My First Publication

This poem was first published when I was nine. First in the Newcastle Morning Herald and then later in the feminist magazine, Refractory Girl.1

I can fly.
They say I can’t.
They don’t exist.

I can fly.
They won’t believe me.
They aren’t real.

They can’t understand me
They won’t understand me
They don’t understand me

They say I’m mad
no-one can fly.

I can fly
They’re dead.

The day after it published in the local newspaper some of the kids at school demanded that I fly for them. They recited the poem back at me and laughed in my face. I spent the day wishing I’d never written it but also basking in my teachers’ praise.

The next day the other kids had forgotten about it but the teachers were still praising me. Yup, I was still buzzing about being an actual published poet. I enjoyed and was weirded out by the publication and attention thing. Praise = good! Kids laughing at me = oogie!

It was an early lesson in the gap between writing and publication. The writing part is private and often wonderful. Publication and public responses to the writing is a whole other thing. I’ve been doing my best to keep that in mind ever since.

  1. My mother, Jan Larbalestier was part of the Refractory Girl collective. Yup, nepotism got my poem republished. For the record, I didn’t know anyone at the Herald. []

A Story What I Wrote in My Late Teens! Avert Thine Eyes! Run for the Hills!

Below is a story that I wrote in my late teens. I remember the day I finished it. I was so full of joy and pride in my genius. It was the best story I had ever written. (True fact. I was rubbish back then.) Maybe even the best story anyone had ever written!

Or, so, I thought on the day I finished it. I don’t remember whether I sent it anywhere to be published. I do remember that at some point, not that long after finishing it, I decided it was, in fact, the worst story ever written and consigned it to the “this is crap” file.

It is pretty awful. But more in a bad-boring than bad-entertaining way. Nevertheless, I thought it might be educational for aspiring writers to see what this particular published author’s juvenilia looks like. I’m sure there are other authors out there who wrote unbelievably great stories when they were teens. I, alas, am not one of them. Wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I wrote anything halfway decent. Some of us are slow learners. Very slow.

The good news is that it’s relatively short—just shy of 2,000 words—the bad news is that it seems a LOT longer than it is. Sorry.

I have added footnotes throughout to explain to you just what is so terrible about the writing. Not that it is even slightly difficult to figure out for yourself. I have resisted making any corrections because, really, the only remedy for this story is to take it out the back and shoot it. I’ve also placed it behind the cut so that you don’t have to sully your eyes with it unless you really, really want to.

Continue reading

The Toughies

A few people have asked that I post some of my juvenilia. Here’s a story I wrote some time between the ages of eight and ten:

    A long time ago there lived a group of dragons that were called the toughies.

    Now the king of the country where the toughies lived had tried everything to get rid of them; he gave them maidens weekly, a million dollars (they put in that they couldn’t do much with it). At last he put forward a proclamation saying, whoever gets rid of the dragons will get a million dollars (they could do something with it).

    Soon everybody was trying to get rid of them, but all in vain for no one succeeded, ‘till a girl named Zantorria set out to kill the dragon who had killed her father. When she reached Tatooklia ( the place where the dragons live) she crept into their cave and saw 12 heaps of straw where 12 dragons lay looking very ill.

    Approaching them carefully she said “What’s the matter?”

    The first dragon stared at her and said, “We’re sick from eating too many people, they taste horrid”

    When the girl asked who killed her father they said he’d died naturally so she helped the dragons get better because they promised not to be bad and she lived with them for the rest of her life.

My plotting has improved somewhat since then . . .

Juvenilia panel

As many of you know the first-ever NYC Teen Author Festival (March 16-22, 2009) starts in two days. There are many fabulous, wonderful events. Make sure you check out the full schedule over here. But as far as I’m concerned there’s only one event that’s unmissable:

You really need to hear just how bad our writing once was. But here’s what John Scalzi had to say after moderating our last juvenilia panel:

    “I was hitting my head on the table to stop the pain.”

How could you miss such an event? Don’t you want to heckle the badness? Laugh until you cry? Vote on who is the worst writer of all?

It really is worth ducking out of work early, skipping basketball/band practice, or whatever other thing that’s currently getting in your way. You know you want to mock us. You know you want to see how very very bad writing can be.

See all you New Yorkers Monday at 4PM in Tompkins Square Park Library!

P.S. I’m especially looking forward to Alaya’s contribution which was even stored in a purple folder.

The juvenilia panel

I have returned home to oceanic amounts of work. It is crazed!

But I must tell you briefly about the Juvenilia panel at High Voltage ConFusion before it all fades from my memory.

Short version: Best. Panel. Ever.

Longer version: It were me, Scott and Merrie Haskell. I cheated and read cute stuff from when I was 7 or 8. And some pretentious 10 year old stuff. They were brave and read teenage monstrosities so bad that we wept on account of laughing so hard. WEPT!

John Scalzi moderated and he was so appalled by the pretentious badness of Scott’s writing that he couldn’t look at Scott directly. It was AWESOME.

The best lines were:

Merrie Haskell: “Keeper of Earth Gaia,” the Light One said arrogantly, “I honor you with my manhood.”

Scott Westerfeld: Recognition of the House of Eleven took no long time, and the lady midst the compliment was none other than wench Mary, a liaress whom I had met before in the rank combats of her style, and who had left more than one of the Clan Demonus with garrote between chin and breathless breast.

Oh no, I starts to laugh all over again . . .

Heh hem. In addition to being really really really funny. Sharing our crappy writing from when we were beginning writers has the salutary effect of making it clear to those what aspire to be published writers but aren’t there yet that we published folk didn’t step fully formed from Zeus’s head. There was lots and lots and lots of bad words and phrases and sentences and stories and novels written before we were good enough to be read by anyone other than our doting parents.

Every con should have a juvenilia panel. I’ve been on two. The other one was in Brisbane in 2006 with Kim Wilkins and Sean Williams. It was just as fabulous and funny as the ConFusion one. Better in a way because the audience was much bigger thus more people got to laugh at our stumbling first writing steps.


Because we’re on a juvenilia panel at ConFusion, Scott is in the next room making strange noises. Some of it is laughter, most of it is groans. He’s reading through stuff he wrote when he was a teenager.

Because all my juvenilia is back in Sydney, my wonderful mother transcribed some of the earliest stuff to send me. Bless you, Jan. I just read through it.

Oh, dear.

Sad to say, but there is not an inkling of genius in either of our earliest writings. Wow. We must have worked pretty hard in the intervening years learning how to, you know, construct a sentence or two that don’t completely suck.

I might put some of it up on our sites to demonstrate that even the most talentless kid can grow up to be a writer.

In the meantime, we’re off to snowy Detroit, for the fun and laughter of ConFusion. Hope to see some of you there. We’re not bringing our computers so blogging is unlikely.

Here’s my favourite sentence from my juvenilia written when I was about 7 or 8:

A long time ago there lived a group of dragons that were called the toughies.

Don’t have too much fun while I’m away!

My Conjure Schedule

Heh hem. Tis a bit late given that the con has already started, but here’s where you can find me at Conjure in Brissie:

    Sat 1 pm: Once More With Feeling (Joss Whedon panel)
    Chair: Ron Serduik. Justine Larbalestier, Lucy Zinkiewicz, Nicky StricklandSun 4 pm: The 16-year-old Writing Drill Sergeant
    Chair: Jenny Blackford. Ian Irvine, Anita Bell, Simon Higgins, Justine Larbalestier

    Mon 1 pm: Those were the young years: Juvenilia Readings
    Chair: Rob Hoge. Kim Wilkins, Sean Williams, Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld

I’m most looking forward to the last panel. I have stuff going back to when I was eleven, but unbeknownst to me my lovely mother has a whole folder of my writings going back to when I was seven or so. She dropped it over last night. And oh my Elvis—it’s hilarious! Seriously, Scott and me was reading it out loud to each other and weeping we laughed so hard.

His juvenilia doesn’t go back so far, but fortunately is also excellent for the making of laughter. Especially the bits that are cleverly coded so his mum couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. I bet Sean and Kim will also have some splutterers. What larks we’ll have!

Too Young to Publish

Recently I’ve had a number of letters from teenagers wanting advice on how to get their novel published and wondering whether their age will make it harder for them to get it into print. Specifically, would they be discriminated against because they were only thirteen/fourteen/fifteen/sixteen or whatever?

The simple answer is no. When you submit a query letter to a publisher or agent you don’t have to tell them how old you are. You’ll be rejected or accepted on the quality of your submission.

Being young can be an advantage in getting published. I was first published when I was nine. A short poem in The Newcastle Morning Herald (now The Herald). My mother sent it in and it was published with my age listed. While the poem was clearly a work of genius, odds are that if I hadn’t been nine, it wouldn’t have been published. As it happens I was more embarassed by the publication than I was proud. The kids at school teased me to buggery for the rest of the year. Happy days.

Up until I was 15, I had a number of other poems and stories published. Without motherly intervention even. Every one of them with my age beside my name. After that, nothing of mine was published until I was in my thirties.

What happened?

Another simple answer: I started competing with adults. I stopped listing my age and started sending to more grown up venues. My work was not as good as that of the grown ups. I didn’t find my way into print again until I was way past my child prodigy days.

The teenage me was cast into deep, dark despair by this. On my seventeenth birthday I had a midlife crisis. There I was seventeen years old and still no novel published! I was a complete and utter failure! What was wrong with me?

Another easy answer: I wasn’t good enough yet and I wouldn’t be good enough until I’d learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. Until I got past thinking my first drafts were perfect and that rewriting involves a wee bit of chipping at the surface of a story. It’s much, much harder than that. And, I’m belatedly learning, more fun too.

If you’d have told me back then I wasn’t good enough and had a lot more to learn about writing I would not have believed you. Actually come to think of it, people did tell me back then. But they were polite about it saying that I had a "great deal of promise" and a "bright future ahead". Blah, blah, blahdy blah. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to be published immediately! Before I hit twenty-one or, worse, thirty and was too decrepitly old to enjoy it.

Now, of course, I’m incredibly grateful that no one did me the disservice of publishing me back then. I’ve kept a lot of my juvenilia and, well . . . it shows promise.

I have a couple of friends who were not so fortunate. They were first published in adult venues when they were still teenagers. Both of them are horrified that their learning and growing as a writer has been done so publicly and that there’s nothing they can do to make all that evidence of early missteps go away. They both wish they’d spent more time honing their craft and less time desperately trying to get into print.

But how do you hone your craft?

Read a lot. Write a lot. In that order. There are very very few good writers who aren’t also good readers.

Never send off a first draft for publication. Even though the temptation to do so is enormous. I mean you wrote a complete draft! A whole poem/story/novel! It has a beginning, a middle and end! The sense of accomplishment is enormous you can’t wait to show your work of genius to the rest of the world.

Resist that feeling.

Wait a few weeks after writing something, then reread it, rewrite it (and I don’t mean just fixing typoes), then give it to some people you trust for comments. (Not your parents. Most’ll just tell you it’s wonderful no matter what.) If you have friends who read a lot give it to them. Or to a teacher you trust. Give it to as many people as you can think of. Trust me, most of them will not get back to you with comments.

Ask the ones who read it to tell you when they got bored. Ask them to tell you the plot. This is a great way to figure out if your readers are reading what you think you wrote. It’s amazing how often they aren’t.

When they get back to you with all their comments, rewrite it again. Many of the comments will be intensely annoying and boneheaded and will make you want to end the friendship with the idiot who said them. Resist your urge to do so. Resist the urge to tell them how moronic they are. Also resist the urge to cry (I still haven’t quite mastered this one). Instead look for parts of your story/poem/novel that all readers had problems with. Figure out how to fix it. Most likely the solution you find won’t be the one they suggested. (Later on when you’re published you’ll find this also applies to your editors.)

Learning to take criticism is one of the major prerequisites of being a professional writer. Once your work is accepted for publication, your editor will criticise what you have written and ask you to rewrite it. Usually many, many times. And after it’s gone through all those rewrites she will often forget to tell you good it is. There will be few gold koala bear stamps. Your editor’s primary concern is to get rid of that which sucks. It should be yours too.

Just as important: don’t get too caught up in the praise your readers offer you. If your readers only have good things to say about your manuscript, enjoy it, but then be suspicious. Very few pieces of writing are perfect first go. (I rewrote this essay several times and then gave it to Scott to read and it could still stand a bit more rewriting.)

Once you’ve made your manuscript as good as you can possibly make it—if it’s a novel that should take months, maybe even years—then and only then do you send it out for publication.

But how do you get a novel published?

With great difficulty. Getting published is very, very hard no matter how old you are. Most novels never find their way into print. Even really good ones.

Ian Irvine outlines the whole process in his essay, The Truth About Publishing (the link’s in the menu on the left). I strongly advise reading the whole document through to the end. It’s depressing, but it’s also very very useful. I wish I’d read it back when I was fifteen.

Good luck. Do not despair when you are rejected. Welcome to the club. There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t been rejected. Many, many times.

New York City, 13 August 2005

The Hebrew translation is here.

For those young writers who are angered by this please read my clarification.