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I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.
I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?
Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.
It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.
We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.
I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.
It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.
There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.
It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.
I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.
I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.
Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.
The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.
But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.
I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.
I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.
But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.
When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?
I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.
My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.
Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.
Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. [↩]
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I’m not an outliner. I use my first drafts–zero drafts–to figure out characters, plot, setting etc.
But lately that method has not been working for me. My chronic illness caused me to lose my executive function for months. I could not make decisions. Novels are nothing but decisions.
My executive function returned as I learned to manage being sick, but I’m still not as sharp as I was. The parts of novel writing I once found relatively easy, I now struggle with, and the parts that were once hard? Well, you can imagine. This illness has changed my brain.
On top of that I now tire quickly. Writing leaves me exhausted. Turns out that outlining requires fewer spoons than exploratory drafting. Or maybe it’s just that doing something in a different way is energising?
I’m not an outliner. I’ve tried to outline before. Many times. And failed. Outlining felt like scratching at nerve endings. We hates it.
But this time instead of giving up in annoyance after a day or two of struggle, I pushed through to understand what it is about outlining I find so difficult. Why does it set my teeth on edge? Why does it make me shouty? Why do I hate it?
I finally figured it out.
All my novels start with the characters. Even Liar. Although I had the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a pathological/compulsive liar first. I was unable to start writing it until I knew who that liar was. Micah emerged strongly as I drafted. Once I knew her the plot started happening.
Characters first; plot later.
If I don’t know who my characters are, how do I know what they’re capable of? How can I know what kind of plot they’ll generate?
I stopped attempting to outline. I’d already charted the novel’s opening and first few scenes so I started writing them. I wrote chapter after chapter, getting to know my two pov characters, and the people in their lives, which started to generate story, and allowed me to get back to the outlining.
When I can’t go any further with the outline I go back to drafting until I know enough to continue.
I know the end of this novel.
I’ve never known the end of any of my novels before I wrote them. It’s very strange. I worry that I’ve spoiled myself, that I won’t want to actually write it. But every time I go back to drafting after being stuck, it’s so much fun! I love learning more about these characters and what they want and why they kill. The outline is bare bones. It’s not heart or soul.
I don’t have a full outline yet–my illness makes me so very slow–but I have more of an outline than I’ve ever had. It’s wild. Did I mention that I know how this book ends? I know what happens for the first third.
My old reason for not outlining was that standard one: if I know what happens and write it all out then why would I write the whole novel? I’d bore myself to tears.
It’s not true, though.
Even this detailed outline I’m constructing is not like writing the novel. There’s an ocean between: She switches seats on the plane to allow a separated couple to sit together and finds herself next to a stylish Grace Kelly type, looking all patrician and better than you and the actual descriptive passage detailing that event, which reveals her thoughts, so the reader knows and understands why she hates WASPy blondes and why she wants to get drunk and why she fantasises about committing murder.
Outlines and novels are not the same genre. Outlines are barely writing at all. They’re more like notes, than novel writing. It’s the to-do list, not that which is done. It’s the incomplete recipe, not the actual meal. Outlines are mere potential. Novels are life.
It might be that I’ll never just wing it again. That I’ll be all outlines all the time. It feels very strange. But whatever is necessary for me to write novels again.
I’m a novelist. Writing novels has been central to my identity for decades now. It has been agony not being able to write. I thought I had lost myself. Being able to write novels again is everything to me. No matter how slow. No matter how different my methods are. The writing is the thing.
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This has been a horrible year for me.1 Or, rather, it’s been a horrible two years–more than two years.
In June 2017, I woke up feeling weird. It was the beginnings of this chronic, incurable, non-fatal illness that now holds huge sway over my life.
Over the next few months, more symptoms manifested, the worst of which was losing my executive function. I couldn’t make decisions. Do you know what activity requires lots of decisions?
I couldn’t do my job.
I’ve never had writer’s block. Ever.
Not being able to write, not being able to decide what to wear, or whether to leave the house, or pretty much anything, was a nightmare. I became depressed.
When I became ill, I’d written two thirds of a novel from the pov of a psychopath. It was already doing my head in writing the thoughts of a character who considered other humans to be pawns, not people.
After I got sick it was worse.
I’d be stuck reading the one scene, passage or sentence over and over, hating what I was reading, trying to find a way forward, failing, switching to a different scene, passage, sentence, clause, failing again, feeling worse and worse.
Every day I’d doggedly try to do my job. The words I’d already written, led me to choices I was no longer capable of making. Bleak choices. I’d stare, read and reread, and type nothing.
My depression deepened.
I broke out of it when we learned how to manage my illness. As my executive function slowly returned, I tentatively wrote again. Instead of plunging back into the novel, I went back to basics.
I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Le Guin is stern. I needed her strong, unrelenting, unforgiving voice to guide me.2 I did the writing exercises she laid out exactly as she told me to.
Every day I sat, read a chapter, tried the exercise. It was brutal. But gradually my fluency returned. The exercises started turned into stories.3
My agent, Jill Grinberg, who’s been amazingly supportive throughout, read the stories, said encouraging things, suggested one of them would work as a novel. So I did what she said. Being told what to do helped a lot.4
That exercise turned into a novel. Not a very good one. But definitely a novel-shaped text, with characters and exposition, a beginning, middle and end.
I’m currently rewriting that mess. It’s slow going–slower than I’ve ever written–but I’m writing.
I’ve learnt (yet again) that I’m happiest when I write. If I’m not writing, I’m not wholly me. I’ve learnt to work around my illness.
I’m not going to name it or talk about the many other symptoms. I don’t want to talk about it.
That’s not true.
Since June 2017, there have been many times when it’s all I can talk about. I’ve told random people on trams, trains and planes about it. Blurted out my symptoms to startled wait staff, acquaintances and strangers at weddings, parties, conferences and fundraisers.
I discovered that many of my friends and acquaintances have chronic diseases. Is anyone truly able bodied?
My friend with Hashimoto’s doesn’t really think about it that much–except when the price of meds goes up. God Bless the USA.5 Another friend doesn’t think about her illness except when she winds up in hospital.
I had no idea.
Why didn’t they tell me? Why have I stopped telling people?
So many reasons! Because:
Lots of able-bodied people don’t get it, we’re sick of talking about it, we don’t want your pity or revulsion, we’re sick of well-meaning people recommending treatments we’ve already tried or are pure quackery. No, being immunised did not cause this.6
Also we’re past the crisis stage, when we’re desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s all we think about.
We’re in the management phase. We know what meds to take, what diet/exercise/therapies work.
My family and friends know what’s going on. I love that they check in with me and support me and mostly treat me the way they always did. That’s enough.7
I no longer enjoy talking about my chronic illness.8 I talk about it far less. Though I have one friend with similar symptoms. We check in with each other regularly. She gets it and never says, “Hope you get well soon! I’m glad you’re getting better!”
What part of “chronic” and “incurable” do people not understand!?
I know, I know, our language around illness is rubbish. Folks mean well. Before I joined the ranks of the spoonies I said ridiculous stuff like that too.
I’m so sorry.
More than two years into this chronic, incurable, though not fatal, illness, I’m still learning how to cope with so few spoons. I still think like an able-bodied person, but I’m not. I’m a spoonie.
That’s why I left Twitter.
Things that were easy are now hard. Much of my resilience is gone.
I love Twitter. The conversations I’ve had on there with people all over the world have taught me so much and made me laugh and changed me.9
But after my illness, I started to hate Twitter. I lost my ability to brush off unjust criticism, to think through just criticism, or to tell the difference between the two. Even benign comments in my mentions upset me.
Twitter was wiping out all my spoons. I couldn’t tweet and write. Some days I couldn’t tweet and get out of bed.
So in November I walked away. I don’t know when I’ll return or if I’ll return. I’ve been doing better without it, though I miss the conversations around cricket and basketball and fashion and books and politics and TV. I miss my Twitter community.
I’ve been writing more, and getting out more, and learning about the new vintage clothes world on Instagram via my private account there.
Who knows? Maybe as I become better adjusted to so few spoons, I’ll return to Twitter. Or maybe I’ll start blogging regularly-ish in 2020?
I used to blog every day.
I used to write a recap of my year every 31 December and point forward to what I was publishing in the coming year.
I couldn’t do that in 2018. I published nothing and sold nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to get out of bed or not. I certainly couldn’t decide what to blog.
I will have a new story published next year. It’s called “When I was White” and will be in Adi Alsaid‘s YA anthology on immigration, Come On In published by Inkyard Press in October 2020.10
I wrote this year and I’ll write in 2020.
I have no idea when there’ll be a new novel from me. But given that I’m months from finishing this rewrite, it would be published in 2024 at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee it will find a publisher.11
All of which is huge progress from where I was a year ago, but It’s terrible compared to where I was ten years ago.
Things don’t always get better, but if we’re lucky, and have support from those who love us,12 we have a shot at learning to manage.
And the world. I write this in Sydney, on a day when the entire South coast of NSW is on fire. Lives and homes and national parks and agriculture are going up in flames. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick here in the city there’s a Poor Air Quality Forecast from the NSW government and we’re being advised to stay indoors. It’s been like that off and on for weeks.
Currently our AQI of 124 is worse than Beijing’s. All we talk about here is the drought, air masks, purifiers, and what we can personally do to ameliorate climate change and force our governments to do likewise. There are worse fires in the Amazon. There are environmental disasters everywhere. [↩]
It was also a way of mourning her death. She is a foundational writer for me. [↩]
Stories Le Guin would have considered woeful, but no matter. [↩]
Hilariously. I’ve always hated being told what to do. [↩]
Do not get me started on the US healthcare system. [↩]
I’m not interested in answering questions or hearing miracle cures unless they’re thoroughly peer reviewed and even then odds are I’ve already heard about it. Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. I consider Chinese medicine to be peer reviewed and as (in)fallible as Western medicine. For me acupuncture works great at bringing swelling down and various other things. It hasn’t worked on this illness. But then neither has western medicine. Both have helped manage the symptoms. [↩]
My seven-year-old niece’s concern breaks my heart. [↩]
Yes, in the beginning, when we had no idea what was going on, and my symptoms were weird, and weren’t disrupting my work or play, it was kind of fun to talk about, and shock folks with photos of the weirdness. [↩]
I found the people who think cricket is as funny as I do. [↩]
All you editors, who over the years have asked me for short stories, and I said I don’t write them? Turns out I write short stories now. Hit me up! [↩]
Fortunately, I’m working on other novels. So who knows? Maybe in 2030 there’ll be four from me at once. [↩]
Scott and my family have been incredible. I love them so much. [↩]
What’s the hardest part of writing has to be one of the most frequently asked questions. For me the answer to that question depends on what I’m writing. I don’t just mean whether I’m writing a blog post or a novel. It changes with each particular piece of writing.
My latest novel, My Sister Rosa, is about a 17 year old teen who realises his 10 year old sister is a psychopath. Wow, did I struggle to find the voice of the narrator, Che Taylor. I struggled A LOT.
I didn’t struggle because Che’s a boy. I’ve written from male povs before. It’s no big deal. I struggled because Che’s genuinely nice.
Readers are often suspicious of nice characters. They use phrases like “sickly sweet” to describe them. We, in the English speaking world, on the whole, are more interested in anti-heroes and sometimes in flat-out villains. Somehow we’ve decided in the world of stories that nice people are boring and never charismatic.1
In the first draft of the novel Che was a girl. That didn’t last long. I couldn’t get the older sister protag to work so I made her a he. I suspect part of the problem was me imagining the reader response to such a loving, kind older sister. I’ve seen readers complain about the noxious niceness2 of many female characters. I have hated such characters myself. I wanted to see if we readers would be kinder to a really nice boy protag.
So far Che is my most loved and least hated main character.3 Though wow do too many readers love Rosa. Including my own father! This is me judging youse.
That could be because of my writing or it could be the baked in misogyny of this world. I suspect it’s more of the latter.
I’d like to think my writing had something to do with it because I worked hard to get Che’s voice right. Early readers complained that Che moaned too much, that he was annoying, too eager to please, and not very smart about his sister or anyone else. One reader used the word pathetic. Ouch.
How was I going to make this character with a psychopathic little sister no one believed him about, stuck in a collapsing family, likeable?
I did it by showing him in a number of different relationships, with his old friends back in Sydney, and his new friends in NYC. You get to see him through other people’s eyes. You see him charming new people but he doesn’t do it with the flashy, shallow charisma of his sister. He does it by genuinely listening, being interested, and making them laugh. If the snarky fun character, Leilani, likes him then, hopefully, most readers will too.4
As I wrote him into more friendships I got to know him better. A huge part of who we are is the people we chose in our lives. I needed to show just who Che was via his many friendships.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that in novels. In real life there are people with multiple close friendships, but in fiction that seems unrealistic or, at least, unwieldy. I had early readers suggest I cut the number of friends. I didn’t. But I did drastically cut the number of their interactions. You can find some of the outtakes here.
Another key to discovering Che’s voice was contrasting him with his psychopathic little sister Rosa. The conversations Che and Rosa have about right and wrong, about ethics, are the heart of the novel. Illustrating her twisty way of turning Che’s attempts to teach her to be an ethical human being into a game of promises shows the reader just what Che is up against.
Rosa weaponises Che’s lessons in ethics to manipulate Che in ways he doesn’t always see. But I had to show that without making Che seem dim. It was hard. They are unequal opponents because Che cares about Rosa. He cares about all the people around him. He cares about truth and justice. Rosa doesn’t. It was my hope that Che’s open, caring heart on display in these conversations would also make him likeable.
For some readers it didn’t. For some readers Rosa is the most appealing character in the book. *sigh*
STOP LIKING PSYCHOPATHS, PEOPLE! THEY’RE BAD FOR YOU AND THEY’RE BAD FOR THE WORLD.
I don’t blame those readers. There is something seductive about Rosa’s view of the world. As we see in the real world almost every day. Rosa fascinates me too and alarms me. She is why the book I’m writing now is from the point of view of a psychopath. Because I want to understand what it’s like to live in this world without empathy or remorse. I want to know how we can help people like that and how we can protect ourselves from them.5
In the meantime, I’m thankful for all the books about nice, good people changing the world in big and small ways. They make me hopeful. As do those people in the real world. There are so many of them. I’m grateful to them all. Even if they are very hard to write.
Meanwhile in the real world some of the nicest people I’ve known are charismatic and not in the least bit boring. [↩]
Why are you writing this book? Why have you decided to write a protagonist whose background is different from your own?
Is it because you want to make the world a better place? Because doing so seems to be the cool new thing? Because you lived for many years in a foreign country and you think that writing about it from that outsider’s perspective is voyeuristic and exploitative? Because you have the imagination and understanding to do so? Because you’re the reincarnation of an African king? Because you came across a cool story in the local newspaper and only you can do justice to that story? Because you’ve been part of the community you’re writing about since birth? Because the voice of the character came to you in a dream?
Once you’ve figured out why you’re going to write an Indigenous protagonist or Protagonist of Colour and can explain your motivations clearly you can move on to:
Step Two: Research
Writing from the point of view of someone from a community that gets less representation in mainstream culture than your own is hard. Especially when what representation they do get is largely negative and/or stereotyped. If you do not know people in that community, and have not spent time in that community, it will be an uphill battle to write from that point of view believably.
Which is why you must research.
As much as you can avoid accounts written by outsiders—all you’ll learn is how outsiders see them, not how they see themselves. Read books written by the people of that community. Watch TV and movies created by them. Look at what they write about themselves on social media. Listen to their podcasts.
Confusingly, you will find many of their accounts of themselves and their communities contradictory. Take a moment to think about that. Is it really confusing to have a wide range of opinions within the one community?
Consider the histories and novels that have been written about your community. It’s likely they’re every bit as contradictory. There is no completely unified community that agrees about everything. You know, other than, say, The Borg.
Ask the people you know well in that community questions. Listen to their answers.
If you don’t know anyone well from the community you’re writing about go back to step one, Why are you writing this book?
Do not jump onto social media to ask strangers about their community. Though some may be kind enough to respond it is not their job to teach you.
Step Three: Find Sensitivity Readers
When you have finished your diligent research, and have a complete manuscript you’re happy with, you need to have people from the community you’ve chosen to represent look at your book. Approach these readers in good faith and pay them for their work. Because it is hard work.
When someone critiques your book about their community it’s called a sensitivity reading. It’s called that because they’re reading to see if you have been sensitive to the community you’re writing about. If you have instead written stereotyped caricatures then critiquing your book is going to be even harder work. For some readers it will be painful work.
It’s best to have more than one sensitivity reader. Some readers might tell you the book’s fine, or only find a few minor problems with it, while others will find major problems. No community agrees on everything. Listen carefully and rewrite your book accordingly.
I had two of my readers tell me they found some of the dialogue of the black characters in Liar jarring. While other readers had no problem with it. I opted to change it. None of those readers had a problem with Micah’s use of the word “nappy” to describe her hair, though they agreed it might be a problem that I, a white writer, was using it. After publication some readers found it offensive. I discuss that at greater length here.
No amount of careful rewriting based on your sensitivity readers’ critiques will shield you from criticism. That is not what sensitivity readings are for. They are to show you how to write your book as accurately and as sensitively as possible.
And there you have it in three easy steps you now know how to write from the point of view of a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person. What could go wrong?
What’s Wrong With This Guide
Sadly, a lot goes wrong, particularly at step one.
Let me speak from my own experience, having written six books from the points of view of Teens of colour and an Indigenous teen. I went wrong at that first step. I did not ask myself why I was doing this. It did not occur to me that writing from an Indigenous or PoC point view was problematic.
If I had asked myself, these are the reasons I probably would have given: that I wanted to examine racism, and that I was trying to make YA more diverse.
My old belief that I couldn’t write about racism from a white point of view is garbage. Certainly books like To Kill a Mockingbird show that. But books like Mockingbird have other problems. Racism in Mockingbird is something that good white people save black people from. Racism is something that bad whites do, not a system of oppression that benefits all whites. There need to be more books in YA that examine white complicity in systemic racism.
I also thought I was saving YA by writing PoC and Indigenous main characters. It’s a notion that is dangerously close to the idea of the white saviour.
Once I’d proffered those two woeful reasons I would have explained that I was qualified to write these books because I spent part of my childhood living on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory of Australia and because I have many friends who aren’t white. At the time I doubt I’d have realised I was literally saying, “Some of my best friends are black”. Yes, I’m ashamed.
Arrogantly, I did not let what I didn’t know about my Aboriginal and PoC protagonists be a bar to writing them. I made my protags of the same class and gender as me, which I figured would give me enough commonality to write them convincingly. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I did not consider how much I didn’t know about the ways in which race and ethnicity shape class and gender. It is impossible to know what you don’t know, which also makes it incredibly hard to write believable characters’ whose experiences are far from your own.
There are books by white writers with PoC protagonists that are loved by some people in those communities. But I think we white writers can do more good by calling attention to the books by PoC and Indigenous writers and by thinking about PoC and Indigenous readers.
In answering the question of why you want to write a book about someone else’s community try to think of those readers before you think about yourself. Think about who is better qualified to tell their stories: you or them?
Misusing Sensitivity Readers
In the last few years I have heard multiple stories about white writers in the YA, Romance and SFF communities misusing and abusing sensitivity writers. Writers who have employed sensitivity readers in bad faith, only wanting these readers to give them the Indigenous or PoC seal of approval. Spoiler: there is no such thing.
Sensitivity readers do not read your manuscript to give you cover. They read to show you how to make it better, how to make it not offensive. If they think that’s not possible they will tell you to kill the project.
Listen to them.
Writers who keep getting the same critique from sensitivity readers and ignoring it are acting in bad faith. If more than one person finds the same problem with your manuscript LISTEN TO THEM. And if it’s more than five or ten or, as in one case I heard about, twenty people pointing out the same problem? And you continue to ignore them and send your manuscript to yet another sensitivity reader? You need to stop. You need to burn the manuscript and go all the way back to step one and realise that you had no good reason for writing that book.
You also need to realise that you have trashed your good name in the community. People talk. People know what you’re doing and they’re appalled.
If you can’t take critique from the people who know the life experiences of your protagonist better than you do then STOP.
Pointing to the good reviews your book received once it was published, the prizes it won, is irrelevant. The vast majority of trade reviewers are white. The vast majority of major literary prizes come from white institutions. We white folk are not the best judges of accurate representations of any communities other than our own.
Nor is pointing to the Indigenous readers and Readers of Colour who’ve told you that they love your work. All too often they are so starved for representation that many have learned to be generous readers of even the worst representations. All too often I have heard teenagers say they’re just grateful to see themselves on their cover, to be able to read a book about someone like them, even if it doesn’t ring true.
What makes Edi and Debbie’s work powerful is that it is so clearly about the children and teenagers in their communities. Their mission is not to castigate white writers; it is to find books they can recommend wholeheartedly to those readers.
That is all the readers of any community that has been historically stereotyped and underrepresented wants: to read books that won’t make them roll their eyes, wince, or put the book down because reading it is too painful in the very worst way.
It’s Not About Us
Their work is not about us white writers. This debate about diversity in literature is not about us white writers. The only way to fix what’s wrong with publishing is systemic change at every point within the industry: from the CEOs of publishing companies through to the writers and editors and agents and sales reps and booksellers and librarians. Right now the majority are white. That has to change.
But we white writers keep centring ourselves. As Patrick Jones does in his recent article, Writing While White, published in the June 2016 issue of Voya where he discusses writing PoC teen protags as a white man:
I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female authors who said, more or less, “No, you—as a white male—can’t tell this story.” I also asked a black female librarian from Flint to pre-read it. Her comment-slash-question, “Why didn’t you have them eating fried chicken and watermelon?”
Chasing told one black girl’s story; the pre-reader saw it as a white retelling a stereotypical story. I caved, but at the time, I didn’t think it was the best move. I understood the arguments about writing outside of race, but I didn’t accept them. So Tonisha became Christy.
Jones did the right thing in that he asked knowledgable readers to critique his book and they said, don’t do this. So he changed “Tonisha into Christy.” Well and good. Except that Jones does not seem grateful for their critiques nor does he acknowledge their hard work. He seems to have wanted his sensitivity readers to give him the PoC seal of approval and is annoyed that they didn’t.
Jones also doesn’t seem to understood what they told him. Maybe they did say to him, “No white man can write this story.” But it also seems like they were saying, “You, Patrick Jones, cannot write this story. You have not created a believable black girl living in Flint. You have created a stereotypical caricature of a black teenage girl living in Flint, who might as well be eating fried chicken and watermelon.”
He presents their thoughtful critiques as bad advice that he caved to. He says he understood their arguments but that he didn’t accept them. He describes the long-running debate about racism and the need for more diversity in YA as noise.
That’s the language of someone who is not listening. Someone who mischaracterises this vital movement to change YA as being about whether white people are allowed to write PoC protagonists. This is a common misconception.
Later in the article Jones says he’s decided to stop writing PoC protags because he worries Teens of Colour might view his books as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes.” But then he undercuts that central concern by saying he’s stopping because it’s all “too complicated and stressful” making it about him again.
she didn’t expect Jones’ piece to spark controversy. “Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” she wrote in an email. “The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field.” When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did “not at all.”
We whites have to stop hijacking the debate to talk about us.
By all means grapple with this question on your own, as Jones has done, as I have done.
But we have to stop taking up space on Twitter, in Voya, and elsewhere to do so. If you read all the other articles in that issue of Voya you’ll find work by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Amina Chadhri, Marieke Nijkamp and others on the truly central issues around Native American and PoC and other communities’ access, safety, autonomy, constructions of intersectional identity and so forth.
But PoC Writers Get to Write About Whites It’s Only Fair We Get to Write About Them
We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us. This is a large part of why when we write from their points of views we all too often get it wrong.
Yes, we’re all human. Yes, we all have the same physiology. We all experience love and hate and desire and jealousy. We all need to eat and go to the toilet. But I’m no longer sure that our white imaginations are enough to fill in what we don’t know about loving and hating and existing as an Indigenous person or Person of Colour in a world where whiteness is prized and white people hold most of the power. In a world where the vast majority of our publishing, film and television industries, and other media is run by, produced for, and about white people.
Every PoC lives with a dual consciousness. It’s the idea that PoC have to take on two identities in order to survive in a hostile society. Meaning: we learn how to act white in order to be successful. At school, in jobs, and in publishing. We know what it takes to be white. Which is why PoC can write white characters effortlessly. Because we’ve all played a white person at one time or another. . . Bottom line: the oppressed are forced to learn to identify with their oppressors, it rarely happens in the other direction.—Justine Ireland.
White people do not have to take on two identities to survive in a hostile society. Our society is not hostile to white people.1
the reality of what “playing white” entails. From my PoV, it’s about learning to instinctively bundle up, separate, partition and obscure almost every element of one’s cultural identity at the drop of a hat. To set aside the body language, dialect, the physicality, the casual modes of communication, and the unspoken values that all those things are used to express, as a daily act of survival. It’s about learning to do something monumental with casual ease. The fact, however, remains that this is actually anything but casual. It can often feel like a low-level but ever present source of stress.
If anyone thinks otherwise, take a gander at white folks’ reactions when a beloved celebrity of color decides not to obscure their cultural identity.
What happens when we reverse that? Do we, as white people, have the same kind of insights into POC experiences, that PoC have into what it is to be white? We do not.
How would you respond if someone you didn’t know started telling you about your identity? As Doselle Young puts it:
Would you, as a writer, really expect someone else to do better job with the most telling details of YOUR autobiography? What forces would they need to marshal in order to pull that off? How many interview hours, how much research, thought, blood, sweat and tears would it take to get YOUR story right?
Everyone’s identity is complicated. All of us belong to different religions, cultures, subcultures, groups, clubs, kinship networks. We all come from particular families. One of the most common complaints I hear about white people writing Indigenous and PoC characters is that we leave out their families and friendships with people like them. We tend to give them absent brown families and present white friends.
All of which leads back to step one: Why are you writing this book?
Maybe you shouldn’t.
TL:DR: Think long and hard before you write a book about a community not your own. Listen to your sensitivity readers. Whose story are you really trying to tell?
NOTE: Thank you to Mikki Kendall, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for all your hard work, brilliant writing, and wonderful conversation, and for your truly excellent notes on this post. Any remaining lack of clarity etc. is all on me. Thank you also to the too many people to name in the YA, SFF and Romance communities who have shaped my thinking. I.e. pretty much all the folks I follow on Twitter.
Though it can certainly be hostile to other parts of our identities as many white women and most LBGTIQA and disabled and poor and working class and fat whites can attest. But our society is not hostile to our whiteness. [↩]
My biggest writing struggle is getting started. The novel I’m writing right now which I think of as the Psychopath Book because, unlike My Sister Rosa, it’s from the point of view of a psychoath, rather than just being about a psychopath. It was going pretty well until Rosa was published in Australia and New Zealand. Suddenly there was promotion to be done, interviews, book launches, travelling.
I’ve been for home more than a week and this is how it’s gone:
Day One: I catch up on admin, which includes interview questions, paying bills, laundry etc as well as tweeting. Because Twitter is a vital part of my process. *cough*
Day Two: More admin. How does admin build up so quickly? Why can’t bills pay themselves? Why can’t Twitter pay my bills?
Day Three: More admin. More tweeting. I open Psychopath Book file. I have no idea who any of these characters are or what this book is about. Not entirely convinced I wrote these words. Who has been messing with my computer while I was away? I ask Twitter. Answers are unsatisfactory.
Day Four: More admin. Way more tweeting. I stare at Pyschopath Book file and read some of it and recoil in horror. Why is this so hard? There are plenty of writers with full time jobs, who are carers for children and elderly parents, who write ten books a year. I am the worst. I ask Twitter. Twitter overwhelmingly confirms my worst-ness.
Day Five: I ignore admin. Time to get back to actually writing this damn book. After I’ve delivered a very important rant on Twitter and commiserated with friends over the dread ways in which Twitter algorithms are trying to destroy Twitter. I read my notes on Psychopath Book. They don’t make any sense. Staring at this stalled novel fills me with despair. I watch Attack the Block for the millionth time. Surely it will inspire me? It does. To write an entirely different book.
Day Six: I continue to ignore admin but not Twitter. I make myself read more Psychopath Book. I edit some sentences. Some of them are okay. Most are not. I start to have vague memories about these characters. I marvel at the many ways I have misspelled pyschopath. It’s impressive.
Day Seven: I continue to ignore admin and am on Twitter slightly less than usual. I blog. What? It’s important for an author with a new book out to stay abreast of social media and blog the rants that are too long for Twitter. It’s also important to watch the cricket in case I one day get around to writing that highly commercial cricket novel I’ve been thinking about writing for years.
Day Eight: I finally write some actual new sentence of the Psychopath Book. They’re total shite.
Day Nine: I write more shitey sentences of the Psychopath Book. I know who these characters are! I can write this book! Shitely! I just have to make sure I never take more than a day or two off ever again.
And repeat. A lot.
TL;DR: Getting started is really hard.
I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting one of your favourite writers and them turning out to be horrible. They bark at their fans, they’re rude to their publicists. Sometimes you don’t even have to meet them. They launch online attacks on anyone who doesn’t give them five-star reviews, tweet racist “jokes”, or they’re arrested for beating up their partner.
Some writers are truly awful people. Yet some of those truly awful people write brilliant books. How?!
One of my favourite writers is Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1920. His 1890 novel Hunger blew my teenaged mind. I’ve read it many times since and still find it amazing. It’s about a bloke wandering around Oslo (then called Christiania) starving. It should be boring; it isn’t. I keep rereading it to try and figure out why. All I’ve got is compelling character + amazing writing.
Hamsun was also a card-carrying fascist. He thought Hitler totally had the right idea. He was tried for being a traitor to Norway after World War 2 and found guilty. You know, because he was.
How could Hamsun, who wrote moving, beautiful, psychologically insightful books, be a fascist? I don’t know. I have theories though.
The first is the fairly obvious one. People compartmentalise. They decide whole groups of people aren’t really people. They only see the psychological complexity of people like them and that’s who they write about: the ones they see as fully human. I suspect that’s what was going on with Hamsun. White Scandinavian/German people = yes. Everyone else = no.
My other theories are a bit more woo woo.
Sometimes something extraordinary happens in the process of creating. I’m convinced that even the worst people can produce magic because of it.
It’s hard to describe, but most creatives will know what I’m talking about. There are times when the writing is going so well it feels like words are pouring out of me, that they have nothing to do with me, even though obviously, I’m the one typing.1 When I’m in that magical zone I can write for hours and have almost no memory of what I wrote.2 It’s almost an out-of-body experience, like being high.3
There are other times when the writing is going well, and the words are flowing, when I’m fully aware of what I’m writing, but somehow I’m making connections I wasn’t previously and I’m smarter. I can see more, and write deeper, and truly understand all the characters, even the villains. This is my favourite kind of writing zone.
During those moments it feels like the act of creating has changed me. I’ve become my best self, full of empathy and insight that I don’t always have. I assume this happens for other writers. Even the evil ones. Because I have met some truly horrible human beings whose books are wonderful. Magic is the only explanation.
TL;DR: Writing is so magical it can even transform nasty people into empathetic souls.
To be clear. This is pretty rare. Most writing days are more sweating and yelling than magicking. [↩]
This does not, alas, means those words are always perfect. I wish. [↩]
I imagine. As someone who writes for teenagers I obviously have no first-hand experience. *cough* [↩]
Recently I critiqued two unpublished novels. Their authors wanted to know whether they should give up or not.
There’s no clear cut answer to that question. Some great novels had unspeakably bad early drafts.1 Some that their author never feels happy with, and are never published, have pretty good early drafts. Who am I to say this particular novel has no hope of one day being excellent?
I have novels started years ago I’ve never managed to get into a publishable state. But who knows? Some day I might. I never give up on a novel. I just kind of abandon them for, um, a while. Sometimes a really long while.
It’s also true that I rarely go back to these abandoned novels. There’s always a newer, more shiny novel to write.
Other writers do go back to them. I know someone who only got an agent after they pulled out a long forgotten novel, rewrote it, and sent that out. It was exactly what the agent they most wanted was looking for.
However, I would definitely suggest you give up on a novel (however temporarily) if you’ve been writing and rewriting it for years. Particularly if it’s the only novel you’ve ever written. It’s more than past time to write a new one. Who knows maybe in the process of writing a second novel you’ll figure out what was wrong with the first one?
Almost every novelist I know has given up on a novel.2 The important thing to remember is that writing that novel was not a waste. What you learned writing the abandoned novel will help with the next one. Bigger than that: YOU WROTE A NOVEL. You did it once so odds are good you can do it again.
Sadly, the lessons learnt from writing the previous novels don’t always directly apply to the next novel. Usually the lessons are more of a what-not-to-do kind of a thing. You’ve learned not to write novels with only one character locked in an empty room. Maybe you’ve learned about creating believable characters, but sadly not much about world building or setting, because you only had that one empty room to describe.3
Each novel tends to present different problems.4 They do this in order to keep things interesting. Thanks, novels.
So, yes, feel free to give up on a novel. But only once you have a complete draft.
If you’ve never finished a novel before, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how convinced you are that it will never work, you need to see it through to a complete draft. Especially if you’ve never completed a draft before.5Scott has some cogent words to say on the necessity of writing endings as well as beginnings and middles.
It’s also good to keep trying to make a novel work. I know too many (mostly) unpublished novelists who don’t rewrite. Instead of continuing to work on the newly completed draft to make it work they move on to a brand new novel. The problem with doing that is rewriting requires a different set of skills from first drafting. You’ll never write a good novel if you can’t stand to work past that initial draft.
“But I don’t know how to rewrite!” I hear you cry.
There are many first novels sent in the one room with hardly andy characters that don’t go anywhere. Funny that. About the only successful novel set in one room I can think of is Emma Emma Donoghue’s Room, which totally pulls it off. But then not the entire novel is set in the room. [↩]
Unless you’re one of those writers who writes the same book over and over again. If that one book is super popular. Congrats! You are a sure-fire commercial success. We readers love authors who are consistent and don’t freak us out by writing totally different books in completely different genres. [↩]
Once you’ve finished a bunch of novels you’ll have a better sense of whether a novel isn’t going anywhere and can put it aside if it’s really not working. [↩]
Despite being aware of it for more than a decade this will be the first time I’ve formally done NaNoWriMo myself. I figured I’d give it a go because I was asked to do a NaNo pep talk, also Scott’s doing it this year, as well as many other friends, and I’ve met some of the people who run NaNoWriMo, like Rebecca Stern, and they all seem lovely.
But mostly I’m doing it because I already have the first 17k words of a new novel. I thought it would be fun to spend the next month writing it in the company of thousands of others all over the world.
I doubt I’ll hit the 1,667 per day you need to write 50k words in a month. The most I’ve written in a day over the last few years is about 3k and that was followed by a few days of not writing at all. Mostly I manage around 300-400 words a day. My personal goal is 10k words for the month. We’ll see.
Good luck to all you Wrimos! Take frequent breaks! Stretch! Drink lots of water! Don’t forget to eat and go for walks! May you all write like the wind.
My comments on white people writing People of Colour in these twoposts has created a wee bit of consternation. This post is to clarify my position.
First of all: I am not the boss of who writes what.1 This is what I have decided for myself after much trial and error and listening and thinking and like that. Do what works for you.
I have decided to stick to white povs when I write a book from a single point of view.2 This does not mean will I no longer write PoC characters. There are people of different races and ethnicities in all my books. I have never written an all-white book. I doubt I ever will.
I didn’t make this decision because I was called out for writing PoC. Before Razorhurst all my main characters were PoC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.3
The decision has more to do with the way the debate about diversity in Young Adult literature plays out. Almost every time the overwhelming whiteness of YA is discussed a well-meaning white author says, “I shall fix this. My next book will have a PoC protagonist!”
I cringe. All too often the white folks saying that don’t know many people who aren’t white. They rarely socialise with them. There’s a reason for that. As many as 75% of white people in the USA have entirely white social networks. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Australia.
That’s why I now largely recommend that white people with little experience of PoC don’t write from the point of view of PoC characters. Research will only take you so far.
Writing about PoC when none of your friends are PoC is not the same as writing about an historical period you weren’t alive for. If you perpetuate stereotypes you hurt living people. When you don’t know any PoC, even with the best research in the world, you’ll get things wrong. Stereotypes are harmful. Especially when you don’t realise you have written a stereotype.
Who are you going to get to read and critique your work if everyone in your social circle is white? Are you going to ask someone you don’t know very well? It’s a huge thing asking someone to critique your work. It takes a lot of work and if they don’t know you well how do they know that you’ll be receptive to them pointing out racism in your work?
Representation is improving but it’s mostly whites doing the representing, which is part of the problem. We need more writers and editors and publicists and publishers and booksellers of colour. We need publishing to be more representative of the countries we live in. Right now US publishing is 89% white. Australian publishing is at least that white.
We white writers could do more to increase diversity in our industry by drawing attention to the work of writers of colour. By mentoring, introducing them to our agents, by blurbing their books, by making space for them at conventions and conferences, by listening. Check out Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon and the others involved with that organisation have lots of concrete ideas of how we can make YA more diverse and inclusive.
The other reason I’ve shifted to predominately white points of view is in response to all the critics who’ve pointed out for many, many years that too many white writers think they can only tackle race through the pov of a person of colour. The implication is that race is something white people don’t have. We just are. We’re colourless neutrals.
No, we’re not.
Expectations about our race—our whiteness—shapes our lives as much as our gender or our sexuality or our class. Yet all too many whites are unaware of it.
I wanted to write about how whiteness obscures our understandings of how we are who we are and of how the world operates. For the next few books, including Razorhurst, I’ve been pushing myself to examine whiteness in my fiction.
A recent book that does this well is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The character written by Kiely has to confront the ways in which his whiteness makes him complicit in the racist violence inflicted on Jason Reynolds’ character and what he can do about it.
Overt racist violence is not at the centre of Razorhurst or My Sister Rosa4 or of the book I’m currently writing. I’m looking at the less overt ways in which whiteness shapes lives.
I fully expect many of the people who read these books won’t notice. That’s okay. Many readers didn’t notice that everyone in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a person of colour. Books do many different things. No one reader is going to notice them all and many readers are going to see things the writer didn’t intend. It’s how it goes.
In all my books I try to tell a story that engrosses readers and lets them forget the real world for a few hours. That my books do that for even a handful of readers is glorious.
TL;DR: I’m writing predominately white pov characters because of reasons listed above. You do as works best for you.
Not going to lie I kind of which I was. I’d also like to dictate Australia’s foreign policy, response to climate change, and treatment of refugees. Also fashion. [↩]
In books with more than one point of view, such as Razorhurst and the NYC historical I’ve been working on forever, there are PoC povs. Those books wouldn’t makes sense otherwise. [↩]
I have writtenmany times over the years about people criticising our work being an inevitable part of being a writer. I also think it’s essential. We need criticism.1
Lately I’m seeing people arguing that there’s too much criticism of Young Adult literature and it’s now stopping people from writing because they’re too scared their work will be shredded. I’m bummed people feel that way because I wish there were more criticism.
While we have a broader and better conversation about intersectional representation then we’ve ever had it’s still not enough. Far too many popular books get a pass for pretty appalling representations. And far too many people who speak up to criticise those books and writers get yelled at for not being nice.2
We need more books about POC written by POC. Those books must outnumber the books by whites about POC. It matters that there’s space for everyone to tell their own story.
Until we reach that glorious future it’s essential books about other ethnicities and races written by whites are criticised by the members of those communities. Stereotypical and harmful books need to be pointed out.
Will every POC agree that a book is problematic? Of course not. None of these communities are monolithic.3Liar has been criticised for being racist by African-American readers. It’s also been defended against those charges by African-American readers.
It is also not saying that those books that are criticised for stereotypical portrayals of POC should be burnt. No one’s calling for book burning or banning. That seems to get lost in these debates.
The problem is not criticism. The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people. The problem is our book culture keeps reinforcing the message that white people are more important.
If you are being stopped from writing a book about people of a different race or ethnicity by the fear of being criticised maybe you shouldn’t write that book? Write a book about white people. You will then be criticised for writing yet another book about whites. Which do you think is the bigger problem? There is no option you get to pick where you don’t get criticised.
I’ve heard many POC critics point out that most white writers only feel they can write about race from the point of view of POC. This feeds into the idea that “race” is not something that white people have. We are neutral. We are somehow outside race. Newsflash: no one is outside race.
That criticism really made me think. What is whiteness? What does it mean? How is it constituted? Why is it so harmful? Out of that I wrote Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa. Two books with white main characters that are about race.4
I now agree that me writing from the point of view of POC characters is part of the problem. I won’t stop doing it—I have a large multi-viewpoint book I’ve been working on for many year that has many POC povs—but right now I want to keep writing about race from white points of view.
Writing for many of us is an act of courage. It was years before I showed my work to anyone. I couldn’t risk myself by letting anyone see what mattered most to me: my writing. I survived.
Having my work described as racist hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to the harm experienced by the readers who found my work racist.
Everyone who writes, no matter what their skin colour, gets criticised. We white writers need to remember that POC writers tend to get more criticism for writing about their own people than we do.
What we should do in response to criticism is not demand that the criticism go away. We should listen. We should learn. We should keep on writing.
We should keep demanding that there be more books about POC by POC. A great way to do that is to buy the ones that are already out there.
As an Australian I find Priscilla Queen of the Desert deeply racist and sexist. It does not represent me. I hate that people think it represents Australia. Or to be more accurate I hate that it does represent some of Australia’s sexism and racism and how okay many Australians are with it. [↩]
Razorhurst has two main characters. One of whom is not necessarily white but thinks she is. [↩]
Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.
Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.
We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?
They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.
Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.
I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.
All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too.1 Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.
We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.2
Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties.3 I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.4
TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!
Our own communities often judge us the most harshly. As an Australian the most vehement criticism I get of my books with Aussie characters and Aussie settings is that I’ve gotten them wrong. Aussies don’t talk that why! Why do you misrepresent your own people? Are you actually Australian? [↩]
I speak as a white author who has written African-American, Aboriginal Australian, Hispanic American and Chinese-American main characters. I know I’m part of the problem. [↩]
Although she may have been appalled by him being a vulgar colonial. [↩]
A big deal is made of the first sentence of novels. There’sgazillions of pageslistinggoodones.1 Almost every obsessive reader can quote their favourite ones. Every Jane Austen fan can reel off:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I mean even I know that one off by heart and I have the world’s worst memory. Tragically it’s just about the only first sentence I do know. No, not even the first sentences of my own novels. I have to look them up.
Pretty much every agent or editor or writer when giving advice will tell you that the first sentence is crucial. That you have to get it right! When they talk about what a first sentence should do they tend to say it should make you want to read on, which, well, yes, yes it should. But that’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you write a sentence that will make readers want to read on?
I think a more useful way of thinking about the first sentence is to think about its relationship to the rest of the novel. Many first sentences operate as a kind of shorthand for the entire novel, giving the reader a sense of what’s to come, who’s telling the story, and what kind of story it is. Or, almost the opposite, messing with the reader, getting them to think it’s one kind of book when it’s not, which perversely also gives the reader a sense of what’s to come: a novel that will mess with the reader.
But you don’t have to be all show-offy to achieve that. Here are two simple first sentences. The first from one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948):
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
The narrator is a writer, possibly an eccentric who likes to sit in places not traditionally used for sitting, or perhaps a child who hasn’t quite figured out where it is or isn’t appropriate to sit or doesn’t care, or it could be someone with some kind of foot or ankle or lower leg disorder which means their feet need to be soaked, though why in the kitchen sink and not in a bucket? What is the “this” that she’s writing? Is is a journal? Does that mean “this” is a novel told in journal entries? Or is it a letter? Is this an epistolary novel? Or is it a novel that’s telling us it’s a novel? So many questions. Such an arresting image. And now I want to read the book all over again.
The second one is from another favourite, Courtney Milan’s marvellous The Suffragette Scandal (2014):
“Edward Clark was disgusted with himself.”
This is the opening sentence and, boy, does it sum up the whole book in which Edward Clark continues to be disgusted with himself throughout. I’d argue that a big part of the plot is him learning to do something about that disgust, to change himself into someone who doesn’t disgust himself. Though it becomes clear that the initial incident that he’s being disgusted about is not, in fact, a big deal. Nor is he that disgusted. It’s more a figure of speech.
So, how do you write a good first sentence?
Buggered if I know. But I will suggest that it helps to not think about that first sentence when writing your first, raw, zero draft. For me that’s a recipe for sitting there staring at the blank page, coming up with nothing, and developing an increasingly strong urge to tweet, or go kill zombies, or clean the kitchen, or go for a run, or anything else that isn’t writing.
If I think about writing a perfect pearl of a first sentence I cry. So instead I just type, banging out the story, characters, ideas that are pushing me into starting a new novel.
I started my next novel2 in September 2013. I didn’t write the first sentence—or indeed the first chapter—until January 2015. The previous first chapter I threw out because it wasn’t working. This has been true of most of my published novels.
That said, you might be one of those writers who has to have a perfectly formed first sentence in order to keep writing. There are such writers. Many of whom manage to write many novels. So do not despair if you turn out to be one of them. Every kind of writer has their own burdens and to keep us own our toes what those burdens are can change from story to story.
For me it’s impossible to write a good first sentence until I know what the novel is about and not being an outliner I can’t know what the book is about until I’ve written the first draft. Perhaps outliners bang out the perfect opening sentence straight away? Perhaps some of them have that perfect sentence in their outline? Sometimes I am very envious of how I imagine outliners write.
Of course not all opening sentences sum up the entire book in a neat way. Or at least that’s not all they do. Consider the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):
124 was spiteful.
So many questions it raises. How is 124 a who? How has a number become a name? Who is 124? Why are they spiteful? How can a number be spiteful? I must read and find out.
Then there’s massive generalisation openings, which Jane Austen brilliantly skewers with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. These kind of overblown aphoristic openings are a hallmark of nineteenth century literature, and though oft quoted, are way harder to get away with these days—unless you’re writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. Though that makes me want to try one of these openings with a contemporary novel. Take Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities from 1859:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
While Dickens’ opening here is overblown it’s hard to deny that period of French history was kind of intense.
Then there’s Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877):
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
I call total bullshit on this opening. There are as many different kinds of happiness as there are of misery. So, boo to you, Tolstoy. Maybe it’s less stupid in the original Russian?
There is, however, no denying the poetry of both those openings. They trip off the tongue and are very easy to remember. Though, most people only ever quote the first two clauses of the Tale of Two Cities opening because we are lazy creatures. Maybe that’s why long, elegiac opening sentences went out of fashion?
TL;DR First sentences. They are important. But don’t sweat them unless you have to. The beauty of writing as opposed to, say, live debating, is that you can rewrite until you get it right.
Though you’ll notice those lists seem to be compiled by people who mostly read books by white men. I merely observe, I do not judge. [↩]
My Sister Rosa which publishes in February and November of 2016 in Australia and the US respectively. [↩]
Here are two “facts” about writing I’ve been hearing lately that I must beat until their stuffing falls out and their non-factness is apparent to all.1
1. On average published authors write 2-3 novels before publication.
Um, what? How was such a statistic arrived at? Where does it come from? Why is everyone repeating it? Oh, who cares. It’s irrelevant.
It does not matter how many novels other authors wrote before they were published. It has no effect on you. I wrote two novels before I was published. Scott sold the first one he finished. I know of authors who wrote more than twenty novels before they finally sold one. Who knows what your path will be?
It’s like asking an agent how many authors they sign per year on average. Knowing that doesn’t increase or decrease your chances. The only thing that will increase your chances of finding an agent to represent you is writing a book an agent likes. It could be that the agent who falls in love with your book will take on no clients but you that month or year. Or they’ll take on ten. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fall for your book and your writing.
Being above or below this random number of 2-3 written books before selling first book makes zero difference to your writing career. It predicts nothing.
That stat is only useful if it helps people realise that selling your first novel is unlikely. Though, yes, it happens. In publishing pretty much everything has happened. Learning to write well is a long process. As I have chronicled it took me years to learn how to rewrite.
2. People’s second published novels are always much worst than their first.
Yes, people talk about second-novel syndrome. But it mostly applies to people whose first novel was a huge success. Surprise! The vast majority of authors do not have a run away bestseller with their first novel. Therefore they do not have the over-the-top pressure for their second book to be as successful as their first.
Most novelists don’t have a huge hit with any of their novels. And for those that do get lucky? Well, it can happen with their fifth or sixth or tenth or whatever-th novel. Sometimes in the wake of all that attention and money raining down on them it can take a long time to write their next book.
I don’t think there is a second-novel syndrome; I think there’s next-book-after-a-huge hit syndrome.
Now I’ve cleared that up, let’s take a moment to consider what people mean by the second novel. Shockingly some authors’ second novels were written before their first novels, which is the case with Jonathan Lethem. Michael Chabon’s second novel was the third novel he wrote. My first published novel was the third novel I wrote.
Often we don’t know what order novels were written in. All we know for sure is the order in which they were published and, why, yes, there are many authors with super successful second novels whose second novels were better than their first.2
There’s Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which you may have heard of. Many consider it to be her best. I love P and P but for my money Persuasion is her finest work. Scott’s second novel Fine Prey is way, way, way better than his first Polymorph. Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is an amazing debut but I reckon her second novel, Price of Salt/Carol, is much, much better and breaks my heart every time I read it. Then there’s Infinite Jest, which I’ve never been able to finish, so not my thing, but which was certainly more successful than his first novel.
I could go on like this all day long. There are many great second novels and great third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. novels. Most novelists get better the more novels they write.3 Usually, the more you do something the better you get at it. It’s called practice and training and like that. With most of my favourite living writers it’s their most recent book that’s their most accomplished.
I would argue that amazing debut novels are the exception not the rule. I’l blurb a flawed debut novel. I expect debut novels to be rawer. I cut them more slack because they’re a novelist’s first baby, their first attempt at that impossible task: writing a perfect novel.
In conclusion: most so-called “facts” about the writing life are no such thing. Every writer writes differently. There are as many different paths to publication as there are writers.
Or, you know, the people who read this blog. Both of them. [↩]
In these discussions the word “successful” is usually used to mean “sold lots of copies.” I don’t think that’s the only measure of a book’s success. Quite a few of the so-called second-book failures are quite good. They simply failed to sell as well as the first. [↩]
Yes, there are exceptions. No, let’s not name them. [↩]
I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.
The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.
Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.
I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.
My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”
Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”
MP: “They’d shout through the door.”
Me: “What if they’re mute?”
As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?
Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”
MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”
Me: “But what if . . . ”
MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”
Me: *side eyes parents*
Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?
I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.
If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2
It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.
When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.
Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:
And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.
When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.
Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.
There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.
Today the Sydney Morning Herald is running my entry in their long-running Books That Changed Me series. I struggled mightily to get it down to four. Especially as they initially told me I could name five. There are too many books that have changed me! Too many books that I love with every fibre of my being!
The four that made the cut:
Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux (1939) is a novel that reads like history. Like geography. Almost geology. It’s slow, there’s no plot to speak of, it’s everything I don’t like about literary novels. I love it. Tennant lays bare Surry Hills from before the first world war up to the first hints of the next war. She swims in her joy at the Aussie vernacular. It’s bloody bosker.
Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979) because, well, fairy tales. When I was little I made up my own, and the ghostly echo of “Once upon a time” shapes all the fiction I’ve ever written. But it wasn’t until I read this explosion of a collection that I realised how much could be done to fairy fales, and how much they could do to me. Carter taught me the anatomy of the fairy tale and how to make use of the viscera.
I give people Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (1998) when they demand proof that novels for teens (YA) can be as good as the best novels for adults. In a scant 200 pages Woodson delves deep into New York City’s geographical, class, and racial fissures, and then she breaks your heart.
About Writing (2006) by Samuel R. Delany is the smartest book about writing I’ve ever read. In a series of letters and lectures Delany leaps from the intricacies of punctuating dialogue, to those of creating character, to existential questions about what it is that a writer can make a reader know. Delany with both his fiction and his non-fiction changed the way I write and how I think about writing.
These are the ones I couldn’t include:
I don’t know how old I was when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813). Very young. I’ve read it so many times that I could probably read it from memory. Yet every time I read it I find something new. On the last reread I focussed on the world of the servants. The time before that on her extraordinary world building with her razor focus on economics. It’s true that Persuasion (1818) is now my favourite of her novels but it was not the one that changed me when I first read it as a pre-teen.
I’ve always read True Crime as well as fictional crime. Always veering towards the dark: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosley, Denise Mina. At their core are these questions: What is evil? Why do people do evil things? Why are we fascinated? I picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) when I was very young and didn’t know who Charles Manson was and hadn’t thought much about the question of evil. This book meant I never forgot.1
I didn’t know which Octavia Butler book to pick. They’re all amazing. Even Survivor (1978), an early novel that she never wanted to see in print again. I read it in the bowels of the Rare Books section of the University of Sydney. It’s not her best but it’s still better than most every other novel by anyone else. Her stories in Bloodchild & Other Stories are a revelation. Each one perfect in a different way from the last. Read everything she wrote!
Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romances. She’s brilliant at torpedoing the constraints of the genre while working within it. Take Unclaimed (2011) in which a courtesan has to seduce a Victorian rockstar professional virgin who’s written the book on how to be celibate. She neatly upends the heroine as virgin; hero as rake paradigm of most historical romances and she does it with wit. Her latest, The Suffragette Scandal (2014) is her best book yet.
Each of these fiction writers showed me what was can be achieved with writing. They taught me to push past the constraints of genre and to think about the impact of every single word. They changed me as a writer and as a person. I recommend them all. In fact, I kind of feel like rereading them all right now. For the millionth time.
This is the one book on the list that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. But I think it’s important to note that some books that change you aren’t particularly good. [↩]
I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.
My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.
However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.
I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.
If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.
These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.
I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.
It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.
Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.
Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!
What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!
Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.
Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath. [↩]
For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea. [↩]
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. [↩]
Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. [↩]
First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. [↩]
Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. [↩]
I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.
I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2
But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.
I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.
Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.
I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.
And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.
(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)
Don’t do what I did.
If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.
Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.
TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.
I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties. [↩]
Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I? [↩]
Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one. [↩]
“Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia. [↩]
As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes.1 It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.2
The good people at Allen & Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:
Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.
The alliteration is in homage to Truth Sydney’s fabulously over the top tabloid of the period. [↩]
Which may I point out is less than a year away! [↩]
One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.
Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.
I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.
Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.
I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:
Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.
This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.
Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.
Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.
At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:
And it was good. Really good.
TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.
After their relieved that the goanna has gone away. [↩]
Today, Justine has graciously agreed to host a guest post from Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. Workshop graduate Rachel Halpern is here to talk about the confidence Alpha gave her as a teen writer.
I came into Alpha in the comfortable certainty that I would never be a writer. Even applying to Alpha seemed daring and ridiculous, and getting in was a complete shock. I was seventeen, old enough to have given up on the silliness of “someday I’ll be a real author.”
Getting in was a hit of confidence I badly needed, amazed that I’d made it into a 20 person program so cool that Tamora Pierce – my literary idol at the time – was willing to teach there. But it was still pretty clear, reading my fellow students’ work, that I had gotten in on a bit of a fluke – everyone there was obviously very talented, and I couldn’t quite believe anyone had put me among them.
At Alpha, though, it turns out these incredible students and staff and authors all take you seriously as a writer. That all these amazing people took my writing seriously – wanted to know what my story was about, where I was planning to send it – it was transformative to someone who’d long ago given up on writing something that anyone else would bother to read. I was so sure I’d never get anything published – and I probably never would have, without Alpha telling me to keep writing and keep submitting at a time when that seemed arrogant and impossible.
At Alpha, we’re encouraged to not only write new stories, but to read them aloud in bookstores, in front of our fellow students and the awe-inspiring guest authors who’ve come to read their own work. The staff coach us not just on how to make our writing the best it can be, but how to perform it to best effect. The underlying message, as with so many parts of Alpha, is You are good enough. Your writing is important. If it’s worth reading aloud, it must be worth reading at all. They tell us where we should send our work, which are the best magazines in our field, that we deserved to be paid for our work. They told us that rejections were a badge of pride, proof that you were sending your work out at all. They treated us, in short, like “real” writers, and taught us to treat ourselves the same way.
Coming out of Alpha, that confidence affects every aspect of our writing lives. That confidence is what keeps us writing. It’s what keeps us sharing our stories, with our friends, read aloud in bookstores, with critique partners. It’s what keeps us sending stories out, to contests and magazines, keeps us pursuing publication.
As a teenager, certain my writing was a pointless hobby, it seemed so outrageous to even consider someday being published. Even just writing seemed like such a waste of my time.
At Alpha, though, they didn’t treat me like “just a teenager,” or like a hobbyist. Through serious critiques and exciting lectures and just by listening and reading my work, they told me I was a writer.
We get a lot out of Alpha that lasts beyond that short exciting summer workshop – lifelong friends, tremendous writing advice, a critique group that helps us years after we graduate. But most of all, we get the message: you are writers, and you are good enough to write.
Alpha graduateRachel Halpern is Editor-in-Chief at Inscription Magazine. She is a Dell Award finalist whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
For more information about Alpha, visit our website. To support the scholarship fund, which provides financial assistance to young writers accepted into the workshop, please consider making a donation. All donors receive a PDF copy of the Alphanthology, a completely alumni-created illustrated flash fiction anthology.
I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.
I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3
The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5
Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?
I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderfulTED talks and readinginterviewswithher, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.
When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.
The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.
However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.
Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8
But that’s not entirely true either.
The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.
However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.
How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9
With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.
I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.
In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.
Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.
Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.
To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.
This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.
To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12
The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.
I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!
In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.
Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.
As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. [↩]
When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. [↩]
But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. [↩]
Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. [↩]
I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. [↩]
Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. [↩]
No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. [↩]
That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. [↩]
Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. [↩]
Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. [↩]
I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.
To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.
What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.
Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.
I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).
Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.
Ask Yourself This Question First
Why do you want to be published?
There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.
But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.
In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.
This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.
Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First
I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.
I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.
Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.
Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me.1 My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.
I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE.2 I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.
Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.
Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.
Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.
You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.
My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.4
You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one.5 But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.
All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.
Always have a novel on the go.
When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.
Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.
Never stop writing!
People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.
They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.
True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.
In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.
I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.
Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.
Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)
Once You’re Published
This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.
I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.
Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.
Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.
Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.7
They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.
You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.
There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.
An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.
When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.
Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.
Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.
I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.
However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.
Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!
And keep on writing!
Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.
Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.
Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.
I do know a couple of people who were picked up by an agent and whose first novel sold basically within minutes of sending out. That’s unusual. Also annoying. [↩]
I wonder if self-publishing had existed back then if I would have gone ahead and published my work as it was? Back then I was pretty sure what I was writing was genius despite all the rejections. Reading it now I know it was rubbish and it being published back then would have been at best really embarrassing. [↩]
Which is not to say you ever learn to like it. I hates rejection, I does. HATES IT! [↩]
But let’s just say I’m not barracking for any Eastern European football teams in the World Cup. [↩]
Oh, the tears this profession of mine has made me weep. Fortunately a fair few of them have been tears of joy. [↩]
Show me the profession that doesn’t involve waiting and being rejected. I suspect it does not exist. [↩]
Yes, there are exceptions. Horrible exceptions. No industry is perfect. Least of all publishing. [↩]
It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1
Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2
There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.
But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.
Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.
Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.
Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.
Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.
Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.
It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?
What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.
Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.
Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.
Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.
But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.
Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4
Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.
Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.
But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.
This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.
All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.
None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.
Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life. [↩]
Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain. [↩]
Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out. [↩]
I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world. [↩]
Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters. [↩]
One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?
Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.
Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.
It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?
If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.
Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.
My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.
I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.
Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.
I think that’s a good thing.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.
But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.
Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.
They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.
This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.
Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!
I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast. [↩]
Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me. [↩]
The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks1 typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?
Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel.2 I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.
Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.3
Back to my story and moving forward a decade:
Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.
My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.
When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.
I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.
However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas4 I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.
I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa5 immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.
Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.
Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.
There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.
None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day.6 Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.
The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.7
I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.
Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.
Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.
Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted.8 Wish me luck.9
Or how to write a short story. But I was blissfully unaware of that back then. [↩]
Romances published outside the category are allowed to have sad endings. [↩]
And also Jo Bourne who I didn’t ask because I have not read her work. Looks Like I’ll have to now. [↩]
I feel like we’re now on first name basis after several Twitter exchanges. [↩]
Though if there is one point me to it cause that would be fascinating. [↩]
I ranted on Twitter recently about how people are always claiming stuff about YA with nothing but anecdotal evidence and here am I doing the same thing. Sorry. If anyone knows of any actual research that has been done on this I’d love to hear it! [↩]
Well, except for that attempt at 15 which I hardly think counts. [↩]
But don’t hold your breath. I just started a new YA and have many other books on my to-write queue before I get to having a go at writing an adult historical romance. [↩]
Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.
Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:
For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.
Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.
At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which left me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.
Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.
But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.
At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)
On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.
The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.
At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.
What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.
Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.
The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.
I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.
If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:
Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:
The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.
The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!
To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.
To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.
You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.
Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.
Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.
Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!
Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.
Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury [↩]
Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were. [↩]
This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)
I will be editing it from time to time to add more evil words.
When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*
These are the offending words:
eyebrow (raise, lift)
(the) feel (of)
mouth (open, close)
None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.
For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.
“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:
Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:
Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.
I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.
My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”
You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.
The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap off the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.
(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)
Update March 2014: Have noticed in my latest draft that I’m overusing “start to” or “begin to” as in “she started to open the door” when “she opened the door” is all that’s needed. Also “at all” as an intensifier. “She didn’t love them at all” when “she didn’t love them” does the job.
Update June 2015: In my latest draft some new overused words are: “all” as in “It was all Seimone’s idea” when usually “It was Seimone’s idea” works just fine. Yes, sometimes you need that extra emphasis. But I find that I use “all” an awful lot as an intensifier when it’s not adding much.
I also noticed that I use “and then” as a conjunction when just “and” or just “then” will do. “Back” as in “David turns back to me.” When the direction is clear or isn’t important the “back” can go. “With me” as in ” I could take Seimone with me.” The “with me” isn’t adding anything. “I could take Seimone” already tells the reader that you’re taking Seimone with you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deleted “with me” in this draft. It’s frequently redundant.
Another one is “(The) feel (of)” as in “The feel of Sojourner’s mouth almost touching my ear sends my thoughts far from Rosa,” which adds absolutely nothing as you can see when I delete it: “Sojourner’s mouth almost touching my ear sends my thoughts far from Rosa.”
Here’s a little edit I just did that shows you how redundancies creep in:
We stand facing each other, still holding hands, looking directly into each other’s eyes. I take a step closer.
We stand faceing each other, still holding hands, looking directly into each other’s eyes. I take a step closer.
We face each other, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes. I step closer.
None of the deleted words added anything. That’s why they’re gone. I’m not saying I’ll keep it as edited but it’s better than it was. That’s the kind of editing I’m talking about and why I keep this list. Though as you can see “still” is the only word deleted in this particular edit that’s on my list. That’s how line editing goes.
If there’s one thing I hope I have made clear in the ten years (!) I have been sharing writing advice here it’s that there are as many different ways to write as there are writers. If some writing advice doesn’t work for you, then ignore it, try something else.
Some writers plan, some writers wing it. Some writers compose their drafts in their head and only when they deem it to be perfect do they start typing words. Some writers do their first drafts with pen and paper (shudder). Some writers start at the end of their story and work backwards.1
We also conceive of what we do with a giddying array of different metaphors. Take for example this lovely piece, Where Character Come From, by Cory Doctorow. It’s wonderfully clear2 and Scott pointed it out because it rang so true for him.
“Yes,” Scott said, “that’s what I do.”
Here’s a sample:
As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters “catch,” they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.
“Oh,” I said. “That is not even slightly what it’s like for me.”
Though until I read Cory’s piece and discussed it with Scott I didn’t realise the following:
I can’t start writing unless the characters are already there.
For me there is no “catching” moment. Unless I know the main characters I cannot write a word. My characters never feel like puppets to me. Not ever. Even in clumsy drafts like this first draft of the opening chapter of Magic or Madness. It certainly reads like I’m a really bad puppet master. Yet even then, the pov character, Reason, was absolutely fully formed in my head. I was just struggling to get her down onto paper.
I wonder if this is a difference between writers who begin with ideas rather than with characters?
Almost every novel I have ever written has started with the voice. The first few thousand words of How To Ditch Your Fairy came pouring out of me while on deadline for another book. Those words, almost unaltered, form the third chapter of the final published book. The main character, Charlie, is exactly as she was on that first day she popped into my head.
The two exceptions are Liar and Team Human. As Team Human was a collaborative novel it departed from all my usual modes of writing and was its own JustineAndSarah thing. But even then those characters never felt like puppets, nor did I ever feel like I was putting words in their mouths.
With Liar I got the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a compulsive/pathological liar first. And had a few stabs at writing that went nowhere until Micah showed up. But even in those earlier attempts the pov character felt real, just not remotely interesting enough to keep writing about.
Confession: I have abandoned (killed?) gazillions of fully-formed characters because they bored me. Yeah, yeah, I know who am I to judge? But if they bored me then they were going to put my readers into comas. Not a great strategy for selling books.
And if a character ever felt like I was making her speak in a funny squeaky voice then no way would I be able to write her. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. Other than horrible.
What do I mean by “real” when I say my characters feel like real people?
I certainly don’t think they are real people. I am not one of those writers who gets confused between characters they’ve written and their real-life friends. To be honest, once I’m done with a book I start to forget everything I knew about them. When readers ask me questions about my books they usually know far more than I do seeing as they’ve read them more recently than I have.
In a weird way my characters feel alive to me only when I’m writing (about) them. When I think about Micah Wilkins now she’s like someone I used to know. Or, rather, like some character from a series I used to be obsessed with ages ago and haven’t thought about much since.
Cory has a metaphor for the whole process:
I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.
This, he says, is how we create characters:
This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out.
It’s a very clear metaphor and one that I think will make a tonne of sense to many writers. It certainly did for Scott. But I find myself shaking my head. I see what he’s saying and I know I do very similar things but I don’t think about it like that. Cory’s metaphor does not work for me.
However, right now I don’t have a better one for the whole process of how I create characters. All I’ve got is: I just do it. Obviously, I need to think about it some more. Read other writers’ metaphors for describing the process. I’ll get back to you when I find a metaphor that works for me.
In the meantime I’d love to hear how youse lot think about creating characters.
I’d love to try that last one but as I never have any idea how my books are going to end until I’ve read most of them I can’t see it working. [↩]
Cory really is a fabulous non-fiction writer. He’s about the only one who makes the complexities of copyright law clear to me. [↩]
This is a big issue in the Urban Fantasy genre too. I’ve started more than one series where the MC, despite being thirty-something with a job and developed asskicking abilities, has zero friends and no previous relationships. (Teacher of asskicking? No, conveniently dead just like other parental figures? What about cowor- no there too? Not even other independent psychic investigators? Okay, then. Friends? Okay, okay. Just asking.)
Rachel put her finger on something that drives me nuts in many movies/tv shows/books etc. The mighty arse-kicking protag who is the master of many martial arts but no longer studies any of them. They’ve had their training montage and now their skills are perfected and they never need to study again.
Seriously? How does anyone buy that? I mean even a slight sports fan knows that all the top athletes have armies of coaches and trainers and work really hard to improve even when they’re ranked number one in the entire universe.
I have studied two different martial arts: fencing and boxing. My fencing instructors, while instructing beginner me, were themselves still studying both with top fencing instructors in Australia but they would also go to master classes in Italy and France.
My boxing trainer makes a special trip out to the USA once a year to work with her trainer. She’s won titles and has many students of her own and yet she’s still training and working with her guru. And he, in turn, who is a master of several martial arts, continues to learn other martial arts and to train with other masters, swapping techniques. Which he then incorporates into his own teaching.
Funny how often that doesn’t happen in fiction.
I do sometimes wonder if the way learning is represented in popular culture—you study hard for about ten minutes and then magically you are perfected!—is part of why so many people give up when learning something new because they aren’t perfect at it within the space of a training montage. Could it be why so many people think they can just sit down and write a perfect New York Times-bestselling novel without having written so much as a haiku previously?
Probably not. We people are often pretty lazy. But those popular culture tropes sure aren’t helping.
Way back when I wrote a guide to writing novels aimed squarely at first time novelists. It was very practical and kind of silly. Remarkably, many people have found it useful. But yesterday Ksenia Anske reminded me that I neglected to say the most important thing about writing your first novel:
The main thing you’re doing with your first novel is learning how to write a novel.
Think of it like making bread. The first loaf I made was rock hard. Seriously I could have killed people with it. My next loaf was inedibly salty. The third kind of bland. But slowly each loaf became better than the last. I started to learn what the dough should feel like as I kneaded. How much salt was enough. How long to prove for. And so on and so forth.
The bad news is that novels are way more complicated than making bread.
But that’s the good news too. The lessons you learn writing your first novel will definitely help you write your second but it’s likely you’ll find you’ll have to learn a whole bunch of new lessons. My first novel was set in twelfth century Cambodia with a cast of millions. My second book was an urban US contemporary. Many of the things I learned writing the first novel: about plotting, pacing, characterisation etc. were very useful. Others about how to indicate different dialects being spoken while only using English and how to incorporate historical research without sinking the plot were less useful.
Neither book has ever been published. But I learnt so much writing them. Mainly that every novel is different and you have to learn new skills for each one. Yes, even when they’re the next book in a trilogy.
When you’re writing your first novel write whatever you want to write. Don’t worry about “the market.”1 Most people’s first novels don’t sell whether they tailored it for “the market” or not.
That doesn’t make the first novel useless. If it hadn’t been written than the second one wouldn’t be that much better. And the third even better. That first novel needs to exist—not necessarily as a novel to be read—but for the process of having written it.
Think of it as an experimental lab where you don’t have to take any safety precautions. You can blow stuff up. You can kill all your characters. You can set it in a white room with no doors or windows and no characters. You can do all the things you’re not supposed to do. Have it be all dialogue! Write it from the point of view of the ceiling! Ignore the rules! Maybe you’ll reinvent the novel. Who knows?
Whatever you want to write you can. Novelists have no budget they have to stick to. Not like writing spec scripts where you have to keep costs down. There are no costs to a novel. You can write stuff that would take a trillion dollar budget to film.
Of course, it’s not just your first novel, which is about learning how to write a novel. I’m rewriting my ninth novel. I’m still learning.
Honestly, no one knows what “the market” whatever that is truly wants. Worrying about it at any stage of your career will just do your head in. [↩]
All my favourite fiction, whether novels or television, features strong relationships. I’ve started to think that for me the hallmark of good writing is, in fact, the strength of the relationships. So many books/movies/tv fail for me because the protag either doesn’t have any relationships or because those relationships are constructed out of cardboard.
And, no, I’m not solely talking about the lerve and the shipping. I’m talking all relationships: with mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and most especially, friends.
One of the things that attracted me to YA as a genre is that so much of it is about friendship and family relationships. It’s why every time I read a YA book that doesn’t feature those strong relationships I’m deeply disappointed. To me, it’s like the author failed to understand the genre. But then I came to YA via authors like M. E. Kerr and Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. Yes, there’s romantic love in those books but there are also other very strong relationships, particularly with family members. Think of Sophy and her sisters in Howl’s Moving Castle and Laura with her brother and mother in The Changeover.
The core of the Uglies series is not Tally and whoever her love interest is either boring David or sexy Zane.1 It’s her friendship/hateship with Shay. In the Leviathan trilogy there are multiple wonderful relationships beside the central lerve one. My favourite is Derryn’s relationship with the boffin, Nora Barlow.
These other relationships are what make the central characters so rich. We know Sophy and Laura and Tally and Derryn through their relationships to other people. Our friendships are a large part of who we are as people.
Strong relationships keep me going watching a show even when the rest of it isn’t really working for me. I was very disappointed by Homeland which despite being touted as groundbreaking television I found predictable and mostly uninteresting. But I loved the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and her mentor boss played by Mandy Patikin and it kept me watching despite Homeland‘s average script and the way the show kept pulling its punches. Oh and the special and visual effects were so cheesy. Least convincing explosions I’ve seen in ages. I thought Showtime had money? Weird.
Another disappointing show was the BBC’s The Fades, which was visually stunning. OMG. That show is beautiful. It’s a pity about the incredibly boring central character—well, boring when he wasn’t being annoying—and the overloaded and out of control script. Too much stuff, people! Much of it wonderful—enough to keep several shows going but not all crammed together in the one show! Stakes WAY TOO HIGH. Pare it down, already. Also another chosen one story. *yawn* Can we retire “awkward weird guy hated by everyone—except for that one gorgeous girl with no personality—turns out to have awesome powers and be the only one who can save the world” right now, please? Thank you.
But I loved the main character’s best friend and his sister and their relationship with the really boring protag were the only times the protag was even vaguely interesting. Their relationship with each other was the best thing in the show. Those relationships kept me watching.
I often hear beginning writers complain that they’re not sure what happens with their protagonist next. That they’re stuck. Often part of the problem is that their book does not have enough relationships in it. They’ve left out the parents, made their protag an only child with no friends. The only other characters are the love interest and the villian. And none of the characters are coming to life because they’re only in the book for one reason: to be the Love Interest, to be the Villian, to be the Protagonist.
There has to be more. You get the more by complicating things. Let’s say the protag’s best friend is the villian’s sister. Already that gives both the protag and the villian another dimension: their relationship with their BFF/sister. Both characters suddenly became a lot more interesting.
I know it’s convenient—not to mention a longstanding trope—to get rid of the parents but parents add all sorts of fabulous complications and depth to your books. They can arbitrarily ground your character or be indifferent to their goings on. Or have a mysterious job. Or turn out to be the villian. Or be there full of love and advice and patching up or, all of the above. Ditch them at the peril of writing a less interesting book.
Also siblings. They complicate things too. Personally I adore them.2 The protag’s little sister in How To Ditch Your Fairy is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever created. I’d love to give her a book of her own some day.
In conclusion: Please don’t write novels with one character in a white walled room. Family and friends are good plot thickeners and givers of dimensions to other characters.
Uglies trivia: I came up with Zane’s name by the way. [↩]
And not just because my sister is the best which means I want everyone to have a fabulous sister. [↩]
My last post may have given the impression that I am not a fan of rewriting. So not true! I loves it.
For me the first draft is the least fun because I’m never quite sure I have a novel until there’s a complete draft. The Sekrit Project is the first solo novel I’ve finished since 2008 so finishing this year was a HUGE RELIEF. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would. If I knew how to write novels anymore. That made the first draft—even the most fun times of writing it—stressful.
So no matter how unfun some parts of the rewriting process are I have none of that anxiety: because I have a manuscript. I mean, yes, it’s a less than optimal manuscript but I now know I’m going to finish and make it the best book I can. I will figure out how to make it better.
I really enjoy taking shitty sentences and engoodening them, tweaking character’s arcs until they make sense to people other than me. It’s very satisfying. And when I get stuck on one bit of the book there are countless other bits to fix.
I also LOVE finally being able to talk about the book with other people. Other than Scott, I mostly don’t show people my books until I have a complete draft. So it’s just me and the book. Getting other people’s takes on it is so important. I can only go so far on my own. Other people frequently show me in about ten seconds what I’ve been blind to for months. Gah! But also: AWESOME.1
I also enjoy how hard rewriting is. Keeping track of a complete novel is keeping track of an entire world and its people. I love that feeling of total immersion. I love the power of life and death! I can KILL YOU ALL! *cough* I love pushing myself to the limits of my ability.
Sekrit Project is the most challenging book I’ve written so far.2 It required an enormous amount of research. The plotting is much trickier than any other book. Several of the characters push me WAY outside my comfort zone. I love it! So exhilarating and fun.
Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine.1 The sounds weren’t quite as lovely. Spring seems to be the season of renovations in Paddington so the hills were alive with the sound of jackhammers. That and really pissed off birds. One of which shat right in front of me: had I been a fraction faster . . . splat of eww on my head.2
Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.
Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.
Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.
And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.
Plan to fix book was not hatched.
My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.
Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.
Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.
Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.
This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.
This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.
Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.
Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.
It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.
It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.
We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.
Often that is a not good thing.
When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?
First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.
Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.
Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.
We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.
What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway: Continue reading →
Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. [↩]
I don’t know who first called it process porn but me and many of my friends like, Gwenda Bond, call talking about how we write “process porn” and have done so for ages.1 There’s something delicious about getting together with a bunch of writer friends and talking about how we dealt with this or that problem. “Once I realised the mc hates water the whole book opened up!” “The switch from third to first person was what nailed it.” “Wrong pov. 30,000 words in and I realised it should be from the sister’s not the brother’s pov. Aargh!”
It feels wicked and indulgent but also practical and comraderly. Like we are a bunch of carpenters comparing our joinery and carving tools. It’s fun.
Gwenda received this wonderful piece of advice from Tim Wynne-Jones: “The most important thing every writer learns is her process.”
That is so true. When I started trying to write novels for the first time I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never read a single word about how other writers did it. I just started typing.
And I didn’t finish.
So I started typing something else.
And didn’t finish that either.
And so it went.
I didn’t finish my first novel until many, many, many years after my first attempt at writing a novel. The first draft of that first novel took eleven years to write. And I was only able to finish it after I had written my PhD thesis and discovered that, yes, I was capable of finishing a really long document.2
That is I had to learn how to finish. I had to discover my process for finishing novels.
I didn’t sell my first novel until more than a decade after that and it was not that first book I wrote. Or the second one. It was, in fact, a proposal for three books that I hadn’t written yet, the Magic or Madness trilogy.
In the meantime I started to learn to rewrite. A long and agonising process that I’m still undergoing only I really enjoy it these days. Both the rewriting and the learning how to do it better.
And the way I did that was to read what writers I admired wrote about writing. Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Jean Bedford all guided my learning how to write before I ever met them.3 And, eventually, when I met other writers, I was privileged enough to have those delicious process porn conversations and ask those other writers about how they rewrote.
But mostly I learned to rewrite from, you know, rewriting. And I discovered that for me a key part of that is having other people read over what I’d written and tell me what they didn’t understand, which bits were boring, etc. etc. See yesterday’s post.
So what Tim Wynne-Jones said a million times. Learning how to write is learning how you, in particular, write. What your process is. For most of us writers it is incredibly useful to know how other people write. It shows you that there is no One True Way. And exposes you to other ways that you can try. They may not work for you but they may help you discover something else about your process.
One hugely reassuring discovery for me was that I do not write every book the same way. That I cannot write every book the same way. With the novel I just wrote I got stuck and found myself having to outline to figure out how to move on. Me, who hates outlining. But, whatever, it worked.
In conclusion: we writers talk process because it is delicious and fun and because it helps us become better writers. There are a million and one ways to write a book. You do not have to stick to the one way. Unless that is what works for you.
P.S. I wrote “point” and “porn” in the title of this post. Tee hee. I really hope my spam filters are working.
Is it from that Pat Cadigan book where every obsession is called some kind of porn? [↩]
More than 100,000 words for both the thesis and that first novel. None of my published novels has been that long. [↩]
I have only met Samuel R Delany and Ursula LeGuin. [↩]
As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I recently finished the first draft of my Sekrit Project novel. And, yay verily, I was full of joy. There was dancing. Bouncing. Happiness and even more joy.
After the joy I spent a few days tinkering with it, fixing the egregiously rubbishy bits, adding things that needed adding, moving chapters around. As you do.
Then I sent it off to my wondrous, fabulous, worth-more-than-their-weight-in-mangosteens-and-other-precious-things first readers.
Then I kicked back and watched loads of Olympics and blogged and did many things that have nothing to do with Sekrit Project. And there was more joy.
After a week there was still some joy on account of OLYMPICS OH HOW I LOVE THE OLYMPICS but there was also creeping OMG THEY ALL HATE IT WHY HASN’T ANYONE GOTTEN BACK TO ME ABOUT IT NOT EVEN MY OWN HUSBAND IS IT REALLY THAT BAD thoughts.
Then yesterday one of my readers got back to me. She liked it! PHEW.1
But more importantly Meg had really smart, useful notes for me. And I got to talk with someone who was not me about Sekrit Project and most especially about the second half of the book and the ending.2
I think I got a little giddy. It was such a pleasure to finally talk about it. Poor Meg. I plied her with a million and one questions. And she answered them all for me in really useful ways. I have a much better idea of what is and isn’t working and how to fix it. Scott also came through with notes on the first half of the book. There was bouncing and dancing.
Both Meg and Scott’s notes were full of questions about character’s motivations, aspects of the worldbuilding that didn’t make sense to them, why certain things happen when they do and so on. Questions that make me realise that I had not achieved what I thought I had. All too often the book was too subtle, too opaque, too confusing. All of which I am now brimming with ideas for how to fix.
This world and people I have created changes once other people have seen them. Meg and Scott’s comments and questions have changed how I see them too. I love this part. I love how it gives me a million and one ideas for making the book better.
Have I mentioned that rewriting is my favourite part of the writing process? This is why.
I know there are lots of writers who can figure out all this stuff for themselves. But I really depend on feedback. I need to know how readers respond to what I’ve written because all too often what I think is there is not there. And I can’t discover that by reading and rewriting my book over and over again. I can’t do it alone.
So now I can rewrite to deal with all those problems and work towards the general embetterment of the book. And once that’s done I send it off to my agent. Then when both she and I are happy it gets sent out to editors. Who will in turn send me their own notes.
At least that is how I do it.
Trust me, every writer has their own methods. Some never show anyone anything other than their agent and editor. Some talk constantly about their book and what happens in it as they write and have several people read it as they go along. Some, like me, only let people read it once they have a complete draft. Some have everyone in the world read it and comment. Others none.
Whatever works for you is how to do it.
Yes, no matter how many books I’ve written I am always nervous about how the people whose opinions I value most will respond to my latest one especially in its raw state. [↩]
Usually as I write the first draft I read chapters out loud to scott every three or four days. But this time he only got to hear the first half because he was overseas while I wrote the second half and totally rewrote the first half and he has not yet finished reading the complete draft. [↩]
I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.
I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.
Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.
For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.
And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.
The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.
The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.
By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.
It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.
I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.
Procrastination is good
The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.
Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.
Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.
Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.
Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.
Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1
Many books at once
I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.
The first words I wrote of Liar are:
I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.
That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar four years later.
At the time I was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.
Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2
Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.
If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.
If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3
In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.
It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! [↩]
That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. [↩]
Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. [↩]
One of the posts I was asked to write when I undertook January Writing Advice Month—lo those many years ago—was how to write dialogue. Somehow I never got around to it.
Actually I know exactly why I never got around to it. I find writing dialogue easy. Most of my first drafts are pretty much all dialogue. Because it’s not something I’ve struggled with like rewriting or writing action scenes I haven’t thought about it much so I find it very difficult to figure out how I do it. I just do it. Like breathing.1
What follows is not how I write dialogue. Like I said I just write without a lot of conscious thought involved.2 Rather it’s a little bit of stuff (very little) that might be useful if you’re struggling to write believable dialogue. And if it’s not useful then, um, sorry bout that.
One of the simultaneously best and worst pieces of advice about writing dialogue is to listen to how the people around you speak. It’s great advice because you can’t hope to capture how people talk if you don’t, you know, listen to them. It’s terrible advice because when people speak their conversations are full of ums and ahs and repetitions and trailing offs and non-sequitors and missing words and those should be used only sparingly in writing.
Think about how hard it can be when overhearing someone else’s conversation to figure out what they’re talking about. That’s because the people talking know what they’re discussing so they don’t say useful things like “the bloody fight at Uncle Danno’s last week” but rather “it” or “that” or “yeah” or “what happened.” They know what they’re talking about so they don’t have to be precise in order for weirdo writers who are eavesdropping to understand.
On top of that people who know each other really well develop also sorts of shorthands and code words and even made up words that only they are privy to. All of which makes directly transcribing dialogue for your novel problematic.
The dirty secret is that good dialogue is almost never a direct copy of the way people speak. Yet it has to bear some relationship to how we talk or it becomes ludicrous.3
So, yes, listen to how people speak. Especially those you know well. Try to pick out their idiosyncrasies. Do they utter statements as if they were questions? Do they have a particular favourite word or phrase or grammatical structure? Other than the sound of their voice how can you distinguish how they talk from other people? Do they call everyone “possum” or “petal” or “poophead”?
For me the ultimate goal in writing dialogue is for the reader to know who is speaking without attribution. This is much harder than it looks. Also you have to battle most editors/copyeditors who are often very addicted to attribution and want every bit of dialogue clearly pinned to its speaker in order not to confuse the reader. I, on the other hand, feel that I have failed if attribution is necessary. It’s a battle I usually lose.
Here’s some dialogue from Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You with little attribution:
He heard Vere say, “I didn’t tell you about our thwart.”
“Ness is coming back.”
“My dear! What will they do without her at Hampton Court?”
“They will be undone.”
“Is Cousin Ettie coming too?”
“But of course. They are lashed to each other, she and Ness.”
“Is Cousin Ettie still in the money, Vere?”
“I thought no one was any more.”
“Oh, girl, Ettie’s evil husband bought shares in everything in the year one—things like Broken Hill Mining and Dalgetty’s and wool and shipping and little unimportant stock like Woolworth’s!”
“My dear! I suppose one day Ness will cop the lot.”
“The lot! That’s why she has stayed lashed to Ettie all these years.”
Part of what makes who is saying what so obvious is that one character has all the information and the other does not. One is a “my dear”-er and the other is a “girl”-er. There’s also the matter of their shared idiosyncratic language. “Thwart” which is defined in the book as:
She pronounced it to rhyme with “carted.” . . . It was always a “thwart” and never a “thwort.” “Thworted meant having warts.
Which is a lovely way to use word choice to point to the intimacy between these characters and to give you an idea of how they see the world.
That’s what you want to do with dialogue. At a minimum it should be doing double duty. Here it’s serving the purpose of telling what is going on (i.e. plot) but it’s also revealing the intimacy between the two speakers, their attitudes to the people they’re talking about, and a bit about themselves. Such as that they are clearly not in the money.
Crappy dialogue only does a few things and does them clumsily. Infodumpy dialogue is often dreaful. In early science fiction stories infodumping was so common that it came to be known as “As you know, Bob” and led to exchanges like this, which I made up ages ago to illustrate a different point:
Scientist’s daughter, Lotte Fairface: Hank, why are you throwing sand into that well? It seems to be affecting that strange contraption over there.
Hank: Funny you should ask, Lotte, but, you see, that’s not sand, it’s magnesium calumbanate. It causes the water molecules to bind to the calumbanate to form a reinforced ectoplasmatic force field, which is emitting invisible salitrucic waves that are impacting with the Rooseveletereen engine—not a strange contraption at all, Lotte—and causing its pistons to fire.
Lotte: Oh, Hank! You’re so marvellous. I’m so proud that you’ve invented something so very clever! Um, why is the Rooseveletereen engine turning red and expand—
Yes, I made that up. But truly if you read sf from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s you’ll find even worse examples. Do not infodump in dialogue unless you really, really have to. Almost no one speaks like that.
I hope that helps. And I really really hope that some other writers leave some excellent tips for writing dialogue in the comments. That would be awesome.
Though, on the other hand, I am so bad at action scenes that I still haven’t figured out how to do them well and no way could I give anyone else any useful tips. Other than not to do what I do. My action scenes require a million drafts and many helpful suggestions from people who are good at writing them before I can make them kind of okay. Stupid action scenes! I love them. Why can’t I write them as effortlessly as I can read them? Waaah! [↩]
To which I can only respond, well, yes, obviously. One of the great pleasures, for me anyway, of being an adult is finally realising I am under no moral compulsion to finish every book I start. I can put boring books down! I can walk away from bad books without being sullied by reading the whole thing! Oh happy day!
On the other hand—and I know this is not just me—sometimes I really enjoy reading a bad book. It has to be a particular kind of bad. Boring bad, for instance, need not apply. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand remains one of my favourite books because it is so campily ridiculous. You cannot read the dialogue out loud without dying laughing. No one in the history of the universe has ever talked like that. But the idea that somewhere, somehow, people are talking like that makes me laugh my arse off.
I am also very enamoured of Flowers in the Attic, which I adored when I was a kid, and genuinely thought was the best book ever. As an adult I deeply enjoy its insanely over the top plot, its risible dialogue and its jaw-droppingly improbable descriptions of pretty much everything. These traits hold true for all the V. C. Andrews books. Well, it does for the ones she actually wrote herself. She was a bad writing genius. Reading those books is really fun. It’s even more fun to read them out loud.
I have previously detailed a wonderful train ride with such YA luminaries as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld in which we took turns reading aloud an excruciatingly bad book. That’s how I know I’m not alone in this sick enjoyment of badness.
It is, of course, more than their campy dreadfulness that makes bad books useful. Without bad books we would not be able to appreciate good books.
You need context to be able to see when something is really well done and when it is a disaster. Part of learning to read is learning to be a discerning reader. Like I said, as a kid I had no idea that Flowers in the Attic was bad. I loved it. I thought it was genius. This is pretty typical of many beginning readers. We love a lot of what we read. We often think what we’re reading is the Best Book We’ve Ever Read. And, you know what, when you’ve only read a few dozen books, that could well be true.
We writers can learn a lot about writing from reading bad writing. When a book is not working for you it is revealing a lot about its construction. It’s much harder to figure out what makes a good book tick because you get so lost in it every time you read it that you stop seeing how the words are chosen and put together. With bad writing all of that is up front and centre there’s no gorgeous phrasing to distract you. Just before you put the next bad book down in disgust ask yourself why. What was it that made the book unreadable? This is a really excellent way to figure out what not to do in your own writing.
I am, of course, talking as if we all agree about what’s good or bad in a book. Would that it were so.
Nah, not really. Where would the fun be in that? Spirited arguments about the goodness or not of Moby Dick are part of the spice of life.1
Are there any other uses of bad writing that I missed?
“Spice of life”?! Cliche alert! Yes, I know, one of many. It’s a blog post! I don’t have to get all fancy. [↩]
In the comments on Writers and Editors, Sarah Dollard delivered a fascinating treatise on how TV scripts are produced and what a script doctor does. I could not let be lost in the comments so here it has its own post. Take it away, Sarah:
As requested, here’s a rundown of how the process differs in television.
The job of the TV script editor can vary wildly from show to show, genre to genre, country to country. I can only speak about working on soap in Australia, and on numerous dramas here in the UK, as both writer and a script editor. From my limited understanding of the system in the US, things seem very different there; they don’t strictly have ‘script editors’ at all.
In Australia, I’ve found that the script editor job is openly acknowledged as one of re-writing; an editor will literally write whole new drafts of the work after the hired writer has finished on the episode. Next, a supervising script editor will do a polish and, after that, if any changes need to be made for production reasons, it is once again the job of the script editor to step in. This is the norm on high-output shows like soaps, where the writer only has one chance to get it right, and from then on the script is taken into the script department to be fostered through to the shooting script stage.
As far as I know, this type of script editor does not exist in an official capacity in the UK; here, a script editor would not change a writer’s work unless that writer was trapped under something very large and heavy, and even then you’d have to get their permission first. But that’s not to say that re-writing doesn’t happen. For whatever reason, on some shows it does fall to script editor to step in and re-write; maybe the writer hired for the job can’t get the script up to scratch and the head writer isn’t available to take over; perhaps a writer dropped out and couldn’t be replaced; perhaps the script is already being shot and changes need to be made on the hoof. However, when this does happen in the UK, it’s done very much on the quiet. Personally, I’ve never heard of a script editor getting credited for their writing, even if the shooting script contains little of the original writer’s work. Whatever the reality of the situation, script editors are not supposed to re-write in the UK; it’s not the ‘done thing’, and they’re certainly not paid for it.
If anyone is interested, what follows is a rundown of the *usual* experience of a script editor working on drama in the UK. I’ve been inspired to write all this down because I was having a drink with my current script editor the other night and when someone heard what she did for a living, they asked, “So, what, you like correct the writer’s spelling and stuff?”. To her credit, she did not punch this person. She just calmly replied, “It’s a bit more than that, actually.” And then I bought her a large drink.
While it does vary, usually a script editor’s job starts early, before a freelance writer is even brought on board to write an episode. Working with a small team (usually the head writer and the producer, maybe a script producer if there is one), the script editor will help to storyline the overall arc of the series and create a basic plan for each of the individual episodes. Sometimes he/she might have a say in which writers are hired, and which episode each is best suited to.
Once a writer is on board, the script editor will help brief him/her on the overall arc for the series and – along with the head writer/producers – talk through the basic plan for his/her episode. The writer goes away and writes up an outline (anything from five to ten pages, describing the story in full but without dialogue). The writer then meets with the script team again to talk through any problems with that outline. The script editor will write up notes based on the meeting. Sometimes the script editor’s *only* job is to write up those notes, but more often he/she will be fully involved in the meeting on a creative level, giving their own feedback and helping to find solutions.
The writer then does another draft of the outline, and another, and possibly another, and each time the script editor gives written notes, sometimes with a face to face meeting first, sometimes without, until the outline is considered solid and workable and ready to ‘go to script’. These notes are probably very much like those an author gets on a manuscript; there will be feedback on character, structure, tone and style. The big difference is that with TV, the writer doesn’t ‘own’ the story and the characters; they must pour their heart into the work, of course, but ultimately their vision must comply with an already established world; their episode must fit in with the continuity of the episodes that come before and after.
This cycle (writer writes draft –> feedback meeting –> notes from script editor –> writer writes new draft) works in much the same way once the writer has gone to script, only now there will also be notes on dialogue and action, as well as character and structure. There can be any number of script drafts completed before anyone outside the script team looks at the writer’s work. But once the script team is happy with the script, it will be shown to an executive-producer, or similar, to get a fresh perspective. Then the cycle of notes/meeting/new draft continues!
The whole way through this process, the script editor needs to be available to the writer to answer questions via phone or email, to help chat through any problems, and to communicate any new issues that might arise due to changes in other episodes.
The next stage happens when the production team gets a hold of the script for planning purposes. Necessary changes to the script might arise due to restrictions (or exciting new possibilities!) with locations, costumes, casting, stunts, etc. The script editor will communicate any necessary changes to the writer, and the writer puts them on the page.
Sometimes changes must be made due to notes from the network/broadcaster. These notes can be regarding creative issues, or to do with the classification of the program – usually because the swearing, violence, gore or sex needs to be toned down. Personally, I’ve never had a broadcaster ask for more nudity, cursing or carnage, but I’m sure it does happen! Oh, and it’s also the script editor’s job to liaise with the nearest legal-boffin-type-person and make sure that any names or products mentioned in the script are ‘cleared’.
Once the script is actually being shot, the script editor works with the writer to make any necessary day-to-day changes to the script. Perhaps a scene will need to be tweaked because it’s raining on the day of the shoot, and the scene had to be moved inside. Or perhaps the episode has turned out a little short, and the writer will have to write new material.
I hope all of that was of interest to someone! Perhaps I will direct my parents here and they will finally understand what I’ve been doing for the past eight years.
As discussed in the previous post this could not be more different than the process of writing a novel, which is far, far, far, far less collaborative. I do not think I could work on TV show.
Does anyone have experience of working on TV shows in the USA or any other countries? Would love to hear about the differences.
Last month I got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. Crusie thinks NOT AT ALL and I completely agree and said so, which led to a back and forth with a good editor friend of mine, Juliet Ulman, who said she rewrites her authors. I happen to know many authors who’ve been edited by Juliet and love her editorial style1 and it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about the same thing.
There were also many folks commenting on Jennifer Crusie’s blog and on twitter who were like NO ONE CAN TOUCH A WORD OF MY WRITING EVER. And I was pretty sure that we weren’t talking about the same thing either.
What I think was going on is that we all seem to mean something different by “rewriting”. So I’m going to write about what I mean by rewriting and about how I view the writer/editor relationship.
Let me start by saying: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever substance it is that you love most.
Every single one of my published books have been rigorously edited. They have been vastly improved by working with an editor. Without all those editorial interventions they would be much, much crappier.
Editors have improved my books by pointing out where the story bogged down, pointing out things that made no sense, suggesting I cut characters/scenes/story arcs. They’ve also argued passionately to see more of particular characters and story arcs. They’ve made me expand scenes, add scenes, add chapters, strengthen characters’ story arcs. They have made me rewrite the endings of several of my books many, many times until we were both happy with it.2
Editors have improved my books in ways that I’m not even thinking of now. But they have never done it by replacing my words with their words. That is what I mean by editors not rewriting my work. Every word in every novel I’ve published is there because I wanted it to be there, because I wrote it. Or because Sarah wrote it.3
Now this does not include micro edits of the “their” for “they’re” or “there” variety. I have a tendency towards misspelling my own characters’ names as Sarah Rees Brennan can attest. While working on Team Human I kept writing Frances, when I meant to write Francis. I have to be watched like a hawke!
Nor does it include editors deleting redundant words like “just” and “really” and “actually.”4 Or supplying missing words. Sometimes I type so fast words don’t make it onto the page. Or words come out as homonyms “no” for “know.” Or more bizarrely I’ll type one word but mean an entirely different word “flirt” for “razor,” “quokka” for “effulgent.”5
This kind of editing is done not only by the editor but also by the copyeditor and the proofreader. The goal is that the final book will have no such mistakes in it. Alas and alack a book with no mistakes in it is rarely if ever achieved. Best to think of those last few typos as the flaw in the Persian carpet.
I have had a few editors write their own words as a suggestion to try and get across what they want me to do with a particular passage in a book and I have had pretty much the same reaction Jennifer Crusie described. I really hate it. Get your hideous words off my book! The horror! The horror!
But most of the editors I work with don’t do that. They’re more likely to write something like: Do you really think they would be quite this passionate given that they’ve only just met? Seems a bit quick. Rather than Alfonso should say . . . Basically I want my editors to tell and not show. Those editors I’ve worked with that do show only do it rarely. Over the years I have learned to simply not see those words. My brain looks at the suggested wording and goes: Editor no like this bit. Me fix.
I hope that’s made what I mean by “rewriting” a bit clearer. But if not please demand further explication in the comments.
However, I do not believe that every word, every phrase, every sentence I write is a precious, precious thing that cannot be fixed. I think everything can be improved. SHOULD be improved. And that working with a good editor is absolutely vital in that process. However, the editor’s role is to suggest, my job is to do.
Which is why every published novel of mine has gone through multiple drafts.
In the course of the twitter discussion Peter Mattessi requested that I “mention things like whether editors should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” Peter comes from the television side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing.
The process of editing one of my novels kind of goes like this:
Editor reads sends writer editorial letter which usually focus on the big picture stuff: stuff that doesn’t make sense, pacing, character likeability etc—>
I read and make changes (where I agree with them) based on editorial letter + stuff I’ve noticed that I want to fix—>editor reads this version—>
Editor writes next ed letter which is usually pushing me further with changes I’ve already made: be less subtle. As well as finer detail and more small picture stuff: this character use the word effulgent too much, why is everyone grimacing—>
I read ed. letter and make changes I agree with + other stuff I want to embettermerate6 —>
Editor reads this version and asks for further changes or passes it along to the copy editor.
It would be lovely if Peter and/or Sarah Dollard, who is also a TV writer, could write in the comments about how that’s different from what happens to produce finished TV scripts.7
To answer Peter’s questions. Yes, I actually do think editors should be credited. But they mostly are. It’s a very rare author who doesn’t thank their editor in the acknowledgements. It helps other writers figure out who they want to work with.
What am I thoughts on the relationship of Raymond Carver to his editor, Gordon Lish? I’m not really the right person to ask because I’m not a huge fan of that kind of minimalist writing. By which I mean I have never finished a Carver story. I find them unemotional, flat and unengaging. Yeah, I know, blasphemy. However, I’ve never compared the edited-by-Lish version with the pure Carver version. So I don’t know if he improved them or not.
Personally, I would loathe working with an editor like Lish. My gut reaction is that someone having their ego that tied up with someone else’s writing is more than a bit off. From the little I have read about the relationship, basically this New Yorker article, they seemed to have a pretty dysfunctional relationship. But many, many, many people love those Carvers stories so who am I to say?
It sure is an interesting relationship.8 And there are examples, though for some reason I’m failing to think of a single one, where a male writer’s work was supposedly largely written by his wife. Or at least edited by her in a Gordon Lish kind of way. Should they have gotten credit? I would think so. Lish should probably have been credited. It’s inarguable that he had a HUGE impact on those Carver stories to the level of being a near collaborator. But, on the other hand, those stories would never have existed without Carver. None of the stories Gordon Lish wrote on his own have had any where near the impact of the Carver stories.
So, um, actually I have no idea.
In conclusion: Good editors, I love them. But don’t ever agree to changes you don’t want. They are your words, own them.
I had my editor submit my one adult novel to Juliet because I’d heard such good things. It didn’t work out but I mention this because I want to make it clear how much I esteem Juliet’s editorial acumen. [↩]
Further to what I said above: any editor worth their salt would tell me to delete this sentence because it adds nothing. They would be correct but I’m leaving it there to make this point. My blog posts are not edited, except by me, which is seriously not enough, and that’s why they’re not as well written as my books. This post is full of redundancies. There aren’t enough commas and etc. [↩]
@DaniArostegui asked “Can you write a post on the research process for your novels? How much research do you do for a given book?”
The book I’m writing at the moment, Sekrit Project, was inspired by a non-fiction book. So one of the first things I did was work my way through the articles and books listed in the bibliography. Each of which led to other books and articles and so on. Footnotes and bibliographies will lead you in many wonderful and unexpected directions.
When I’m writing a book set during a different historical period as I am with my 1930s New York City novel I immerse myself in the music, literature, movies, radio, fashion, food (via cookbooks and restaurant reviews) and art and photography—from postcards to news photography to high art photography to people’s snapshots—of the period. Fortunately these days there’s a great deal of that kind of archival material available online. Though I do find it very helpful to spend time with the actual physical material. So I spend time in archives reading letters, official documents, reports, newspapers and magazines and other material.
Magazines and newspaper and books looked so different back then. You don’t fully appreciate that until you’re touching them and turning the pages.1 For instance, I was surprised that so many books in the early 1930s had advertisements in them. I stupidly thought that was a more recent innovation.
For historicals I find the Oxford English Dictionary absolutely indispensable. I am constantly looking up words to make sure a) they were in use in the 1930s and b) that they meant then what they mean now. There’s also Ben Schmidt’s wonderful blog, Prochronism that looks at anachronisms on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. In which he points out, to take a recent example, that the cliche of “the defining moment” only dates back to 1983.
Schmidt makes great use of Google books’ n-gram viewer, which may be my favourite tool for this kind of research. Here’s the historical graph of the usage of the words “vampires” “zombies” and “unicorns” over the last two hundred years:
The blue line is vampires, the red zombies and the green unicorns. Click on image to go way bigger
Depending on your historical period you should also talk to living people about it. Some of their memories can be wonderfully evocative and useful to your story.
For Team Human the research was considerably less full on. Sarah Rees Brennan and I re-read classic vampire novels such as Dracula as well as catching up on the vampire novels we’d missed over the last few decades. Sarah had me reading L. J. Smith; I put her on to Tanith Lee’s Sabella. All the other research was mostly searching online to see how short the days are in Maine in autumn and stuff like that.
I never wait until I’ve done all the research before I begin writing. That way leads to never writing a sentence. You can never do all the research it’s simply not possible. Much better to start writing and when you come to something you don’t know insert square brackets. [find out if taxis were yellow back then] [what kind of toothpaste did they use] [is “I’ll call you back” anachronistic] etc.
I tend to research the square bracket queries when I’m stuck with the writing or simply need a break from it. Though some days I’ll stop and look things up immediately if it’s easy. Today I had to check if the word “slapper” was used in the 1930s. No, it wasn’t. Not in the sense I needed it. In that sense it only goes back to the 1980s and it’s primarily British. So a big fat no to anyone saying it in NYC in the early 1930s. With my handy OED subscription2 and the n-gram that research took about ten seconds.
My bedtime reading when I’m deep in a project is usually books from the period I’m writing about. That way I’m pretty much always researching.
Well, this is exciting. A whole month of me blathering at youse. And, hopefully, youse lot blathering back at me in them there comments below.
I’m overcome with joy at the prospect. So overjoyed that I know that I said I wouldn’t blog on the weekend but this year the 1st of July is a Sunday and I couldn’t not blog on the very first day of my blogging month, now could I?
I thought I would start with some frivolity. Did you see #badwritingtips on twitter? There were some truly awesome ones. I loved Elizabeth Knox’s “Begin as many sentences as possible with a verb + ‘ing’, it makes everything so much more active.” Cracking good advice!1 You should all follow her.
Here are the bad writing tips I tweeted:
Repetition’s your friend. Really & truly repetition’s truly your friend. Repeat things or your readers really won’t remember.
Make sure you have a prologue. Make sure it’s as long as your book.
Ha, yes, @mysterysquid, a prologue is even better if it has absolutely no bearing on the book that follows it.
“Really” “you know” “actually” and “just” are the most useful and versatile words. Make sure you use them A LOT.
Don’t use specific details. Rather than describing actual smells call them “pungent” or “redolent”. Details slow the story.
It is always much better to use your precious writing time coming up with #badwritingtips than, you know, actually writing.
The last few huge bestsellers I read did all of these things.2 Seems to be the rule that to become a giant, world-wide, sell-millions-upon-millions bestseller you do, in fact, have to write in a way that the majority of the writers and readers I know would describe as “bad writing.”
The theory behind this is that for a book to sell in those insane numbers it has to be picked up by people who don’t normally read books. And that those kind of readers therefore haven’t learnt the reading protocols that frequent readers have. Thus clunky, obvious, repetitious writing works for those newer readers in ways it doesn’t for us jaded, sophisticated readers.
I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that. Because that does not explain all the hard-core readers who read the mega-bestsellers. They can’t all be reading them to point and laugh and write side-splittingly funny one-star reviews.3
Not to mention that there are mega-bestsellers that aren’t full of this kind of “bad writing.” The Harry Potter books for instance. Especially the third one.4 For my tastes, they do get too big and insufficiently tightly edited as they go on but even then they are not full of the cringe-inducing repetition and generic descriptions of more recent bestsellers.5
Basically I don’t think we can explain how these mega-bestsellers happen. It’s kismet.
Any of youse got some entertaining crappy writing tips?
So this is the first of almost thirty posts this month. Feel free to suggest topics in the comments.
I leave you with a link to this really funny musical number about internet trolls and bullies. It’s very NSFW6 as it includes language that I know upsets many people. I loved it. My apologies to everyone who’s already watched it a million times and is now over it.
Happy July Blogging Month!
Team Human Alert: So, um, I have a new book out, Team Human, which I wrote with Sarah Rees Brennan and which publishes in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA this very week!
This week there’ll be a twitter chat where you can ask us whatever you want about Team Human organised by our US publisher, Harper Collins. It will be held on Tuesday 3 July at 6pm US East coast time. (That’s 8AM Wednesday 4 July for East Coast Australian types.) The hashtag to use is: #THchat
There’ll also be an online chat with Figment.com. Sunday 8 July 8PM US-ET (5PM Pacific Time, 10AM Monday AUS-ET) Scott Westerfeld will be me and Sarah Rees Brennan about Team Human. Mostly we’ll be discussing what it’s like to collaborate on a novel.Click here to find out how to take part.
I cheated and made my gerund a modifier. Whatever. [↩]
I have decided to put this here voice recognition software to the test in the month of July by blogging every day.1 Yes, I will blog every single day of July 2012.
Tell Me What To Blog
If there’s anything you would like me to blog about please let me know! The comments are below in the manner of most blogs.2
I’ve had a few suggestions on Twitter:
@SirTessa wants me to write a complete post without correcting any of the voice recognition software mistakes. I WILL DEFINITELY DO THAT.
@WanderinDreamr wants me to write about Australian slang “the rest of the world is confused by”. My problem with that is, well, how am I supposed to know? Australian slang does not confuse me. Though I do love many of the words that are unique to these fine shores so I may just write about my favourite ones.
@ben_rosenbaum suggested I blog tongue twisters on account of the voice recognition software. I am ignoring him.
@nalohopkinson wanted me to “opine on bubble skirts”. How could I resist writing a horrors & joys of fashion post? Oh, bubble skirt, I shall SO opine about you.
I also recently got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. I think NOT AT ALL. Turns out that people mean different things by “rewriting”. I spluttered about on twitter in a way that I think was mostly confusing. A post is in order to clarify my thoughts. @pmattessi requested that I “mention things like whether eds should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” He comes from the tv side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing. I suspect my post will be about the writer/editor relationship with a little touch of the thankless work of the copyeditor.
Another interesting discussion concerned the way English-speaking cultures are so full of hatred for children & teenagers and how that is not the case in places like Spain, Italy, and Thailand.3
Many years ago I promised a post about writing dialogue. If any of you still want such a post I may attempt to finish it. It’s just that it’s hard because I’m not really sure how I write dialogue. You know, other than I type it and make sure there are quote marks around it. (And sometimes I use italics if it’s dialogue that’s not being directly said.)
Is challenging voice recognition software the only reason for blogging every day of July?
Nope. I really miss blogging. Not blogging hardly at all for such a long time has left me with many pent up THOUGHTS and FEELINGS that do not fit on twitter. I miss sharing them with you. But mostly I miss the wonderful crew of commenters who once hung out here. I miss your wit and your wisdom and your snark and your sincerity and your sarcasm and your silliness. I am hoping some of you will return. Even though blogs are so beginning-of-this-century and everyone’s on twitter and tumblr these days. I don’t care. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still love them.
Also my newest book, Team Human, written with Sarah Rees Brennan, will be published on 2 July in Australia and New Zealand and 3 July in Canada and the USA. This means I will be doing a fair number of interviews and the like about said book all over the internets. But while I love TH dearly and am very proud of it and over the moon with joy that the early responses to the book have been so positive the idea of talking about it non-stop for a month makes me feel a bit tired. This will be my online respite.
It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that by the time a book is published and it’s time to publicise it we authors have spent so much time with the book that it’s the last thing in the world we want to talk about. When I’m really itching to talk about my books is during the drive towards the finish of the first draft—when I know I’m going to finish it and talking about it won’t jinx it and the book becomes the only thing in the world I want to talk about. And—most of all—during the first few rewrites when it has become the only thing in the world I can talk about.
Unfortunately that is when very few people have read it and they’re all bored with me asking them questions about what they thought of the world building or the main characters and whether they think I should get rid of the gilded-wings subplot or expand the diabolic-exploding-hairclip subplot. They are so over my book and, by extension me, in fact, that if I ring them they no longer pick up. And my emails to them start to bounce. Waaaaaahhhh!!!!!!!
Fortunately there’s Scott and my lovely agent Jill and my editor who are always happy to talk endlessly about my book during these times. Bless them!
In July I will blog a lot.
Update: @Marrije has also requested via Twitter that I “do a post on How To Find The Good Food In Any City? Isn’t this your superpower? Can you teach us?”
@MalindaLo has requested: “I blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Except weekends. Cause, come on, no one is on the intramanets on the weekend. Scientific fact. [↩]
I thought about having them above but my web designer said no. [↩]
And I’m sure in many other places I’ve not been to. [↩]
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
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.
Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful transformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!
I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.
I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?
I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.
But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:
1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.
Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.
Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”
The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2
2. Flow is incredibly important.
Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.
Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every clause appears I wind up with sentences like this:
Warm artichoke had an is at orange night light raining when come lit.
When Angel was able to emerge into the orange night Liam’s reign was complete.
Which is a terrible sentence but I can see what I was going for and I’ll be able to fix it. But that first sentence? Leave it for a few minutes and I’ll have no clue what I was trying to say.
However, checking what the VRS has produced after Every Single Clause slows me down and ruins the flow.
3. It’s too slow.
I am medium fast typist. I’ve been typing since I was fourteen. I can get words down way faster and more accurately than VRS.3 Its slowness is very, very frustrating and is yet another factor that messes with my flow when writing.
Obviously, none of this is a huge problem for e-mail. I do persevere with it for blogging too despite the fact that means I am at most blogging once a month. Using VRS for those kinds of writings does save my arms. I’m grateful.
But for my novel writing? It’s a deal breaker. I can’t do it.
VRS is going to have to take giant strides to get to a point where it allows me to write fiction without grief and frustration and the hurling of head sets across the room.
Again, I’m really glad that it has helped so many of you. I have been hearing lots of wonderful stories about the ways VRS has changed lives since I started writing cranky posts about it. That’s all fabulous.
But for me? No, not yet.
Update: I should have also noted that every time I write one of these posts I get lots of people trying to help. That is very sweet of you and I totally get why. I have the same impulse. We all want to make things better.4
But, yes, it is also kind of annoying and overly helpy. This has been going on for years now. You can safely assume that unless you are suggesting a very recent breakthrough or a very left-field obscure idea—WEAR A ROTTEN WOMBAT ON YOUR HEAD—I have heard it all before and tried it all.5
So if you were wondering—everything suggested in the comments?—been there, done that.
Update the Second
Am getting many folks telling me that the error rate in the orange night example above is crazy high. You got me. I deliberately chose a super bad example because it’s funnier. My bad. Next time I rant about this I promise to choose a less crazy and amusing one, okay?
Funny thing, though, even the best VRS error rate I’ve ever managed is incredibly annoying and slows me down.
Update the Third
Thanks so much for all the lovely letters & comments of sympathy, support, me toos, and commiseration. Means the world to me.
Very few humans are one hundred per cent accurate at the task. Even court reporters make occasional mistakes. [↩]
Actually I’m now thinking of all sorts of ways in which it would work for fiction but you get my point, people. [↩]
And, wow, am I not the world’s most accurate typist. [↩]
Unless we have an evil streak a mile wide. Ha! VRS rendered “a mile wide” as “a mild way.” Bless. [↩]
Well, not the wombat thing. But only because I can’t get past the smell of roadkill. And the fear of putrescence dripping down my face. [↩]
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 2012. 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.)
This was not a fabulous year for me but it was a whole lot worse for so many other people around the world that whingeing would be tacky. I’ll focus on the good:
Finally, finally, finally we were able to announce, Sarah Rees Brennan and I, that we wrote a book together, Team Human, which is all about how having your best friend fall in love with a vampire SUCKS.1 We had to keep that secret for well over a year and it nearly killed us. It comes out in July in Australia (with Allen & Unwin) and in the United States of America (with Harper Collins). Oh, and it’s totally a real book and not a hoax despite what that lying minx Maureen Johnson says. See, actual real people have read it!
Sarah Rees Brennan has been crazy busy. Not only did she write a book with me but she also sold a whole new trilogy. The first book, Unspoken, will be out in September 2012. (Yes, she has two books out within three months of each other. Yes, she has superpowers.)
It’s SRB’s best book so far. I loved her Demon trilogy2 but Unspoken is even better. I cannot wait for more people to read it so we can all talk about the fantastic things she does with all those delicious Gothic tropes. Seriously, it’s wonderful and I’m convinced that SRB is going to start a Gothic revival.3 In fact, SRB’s made me want to write my own Gothic, which obviously I will have to dedicate to her. It will have an insane house that . . . oh, actually, I think Shirley Jackson wrote that book. Hmmm. I guess I should update that list of writing goals to include Gothic.
Books out this year
There were no new books by me in 2011. It was the first time since 2005 that I went book-less. Turns out I am no longer capable of a book a year. And to think I once attempted two books a year. It is to laugh! From now on it’s more likely to be a book every five years. Maybe.
Books out in 2012 and 2013
Well, except that I will have a book a year for the next two years: Team Human and Team Human: The Sequel of Awesomeness.
Thank you, SRB, for being the best and hardest working and paitentest collaborator a writer could hope for. Without you it would have been an eighteen year gap between my last book, Zombies versus Unicorns in 2010—another collaborative book—you do all see how my lovely writer friends are saving my career, right? Thank you, Holly Black—and my next solo book in 2028.4
Often after a new post from me I get a few people saying, “OMG! You’re writing again! You’re all cured! That’s awesome!”
To which, thanks! It’s really lovely to know that my online jibberings have been missed. But, sadly, no, I am not cured. Still with the RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Alas and alack. I’m pretty much where I was when I wrote about it a year ago.
What I’m doing is managing the RSI. Figuring out how to get the maximum amount of writing done with the minimum amount of pain, which involves a lot of time and money. I swear I practically have my own staff: physiotherapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, masseur, trainer, pilates instructor.5
I am extremely grateful to all of them while also resentful of the time it takes to buy me a few hours of writing. It does get me down. On the days when I don’t type I have virtually no pain at all. On the days I do type, even if only for a short while, there’s pain. For some strange reason feedback like that is more conducive to lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself than it is to writing.6
Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely fortunate. There are plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money to be able to deal with the ailments that are making their life hellish. Whose ailments are far worse than mine, whose symptoms cannot be managed. I know writers who write with multiple sclerosis, while recovering from strokes, with serious heart conditions, with cancer and so forth.
There are people out there getting all sorts of amazing things done despite the most horrendous obstacles in their way. I admire each and every one of them.
Other Things I am Asked About
Q: How’s your 1930s book going?
A: I am still at work on my 1930s novel. Slowly but surely. I even read a small section of it at the lovely Sirens conference I attended this year. The reception was most pleasing. If you ever have an opportunity to go to Sirens—Do. A smarter, more interesting crowd of readers and writers does not exist.
But, no, the 1930s novel is not any closer to being finished. Best, really to forget I ever mentioned it. Instead watch the wonderful new US tv show SRB said I had to see: Revenge. The heroine is a wicked Nancy Drew, who’s in the Hamptons to revenge her unjustly imprisioned father and she has ninja super powers and the people she gets revenge on are, like, hedge fund managers. I love her so much!
Q: How’s your garden?
A: My garden is doing great. Thanks!
Well, there was the small matter of the accidental drought when the battery went on the irrigation system. But most of the plants survived. It was kind of amazing. All the native violets laid down and died and then the second they felt sweet, sweet water they sprang up and were green and flowering again. Life, I tell you, it’s a miracle.
Those few plants that died I replaced with passionfruit. Because, well, yum. Also it turns out that passionfruit are like triffids. They move when you’re not looking and grow REALLY fast. Though, so far they have not attempted to eat me.
And the drought made my poor freaked out where-has-all-the-water-gone Tahitian lime tree fruit for the first time. Fruit! On a tree! In my garden! Um, yes, I am excited.
And I am starting to win my battle against the slugs. Apparently, they love corn meal. EVEN THOUGH IT KILLS THEM. Mwahahahahah!:
What? They totally deserve it. They were killing my basil and my poor benighted flowering eucalyptus! I have to KILL THEM ALL. NO OTHER PUNISHMENT IS ENOUGH. And, no, I’m not channelling Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge because she would think that merely ruining the slugs was sufficient. SHE WOULD BE WRONG. THEY MUST ALL DIE.7
Slugs and accidental droughts aside, my garden is one of the great pleasures in my life. We use the herbs daily. Currently, thyme, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, majoram, oregano, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. There are native bees and rainbow lorikeets sipping from our grevillea flowers. It looks and smells amazing. Every time I get stuck I walk out there breathe deep, kill a few caterpillars, smell a few flowers, chew on some mint and everything is just fine.
Happy new year, everyone! Here’s hoping 2012 will be what you want it to be.
Update: I forgot to put my usual disclaimer at the bottom of this post, which led a few folks to write and suggest I use voice recognition software. So here it is:
This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.