s resolutions but I love them. This year I resolve to find a balance with my time online.

Let me explain: when I first became a published author of an actual novel I kind of went a little bit insane. I tracked down every teeny tiny reference to my book or me. I used every tool then available (and remember this was the long distant past of 2005) to stalk mentions online. At first there were few, very few, and I was convinced no one was ever going to read or review my baby Magic or Madness. Wah! Then there was what seemed a lot, which provided momentary flickers of joy—yay! good review!—and longer bouts of misery—boo! bad review.1 But then the mentions slowed down and lo there was despair again. No one is reading my book!

All of that slowed down my writing. Considerably. I was spending more time thinking about what people were saying about my book then, you know, actually writing the next one. Fortunately, for me I’d already finished my second book, Magic Lessons before my first appeared. But all the they-hate-me-they-love-me-they-think-I’m-meh-they’re-ignoring-me significantly affected the writing of the third book in the trilogy, Magic’s Child. I ran late, very late, because I was wasting so much time online googling myself and angsting about the results of those searches.

It got so bad I considered pulling the plug and not going online ever again, which, as you can imagine, is not possible. A large part of what I do online is directly related to my work: communicating with my agent and publisher, all the online promotery stuff my publisher likes me to do, research, keeping up with my field, blogging (my favourite thing ever!) etc. I can’t really let any of that slide for more than a week or so.

So instead I vowed to go cold turkey on self-stalking. I turned off my google alerts, unlearned the existence of technorati, icerocket, blogpulse etc etc and concentrated on finishing How to Ditch Your Fairy. It went well. I could go online without doing my head in. I was productive again! I learned that people would forward me any interesting reviews or commentary on my work.2 I did not need to seek out.

I also found that after several published books, bad reviews worry me far less than they used to. What I used to know only intellectually—that most reviews say far more about the reviewer than the reviewee—I now know all the way through me. Bad reviews rarely rile me now.

Thus I happily remained until 2009. Yes, I was still given to procrastinating. I would discover new blogs and be compelled to read through the entire archive. What? You can’t understand a blog until you’ve read the whole thing! And certain people still seem to think I spend an inordinate amount of time IMing with friends and family. What can I say? I don’t like phones. Plus some of those chats have led to Very Important Things. I’m just sayin’.

This year, however, for the first time in my online life, I was at the centre of a storm. People started saying things about me that were not true and were sometimes downright nasty. I’d become inured to people hating my books, but I’d never had strangers hating on me before. I’d seen many of my friends go through it. I’d even counselled these friends not to let it get to them, to make sure they took time away, that it’s not really as big a deal as it seems, and that those nasty, small-minded people don’t know them and what they say doesn’t matter. All of which is true.

But then it happened to me and I let it get to me. I fell off the wagon. I reinstated my google alerts. I used every search engine known to humanity to search out every single mention. I lost sleep. I lost days and weeks and months of work time.

I found some wonderful friends and allies during this time. However, I’m pretty certain I would have come across them regardless. Throughout this time, people were writing me wonderful supportive letters and sending me all sorts of wonderful links to amazing discussions. All I got from my self-stalking was misery and woe. My hard-fought-for balance shattered.

But here’s what I learned: it doesn’t matter what random strangers think of me. As long as I’m doing what I know is right and the people I trust and respect think so too, then I’m good. Sure, nasty shit said about you hurts. But some of the stuff that was said about me last year was so absurd that no one was taking it seriously. Literally no one. Except me. Spot the problem? So I stopped.

The even more important lesson I learned was that none of what happened was about me. It was about much bigger and much more important issues. I always knew that intellectually, but the lizard brain is very slow to learn. The lizard brain wanted to track down every slur, every insult. The lizard brain is an idiot.

I resolve this year to ignore the lizard brain and go back to the lovely balance I once had.

Here’s what gives me balance:

  • Writing
  • Making sure I get out of the house at least once a day and preferably go for a long walk, or to the gym, or for a bike ride—something physical daily that keeps me away from computer and phone.
  • Turning off google alerts
  • Not getting involved in flamewars. If someone is saying something offensive or appalling or wrong I no longer engage them. If the issue is important I blog about it here. I cut off flamewars in the comment threads here also.
  • Hanging out with my family and friends
  • Blogging
  • Cooking

And like that.

How do youse lot achieve balance?

  1. For some reason the bad ones lingered longer in the memory than the good. Funny that. []
  2. In my turn I started forwarding cool stuff I found about other people’s work to them. []

Last Day of 2009

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2010. Basically I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.) Do feel free to skip it.1

This year, though, was less happy than any of the previous years I’ve summed up here. Thus my summary is brief. I want to get past 2009 and on to the fun of 2010 as fast as I can.

Books out: Liar (hc in US & tpb in Oz), HTDYF (in Oz & pb in US)

MorM&MLDeustchEdLiar sold in nine different countries this year (in order of sale): Taiwan, Germany, France, Brazil, Turkey, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands & Spain. That last sale was to Ediciones Versatil. I only just found out about it. Since I’ve been wanting to sell Spanish-language rights since I even knew such a thing existed I’m dead happy. (Champagne tonight!) Spanish is the only language I can even vaguely speak. (Other than English, obviously.) I’m going to be very curious to read the translation. (Or try to anyways.) Liar has now sold in as many countries as the Magic or Madness trilogy. HTDYF remains my least popular book o.s. having only sold in Australia, the US, Germany & this year to Japan. Germany is the only country other than Australia and the USA to have bought all my novels. Apparently, the trilogy is doing well there—yay for German readers! I figure that’s because of the awesome covers. The cover above is of a new German edition of the first two books in the trilogy which will be out in October next year. Isn’t it gorgeous?

There were also audio editions of Liar and How To Ditch Your Fairy released in Australia by Bolinda and the USA by Brilliance. I was able to sit in on a bit of the recording of Liar and was invited to help choose the narrator of HTDYF both wonderful, wonderful experiences. I think the end results are amazing.

Okay, that was my 2009. Now on to next year!

First up, I have two books coming out in the USA in fall:

The paperback edition of Liar

Zombies versus Unicorns anthology edited with Holly Black

I am so excited about the antho. You would not believe how fantastic the stories are. Not a dud one in the book. Well, except for the unicorn stories which are all dreadful (Holly edited those) but you are going to adore the zombie stories, which are, no lie, the best stories written in the history of the universe by some of the best writers ever. Um, yes, I edited those ones. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to announce who the writers are yet. I’ll just give you their initials: LB, CC, AJ, MJ, SW, & CR. Tell no one! I’m not giving you the unicorn story writer initials because 1) I know you don’t care, 2) they’re all hack writers you never heard of anyways.

It’s quite astonishing that someone as spectacularly talented as Holly could be such a unicorn fan. I don’t understand. I think the best plan is for everyone to skip the unicorn stories and instead read Holly’s new novel, The White Cat, which is out in May next year and is the best thing she’s ever written. I say that as someone who adores everything Holly writes. The White Cat, though, beats them, hands down. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. You are in for such a treat! In even better news: it’s the first of a trilogy.

The ZvU antho began life as a sekrit project in 2007. It is my first sekrit project to see the light of day. Very happy making. It’s also the first project of mine to be inspired by this blog. By this comment exchange between me and Holly and many others, to be exact.

So that’s what I’m publishing, what about what I’m working on? People have been asking me about that a lot lately. I suspect because I’ve not blogged about it much lately. Especially compared the flurry of 1930s book posts earlier in the year. Speaking of which there have been queries about how the 1930s novel is going, seeing as how I haven’t mentioned it in awhile. “Have you given up on it?” I’ve been asked anxiously. (Mostly by my friend and critique partner Diana Peterfreund, who’s read some chunks of it.) I have not! But I have kind of been cheating on it.

Right now I’m working on four novels at once:

  • One is the 1930s novel, which has turned out to be much bigger than I thought. More than one novel, in fact. When it became clear to me that there was no way I was finishing it any time soon my brain spat out another idea for a much shorter novel and I started working on that.
  • That novel is set in the here2 and now and is closer in tone to How To Ditch Your Fairy. When I started working on it I stopped reading only 1930s books. I now only restrict myself when I’m working on the 1930s novel.
  • The third book I started awhile ago, it’s the lodger book for those of you who’ve been with this blog for awhile, and then rediscovered it while procrastinating. It was the one I put aside to concentrate on Liar.
  • The fourth one is a sekrit. Though not the sekrit project I thought would come to fruition this year that I mentioned at the end of last year. I still have hopes for that sekrit project but I do not see it happening for at least two or three years. Thank Elvis for the new sekrit project, eh?

At the moment none of these novels is winning the fight for my attention. And, honestly, while touring I was unable to get any writing done at all. I truly admire those who can. School events all day and then a library or book store event at night means no writing on tour for this particular writer. And travelling and returning home ate my December. (In a good way!) My next clear, no travelling, stretch starts tomorrow. Bless you, January 2010. So tomorrow I start writing again in earnest and that’s when I expect one of the four novels to take over my brain completely. But maybe it won’t. Maybe my new style of writing is to flit back and forth between books. I guess I’ll find out in 2010.

My only goal for this year is to be happy writing. If I finish one or more of these novels then wonderful. If not, no big deal.

I hope 2010 shapes up beautifully for all of us.

Happy new year!

  1. Cause it will be boring. Don’t say you weren’t warned. []
  2. Well, not Sydney (or NYC), but this planet and not an alternative version of it. []

Wonderful New Blogs Discovered in 2009

In no particular order here are my favourite new-to-me blogs of the year:

  • Reading in Color. Ari reads and reviews and discusses and generously gives away YA books about people of colour. Ari was the first person to tell me about Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, which was one of my fave books of the year. For that alone I would be her devoted follower forever, but there’s way more to her blog than book reviews. If you have any interest in YA and you’re not following Reading in Color, then shame on you!
  • The Intern. An intern’s view of publishing. Funny as hell. She even has a nemesis and refers to herself in third person. She’s crazy, but so is publishing. They are the perfect match.
  • White Readers Meet Black Authors. Some wonderfully warm and witty outreach to us white folks who would like to expand our reading horizons.
  • Journal of a Baby Power Dyke in Training. Wickedly witty, insightful, Barbra Streisand-obsessed and happy making. Although I do not share the BS obsession I am a fan of many of her other faves, such as Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. I adore a good ole rant about politics and BPD is very happy to oblige.
  • Happy Nappy Bookseller. Doret Canton is my new favourite bookseller. Not only does she love YA, but she’s also a total sportshead and has given me enough girls sports book recs to last me a lifetime. Happiness! She runs two or three very thoughtful reviews a week. If you have have any interest in childrens lit, from picture books through to YA, you need to add Doret to your blogroll ASAP.
  • Eat Drink One Woman. Ganda is all about the food. Me too. This is probably one of my fave food blogs of all time. And she talks about bikes too! Perfect. Following her food adventures in Sweden was one of the blog reading highlights of my year.
  • Taste Life Twice. Two California girls, Tashi & Kiki, who love to blog about books. Their blog is chockers with book reviews and interviews. Their crazy high school schedule means they don’t blog as often as I’d like but, hey, that just means I treasure what they do post. Another essential for us YA fans.
  • Apophenia. Danah Boyd’s a researcher who writes incredibly thoughtfully about social networking online. I’m particularly fascinated by her research on facebook, myspace, twitter and race and class.
  • Color Online.
  • This is not just a blog about the work of women writers of colour, it’s also a non-profit that among many other things runs a library to get books by and about people of colour into the hands of those least able to get hold of books. They welcome book donations. It’s also a truly excellent blog with some of the best coverage of YA online. It really is essentially reading if you care about publishing or YA or reading. Susan also has an excellent personal blog, Black-Eyed Susan.

If you don’t know any of these there’s some wonderful reading in store for you. What were your fave new blogs this year? Oh, and no recommending your own blog. Self praise is no praise, people!

Wrongness on the Internet

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

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

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

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

duty_calls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commenting Etiquette

Before I begin I will confess that I have committed many of these sins. I know it was wrong and I will try very very hard never to do it again because it was rude and wrong of me.

I also know that everyone who comes to this blog is good and wise and already knows all this. I’m really writing this post to remind myself. Please to bear with my stating of much obviousness.

So here’s my rules of commenting etiquette:

  • Read the entire post before commenting. Nothing is more annoying to a blogger than to have someone say “But why did you not mention French beanbags?” when you have just spent six paragraphs doing exactly that.
  • Click through the links in the post. Nothing is more annoying to a blogger than to have someone say “Oh! You should read this genius article on the evil of French beanbags!” when you have linked to that very article and quoted from it four times.
  • Read all the comments before commenting. Nothing is more annoying to blogger and commenters than to have someone come along and say “Those French beanbags are totally a rip off the Eritrean ones!” when that point has already been made and responded to by multiple commenters. If the comment thread is insanely long, read at least the first few dozen and then if you must comment say “I’ve not been able to get through all the comments so sorry if this is a repeat . . . “
  • Do not explode on to a comment thread in a whirl of fire and outrage. Particularly don’t do this if all the discourse up to that point has been calm and measured.1 Try to match your tone to the rest of the comments. If something truly outrageous has been said point it out. But there is no need to yell. This is especially annoying if you’re also violating one of the previous points. Exploding into a comment thread in high dudgeon to rant about something which has already been pointed out is double plus annoying.
  • If your outrage is so extreme you are shaking, if the post is the worst post in the history of posts,2 why not blog about it on your own blog? This is what I do. But then I’m kind of allergic to flamewars. Basically I view blogs as someone’s living room. It’s pretty rude to start screaming abuse at someone in their own home. But by all means go back to your own living room and scream about them from there.
  • This last ones for the bloggers: if you write a post and the comment thread fills with outrage you might want to figure out what it is you’ve done to upset so many people. It could be a case of innocently blogging about beanbags without knowing about the great beanbag schism of 1985. Thank the people for correcting your ignorance and move on. It could be your post’s been linked to by a forum for crazy people who believe that beanbags are immoral. Delete their arses, ban them, or do whatever it is you do to crazy trolls. Or it could be that you’ve unknowingly said something genuinely appalling. When a whole bunch of people say they’re hurt and offended it’s always a good idea to try and figure out why and how you can avoid being offensive like that in the future. Onus is on you to apologise.

Maybe it’s more that blogs are salons and the blogger is the host. They become communities and develop their own mores and standards. When you show up at a new blog for the first time you should lurk, figure it out, and only join in when you have a sense of how it operates. Which is a pretty good rule for all social settings. Now, all I have to do is remember that!

Did I miss any obvious ones? Any commenting etiquette rules you’d all like to add?

  1. There are, of course, plenty of blogs and forums that welcome, nay, thrive on fire and outrage. In which cause go ahead. You’re definitely matching the existing discourse. []
  2. Valiantly resists temptation to link to some of those truly dreadful posts. But that recent one comparing Barack Obama and Tiger Woods? I’m looking at you. []

Blogging & Teaching

One of my highlights of NCTE was doing a panel on blogging with Laurie Halse Anderson, Maureen Johnson, Barbara O’Connor and Lisa Yee. The panel was put together and moderated by Denise Anderson, who was just splendid and had done a tonne of research. I was very impressed. They’ve all now blogged about the panel. (Links to their posts are on their names.) All except for me and Maureen. As I think it’s a sign of deep failure not to blog about a panel on blogging I am now fixing my omission. I doubt Maureen will, however, because hers is not that kind of a blog.

The panel was aimed at teachers and concerned with demonstrating how they can make use of authors’ blogs in the classroom. Denise observed that many of her colleagues were unaware of authors blogs and was on a mission to open their eyes. I suspect, though, that most of the educators in the audience were well aware of blogs and that was why they were there. Certainly the questions we were asked were very knowledegable.

We authors took the opportunity to ask the teachers not to set writing to authors as an assignment. Yes, that’s right, we whinged. We explained how much time it takes for us to answer questions especially when there are forty students writing us at once. Volume is not our only issue. The students tend to write asking us questions that are already answered on our sites, revealing they have the skills to find our email addresses, but not to find the answers to their questions, which are also in plain slight.

We also mentioned that some of the letters we get from students are flat out rude:

YOU MUST ANSWER THIS EMAIL STRAIGHT AWAY. MY HOMEWORK IS DUE TOMORROW. HERE ARE MY 456 QUESTIONS.

Laurie asked the following question: “Should we continue to spend classroom time on letter writing or has the time come to teach how to compose appropriate email communication?”

Our panel gave a very emphatic yes to the second half. Teach them how to write polite emails, please! I saw many heads nodding in the audience.

Another concern we had was students leaving comments on our blog making their phone numbers or email addresses public. We made it clear that we delete such information but thought that was another thing that could be addressed in the classroom.

We were all very clear that we love hearing from our readers and try very hard to answer them all. It’s just the students demanding we do their homework that we’re reluctant to respond to. We write for a living. Our novels are our top priorities, any additional writing comes after that. Which is why most of us started blogging in the first place—to have a method of communicating directly with our readers. We all agreed that the comments are the best part of blogging. Laurie said that she feels the readers of her blog have become family.

Laurie also mentioned that if they ever have parents wanting to remove a book from the school library or prevent it being taught they should get in contact with the writer because often the writer’s been through this before and can offer support. (Oh, look: it’s happened again, this time in Kentucky. And Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted is one of the books.)

Hmm, we seem to have agreed about many things. The only disagreement I can think of is when we were answering a question from the audience about the relationship of our blog writing to our novel writing. I said that I found blogging much more relaxing and easy than novel writing. While I craft it, the writing here doesn’t go through any where near as many drafts as my fiction does. Nor is it professionally edited, copyedited or proofed. It also has a different voice than my novel writing, but I do still think of it as writing and it has an influence on my novels.

Maureen said that she views all her writing the same whether it’s a novel or a blog post or a tweet and that it all has the same voice. Which I think is one of the main things that makes Maureen’s blog so different to most other blogs I read. Every entry reads like a story and the voice is indeed very like her novel writing voice (but quite distinct from the Maureen I know). And is why a post about a blogging panel wouldn’t work there.

Sadly I can no longer remember Lisa or Laurie’s response but Barbara was very clear that she did not see her blog writing as real writing at all. It’s completely distinct from her fiction.

I have to admit that before I was contacted to be part of this panel I had not given much thought to the use my blog might have for educators. For me this panel was an eye opener to look at blogs from a different point of view. Not just from the “this is fun” pov.

Though blogging is fun. I feel like that’s the one thing we didn’t talk about. Maybe next time.

Do any of you have any comments or ideas about blogging and teaching? Do any of you use blogs in the classroom? Encourage your students to read blogs? To blog?

Guestblog on Teenreads

Today I blogged over here. Those of you who’ve been wondering about the process of writing Liar might find it interesting.

Today I prepare for my appearance in Larchmont tonight and the many appearances I’m doing next week in Seattle and Portland. Then I’ll be at the Teen Lit Festival in Austin next Saturday. That’s quite a temperature range. Packing’s going to be fun!

For those of you who only read the posts and not the comments, you really need to check out the comments on the White Writer Advantages thread and the Hating Female Characters one. People are being astonishingly smart.

Liar & Spoilers

I’ve already talked about this a fair bit, basically pleading for people not to give away any of the twists and turns of Liar. For the most part bloggers and reviewers for the trades have done exactly that.

I would like to thank them for being so amazing about not spoiling Liar. I’m really astonished by how considerate reviewers have been. Thank you!

Of course, inevitably, there are spoilers out there in the broad, wild intramanets. Not all reviewers feel the same way about spoilers that I do, which is absolutely their right. I cannot make anyone not spoil Liar I can merely request.1

But I would like to explain once more why I think it’s important that those of you who have not read Liar should avoid the spoilers. There are a lot of them out there now. Your best policy is to avoid all reviews until you’ve read the book.

Here’s why:

Pretty much every reviewer so far has expressed pleasure at the unexpectedness of some of the book’s revelations. If you already know the spoilers that pleasure is taken from you.

Even friends of mine who don’t care about spoilers and actively seek out spoilers have told me that they’re really glad they read Liar unspoiled.

Knowing those revelations ahead of time will change the way you read the book. It will make you decide ahead of time that Liar is an x kind of book when if you had gone into it not knowing you may have decided it was a y kind of book. Or possibly both. Or some other thing altogether.

I deliberately wrote Liar to be read in more than one way. That way more than one reading would make sense and be sustained by the evidence. So if your friend tells you, “OMG! Wait till you get to page x and you find out y! And you discover it’s a z kind of book!” Your reading will be shaped by that particular interpretation of the book, which puts weight on the first revelation, but ignores the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. ones.

Why, yes, Liar was a bugger to write. And, no, I have no plans to write any more books like it. From now on I’m only writing books where spoiling isn’t that big a deal. Like all my previous books.

One last thing: Yes, the Liar sightings contest is still going. Apparently Liar should start appearing in bookshops in Australia, New Zealand and the USA this week. First person to send me a picture of Liar in the wild for each country wins a prize. You can put a link to your picture in comments or email me. The Canadian prize has already been won.

  1. The blog overlord, alas, only controls this blog with an iron fist. []

My Silence

Enough of youse lot are wondering what’s up with me not blogging every day that I am driven to offer an explanation for my blog silence of late. A brief explanation: travel, busy, knackered, bad sport karma.

I have many posts brewing or brewed. More on race, writing and publishing (here’s a few links to others. I’m especially loving the Writers Against Racism series on Amy Bowllan’s SLJ blog like this one with Ari of Reading in Color.); a complaint about Being Human (Why does the woman have to be a timid ghost? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting if she was the werewolf or the vampire? Um, okay no need to write that post.); on re-reading Han Suyin’s A Mountain is Young; the long awaited stalker song post; a response to Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful essay on the way female characters get dumped on (hmmm, I think those last two posts may be connected); the art of writing dialogue, and many others.

Feel free to make requests for anything else you’d like me to blog about in the comments.

And for those who keep asking: both Liar and the paperback How To Ditch Your Fairy publish on 29 September. I.e. this very month! I happen to have two copies of HTDYF in its glorious paperback edition. So beautiful. Liar is also already a complete book with brand new dustjacket. I bet they will both start showing up in book shops around or even before the 29th.

Testing WordPress iPhone App & Praising Electronic Devices

I’m at Sydney airport, on my way to Melbourne for the Melbourne Writers Festival, and since it took way less time to get here than I thought1 I figured I’d test this here new application what Stephen Fry recommended.2 I am blogging from my phone without squinting or yelling. I count that as a big thumbs up for the wordpress app.

I’d also like to give a big thumbs up to my Sony reader 505. It’s not perfect—I’d prefer a touchscreen and a faster page turn on PDFs, I’d also prefer my iPhone to be larger and be a reader on top of everything else it does3—but just for reducing the weight of my luggage I hug the ereader to my chest. I’ve been a lot faster reading mss. than ever before. W00t! Oh, how I hate reading mss. on my computer or in paper form. I am liberated.

What electronic device is making your life better right now?

  1. 10 mins as opposed to 1 hour. Who knew? Other than Scott. []
  2. As you all know everything Stephen Fry says is golden unless it is about cricket. He supports the bastion of evil the English cricket team. Ewwww! []
  3. Next year I hear. []

Guest Blogger: Neesha Meminger

Today’s guest blogger is Neesha Meminger. She is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (about which I’ve been hearing nothing but raves). She was born in India, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Film & Media Arts. She has a fascination with the moon, stars, planets and, strangely, coconuts. She can be found online at her website as well as her blog.

From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose.

I live in a fairly affluent part of New York City. We have a small apartment at the bottom of the neighborhood of course, but to the north of us are sprawling mansions with gorgeous, landscaped lawns and backyard pools. These mansions have their own security teams that patrol their streets to make sure no stranger ever gets lost and ends up roaming their quiet oasis. Down the hill from this neighborhood are the projects. It’s like two completely different nations living side by side. You’d be lucky to find a clump of trees huddled together in the projects—concrete as far as the eye can see. And the only nightly patrols are from the NYPD. Guess what the demographics of each of these neighborhoods is?

Gated communities, inner city projects, and massive wealth disparity allow white people the privilege of never having to come into any real contact with people of color and those nearer to the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make ammends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”

Racism isn’t only an issue in “white” countries like those in Europe and North America—it is a global epidemic. And it is wiping out people of color in massive numbers. Women and children work in appalling conditions all over the globe, making clothes and playthings for wealthier Europeans and North Americans. Third world nations are on their knees in never-ending debt cycles to organizations run by a majority of European nations and the US. There is a widespread lack of clean water, adequate housing, access to hospitals and education everywhere outside of the US, Europe, North America, and Australia—though there is certainly some of that lacking within these areas, as well.

This, folks, is a HUGE power imbalance where those who are benefiting happen to be predominantly white, predominantly male, and almost always heterosexual.

So what do we do when there is such a tremendous power imbalance, and such a gross abuse/misuse of that power?

Well, let’s first look at it on a smaller, more personal scale. A child takes another child’s toy. What do you do? My guess is that you’d tell him to give the toy back. You’d tell him taking what’s not his is not okay and that he should apologize. If he wants to play with his friend, he has to share. And then you work on why sharing is far better than not if he wants friends, etc.

Okay, so now: what do you do if a child takes another child’s lunch and eats it? Not so easy. The child can’t give back what he took because it has been consumed.

This, in effect, is what racism does. The wealthiest of nations have taken resources from the (now) poorest of nations and consumed these resources. So how do we make it better?

Well, let’s go back to the children. Because, really, that’s where it all starts, isn’t it? I’m guessing that first, we’d likely have the child apologize for taking the other’s lunch. Next, we’d want to make sure the child who doesn’t have a lunch gets food. Third, we’d work with the child who took the food to find out why he’s taking the food and teach him to appreciate what he has and eat *his share*. Then, we’d work with the child whose food was taken to help him build up his sense of self-worth, learn to defend himself better, and ask for help if needed.

Different solutions for each party. The same is true in any situation where there is a power imbalance. In the case of domestic abuse, let’s say. If a woman is being beaten by her husband, you can’t simply tell her to hit him back or to walk away. There are deep issues at work and those need to be addressed. The abuser has a different path to recovery than the partner who is being abused. Different things to work on; different lessons to learn.

This also addresses (another of my pet peeves,) the “reverse” discrimination argument; an argument that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that oppression is about power imbalance—not just name-calling and hurt feelings.

In the case of a parent-child relationship, when a parent smacks a child with all his might, the effect is far different than when a child smacks a parent with all her might. The latter is not “reverse” abuse. The former results in lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual scarring while the second leaves hardly an imprint. Why? Because there is a massive power imbalance on every level. The child is completely dependent on the parent for her very survival. And the parent is far stronger and bigger than she is.

In the context of racism, an insult—while it may sting for a moment—cannot leave lasting damage if there is no real power behind it. We do not have a mostly-black police force with mostly-black commissioners who are backed by a mostly-black team of judges and mostly-black politicians (please note that “mostly-black” could also be replaced here with “mostly-female” or “mostly-gay” and you’d get the same idea).

So when round after round of bullets is pumped into unarmed civilians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, or elsewhere, the result is a ripple of terror the likes of which most white people could never possibly relate to.

A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames, humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who look just like the one who is insulting them now.

It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

Likewise, when people throw racial slurs like “Paki” toward South Asians, or derogatory terms toward women, or equally denigrating terms toward lesbians and gay men, anything these same groups hurl back cannot possibly have the same impact. It might hurt feelings, but that is NOT the same as the lasting shame, humiliation, and fear that hearing an insult from someone with power to follow it up with action, invokes.

As authors of literature for children and teens, these power imbalances are at the crux of what we explore. Some of the best books for children and teens that I’ve ever had the joy of reading were about feisty children questioning their world and challenging authority head on. The way we explore these issues as authors and resolve them in the worlds we create in our books is critical. And the ways we deal with the world around us—the context for our art—is just as critical.

The first step is understanding the complexity of the issues. Then, we move on to realizing that there isn’t ONE solution. We all have to do something, but it isn’t the same thing—this is NOT a level playing field. We must all work together to bring about a more equitable, just, and sane world for our children, and the children of others. But we must each recognize and own the privilege we have, and use that privilege to help us all move forward. It is a collaborative effort where we must each do our part, search deep within for answers, listen carefully to the quieter voices around us, raise the voices of the silenced, and remain stead fast in our commitment to the young people in our lives.

Shutting Up

I rarely delete comments on this blog,1 but one of the things that is most likely to cause me to do so is someone telling another commenter (or me) to shut up.

Now obviously such comments are not always phrased that way. Sometimes they say “I do no think what you are saying is productive” or “I do not think you are adding anything to this conversation”. But the unspoken “so you should shut up” is there.

Don’t do that.

If you disagree with what a person is saying then say so. But don’t tell anyone they don’t have the right to hold their opinions. Don’t tell them that saying their piece is detrimental to conversation. Don’t tell them to shut up. Because your doing so is what’s detrimental to conversation.

I keep an eagle eye on commentary here. I don’t always agree with what’s being said but if I think someone is being flamey or a troll or rude to other commenters I add my own commentary. If it’s truly egregious I nuke their comment.

So, yes, if you tell me or my commenters to shut I will tell you to shut up. Ironic, I know, but there it is.

  1. Truly rarely. I only remember deleting one this year. If your comment disappears, as sometimes happens—especially lately with the veritable storm of comments and hits I’ve been getting—assume there was a snafu and mail me. I can usually fish it out of the spam filters. []

My New Favourite Blog

As previously mentioned I’ve discovered a slew of marvellous blogs because of the storm surrounding the cover of Liar. I’ve already mentioned Color Online and the Happy Nappy Bookseller as well as Reading in Color and Taste Life Twice, all of them wonderful informative blogs. I’m not sure how I lived without them.

But I also came across some blogs that have almost nothing to do with YA books. My current favourite is Journal of a Baby Power Dyke in Training—best blog title ever, right? (Why did I not come up with a cool title for my own blog? What was I thinking?) This post made me nearly combust with laughter. It is currently my favourite blog in the universe. Go, Baby Power Dyke!

Cover Change

As you may have already discovered if you read Publisher’s Weekly‘s “Children’s Bookshelf,” Bloomsbury is rejacketing the hardcover edition of Liar. My wish came true much sooner than I expected. Thank you to everyone who expressed your concerns. Thank you to Bloomsbury for listening.

As soon as the jacket is final, which should be soon, I’ll be posting it here. Yes, I was involved in the cover design process.

I am delighted that my post about the original Liar jacket got some traction. But everything I said there had been said many times before by authors and bloggers of colour. Whitewashing of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations (reflected in the lack of marketing push behind to the majority of those books) are not new things. The problem is industry-wide.

I’m seeing signs that publishers are talking about these issues, and I’m more hopeful for change than I have been in a long time. However, as many people have been saying, we consumers have to play our part too. If you’ve never bought a book with someone who isn’t white on the cover go do so now. Start buying and reading books by people of colour. There are so many wonderful books being published right now, such as Coe Booth’s Kendra and M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow. Color Online is a wonderful place to find more suggestions as are all the blogs linked to in this paragraph.

Happy reading.

PS If you’re too broke to be able to buy any new books right now don’t forget about your local library. Or you could enter this contest to win A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott.

Another Fabulous Blog + Reviewing Challenge

One more wonderful blog for you to add to your list:

Also Susan over at Color Online has issued the following reviewing challenge:

Read and review POC books through the month of August. We’ll have a random drawing for 3 reviewers at the end of the challenge. Drop us a link to your review to be eligible. +3 entries for any sidebar link/tweet or blog post about this challenge. Contest limited to US residents.

If you’re looking for suggestions for books to read and review these two blogs have lots of reviews as do the blogs I listed yesterday. I’d also like to suggest Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2007. It’s one of the most moving, funny, sad and honest books I’ve ever read.

Fabulous Blogs You Should Be Reading

Because of my post about the US Liar cover I have discovered some wonderful blogs, which as someone who follows the YA blogosphere closely, I’m ashamed I didn’t know about already. I have added all of them to my blog roll:

I am still no where near working my way through all the mail the cover post generated. It may take me a few weeks. Sorry. But thank you everyone for your intense responses and for all the links and for continuing the conversation in so many different places. I’ve heard from several people that at least two YA publishing houses have been circulating my post to their staff. Awesome.

And extra special thanks to the people who emailed me with the typos they picked up in that post. As someone who’s not the world’s greatest speller, I really appreciate it! (Though am embarrassed that I still don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect.” Aargh.)

Quickly

The response to yesterday‘s post has been astonishing. I am overwhelmed. I received more mail in a single day than I normally do in a month. (I was already behind with my mail.) I’m going to try very hard to get to it all, but it may take some time and I have a novel to finish and leave the country in a couple of days. So bear with me.

Thanks so much for taking this conversation further. It’s crucial.

Tell Diana What Anime This is

Diana Peterfreund has a request:

Um, can someone help me with an anime rec? I watched one episode a long time ago and I can’t remember what it was called but it was recommended to me.

It starts with a girl falling through the sky. then there are all these kids at a school — they’re angels, with little wings and halos. And they are cleaning up in a library that has what looks like a giant cocoon in it. And then you see inside the cocoon and the girl who was falling is inside of it.

Anyone know what series she’s talking about?

And thanks everyone for all the amazing anime recs. I can’t wait to start watching. I’m particularly excited about Read or Die cause I love the manga and didn’t know there was an anime.

Lindy Hop Report

Yesterday I discovered that my husband is evil.

Remember way back when people said they’d donate money to the New York Public Library if I learned to lindy hop? I said that I would have my dancing verified by three YA authors approved by John Green who was the first person to offer money to charity if I learned to dance. Well, that’s not necessary any more.

Because Scott secretly shot video of some of our lessons. Utter, utter, utter bastard! He was going to make a video and put it up on youtube! Behind my back!

Fortunately, I caught him looking at some of the footage. But since he was nice enough to not shoot our faces, and we’re running out of time to gather up YA witnesses, I decided that we would make the vid together.

But just so you know, Scott, YOU ARE EVIL. ALL TRUST IS GONE.

Some disclaimers for people who know from lindy hop. We knows we has a long way to go. We’re working on bending knees, sticking out arses, holding frame, chasseing, pulsing and etc. The most recent footage included is from three weeks ago. We’re already way better than the vid demonstrates. Honest.

Many many people have been asking how I like learning lindy hop given how much I really really really really didn’t want to do it.

I love lindy hop.

[A minutes pause while you all tell me you told me so.]

It’s the most fun I’ve had in ages. I’m loving learning something that requires my full attention. When I’m dancing I’m not thinking about my novel or bills that have to be paid or anything except where my feet and bum and arms should be. While I’m learning to dance I’m not even slightly stressed. Scott feels the same way. We will be continuing our lessons. We both want to get good at it.

One of my objections did turn out to be true: I have to ice my left foot after every lesson. Lindy hopping is not kind to plantar fasciitis.

We got around my other fear—of making a fool of myself in front of total strangers—by taking private lessons. I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Also private lessons means learning faster and having all your mistakes picked up and corrected quicker. We have had two awesome teachers: Jessi and Stephanie. Thank you!

We have even gone out and danced in public. (Once.) Last Sunday under the stars on Pier 54. It was magical. Yes, we are addicted.

Here’s proof that I’ve been learning to lindy hop:

If you pledged money now’s the time to pay. You can donate to the NYPL here. Even if you didn’t make a pledge you can still donate to the NYPL or your local library wherever you may be. Libraries all over the world need our help.

MySpace v FaceBook

Danah Boyd is an ethnographer who’s done a great deal of work on teenage use of the internet in the USA. Her work is absolutely fascinating and I think every writer of Young Adult books should be reading it.

She recently gave a talk about race and class in the MySpace v FaceBook divide. You all need to read it, like, NOW:

If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others. Of course, splitting your attention can also be costly and doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be reaching everyone anyhow. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you’re reaching and who you’re not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices. Understand your biases and work to counter them.

While on tour last year I was sent to a number of very poor schools. At those schools the vast majority of students did not have access to a computer at home, let alone a computer of their own. They were able to use computers at school and at the library. At the poorer schools I visited I was asked if I was on myspace; at the wealthier schools they wanted to know if I was on facebook. I know that’s a small samples size—a handful of schools in northern California, Ohio, and Michigan—but it’s right in line with Danah’s research. I told them that it was better to get in touch with me via my website because a) while I have a myspace account I don’t use it and b) I don’t have a facebook one. Very few students contacted me and those who did were from the wealthier schools.

This year when I go on tour I will be giving the teens who want to contact me a business card with my email address and website on it. I know I’d have a better shot at communicating with them if I used my myspace account and joined facebook. First though I’m going to see if giving them a card works better than just telling them how to contact me.

I did not enjoy being on myspace. The walls around myspace and facebook freak me out much like walled communities offline do. I like having my blog where anyone can read it without having to log into a different space.1 I do not want to maintain multiple blogs and moderate multiple sets of comments.

Yet I want to be able to stay in touch with the wonderful students I meet on tour.

I’ll see if giving them cards works. If not I suspect I’ll have to suck it up and deal with myspace again.

How do you other authors deal with this? How many of you are on myspace and/or facebook?

How many of you having read Danah’s research would reconsider myspace?

  1. Part of what I like about Twitter is that you don’t have to join Twitter in order to read it. You can directly link to an interesting Tweet from anywhere. However, there are very few teenagers on Twitter. []

Dialogue Giveaway Winners

I did not select winners myself because too many of you chose dialogue written by friends of mine and I didn’t want anyone to think there was bias going on. The winning comments were decided by randomly generating numbers at random.org. :

  • 7: Celia:
    From Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens:

    Eventually Crawly said, “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”
    “Er,” said the angel. A guilty expression passed along its face, then came back and camped there.
    “You did, didn’t you?” said Crawly. “It flamed like anything.”
    “Er, well–”
    “Lost it, have you?”
    “Oh no! No, not exactly lost, more–”
    “Well?”
    Asiraphale looked wretched. “If you must know,” he said, a trifle testily, “I gave it away.”
    Crawley stared up at him.
    “Well, I had to,” said the angle, rubbing his hands distractedly. “They looked so cold, poor things, and she’s expecting already, and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up I thought, well, where’s the harm, so I just said, look, if you come back here there’s going to be an almighty row, but you might be needing this sword, so here it is, don’t bother to thank me, just do everyone a big favor and don’t let the sun go down on you here.”
    He gave Crawly a worried grin.
    “That was the best course, wasn’t it?”
    “I’m not sure it’s actually possible for you to do evil,” said Crawly sarcastically. Aziraphale didn’t notice the tone.

  • 110: Zayas:

    Buckley followed the three of them into the kitchen and asked, as he had at least once a day, “Where’s Susie?”

    They were silent. Samuel looked at Lindsey.

    “Buckley,” my father called from the adjoining room, “come play Monopoly with me.”

    My brother had never been invited to play Monopoly. Everyone said he was too young, but this was the magic of Christmas. He rushed into the family room, and my father picked him up and sat him on his lap.

    “See this shoe?” my father said.

    Buckley nodded his head.

    “I want you to listen to everything I say about it, okay?”

    “Susie?” my brother asked, somehow connecting the two.

    “Yes, I’m going to tell you where Susie is.”

    I began to cry up in heaven. What else was there for me to do?

    “This shoe was the piece Susie played Monopoly with,” he said. “I play with the car or sometimes the wheelbarrow. Lindsey plays with the iron, and when you mother plays, she likes the cannon.”

    “Is that a dog?”

    “Yes, that’s a Scottie.”

    “Mine!”

    “Okay,” my father said. He was patient. He had found a way to explain it. He held his son in his lap, and as he spoke, he felt Buckley’s small body on his knee-the very human, very warm, very alive weight of it. It comforted him. “The Scottie will be your piece from now on. Which piece is Susie’s again?”

    “The shoe?” Buckley asked.

    “Right, and I’m the car, your sister’s the iron, and your mother is the cannon.”

    My brother concentrated very hard.

    “Now let’s put all the pieces on the board, okay? You go ahead and do it for me.”

    Buckley grabbed a fist of pieces and then another, until all the pieces lay between the Chance and Community Chest cards.

    “Let’s say the other pieces are our friends?”

    “Like Nate?”

    “Right, we’ll make your friend Nate the hat. And the board is the world. Now if I were to tell you that when I rolled the dice, one of the pieces would be taken away, what would that mean?”

    “They can’t play anymore?”

    “Right.”

    “Why?” Buckley asked.

    He looked up at my father; my father flinched.

    “Why?” my brother asked again.

    My father did not want to say “because life is unfair” or “because that’s how it is”. He wanted something neat, something that could explain death to a four-year-old He placed his hand on the small of Buckley’s back.

    “Susie is dead,” he said now, unable to make it fit in the rules of any game. “Do you know what that means?”

    Buckley reached over with his hand and covered the shoe. He looked up to see if his answer was right.

    “My father nodded. You won’t see Susie anymore, honey. None of us will.” My father cried. Buckley looked up into the eyes of our father and did not really understand.

    ~”The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold

    (sorry I chose such a tragic one! But it’s such a great scene.)

  • 113: john cash:

    Having grabbed their towels and placed them in the proper position, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent ar about to travel. Arthur wonders if it will hurt, etc.
    Ford: It’s a lot like being drunk.
    Arthur: I’ve been drunk before, it’s not so bad.
    Ford: Tell that to a glass of water

  • 23: Kiera:

    This was the first book that ever made me want to highlight a passage, something I used to be very opposed to. This is from THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING by T. H. White.

    “If I were to be made a knight,” said the Wart, staring dreamily into the fire, “I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, as Hob does with his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.”
    “That would be extremely presumptuous of you,” said Merlyn, “and you would be conquered, and you would suffer for it.”
    “I shouldn’t mind.”
    “Wouldn’t you? Wait till it happens and see.”
    “Why do people not think, when they are grown up, as I do when I am young?”
    “Oh dear,” said Merlyn. “You are making me feel confused. Suppose you wait till you are grown up and know the reason?”
    “I don’t think that is an answer at all,” replied the Wart, justly.
    Merlyn wrung his hands.
    “Well, anyway,” he said, “suppose they did not let you stand against all the evil in the world?”
    “I could ask,” said the Wart.
    “You could ask,” repeated Merlyn.

  • 131: Qasi:

    Into The Fire by Richard Laymon

    “Get her,” Boots said.
    “Preferred mode of driving,” Duke added.
    “At least the cops won’t be able to see us in the dark without lights.” Norman risked another peek back.
    “Give the kid a doughnut.” Duke casually teased a cigarette from a pack with his teeth. “Hey, miss?”
    “The name’s Dee-Dee.”
    “Miss Dee-Dee. Do you know where these tracks are headed?”
    “They run for miles. Only people use them are farmers.”
    “You don’t say.”
    “I’m trying to help, you lummox.”
    “Lummox.” Duke grinned back at Norman– an alarming action, as he wasn’t looking where he was driving. “You’ve picked up a live one there, boy.
    Dee-Dee fumed. “He didn’t pick me up!”
    “Say, he’s not boned you yet?”
    “No!”
    Boots turneed around to smirk. “He will soon enough. Normy can’t get enough. The guy’s a fucking love machine.”
    Duke laughed. “That’s ’cause he’s been saving it up for years.”

  • 125: Koatha:

    “You’ve been so brave.” (Lily)
    He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
    “You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are…so proud of you.”
    “Does it hurt?”
    The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
    “Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “quicker and easier than falling asleep.”
    “And he will want it to be quick.He wants it over,” said Lupin.
    “I didn’t want you to die,” Harry said. These words came out without his volition, “Any of you. I’m so sorry-”
    He addressed Lupin more than any of them, beseeching him.
    “-right after you’d had your son…Remus, I’m sorry-”
    “I am sorry too,” said Lupin. “Sorry I will never know him…but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.”

    “You’ll stay with me?”
    “Until the very end,” said James.
    “They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.
    “We are a part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”
    Harry looked closely at his mother.
    “Stay close to me,” he said quietly.

    Harry talking to his parents, Sirius and Lupin using the Resurrection Stone before he walks to his death.

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, pg 560-561, Chapter 34: The Forest Again, UK edition.

Congratulations!

If you won please send me your snail mail address here or DM on Twitter.

List which of these books you would like in order of preference. Select at least three. (I only have a few copies of some of these):

Advanced Reader Copy of First Kiss anthology signed by me and Scott
US paperback of Love is Hell anthology signed by me and Scott
US or Aus paperback Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness)
US or Aus paperback Magic’s Child (sequel to Magic Lessons)
HC Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

Dialogue Giveaway Ends Today

The dialogue song contest ends at midnight today East Coast USA time. I’ll be turning comments off on the thread then.

You have until midnight tonight. Make sure you enter over there not here.

Six winners will be chosen randomly. They’ll all get a Liar sampler as well as their choice of one of these books:

Advanced Reader Copy of First Kiss anthology signed by me and Scott
US paperback of Love is Hell anthology signed by me and Scott
US or Aus paperback Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness)
US or Aus paperback Magic’s Child (sequel to Magic Lessons)
HC Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

Now I return to the to finish-the-novel salt mines.

Another Giveaway—Favourite Dialogue (updated x 2)

But first, Morgan, one of the winners of the last giveaway, still hasn’t contacted me. Please do so! Your copy of Love is Hell and the Liar sampler awaits!

Once again the giveaway is based around a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages on dialogue. Way back in January when I did my whole month of writing advice I promised I’d write a whole post about how to write dialogue. But it never happened. I have started such a post but I has not finished it. Sorry!

In the comments please share your favourite bit of dialogue from literature. I’m using that term very broadly, so, yes you can include an exchange from any genre: YA, crime, romance, sf, fantasy, even capital L Literachure if you must, or from a comic book or manga or manhwa.

But no movies or television—literature only. If you give an example from a movie or TV show you’ll disqualify yourself from getting a prize.

This time all winners will get a Liar sampler and their choice of one of the following:

Advanced Reader Copy of First Kiss anthology signed by me and Scott
US paperback of Love is Hell anthology signed by me and Scott
US or Aus paperback Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness)
US or Aus paperback Magic’s Child (sequel to Magic Lessons)
HC Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

I’m really looking forward to your responses.

Update: Please don’t leave your email address in the comments. Best to beware of spambots.

Update the second: Please give the name of the book and the author. Thanks! How can we find the books to read the rest if we don’t know what they’re called or who writ ’em?

And the winners are . . .

It proved absolutely impossible for me to choose from among all the amazing stalker song entries so I got Scott to pick six numbers between 1 & 116. (That’s how many entries there were: one hundred and sixteen!)

Scott went to Random.org for the numbers thus they are truly random.

The winners are comment numbers 49, 49, 109, 98, 4, 25 and 114:

  • 49: Cristina:

    Faint by Linkin Park:
    “I am what I want you to want, what I want you to feel
    But it’s like no matter what I do
    I can’t convince you to just believe this is real”

    “Sin miedo a nada” by Alex Ubago [translated to the best of my ability]:
    “I die to beg you
    That you don’t leave my life
    I die to hear you
    Say the things you never say
    But I keep quiet and you leave
    I keep hope
    To be able someday
    To not have to hide the wounds
    It hurts to think
    That I love you a every day a bit more.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4l04TzdcdOU

  • 109: Zahra Ali:

    Oh no, someone told me I posted a song that was already posted. I don’t know if that’s allowed 🙁

    Just in case, I’ll post this one:
    ————
    OKaysions- Girl Watcher

    I’m a girl watcher, I’m a girl watcher…
    Watchin’ girls go by, hey, my my
    I’m a girl watcher, I’m a girl watcher…
    Here comes one now…

    I was just a boy when I threw away my toys
    And found a new pastime to dwell on
    Whenever I detects them there of the other sex
    I play the game I do so well on

    Mumble something female, my my, but you do look swell
    Could you please walk a little slower…
    Wonder if you know that you’re putting on a show
    Could you please walk a little closer…
    ———-

    My second creepiest song. He’s FOLLOWING her, it freaks me out xD Hope it creeps you out too!

  • 98: Morgan Says:

    Does a parody song count? My friends and I made a parody of Stop and Stare by One Republic called “Stalk and Stare” The chorus goes-

    Stalk and Stare
    I think about you all the time
    I swear
    You are mine and I will never share
    oh oh ooooh

    Stalk and Stare
    When you are alone
    I am always there
    So tell your Boyfriend to beware
    oh oh ooooh

    Stalk and Stare
    I love the way the moonlight
    shines on your hair
    Without you there would be no air
    oh oh ooooh

    It keeps going and gets pretty crazy.

    But if it has to be song I would go with “Somebody’s Watching Me” By Micheal Jackson. This one of course is from the stalkee’s point of view. I want to know how no one thought of this song though!

    When I’m in the shower
    I’m afraid to wash my hair
    ‘Cause I might open my eyes
    And find someone standing there
    People say I’m crazy
    Just a little touched
    But maybe showers remind me
    Of Psycho too much
    That’s why

    (I always feel like)
    (Somebody’s watching me)
    And I have no privacy
    Whooooa, oh-oh
    (I always feel like)
    (Somebody’s watching me)
    Who’s playin’ tricks on me

    Then there is also “Kelsey” by Metro Station

    So take one word you said
    You put it in your bed
    You rest your tiny head on your pillow
    You wonder where you’re going next
    You got your head pushed to my chest
    and now you’re hoping that someone let’s you in
    Well I’ll sure let you in
    You know ill let you in
    Oh Kelsey, you.

    So don’t let anyone scare you
    You know that I’ll protect you
    Always,
    now through the thick and thin
    Until the end
    You better watch it
    You know you don’t cross it because
    I’m always here for you
    and I’ll be here for you
    (I know x3) I know how it feels believe me
    I’ve been there and
    (I know x3) I know what it feels like
    tell me Kelsey

    And I’ll swim the ocean for you
    the ocean for you
    whoa, oh Kelsey
    and I’ll swim the ocean for you
    the ocean for you
    whoa, oh Kelsey
    (i hear you darlin’)

    Find More lyrics at http://www.sweetslyrics.com
    Now it’s gonna get harder
    and it’s gonna burn brighter
    and it’s gonna feel tougher each and every day
    so let me say, that i love you
    you’re all I’ve ever wanted
    all I’ve ever dreamed of to come
    and yes you did come
    i want you so bad (so bad)
    can you feel it too? (it too)
    you know I’m so, I’m so in love with you
    i want you, so much
    i need you, so much
    i need your, i need your, your touch

    and I’ll swim the ocean for you
    the ocean for you
    whoa, oh Kelsey
    x4
    and you never ever let me in (let me in)
    x4

    The entire song is full of stalkerish sayings!

  • 4: Remula:

    Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Catch You

    One of my favorite stalker songs, haha. XP

  • 25: Erika:

    Definitely Helen Hunt by Hank Green. Hahaha
    http://wiki.dftba.com/index.php/Helen_Hunt

    Um… Plain White T’s are very stalkerish… Hey there Delilah, You and Me, Write You a Song, and I could go on…

    You Found Me by Kelly Clarkson, kind of the other person is the stalker here. I mean just read the chorus:
    “You found me
    When no one else was lookin’
    How did you know just where I would be?
    Yeah, you broke through
    All of my confusion
    The ups and the downs
    And you still didn’t leave
    I guess that you saw what nobody could see
    You found me
    You found me”

  • 114: Tom Says:

    There is a song called the stalker song by the Australian comedy group Tripod. It sort of misses the point a bit because it’s meant to be a little (read: a lot) creepy. It is pretty funny, though.

    Check it out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxwNIyJ2mDM

So. Man. Very. Creepy. Songs. So glad so many of you realise that stalking is not a sign of love!

The first four get a signed Love Is Hell plus a signed Liar sampler and the last two get a Liar sampler.

Winners please go here to send me your snail mail address. Or direct message me on Twitter.

Stalker Song Contest Ends Today

The stalker song contest ends at midnight today East Coast USA time. I’ll be turning comments off on the thread then. Since there has been so many fabulous entries I’ll be giving away more than one signed copy of Love is Hell and am thinking of throwing in some Liar samplers if people seem interested.

You have until midnight tonight. Make sure you enter over there not here.

I may be announcing another contest this Saturday. Our house is overflowing with authors’ copies. It’s ridiculous.

Now back to my finish-the-novel death march.

Agent Websites are Irrelevant (updated)

I keep seeing new writers in search of an agent get hung up on the fact that many agents don’t have much of an online presence.

Newsflash: an agent’s website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are. Some of the top agents in the business barely have an online presence at all.

Think about it for just a second: what is an agent’s website for exactly? It’s not for editors, i.e. the people agents sell to. Good agents already have relationships with editors at all the big houses and many of the little ones too. Editors don’t need to look up agents’ websites. The people who most frequently visit an agent’s site are writers looking for representation. And the good agents do not need to advertise for clients. Thus they do not need a good website.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, doesn’t blog and has a website that’s been under construction since 2006. Yet somehow she manages to be an extraordinarily good agent. I am very very happy and grateful to be with her. Trust me, Jill does not lack for clients.

Time and time again I see newbies comment about how if an agent doesn’t have an uptodate website they must be a crap agent who’s clearly still using messenger pigeons to communicate. So not true. The vast majority of my communication with Jill is done via email. I send her all my manuscripts as attachments. She is entirely in the 21st century. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t communicate with their agent in the same way.

When I see newbies saying they’re not going to submit to Jill because of her luddite ways I have to laugh. The only person they’re punishing is themselves.

I think what many many new writers searching for an agent don’t get is that new clients are not the majority of agents’ priority. Newbies are so focussed on the searching part that they sometimes don’t think about how what they want from agents will change when they actually get one.

When you have an agent you don’t care about their website or how clear their submission guidelines are or whether they take electronic submissions. You care about how fast they get back to you about your problems and how good the deals they make for you are. The stuff that was hugely important when you were looking for an agent disappears from view. You don’t think about it again.

The top priority of an agent is looking after their existing clients. When a new writer finds the perfect agent they’re going to be very grateful for that. They won’t be giving much thought to the state of their agent’s website.

Update: I am not saying agents should not have websites. Or that agents with websites are bad agents. Merely that the fact of having or not having a website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are.

I am also saying that what seems important when you’re looking for an agent won’t be once you have one.

Why Does it Matter?

Seems the authors v critics/reviewers thing just won’t go away. Today I was asked why I think it’s so important that authors not respond to critics. Basically what the question boiled down to was: Why does it matter?

A close friend also demanded that I explain why I am so keen on silencing authors.

I’ll take the second one first cause it’s so laughable. The very idea that I’m trying to silence anyone. I am an author. I am full of opinions. I share them here every single day. There’s nothing I don’t have an opinion on. Seriously. Ask me about anything at all and I will have a large loud opinion.1

I am not saying that authors shouldn’t have a response to bad reviews. I’m saying they shouldn’t share that response with the intramanets. By all means bitch to your friends. I sure do. Scream your anger and woe and hurt feelings. Print the review out and burn it.2 Do whatever it takes.

But do not go after the reviewer.

Because you will look like a thin-skinned, self-obsessed doxhead.

Because most of the time reviews are not about you. All you did was write the book. The reviewer is engaging with the book you wrote, and their relationship with it. They are bringing to bear their entire reading history as they do that. They will see and feel things you did not intend them to see. But you are not your book. If you can’t make that separation you are in for a world of pain.

Because if the reviewer is going after you specifically that’s their problem. Ad hominem attacks disguised as reviews are not hard for readers to spot. The problem is they’re very difficult for most writers to identify because so many of us cannot make that separation between ourselves and our books. Many of us authors feel that any criticism of our books is an attack on us. Rarely is that so.

Because it may well hurt your sales. I can think of several writers whose books I will never ever buy because of the way they attack anyone who disagrees with them. Because of their constant insistence that everything is about them. A blogger uses cover copy from their book jacket to discuss class and how it affects who does and does not get published and down they descend like an avenging angel in order to talk about the injustice done to them. When the blogger was, in fact, opening up a discussion about class and the politics of publishing. That author has revealed that they are a total doxhead.

Because you’re a published author. You have heaps of power. You have a right of response. In your books or on your blog or in an article or essay. I think it’s always wisest to address the criticisms generally rather than respond to a specific review. I’ve had a few people be upset about certain events in books 2 & 3 of my Magic or Madness trilogy. I have responded to their complaints and explained why I wrote them the way I did. I did this because they came to me and asked for an explanation. By all means talk about your motivations, explain the bits people have problems with. But there’s a big difference between doing that and attacking someone specific for giving you a bad review.

See? I’m not saying authors should be silent. I’m saying we shouldn’t behave like lunatics. If you scream at every reviewer (on blogs, goodreads, amazon, the NYT, wherever) who doesn’t worship you, exhort your fans to tear out their entrails, you not only look like a thin-skinned crazy person, you’re wasting your own time and energy. Write another book already.

It matters that you not behave like a lunatic because there’s no percentage in it.

Here’s my newsflash to you:

No matter what a genius you and your fans think you are not all readers are going to agree. There is not a book in existence that isn’t hated by someone. Me, I loathe Moby Dick. I have ex-friends who hate Pride and Prejudice. That is how the world is.

Get over yourself already.

I am now done and dusted with this topic.

  1. Corks are an abomination! Jack Nicholson is a tosser! Don’t Ask Don’t Tell must be abolished! Radio National is the best radio in the world! Mangosteens are the best fruit! Ugg boots are hideous! I have to stop this! I could be here all year! []
  2. Though not very environmentally sound that. []

Some More Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some people seem to be under the impression that I was saying authors shouldn’t reply to any reviews at all. In my capacity as lord god of the internets1 I only forbid responding to negative reviews or reviews the author perceives as negative.2 I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser. Responding to positive reviews is a whole other thing and as Diana Peterfreund points out can lead to very interesting discussions.

Though I have seen authors respond to positive reviews in comment threads and unintentionally shut the conversation down because everyone panicked on realising that the author was watching. That’s why I no longer drop in to thank a blogger for a positive review. But I definitely don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

Walter Jon Williams talked
about how annoying some online amateur reviewers can be:

Some of them are just bad readers. They miss major plot points and then complain that the plot makes no sense, or they say that something is impossible when it’s something I’ve actually done, or they complain that a plot twist is unmotivated when I’ve foreshadowed it sixteen dozen ways . . . these guys I’m sometimes tempted to respond to. Not in abusive way, of course, just by way of information. (”If you would do yourself the kindness to reread Page 173, you would realize that your chief complaint is without foundation.”) That sort of thing.

Sad fact: most readers are crap at it. We read too fast and carelessly. We judge books by what we expected to read so often don’t see what is actually there. We get mad at books for not being the book we wanted them to be. We read when in a bad mood and blame the bad mood on the book. Most of us suck at noticing all the carefully laid foreshadowing, backstory, clues that the hardworking authors wrote for us and then we have the gall to blame them for our own stupidity in not seeing them. Damned readers!

Sadly, there’s zero percentage in going after them and pointing out their stupidity no matter how much we writers ache to do so.3 Because this is the biggest power imbalance of all. Amateur reviewers on good reads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or on their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made. Sometimes authors do attack them. I heard from a blogger who wrote a negative review of [redacted well-known author] and had said author set their fans on the blogger who was inundated with hate mail for months. Authors, DON’T DO THAT!

And reviewers please don’t do the opposite. Adrienne Vrettos said:

Once I had a reviewer who had written a not very nice review in a widely read trade magazine approach me at a crowded event to tell me – in detail – what exactly she didn’t like about my book.

I had *no* idea how to handle it. I stammered out a ‘thank you’ for reviewing the book, which now sounds suspiciously like ‘thank you sir, may I have another?’, and hurried away.

How extraordinarily rude. While I’ve never (thank, Elvis!) had anyone tell me in person about their hate for my books I’ve had reviewers write me with their lack of love. I have no idea what these people want from us authors. To make sure that we read their review? Why does that matter to them? Reviews of books are not for the authors, they’re for potential readers. So leave us authors alone! Thank you!

Robin Wasserman said:

I have to admit that I miss the era of loud, passionate, messy literary feuds, so have been pretty entertained by this whole mess. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe vs Updike/Mailer/Irving, Dale Peck vs everyone…those were the good old days. (Authors — and it seems important to note that Hoffman’s reviewer is also an author in her own right — still have plenty of books and authors that we despise, we just do our despising behind closed doors.) And this morning I discovered that after Alice Hoffman published a horrible review of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Ford got a gun and shot a bunch of holes through Hoffman’s latest opus. (http://s7y.us/uqr) So maybe she can be forgiven for her misunderstanding of “appropriate” behavior!

Sure. Feuds can be extraordinarily entertaining. I enjoyed those spats mightily. You’ll note that most of them were between equals with roughly the same reputation and access to media. Most of the flare ups in the past few years have been well-known author going after much less well-known reviewer and/or punters on Amazon. Which I happen to think is flat out awful.

And while I enjoy those stoushes between equals, I enjoy them in the same way I do seeing what hideous outfit Chloe Sevigny or Gwyneth Paltrow are wearing right now. Fun for me, sure, but embarrassing for them. I enjoy their sartorial mistakes mightily just as I enjoyed Mailer and Vidal etc posturing. But I still think they’re arrogant self-obsessed drop kicks. I will always advise other authors not to follow their lead.

  1. Yes, that is a joke. []
  2. And that’s a whole other thing. I have seen authors go berko over a starred review that had one negative phrase in it: “while occasionally overwrought”. []
  3. And, boy, do we. []

Who do you blog for?

In the land of twitter Danah Boyd passed on a question from alicetiara:

When you tweet, who do u think of reading it? Followers, followed, public, best friends, etc? Who do you tweet *to*?

I am very curious about the responses.

It made me wonder, too, about blogging. Recently there was a slight and fairly dumb article in the New York Times about the astounding fact that most people who start blogging don’t continue. Scalzi excoriated it most entertaingly. Cause the interesting question isn’t why do people abandon blogs but why do people continue to blog?

I could tell you that I keep on blogging day after day after day because my publisher likes me to have an online presence. Problem is that’s not true. Blogging has very little impact on book sales. You have to have considerably more than 1,500 hits a day for it to translate into book sales.

I can point you to many writers blogs that are way more popular than mine whose authors’ books don’t sell any better than mine and sometimes much worse. I can also show you very unpopular blogs whose authors are huge bestsellers. There really is no correlation.

People point to John Scalzi’s Whatever as an example of a popular blog that translates into great book sales. He will tell you himself that he is the exception that proves the rule. He will also tell you that he does not blog in order to sell books—that’s just a cool side effect for him. He blogs cause he’s full of opinions and loves to share them.

Me too.

I also blog because I love your comments. Take yesterday’s post some of the library stories you shared made me cry. I think that thread may be one of my favourites.

But that doesn’t answer the question above. Who do I blog for? Who do I think is my audience?

I don’t blog for my family and friends, which is why there is no personal news here, and very little about my health or mood. I primarily blog about the business side of my life, i.e. my writing career as well as my interests. So I imagine my audience to be people who find my rantings and opinings interesting as well as some people who are fans of my books. But I don’t really write for them—I write for myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled when what I write interests other people too. But I don’t post stuff I know to be popular which I happen not to be interested in. Hence no photos of cats.

In other words, if I had no audience I would still blog. Indeed for the first two years of this blog I pretty much had no audience. Didn’t stop me.

Who do you blog for? Who’s your audience?

Commenting with an Ad for Your Book is Spam

This is for the people who have been spamming my last post with ads for their boy-friendly books.

Don’t.

I am well aware you only landed here because you googled “boy books” and are looking for somewhere to post your spam. I don’t accept paid advertising so I’m certainly not going to let you advertise for free.

The comments on this blog are for discussion. By all means recommend a book that you think is relevant to the discussion. I’m all ears for passionate recommendations of books people love when it’s relevant. But do not comment with an ad for your own book. It’s tacky, it’s boring, it adds nothing to the conversation, and I will delete your ad. If you do it again I will ban you from my blog.

That is all.

Combating Spam (Updated)

Update: I have Askimet already. It’s the false positives, i.e. comments landing in moderation and spam filters that’s the problem.

Lately there’s been a huge increase in spam here. The result of my current methods of combating it is that heaps of your comments are winding up in the moderation queue. As I have a very heavy work schedule at the moment I’m often not getting to those comments for hours at a time. Not good.

I’m thinking of installing one of those anti-spam word thingies where you have to type in a random word or grouping of letters to prove you’re not a spambot. However, I kind of hate them when they’re on other people’s blogs. They definitely put me off commenting.

How about youse lot?

Would you hate it if I added such a plug-in? Would you be okay with it if the words it generated were amusing and/or related to this blog? Like “quokka” or “mangosteen”?

Anyone got any other brilliant spam combating tactics?

What Do My Readers Lie About?

Yesterday’s post got a pretty overwhelming not really from most of my readers. Most of you do not lie about those five things. (I was made very happy by all the teenage non-drinkers. Yay, youse!)

Judging from your comments and my own experience here’s my suggestion of a top five:

  1. That you didn’t do the thing your parents/teacher/boss busted you for
  2. That your friends’ clothes/appearance looks fine
  3. Your health in order to get out of school/work
  4. Height
  5. Weight

I have lied about all of these. But not about no. 1 in a very long time. Or about no. 3 and no. 4 in ages. Haven’t lied about no. 3 since I had a regular job. Sadly my no. 2 areas of lies is still going strong. But I don’t think of no. 2 as a lie so much as a difference in aesthetics that there’s no point in going into. I will never like t-shirts tucked into jeans or formal shorts or the colour yellow or espadrilles or gladiator sandals.

Is that any closer to a list of things most everyone has lied about? How many have you lied about these? What popular area of lying am I still missing out on?

Fact-checking, Spelling and Blogs

My blog has no copy editor, no proof reader, and no fact checker. It’s just me. Occasionally I’ll get Scott or one of my friends to proof a post, but not often. They’re busy. Even more rarely my readers will point out errors. Yesterday someone wrote and told me I’d misspelt Count Basie’s name on my bio page. *Blushes*. I was extremely grateful. That mistake had already been there close to a year! Who knows how many more such errors there are all over this blog?

I’m not a great speller and I find proper nouns especially difficult. The copy editors on my last two books, How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, found I’d spelled various of the characters names in two or more different ways. I hadn’t noticed. Apparently that’s because spelling is linked to visual memory and mine is crap.1

There are very few blogs out there that are copy edited or proofed or fact checked. Something I frequently forget even though I have a blog myself.

This is just to remind myself to try and be a little bit less credulous.

That is all. Resume your Friday night festivities or Saturday morning frolicks.2

  1. Note that I have no idea where I got that factoid from and no idea if it’s true. Told you I had no fact checker. []
  2. Half my audience is back home in Oz and the rest here in the US of A or Europe. []

Many things

I have many many many posts in various states of undress, which I cannot get to because of other pressing matters. But I do not want to leave you with nothing so here is a sample of some links which have amused me:

Which monkey is cuter? Go to Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ blog and vote on which of her monkeys attracts more mates. I think it’s completely obvious.

An excellent article by Meg Reid on the new Disney movie, which features a black princess.

This one just made me laugh. English writers TAKE ON THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE and WIN. Cause that’s how writing works. It’s all a death match.

A truly amazing artist, Ernie Barnes, dies.

On exclamation marks. What? I’m a writer. We’re supposed to be geeky about punctuation.

On the difference between new and experienced literary agents. What she said. (Via Literarticat.)

And now back to the pressing matters, which have nothing to do with clothes. I have never pressed clothing in my entire life.

A few more Twitter thoughts

Just read a most excellent article “These Foolish Things On Intimacy and Insignificance in Mobile Media” by Kate Crawford, which is forthcoming in Gerard Goggin & Larissa Hjort’s Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media. Basically Kate argues that a large part of Twitter’s appeal is the intimacy it provides. Allowing people to stay in touch and connected. That while it may look like an exchange of inanities—“I am eating bacon!” “I am getting on a bus.” “The cat just chundered.”—communities are being built and maintained.

Twitter has allowed me to have more of an idea of what a handful of my Australian friends are up to. Thus I have a new category of Oz friends I stay close to: in addition to my Oz friends who IM, I now have Oz friends who tweet.

I joined specifically to keep up with friends who are far away. But I will admit I was also curious about some of the celebrities on Twitter and initially followed many of my faves. And stopped following the majority really quickly. Except for Stephen Fry they were boring and/or self-involved. I’m not sure why I was surprised. Actors! Will I never learn? Well, okay, it wasn’t just actors who turned out to be deadly dull. There are some shockingly boring well-known comedians, writers, designers and artists. I won’t name them cause I’m not rude.1

It’s natural that most of the people I enjoy following are people I know well because it lends context and nuance to what they say. The other group I follow are people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about books, YA, politics, weird stuff, zombies. So my choice of people to follow is not very different from the blogs I follow. And Twitter isn’t really that different from blogs, it’s just way more condensed.

  1. On my blog. []

I got my blog back!

Sorry about the on-again-off-again-ness of this blog today. We were moving hosts. And now are safely ensconsed in new home. Yay! Thank you, Tempest, for all your hard work!

I discovered that a few hours without my blog turns me into a jittery mess. Thank Elvis, for Twitter. Though those who follow my Twitter feed are probably bitter about my excessive spamage today. Sorry!

In other news I saw a jewelled propeller gorget hat thingie:


Thought to be designed by Valentina from around 1950. (Was a bit tricky to photograph, being black on black, and me only having crappy phone camera. Just peer closely.)

When I get my ballgown this is what I’m wearing with it.

A Week of Tweeting

I started using Twitter in earnest at 9:16 AM on the 5th of April, 2009 (Eastern Standard USian time).

And it was good.

Since then I have tweeted around 15 times a day. And that’s only because I was restraining myself. Why did no one warn me how addictive the world of Twitter is? Damn your eyes!

I admit I was dubious. I signed on at first solely to follow two friends of mine back home in Sydney. Neither of whom blogs and we’re not very good at writing each other. It worked. I feel much more in touch with them than I had previously. Though, ironically, I’m now tweeting way more than they are. See? Even on Twitter I am verbose.1

Lots of big claims are being made for Twitter’s power of social networking. It can certainly spread news faster than sound. Yesterday’s amazonfail being an excellent example.

Turns out I like the 140 character constraint. Forces you to edit for clarity, which is an excellent skill and something I rarely practice here on my blog. Watch those extraneous prepositions, adverbs and adjectives disappear.

But mostly I like that it’s a huge roaming multi-threaded conversation. A multi-country, slowed down, many person IM conversation. The trick is remembering that it’s every bit as public as this blog.

So questions for those of you who Twitter:

What’s your take on Twitter? Why do you tweet? If you blog has it meant you blog less? Is that because it satisfies your blogging urge? Is it something you check in on every so often? Or do you follow it all day long? Are you in a field where you have to be on Twitter to keep tabs on what’s going on?

I is dead curious about your responses.

  1. Look at me now: discussing Twiter in way more than 140 characters. []

A request for those with Liar ARCs

I know I said a while back that I would no longer be linking to reviews of my books. I’m making an exception today for the the very first review of Liar because I’m so grateful that Jenn Hartley’s review contains no spoilers. Bless you, Jenn.

Liar is the most complicated book I’ve written to date. It’s my first attempt at a psychological thriller and contains many twists and turns. I’m convinced that reading it will be a lot more interesting if you don’t know any of them ahead of time. I’d be really grateful if those of you who have an advanced copy would keep those reversals and surprises to yourself. If you’re bursting to talk about it you can always email me. Or Maureen Johnson she’s read it.

I know some people love to be spoiled but maybe you could just whisper a few spoilers in their ears rather than post it on your blogs? I really would be ever so grateful.

Thank you!

Blog Every Day Month

I wasn’t going to mention Maureen Johnson’s Blog Every Day Month (BEDA) thingie because I already blog every day and think those who don’t already are losers lucky not to be addicted to blogging the way I am. Seriously I shake if I don’t blog once a day. The only days I miss are when Scott drags me away to some benighted place without intramanet access. He claims these are “holidays” and I should be having “fun” on them. Where is the fun without my blog?

*Heh hem* I digress.

The point of this post is to publicly admit that what Maureen is doing this month is pretty amazing. See, Maureen doesn’t blog the way I do. Her shortest posts clock in at around one thousand words. I have posts that are in Twitter range. So my once-a-day blogging is not the same as her once-a-day epic essay + photos of Cary Grant.

What she’s doing is more akin to what I did in January when I answered all your writing questions and you tricked me by asking really hard ones that required acres of wordage to respond to. I got very little of my own writing done that month and by the end of it I was knackered. Don’t get me wrong I had fun but it was not as relaxing as my usual blogging. Youse lot made me THINK! Which is why it will be a very long time before I dedicate a month to answering publishing questions.1 Perhaps next time it’ll just be a week and I’ll stipulate that you can only ask yes/no questions.

So, I’m sorry for being mean, Maureen! Blog like the wind!2

  1. Which in January I foolishly mentioned I would. []
  2. In a non-flatulent way. []

Agents and Rejection

Last week writers were invited to vent about agents at the Bookends literary agency blog. I assumed it would be published writers ranting about their bad agent experiences. I have never experienced bad agentry, but I have heard some scarifying stories. However, it was mostly unpublished writers. Some of their complaints were totally legitimate and made a lot of sense. But many of them were, um, somewhat astonishing.

They mostly boiled down to aspiring writers not understanding what it is that agents do. They seem to think an agent’s job is giving them feedback on their work and teaching them the ways of publishing. That isn’t any part of an agent’s job. Agents who provide that kind of feedback are doing it out of the goodness of their heart.

Even more aspiring authors seemed to be convinced that the main part of an agent’s job is finding new clients.

No, the main job of any agent is to look after their existing clients.

Which involves negotiating deals in multiple territories, for audio, media, electronic rights etc etc. That’s a LOT of contracts. Then they’re dealing with problems that come up between publisher and author. Bad edits. Bad covers. Late payments. Late manuscripts. Inaccurate royalty statements. Client’s editor being laid off. Their imprint dissolved. Book remaindered within less than a year. No paperback edition of hardcover. Author going crazy and turning in a book written in crayon on vellum. Editor going crazy and demanding all characters be changed into echidnas. Etc etc and so on.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, starts work early in the morning and keeps going till late at night. I’ve sent her emails at 10pm her time and she’s gotten back to me instantly. She’s had phone calls with me at all sorts of ungodly hours because I am in Sydney and she in New York City. Remember, I am just one of her many clients and no where near her most successful.

Yes, agents want to find the next big thing. But their pre-existing clients come first and take up the majority of their time. Trust me, when you have an agent you will be glad that’s how it works.

I get how much rejection hurts. It took me twenty years to get published. There was a lot of rejection on the way. It frequently made me furious. I was enraged by form letters. (I am not just a number!) I was enraged by personalised rejections that detailed what was wrong with my work. (Why are they so stupid and blind?!) I was enraged when the rejections took ages to come or didn’t come at all. (Why are they torturing me?) I was enraged by quick rejections. (What? It takes seconds to decide my work sucks? They can’t have actually read it!)

But really I was angry about not getting published. I saw lots of crap on the shelves. My book’s better than that! Why wouldn’t they publish me?!

It’s great that I believed in my writing even in the face of all that rejection. I encourage you, too, to believe. But I also know that many of the people rejecting me were right. My writing wasn’t ready. One of the rejections that hurt me the most was by an agent who said they thought I had talent and originality but they just weren’t enthusiastic enough.

Reader, I cried.

I know now that that agent was right to pass. I have writer friends who were signed by agents who weren’t enthusiastic enough about their work. In each case—after much unpleasantness—they wound up with a different agent. Ever been out with someone who wasn’t really into you? Not fun was it? It’s even worse when you’re with an agent who’s not that into you. Because they’ve got your dreams and hopes in their hands and they don’t really care.

An agent who passes cause they’re not sufficiently in love with your writing is DOING YOU A FAVOUR.

I know that’s hard to believe. But a good agent is going to be with you for the long haul. You want them to believe in your writing as much as you do. That’s what I have with my agent. It is a wonderful thing. When you find an agent that’s what I want you to have too.

Hardcover versus Paperback Redux

Recently I observed that back home in Australia, the vast majority of books are published in paperback. Hardcovers are exceedingly rare. But here in the US of A there’s a huge emphasis on hardcovers.

When I first asked about it I was told that paperback originals don’t get reviewed. Thus the hardcover is more prestigious because it generates more attention. Many good reviews can lead to awards, and best book of the year listings, and lots of sales. A paperback original goes into the world unheralded and unreviewed and thus disappears into oblivion.

I’m not convinced this is as true as it once was or that prestige is as important as people think it is. I believe that fewer and fewer buyers of books are paying attention to what old media reviewers say. Partly this is because the book review section has been disappearing from newspapers all over the USA, just as newspapers have been disappearing.1 And partly because there is such a long lag time for reviews of YA in old media. Whereas there are blogs, whose reviews I respect and trust, reviewing YA before the books are even out.

How To Ditch Your Fairy is my best selling book. It had very few reviews in old media venues. It’s won no awards, nor been shortlisted for any, and has made precious few best book of the year lists. Magic or Madness won awards, was shortlisted for others, had starred reviews, and was very widely reviewed in old media places and made lots of best book of the year lists. HTDYF has already outsold MorM in hardcover even though it’s been out for five months and MorM‘s been out for four years.2 I suspect (hope!) that HTDYF will do better in paperback.3

What HTDYF has had more than any of my other books is a smart publicity and marketing campaign4 that has generated plenty of word of mouth. I’m convinced that the word of mouth has especially been pushed along by all the blog coverage5 While HTDYF didn’t get much old media coverage, it was extremely widely reviewed in new media places. There are so many online reviews I’ve lost track of them all.6

The majority of bloggers don’t care whether a book debuts in hardcover or paperback. They are not going to refuse to review a paperback original because it’s not prestigious enough. They don’t think they’ll be sullied by its mere presence. They just care whether they like it or not. I suspect this partly because that’s how I feel— after all I’m a blogger who sometimes reviews YA—but mostly because I’ve seen it in action.

Debuting in paperback can be an enormous start to a series or a career. Off the top of my head I can think of two series that got a massive kick in the pants because they were paperback debuts: Scott’s Uglies series and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.7 At US$10 or less the first books in these highly addictive series were cheap, attractively packaged, and there was a less-than-a-year wait for the next book in the series, which was also a cheap paperback. Readers got hooked—at which point the evil publisher switched to hardcover.

Which leads me to the second reason publishers like hardcovers: the profit margin is higher. In order for a paperback to be profitable it has to sell vastly more copies than a hardcover book. How much more? An average royalty for hardcover is 10%, and for paperback 6%. So pbs are a smaller percentage of a smaller amount of money, which means on average you have to sell three times as many to earn out. Let me show you the maths: Say you have a $10 pb, that’s 60c per copy. If the advance was $20,000 you’d have sell more than 33,333 copies to earn out. If your hc retails for $17, you’d only have to sell 11,764 hardcovers.

That’s a huge difference and a big incentive for both publisher and author to want hardcover. In fact, I think this is the only solid argument for going with a hardcover.

However, you’ll only earn out faster if the hardcover sells. When a hc costs close to twice what a pb costs people are less likely to buy them—especially in the middle of a recession.8 Book sales are down across the board in the USA. I predict that if sales keep going the way they are9—hardcovers down; paperbacks down a bit, steady or, in some cases, climbing—we’re going to see a lot more paperback originals.

Overall, that’s probably a good thing, especially for debut authors. And also for series where the books are already written—that way the books can come out cheaply and in quick succession. This has long been a successful formula for romance and mysteries. I won’t be surprised if the USA winds up like Australia and the UK with very few hardcovers at all.10

Here’s one reason it can be a good thing: Guess what frequently happens to books that don’t sell in hardcover? They aren’t published in paperback. They don’t get their second shot. This has happened to many wonderful books, which despite awards and glowing reviews didn’t sell, and thus the publisher decides that a paperback version is not viable. Holly Black’s first book Tithe didn’t sell well in hardcover, but sold spectacularly in paperback. What if her publisher hadn’t taken the risk?

On the other hand, if a book is a paperback original that’s typically the only chance it gets. If it doesn’t do well then that’s it. At least with hardcover a book has a pretty good shot at a second life as a paperback. And often it will go from hc to trade pb to mass market pb. Three chances to go out there and sell.11

As you can see it’s a complicated set of decisions a publisher has to make when they’re figuring out whether to go hardcover or paperback. You have to sell way more copies for pbs to make a profit. But expensive hcs can kill a book. Keep in mind that the majority of books do not earn out.

I’d love to hear what youse lot think. I’m especially interested to hear from those making this decision and from those of you who’ve had different experiences in one format over the other.

  1. And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. []
  2. Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. []
  3. Especially with it’s fabulous new cover. Hint: look at the top of the left-hand side bar. Or go here for a bigger view. []
  4. Thank you, Bloomsbury! []
  5. Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. []
  6. Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. []
  7. Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. []
  8. Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. []
  9. I know this link leads to an article on sf book sales but all its links go to reports of sales across the board. It was the most recent round up I could find. []
  10. Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. []
  11. Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. []

Thank you

A while back one of you wonderful commenters recommended the books of Thorne Smith as fun examples of 1930s NYC fiction. I have been reading much Thorne Smith of late and his books are strange and wonderful and full of much usefulness for my research. He wrote Topper which was turned into a marvellous movie of the same name with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.

Another reader recommended Been Rich All My Life a documentary about the Apollo Theater dancers of the 1930s, which was truly wonderful and made me cry, and also gave me many leads. Because I am at the very beginning of my Harlem research I am embarrassed to confess that I had not heard of Small’s Paradise, a black-owned big nightclub in Harlem, which was also the only integrated nightclub and is now a school. I think Smalls will be making an appearance in the 1930s novel.

Now of course I can’t find either of the comments where those recommendations were made so I can’t find who to thank. All I can hope is that the two of you read this post and put up your hand. In the meantime: THANK YOU!

While I’m at it thanks to all the lovely folks who’ve been sending me links to 1930s sites and other tips and suggestions for the research for what is fast becoming the biggest book I have ever written. So much cool stuff to include! You’re all wonderful!

Please keep the suggestions coming. I’m especially interested in documentaries about the period. Liz Bray, one of the fabulous Alien Onions, told me about the 1930s in colour series that I managed to just miss in Australia and is no longer available on BBC’s iPlayer. But I will get my hands on it. I will!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself on account of the insane amount of fun I’m having with the research and writing this book. Tis almost too fabulous.

Thanks, all!

Authors are humans! Yeah, right. Tell us another one.

I hate to be the one to say it, but my dear friend, John Scalzi, is telling lies. He claims that authors aren’t machines.

So, not true. We’re all robots. Every single one of us.

Especially Maureen. She is one of the screaming author models.

Scalzi, himself, is one of the lazy author models. I know this because I am too. Once or twice we’ve gotten through cons by swapping out parts. (There’s not always time to get a tune up in the middle of a busy con.) It’s one of the bonuses of hanging out with same prototype robots.

I hope that’s cleared things up for everyone.

Tiny change + Japanese covers

Inspired by how much fun I’ve had with the month of writing requests I’ve decided to make a few changes around here. Basically I’m no longer blogging about stuff I think I should blog about. From now on I only talk about what I want to talk about.

I always figured that I had to let you know when my books get good reviews etc. even though I find writing those posts the most boring thing in the world. Not to mention embarrassing. I always feel like I’m saying, “Hey look at me! I’m fabulous!” My heart was never in it. Thus there will be no posting about reviews of any of my books unless the reviewers raises an interesting point I want to riff on. If you’re interested in that kind of thing you can find pull quotes for each of my books in their review section. I will continue to add them as they come in.

Note: My not blogging about reviews does not mean that I’m against other writers doing so. I’m not criticising any of you. I find some writers’ discussions of their reviews fascinating, some a train wreck1, and some unreadably dull. Just like blogging about any subject really. I would never blog about cakes and yet Cake Wrecks is one of my favourite blogs.

More and more readers of this blog are here, not because they like my books, but because they like this blog. So overall I will be blogging less about the publicity aspects of my career. Though I will continue to bitch and moan and be rapturous over my struggles and joys in writing those books.

I’ll also continue to let you know about upcoming events because otherwise how will I get to meet you? But you can always check here for details.

And nothing can stop me posting about other editions of my books. Because that’s my favourite thing about being a published writer: I has books in different languages and different covers! Bliss! Joy! Happiness! For example, my foreign rights agent, Whitney Lee, just sent me links with the Japanese covers of Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons and they’re fabulous!

I love that Reason is wearing the outfit I describe her wearing and that Tom is surrounded by fabric. It’s as if the cover designer had actually read the books! Made my day! Whatcha reckon about these covers? I still love the German ones best, but these are up there.

Speaking of great covers. Just wait till you see the cover for the paperback edition of How To Ditch Your Fairy. It’s the best cover I’ve ever had. Bless you, Bloomsbury!

  1. Though that’s still fascinating. []

Note to livejournal people

Please stop writing and asking me to resume blogging. I never stopped.

For some reason the lj feed of my blog is broken and has no posts after 18 December. So while I have blogged every day since then none of those posts have shown up on that feed. I have no idea why and no idea how to fix it.

Perhaps one of you lj people knows how to fix it? I’d be much obliged.

Sadly, though my writing about this here is completely useless given that lj people rarely venture outside the world of lj. Oh well.

Write what you know, NOT!

“Write what you know” is one of the most frequent pieces of writing advice. Problem is, it’s rubbish. As Cat Sparks discusses at length in this excellent post:

We’ve all heard that old adage ‘write what you know’. Well, that’s a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you’re just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren’t that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don’t know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.

Almost every book I’ve written has involved me doing research. Obviously, I did that for my two non-fic books. But also for my novels. The Magic or madness trilogy has a protag, Reason Cansino, who’s a mathematical genius. I am not. I can barely add up. I had to learn about Fibonaccis, prime numbers, and many other mathematical concepts that I barely grasped and have now completely forgotten, but hopefully make sense and worked in those three books. I’ve had some maths fiends write and tell me how much they appreciated Reason’s mathsiness. Those are the compliments that mean the most to me because that was by far the hardest part of writing the trilogy. I was writing stuff I didn’t understand. Or only barely. And only for long enough to write those bits of the book.

None of my novels are about people who are like me. Charlie in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a jock. I love sport, but I’ve never played that much and have never excelled. I would never have made it into a sports high school, even if I’d had the talent, cause I don’t have the discipline, and I really hate being told what to do. Charlie loves it. Rules make her happy, being at the strictest, most irrational high school in the world makes her happy. It would have driven me nuts. I would have been expelled within a week. Sometimes I think Charlie is the character I’ve written who is least like me. She has little intellectual curiosity, she’s happy with how things are, she loves rules, and she’s very very disciplined. Writing her was a revelation—I wound up liking and even understanding her. Whereas if we’d been at school together, I doubt we’d have had anything to talk about. Charlie doesn’t read or watch tellie and she doesn’t have much of an imagination.

If I’d’ve stuck to writing what I know, I wouldn’t have written any of those novels.

That’s not to say that I use nothing I know. Sometimes I give characters aspects of myself. Reason has spent time on indigenous settlements, so did I. Tom (also from the trilogy) has a father who’s a sociologist, so are both my parents. Tom in the trilogy loves fashion; so do I. But we’re still different. I’m challenged to get a button onto a shirt; Tom can make any item of clothing from scratch. So it required research to make his fashion prowess believable.

For me, one of the great pleasures of writing novels is exploring worlds I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about New Avalon when I began HTDYF. It’s an amalgam of places I’ve been, but it became its own city. Not like anywhere else. I didn’t know it until I wrote it. But I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know—about mathematics, about being an athelete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile. It’s why I kept writing for twenty years without being published. It’s why I will keep writing long after my career has dried up. And it’s why I’m so bewildered by those writers who keep writing the same book over and over again. Maybe I should write a novel about that kind of writer so I can figure it out?

Forget about “write what you know”. Or, rather, don’t be limited by that injunction. One of the scariest things I encountered on my tour was when I was being shown around a lovely school and I was introduced to all the different grades, even kindergarten, and in one class, second grade, I think, the teacher told her students that I was a writer:

“She writes stories for a living!”

The kids looked a bit bemused by this information but smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back.

“When you were their age,” the teacher asked me, “you wrote about your own experiences, didn’t you?”

“Oh, no,” I said immediately, “I wrote about dinosaurs and wizards and witches and monsters and—”

The teacher cut me off even as many of the kids were giggling. “Yes, but don’t you agree that it’s much better to learn to write from your own experiences?”

I don’t think that at all. I was horrified. So horrified that I just stared at her, not able to articulate my response. I don’t think anyone noticed because someone realised we were running late and I was led away. But later that day I made it a point to talk about how important and fun it is to write about stuff you don’t know, and that the way to do that is to make it into something you do know.

For example, maybe you have an excellent idea for a story about a kid whose mum is an elephant trainer? But you don’t know anything about elephants or what goes into training them. Start reading up on it and once you have go to the zoo nearest you. See if you can interview the zoo keeper about how they keep their elephants. Ask yourself lots of questions: How happy are elephants to be trained? How much longer do they live in the wild than in captivity? Would your character have an ambivalent attitude to their mum’s job?

That’s a lot to learn. Maybe you can ground your story by setting it somewhere you’re familiar with, or giving your protag some aspect of yourself. I doubt anyone writes a story that’s entirely made up of stuff they don’t know. In fact, once you’ve researched it, you do know it.

Hmmm, I think I’ve come full circle: write what you know.

But remember that what you know includes everything you’ve learned, all your research, everything you’ve read, or heard or seen. So the more you read, and hear and see, the more you have to write about.