Advances

Further to yesterday’s post: the size of your advance says nothing about your capabilities as a writer. It speaks only to your publisher’s assessment of your market value. They can get it wrong. How a book does is very often a crapshoot.

Several NYT bestselling authors I know of received tiny advances for those insanely huge selling books. I also know some first-time novelists who got six-figure advances, who not only didn’t earn out, but didn’t sell 10% of what they needed to in order to earn out.

In all cases the books were EXCELLENT.

It’s luck and chance and forces beyond your control.

For those who don’t know what an advance is or what earning out means go here.

Let’s talk about luck

Since I finally managed to sell a book, I’ve had a fair few letters asking me how I managed it and what advice can I give a struggling unpublished writer. I also read lots of other writers’s and agents’s blogs and they all get the same question, which boils down to this: No matter how hard I work and how often I submit I cannot get published.

All I can say to that is that I was unpublished for almost 20 years. It sucked. I kept writing but, I admit, sometimes I quit submitting for years at a time because I was sick of being rejected. Rejection is foul. I’ve never gotten used to it.1

It’s true that the surest path to publication is to keep on writing and writing and writing. Then you have to keep submitting. It also helps if you’re talented. Those are the facts.

But there are a small percentage of people who just can’t get a break. (Let me emphasise though that it is a small percentage. Most people not getting published aren’t any good. I’ve seen those slush piles.) Such as the writer who submits a publishable chicklit book at a time when that genre is dead in the water. Had they submitted five years earlier they woulda been published for sure. Then they turn to vampires where there’s a glut and get the same result. Or they’re bought by a house just before there is a major restructuring and their contract is cancelled. Or editors keep falling in love with their books but sales & marketing does not. I’ve seen all of these happen.

Luck has an even bigger part to play in published writers’s lives. Right now there seem to be skads of six-figure deals for YA books; ten years ago there were almost none. But even if your genre is hot, as YA seems to be at the moment, that doesn’t mean you’ll wind up with the big bucks. The vast majority of YA deals I read about on Publisher’s Lunch are “nice” deals. That is, the advances2 are between $0 and $50,000. I’d be willing to bet that most of those deals are no where near $50k. Most surveys I’ve seen peg the average advance in most genres at between $5,000 and $10,000. That’s why our Real World Deal Descriptions make more sense than those of Publishers Lunch.3

My guess is that less than 10% of writers, even in a hot genre, are getting big deals. What separates them from the other 90% of writers?

Luck.

The majority of the teen books that I’ve read and loved over the last few years were paid advances of $20k or less. Sometimes, heaps less.

I know of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers who are still only getting “nice” deals. This is especially true in romance.

I’ve seen horribly written, completely unoriginal books get huge advances and heaps and heaps of promotion and sell like crazy. I’ve seen other bad books get the same treatment and sink like lead balloons. I’ve seen good books get the huge treatment and fail. I’ve seen good books get the full treatment and do really well.4

What makes the difference? Who knows? But luck has a lot to do with it.

Getting a big advance, being well promoted, and generally noised about does not mean you are a great writer; it means you are a really lucky writer.

  1. And the bad news is that even after you get published you still get rejected. []
  2. Go here to learn what an advance is. []
  3. I’m kind of bummed they never really took off. Though Publishers Lunch did change what a “nice” deal is and added the “very nice” category. []
  4. Of course, my notion of what’s a “good” or “bad” book will most likely vary from yours. []

Blurb Etiquette

Recently several friends have been on the receiving end of some very bad blurb etiquette and they have requested that I set the world straight about how blurbage should actually work. I live to serve.

What is a blurb? It’s the little quotes that typically appear on the back of a book saying how wonderful it is. For instance here is what Libba Bray has to say about How To Ditch Your Fairy:1

Justine Larbalestier has a super-cool writing fairy, and I am vastly jealous! Thoroughly entertaining, totally enchanting, wickedly funny, and 110% doos, How To Ditch Your Fairy had me grinning from page one (when I wasn’t laughing out loud). And as soon as I can figure out how to do it I’m going to ask to swap fairies with Justine.

—Libba Bray, New York Times Bestselling author of A Great and Terrible Beauty

A while back I talked at length about my policy on blurbs. The short version is: Yes, I am happy to look at books and if I love them I will blurb them.2 Turns out that there are other aspects of blurbage that I did not cover. Mostly because I did not know these things happen. But apparently they do.

  1. Never offer to swap blurbs with an author. “Hey, I have a book coming out. If you blurb it I’ll blurb your book!” This is a terrible idea. I may be a blurb purist but all the authors I know only blurb books that they enjoyed reading. They do not blurb books because that person blurbed their book and they especially don’t do that for someone who has never had a book published before and therefore has no track record. Blurbs are supposed to help to sell books but they’re useless if no one knows who the blurber is.
  2. If the author who agreed to look at your book does not get back to you DO NOT bug them. There are several reasons for not blurbing a book such as not liking it, not having time to read it, and losing said book. Putting the author in the position of having to explain which reason applies is not fair. No author wants to explain to another why they didn’t like their book well enough to blurb it. Just assume it was lack of time.
  3. There is nothing wrong with receiving a blurb from a friend unless of course that’s the only reason they’re doing it. I blurbed Cassie Clare’s City of Bones because I could not put it down. I loved it. The reason I know some of the wonderful writers who have blurbed me—Karen Joy Fowler, Samuel R. Delany, Libba Bray, Holly Black—is because I love their writing. They are my friends because of writing. None of them would blurb my books if they weren’t into them. It’s not worth our reputations to blurb books of varying quality. Every author I know has said no to blurbing a book by a friend. It’s awkward, but not as awkward as having your name eternally on the back of a book you don’t love.
  4. Never claim to have a blurb from an author if that is not the case. If the author in question has agreed to look at your book with the possibilty of providing a blurb that DOES NOT mean they are going to blurb you. I looked at several books last year and blurbed none of them. The author has agreed to read your book NOTHING more. If you go around boasting that you have a blurb when you don’t odds are it will get back to the author, who will then be much less inclined to blurb you. This is a very small industry. Word gets around.

This last point leads to a bigger point: Anyone who advises you that lying: claiming blurbs you don’t have, doctoring your publications list, claiming non-existent connections etc. etc. is a good way to get “your foot in the door” is full of it.

Don’t do this. Not ever.

Finding out that someone you have NEVER met is using your name to get ahead is vastly cranky-making. Also in the age of the internet it’s almost impossible to get away with these shenanigans. Google knows when you lie.

I think that about covers it, but if I’ve missed anything do please let me know.

  1. My apologies for the skiting, but I love this blurb. []
  2. In practice I do not blurb many books because I do not love very many. []

I am not an expert

I occasionally get letters from beginning writers and newly published authors who are confused by some of my writing advice and observations about the publishing industry. Confused, because they have read exactly the opposite information elsewhere.

This is my disclaimer for everything I say about writing and publishing1: I am not an expert.

I do not know everything there is to know about writing and publishing. What I post here may or may not apply to you. That’s especially true if you’re looking for publishing wisdom. I’ve only been in this game a bit shy of five years.2 There’s still a TONNE I don’t know or understand. I’m constantly bewildered by publishing. Fortunately, I know lots of more experienced publishing folk whom I can turn to for explanations, like my agent. Though sometimes it’s hard to ask because I don’t entirely understand what it is that I don’t understand. The publishing industry is arcane and weird.

As for writing. Well! There are zillions of different ways to write a novel. Me, I’ve only written six. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to folks like George Sand or Joyce Carol Oates. I’m still learning.

The novel I’m writing right now is unlike anything I’ve written. Previously, I’ve started at the beginning and written my way through to the end. Makes sense, right? This new novel I’m writing scene by scene but so far not one of these scenes follows directly from a previous scene. This novel refuses to be written chronologically. It’s making me relearn how to write a novel. It hurts my head!

All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe not. There are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines. Do what works, chuck what doesn’t, but stay open to it maybe working for you at a different time or for a different novel.

Well, there is one rule: All novels are improved by the addition of zombies. VASTLY IMPROVED.

  1. or anything else for that matter []
  2. And only if you count from the offer. The actual contract wasn’t signed until late 2003. []

Last Day of 2007

The year two thousand and seven was another good year for me personally. My third novel, Magic’s Child, was published in March which completed the Magic or Madness trilogy. The trilogy also finally earned out! That’s right. When the royalty statements come now there’s money attached. Woo hoo! The trilogy also sold in Japan.1 Surely the manga version can’t be too far off?!

I went from never having won a literary award to winning three. The Norton Award for Magic or Madness and the Atheling and Susan Koppelman for Daughters of Earth. So I’m legitimately an award-winning author! Now I just need the best-selling to go with it. 🙂

I sold my fifth and sixth books—the fairy novel and an as yet untitled (and largely unwritten) book—to a brand new publisher, Bloomsbury USA.

I love my new house. Everyone I’ve met there—the editors, publishers, sales & marketing, publicity, just everyone—is fabulous. Their excitement about my fairy book makes me very very happy. I am very proud to be a Bloomsbury girl. And hopefully early next year—just a few weeks away—I’ll be able to share all sorts of cool news about the fairy book. Its new title! Cover! Exact date of publication! It’ll be all fairy news all the time!

And to speak of someone else’s success for a second: I’m thrilled to see how well Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing is doing. I saw exactly how much work she put it to that book. Seriously, for a while there I thought she might not survive the experience. But she did and now the book (by far the best of the trilogy) is selling out of control. Yay! Congrats, Libba, you totally deserve it.

Non-professionally, I reckon the best thing that happened all year was the change of government back home. Did that happen only last month? I’ll be coasting on the joy of that for some time to come. Right now it seems that every time I read an article about home something new and fabulous has happened. To which I can only say, “YAY!”

This time last year I said my goal was to finish two novels, which was my goal the year before also. So, um, how’d that go?

Not so much. Time to pick a new goal, methinks.

I rewrote the fairy book many times—so many times that it felt like writing more than one book—but I did not finish any other novel. Le sigh.

I did, however, write two short stories both of which come out in 2008. The first, “Pashin’, Or the Worst Kiss Ever” is in First Kiss (Then Tell) edited by Cylin Busby for Bloomsbury and due for publication in January: i.e. tomorrow. It’s very gross and (I think) funny. The other stories in the anthology are awesome but what would you expect with the likes of Cecil Castellucci, Shannon Hale, David Levithan, Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Robin Wasserman and Scott Westerfeld contributing?

The second story is considerably longer and much more romantic. It’s called “Lammas Day” and will be in Love is Hell edited by Farrin Jacobs for Harper Collins and due out around September. The other stories are by Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, Scott Westerfeld and Gabrielle Zevin.2

I also wrote an article for an Australian pearl magazine3, the beginning of several novels, a proposal, an appreciation of John Scalzi, many many emails, comments and blog posts. If I added them all up I reckon it would be as long as a whole other novel . . .

For 2008 I have a novel due in August. I honestly can’t see myself writing another one after that but maybe if I don’t make it a goal to write two novels next year I’ll do it accidentally?

In addition to the August novel—which may or may not be any of these—I have three sekrit projects on the go. All collaborations with sekrit writers. One of these already has a proposal written so I’m very confident it will happen. The other two consist of enthusiasm and late night conversations. I am full of optimism but I wouldn’t lay odds on their completion just yet.

My 2008 publications:

    January: the short story I mentioned above, “Pashin’, Or the Worst Kiss Ever”.

    February: the paperback version of Magic’s Child hits the shelves! Which means the entire trilogy will be available for cheap! Plus there’s a mini-essay on writing the book at the back. Bonus! I am VERY excited about this!

    September (or thereabouts): the fairy novel for Bloomsbury! My first new novel in 18 months! Woo hoo! Dance and sing and party!

    And also the other short story mentioned above, “Lammas Day”.

You should also get hold of Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes when it comes out. It’s the sequel to City of Bones and is even better. I loved it! Seriously, I read it in one sitting. When can I read the third one, Cassie? I need closure!

Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett will be out in May. One of her best. In fact, if it had vampires or demons or zombies in it, I would say it was her very best. But for now I love it second only to Devilish.

E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is total genius. Remember how much I raved about Dramarama? This one’s even better. The only way she could surpass herself would be to throw in some zombies or demons or vampires. I’m just saying, E.

You’ll all be stunned to hear that my favourite book of 2007 was Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger. If you haven’t read it already, why not? Run to your nearest library or bookshop and get it NOW!

And make sure you all go see the Spiderwick movie. I can’t wait! Yay, Holly Black!

I think 2008 is going to be fabulous. But then even when I have really crap years I’m always full of optimism for the next one.

Happy new year, everyone!

  1. Bringing the number of countries the trilogy’s been published in up to nine. []
  2. I’ve only read Scott’s—on account of I don’t think there are ARCs yet—but it’s brilliant and worth the price of the anthology alone. []
  3. don’t ask []

The Scalzi, Westerfeld and Me podcast continues

Here’s the

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

in which Scott threatens to push Scalzi out a window. Stoush!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

.

Podcast Seriousness

Not!

While we were in Chicago for the Great Lakes Booksellers Association conference in October, me, John Scalzi and Scott Westerfeld recorded a

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

in which he purportedly interviews us about our books. Zombies do come up—cause really when writers get together what else are they gonna talk about?

Apparently this is part 1 of the convo. Will keep you posted when the rest of it goes up.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

!

P.S. Scalzi’s pronunciation of my surname is prefectly accurate. I was just teasing him.

Writing = hard

Fellow writers, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re looking at your manuscript covered with line edits by your editor and you come across something like this:

I could feel felt . . .

And you stare it. Really? Really? I wrote “I could feel” when I could simply have written “I felt”? What was I thinking? Why is my editor a better writer than I am? Gah!

And then there’s this:

I could still feel the warmth of where his thumb had been1

I wrote “the warmth of”? I’m, like, the WORST writer ever. I totally deserve all the paper cuts this stupid manuscript is giving me. Every single one. Even the one across my nose. Maybe especially the one across my nose.

  1. On her forehead, okay? Don’t go thinking rude thoughts. My fairy book is very chaste. []

Another reason writing YA is so much fun

is because all the other writers are cool and supportive and wonderful to hang out with.

New-to-the-genre writer Sherman Alexie has been finding that out. He told galleycat that at every bookshop he went to on his YA tour, “two or three big-name YA authors have come to the reading. That never happened on my adult book tours.”

I certainly felt that way last night at the ALAN drinks hanging out with my peeps. Way too many to name. As well as the usual suspects were people like Lauren Myracle, Pete Hautmann, Sara Zarr and Kathleen Duey (who wrote the brilliant Skin Hunger that I raved about earlier—yes I fan girled all over her). All of them fabulous people and wonderful writers. Like so many of my friends. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

I don’t think it’s just a YA thing, though. It’s a genre thing. Romance writers are very supportive of each other, science fiction and fantasy scribes also, not to mention the crime writers. We genre writers stick together.

I wonder what’s up with the adult writers of Literature?

Lunch, darling

A friend will be in town next week to meet her agent and some editors who are interested in her writing. She is very nervous and asked me what to expect. I directed her to agent Kristin Nelson’s blog where a while back she gave the lowdown on the shennanigans that take place at agent-editor lunches. It’s shocking stuff!

They eat food and gossip! Who’d’ve thunk it?

I then revealed to my friend that the exact same thing happens at editor-author lunches. Food is et and (rarely) wine is drunk, and the publishing industry, family, friends, mutual acquaintances, as well as Ugly Betty, and books just read are discussed and dissected. Much fun is had.

I found this all very puzzling when I had my first lunch with an editor. I was an unpublished wannabe. A writer friend of mine had arranged for me to meet her editor. She’d described me and my writing in very fulsome terms and the editor had asked to meet me even though she hadn’t read my book yet (very unusual).

I was very very very VERY nervous. I spent days practising pitches, figuring out how best to describe my finished novel, and all the other ones I had on the boil. Come the day though, the subject of my writing never even came up. The editor did not ask a single question about my finished manuscript, about what I was working on, where I saw myself in five years, what kind of speech I planned to give when I accepted the Nobel—nothing like that. Instead we talked about the publishing industry, mutual acquaintances (actually our one mutual acquaintance—the writer friend who set us up), as well as Buffy (it was a while ago), and books just read were discussed and dissected. Much fun was had. Hmmm, I thought, What was this lunch about then? Why did we talk about everything under the sun other than my book?

Years later, when I was published and had an actual writing career, a different editor took me out to lunch. I’d been told this editor was a big fan of my work and very interested in publishing me. (I agreed to have lunch because I was curious and because I’m extremely attracted to free lunches especially at really good restaurants.1) However, over lunch the subject of my writing never came up. I was not lavished with praise or wooed, instead we—you guessed it—gossiped about the publishing industry, mutual acquaintances, and books we loved and hated. It was excellently diverting, but not at all what I’d expected.

So what are those lunches about? Kristin Nelson says they’re about creating a connection, getting to know each other, figuring out if there’s any possibility you could work together. The writing stands or falls on its own. If the editor who took you out to lunch reads your ms. and hates it then that’s that. Doesn’t matter how charmed she was by you over lunch. Or that you both share a passion for mushroom hunting, or American Gothic, or the Angelique books, or all three—if she’s not into your book you remain unpublished.

For me it means those lunches are both less and more intimidating. Less because you’re very unlikely to have to pitch your book—something I’m not that good at. But more because what they’re really doing is seeing if they like you. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but that reminds me of my first day at school, hoping that I wouldn’t say or do the wrong thing and that someone would like me. I had many first days of school and it never got less terrifying.

On the other hand, pretty much every lunch I’ve had with an agent or editor has gone really well: editors and agents are my people. We almost always love the same things: not least of which is books and publishing. We have a tonne to say to each other. I cannot remember a dud lunch2. So that nervous-first-day-of-school feeling usually evaporates within a few minutes and is completely gone by the time you find that one book that’s sold millions that you both hate.

So my advice is relax and enjoy. If you can . . .

Oh, and don’t spill water all over the person taking you out. I’ve done that. Not a good look. At least it wasn’t red wine . . .

  1. It was at a really good restaurant. []
  2. well, sometimes the food has sucked. []

A clean desk

Kenina-Chan wanted before and after photos of my desk but sadly it did not occur to me to take a before photo so instead I offer you some statistics:

Hours spent cleaning the desk1: 12

Weight of paper to be recycled: 5 kilos (11 pounds)

Weight of garbage: 0.9 kilos (2 pounds)

Number of dead things discovered: classified

Breaks taken during cleaning: lots2

Time spent working at desk since cleaning: 03

And here is a photo of the recycling and garbage removed from the desk during cleaning:

rubbish1.jpg

And here is the clean desk from two different angles as the sun sets4:

deskclean.jpg

cleandesk.jpg

I may never work again.

  1. The largest amount of time was spent sorting (recyclable, rubbish, or to be filed) and filing the crap on the desk. []
  2. I lost count, okay? []
  3. I’m too afraid of messing it up again. []
  4. At barely five in the afternoon!!! []

In which I commence the cleaning of my desk

It has come to this. I have the final round of edits on the Fairy book. They are in manuscript form. However, there is no room on my desk to put the manuscript. The towering piles of crap cannot stand any further weight, not even one small piece of paper, definitely not 264 manuscript pages. I know because I tried and there was much toppling of crap to the floor. It is now dumped back on the desk.

The desk must be cleaned in order for me to work.

I am afraid of it. It is now more like an archaeological dig than mere cleaning. I fear what I might find: I did clean away all uneaten food, didn’t I? I fear what I won’t find: All those things I’ve been looking for and not found could be buried somewhere in those many layers. But what if they’re not?

And what am I going to do with the stuff on the desk that must be kept? It’s not like there’s anywhere else to put it.

The cleaning of my desk fills my heart with despair.

Perhaps I could work on the floor in the front room? Or on the kitchen table? Or at someone else’s kitchen table?

No. I must be brave. I must delve into those hidden depths and make them go away.

Wish me luck. Pray that I do not get buried alive in an avalanche of old catalogues and magazines and receipts and envelopes and wine labels and dead electronic bits and letters and business cards and books and pens that don’t work and postcards and head phones and empty water bottles and note books and hair clips and lens cloths and post-its and lip balm and all the stuff I can’t actually see. Or eaten by the cockroaches, rats and scorpions that may emerge from the bottom layer.

If I do not post again remember me kindly.

Sherwood Smith on World Building

Because I am very behind on reading blogs—and pretty much everything else in my life—I missed this lovely riposte by Sherwood Smith. She’s responding to M. John Harrison dismissing world building. He’s not, though, he’s dismissing bad world building. Just like all those people who say that omniscient narration is evil and wrong. Nope, only when it’s done badly.

You should go read Sherwood because what she says is exactly so:

My objection is this, that worldbuilding is one of the ways humans play. Just as reading is a form of play.1 Many people don’t even know they are worldbuilding. Children worldbuild all the time. They will establish with a few quick rules what each item in the yard represents, and play at that a while, testing that everyone’s on the same page, and then someone begins a “what if?” “What if we all turned into ponies?” “What if the ponies fly?” “What if race cars had brains?” My son, at four, who never willingly reads a book, had had the living room converted to a world that was internally laid out–he didn’t tell us what was what. We could only guess by the sound effects he made as he motored about; then at one point he got the pots and pans out of the kitchen, laid them carefully out into a man shape, pointed the TV changer at it, expecting it to come to life. He cried, the world crashed down, and we had to explain where his rules and this world’s rules clashed, but it was clear that that giant robot had had a role in his ongoing story.

What she said. Read the whole thing. The comments are pretty fascinating too.

  1. The argument that reading ought not to be play, but ought to be useful and informative and force one to think is, I believe, just another form of the great clomping foot of the puritan ethic. []

World building

Someone else asked me how I go about world building when writing fantasy or science fiction or historical fiction. (I’ve written all three.) Once again the question made me go all inarticulate and respond randomly and lamely: “How do I breathe?” “How does a butterfly flap its wings?”

Clearly I need to figure out how I go about world building. I’m fascinated by writing process and this is a large part of mine. I have to quit it with the inarticulate spluttering.

So those of you have written novels not set in this world—how did you go about your world building? Or, to refer to a recent discussion on Gwenda’s blog, what story do you tell yourself about your world building?

Post no. 755

Why is it often such a nightmare trying to come up with the right title? Why can’t I just call my next article “Article no. 25,” my next short story “Short Story no. 3,” and my next novel “Fourth Novel,” and the one after that “Fifth Novel”?

Don’t you think that has a ring to it? Sixth Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, better still: Two Hundredth and Twenty Seventh Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, how about: Just read it, already! by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, It’s a Book, Stupid. What did you think it was? by Justine Larbalestier.

Stupid titles. I kick them all.

The second and subsequent readings

You have all confirmed my suspicion that the majority of readers/viewers are deeply worried by spoilerfication.1 We are as one, my comrades! I’ve always been deeply suspicious of those who read the last few pages first. The horror!

For me—and you my comrades—the pleasures of the first read are all about the surprises of the plot, of the characters, of figuring out what kind of a book we’re reading.

One of the pleasures of the second read is figuring out how the writer managed to do what they did.

Or it would be if I didn’t fall instantly back into the story. I am such a sucker for story. Usually, unless I’m very stern with myself, I only start being able to look at how a novel works after a fourth or fifth read.2

It’s a whole other pleasure from the first reading. One that often gives me ideas for my own writing, not to mention teaching me cool and useful techniques. Here’s an example, though, warning: If you haven’t read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles avert your eyes!

On my second read (or possibly third) I noticed that the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is (almost) never the view point character. It’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t notice it on my first read—the Chronicles consists of six hefty novels, many gajillion pages. I told you I am a sucker for story! It blinds me to much else.3

I digress.

Dunnett’s keeping us out of Lymond’s head is a large part of how she made him seem so very charismatic. I felt like I knew him because of seeing him from so many other points of views, yet I never knew what was going on in his head except by inference. She makes Lymond mysterious, but not too distant. It’s dead clever. So clever, in fact, I wrote a whole novel using the same technique.4

To grab a few more examples out of thin air: Jane Austen taught me a tonne about dialogue and omniscient pov, Steinbeck about epic sweep and melodrama (yum!), Diana Wynne-Jones about plotting and funny, and Angela Carter made me unafraid of adjectives and adverbs.

I also like to think I learned a tonne about page-turning-ness from my many many re-reads of Flowers in the Attic and the novels of Howard Fast. But I may just be writing tickets on myself.

Of course, learning more about writing is not the only reason I re-read favourite books—there’s also the lovely comfort of falling into a familiar world and story with people I’ve known for an age. Hmmm, now I really want to crack open Game of Kings . . .

Those of you who re-read what do you get out of it?

  1. What do you mean that’s not a significant sample size?! []
  2. With TV shows and movies it also takes many viewings. When I was writing articles about Buffy the Vampire Slayer I watched almost every episode many, many, many times. []
  3. Oh, okay, part of the reason I re-read so often is that I’m a sloppy reader. []
  4. Which, um, hasn’t sold. I’m still proud of it, but. []

A drop in the ocean

Several people have been bewildered by my enjoyment of this article about the Frankfurt Book Fair. Don’t you get depressed by how it’s not about the authors? they ask. How it’s about books as product? How there are so many, many, many books?

Nope.

Books are products.

That’s not all they are, but it’s a pretty bloody important aspect, especially for those of us who are trying to make a living writing (or editing or selling) them.

Publishing is an industry. Part of what it’s about—and has always been about—is making money. For most of its history most of that money has been made by people other than writers.1 That’s still the case. Sure, some writers do just fine. As it happens—at this moment in time—I’m one of them. I don’t make a tonne of money, but I’m finally making more than I did as a research fellow.2

But the fact that my career’s toddling along okay (right now) is not why I read articles about “books as product” without blanching. That’s not why it doesn’t bother me to walk into a hall big enough for a city of dinosaurs that’s entirely full of books. I love books! I’m thrilled there are so many of them. And that there are so many people busily bringing them into existence.

Long before I sold so much as a haiku I was fascinated by the industry. By how it operates from the booksellers to the sales reps to the publicists to the editors and agents and writers right through to the execs at the top of the multi-media conglomerates that own most of the big publishing companies in the world. I’m fascinated by the economics of small presses and medium-sized presses too. I want to know everything there is to know. One of the coolest parts of going with Scott on his book tour was meeting so many sales reps and booksellers and media escorts and gossiping about the industry and learning new stuff I hadn’t known.3

I subscribe to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch. I read a tonne of different publishing and bookish blogs by agents and editors and booksellers and librarians. Most of the conversations I have with fellow writers and with agents and editors and sales reps and other publishing types quickly turns into gossip about the industry. Who’s making the big deals? Which house is going after what kinds of books and why? Are the Twilight books the new Harry Potter?

I’m not saying I think publishing today is all roses. It’s not. But it never was. I spent more than a year of my life reading through the letters of Judith Merril and other science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. Their struggles to make a living are very familiar.

Like Carole Cadwalladr I’m depressed by how few foreign-language titles are translated into English. By the books I think are hideously bad that do incredibly well4. But I remind myself that it was ever thus. The Pilgrim’s Progress is possibly the most boring book ever written. Twas a bestseller in its day. Crappy books have done well in the past; they’ll do well in the future. But there are always wonderful books flying off the shelves too.

There are more books being published than ever before. There are more readers than ever before. I think that’s fabulous.

I’d be depressed if we could no longer fill the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair. If people weren’t excited about the latest books or by Doris Lessing winning the Nobel or by the latest crazy book deal.

I guess I’m a publishing geek.

  1. Most editors and publicists and sales reps and booksellers don’t make much either. Seriously if you go into any aspect of the publishing industry trying to make your fortune you’re delusional. []
  2. Barely. And only as of this year. It could change. []
  3. For instance I had no idea media escorts even existed. []
  4. that dreadful YA I mentioned recently better flop! []

Book fair horror

Carole Cadwalladr writes very entertainingly about the Frankfurt book fair. Especially about all the gossip. One of my favourite bits is her glancing mention of inflated print runs.1 Apparently this goes back much further than I’d realised:

For as long as people have written books, people have sold them too, and this involves a certain amount of talking things up. Erasmus, in the 15th century, is said to have drummed up business here (the fair’s been going for 800-odd years) by claiming the first print run of his Colloquies was 24,000. And this in an age when the average number of copies produced was around 50.

That wily Erasmus, eh? Though I don’t know what he expected to achieve when it was going to become clear that he was a bit of a fibber almost as soon as the words left his mouth.

Publishing is a strange business. Read the whole article. It’s my favourite on publishing in ages.

  1. For those who don’t know publishers almost never release the true print run. They always exaggarrate the number. Sometimes by margins almost as crazy as Erasmus. []

A rant begins to brew

So I just stopped reading an ARC I was given a few book shops ago. It’s a YA by an author who’s only written for adults previously—it sucks. I’m sorry that’s as polite as I can get. The writer seems never to have read any other YA or ever met a teenager. The main character is very like this writer’s other main characters only dumber and way more obvious.1 I did not believe in this character. The book is patronising, annoying, and, frankly, boring.

Why do so many adults assume that writing for teens or children is going to be a doddle and turn off nine tenths of their brain to do it? What is that about? Why do they assume teenagers are stupid?

I hasten to add that there are adult writers who are a natural fit for YA. Alice Hoffman is one. Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Knox are also splendid. But the vast majority of YA by adult authors makes me very very cross indeed. If I were not in a mad hurry I would write a long detailed rant about it.

  1. The character is so dumb and obvious that if they were meant to be a five year old it would still be insulting. []

Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and other famous persons

One of the fabulous things about this tour is seeing how popular so many of my friends are.

At a book shop on the outskirts of Chicago I saw this:

City of Bones

I pointed it out to Scott. “Look! Someone here loves Cassie’s book. And they have a tonne of copies!” (There were more in piles above and below this book shelf.)

The bookseller who wrote that shelf talker overheard me:

“You know Cassie Clare?! Oh. My. God. I LOVED that book so much!!! She is a genius! I have loved her ever since I read her Secret Diaries!”

At a school in Walnut Creek, California lots of the kids had painted posters of their favourite books. The room was full of them:

schoollibrary.jpg

I checked each one, looking for a book by one of my friends, and lo and behold what did I find?

13lbe.jpg
Maureen Johnson’s Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes.

During tonight’s fabulous event at Copperfield books in Petaluma praise was heaped on Holly Black, Libba Bray, Cecil Castellucci, Cassie, Maureen, and Garth Nix. It was joyous to hear. And, yes, I was bad, I boasted about knowing them all!

Book tours are fun!

Sitting

Maureen Johnson ones again reveals the truth of what it is to be a writer:

Sitting plays a bigger role in writing than you would think. I mean, a lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I want to write a book one day.” And I smile and nod. Some of them will—but a lot of them can’t sit still for more than fifteen minutes if the TV isn’t on.

You have to sit like a champion when you write. Oh, you’re laughing. You think you can sit like a pro. But when it starts to all go rocky, when your characters don’t behave, when the wolf is at the door and the plot is starting to quake like a jello mold on a trampoline . . . . I defy you to keep sitting.

The sitting thing is why I rarely join my writer compadres in coffee shops. I’m only there if I absolutely have to get out of the house.1 My back is so destroyed by the whole sitting thing that I need an entirely ergonomic set up. I’ve got my ergie chair, my ergie desk, my ergie keyboard. All of it the right amount of heights and distances and blah blah blah. Even with all of that the end of every book I’ve ever written has seen me spending considerable time and money at the chiropractor’s. Oh joy.

Except this last book. I started going to the gym four times a week with a trainer—oh, yes, I’m now one of those wankers—and working mostly on my back and tummy muscles. Result: I finished a book without having to go into traction. I could achieve the same thing by swimming every day but there’s not a 50 metre pool within coo-ee. Buggered if I’ll swim in one of those annoying short course pools. Aargh. Yoga’s good too. But I’ve never found a yoga teacher as good as the one I had back in Sydney. Le sigh.

Anyways, writing = sitting. And sitting can get very bloody ouchy. I’ll never understand why people think being a writer is glamorous. Hah!

  1. So I don’t wind up climbing the walls and rending my hair with writerly frustration and madness. []

Series

A warning: this is one of those stumbly thinking out loud posts.

I just read a dead interesting essay by Jim Huang reflecting on twenty years of selling books. Most of his comments have to do with mystery books but a lot of it applies to other genres. I’ve been thinking about this comment:

When I think about the center of gravity of the mystery genre, I still believe that it lies in series. Seventy percent of the titles on the bestsellers lists of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association in 2007 year to date are part of a series. Seventy percent of these series titles belong to long-running series of five or more books. Sales in IMBA member stores are not necessarily representative of the marketplace in general, but they are the best indication we have of what the most devoted mystery lovers are looking for. Yet you can in fact generalize from these numbers. When you look at the BookScan mystery bestseller list for the week of 8/12/07, representing sales throughout the industry, you see that over 70%—closer to 80%, actually—of these bestselling titles also belong to series.

While not to that extent, Young Adult, is also dominated by series books: from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter through to the Gossip Girls. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from following the adventures of the same characters over multiple books and huge sales prove that I’m not alone in thinking so.

I know I have whinged about the trickiness of writing a trilogy, which is just a shorter series, but as a devourer of story I am all about the arc plot. In fact, lately I’ve kind of lost interest in movies and am much more into television precisely because it’s all arc. Right now we’re working our way through Homicide: Life on the Streets (which Scott had never seen!) and the first season of Heroes (anyone spoils me I kill them) having already screamed through American Gothic and the first three series of The Wire, there being no more Rome or Deadwood to be had.

I’m also gobbling manga by the truckload—my current obsession being Hikaru no go and Hellsing. I love them! But it’s also frustrating. Like right now I’m missing volume 6 of Hikaru. I have 7-10 waiting for me but no 6. And when I have all of the available volumes, I’m waiting on the next ones. Where is Nana 7? Emma 5? ES (Eternal Sabbath) 6? Hellsing 9? Her Majesty’s Dog 7? Monster 11? Mushishi 3? Waaaah!!!

But that’s nothing compared to the kinds of problems readers of mysteries have. Huang writes:

Series matter, and what publishers do with them tells you a lot about their inclinations and abilities. I write a lot about series and the bad job that the most publishers do with them: not keeping books in print (especially the first book which is where readers want to start), not clearly indicating the order of books in series, not identifying books as part of a series, not packaging series titles with a common look to make it easier to find them on new releases tables, not timing publication of new hardcovers and paperbacks to maximize sales, not indicating for the benefit of buyers for stores a new title’s place in the series, not soliciting orders for series backlist and frontlist together, not waiting months (if not years) between UK and US publication, etc.

I’ve definitely seen this happening a lot in sf and fantasy publishing but less so in YA. I wonder if that’s because YA books tend to stay on the shelves longer? Or maybe my anecdotal evidence is dodgy and it happens in YA too. Whatever. I will never understand how publishers allow book 1 of a series to go out of print while books 2, 3, 4 etc are still in print.

The first volume is always the biggest seller of a series because every time a new volume comes out it kickstarts fresh sales for the first volume. I’ve had several people write me to say that they bought Magic or Madness when Magic Lessons or Magic’s Child came out because the appearance of the later books reminded them about the series and also meant they could by the first book in paperback. My sales figures show the sales of Magic or Madness going up on the publication of the other two books.

On a much bigger scale that’s what happened with each book in Scott’s Uglies series. So much so that books two and three made it on to the New York Times bestseller list more than a year after first publcation. It will be interesting to see what happens when the fourth book comes out next month.

Obviously, the first volume of a bestselling series like Scott’s won’t be allowed to go out of print, but why publish the third book in a lesser selling series if the first one is no longer available? It minimises sales of all volumes in the series.

I have no idea where I’m going with any of this. Read Jim Huang’s essay!

To freelance or not to freelance . . .

A friend of mine is thinking of quitting their day job. They’ve had a novel published, which is doing very well indeed thank you very much. Their publisher is solidly behind them and eager for more books. The friend has turned to me for advice. On account of how I’m already a freelancer.

However, their situation is very different from mine when I went freelance. I had come to the end of a fellowship so instead of seeking employment or another fellowship I opted to try my hand at writing full time. My friend would be leaving a job which has a clear path of promotion in a secure industry with great health insurance and all sorts of other perks. Also the friend likes the job, but they love writing. And the job is so full on that it’s very difficult to make the time to write novels.

My first impulse is to say, “Keep the job!” But the friend is a brilliant writer. Keeping the job means a book every three or four years. Tops. At the moment the money is about the same between the two options.

What to do?

Here’s my list of pros and cons of freelancing.

Cons Pros
very irregular pay
have to provide your own health insurance
your own super (savings for retirement—dunno what they call that in the US of A)
can be very isolating working long hours on your own
stationery no longer free
life ruled by deadlines
concentrate on writing
your time is your own
work uniform is pyjamas
no boss
can work wherever you want
can work whenever you want
travel is easy
its fun
no office politics
if you need to get out and go for a walk/swim/ice cream you can

I’m a bit stupid today so I’m sure I’ve forgotten heaps and some of them are a bit repetitive. Please chime in with your own pros and cons to the freelance life. What would you do in this situation? What’s your advice for my friend?

Money writing advice

Someone wrote to Victoria Strauss over at Writers Beware asking for advice on pursuing writing as a career. Namely will it make me money?

Strauss was honest about what a hit-and-miss career writing is and how the vast majority of pro writers do not make a lot of money. Her respondee did not take kindly to the truth and wrote to Strauss to tell her that he was

not worried about your discouragement. I understand, the history of the human race is but a brief spot in time, and its first lesson is modesty, but some people are better than others. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from having high ambitions, because the good of their success outweighs the bad of their failure. The successful ones always tell everybody to be more ambitious, which is why I think you’re biased and your judgement cannot altogether be respected.

Aside from this being a breathtakingly rude response to someone who’s gone out of their way to give an honest answer the layers of delusions are breathtaking. How is telling someone the truth discouraging someone from being ambitious? If you want to be a writer the odds are that you will not make much money. Best to know that straight away because if that’s your main motivation then you’d be better off playing the stock market or getting a law degree or becoming a plumber or finding a rich spouse.

I’ve been asked the money question by aspiring writers many times during my brief career (I’ve been a full-time writer only four years) and like Victoria Strauss’s correspondent they really don’t want to hear the truth. They want success stories. They want to be told that they will sell their first novel for six figures.

They might. I know one first timer who did. But the vast majority of first-novel advances I’ve heard of have been under twenty grand. Way under. Mine was. Scott’s was. Garth Nix’s was. So was J. K. Rowling’s.

If you don’t believe me subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch. Start counting how many of those debut novel deals are anything other than “nice” deals ($1-$49,000). Make sure to check how many books are in the deal. A “good” deal ($100,000 – $250,000) sounds fabulous but often those deals are for at least three books. I’ve seen a six-book “nice” deal which means the author got at most $8,000 a book.

Strauss’s questioner ends by telling her:

And if you don’t get it, maybe that’s why you’re not very successful. Write until your words bleed. I don’t see that color in your prose.

His notion of success is all tied up with money and he has the hide to hell Strauss that she’s not a success? He hasn’t sold a book; she’s published many. The only thing Strauss is not a success at is telling him what he wants to hear: you, sir, are the chosen one who will earn gazillions.

Hard work has a lot to do with success (though bleeding really isn’t necessary) but I know plenty of hardworking writers who don’t earn enough to support themselves, not to mention all the hard workers who’ve never made it into print. Talent and hard work are very necessary, but to make the big bucks luck is essential.

You can be a very successful writer—well reviewed, award winning, decent sales—and earn only 30 thou or less a year. The majority of pro writers would be over the moon to be earning that much year in and year out. Money for writers is low and erratic. It’s August and I’ve been paid about $4,000 for my writing this year. I’m owed more but who knows when it will come? That’s the writer’s life right there. Just like any other freelancer.

Besides what is a successful writer? There are many genius writers who made bugger-all writing during their lifetimes. You can’t tell me that Joseph Conrad and Emily Dickinson and Philip K. Dick weren’t successes. They’re still in print and they’re still read unlike gazillions of best sellers over the years. Who’s reading Coningsby Dawson and Warwick Deeping now?

Email bankruptcy, or, attempting to cope

I am in crunch time. I am in crunchy crunch time. The busyness I have been complaining about has rebounded on itself and leapt to a whole new level of busy. In a word: Aaaarggghh!!!!

I’m going to keep blogging. I made a little bet with myself to see if I could blog every day of July and so far so good. I hate to lose bets with myself. Especially fun ones. Also blogging kind of clears my head. Dunno why but when I’m deep in writing, blogging really helps me to unwind—that and a glass of wine.

However, I’ll no longer be replying to comments as much as I have been (which I know has been down on what it used to be)—Sorry! The UFB has to be rewritten and that’s my top priority.

Then there’s the email problem. A while back John Green declared email bankruptcy. I think I may have to do the same. I have more than five hundred unanswered emails, which I know is nothing compared to Cory Doctorow who gets, like, two thousand a day, but, well, I ain’t coping. Important emails are getting lost in the shuffle. So I’m going to put them all in a folder to be dealt with after crunch time. I hope that if it was important folks will resend.

I’m very sorry for not replying. I suck.

So from now until I’ve finished the rewrites and made solid inroads into the new novel, I’ll be very bad about answering email and your comments here. And if I am responding to comments here in the next few months—that means I’m being an evil procrastinator and you have my full permission to hassle me about it.

Now I return to the UFB.

The Tour

Marrije asked over on insideadog if I’ll be following the Tour de France this year. Sadly, I will not.

This year has gotten out of control. I cannot afford to spend hours every day watching the Tour and following it online. I am incapable of following the Tour non-obsessively. So for the first time in years I’m not following it at all. (No spousal pressure was brought to bear in the making of this decision. Well, okay, just a little bit. I am not husband-beaten! I am not!)

Waaaahh!!!!!

The New York Liberty (10-8) will have to sustain my sport-following needs this northern summer.

And now I go back to the myriad tasks that confront me. At this point it’s so bad I’m resorting to triage. “Which of these tasks will most blow up in my face if I don’t do it?”

But, you know, Vive Le Tour!

Oz GLBT YA books (updated)

David Levithan’s speech at Reading Matters inspired me to put together a list of Australian gay and lesbian young adult books.

I could not do this on my own. Thank you Lynndy Bennett, Kate Constable, Susannah Chambers, Pamela Freeman, Simmone Howell, Judith Ridge, Penni Russon and Ron Serdiuk for all your help and suggestions.

This list is definitely not complete and is not annotated. It’s just a start. If you can think of any more titles, please let me know! And if you’ve read any of the books on the list and can say a bit more about them that’d be great too.

Lili Wilkinson has said that the Centre for Youth Literature will give the list a permanent home.

So here it is:

    Novels

    Will by Maria Boyd 2006
    Settling Storms by Charlotte Calder 2000
    The Rage of Sheep by Michelle Cooper 2007 (It will be released in August—so soon that I figured no need to stick it in the forthcoming list.)
    The Tiger Project by Susanna van Essen 2003
    A Trick of the Light by Susanna van Essen 2004 (Lili Wilkinson says “two dads”.)
    The Other Madonna by Scot Gardner 2003
    White Ute Dreaming by Scot Gardner 2002
    Square Pegs by Nette Hilton 1991
    Out of the Shadows by Sue Hines 1998 (Lynndy Bennett says, “From memory—it’s years since I read this—it is not the teenage characters but some of the parents who are gay or lesbian.” Update: I’ve now heard from a few people that there are gay teenagers as well.)
    A Charm of Powerful Trouble by Joanne Horniman 2002
    Obsession by Julia Lawrinson 2001
    Suburban Freak Show by Julia Lawrinson 2006
    Tumble Turn by Doug Macleod 2003 (Lynndy says “there is the assumption the protagonist is gay”.)
    Hot Hits: The Remix by Bernie Monagle 2003
    Thriller and Me by Merrilee Moss 1994 (Lynndy says, “From memory—it’s years since I read the book–it is not the teenage characters but some of the parents who are gay or lesbian.)
    Mr Enigmatic by Jenny Pausacker 1995
    What are ya? by Jenny Pausacker 1987
    Sky Legs by Irini Savvides 2003
    A Candle for St Antony by Eleanor Spence 1977 (Penni Russon says “a friend said it was a memorable book about an intimate relationship between two boys, though I think the homosexuality is very understated. It’s more about love than sex, I think the boys actually tell each other that they love each other and then kind of have to deal with the intensity of their emotions in the face of their peer groups.”)
    Peter by Kate Walker 1991
    Camphor Laurel by Sarah Walker 1999
    The Year of Freaking Out 1997 by Sarah Walker
    Loose Lips by Chris Wheat 1998

    Forthcoming novels
    Truly Mackenzie by Kate Constable 2008

    Collections
    Clouded Edges by Nette Hilton 1997

    Anthologies

    Ready or Not: Stories of YA Sexuality edited by Mark MacLeod 1996
    Hide and Seek edited by Jenny Pausacker 1996

    Memoir

    Holding the Man by Tim Conigrave 1995 (Penni Russon says “it wasn’t published as YA, it’s also not strictly fiction I think. But it is about two young men (a lot of it is about the relationship they have at school) and it’s such a beautiful beautiful weepy wonderful book.”)

    Inside Out: Australian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered People Write About Their Lives edited by Erin Shale 1999

Memory

I have a terrible memory. Especially for people. My memory for names is non-existent unless I’ve met that person many times. My face memory is a little better, but I struggle to place faces. If I see someone I’ve met several times at Young Adult Lit events in a totally different context I often cannot figure out who they are. But usuallly I don’t even recognise the face of the person beaming at me and saying, “Hi, Justine.”

Once the person I’m not remembering starts to recount how we met and describes the conversation I start to figure out who they are. But sometimes even that doesn’t help.

I know I am not alone in this. Almost every writer I know complains about it because we’re often in situations where we’re meeting someone who remembers us because we met at an event, which is a rarity for them, but common for us.

It’s not just a writer problem. Any profession where you’re likely to meet lots of people: retail, teaching, performing etc etc is going to run up against this problem.

I was horrible at remembering my students when I was an academic. To be honest I’ve always been bad at remembering stuff. I sucked at Memory games as a child. Still do.

How do politicians cope? I know Bill Clinton is famous for remembering every single person he’s ever met. But not all politicians are like that. How do they deal with so many different faces?

It could be worse. I know someone who has a condition which means they cannot remember faces. All faces look the same to them. Without name tags or someone prompting them they are lost. They are constantly giving offence.

So, I’m not that bad. And I’m better at faces than Scott is. Though sadly he’s about the same as me on names.

I have gotten better at simply asking the person to tell me how I know them. But often I’m too embarrassed. It feels rude.

Having a bad memory feels rude.

I really hate not remembering people. I know that I’m a wee bit miffed when people don’t remember me (which happens often) and yet here I am constantly doing it to everyone else. So much of the time I act like I know the person and keep the conversation going in the hopes that I can figure it out. Fortunately I usually can. Though there are the horrible moments when I decide they’re someone they’re not. Erk.

Seems to me that there’s only so much space in most (non-Bill Clinton) people’s heads for remembering. So the average person can at most remember, say, a thousand people. Once you meet more than that your brain starts deleting, or pushing them to a less easily accessed part of the hard drive. And creating trouble for you. Stupid brain.

I’m sure there are all these tricks for getting around the limited hard drive space. Hell, I know there are. Friends have taught them to me. But I keep forgetting to try them out.

How do you lot cope?

David Levithan: Vampire Slayer

The wonderful speech that David Levithan gave at Reading Matters is now available as a podcast. You all should listen to this passionate, galvanising call to arms that left most everyone wanting to go out and slay vampires right that very minute. Or, you know, get the books that kids need into their hands.

I’m still mulling over my response to David’s call to arms. On the one hand, I think he’s totally right. On the other, it’s so annoying to have a foreignor come in, spend a few minutes in the country, and then tell us Aussies what to do! We hates it, we do. Especially when they’re right . . .

Waiting

Someone just asked me what the worst thing about being a writer is. Took me less than a second to answer:

Waiting.

I’m always waiting for my editors, or agents, or publicists, or someone to get back to me. Yes, all of mine are miraculously fast. Yes, I’ve never had to wait more than a week for notes on any of my books. But when you’re waiting for notes a week is an eternity! Sadly, my middle name is not patience.

But the wait for money to show up is genuinely interminable, and the wait for my books to finally come out already? Ditto. I finish the bugger in, say June, and it doesn’t come out until March of the following year—if I’m lucky! In publishing land, that’s fast. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

One of the longest waits is between finishing a book and getting reader responses, finding out if people other than Scott and my editors think it’s unchunderiffic. That’s partly why I send out my early drafts to so many first readers. Otherwise I don’t find out till the end of time what people think of it. But most of them don’t get back to me, or they do much later than they said they would. And because I do exactly the same thing to them I can’t get cranky. Not fair! (Well, okay totally fair, but bloody annoying!)

The following true stories have random pronouns attributed to them in order not to reveal who the waiting writers are:

Right now I have one friend waiting on an editorial letter. He was supposed to have it weeks and weeks ago. He’s going insane, unable to concentrate on other tasks because he knows the minute the ed letter comes in he’ll be thrown into convulsions because he’ll only have ten minutes to do the rewrite and it will probably involve having to throw out the whole thing and start from scratch. Editors can be cruel that way.

Another friend has a proposal out for a series of book completely unlike anything she’s written before. She loves this project more than anything else she’s ever worked on. She’s in paroxysms waiting to see if it sells. What if it doesn’t? Will she be stuck writing books like the ones she’s been writing and is now bored of? Will it torpedo her entire career if this new series doesn’t sell? Aaaarghhhh!! She is in a total state and the proposal’s only been out a few days . . .

And then there’s the waiting when you get given fabulous news and you’re not allowed to say a thing about it. That’s kind of a delicious yet frustrating waiting.

I am waiting on one of those right now. It’s doing my head in. I know the trick is to put the waiting out of my mind and keep writing, but that is so so so much easier said than done.

I am a much more patient person than I was ten years ago. And massively more patient than twenty years ago. But I’m still not patient. Gah!

Fourth Anniversary

Today is the fourth anniversary of my becoming a full-time freelance writer. That’s right, on 1 April 2003 I stopped getting a regular salary and set about trying to earn dosh with the words I write. What more appropriate day than April Fool’s day?

It was Scott who convinced me to do it.

For the previous eighteen months my regular salary as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Sydney had been the bulk of our income, but Scott’s earnings as a freelancer were on the rise. It would be more than enough, he asserted, to support both of us while I found my legs as a writer. There were several academic jobs I could have applied for, but Scott convinced me not to. It wasn’t hard, while I preferred being an academic to any other job I’d had, I liked writing way more. “It’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do,” he told me over and over again. “Now’s the time to do it.”

I thought he was mad.

I was right.

The next three years and a half years were filled with financial anxiety: loans were taken out, credit cards were juggled, and tonnes of panic was panicked. Two freelancers living together is not for the faint of heart. It’s not even a good idea for nerves of steel, lion-hearted types.

I received my first freelance money—the advance on signing for the Magic or Madness trilogy—in December of 2003, which was eight months after I’d gone freelance. It was my first professional sale. The offer came in September so by publishing standards I was paid very quickly. But it was an awfully long time to be bringing in no money. In the meantime Scott signed up for two separate three-book deals (the Uglies trilogy and the three Razorbill books—So Yesterday, Peeps, and The Last Days) to keep us from going under. Problem was those books were on top of the Midnighters trilogy he’d already sold.

Suddenly he was writing three books a year and experiencing the joys of shingles. All because I’d gone freelance prematurely.

Do I regret it? (The real question is: Does Scott regret it?)

No. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. In my first four years of freelancing I’ve written four books, edited another one, and published four: the Magic or Madness trilogy and Daughters of Earth. I sold my first novel only five months after going freelance. Not bad, eh?

Of course, I’d been trying to sell a novel since 1999, so it was four (almost five) years from first finished novel to first sold novel. And I’d been trying to sell short stories for much, much, much, much longer than that (way back into the eighties). I still haven’t had a pro sale for any of my short stories.1 And since I’ve pretty much stopped writing them, or sending them out, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Although the trilogy hasn’t earned out (bloody joint accounting!) it’s close and with the foreign sales of the trilogy (thank you, Whitney Lee) I’m now earning enough to support myself.2

But if someone who’d never sold a novel asked me whether they should go freelance I would tell them no.

No matter how talented or promising you are, going freelance without a single professional sale is madness. Perhaps you have a partner or a parent or a patron who’s willing to support you—it’s still dangerous and scary to try to make a living at something you’ve not proved yourself at. And there’s no guarantee that your partner or parent or patron will continue to support you. They might one day get jack of the whole thing. You might never make a single sale. Lots of extraordinarily talented people have failed to make a living as writers.

I have no idea what the future will bring. I’ve seen too many writers with stalled careers after even the most brilliant of starts to be sanguine about my own. The young adult market is thriving right now and advances seem to be going up all the time, but who knows how long that will last?

Yet despite the financial insecurity, the never knowing if my next book will sell or not, and the destruction of Scott’s health, these have been the best four years of my life. All the books I’ve published are the very best that I could make them at the time. There’s no book out there with my name on it that I’m ashamed of.

Turns out that I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted, and now I have it, it’s better than I imagined. Fingers crossed that it lasts.

Happy anniversary to me! And thank you, Scott, for everything.

NOTE: I apologise for the complete absence of April First Foolery. Fortunately others in the blogosphere are more than making up for my seriousness.

  1. When I sold to Strange Horizons in 2001 it wasn’t classified as a pro market. []
  2. Or to support the alternative me what doesn’t have expensive tastes and lives in Dubbo. []

Getting paid, or, don’t quit your day job

I promised some friends that I wouldn’t blog about the business of writing for a while and I haven’t in ages so, um, you two? Avert your eyes.

Recently some dear friends of mine sold books for the very first time. A small round of applause for their hard work and good fortune! Yay, them!

And as you do (and as I did) they’ve started planning how to spend their advance money (such that it is). They were suffering from the missaprehension that they would be seeing the money sometime soon. I disabused them.

Now I would like to disabuse you.

Before I begin two things:

    1. I’m only talking about publishing payment practices in the US of A and I’m only talking about mine and my friends’ experiences of them. I have never worked in publishing. I’d be grateful and interested to hear about varying experiences both here and in the rest of the world. And I’d love to hear from those who pay as well as those who receive.

    2. I suspect some of you are hazy on what exactly an advance is. (I was.) An advance is a sum of money that is paid (or advanced) to a writer by a publisher against the future earnings of a book. So when a writer is made an offer of money for their book that offer is an advance.

    I sold my first book (not a novel) to Wesleyan University Press for US$1,000. I got to keep that money no matter what happened, but I didn’t get any more dosh from Wesleyan until the royalties (a percentage of each book sold, can vary from 5% to 12% depending on format) on the book exceeded the $1,000 needed to pay Wesleyan back.

Here’s what happens when you sell a book:

A choir of angels sing and fairy dust descends from the air

Once you have accepted an offer on your book the nitty gritty of the contract must be negotiated. This is tricky to do and involves things like “escalation clauses” and “sub-rights” and is why it’s a stupendously excellent idea to have an agent do it for you. Believe me they earn their 15%.

How long that process takes depends on whether your agent already has a specific pre-negotiated contract with the publishing house or not. When I negotiated my contract with Penguin USA for the Magic or Madness books it didn’t take very long because I had no idea what I was doing and said yes to pretty much everything. Ah, the perils of negotiating a contract agent-less.

Once that’s done the contract has to be drawn up. How long that takes depends on the publishing house. Once it’s done your agent checks it. Believe it or not, sometimes there are things in the contract that shouldn’t be there, items that have specifically been negotiated out. This is another reason it’s such a great idea to have an agent.

One of the items specified in the contract is not just how much you will be paid, but how you will be paid. Typically (but definitely not always) your advance is split into thirds. The first third you get upon signing the contract, the second upon delivery and acceptance of your manuscript, and the third upon publication.

If you have a three-book deal of say $15,000 a book1 your total advance is $45,000. Thus you get $15,000 up front as the third on signing because you are signing for all three books. Then you get another $5,000 when the first book is delivered and accepted because that is a third of the $15,000 advance for that book. Then another $5,000 on the publication of the first book. And so on for the second and third book. Your $45,000 winds up being spread over at least three years, but sometimes more than four or five. This depends on how long before your first book is published.

Back to the contract:

Once your agent approves it, you sign it, and the contract is returned to the publishing house where the department that handles payments issues a cheque. I have seen the gap between signing the contract and receiving the cheque be anywhere between two weeks and a year. Any of you had a quicker turnaround? Slower?

The gap between accepting the offer and the contract being offered can also be many weeks. So it’s not only possible but usual for it to take at least six weeks between the intial offer and your cheque showing up. And, frankly, six weeks is fast.

And remember that’s just the first third. The other two thirds will come to you in third of a third parcels over the next few years. It means that your writing earnings could well look like this (minus your agent’s 15% which I haven’t taken out on account of my mathematical ability is not up to it):

2007: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2008: $10,000 (publication of 1st, delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2009: $10,000 (publication of 2nd, delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 3nd)

It will especially look like this if, like me, you didn’t know enough to make sure that your three-book deal wasn’t joint accounted. I sold my trilogy in 2003 and although the first two books have already earned out their advances I have not seen any royalties. Nor will I until the third book earns out as well. That’s what joint accounted means: The accounting for all three books is tied together.

It’s also increasingly unusual for a book to come out that quickly. I have several friends who sold books last year that aren’t scheduled for publication until 2009 (or in one case 2010). In which case their spread could look like this:

2006: $20,000 (payment on signing, delivery & acceptance of 1st book)
2007: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 2nd)
2008: $5,000 (delivery & acceptance of 3rd)
2009: $5,000 (publication of 1st)
2010: $5,000 (publication of 2nd)
2011: $5,000 (publication of 3rd)

Obviously living on $5,000 a year is tricky. Most full-time writers I know are getting bigger advances than that, or writing more than one book a year, or doing other kinds of writing, or all of the above. Scalzi did a recent breakdown of his fiction writing earnings over the past few years.

The more salient point: Most writers I know have a day job.

Each one of those payments comes less quickly than you think it will. I naively thought that my payment on delivery & acceptance of my first book would come automatically as soon as my editor had accepted the manuscript. It did not come until I asked for it. Or rather several weeks after asking.

This is not unique to publishing. It is, in fact, the lot of the freelancer: No matter who you work for, no matter what the industry, the gap between doing the work and getting paid is a LOT longer than we freelancers would like.

Hope this has been helpful.

Do please fill the comments thread with criticisms, questions and accounts of how it works in other places. I’m all ears. (Or, you know, eyes. Whatever!)

  1. That’s an above average advance for most genres I know about. I chose it because it’s easier to do the maths with an advance of $15,000. []

More on blurbs, plus zombies

I am so proud that my serious, soul-baring post about the trials and tribulations of blurbs wound up turning into a debate about whether unicorns or zombies are better. Sometimes I just love my genre people.

This response to Scalzi and me on blurbing also made me smile. I am, indeed, very proud of this sentence:

“How do you tell someone you shot their dog cause you really hate unicorns?”

The writer of that post suggests that it would be amusing to just blurb everything and if you don’t like a book give it an ambiguous blurb of the “I cannot praise this book too highly” variety. Clearly they meant it in jest, but it reminded me that there are writers out there who do exactly that.

Writers of this ilk let you know that they don’t like your book via their blurb:

Justine Larbalestier’s Zombie Dancing is the worst kind of commericial romantic filth. My eyes they bleed! I would rather eat my own entrails than be in the same room with this “book”. Run away as fast as you can!
—Discerning Genius Writer, author of genius books that sell very well thank you very much

It’s only happened to me once (very early on in my career) but, wow, did it hurt. Basically in four sentences this famous (in Australia) writer said they thought my writing sucked and I had no future.

Ouch.

Frankly, I think writing ambiguous, indifferent, or bad blurbs in the real world is passive aggressive nastiness. If you don’t like a book, don’t blurb it. Writers are delicate fragile creatures. Don’t be pouring acid on them!

To sum up, zombies are a zillion, bazllion, katrillion times better than smelly old unicorns, and blurbs are a tricky business.

Blurbs

John Scalzi has a post up explaining his blurb policy. He even kindly explains what blurbs are.

I think his policy is so spot on that I’ve adopted it (slightly amended) as my own:

1. Yes, I am happy to look at books and if I love them I will blurb them.

I adore reading my peers’ work and getting to read them ahead of publication is particularly exciting. It makes me feel like I’m really part of the Young Adult publishing world with my little ole finger right on the pulse. Not to mention that being asked for a blurb is an honour.1 It says that someone somewhere thinks my say so might be good enough to sell a book. That’s flattering as hell. I mean, Wow.

So far I’ve been lucky: None of the books I’ve been asked to blurb have been bad. And yet I’ve blurbed only one novel. I’ve not blurbed books I thought were pretty darn good because I didn’t think they’d be a good fit with my audience. Or because they touch on certain taboos or bugbears of mine. (You know, like unicorns or negative portrayals of Australians.)

I have now read and not blurbed several books by people I know and like and who’ve written other books I would have blurbed in a heartbeat. It sucks, but not as much as having my name on the back of a book that I feel uncomfortable about. I can’t have my readership thinking I endorse unicorns.

I have to really love a book or think it’s doing something important or new to have my name on the back extolling its virtues. I don’t have the largest readership in the world, but I want my readers to know that if I’m talking up someone else’s book I’m really into it. That way if they read it, hate it, and call me on it, I can in good conscience say, “I blurbed it because I loved it. I’m sorry you don’t agree.”

2. Requests for blurbs should come from the book’s editor or publisher, not from the writer.

That’s the ideal, but sometimes your editor is too busy, or your press too small to do it, and it falls on your shoulders. I understand. I’ve been there.

Scalzi gives lots of excellent reasons why it’s better for the blurb request to come from the publishing house than from the writer. I’ll add another one: it’s really embarrassing for a writer to have to ask another writer to publically praise them.

I’ve had to ask writers to sing the glories of me. Even if I know they like my work, and are likely to be willing, it makes me feel like I’m going to throw up. I really really really hate having to ask. I’d much rather have someone else do that. I’d much rather not know if a writer chooses not to blurb me. I’d much rather not even know who was asked.

And I’d really much rather have writers not know I’ve been asked to blurb their books so it never comes up that I haven’t done so. Having to explain to a friend why you won’t blurb their book is one of the world’s least fun things to do. Me, I don’t even like hurting the feelings of authors I’ve never met! Scalzi’s right, it’s just like shooting their dog. And how do you tell someone you shot their dog cause you really hate unicorns?

I have several writer friends who have a no-blurb policy. I’m starting to think that’s a really good idea. The reason I can’t adopt it is that so many people have blurbed me. It would feel churlish not to blurb other people. I know from fan mail that people have picked up my books because of blurbs from Holly Black, Samuel R. Delany, Cory Doctorow and Karen Joy Fowler. While I don’t have anywhere near their audience, if a blurb from me will help someone new whose work I love, than of course I will blurb them.

The other scary thing about blurbs—and let’s face it they’re a whole lot of terror for a writer—is that they’re really really hard to write. Seriously it’s easier to write a whole new novel than it is to write a good blurb:

“You should read this book. It is really good. I liked it. Heaps.”
—Justine Larbalestier, author of books that must really suck if that’s her idea of a good blurb.

Gah!

  1. Though who gets asked is a mystery to me, seeing as how I get asked to do it so much more often than Scott “New York Times Bestselling Author” Westerfeld does. What’s up with that?
    []

My hero

Scott just hit his tenth anniversary as a freelance writer. Congratulations, Mr Hardest-Working-Writer-I-Know.

He shares some cool statistics. Here’s two:

  • in that time he’s published well over one million words (gulp!),
  • and it took him eight years—that’s right—eight years (!) before he was earning enough from writing under his own name to support himself.

Eight years is a loooong time and yet most writers don’t ever earn enough to (comfortably) quit their day job. Scott has done very good indeed. I’m so proud.

Questions about publishing (Updated)

Look at me! I have worked so hard that I’ve managed to get myself back on target for my Friday deadline! Yay me! And as a reward my tyrant husband is letting me have internet access this evening. How kind and good you are, dear sir.

There’s been some lively debate over this way. I confess that I was surprised by the force of Garth (author and ex agent), Patrick (editor) and Sharyn‘s (editor) response to what I thought was an innocuous post (stupid me). Fortunately Teresa (editor) explained the reaction (thank you).

In the end we all agreed: the writing is the most important part, as well as the second most important part, the third most, and so on. It is the day, the night, the morning, the evening; the dove, the crow, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, and every other bird in the sky, even the annoying myena bird.

It’s almost exactly three years since I became a full-time freelance writer. April Fool’s Day 2003 was the glorious first day of this new career. Ever since I’ve been trying to make sense of it and of the publishing industry generally. My post on a writer’s job was one such attempt. I’ve learned an awful lot in those three years. I’ve sold four books, published two, written four and a half, and edited one. I’ve found answers to many of my questions on various blogs around the interwebby. Patrick and Teresa’s Making Light is a fabulous resource (Slush Killer is probably my favourite post on any blog eva) and Anna Genoese‘s livejournal is fab as well. And there are many other excellent publishing blogs. And yet, I still have lots of questions about this industry:

  • Why is the returns system still in place?
  • Why does the wasteful stripping of paperbacks continue?
  • Is the fantasy middle grade market really about to implode?
  • Why is adult science fiction in such doldrums? Is it really?
  • Why don’t short story collections sell? (We learned that this is also true in Italy, Brazil, Sweden and France. Are short story collections hot anywhere in the world?)
  • Why do UK publishers consider it natural for Australian & New Zealand rights to be tucked in with UK rights? Are they unaware that the British Empire is over?
  • Do men really not read as much as women? Is this true everywhere? Or just in Australia and the USA?
  • Why do so many people who don’t actually read want to be writers?
  • Why does the best selling genre—romance—have the lowest average advances for its writers?

I could go on. If you have any questions of your own add them to the comments thread. And if you have any answers, please, please, please tell all!

On Hackery (inspired by Delany’s About Writing)

Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing will not get out of my brain. I keep thinking about his concept of the usefulness, no, the essentialness of doubt (good! I got plenty of that), about how slavishly following the rules and working hard leads to aesthetic banality (the rules of good writing, not the rules of how-to-get-an-agent/editor—you have to follow those). And about being a hack.

Delany’s book made me feel like one (in a good way). His description of his own writing process, of how to write the absolute best you can, is a recipe for books that go through many, many drafts and take a long, long time to write, books that delve down into every doubt or dream you ever had. These descriptions are sensual and exhilarating and inspiring (if I hadn’t read his book I’d still be working on the draft of M! M! M! O! O! O!). As Delany goes through explaining every word choice, you marvel at not just his brilliance and talent, but at his unerring ability to explain this really, really difficult stuff (how’s that for a word choice!).

The book inspires and it also makes you think seriously and long about your own writing.

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1 April 2003 (excellent day to begin, no?). In that time I’ve sold four books, written four and a half, edited one. Deciding to make a living writing, meant deciding to tell different stories than I would if I had a stayed as an academic. Given that so far it’s earned me about US$1,200, and it took four years to research and write, books like The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction went out the window. I had to tell stories that enough other people wanted to read that publishers who could pay decent advances would want to buy them, and I had to learn to write faster. Much faster. I’m now on a two-books-a-year schedule.1

Every page of Delany’s book made me think about the central tension in my life between writing the best books I can and writing them quickly. How do I not become a hack?

I don’t have an answer.

I’m lucky that I write Young Adult books which are considerably shorter than say, Charlie Stross’ work. Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons are both about 65 thou words. In book form that’s 275 pages with a comfortable sized font and balanced amount of leading. But it’s still 130 thousand words of publishable prose a year.

I’m starting to think that—except for the lucky few—to make a living at writing is to be a hack. The best I can do is to write as well as I possibly can within the time restraints, and hope that one day I’ll be generating enough money that I can slow down. But I temper that hope with the knowledge that most people never do. I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.

And while on a major deadline crunch—unless you have servants or a traditional wife—the rest of your life is falling apart. Housework doesn’t get done, or your taxes, or any of the other admin, you don’t see your friends, and lots of takeaway and delivery food and ramen noodles are consumed.2 When you finish you really should be turning to the next book before your editor’s notes come back at you. Because that’s one of the worst things about writing more than one book a year: the constant interruptions from the previous book. You do not—as a dear friend of mine imagined—write one book, send it off, and then leisurely write the next. While writing the next you’re also be working on the last. There are rewrites, checking copyedits, proofs, and galleys. I have no idea how those writing four or more books a year cope.

I’m hoping, some day, to have the time and opportunity to write both as slowly and as well as I want. To only go on to the next book when the last one is well and truly finished and as good as I can make it. In the meantime I strive to be the very best hack I can be!

How do all you other hacks manage?

  1. I have many writer friends who are writing many more books than two a year, who consider such a schedule luxury. []
  2. I am well aware that there are much harder jobs than being a novelist. This is the best, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Every single day I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have a go at it. []

Yes, I’m blogging. Real blogging . . .

So apparently it’s de rigeur for the first entry of a brand new blog to feature the cover of the blogger’s latest book. I mean, if the blogger in question happens to be a writer with a brand new cover to display to the masses, which this particular blogger does. To wit the cover for the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy:

Colour me very happy indeed. Aside from anything else, that photo of the tree there? I took it! It’s a moreton bay fig. In fact it’s the fig tree just past the front gates of Camperdown Cemetery in Sydney, which cemetery makes an appearance in both Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons. The photo on the back cover was also taken in the cemetery by Scott. And the fabulous mjcdesign turned those images into a cover of genius. Thank you, Marc J Cohen.

Hope you all like. Hope you also enjoy this my brand spanking new blog. Welcome!

As some of you know I’ve already had a blog of sorts for the last two years. Some people have dubbed it my not-blog blog. Given the classificatory problems of my musings, I decided to be done with it and start an actual blog blog. Here’s how you’ll be able to distinguish it from my musings:

the entries will be completely free of capital letters. That’s right, this is solidly e e cummingsland. even in the comments. and ha ha! nothing you can do about it. I may even do away with full stops and commas (irritating things anyways).

there’ll be discusssion of books, cricket, movies, elvis, basketball, tv and such. opinions will be expressed, but rarely substantiated. there will be no lit crit. i was once an academic and my days of lit critting and footnotes are far behind me (anyways i was always more of an historian). this is a blog damn it! my blog! if I say so then it is so!

There’ll be comments, but disagreement will not be brooked, unless, you know, it’s funny, or well written, or in some other way cool and interesting. Hmm, come to think of it the same rules apply to agreement.

Enjoy! I plan to.