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Justine Larbalestier is a writer. Her current project is the great Australian cricket, mangosteen, Elvis, young adult (YA) novel. Or possibly a werewolf snowboarding epic. Depends. She is the author of the Magic or Madness trilogy, in which the door of a house in Sydney opens onto a street in New York City.
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One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius. 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 neurotypical and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!
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. 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.
I am not saying that no writer ever has written that way and been successful.
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. I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.
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. 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.
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. 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?
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.
In early March I will be at the Adelaide Writers Week. Which is the oldest and most prestigey 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.
Here are my events:
SEXUAL POLITICS: JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, BRYONY LAVERY, CHIKA UNIGWE
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – MONDAY, MARCH 4 2013
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, AWF, way to go!
My other event is:
GIRL POWER: ISOBELLE CARMODY, JUSTINE LARBALESTIER, VIKKI WAKEFIELD
ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK – SUNDAY, MARCH 3 2013
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.
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.
In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.
TL;DR: I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!
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!
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.
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.
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 clear 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.
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. 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. 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. (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.
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.
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.
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 book of 2013, probably of the century. You heard it here first. Both books are pure genius.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!
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!
Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, gave a stirring, passionate and inspiring speech about misogyny and sexism in the Australian parliament and in particular the misogyny and sexism of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott:
It is the best speech I have ever seen her give. I was moved and thrilled and proud that she is my prime minister.
The video quickly went viral. It was given a serious boost by places like Jezebel and the New Yorker.
Meanwhile in Australia the coverage was oh-so-very different. Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, labelled it a disappointment. The wonderful Failed Estate blog sums up the local mainstream media coverage:
In this case, a passionate and thrilling speech by a prime minister about sexism and the low-level tactics of a political opposition leader beyond cynicism attracted world attention. But our gallery are too clever to see that.
They instead took the bait fed to them by the spin doctors on the other side of politics, that there was some moral equivalence between the private text messages sent by the speaker (when he was still a member of the opposition BTW) and the overwhelming climate of personal denigration and misogyny created by the Opposition leader and the tabloid flying monkeys that cheer him on.
The public can see this, obviously the global media can see it. But a press gallery that spends more time getting “briefed” by spinners and reading each other’s copy completely misses the story. Again.
This is a perfect description of Michelle Grattan’s discussion of the speech on Radio National this morning. Almost none of the mainstream pundits seem to have noticed how historic and important this speech is. Well done.
A few have also dismissed this incredibly important speech because on the same day Gillard’s government introduced a bill that will lower payments to single parents. And because Gillard does not support marriage equality.
Seriously? Because you don’t like some of Gillard’s government’s policies nothing she says is of value? Wow.
For the record I’m 100% in favour of marriage equality and I think it’s outrageous that the Labor party is moving to lower the single parent benefit rather than raising it.
But neither those issues, nor the disgusting behaviour of Peter Slipper, nor any other local political issues can tarnish Gillard’s speech. It is historic and has gone global because Julia Gillard shone a light on just how disgusting the treatment of women in public life is. Just how gross the double standard. People who have barely heard of Australia, let alone our prime minister, have stood up and cheered.
Why? Because what she’s addressing is universal. Women in public life all over the world have suffered exactly the same misogynistic, sexist crap that she has. You don’t have to know any of the particular details that led to this speech to recognise exactly what she’s talking about.
It is a speech that could have been given by any woman in public life. No matter what her politics. Amanda Vanstone could have given that speech. Margaret Thatcher could have given it. Gina Rinehart. Hillary Clinton. They are all women who’ve been pilloried, insulted, and subject to absolutely vile slurs solely because they are women.
But are they allowed to discuss the sexism and misogyny levelled at them throughout their careers? Not unless they want to cop even more of it. Today Gillard is being called “shrill” and “hysterical” for that speech. Despite the fact that she was neither. Despite the fact that what she said is absolutely true.
Note: Yes, I’ve been blogging a bit less. Sorry. Acquired a new injury. Joy. And rewrite of book not finished yet. And like that.
When I was a littlie I hated PE 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!” 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. 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? 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 Six 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. So that’s six publishers I’ve been through the whole publishing process with.
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. Fortunately Bloomsbury has 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 every 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. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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 sport 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.
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. 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. 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.
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!
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.
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. 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.
Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine. 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.
Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.
Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.
Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.
And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.
Plan to fix book was not hatched.
My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.
Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.
Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.
Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.
This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.
This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.
Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.
Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.
It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.
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.
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 made 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.
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.
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.
In this vein, I once had a reviewer go off about one of my books written in first person. 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.
Hope that helps. Would love to hear other coping mechanism for dealing with our books not being loved for the perfection they clearly are.
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. 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.
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? 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. 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.
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?
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. 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,, to be taller, to play WNBA-level basketball, everyone in the universe to read my books, world peace, a pony.
In conclusion: Um, I forget. For some reason I have this overwhelming craving for a mangosteen . . .
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. 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, 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:
Racism and Liar
Liar was largely well-reviewed and won a bunch of awards, including one I’m extremely proud of, the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, which is given to a book “dealing with issues of race and ethnicity.”
It meant a lot to me because throughout my career, in every novel, every story, I have consciously written about identity and race. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking and listening and writing and talking about race and racism. Those conversations, that reading, shaped Liar. Here was an award from a wonderful organisation recognising my hard work. And bonus: it was named for a novel by one of my favourite writers, Octavia Butler: Kindred.
However, even if you are consciously writing about racism, in order to show how bad and wrong it is, your work can be read in ways you did not intend. This is especially likely if you are unfamiliar with the history of the people you are writing about, or the history of representation of that people.
Take a look at the outcry around Victoria Foyt’s Saving the Pearls. From reading the first chapter and looking at the promotional video I feel fairly confident in saying the author knows little about the history of blackface, or racial role reversal stories, or, indeed, of writing about race, racism and identity. Her intentions may well be good but she managed to step into every conceivable offensive stereotype. If you are unfamiliar with those stereotypes deploying them is almost inevitable.
Then again you can be familiar with those histories and debates and still stuff things up.
I was fairly certain when I wrote Liar that I had not stuffed things up. The book was vetted by many smart, knowledgeable writers, black and white, who I trusted to point out said stuff ups. For instance, we had long discussions about whether Micah would use the word “nappy” to describe her hair and if it was okay for me as a white writer to deploy the word. We agreed it was absolutely the word Micah would use.
It’s a word that many black people have come to embrace, which is why there are salons like Oh My Nappy Hair. However, just as many hate the word. It has a long history of being used as a negative, derogatory descriptor of black hair. Just think of what Don Imus said. It is particularly problematic when used by a white person. So while Micah is black, I’m not. I kept taking the word out and putting it back in right up to publication.
I’m proud of what I achieved and Liar is a book that has been important to many people. More than any of my other books people—of colour and white—have written to thank me for writing it, thanked me for representing them in ways they had never been represented before. Being thanked like that is extraordinarily heartening. It makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile.
But Liar also hurt people. If I take credit for the people for whom it worked then I also have to take blame for the people it harmed.
They, mostly, do not write to tell me so. I know about it because I have found, or others have pointed me to, blog posts about my book, which talk about Liar‘s racism. These are reviewers who know nothing about me or my politics, who have not read my blog where they would find that I write often about racism, that I think about it. They’ve picked up my book randomly with no context for me—other than my author photo—or the kind of books I write, and found it racist.
But, you know what, that’s how most people read books. Hell, that’s how I read books too. I rarely have any idea about the politics or ethics of the author. Not unless I’ve met them or have been reading them for years and read their blog, essays, interviews. But a brand new book I picked up? Not so much.
Books have to be able to stand on their own. I am a white woman who wrote a book about a black teenage girl who is a liar. There are a whole set of obvious assumptions about the book that stem from that fact. Assumptions that I was conscious of while writing the book and that I worked hard to counteract.
But for some readers I failed.
As we predicted my use of the word “nappy” was criticised. But not nearly as often as I thought it would be. Even so when I see people saying that the word hurt them I wish I hadn’t used it. Even though I still believe that it is absolutely the word that Micah would use.
Sapphires, Jezebels and the Tragic Mulatto
Some people were enraged by the cover image with the word LIAR emblazoned across a black woman. That’s one of the many reasons I did not want a representational cover for the book. In fact, that was the main criticism the book faced. Liar has an unreliable, lying, sexually active, possible-murderer protagonist who is a black woman. Here we go again. Why is it always black women who are liars? Who are violent, angry, and highly sexualised? Why are they always Jezebels or Sapphires?
Those are question I thought about a lot while writing the book. That’s one of the reasons all the main teenage characters are of colour. The murdered boy, Zach, is Hispanic. His best friend, Tayshawn, is African-American. So is Zach’s girlfriend, Sarah.
I also made sure Micah, Liar‘s protagonist, was not highly sexualised. When the book starts she’s (maybe) had sex with one person: Zach. Sex is important to the story, but I was very careful to make Micah no more sexualised than most teenage girls. She thinks about sex. She’s attracted to some people. She’s also way less sexually active than the two main male characters, Zach and Tayshawn. If anyone is slutty in my book it’s Zach, not Micah.
I ran into the problem that he bar for being considered sexualised is way lower for a woman than for a man. And even lower for a black woman.
There is also the running metaphor about Micah and her family being an animal/beast. Again this has a long horrible history in depictions of black men and women. Which is why I made it something that comes from the white members of Micah’s family and why I made her mixed race. The other members of her family who identify with animals are her white grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts. Not her black father. There is in particular one white character, not a relative, who also identifies with animals in the same way that Micah does. I wanted to be very clear that this animality is not because Micah is black.
I also wanted to make it clear that part of her understanding of her sexual drive comes from her identification with those animals and how she imagines their sex drive to be. Again it’s not because she’s black.
But despite the fact that I did what I could to address those criticisms there were still those who read Micah as a racist caricature in a direct line of descent from the Jezebels and Sapphires.
There have also been a few readers who were struck by Sarah, the official girlfriend, being lighter-skinned than Micah the unofficial girlfriend. Except Sarah isn’t lighter-skinned than Micah. I worked hard to make it clear that Sarah is darker skinned than Micah for precisely the reasons those readers outline. I absolutely was not going to feed into the noxious notion that the darker your skin the more animal you are; the lighter your skin the more virtuous you are.
But they did not read the book that way despite my efforts.
When I first saw that criticism I was inclined to roll my eyes and complain about their crap reading skills. But is it their fault?
In Liar I was writing against centuries of racist misrepresentations of sexually-active, strong black women. We’ve been taught to read those women as having darker skin than the good girls. To value them less than the light-skinned girls.
To turn that on its head I had to be very, very careful and very, very clear. I went far enough for some readers but not for all. I’m the one who needs to do better. When you’re working on toxic ground created by centuries of racism you have to be very, very careful.
I believe it’s incredibly important to write against these stereotypes. If we give in and make sure that all black women characters are asexual, gentle, and kind we wind up with another set of stereotypes. Plus why can’t women of colour have as wide a range of representations as white men? No one looks at a book about a white man who’s an habitual liar and assumes that it’s a comment on all white men. I’ve never heard anyone complain that, say, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley is an indictment of all white men and clearly means they’re all psychopathic liars.. White men never have to stand for their entire community.
Then there’s the myth of the tragic mulatto, the mixed race woman who can pass as white, who is torn between two worlds, who is constantly victimised and has almost no agency, and always dies at the end of the story. She has to give up her black family and identify solely as white, though because she is not white, she can never truly succeed: and that is her tragedy.
This myth is entirely the creation of white writers. We white writers have been unhealthily obsessed with the tragedy of passing for centuries.
Any white person writing a character who passes white, really needs to think long and hard. They need to know everything they can about the myth of the tragic mulatto. They need to immerse themselves in black writing about identity. Funnily enough in novels by black writers where passing is part of the narrative the character who passes does not always have to give up all connections to black communities and family and they don’t always have a tragic end. For a fabulous YA example read Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl where the woman passing does so, not because she really wishes she was white, but for practical reasons: she wants to fly. Passing is the only way she can. She does not leave her family behind. Seriously, read Flygirl, it’s wonderful.
I was very determined that Micah not line up with the tragic mulatto. Micah’s father has a black father and a white mother, but he identifies as black largely out of a desire to have as little to do with his crazy white family as possible. Micah’s mother identifies as white though there are hints that she may not be entirely. She is estranged from her family.
Micah is relatively light-skinned, but unlike the tragic mulatto she cannot and would not pass as white. She identifies as black, not mixed race, or biracial. (This identification, like her father’s, is partly fuelled by her rejection of her extended white family’s illness and animal identification.) She is not torn between the world of whiteness and the world of blackness. She does not long to be white. She is not a passive victim. Spoiler: She does not die at the end of the book.
Yet some have read her that way despite all those lengths I went to in order to prevent that reading. Clearly, I need to go further and write clearer and better.
It’s Much Harder for Black Writers
I’d like to point out that my black writer friends cop way more criticism for all of this than I do. They are constantly being asked why their books can’t be more uplifting. Why do they have to depict the negative aspects of black life? Why can’t the girls they write about be good girls? And the boys dutiful, law-abiding, and church going? Why do these black writers hate their race?
No one has ever asked me why I’ve written white characters who are not perfect: who lie and steal and murder. I’ve never once been asked why I hate my race.
No one reads Moby Dick and wonders why all white men are obsessed with killing whales.
This is why it’s such a huge problem that there are a million more books about white people than about black and brown people published in the USA and Australia. It means every single character of colour bears the weight of representing their entire race. If there were more representations, more variety in those representations, and if there were way more books by people of colour, it would be way less of a big deal. This also applies to movies and television and pretty much all art, ever.
If we lived in that world Micah would not be read as standing for all black girl teens. She’d just be Micah.
One set of criticism of Liar that I did not anticipate and therefore did nothing to address was that Liar depicts a trans character who is a liar, mentally unstable, and identifies with animals and that therefore Liar is transphobic. There is a long history of trans characters being depicted as psycho killers. A famous example is Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.
This reading concludes that Micah is a trans character because early on in the book she pretends to be a boy. She does this because she is mistaken for a boy and thinks why not go with it? Within two days she’s found out and she only lasts that long because she stays out of most people’s way. After she’s found to be a girl—again because she’s not good at passing—she claims to be an hermaphrodite.
I intended both lies to be opportunist, plucked-from-the-air lies. As is her next lie that her father is an arms dealer. Micah gets more pleasure from people believing fantastical lies than from relatively easy lies.
She also makes this claim very early on in the novel:
I’m undecided, stuck somewhere in between, same way I am with everything: half black half white; half girl half boy; coasting on half a scholarship.
I’m half of everything.
This is the main passage that gets quoted by people who read Micah as trans.
Here’s what I intended with that passage: I meant it to be read as Micah being self-aggrandising and overly dramatic. Very much part of the m.o. of an habitual liar.
She start with the claim of being “half black half white” then moves to “half girl half boy.” Those are large claims in terms of identity: our race and our gender are two of the fundamentals. But where does she go next? To class? Ethnicity? Sexuality? Religion?
No, to the fact that she doesn’t have a full scholarship. Which is not only not the same kind of claim. It undoes the drama of the previous claims. It’s as if she were to say, “I’m strong! I’m smart! I collect tiny tea cups with lizards painted on them!” One of these is not like the others. It was meant to be wryly funny. I am aware that very few people got that joke. I failed.
A friend, who was a scholarship kid, read Micah’s claim as being very matter of fact. As shorthand for saying she was halfway between the rich kids and the poor kids. Which is a very big claim about identity, specifically about class.
I’m embarrassed I didn’t see either of those alternative readings.
I did not intend to write Micah as someone who feels like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Micah strongly identifies as a girl, just one who is not especially good at fitting the various stereotypes of femininity. And, yes, that is something I took from my own life. When I was a teenager I felt the same way. I was also once mistaken for a boy. Micah, like I was, is amused that anyone would think she was a boy. She thinks it’s fun to run with it to see how long she can get away with the trick. She gets away with it longer than I did. I was busted as soon as I said something.
Notice, of course, that I’m talking about what I intended. Readers are not privy to my intentions. They’re not mindreaders. They’re coming to my work with their own life experiences.
As someone who is not trans, and has known very few trans people in my life, and none of them particularly well, it did not cross my mind that anyone would read Micah as trans. My cisgendered privilege made me completely unable to see that reading of my novel until it was pointed out. I could see only what I intended.
Were I to write Liar now I would write that part of it differently. Not because I want to lock in one true reading of the book—that’s not possible or desirable—but because clarity is always worth striving for.
A singular reading is not desirable because art exists only in the interaction between the text—whether that text is a poem, a book, a graphic novel, a song, a sculpture, a painting, a movie, or whatever—and the reader. If everyone responded to our work in exactly the same way we would be living in a blasted cultural hellscape of total boredom.
Those readings of Liar and the anger and hurt expressed has made me find out more about trans politics.
I was familiar with some of the absurd arguments around whether transwomen can be part of feminism or not given that some feminists argued they were not “real” women and thus could not understand patriarchal oppression because once they were patriarchal oppressors. Pro tip: any argument that employs the word “real” to qualify identity is always going to be a rubbish argument, whether they’re trying to define who’s a real woman/man/black/white/Star Trek fan/gamer or whatever. But I knew little beyond that.
Three years ago, when Liar was published, I was unfamiliar with the term “cisgender.” When I was at university the term used was “gender normative” and, from what I can tell, it did not have the range or nuance of “cisgender.” I still feel awkward using it because it’s still a new term for me.
I have been reading and talking about feminist and sexual and racial politics for decades now. I feel confident about writing across that terrain though I am, of course, still stuffing up, still learning. I do not have anywhere near that level of knowledge or comprehension when it comes to trans politics.
I will be reading and listening for a long time to come.
For those of you have not thought much about any of these questions, I hope laying out these examples, showing you my thinking in writing them, and the critiques that have been made, give you a sense of what is at stake and why it matters. Why you should be thinking and reading about identity and politics.
No matter how thoughtful you are about race, gender, sexuality, class etc. etc. there will always be readers who will read your work in exactly the ways you were working hard to avoid. If you write racist characters their actions and words will be read by some as proof of you-the-writer’s racism.
But that’s good. It keeps us writers awake to just how hard our job is, just how much work has to be done to change the world we live in to make those readings impossible.
We cannot use “it’s too hard”, “I’ll be criticised” as an excuse not to write ambitious books, not to write thoughtfully about thorny issues of identity. Doing so is our job. Yes, even when writing comedy. Yes, even when writing a book with only white people in it. White is a race. White has a history. So does white supremacy. There is, in fact, a whole field of study: “whiteness studies” that you should have a look at. Toni Morrison’s collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a great place to start.
Always do your research. Here’s a page of links to useful posts on writing about race. If you’re writing about black people, even if you are black, read black writers. As Chauncey de Vega puts it:
Please people, I am begging you, stop mentioning that damn essay [Peggy McIntosh’s "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege"]: deferring to white people’s expertise when talking about racism is itself an act of white privilege and white supremacy. Start with Du Bois, and other people of color before you become giddy with the “discovery” of white privilege. Black and brown folks were doing it better, first, and many years before the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege first circulated on these Internets.
On the other hand, it’s also good to know our limits. I will not be writing a trans character any time soon because I simply do not know enough. As I said I’m very early in the research phase and I’d love to get more recommendations for good books by trans people.
None of this is easy. We all get it wrong. I hope my examination of Liar above shows you just how hard it is. But I hope, too, you can see how worthwhile it is. And how getting defensive and putting your head in the sand helps no one least of all the writer that you aspire to become.
For me that is the joy of what I do: striving always to be a better writer.
TL;DR: When writing about identity you will stuff up about race/gender/class/sexuality/etc etc. Do not let that stop you doing due diligence. Write the best you can, as thoughtfully and well-researched as you can. Be ambitious. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to criticism. Keep writing.
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.
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.
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. 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. “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. 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.
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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 women who break poor innocent men’s hearts. 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.
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!