Melbourne Writers Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival

Next week I will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I have one event left which is not yet sold out:

Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013, 11.15 am
STRONG WOMEN
Me and Kelly Gardiner
Details here. Price: $7.
Melbourne Writers Festival

We have had excellent email exchanges with our moderator Jordi Kerr, which makes me believe it is going to be a most splendid panel. We will certainly argue with the very idea of a strong woman. Because that’s what strong women do.

Then the following week I will be at the Brisbane Writers Festival where there are still available tickets and a few of my events are free. I’m really excited about BWF. They have a brand new director, Kate Eltham, who comes out of science fiction and thus knows how to do panels right. This is the most diverse and interesting set of panels I’ve ever had at a writers festival. I cannot wait.

My Schedule:

A SPORTING NATION
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE: Friday 6th
TIME: Fri 3:30–4:30PM
TICKETS $12-$16
Don Watson
Justine Larbalestier
Hugh Lunn
From the long slow burn of a test match to the glories of a ‘specky’, Watson, Larbalestier and Lunn discuss their sporting passions and why sport inspires the best, and sometimes the worst, writing and language.

I’m so excited about this panel. The only other time I’ve been on a panel about sport was because I suggested it myself. This time it was their idea and they put me on the panel with two of the most famous sports obsessives in Australia and our email exchanges with moderator Lee McGowan have been most excellent. It is going to be fabulous.

THE GENRE GHETTO
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 6:30–8PM
Matt Fraction
Sarah Wendell
Justine Larbalestier
Ben McKenzie
Stuart MacBride
Tickets $20-$25
Funny, personal and heartfelt stories about being genre nerds and being proud. Live storytelling from Fraction, Wendell, Larbalestier, McKenzie and MacBride.

I’m very curious about this one. I certainly have more than my fair share of stories about being dissed in often very amusing ways for being a writer of young adult literature. I was never much of a nerd as a kid, however. Indeed back then we would have said “dag” and it didn’t mean the same thing and I wasn’t one.1

FESTIVAL CLUB
VENUE: Maiwar Green, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 8–11PM
Scott Westerfeld
Justine Larbalestier
Stuart MacBride
Benjamin Law
Simon Reynolds
Krysi Egan
Kevin Kwan
No ticket required. That’s right THIS ONE IS FREE
‘Juvenilia’ (stories we wrote as teenagers) set featuring Kevin Kwan, Clementine Ford, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Kimberley Freeman (Kim Wilkins), Stuart MacBride and Benjamin Law reading work they scribbled in their youth. A special ‘Juvenilia’ mixed tape set by Simon Reynolds will wrap up the night.

Okay, so I have no idea how this one is going to work. But I’m imagining a cool jazz band from the 1960s in skinny pants and black turtle necks clicking their fingers cooly in the background as we read you the excruciatingly bad shit we wrote as teens. The audience will be torn in two between their intense desire to laugh and their equally intense desire to be all cool in the face of the awesome jazz. May the laughter win.

THE RISE AND RISE OF YA
VENUE: Queensland Terrace, State Library of Queensland
DATE Saturday 7th
TIME Sat 10–11AM
Justine Larbalestier
Steph Bowe
Melissa Keil
Carley Commens
TICKETS $12-$16
Young Adult (YA) fiction is the fastest growing category of publishing and 55% of YA is purchased by adult readers. YA stars Justine Larbalestier, Steph Bowe and Melissa Keil explain why we love it, read it and write it.

There’s so much to say about this. I have so many opinions! Can’t wait to hear what the others have to say too. Despite living here I am still much less clear on YA in Australia than I am on the genre in the USA.

See you in Melbourne and/or Brisbane!

  1. I will delete any comments offering evidence to the contrary. []

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Movie Premiere

tmipremier

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney

DRESS: Prizes for best costume

COST: $18.50

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

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

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

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

Me in Pittsburgh, PA, USA

As part of teaching at the Alpha Teen Workshop, I’ll be appearing in Greensburg, PA. Scott will also be there on account of we’re teaching the workshop together. Along with the fabulous Theodora Goss and Tamora Pierce. Stellar company, eh?

Here are the details:

Sunday, 14 July1
2:00-4:30PM

Barnes & Noble Greensburg
5155 Route 30
Greensburg, Pa. 15601

Click here for the store locator.

Hope to see some of you there. It’s ages since either one of us did an event in the USA. We are very excited.

I have never been to Pittsburgh before. Is there anything in particular I should make sure to see? Tell me of Pittsburgh, oh Pittsburghians.

  1. Given the date I imagine the entire event will be in French. I’m pretty sure I can still count to ten in French and ask where the window is. Which is all you need, right? Oh, apparently it is not. My French-speaking sister has just informed me that I am forbidden to mangle that fine language. English, it is then. []

We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

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

One of the points she makes is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N K Jemisin also observes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter Etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Twitter.

Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:

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

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

At the other end of the spectrum:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.

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

TwitterConvo

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

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweet what you care about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#hashtagsarefun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me and Libba Bray and Barry Goldblatt at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Look what’s happening this Sunday, 26 May at 10AM1

Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This event is free and no bookings required.
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
Moderated by fancy NYC literary agent Barry Goldblatt (also known as Mr Libba Bray).

I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. Even though I always lose to Libba. She’s a total card shark. I bet me and Barry can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that. We’ll also tell the very weird story of mine and Libba’s second meeting. And talk about that wild, wild weekend in Austin.

SO MANY THINGS FOR US TO TALK ABOUT.

I hope you can join us. Be sure to ask Libba embarrassing questions. She loves that.

  1. 10 am? Excuse me? How can I be expected to be witty at TEN ON A SUNDAY MORNING? I should still be asleep! Or possibly contemplating a decadent brunch. It’s inhuman having a panel this early. []

Where I Will Be in 2013

After Scott put up this post about his appearances for the rest of this year, I realised I should do likewise because most of those places he is, I will be also. An eerie coincidence, I know.

Most of the events are in Australia. Sorry, rest of the world, who may have some interest in saying hello. We’ll always have Twitter.

Conflux
Canberra, ACT
April 26-28

I’ll be interviewing the brilliant and wonderful Nalo Hopkinson on Saturday, 27 April (i.e. two days away) at 2:30PM, Forrest Room 1 & 2 at the Rydges Capital Hill. (Do come say hi. Unless I’m, like, on stage or in the ladies room or something.) Conference site.

INTERNET DEAD ZONE
3-13 May

I am turning off the internet for this whole week. No twitter, no nothing. It’s going to be AWESOME. The mental hygiene, I needs it. Oh, okay, I’m just turning it off for me, yours will still chug along. (Probably.)

Sunday, 26 May
Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. I bet we can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that.
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This is free and no bookings required.

Alpha Teen Workshop
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
13-16 July
I’ll be teaching at this week-long writing seminar for teenagers. Admissions for the workshop are closed, but there will be a bookstore appearance in Pittsburgh. I’ll post details when I know them.
href=”http://alpha.spellcaster.org”>the Alpha site
.

Melbourne Writer’s Festival
August 22-30

I’ll be attending and saying wise stuff with other wise people. Details not set yet, but you can always check back here or on the festival site.

Brisbane Writers Festival
September 4-8

There will be more wisdoms here in sunny Brisvegas. Again as soon as I know what I’ll be doing I will share with you. Festival site

There may be other events in which case I will let you know here on the blog. You can also check my appearances page which I am most scrupulous about keeping up to date.

I really hope I’ll get to see/meet some of you this year.

Overused Words (Updated)

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:

And
and then
all
at all
back
before
begin (to)
eyebrow (raise, lift)
eyes
(the) feel (of)
glance
good
got
gotten
had
head
just
laugh
look
mouth (open, close)
nod
really
seem
shiver
shrug
sigh
slowly
smile
so
start (to)
still
stood
suddenly
then
very
walk

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.

Ten Years of Writing YA Novels For A Living

It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.

I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!

And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:

I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.

I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.

Here is my traditional anniversary post writing and publishing stats:

    Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
    Books published: 9
    Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
    Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
    Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
    Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
    Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
    Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
    Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
    Books about to be finished: 1
    Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
    Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)

For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.

I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2

Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.

I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.

Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?

But so much has changed since then.

My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be

For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.

I do now.

Wow, have I come a long way. I have had books remaindered. That’s right someone could gleefully recite Clive James’ brilliant poem, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”, about me.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)

Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.

It has now.

Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.

I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.

Um, no.

I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.

In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6

Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7

Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.

It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.

Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*

The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those two tomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8

The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.

YA Publishing Has Changed

Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9

Money

Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.

There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.

They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.

I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.

So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.

YA Has Changed

I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.

That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12

(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)

For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.

New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.

I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.

Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.

I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):

  • commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
  • gorgeously written books they think will win prizes

Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.

Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.

This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.

Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops

There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.

But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.

I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.

I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?

I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.

It Was Ever Thus

I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?

I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.

I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.

There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.

In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13

Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.

Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.

Writing

But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?

All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.

Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.

At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.

And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?

Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.

All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.

None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.

My writing is more important.

I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.

I was wrong.

Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.

Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.

I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19

If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.

To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.

Community

Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.

One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.

The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.

Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.

My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.

Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!

  1. Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. []
  2. I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. []
  3. Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. []
  4. I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. []
  5. Those job titles work differently in Australia. []
  6. And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. []
  7. Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* []
  8. Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. []
  9. Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. []
  10. Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. []
  11. I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. []
  12. There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. []
  13. Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. []
  14. In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. []
  15. That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. []
  16. She said euphemistically. []
  17. Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. []
  18. Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. []
  19. Okay, they might blink. []
  20. That’s for all my grammar nazi friends who freak out at the thought that the mighty “whom” will not be with us for that much longer. []
  21. Though I’d like to point out to said grammar nazi friends that the contortions needed to use “whom” made for a way ugly sentence. I’m just saying . . . []

Torment and Writing

One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:

[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3

Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?

Yes, it totally could.

But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.

Yes, you can!

Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.

Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:

The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.

The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.

The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.

Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.

I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6

The boring truth is that writers, on the whole, are a pretty happy bunch. Why, look here, writing even made it on to this list of the ten happiest jobs. Contrary to most people’s expectations we don’t feature on the lists of the most suicidal professions or the most alcoholic.

The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.

Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.

You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.

Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.

You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.

So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.

But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8

Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.

At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.

Bad things happen to all of us.

I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.

My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.

I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.

Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?

No.

But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.

Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.

That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.

That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.

Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!

To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.

  1. Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best. []
  2. They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical. []
  3. Not an actual quote. You’re shocked, right? []
  4. Hell, I write and I don’t even like coffee. []
  5. Yay for rewrites! []
  6. Lightweight. I know. Don’t care. []
  7. Wish I could find that reference. []
  8. Though sadly it can be a result of trying to make a living as a writer. Writing is also not on the list of the most lucrative professions. []
  9. Obviously, I do not mean that I was non-stop Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Who is? Just that there was more happiness than not. []

Me at the Adelaide Writers Festival

In early March I will be at the Adelaide Writers Week. Which is the oldest and most prestigey1 writers festival in all of Australia.

I’ve never been before. Indeed, I’ve never done any events in Adelaide unless you count going to a friend’s wedding.2

Here are my events:

GIRL POWER: ISOBELLE CARMODY, JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, VIKKI WAKEFIELD
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – SUNDAY, MARCH 3 2013
USA/Australia
West Stage, 2.30pm

The readership for YA fiction continues to grow and grow. Yet for young women today questions of identity, sexuality and friendship remain as problematic as ever. This session asks – how do women write for girls? Join Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar, and Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown for a spirited conversation about women and words.

Isobelle is one of Australia’s most popular YA fantasy writers. Her fans span generations and all clutch her books to their chests like they are precious babies. She’s wonderful and funny and genuinely does not think like anyone else I have ever met. I did a panel with her at last year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival and it truly was awesome. Mostly because of Isobelle. So if you’re in Adelaide you want to see this.

I’m looking forward to meeting Vikki Wakefield. I’ve heard good things about her debut novel All I Ever Wanted. Yes, it’s true, not all Australian YA authors know each other. But we’ll fix that after a few more festival appearances.

My other event is:

SEXUAL POLITICS: JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, BRYONY LAVERY, CHIKA UNIGWE
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – MONDAY, MARCH 4 2013
Australia/USA/Nigeria/Belgium
West Stage, 3.45pm

As the debate about what it means to be a feminist is ongoing, this session brings together three writers, all of whom identify as feminists. Justine Larbalestier is a YA and fantasy writer, playwright Bryony Lavery is the author of iconic works including Thursday, and Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel On Black Sister’s Street, about a group of African women in the sex trade.

This panel marks the first time I’ve ever been on a panel with writers for grown ups (i.e. whose audience is presumed to be primarily adults, as opposed to mine which is presumed to be mostly teens) at a literary festival. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a festival in the world that is actively breaking down boundaries between genres and writers and readers. Honestly, I was so surprised when I saw this I thought they’d made a mistake. Then I looked at the whole programme. And, lo, it’s full of such inter-genre cross over panels. Way to go, AWW, way to go!

I like that they list all the panellists’ nationalities. I was excited when I saw there was a USian on both my panels. But a little bewildered when I looked the other panellists up and discovered none of them were from the USA. I’d been looking forward to asking where they were from, and if they knew NYC or any of the other cities I know, we could compare notes. Which is when I realised that I am the USian on those panels.

Oops.

In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.

TL;DR:3 I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!

  1. Yes, that’s a real word. Shut up! []
  2. Which, no, I don’t. It was a lot of fun, but. I love weddings! So much love! So many wonderful speeches about love! So many opportunities for it to all go horribly wrong! Especially at doomed weddings between those Who Should Not Marry. Someday I’m going to write a Doomed Wedding book. Though to be clear: the Adelaide wedding was not doomed. Um, I think I’m digressing. []
  3. For the old people that stands for: Too long, Didn’t Read. You’re welcome. []

Dismissing Whole Genres

A few days ago I tweeted this:

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

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

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

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

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

What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bored now.

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

On Characters Coming to Life

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Cory really is a fabulous non-fiction writer. He’s about the only one who makes the complexities of copyright law clear to me. []

Last Day of 2012

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life for the year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2013. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)

Last year was not a happy year for me so you’ll be pleased to hear that 2012 was lovely. There was some huge personal changes and they were all very very good indeed. What I’m really saying is this post contains no whingeing. Phew, eh?

Books Out This Year

This is the first since 2009 that I had a new novel out. Woot! Mine and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Team Human. The response has been truly wonderful. Starred reviews! Acclaim! Rose petals! Best of the year lists! My favourite review is this one by Thy because of the wonderful fanfic Twitter conversation between Team Human‘s main characters Mel, Cathy and Francis. It’s seriously funny.

Books Out in the Future (The Distant Future)

Note that I didn’t call this section Books out Next Year. That would be because I have nothing scheduled to be published in 2013. Sorry about that. I remember the days when I thought having only one book published a year was embarrassingly slow and was aiming to ramp it up to two a year. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

So, yeah, I only had one book out this year, and even though it was co-written, it still counts as the first novel by me since 2009. I know, I know, SO SLOW. It’s like I’ve turned into a writer of literary novels for adults. Those lazy, lazy types who think it’s fast to publish a novel every five years. My romance writer friends are deeply ashamed of me. I am deeply ashamed.

But I have been writing. This year I finished a complete draft of a new novel. It’s my first book set in Sydney since the Magic or Madness trilogy and involved oodles of research. Fun! And even though it’s at least two drafts away from being sent out to publishing houses I’m feeling good about it.

But I’m taking a break from it for the moment while I turn to another novel. The Sydney novel is intense and more complicated than I had intended. It takes place over one day. I figured that would be easy. I WAS WRONG. SO VERY WRONG.1 It was supposed to be a relaxing, easy break from the 1930s New York novel! Stupid tricksy books acting like they’re all easy and then being super insanely complicated! Grrr.

So now I need a break from the novel that was supposed to be a relaxing break from the overcomplicated and intense New York novel. If the novel I turn to winds up being more complicated than I thought and I have to start another novel to take a break from it and then that novel winds up being too tricky and I have to take a break and work on yet another novel . . . then, um, actually I have no idea what will happen. Either the world will blow up or I’ll never finish any novels ever again and starve.

Funnily enough the book I’m turning to now was also started while taking a break from the New York novel.2 It’s a middle grade I started in 2009, which involves a chaotically neutral fairy sort-of-but-not-really godmother and is set in Bologna and is wryly funny.3 (I hope.) I had a lot of fun writing it and only stopped because I had to work on Zombies versus Unicorns and then Team Human.

As for the 1930s New York novel I do keep working on it. On and off. In between all these break novels. It grows ever longer—I suspect it’s more than one novel—but it remains a long way from a finished draft, which is why I keep turning to other novels. Or something. What? Not all of us are super focussed types. And I’m not listening to your suggestion that maybe the NYC novel isn’t finished yet because I keep turning to other books. That’s just silly.

Since I started the NYC novel in 2007 I’ve begun work on five other novels, one of which is now published, Team Human, and another of which is close to finished, the Sydney novel. Not to mention writing the bulk of Liar and putting together Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black.

In conclusion: I am writing. A LOT! There will be new novels from me. In the future.

The RSI

I’m doing a lot better. Not only am I now a total pro at managing my pain but I found a therapy that seems to be making my arms better and not merely managing it: active release. (Here’s the wikipedia article, which points out that very few studies have been carried out. So it’s mostly anecdotal evidence thus far.) The therapy is only good for soft tissue damage. It’s early days so who knows if the improvements will keep happening but right now my arms are in the least pain they’ve been in for ages. But I’m not going to be stupid and push it. (Been there done that.)

The plan it to slowly push to writing five hours a day. So I may start blogging again more frequently. Yes, I have missed blogging. SO MUCH. Twitter is fun and easy. But it’s not the same.

The last paragraph was written more than two months ago since then I’ve been on the road for six weeks and home for two and have had the longest break from writing in a very very long time. And let me tell you: my arms feel great! So really the best things for them is for me not to write.

But that’s not going to happen.

In conclusion: I’m doing much better but I am not going to push things.

Garden Update!

The garden is still totally wonderful. The passionfruit are flowering but not fruiting I am about to commence Operation Hand Pollination. Will let you know how it goes.

Travel

Most of the year I spent happily ensconced in Sydney. And it was good. Then there was a brief trip to NYC last month where I voted in my first US election and, lo, it went how I wanted it to. Woo hoo! Well, the results did. The voting process was chaotic and insane and wow does the USA need the Australian Electoral Authority to take over and fix stuff for them, like, NOW.

Then we went to Sao Paolo and Rio in Brazil and Santiago in Chile. My love for South America grows. It’s warm when it’s supposed to be warm. None of this insane cold Christmas rubbish. The Southern Hemisphere rules, yo!

Truly Brasil, in particular, was AMAZING. I shall blog about it more in the new year. But in short our publisher, Editora Record, spoiled me and Scott rotten. Ana Lima, the executive editor, was so helpful and kind and fun to be with and we learned so much about Brazilian publishing—Editora Record has their own printing press (!)—and about Brasil. If you’re an author and you’re ever invited to Brasil. Just say yes. The fans are smart and funny and so enthusiastic. They are both legal and very fofa. See? I learnt a wee bit of Portuguese! I can’t wait to go back. Oh, and the food. How I miss the food and the caipirinhas and the cachaca. We just ran out of the bottle we brought back. Waaaah!

I hope your 2012 was as productive and fun as mine. And that your 2013 is awash with fabulosity.

Make sure you all get hold of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new book The Summer Prince. Best YA book of 2013. Oh, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which is most definitely the best adult book4 of 2013, probably of the century. You heard it here first. Both books are pure genius.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!

  1. I may blog about what exactly is so hard about having the action confined to one day. []
  2. How To Ditch Your Fairy was also a break novel. What can I say? I’m easily distratced. []
  3. So did I use the D&D term correctly? You know what don’t tell me if I didn’t. []
  4. No, not Fifty Shades of Grey adult. Get your mind out of the gutter, people! []

Brasil! Legal!

In just a few days me and the old man, Scott Westerfeld, will be in Brasil. First Sao Paolo and then Rio. And, yes, we will be doing events. Scott’s there to promote the first volume of his Leviatã trilogy being published in Brasil and I’m there for the newly published there, Zumbis x Unicornios. We are both published by Galera Record.

Neither of us has ever been to Brasil before. Our only previous visit to South America was to Buenos Aires, Argentina lo those many years ago. So, yes, we have excitement. Muito!

Here are the details for all you folks in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro:

Programação Scott Westerfeld – lançamento Leviatã

24 de novembro

16h – Apresentação de Scott Westerfeld sobre Leviatã e bate-papo. Distribuição de 100 senhas para a palestra, distribuídas pela Livraria Cultura, 1 hora antes do evento.

Cine Livraria Cultura, do Conjunto Nacional – Sala 2.

17h – Sessão de autógrafos de Scott Westerfeld. Autógrafos livres, sem distribuição de senhas, com fila. Só será permitido autografar 3 livros por pessoa.

Livraria Cultura, do Conjunto Nacional – Piso térreo.

Av. Paulista, 2073 – Bela Vista, São Paulo – SP

Observação: A foto com o autor será feita por um fotógrafo profissional e estará disponível em um Flickr cujo endereço será divulgado no site da Galera.

Programação Justine Larbalestier – lançamento Zumbis X Unicórnios

25 de novembro

14h30 – Bate-papo com Fabio Yabu, com mediação da editora da Galera, Ana Lima, na Livraria da Vila, em São Paulo.

15h30 – Sessão de autógrafos de Justine Larbalestier e Fabio Yabu

Livraria da Vila – Rua Fradique Coutinho, 915 – Pinheiros, São Paulo – SP

Scott e Justine

27 de novembro às 19h – lançamento de Leviatã e Zumbis X Unicórnios

Sessão de autógrafos na Livraria Cultura – São Conrado Fashion Mall Shopping Center.

Estrada da Gávea, 899 – Lojas 201, 202 e 204 – São Conrado, Rio de Janeiro – RJ

Clink on these thumbnails to see the beautiful banners for the events:

See you soon!

Training can be Better than Competing

When I was a littlie I hated PE1 with every fibre of my being. I hated the way the PE teachers yelled at us and made us do things we mostly didn’t want to do. I hated being made to compete against the other kids in my class. In PE I would almost always come last the second anything was turned into a race or a competition. I would make no effort because competing stressed me out. I would get out of PE as much as I could. I would conveniently have my period or a note from home explaining why I couldn’t take part.

I was also made to feel from a very early age that I was not good at sport. The kids who showed talent were immediately fallen upon with glee: “A future Aussie Olympic medalist! Let us get them to the Australian Institute of Sport, stat!”2 Those of us who did not show instant aptitude for throwing, kicking, catching or thwacking balls, for running or jumping, or lifting heavy things, or moving through the water quickly, learned that there was little point in us trying because we were crap.

It wasn’t until I left high school that I discovered I, in fact, love many different sports.3 And that while I would never have been professional or Olympic level at anything I was not, in fact, crap. I have decent hand eye co-ordination and I am quite good at picking up physical instruction.

I started with fencing, then there was rowing (briefly), climbing, swimming, tennis, and most recently, boxing, and through all of it weight training and working out in gyms. I discovered that I really enjoy learning how to do physical things and that I particularly enjoy learning technique. I love that I can progress from rubbish to competent with practice.

Dear Readers, I love practising, I love training. My first day on the speed ball I was total rubbish. Have you seen Girlfight?4 They do an excellent learning-the-speed ball montage. Like Michelle at first I could not get it to do anything I wanted it to do. The speed ball annoyed and frustrated me. I wanted to kill the speed ball. STUPID SPEED BALL. But then, lo and behold, with a little bit of practice I got better. I got so I could do it really, really fast in an I AM A FEARSOME WARRIOR kind of way. At which point my trainer taught me a different technique and I was back to square one—maybe square two—and had to learn all over again. Every time I get decent at a particular way of thwacking the speed ball she teaches me a different way and I go back to being arhythmic and rubbish. LOVE IT!

I became fit. I discovered that being fit not only feels physically fantastic but helps my mental health as well. I am a much happier person when I’m exercising regularly. It’s also the only time that I can turn my brain off. When I’m intensely focussed on learning and perfecting (ha!) a new technique that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not angsting about fixing my book or anything else I’m. Just. Boxing. It’s AWESOME.

I really hope that PE is taught differently these days. That kids are not made to feel like failures if they cannot instantly throw a ball accurately or run fast. That they are no longer taught that competing and winning are the be all and all. That the emphasis is now on being fit and enjoying various different sports and physical activities and not just one competing and winning.

I hope that PE teachers around the world have finally abandoned the idea that only the naturally gifted will excel at sport.

Here’s why: There’s a town in the UK where they keep producing Olympic level badminton players.5 This happened because a top badminton coach lived there and taught at the local school and opened a badminton centre that was available to interested locals 24/7. Those keen kids played there A LOT. The town developed a badminton culture and lo and behold many badminton champions. Few of whom, if tested in childhood, would have demonstrated any particular aptitude for badminton.

Talent helps, obviously. Usain Bolt would not be where he is today were he not a naturally fast runner. But he would also not be where he is today if he was too lazy to practise and train, which he has done relentlessly since he was knee high to a grasshopper. There is no world class athlete in the world today who hasn’t spent the vast majority of their life training until they puked.6

We spend way too much time obsessing about talent and not nearly enough time about hard work, practice, and training. Talent is nothing without hard work.

And, yes, all of this applies to writing too. It applies to pretty much everything. I have known many talented writers who have never gotten around to finishing a book. And many less talented writers with successful careers.7

  1. Physical Education. []
  2. I may possibly be exaggerating. A little bit. []
  3. Doing them, I mean. I learned at a very early age that I loved watching other people doing them. []
  4. If not, why not? Oh, how I adore Michelle Rodriguez. It’s a truly wonderful film. Go see it! []
  5. I think it was badminton. Google is failing me right now. There’s a whole book about this. []
  6. I may be exaggerating about the puking thing. []
  7. I totally concede that “talent” is a much more nebulous thing when it comes to the arts. []

The Brad Pitt Defence

Every time there’s a discussion of what to do about men harassing women someone jumps up to proclaim: “Women never call it harassment if a good-looking man cracks on to them. You’re only a creeper if the woman doesn’t find you attractive.” I have addressed the second half of this argument at length here.

However, I did not address what I think of as the Brad Pitt defence. I.e. “If I was Brad Pitt you wouldn’t call this harassment!”

This argument drives me nuts. Here’s why.

Newsflash: Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot.

I don’t. The idea that there’s a universally agreed standard of good looking is crap. Sure, many women seem to think George Clooney is gorgeous. But I have friends who think he looks like a smarmy creep. And shocking yet true: there are women who do not think Idris Elba is divine. I know, right?

Second newsflash: Thinking someone looks hot in the abstract does not mean you’ll find them attractive in real life.

A friend of mine had a huge crush for many years on a prominent cricketer. She was a journalist and one day she got to interview him IN REAL LIFE! Dream come true, right? Not so much. Within seconds he was hitting on her in a really creepy way. He made her skin crawl. He was awful!

There is often little connection between who you find attractive in real life and who you think looks great in a photo or on the silver screen. For me sense of humour is key. If I met Mr. Elba and he had no sense of humour? That would be the end of that little crush.

Then there’s the hard-to-describe physicality: the way the person moves, the way they smile, their scent. All of which has not much to do with what they look like in a photograph.

In real life some of the most repulsive men I’ve had the misfortune to interact with have been conventionally good looking. These were men who assumed all they have to do to get any woman into their bed is to snap their fingers. Often guys like that are not used to hearing the word “no” and react very badly to hearing it.

So, yes, there are good-looking men who can and do harass. There are good-looking men who can and do rape.

Of course, what I find most ironic about the Brad Pitt defence is that study after study after study shows that it is men—straight and gay—who are far more concerned about good looks, not women. It’s men who are far more likely to date a woman (or man) purely because they’re hot, not women.

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arse-kicking Protags Who No Longer Study

This comment from Rachel on my post of the other day:

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.

In conclusion: learning to box is awesome.

Baby Clothes

Pretty much everyone I know is having babies. Or has them. Or is about to have more. Anyways there are babies everywhere in my life right now and I am often buying presents for people with babies. This has turned out to be a problem.

I don’t know if you have noticed but the clothes available for babies and littlies are AWFUL. As one friend said, “If I see another onesie with yellow ducks or blue boats I will scream!” And they’re almost always pastel. I HATE PASTELS. Or white. Or grey. Grey? What are they? Little prisoners in a dystopia? (Maybe. Don’t answer that.) Then there’s the whole girl clothes are mostly pink and boy clothes mostly blue thing. SERIOUSLY? What century is this?

So I am begging you, my faithful readers, do you know of anywhere that sells bold coloured onesies/rompers/whatever you call those little suits for babies in your culture? Where do I find Goth baby clothes? Anarchist baby clothes? Surreal baby clothes? Fun baby clothes? Hip baby clothes? Cool baby clothes? NOT PASTEL baby clothes?

I will be eternally in your debt.

Thank you!

Writing Your First Novel

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.

Good luck!

  1. 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. []

Girls Who Hates Girls

In yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.

The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1

Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.

Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.

These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.

No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.

Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!

There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.

The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:

Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”

Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”

Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”

Woman-hater: *silence*

As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2

Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.

I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.

The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.

But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3

Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?

Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.

I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.

Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.

I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.

Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.

Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.

This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.

The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.

But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.

Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.

They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.

  1. Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering. Maybe the book turns out to be a critique of that stance. []
  2. I’m not against judging. I’m just against inaccurate judgeiness. []
  3. Gone With The Wind is appallingly racist but one thing it does well is skewer its woman-hating protag. Scarlett is so awful she doesn’t even notice until Melanie is dying that Melanie is the one who loves Scarlett best and never does her a single wrong. Why Melanie is so loyal to such a narcissistic psychopath is a whole other question. My theory is that owning slaves breaks everyone’s brains, not just their ethics and morality. []
  4. Other than gymnastics, dressage, netball and other girly sports. []

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Marriage

The last three weddings I attended were heterosexual. At each hopes for marriage equality were expressed and the audience applauded.

In Australia pro marriage equality sentiments are polling at more than 60%. In the USA it’s now over 50%. It’s all happening much faster than I thought it would and I’m glad. There are many places in the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I truly did not think I would see that in my lifetime.

I want everyone to be able to marry if they want to. And just as importantly if they think marriage is an antiquated institution of social control then they should be able to say, “Hell, no! I don’t need no stinking government or church to control my love life!” Without anyone rolling their eyes and saying, “Whatever. You’re not even allowed to get married.”

Everyone, gay, lesbian or straight should be free to marry and also free to defy the pressure to get married, have kids, and all that jazz.

Me, I love being married. But I never wanted to be married. I just happened to fall for a foreigner and it was the only way we could be together.

The amount of privilege marriage affords you is ridiculous. I had no idea. I have seen newly weds taken more seriously than a defacto couple who have been together for more than twenty years and have children. What now?

As a married woman I am treated as more of a grown up than I ever was before. Sadly, I don’t think being married has made me any more mature. Fart jokes remain very, very funny.

What marriage does is smooth our path. No one ever questions me and my husband being together in almost any situation. Just saying the words “my husband” can get things happening in ways that “my boyfriend” or “I” never did. Oh, sexist world. *sigh*

Being married makes life easier.

So, yes, I believe in marriage equality. But I also believe civil unions should carry the same weight as marriage and have the same privileges. I would love it if we had a system where best friends or siblings who live together could also be legally recognised when it comes to all the major decisions that are covered by marriage.

For many of us our most enduring important bonds are not romantic ones. I’d love for the law and society to recognise that too.

I’d love it if we had rituals and ceremonies to recognise BFFs as well as couples. I love weddings. But I bet I would love a BFFs twentieth anniversary ceremony too.

Every time I’m at a wedding I’m sad about the lack of ceremony in our lives. Let’s make more of them!

Why I Love Rewriting

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.

Yes, even when I have several weeks of not being able to figure out how to fix some of the structural problems. But that too is part of the challenge and there’s nothing more enjoyable than managing something you didn’t think you’d be able to. Am I right?

In conclusion: Writing is hard but that’s a really, really, really good thing.

  1. That’s what I was attempting to say yesterday: first readers are worth their weight in gold. []
  2. Other than the still-unfinished 1930s New York novel. []

Epiphanies, Other Opinions and Listening

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.

Not exactly.

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.

I am so grateful to Scrivener which allows me to keep track of everything. Seriously have no idea how I wrote a novel before Scrivener.

In conclusion: writing is hard.

  1. Sorry, Margo, but it truly did. []
  2. No, I don’t care that it’s meant to be good luck. []

Femme Fatale Songs

At the moment I am loving this song, “Heart Killer”, by Gossling. A friend describes her voice as like P J Harvey on helium, which is about right. She has one of those very, very weird voices that people love or loathe. Kind of like Blossom Dearie, who I also adore. And, yet, Minnie Mouse singing does not make me happy.

Anyways, “Heart Killer” is a femme fatale song. A song from the point of view of the woman who is the breaker of hearts. The point of view bit is key because there are an ocean of songs about evil, mean, cold women1 who break poor innocent men’s hearts.2 So I find it very refreshing when a woman is singing with joy about scything also those hearts into tiny pieces.

Even though PRO TIP: setting out to break someone’s heart pretty much never goes well and will rebound on you and make your heart either explode or shrivel up into a tiny dry wizened husk.

I recently claimed that Femme Fatale songs were my favourite genre of pop song. I was then asked for a list of such songs and my brain froze. These are the only ones I could come up with.

Here’s Gossling’s “Heart Killer”:

Gershwin’s “Lorelei” sung by Ella Fitzgerald:

And lastly Blossom Dearie singing “Peel Me A Grape”. Okay, it’s not strictly a Femme Fatale song but, c’mon, anyone making these kinds of demands—Peel me a grape! French me a fry!—is clearly Up To No Good and would slink about in seductive manner.

I know there are other fabulous Femme Fatale songs but I’m deep in Sekrit Project rewrites and my brain will not cough up anything else. Do feel free to share some of your own suggestions. Ironically, Sekrit Project has a Femme Fatale in it. But for some reason this book wanted no music while I wrote.

Last thing: Yes, I know the vids don’t fit on my blog. Too much other work to do to figure out how to fix it now. Hopefully, the Mighty Mistress of All Things Digital who oversees this site will tell me what to do. She fixed it. Yay!

  1. Often called things like “Devil Woman” or “Devil in Disguise” or “Cold as Ice” etc etc. []
  2. Many of them written by Chris Isaak—what a whinger! []

On Humility

I know a tiny handful of people who have not the tiniest speck of humility or modesty and—this is the important part—are not obnoxious. They are good people.

What they have is a sense of their own worth and talents that is directly proportional to those talents and worth. They do not sell themselves short, nor do they overestimate their abilities. They have the self confidence and belief to neither indulge in false modesty nor to be crippled by doubt. They know they would not be where they are if those talents had not been nurtured by others or if they had not worked hard.

It is remarkably refreshing and I envy them.

Humility and modesty are possibly the most annoying virtues. Too often the truly modest are neurotic, self-doubters who don’t know their own worth and I want to shake them. YES, YOU ARE TALENTED AND AMAZING! STOP SAYING YOU’RE NOT!

Undervaluing yourself is not a virtue. At its worst self doubt keeps people from doing what they are talented at. I can’t tell you how many brilliant writers I’ve known over the years who’ve never finished a novel because of their lack of self belief, because they are humble, and do not recognise their own talent. That’s a loss to every one of us who would love to read their work. A huge loss.

At the other end of the scale is false modesty: those who live by the humble brag.1 Those who’ve been told they mustn’t talk of their achievements nor blow their own horn, they must be humble and modest but they’re not so they try to disguise their longing to boast by saying, “Oh, this little thing.” “Oh, I don’t know why they wanted me to be the support act for Prince.” Blah blah blah.

Don’t know about you but I’d much rather they were all: “Look at my new dress! I made it! Isn’t it the best thing ever? I love it to death!” Or “OMG! I’m the support act for Prince! This is something I’ve worked towards my ENTIRE LIFE. And now it’s happening! I am so happy! YAY!”

You achieved something amazing. You get to tell people. You get to be excited. You get to jump up and down. Only mean-spirited poo brains would begrudge you your joy. Who cares what they think?

So those confident—but not obnoxious—folk I mentioned at the beginning of this post? All but one are USians. All white. Mostly from loving, supportive families. Mostly male. Mostly not working class. The one non-USian is from a wealthy Australian family. It is amazing how much confidence growing up loved and without the slightest bit of want can give you. Growing up with money does not, of course, guarantee that you’ll be confident. The love part is essential. Sometimes I think the worst start in life anyone can suffer is growing up unloved.

Growing up in Australia I learned that talking positively about your own achievements was one of the worst sins ever.2 “Don’t write tickets on yourself,” should be our national motto. Getting too big for your bootstraps is a national crime and leads to all sorts of contortions as far too many people fall over themselves to seem less smart, talented, and interesting than they are. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand it does lead to some gorgeously self-deprecating wit.

Meanwhile in my other country of citizenship they’re mostly being taught to boast their arses off. Truly, I do enjoy US confidence. It’s so refreshing compared to Australia. But, oh my, when that confidence is married to ignorance and stupidity and blind self belief? Things get very ugly indeed.

These are, of course, caricatures that are mightily affected by intersections of race, class, gender etc and how loving the families we grew up in were. Both countries have folks hiding their lights under bushels.3 They both have less talented folks under the sad delusion that they are The Most Talented People in the Entire Universe.

What we need is a mix of the two cultures so we wind up with the happy medium I started this post with. Nations of people who know their own value and feel neither the urge to constantly boast about it: I AM NUMBER ONE AT EVERYTHING EVER! Or to pretend that their ability to whip up a divine, multilayered, delicate-as-air, intricately decorated cake out of almost nothing is no big thing.

So I’ll end this post telling you something I’m proud of: I’m proud of the book I’m almost finished rewriting. It feels like a big step forward and that makes me happy and proud.4

  1. Though quite a few of the tweets labelled “humble brags” aren’t. Many with big breasts do not find them so wonderful as the world imagines they do. I’ve known way too many big breasted women who’ve longed for smaller breasts. Not to mention several who’ve had breast reductions because the back and shoulder pain was unendurable. []
  2. Especially if you’re female or working class or not white—but the rule applies to everyone. []
  3. If I wasn’t out of keystrokes for the day I would so finally look that expression up. Where on earth does it come from? Lights? Bushels? So weird. []
  4. And this is me suppressing the urge to undercut that boast, er, I mean factual statement with a self-deprecating comment to indictate that I’m not really up myself and you shouldn’t hate me. Aargh. *sitting on my hands now* []

Lesser Fears

I am afraid that clowns will take over the world and make it compulsory for everyone to dress like a clown and wear that hideous make up. Yes, I have coulrophobia. I know this will never happen. But WHAT IF IT DID?!

I’m afraid of accidentally punching my boxing instructor. Cause she for sure would sock me back and then I’d finally have that black eye I have never had. Oh, wait, that’s a real fear. Though I would kind of like a black eye.1

I’m afraid of being alone on a desert island with only Moby Dick to read. Or even worse the complete works of Henry Miller. *shudder*

I’m afraid that the next season of Bun Heads won’t be as good as the first. I know it has many flaws but I heart it. What if its next season is like the third season of Veronica Mars? Worst TV season EVER.

I’m afraid of Pants Too High. And every single guy I have ever been with has thought that it was the funniest thing in the world to stomp about the place with his trousers/tracky dacks/pants/slacks/pj bottoms/whatever-you-call-them-where-you-live pulled up way too high solely to torment me. Kind of like this:

As you can see it is an ABOMINATION. It is not funny, it is horrifying. No man should be allowed to do it ever, under any circumstances. It is the fashion crime that goes too far. Frankly, it should be illegal. It has to stop.

But the worst of my minor fears is this one:

I am afraid that as I get older my arse will fall off. Don’t laugh! I have seen this happen with many older people. Admittedly more men than women. They develop this weird baggy seat of their jeans thing where there’s air when there should be an arse. How does one go through life arse-less? Does it make sitting down really uncomfortable? It scares me.

Am I alone? Surely someone else out there fears their arse falling off? We’ve all seen those baggy old people jeans.

  1. What? When I was little I thought black eyes were cool. []

Racism in the Books We Write

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

  1. Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. []
  2. Hello, Megan! []

Taking No For an Answer

One of the things I have heard men say innumerable times over the years is that the only difference between a creeper and a regular guy is whether the woman calling the bloke a creeper finds him attractive or not.

I can’t speak for all women—well, okay, I could but that would be ridiculous cause last time I looked I was only one woman—a woman who has had the odd pass made at her, er, I mean me, over the years. And, you know what? The ones who take no for an answer? Not creepy. The ones who keep pursuing me, staring at me, talking to me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to talk to them, the ones who call me a bitch behind my back while still pursuing me? The ones who follow me home?

Creepers.

Women have made passes but they’ve never engaged in creeper behaviour. When I said I was not interested that was the end of it. Now, that’s just my experience. I know there are women creepers out there, too, just not in any where near the same kinds of numbers. For one thing most women are much better socialised at taking no for an answer.

Let me repeat: what’s creepy is not that someone I’m not attracted to is attracted to me. That’s just life. It’s been the other way round often enough. Most of us have suffered from unrequited love/lust. It’s awful, but we all get over it, and move on to people who requite our feelings.

That’s not the creepy part. The creepy part is when the person who is attracted to you won’t take no for an answer.

Think of Pride and Prejudice and Mr Collins’ proposal to Lizzy. He doesn’t give a damn what she thinks or what she says. He wants what he wants. He’s appalling. Everything he says is about him not his object of desire.1 He doesn’t care about Lizzy. He can’t even see who Lizzy is. He repeatedly does not take no for an answer. It doesn’t fit with his narrative so it doesn’t compute.

That’s how I feel when some bloke won’t take my no for their answer. Like Mr Collins they can’t see me as an actual sentient human being with thoughts and feelings and desires of my own. They don’t care what I want. They only care about getting what they want.

So. Not. Sexy.

Also having to explain to a grown human being that they can’t always have what they desire? That just because they like someone doesn’t mean that someone is going to like them? Seriously? Aren’t we all supposed to understand that by the time we’re, like, three?

I would like to eat mangosteens every single day but I have learned to accept the fact that they are not in season every single day. That even when they are in season sometimes the weather means the crops are inadequate or destroyed. Sucks. And is clearly a major design flaw with how the world is. But, you know, that’s life. Full of disappointment.

Other things I want but cannot have: a sphynx cat,2, to be taller, to play WNBA-level basketball, everyone in the universe to read my books, world peace, a pony.3

In conclusion: Um, I forget. For some reason I have this overwhelming craving for a mangosteen . . .

  1. No matter how lukewarm that desire is. []
  2. We travel too much to have pets. []
  3. Oh, wait. I don’t want a pony. It’s John Scalzi who’s always going on about wanting a pony. []

How To Enjoy Critical Reviews of Your Own Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of your book is not a review of you

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

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

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

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

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

You have the power

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have the power!

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

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

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

The Supposed Power of Reviews

In the wake of the most recent author meltdown over a critical review I’ve been trying to figure out why it keeps happening. What is it about reviews that drives so many authors to momentary craziness?

(Though must be said: public author meltdowns about reviews are actually pretty rare. The vast majority of writers know to keep the crazy to ourselves.)

What is it about reviews that drives certain authors to public displays of rage? To attempting to bully reviewers into changing or deleting their reviews?

Is it in the belief that bad reviews effect sales? Let’s examine that shall we?

Bad Reviews Have Little Impact

If bad reviews had an impact then Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey would not be bestsellers. They have racked up an astonishing number of bad reviews. Many of which are absolutely savage. They are amongst the bestselling books of all time.

Bookseller after bookseller in the USA has told me that a bad review in the New York Times, for instance, has about the same impact on sales as a good review in the NYT. I admit when I first heard that I was shocked. But booksellers kept saying it. On top of that I’ve been hearing from booksellers that these days a review in the NYT doesn’t have as much of an effect on sales. Not the way it used to.

Given that reviews in the most venerated of book reviewing venues in the USA, i.e. the New York Times don’t have much impact on sales than what kind of an impact is an individual reader’s review on Amazon, or Goodreads, or wherever going to have?

I’ve also heard internal research at Amazon showed that customers’ reviews of books had very little impact on sales. Whereas their reviews of items like toasters had a huge impact.

This makes sense to me. What makes a book work can be very individual. “I only read books where the hero explodes in a ball of flames at the end.” But most of us want basically the same things from a toaster: toast cooked the way we like it and the toast to pop up when finished so we don’t have to dig the toast out with a fork and get electrocuted. Stuff like that.

As far as I can tell the impact of reviews seems to be more about their volume. Chances are if your book is getting loads and loads of reviews all over the place than it is selling. Part of why books like Da Vinci Code etc have so many bad reviews is because they are so much more widely read than other books. But who knows whether the reviews are the main driver of those sales, or whether they are more of an indicator of those sales, or a bit of both.

Whether negative or positive, more reviews means more people talking about your book. So why aren’t we authors happy our books are being talked about at all?

Most Books Do Not Sell

Most books published by mainstream publishers do not sell in huge numbers. If your novel has sold more than 2,000 copies you’re selling way above average. Go, you!

Of course, if your publisher paid $20,000 for your book and it sold 2,000 copies you’re not feeling like a huge success. You’re wondering if any other publisher will ever buy a book from you again. You’ll be wondering what you could have done to make your book sell better.

There are several factors needed for a book to sell. People need to know it exists, they need to be able to find where to buy it, they need to not be repulsed when they see it. I.e. a book needs good publicity, distribution and packaging. And, yes, that last one is mostly about the cover.

Authors with mainstream publishers, even the ones who don’t sell that well, have way more power than a random reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook on their blog. We have the might of our publisher behind us, getting us into stores, online and offline, getting us widely reviewed.

Also we’re published. Our books are a bigger platform than a review on Amazon.

So Why Isn’t My Book Selling?

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out why a book isn’t selling. Book stores didn’t pick it up. Or only some did.

The publicity was minimal. There were no advanced readers’ copies or very few. So reviewers and librarians and booksellers didn’t know about it and thus didn’t review it or order it in.

It was hideous. The cover was so repellent small children ran screaming when they saw it.

But the lack of success of a book is almost never due to bad reviews. To very few or no reviews? That’s not a good sign. However, the lack of reviews is not the cause but a sign of crappy publicity/distribution/cover.

My worst selling book, Magic’s Child, had no ARC going out widely, had a much worse sell in and fewer reviews than any of my other books.1 When it came out fans of mine struggled to find it anywhere. Never a good sign.

Most of that was because it was the third book in a trilogy, later books in a series always sell the worst, even if your series is Harry Potter. Uglies is by far Scott’s best-selling book, and although every book in the series sells well, and they’ve all made the New York Times bestseller list, they’ve all sold less than that first book.

Even the most popular series loses people after the first book. At the same time, every time another book in a series comes out, it reminds people who haven’t read the first one yet that they should get on to that.

There were fewer signals to the reading public that Magic’s Child existed than any of my other books and so it sold the least. For what they’re worth, the reviews the book received were largely favourable. There just weren’t many. Reviews were the least of my worries.

While the first book of that trilogy, Magic or Madness remains in print. The next two books in the trilogy are only available in ebook form.2

Sometimes, however, it’s really hard to figure out what went wrong

Over the years I’ve heard gazillions of publishers talk about books they really thought were going to go gangbusters that didn’t. Books they spent big money on promoting, that received great reviews everywhere, that had a package many considered to be gorgeous, that did not sell anywhere near expectations.

They have no idea why.

That’s why they start concocting theories about covers: never have a green cover, non-photographic covers in YA are a no-no, ditto for covers where people are laughing. I’ve heard that book titles with punctuation in them never sell, nor do novels with footnotes. That you should never launch a book in [month] because [random seasonal reason]. And so on and so forth.

There are numerous examples of books succeeding despite these supposedly insurmountable obstacles. I’m sure you can name some of them.

So Why the Fixation on Reviews?

Books don’t sell for a whole bunch of reasons but not because of bad reviews. So why are we authors so upset by them?

I suspect we fixate on reviews because they’re visible. They’re the first signs that the book we slaved over for so long is out there in the marketplace being read by people we’ve never met.

We want those people to love our creation. Not matter how hardened we are. No matter how many books we’ve already published there is always a moment of disappointment when people don’t, in fact, love our creation. There’s always a moment of Waaaaaah!!!

Egos, we’ve all got them. We all want to be loved.

Then there’s the whole magical thinking that reviews are an indication of whether we’re selling or not. Surely if the book gets several starred reviews from the major trade magazines that is a sign that the book will be a success?3 Staring fixedly at our Amazon numbers is another kind of magical thinking.

We resort to magical thinking because many authors don’t have ready access to our sales figures until we get our twice-yearly royalty statements. Even though I have many friends with access to Bookscan numbers I’ve long since learned for the sake of my sanity not to ask for my numbers. I’m better off waiting for my royalty statements because they capture all my sales, unlike Bookscan.

And, really, I mostly care how close I am to earning out.4 Does the royalty statement come with actual money or not? Yes? Then it is dancing time. No? Weeping and wailing.

Reviews have zero predictive power over whether that book will earn out or not.

Perhaps for some of us authors it feels easier to rail against reviews than to rail against our lack of distribution, or publicity, or our hideous cover, or the fact that Oprah didn’t pick our book (or whoever anoints bestsellers these days).

When we’re feeling insecure about our careers—and this happens to all writers whether they’re bestsellers or not—
it may feel like reviewers wield all the power. They certainly have the power to make us feel bad. But that’s only because we let ourselves care what some random stranger on Amazon thinks of our book. And somehow think their dislike of our book has something to do with us. Most readers aren’t thinking about the author. So why are we wasting so much time thinking about them?

We need to quit already.

Or, you know, at least restrict our whingeing to the ears of those who love us.5

  1. Sell in is the number of books a bookstore orders. Sell through is how many they actually sell. []
  2. In the USA. In Australia the entire trilogy is out of print. []
  3. Maybe. Maybe not. It does seem to be a sign that your odds are better of being shortlisted for one of the major prizes. There are several literary prizes that absolutely do increase your sales. []
  4. Though it’s been cool to see the number of ebook sales going up with every statement. And will remain cool until those numbers start going down. []
  5. Poor loved ones. How they suffer for the mistake of loving a writer. []

Changing My Mind: On What to Do About Cranky Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Study to Become a Writer

Lucy Says:

Hi Justine! Firstly, thank you for all your posts about writing novels and the basics; I’m a young writer and your blog has really helped someone so inexperienced!

I’m in high school in Sydney and if you grew up around here I assume you completed the HSC? Or an equivalent, if it’s more recent than I think. I was just wondering what subjects you chose. English is obviously essential for any student who wants to be a writer, but did you find any other subjects particularly helpful? Thanks!

Thanks for your kind words. So glad I’ve helped.

I would definitely advise doing some kind of tertiary study, be it at university, or some kind of trade school. Getting qualifications so you can get a decent paid job is a really good idea. Because the vast majority of published writers do not earn enough to make a living. So those who want to be writers need to figure out what is the best job to enable them to write on the side.

I am on the record as not being a huge fan of studying creative writing. Do read that post and especially make sure you read the comments because plenty disagreed with me including Garth Nix.

Back in the day, I decided that being an academic was the best way to support myself while I wrote. And that’s what I did until I became a freelance writer in 2003. I went to university got two degrees: BA (Hons) and a PhD. In the course of doing so I had many other jobs: I worked retail, I was a receptionist, cleaner, admin assistant, researcher, IT help and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten. I had a scholarship to do my PhD and also taught at the university part-time. I then got my first real full-time job as a postdoctoral researcher.

While all of that was going on I was doing my own writing on the side.

That’s one of the many cools things about being a writer. It is the most transportable of talents. It can fit in with any other job you can name. It can be done anywhere and anytime.

I know other writers for whom technical writing is the main job. I know writers who are also lawyers. One who works in a museum. One who’s an ambo. And many who are teachers and librarians and journalists.1 And even more who work in the publishing industry. Mainly as editors.

I know writers who look at having to have a job other than writing as a burden and a penance and it drives them nuts. But I also know plenty who find that their day job feeds into their writing and who say that without it what would they write about?

It’s a good point: the more experiences you have the more you see of the world and how it works, the better equipped you are to write about it.

I do not know a single full-time pro writer who has not at some point in their life had a different job. We have all worked at something other than writing novels.

As a writer you can do any job you want.2 I would strongly advise not planning your course of study at high school or university around writing. As it really is one of the very hardest jobs to make a living at. While at the same time being, unlike, say, acting, one of the easiest to keep doing while holding down another job.

Deciding what to study for your last years in high school should be shaped by a few things:

Do you want to go to university? What do you want to study there?

If you want get a degree in something with a high entrance score3 then you need to pick the courses that are required for that degree and you need to pick subjects you’re good at and likely to do well in. Maiximise your chances of doing as well as you can so you have your choice of universities and courses.

Don’t forget about the sciences. There’s a huge demand for scientists, not just in this country, but all around the world. And every science is brimming with cool ideas. Perfect for a writer.

If you don’t have a bent for scholarly study or are good with your hands then consider a trade. There are loads of tradies who make more money than your average university-degreed person. Skilled plumbers and electricians and carpenters etc. are always in demand. Plus how many novels are there from the plumber’s point of view? Or the sparky’s? The world needs more of those novels and NO MORE novels from the point of view of middle-aged male university professors. I’m just saying . . .

Other than writing what are your passions?

I have a friend who has always loved the sea. She was a trained scuba diving instructor while still in her teens and now has a PhD in marine biology and a career she loves. Yes, she writes too.

It could be you have a skill, like scuba diving, that could lead you to a career perfect for you.

My sister has always been visually gifted, good at photography. She went on to study art and wound up in the visual effects industry. She has worked on blockbuster films like those in the Matrix and Harry Potter series all around the world.

Many people will tell you that studying art is useless. It wasn’t for my sister.

If you do go to university why not pick subjects you think are cool? That fit into your passions. Who knows where it will lead you? I know plenty of people who are now doing jobs that didn’t exist when they were in high school.

But maybe writing is all you can do and all you want to do. Fine, then. Do what Garth Nix says.

But whatever you decide remember that no one path is irrevocable. You an always change your mind. Most people these days wind up with more than one career during their lifetime.

Good luck, Lucy!

P.S. I did, in fact, do my HSC here in Sydney. A. Very. Long. Time. Ago.

  1. Though that last one seems to be a dying job. Or if not dying a transitioning one. []
  2. Within reason. Could be you live somewhere with high unemployment. []
  3. I’m keeping this generic so it applies to people outside NSW where the HSC does not exist. []

Lessons From Hollywood: Never Marry Someone In The Same Industry As You

We’ve all seen A Star is Born, right?

Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify.1 He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.

Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.

There’s the 1937 version, the 1954 version, and the 1976 version.2 Then there’s What Price Hollywood? from 1934, which is the exact same movie except instead of the swim the washed-up actor shoots himself.

My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.

Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.

*cough* I digress.

Where was I?

Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned3 film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.

Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.

If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.

  1. Yes, that’s a real word. Oh, hush. []
  2. They tried really hard to get Elvis Presley rather than Kris Kristofferson. Can you imagine? Maybe he wouldn’t have died in 1977 if he’d starred in it. Or maybe he would have died sooner. We’ll never know. []
  3. I can too make words mean anything I want them to mean. []

We Can’t Control Anyone But Ourselves

The conversation about how to deal with harassment in the science fiction world continues apace.1 What’s fascinating is the complete inability of certain participants in the convo to take in a basic fact:

We cannot control how others perceive us.

The I’m-not-a-creeper crowd keeps going on about good intentions and how social awkwardness can be misunderstood and how people with Asperger’s struggle to learn social cues etc. etc. All of which is true but irrelevant.

Because, as Scalzi argued in detail, people are not always going to respond to you the way you want them to. No matter who you are. Even if you are Brad Pitt.2 Not everyone will like you. This has always been true and will always be true.3

And no matter how many times Genevieve Valentine and Veronica Schanoes and John Scalzi and others make that basic point there are still people arguing till they’re blue in the face, “Intentions do too matter!”

Newsflash: No, they don’t.

If we keep talking to someone when they don’t want us to, if we keep touching them when they don’t want us to, I guarantee you they don’t care what our intentions are: they just want us to stop.

You know what the argument reminds me of?

We authors who struggle to get it through our thick, thick skulls that our books will be read in ways we did not intend.

That our books will be hated by some readers, will be considered total crap, offensive, racist, sexist, or some other kind of evil, that readers do not owe us anything. They do not have to know our books exist, or read them, or finish them if they start them. They do not have to be polite when reviewing them.

We authors have zero control over how people respond to the words we have written.

Just as we people cannot control how others respond to us, to what we say, and what we wear.

What we do have control over is ourselves.

If we’re struggling to make friends, are constantly rebuffed in our attempts to make conversation with strangers, then it’s time to change ourselves, to do what we can to stop that happening.

Because, as I may have mentioned, we can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves.

Maybe it’s as basic as hygiene.

I have a friend, who has a terrible sense of smell, and grew up in the kind of household where they were not taught the basic hygiene most people are taught: to wash our underarms, between toes, belly button etc etc. To wash the not-obvious places as well as the obvious ones, to wash every single day. This friend did not know that clothes also need to be clean. So they went to school stinking. Until a teacher sat them down and gave them the instructions they weren’t getting at home. Plus soap.

Some people are unaware they smell really bad and never received any kind teacherly intervention.

Then there’s the harder stuff to fix. Many of us are socially awkward to varying degrees. How to interact with other people without freaking them out is something we’ve all had to learn. For some of us it is a lot more difficult than for others.

Fortunately, we now have the internet, which has lots of advice on how to learn those social skills. I am especially fond of Captain Awkward in this regard.

As for us authors:

If many readers are criticising our books for something that we didn’t intend—such as being sexist or racist—perhaps it’s time to listen. Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying?

Time to take a good look at the criticism. What exactly are they seeing in our books that we didn’t mean to be there? Read those bits again. Painful, I know. Is there anything to what they’re saying?

If you don’t really understand the criticisms maybe now is the time to research some of the terms that are being used. What is appropriation? How do you avoid it?

I know it’s hard to find yourself in the middle of a long-running conversation that you’d never heard of before. We’ve all been there. The only thing you can do is play catch up. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book Writing the Other and the Feminism 101 blog are great places to start.

It’s key that we start internalising that none of us can control what other people think of us. We can’t make them like our books, nor can we make them like us.

All we can control is our words and ourselves.

Honestly? That’s more than enough to be going on with.

  1. It’s also going on in other communities. But that’s where I’ve been following it. []
  2. The you-wouldn’t-mind-if-it-was-Brad-Pitt-harassing-you argument drives me nuts. Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot. I don’t. Besides which if it’s harassment it is definitionally something you don’t want. And, yes, good looking people can harass. Because a) as noted not everyone agrees on what constitutes “good looking” b) being good-looking does not automatically mean the whole world finds you attractive c) being good-looking can also mean that you are not used to hearing the word “no” and kind of lose it when your advances are unwanted. []
  3. Yes, that’s a split infinitive. No, there’s no such thing in English. It’s a stupid grammar rule foisted on us by people who do not understand how English functions. []

“Legitimate Rape” and Other Craptastic Beliefs From the Olden Days

During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:

Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.

Thus the statement of Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri, that

from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down

does not come out of nowhere. It comes out of long debunked pseudo-science dating back centuries to a time when it was also believed that women could give birth to rabbits.

I naively thought that it did not need saying but it seems that it does:

There is no such thing as “legitimate” rape. There is no “true” rape. There is no “rape rape.” There is only rape.

USA, time to stop this insane discourse that has no bearing on reality. Wow. I leave the country for a few months and it goes completely insane.

STOP IT.

Selling Yourself Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, selling books? A bit of a mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling Stratospherically

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

Um, no.

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

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

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

So why social media?

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

I digressed again! Sorry.

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

Do I think social media is essential?9

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expats

I have been called an expat because I have lived in New York City on and off since 1999. The off time was spent living here in Sydney. I live in two countries and I am not an expat.

When someone in Australia calls me that they’re usually saying I don’t have the authority to comment on what’s happening here because I’ve been away too long. People like Germaine Greer1 and Clive James are called expats. Often with a sneer.

I am not an expat.

I am not an expat in the sense that Australians use it: “Someone who has abandoned Australia and has no clue about it anymore.”

I have never lived outside Australia for more than a year.

I am not an expat in the sense that many others use it either.

I have no Australian friends in NYC. I do not go to Australia clubs to hang out with the other Australians. I don’t eat at Australian restaurants. To me that is expat behaviour. To go to another country and try to live there as much as you can like you were still back home.

Now, part of my not seeking out other Australians in NYC is because I also live in Sydney and there are quite a few Australians here. When we’re in Sydney we’re with our Sydney friends, most of whom are Australian. In NYC we’re with our New Yorker friends, none of whom are originally Australian.

I admit I’m puzzled by people who want to live in another country but once there only hang out with people from their own country. Why not stay home?

Yet, that is what my grandparents did.

But they were refugees. They ran from the Nazis and landed in Australia.2 They did learn English, but it took a long time, and they were never comfortable speaking it.3 All their friends were East European refugees like them. They weren’t wild about Australian food. Sometimes I got the feeling they weren’t too impressed by Australians either.

But, you know what, they lost almost their entire families, almost everyone they’d ever known or loved. They were forced to leave their home. Refugees get a pass.

And their children and their children’s children are very much Australians.

Refugees can’t be expats. To be an expat you have to have chosen to leave your home country; not be fleeing certain persecution.

Those who move to another country to live, who engage with that country, rather than perch on top of it, are migrants, not expats.

I’m a migrant, not an expat. Some of us migrants go back home. A lot. Some of us live in more than one country.

Ever since I started living in two different countries I’ve met more and more people who do the same. I’ve met even more people who would love to do that but simply can’t afford it.4 The old path of migration meaning you left your country forever and ever amen is not the only path.

I have a friend in NYC, originally from Guatemala, who goes back there for a few months every year. I’ve met many Mexican-Americans who go back and forth between Mexico and the US. And Indonesian-Australians who go back and forth between Indonesia and Australia. The closer your country is to the other country you live in the easier it is. Not that I’m jealous . . .

I know loads of mixed national couples like me and Scott who alternate what country they live in. Even couples with kids who do that. Though they tend to do years-long chunks in each country. The Belgian/Australian couple I met recently have just spent five years here and now are moving there with their two children where the kids will be attending a trilingual school.

In conclusion: do not call me an expat! Or something . . .

  1. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Germaine Greer is so hated here. Mostly by men. I love her. She’s hilarious and has been amazingly important to feminism. Yes, she can be wrong. Yes, I disagree with her as often as I agree. So? She’s a possum stirrer. Always has been. It’s a noble pursuit. Though it sure does seem to be more admired in men than women. []
  2. They would have preferred Argentina but the Australian visas came through first. []
  3. Mind you they had six other languages to use. []
  4. Living in two different countries is expensive. We’re very privileged that we can do it. []

How Great Britain Did Not Do As Well As Australia At The London Olympics

Sure, they came 3rd with 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze and 65 overall. Given that they’re the 22nd most populous country in the world they are clearly performing well above expectations. They are also the 22nd richest country. So, again, well done Great Britain!

However, let us not forget the incredible boost that the home country advantage gives you in the Olympics.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia came 4th overall with 16 gold medals, 25 silver, 17 bronze, 58 in total.

For Great Britain to have surpassed Australia’s efforts at our home olympics they needed to do three times as well as we did, given that they have three times our population. We are the 52nd most populous country in the world.

They needed 48 gold, 75 silver, and 51 bronze.

What did they get? 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze.

I’m sorry, Great Britain. Great effort but not quite good enough. I feel quite sure that you’ll get much closer to that total at your next home Olympics.

Dear Scott,

You were right. Maths1 is lots of fun!

xox

Justine

In all seriousness: I think the true “victors” of the Olympics are all the countries who were able to have people compete despite having to get to London on the smell of an oily rag. And the women who competed despite insane pressures not to. Such as Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar of Saudia Arabia.

  1. Or arithmetic. Whatever. Numbers. I talked about numbers. []

A Feel Good Joyful Funny Film: The Sapphires

Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.

The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.

For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.

If you get a chance to see it DO SO.

The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.

It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.

Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.

The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.

The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.

This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.

The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!

I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?

I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.

The Sapphires has just joined that list.

  1. I cannnot stand Woody Allen movies []

What To Do About Cranky Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Point of Process Porn

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.

  1. Is it from that Pat Cadigan book where every obsession is called some kind of porn? []
  2. More than 100,000 words for both the thesis and that first novel. None of my published novels has been that long. []
  3. I have only met Samuel R Delany and Ursula LeGuin. []

On Getting Notes From First Readers

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []

Getting Started

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.

Research

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.

  1. 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! []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

Why Women Are Silent (Updated)

When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.

The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.

Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.

Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”

The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.

So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.

Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.

Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.

If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.

That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.

Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.

The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.

I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.

How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.

Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.

We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.

I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.

I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.

Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.

This post was inspired by Genevieve Valentine bravely reporting her harasser at a recent science fiction convention. Read her post it’s amazing and I am in awe. Because of Valentine’s actions and of the active support she received from brave allies like Veronica Schanoes the conversation about sexual harassment in the science fiction world has been loud and vigorous and, most importantly, the inadequate initial response of the convention’s board looks to be overturned. (Update: it was overturned. Here’s Readercon’s statement.) Twenty years ago nothing would have happened. Things are getting better.

Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.

I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.

Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.

Pro Writer versus Pro Academic (Updated)

Hmmm, I wonder if Holly Black would be interested in editing an anthology on that topic? It’s almost as catchy as Zombies versus Unicorns. *cough*

@ronnidolorosa said that she’d “be really interested to read about your experiences in academia, and how it compares to being an author.”

I was raised by two academics. Two lovely, smart, politically engaged and engaging, argumentative and enthusiastic academics. They both have PhDs. I kind of thought everyone got a PhD when they grew up. It’s the main reason I have one. The majority of adults I knew when I was little were academics teaching and researching in universities around Australia and sometimes the world. I don’t know when I first realised there were people in the world whose jobs were not to teach and argue and write about ideas. But it was a bit of a shock.

All I ever wanted to be was a writer of stories, not of academic tomes, but I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time, professional, could-live-by-writing alone writer. Thus I didn’t believe it was possible. But I knew plenty of people who were academics and wrote on the side. They’d use their long summer holidays to write. It seemed like the ideal solution. I like reading and researching and arguing and writing. And that’s a huge part of what you do as an academic. At least so I thought.

What I hadn’t factored in—despite having lived, for many years, with actual academics working in actual universities—is that reading and researching and arguing and writing are not, in fact, the biggest part of being an academic. Administration, politics, grovelling for money in the form of applying for grants,1 and teaching are what takes up the lion’s share of most academics’ lives. I really hate administration, politics, meetings, grovelling for money, and teaching.

Okay, I don’t hate teaching. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let me recalibrate, I’m a good teacher if you’re enthusiastic, smart and engaged with what I’m teaching. I’m absolutely terrible if you’re not. Someone who’s only good at teaching the people who want to be taught, the people who are not struggling with the subject, is not a good teacher.

As a professional writer my life consists of writing and reading and researching.

It’s everything I loved about being an academic with almost none of the stuff I hated. There are very few meetings in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had even one this year.2 The admin is a pain but not nearly as bad as when I was an academic and it’s mostly taken care of by my agent. I don’t have to write any grant applications. On those rare occasions when I teach it’s people who want to learn more about writing and/or publishing.3

Back when I was an academic money was a huge issue. Funding was going down, class sizes were getting bigger, tutorials were being phased out. It was a really depressing time to be an academic. In the many years since I quit it’s gotten worse. Money is even tighter, class sizes bigger. The morale of staff is worse than when I left. And it was pretty bad back then.

In contrast Young Adult publishing is booming and has been booming for more than a decade now.4 It’s an exciting business to be part of. Morale is mostly pretty good. Even with all the seismic shifts in publishing caused by the beginning of the ebook boom and the concurrent growth of Amazon and various forms of independent publishing. Publishing in ten years time is not going to look much like it does right now. Even so most YA writers are happy and enjoy what they do.

I mean, yes, we get angsty and doom laden, but we’re WRITERS. Writers are neurotic. However, compared to the academics I know. Well, there is no comparison.

So, no, I don’t miss the world of academia because I’m doing all the stuff I loved about it plus no ENDLESS MEETINGS.

I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky. The vast majority of writers of novels, no matter what they’re genre, cannot do so full time and still pay their rent etc. If not for my extraordinary luck I would probably still be an academic, writing on the side. It wasn’t really that bad. It’s only in comparison to my ridiculously fortunate life now that I’m so down on it. I’m sure when the YA boom ends and I go back to being an academic I’ll remember everything good about it.

Update: I forgot to mention that before I became a full-time novelist being an academic was BY A HUGE MARGIN the best job I’d ever had.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there are happy, content, non-angsty academics out there who get all the funding they need and teach very small classes. I’m talking only about my experiences. I only really know how things are in Australia and the USA and only at a handful of universities therein.

  1. Of all the genres I am absolutely terrible at, the grant application is right up the top. []
  2. Unless you count me and Scott over dinner and wine discussing the novels we are working on. []
  3. Occasionally a few of those people will want me to tell them that they’re geniuses and should be published without any editing or further work on their manuscripts. But even those tend to get over themselves. []
  4. I’m not stupid though I know the YA boom will end. Just as every other genre boom has ended. E.g. Horror in the eighties. []

Duty of Care

More than any other writers1 we YA writers get grief over our subject matter. We are frequently told that we should not be writing about subjects such as sex, drugs, cutting, suicide, anorexia nervosa, etc. because our audience is vulnerable and easily swayed and it is our duty of care not to lead them down such scary paths.

Now, there are a tonne of smart, cogent ripostes to this argument. But I just want to say that we YA authors do not have a duty of care. It is not the job of YA writers to teach or guide teenagers. That is their parents’ and guardians’ job. Their teachers’ and coaches’ job.

Our only duty is to write the best and most truthful stories we can.

Which is, frankly, hard enough without taking on responsibility for the world’s teenagers. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I salute all you parents! It’s way harder than writing YA books. So imagine how hard it would be if we YA writers really were responsible for all the teenagers who read our books? We would all die.

Too often those adults with the duty of care look to us to not write things they consider inappropriate for the teenagers they are looking out for. How on Earth can we YA writers be the judge of that? I don’t know your teenager. I don’t know what will freak them out. Frankly, the teenagers I do know are not freaked out by what I write. I’m freaked out by more stuff than they are.

Sometimes I don’t think parents know what will freak out their teenagers either. And I say this because parents I know have told me they have no idea what goes on in their teenagers’ minds. Somehow they think that because I write for teenagers I might have some helpful hints for gauging the mysteries of the teenage mind.

Sorry. Teenagers are as varied as adults. Half the time I barely know what’s in my mind, let alone anyone else’s.

To be totally honest I mostly write for the teenager I was and the adult I am. I write stories that interest and engage me. That those stories fall into the publishing niche that is YA is a happy accident. And that some teenagers find them entertaining/useful/inspiring/whatever is an even happier accident.

I am sorry that we YA writers are not portraying the kind of world you think is suitable for your teenagers. But I have a solution. Why not write your own books?

Why not write the world the way you want it without all the bits you find objectionable, without any scary conflict, or teenagers doing things you wish they wouldn’t? And then every time the teenagers in your life pick up what you consider to be the wrong kind of book you can give them yours instead. Who knows? Maybe it will be a bestseller and start a whole new genre.

  1. Except for those who write for children, obviously. []