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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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Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.
Your suggestions clarified two things for us:
1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.
2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.
We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.
Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).
Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.
We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.
But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.
At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.
I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.
If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.
TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.
There are an awful lot of articles right now that spend a lot of time bagging the Millennials, who are supposedly the generation after Generation X, who are supposedly the generation after the Baby Boomers. Even in articles about something completely unrelated to generations the Millennials get bagged. Take this evisceration of a poorly researched article about Mexican food which ends:
Of course, America doesn’t give a shit about actual facts: at last count, this pendejada had been shared over 40,000 times on Facebook and garnered nearly 600,000 page views. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Millennial, is why your generation is fucked.
Seriously? Poor research and shoddy journalism didn’t exist until the Millennials came along? Tell that to Mr Randolph Hearst and his tabloids of yesteryear that routinely made stuff up. I roll my eyes at you, sir.
You may detect a hint of skepticism about generations. You’d be right. I do not believe in them. There is no way everyone born within a decade or so of each other have the same tastes and aspirations and experiences and shitty research skills.
For starters these generational labels don’t even apply to the vast majority of people born within their timespan. The way they are used in Australia and the USA, which is all I know about, they usually only include relatively affluent, able-bodied, white people. Because factoring in class and race and anything else is too complicated, isn’t it? Even amongst the anointed ones there are vast differences in politics and world view and how well off they are. It’s still absurd to think that all the affluent, able-bodied white people born within the same decade are all the same.
So what is the point of generational labels?
They’re mainly used: 1) to help advertisers figure out how to sell things to people, 2) to let previous generations bag on current generations.
When the Generation X tag first started being used many of us so-called Generation Xers would talk about how stupid it was. Actually, we do work really hard. We are, too, politically engaged. We are, too, feminists. Those of us still living with our parents did so because the rents were way higher than for previous generations and we couldn’t afford to move out. We are not a lazy generation. Nor are the Baby Boomers, nor are the Millennials.
But now I’m seeing plenty of the so-called Generation Xers bagging so-called Millennials in the exact same ways we were bagged. I’m also hearing them say, “Oh, it’s not like when we were bagged. These Millennials really are lazy and indulged and all about themselves. They really are the Me Generation.” Yes, there was even a Time magazine cover story about the Millennials being the Me Generation.
Sigh. Do you know who was first called the Me Generation? The Baby Boomers. Then it was applied to, you guessed it, Generation X. And so on and so on.
That Time article begins like this:
I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.
And I roll my eyes at you, too, sir. They always have proof. Every single time.
Am I saying there have been no changes in people in Australia the USA over the period in which we’ve been talking about these generations? Of course not.
A century ago in Australia and the USA the vast majority of people were living in extended family households. Far fewer people, back then, were left alone to raise their children. They were helped by grandparents, siblings, aunts etc. etc. Far fewer people lived alone. Far fewer people were ever alone. We were vastly more socially connected back then than we are now. This basic shift in how most of us live has caused a great many changes. Some good, some not so good.
We still don’t understand the extent of those changes. But some researchers believe that the rise in depression and other mental illnesses, including, yes, narcissistic personality disorder, is closely connected to these changes in our basic family unit.
Those changes to the family unit did not happen over night and those changes didn’t all of a sudden manifest themselves in one single generation. The very idea is absurd. And yet generation after so-called generation we keep repeating that absurd notion.
I keep seeing people say that teenagers are addicted to social media. Yet when I go out you know who it’s hardest to get to put their damn phone away? The adults right up into their forties. When I see teenagers out together their phones are mostly in their pockets. Anecdotal evidence I know.
But if you don’t believe my observations about an extremely small sample size—and why should you—then read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated she’s got proof! Her basic thesis is that teens are not addicted to social media, they’re addicted to each other, to socialising and often, because of the tight controls of their parents, social media is the only way they can socialise.
You know what my generation was/is mostly addicted to? Socialising with our peers. As was the previous Baby Boomer generation. We humans we are very social creatures.
TL;DR: There is no such thing as a coherent generation who are all the same. Historical change happens much more slowly than that. Stop leaving out class and race and other important ways in which identity is determined. Also: GET OFF MY LAWN!
My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.
I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.
Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*
Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.
Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:
Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.
What is Razorhurst about?
Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:
The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.
Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.
Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.
When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .
Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count. It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.
Why is it called Razorhurst?
Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:
Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .
Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .
Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!
As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.
Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Magistrates. Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.
What inspired you to write Razorhurst?
I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history. Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.
I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.
TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.
I often think about how to make the world a better place. What would I do if I were world dictator? Other than ban coffee, I mean, and banish all the smokers to Bulgaria. Obviously, there are many, many, many things about this beautiful, broken world that need fixing. Clean water and food for everyone! Shelter and clothing! And like that.
My utopia would also highly prize education. Particularly Early Childhood Education. There would be well-trained, well-paid, early childhood teachers. And when I say well-paid early childhood teaching would be the highest paid job attracting the bestest and brightest. Some would be skilled at working with kids from a very early age, even newborns. They’d be available to all parents.
That’s right, no parents would be left alone to raise their kids without any support. So if you have kids and you live far from your family and closest friends, or if your family are the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children, there would always be someone to help you. Multiple someones. I’m convinced that each child needs a minimum of three adult carers (though five is better). Yes, I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. And two adults—especially when one of them is in full-time employment so the family can eat and keep a roof over their head—is insufficient.
Here in Australia there are almost 20,000 children in foster care. There aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them. And every year that equation gets worse as there are more kids taken into care and fewer carers.
In my state, New South Wales, the government has responded to the crisis by throwing money at the foster care end of things which, obviously, does need more money. However, it’s even more crucial that families are helped before things get so bad their kids are taken away.
If all new parents, no matter how poor or how rich, were given support and training and access to people and places to help them with their kids I reckon their chances of government intervention would go way down.
I’d also like us to completely revamp our education system from top to bottom so that it worked more like this experimental class in Mexico. The headline of that article puts the emphasis on finding geniuses but what I thought was coolest was that every student improved and learned and that they all seemed to really enjoy going to school. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if school was like that for everyone?
In case you think there’s no way any country could turn its education system around to that extent have a little squiz at what’s been going on in Finland for the last decade or so. Pretty impressive, eh?
Tragically, I am not dictator of the world, I am a novelist, which means I am dictator of those worlds I create. I think I’ll be writing a novel where everything is built around that kind of education from cradle to grave and see how it could go horribly wrong . . . (The problem with a fully functioning utopia is that they’re not great for generating plot. Unhappy people make more plot than happy people.)
What’s your utopia?
Today, Justine has graciously agreed to host a guest post from Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. Workshop graduate Rachel Halpern is here to talk about the confidence Alpha gave her as a teen writer.
I came into Alpha in the comfortable certainty that I would never be a writer. Even applying to Alpha seemed daring and ridiculous, and getting in was a complete shock. I was seventeen, old enough to have given up on the silliness of “someday I’ll be a real author.”
Getting in was a hit of confidence I badly needed, amazed that I’d made it into a 20 person program so cool that Tamora Pierce – my literary idol at the time – was willing to teach there. But it was still pretty clear, reading my fellow students’ work, that I had gotten in on a bit of a fluke – everyone there was obviously very talented, and I couldn’t quite believe anyone had put me among them.
At Alpha, though, it turns out these incredible students and staff and authors all take you seriously as a writer. That all these amazing people took my writing seriously – wanted to know what my story was about, where I was planning to send it – it was transformative to someone who’d long ago given up on writing something that anyone else would bother to read. I was so sure I’d never get anything published – and I probably never would have, without Alpha telling me to keep writing and keep submitting at a time when that seemed arrogant and impossible.
At Alpha, we’re encouraged to not only write new stories, but to read them aloud in bookstores, in front of our fellow students and the awe-inspiring guest authors who’ve come to read their own work. The staff coach us not just on how to make our writing the best it can be, but how to perform it to best effect. The underlying message, as with so many parts of Alpha, is You are good enough. Your writing is important. If it’s worth reading aloud, it must be worth reading at all. They tell us where we should send our work, which are the best magazines in our field, that we deserved to be paid for our work. They told us that rejections were a badge of pride, proof that you were sending your work out at all. They treated us, in short, like “real” writers, and taught us to treat ourselves the same way.
Coming out of Alpha, that confidence affects every aspect of our writing lives. That confidence is what keeps us writing. It’s what keeps us sharing our stories, with our friends, read aloud in bookstores, with critique partners. It’s what keeps us sending stories out, to contests and magazines, keeps us pursuing publication.
As a teenager, certain my writing was a pointless hobby, it seemed so outrageous to even consider someday being published. Even just writing seemed like such a waste of my time.
At Alpha, though, they didn’t treat me like “just a teenager,” or like a hobbyist. Through serious critiques and exciting lectures and just by listening and reading my work, they told me I was a writer.
We get a lot out of Alpha that lasts beyond that short exciting summer workshop – lifelong friends, tremendous writing advice, a critique group that helps us years after we graduate. But most of all, we get the message: you are writers, and you are good enough to write.
Alpha graduateRachel Halpern is Editor-in-Chief at Inscription Magazine. She is a Dell Award finalist whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
For more information about Alpha, visit our website. To support the scholarship fund, which provides financial assistance to young writers accepted into the workshop, please consider making a donation. All donors receive a PDF copy of the Alphanthology, a completely alumni-created illustrated flash fiction anthology.
There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.
Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.
I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.
I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.
Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues. But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.
Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.
I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.
As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.
More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.
I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.
But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.
Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.
Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism
If I could go back in time and change one thing about my writing career it would be to sell How To Ditch Your Fairy under a different name. And then Team Human would also be under that name.
Justine Larbalestier would be my author name for my older, less funny, scarier YA and Something Extremely Catchy would be the author of my lighter, funnier, younger books.
All too often fans of HTDYF or TH pick up Liar and, well, it does not go well. But usually it goes way better than the other way around. The people who read Liar first tend to run the gamut from Huh? to THIS IS THE WORST BOOK EVER when reading HTDYF or TH.
When people fall in love with Liar and ask me what they should read next I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly or any of these books. I don’t suggest any of my own books because none of them are like Liar.
Most readers like their favourite authors to stick to writing within the one genre. When they pick up a book by Favourite Writer they like to know what to expect and they get annoyed when they don’t get it.
Yes, there are also readers like you, who love the writers who do something different with every book. But you are a rare creature. I know you’re thinking, “But different names will just make it harder for me to find all your books and read them!”
Not so. The kind of readers who read all my books, sometimes even my scholarly ones, are usually the kind who read my blog and follow me on Twitter. You can rest assured when I start writing under another name this website and my Twitter feed will loudly proclaim it. It will also be noted in the bio on the books: Awesome Pen Name also writes as Justine Larbalestier. Rest assured I will not make it hard for anyone to find all my books!
Think of Nora Robert who also writes as J.D. Robb. It’s not exactly a secret, is it? Or Seanan MacGuire writing as Mira Grant. In fact, the only writers who try to keep their pen names secret are the likes of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Super famous and popular already. Lucky bastards.
I cannot judge these readers who want one kind of book from their favourite writers because I am that kind of reader. When I first picked up one of Heyer’s detective novels I was horrified! I’d expected a bubbly and delightful regency romance, not a leaden, predictable, detective novel. It was a nightmare.
I like knowing which writers to turn to when I’m in the mood for something very specific: smart, feminist, sexy Victorian romance (Courtney Milan), being scared shitless (Stephen King), erudite, treacherous, complicated historicals (Hilary Mantel), having my heart broken (Jacqueline Woodson). Etc.
So, yes, I wish I had managed my writing career as my reader self would have liked it. Justine Larbalestier for my older books, a different name for my younger ones. If I ever start writing adult romance or adult crime, you can bet I’ll be using a different name.
Writers, readers, publishers what’s your take on this?
I find writing short stories much, much harder than writing novels.
Every time I say so someone looks at me as if I have lost my mind and says something along the lines of:
But novels are so much longer than short stories!
That is true.
The shortest length people give for a novel is usually around 50,000 words. Though pretty much only YA and Children’s goes that short and still calls it a novel.
The longest length I’ve seen given for a short story is 30,000 words.
So, yes, novels absolutely are longer than short stories.
However, I do not find the number of words I’m dealing with the most challenging thing about writing fiction. In fact, the more words you have, the more space you have.
Look it at this way, when you tell a story to a friend, if it’s about people they don’t know, the first thing you have to do is explain who the people are, then you have to explain where the story takes place, and then, and only then, can you tell the story.
The less the person you’re telling the story to knows about the who, where, or when of the story the more you have to tell them in order to tell the story.
Say I’m telling my sister a story about mutual friends. It could go something like this:
Magpie did that thing again. Yeah, in front of everyone, and you know what her dad’s like.
Seventeen words and my sister is laughing her arse off. But if I was telling that story for an audience that doesn’t know Magpie, or what “that thing” is, or who “everyone” are, or what her dad’s like, then it’s going to take considerably longer.
When you’re writing a short story, mostly your audience isn’t going to know anything. They won’t know who your characters are, where they are, or what’s going on. You have to convey all of that to them in not many words. The fewer words you have the harder it can be. You start having to make decisions about what the audience really needs to know. If you’re telling your story set in a world that’s not like ours then it’s even harder.
Obviously, I’m speaking of how I write and tell stories. There are writers who are naturally spare with words, who have never struggled to say everything they wanted to say in a mere three thousand words. I’m not one of them.
What mostly happens to me when I start a short story is that it turns out to be too big for that small frame. My fourth novel, How To Ditch Your Fairy began life as a short story. I was writing it for a series Penguin Australia does called Chomps, which are around, I think, 20,000 words. It swiftly became apparent that it was not a short story. Too many characters, too much world building, too much going on. The final novel was 65,000 words. Which is not a particularly long novel but it is not a short story by anybody’s measure. 20,000 words did not allow me the space to tell the story I wanted to tell.
I find that all that extra space makes the novel a much more forgiving form than the short story. A novel doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful; a story needs to be pretty close to perfect.
Think of it this way: a few mistakes on a huge, detailed quilt are not nearly as glaring as mistakes on one square of that quilt that you hold in your hands. Your eyes can only take in so much with a large scale detailed work like a quilt, or a novel. But with a small square, or a short story, the flaws are glaring.
When I write a short story I want every single sentence to be perfect. Obviously, I’d like that for my novels as well but I know it to be impossible. (A novel is, after all, a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.) Because a short story is smaller, I wind up spending way more time going over and over and over and over and over every clause, every sentence, every paragraph, trying to make them perfect. Even though I know perfection is impossible.
Short stories do my head in.
I have yet to write a single short story I am happy with. Obviously, if I could go back in time there are things I’d change about my novels, but I’m basically happy with them. They don’t itch at me with their many imperfections the way my short stories do. And they don’t take me nearly as long to write either. I have many short stories I’ve been working on for more than thirty years.
I’ve been given loads of great advice over the years from wonderful short story writers such as Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan. Margo keeps telling me to stop trying to tell the whole story and hone in on the most important part.
Makes perfect sense, right? But it turns out I can’t do that because I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it by which time it’s a novel not a short story. I’m one of those writers who works out what they’re writing on the page. I don’t outline, I just type.
I have learned to accept that I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist. Many writers are good at one and not the other. Many are good at both such as the aforementioned Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan. There’s no shame in not being able to write short stories, or not being able to write novels. It is what it is.
So there you have it. That is why I find writing short stories much harder than writing novels.
Tl;dr: Short stories are too damned short not enough space! Also: perfection evades me. I have novel brain.
Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.
Here’s what I have noticed:
I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason, the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.
V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.
VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.
I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?
I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep. But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.
Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page. Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?
For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.
As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.
As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.
In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.
Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.
I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.
On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.
I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.
I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:
I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.
Jenny Thurman added:
There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.
I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.
Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.
Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.
The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.
If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.
V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?
See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.
I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me. I want to live.
So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.
Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.
VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.
What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.
Adam Roberts wrote a blog post on why he doesn’t write a blog post letting everyone know what awards his work is eligible for. John Scalzi responded writing about why he does do that. They both write science fiction for adults.
I don’t write such posts and never have because, as Scalzi puts it, that kind of self-promotion makes some of us feel squicky. It doesn’t make him feel that way; but it surely does me.
However, and this is a big however, I write in a field, Young Adult, where there is no popularly voted award that has as big an impact as winning a Hugo does. In science fiction the Hugo is the big deal.
All the game changing awards in my field are juried awards:
The biggest in the US is the Newbery Award. Win a Newbery and your book will stay in print forever. YA isn’t actually eligible for it but many of us YA writers also write books that are more middle grade and are thus eligible. The Printz and the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature division are the big YA awards. Neither has the impact of a Newbery win.
In Australia the big awards are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards which also has an effect on sales, though not on the scale of the Newbery. Then there’s the much more recent Prime Minister’s Literary Awards which includes a YA category. Get shortlisted for one of those and you get $5,000 tax free. Win one and you get $80,000 tax free. How good would that be? Very.
So it’s a pretty easy decision for me to make. In my world popularly voted awards are pretty irrelevant and juried awards aren’t going to be swayed by me posting a LOOK AT WHAT I WROTE THIS YEAR VOTE FOR ME VOTE FOR ME screed. Au contraire. I can imagine how the Newbery jurists would respond to a Dear Newbery Jurists post. Or an ad in Publishers Weekly addressed to them. *shudder*
To be honest, I don’t worry about awards or pin my hopes on them. I won’t lie: it’s lovely to win one. It’s lovely to be shortlisted. I’ve written about how much being shortlisted for a CBCA meant to me.
But I’ve been a juror for some awards so I know first-hand how random they can be. How it depends on the interactions of the jurors. I’ve seen great books not make short lists because I was the only one on the jury who recognised their greatness. We’ve discovered months after the decision process was over that, in fact, one or two wonderful books weren’t even nominated. We jurists never got to see them. Aaargh!
At least in the world of books, there is no system of deciding who wins awards that is fair and just and guarantees the very best books triumph. That’s because no one can ever agree on what those books are.
That’s why I think it’s best for us writers not to worry about it too much. I try to restrict my worrying to the stuff I have control over. I figure the best thing I can do for my writing career is write the very best books I can, whether they win awards, and sell tonnes of copies or not.
Tl;dr: Awards are random, life is short, write the books/stories/poems/blog posts that you want to write.
I have had a few more thoughts on this subject after reading Amal El-Mohtar’s excellent piece on it. Here’s a little snippet of what she says:
Recently I went on a tear on Twitter because I saw women for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect speak up about how difficult they find it to overcome shyness and low self-esteem enough to talk about their work, and what an ongoing struggle it is for them to find value in their art, to think of it as in any way contributing anything to the world.
. . .
You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.
I completely agree with El-Mohtar. The ones who are least likely to blow their own horns are the ones who most need to, the ones who people like me and El-Mohtar most want to hear from.
But I can’t lie. I’m really glad I’m in a field where popularly voted awards are no big thing so I don’t have to make others aware of my work come award time. Even after what El-Mohtar says in her cogent post. Even knowing that it’s largely socialisation that makes me feel squicky about it in the first place.
I do write an annual post on the last day of the year to keep track of what I’ve been up to professionally. Somehow that doesn’t feel squicky because it feels more like it’s addressed to myself. I feel the same way about the anniversary of going freelance posts I write. Those are for me, not to spruik my books or myself, which would be tacky.
Why do I think it’s tacky?
I’m a writer. I make my living by writing books. Why do I think it’s tacky to remind people about that and have them buy said books? Why don’t I have any buy buttons on my website? Why I do find everything associated with selling my work uncomfortable? Yes, I do think a large part of it is because of my socialisation as a woman. Particularly as an Australian woman. I definitely think that Australians and British people, on the whole, are more uncomfortable with the whole selling thing than those from the USA. For me it’s partly gender and partly culture.
But there are plenty of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people from the USA who are also mighty uncomfortable with the whole process.
On top of all of that there’s the whole ridiculous notion that we shouldn’t be making money out of art in the first place. Artists being above all that.
Amar El Mohtar is so very right. She ends her piece by calling for us to stop this stupid debate:
Can we please just accept — and make widespread the acceptance! — that making lists during Awards season is fine? That it’s standard? That there is a vast difference between stating one’s eligibility and campaigning for votes? That lists are extremely helpful to nominating parties who are rigorous in their reading and want to see conversations in fandom expand and diversify? And that rolling one’s eyes about the whole process helps precisely no one while in fact hindering many?
I’m with her and am going to try very hard not to give into my feelings of squickiness at self promotion in the future.
Update the Second: And now Gwenda Bond has joined the discussion with this passionate post. She begins by talking about how she almost didn’t write it:
So…I almost talked myself out of making this post, but then, hey, I said I was going to start blogging again and these are the kinds of things I’m interesting in blogging about. Even though it is a little scary, for reasons the post will make clear. The thing is, publishing books is—even though our books are not ourselves—extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear.
All too many of us stay silent for those reasons.
Do read the whole post because Gwenda beautifully articulates so much of what this discussion is actually about. Not merely who does and doesn’t self-promote but how we are perceived when we do self-promote.
This blog post began with me talking about staying quiet about achievements because of choosing not to blow our own horn. But as both El-Mohtar and Bond make clear, there’s a tonne of silencing going on. Women being attacked for speaking up about their own worth and it really has to stop.
I strongly recommend you read both El-Mohtar and Bond’s posts.
Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”
I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.
I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent. I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons. My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.
The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true. But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.
Readers often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen—do we really?
I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.
When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.
The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.
However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.
Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.
But that’s not entirely true either.
The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.
However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.
How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.
With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.
I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.
In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that. It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.
Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.
Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.
To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.
This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.
To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that. Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.
The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.
I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!
In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.
Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.
And, lo, another year has passed and it is time for my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life this year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2014. I do this so I have a record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)
For me, 2013 was wonderful personally and professionally. I wrote heaps and heaps and heaps and I liked what I wrote and the resulting pain was manageable. Yes, there will be a new novel from me this year. And a short story for an extremely cool anthology. More on those below.
I usually start this post with a section on what books I had out and how they did. But, um, I had no books out this year. None. Not only no book, I did not publish a single thing, not so much as a haiku, let alone an article, or a story. This blog and my tweets are the sum total of my public writings this year.
I’ve now had two book-less calendar years since my first novel was published in 2005: 2011 and 2013. It’s as if I think I’m a fancy writer of Literachure or something. Yes, when I freak out about the two year gap between my last book and the one that’ll be published in 2014, my romance writer friends look at me with pity and horror, my YA writer friends say that’s a bit of a worry, my crime writer friends ditto, but my literary friends congratulate me on my exceptional productivity. A book every two years! So fast! You’re amazing, Justine!
It’s all relative, eh?
So here’s a new section instead:
What I wrote in 2013
I rewrote my Sydney Depression-era novel in preparation for its imminent publication of which more below.
I also wrote 40,000 words of a brand new book that came out of nowhere. As my novels so often do.
I continued to work on the never-ending New York Depression-era novel. *sigh* It will never be finished. I’ve accepted that now. As well as working (a little) on my fairy godmother middle grade, which would have been finished by now if I hadn’t gotten distracted by the brand new novel. What? Some of us don’t have long attention spans, okay?
I also wrote a short story. This is very very very unusual for me. The last time I had a short story published was 2008. I can’t tell you much about the anthology except that I was so intrigued by the concept I couldn’t refuse despite the fact that writing short stories is insanely hard.
Yes, they’re much harder than novels. In this case there was a 2,500-word limit. Many of my blog posts are longer than that. How do you build a world and tell a story in 2,500 words?! Madness. Yet many other writers have managed it. So . . . I have given it my best shot. Which at the moment involves a first draft that is more than twice the length it should be, doesn’t make much sense, and is begging me to turn it into a novel. All this despite much excellent advice from Margo Lanagan.
You may have noticed that I also resumed blogging. At the end of October I started blogging roughly once a week. Go, me! I plan to do that even more consistently next year. I.e. tomorrow. Hello, 2014, I will blog in you. Even though blogging is dead. What can I say? I like dead things. Mmmmm . . . zombies.
Books out Next Year
At last a new novel from me! It will be published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014. That’s right, Australians and New Zealanders, only six months till you get to read my first solo novel since Liar! It’s been a while between drinks, eh? Um, five years. Gulp. It will be my seventh novel and tenth book.
The novel is called Razorhurst and takes place over a winter’s day in 1932. There are no zombies or vampires or unicorns or werewolves or witches, but there are ghosts. I’ll have heaps more to tell you about it in the coming months. This website’s going to get a spruce up as well courtesy of Stephanie Leary. That way it will be sparkly and new in time for the sparkly and new book. Exciting, eh?
Writing Plans for 2014
Well, obviously, there’ll be copyedits and etc for Razorhurst. I’ll be finishing the short story. It is due 1 Feb, after all. The anthology it’s in will be published by Allen & Unwin either later in 2014 or early 2015. Again, I’ll let you know more when I know more. It’s a stellar line up of authors and, as I said, a very cool concept.
Then I plan to finish the novel that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows what will take my fancy? Back to the New York Depression-era novel? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere. Knowing me, the safest bet would be the last one.
I may finally have a good idea for an historical romance. So I might write that. I did talk about how much I’ve been wanting to write one of those and then got myself a master class on how to do so by some of the very best in the business. Isn’t twitter an amazing thing?
All of this writing is possible because the RSI management is continuing to go well as I described last year. I have been able to write as much as six hours a day, which I thought would never be possible again. Dance of joy! I continue not to push it and to always have a couple of rest days each week. As well as exercising. I am so very good. (Mostly.)
What else happened in 2013
I was in the US briefly. Most of which I spent sick with the flu. Fun! My favourite part, other than seeing all my wonderful friends, was teaching at the Alpha writing workshop for teens. The students and staff were fabulous. If you get asked to teach there, do it!
Other than that, all my travel was in Australia, including attending several Writers Festivals. My favourites were the Adelaide and Brisbane Writers Festivals. They had innovative topics for their panels and, stunningly, programmed YA writers with folks who write for grown ups, as well as mixing up writers from different genres. Shocking, I know, but it worked really well. The diversity of the panels was reflected in the diversity of the audiences. I would go back to both those festivals in a heart beat. If you’re invited say YES. They’re fabulous.
I hung with friends and family. I gardened. I cooked. I read a tonne and listened to loads of new music and watched vast amounts of TV.
My fave new TV show is Sleepy Hollow because it’s insane and the dynamic between the two leads is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
My favourite new (to me) romance writer is Cecelia Grant, who, like Courtney Milan, seems to delight in writing historical romances that break the rules. No bad sex allowed? Right then says Cecelia Grant and writes some of the funniest terrible sex ever. The hero can’t be a virgin? Ha! say Courtney Milan and makes one of her heroes a professional virgin. Romance has some of the most rigid rules in fiction so finding authors who are brilliant at messing with those rules, while still writing a romance, is a great joy. Cecelia Grant is brilliant at it and every bit as good a writer as Courtney Milan. I cannot wait for her next novel.
Another new-to-me author was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her latest novel, Americanah, after being blown away by her wonderfully witty Ted talk on why we should all be feminists which was recommended to me by just about everyone whose taste I trust on Twitter. Americanah has the same wit and wisdom and I loved it. Remember, I read very little realism—especially not for adults—it’s so not my thing. But this tale of the one who migrated to the USA (though she returns) and the one who stayed, and of their relationship to each other, was fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down.
I related to the novel strongly as I am someone who migrated to the USA, but then went home, and will go back again. Like her main character, I have dual citizenship, and continue to live my life in two countries. Yes, Nigeria is very different to Australia, and the specificity of the characters’ experiences in the USA, and back home, are different to mine. But there’s also a lot of similarity. What can I say, this novel really spoke to me. Adichie is a gorgeous, smart, insightful, funny writer, and I’ll be reading everything else she’s ever written.
My three favourite albums this year were Dessa’s Parts of Speech, Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. There’s not a bad song or dud note on any of them. These three were the soundtrack to my year.
Make sure you read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. It’s her best book yet and comes out early 2014.
And now it’s time to party! Oh, how I love New Year’s Eve.
May you have a wonderful 2014 full of whatever you love best.
I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.
To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.
What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.
Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.
I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).
Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.
Ask Yourself This Question First
Why do you want to be published?
There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.
But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.
In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.
This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.
Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First
I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.
I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.
Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.
Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me. My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.
I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE. I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.
Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.
Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.
You learn to deal with rejection.
Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.
You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.
My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.
You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one. But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.
All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.
Always have a novel on the go.
When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.
Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.
Never stop writing!
People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.
They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.
True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.
Rejection: it just keeps on giving.
You Learn How To Write
In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.
I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.
(Here’s a post on how to find people to critique your work. Check out the comments as well.)
Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.
Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)
Once You’re Published
This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.
I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.
Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.
Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.
Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.
They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.
You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.
There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.
An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.
When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.
Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.
Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.
I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.
However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.
Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!
And keep on writing!
Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.
Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.
Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.
I spend a great deal of my time in front of my computer in my pyjamas. Thus I wear pyjamas more than I wear any other clothing. They are my work uniform. All my novels have been written while I was wearing pjs. I think about pyjamas a lot.
I like mine to have three pockets, two on the pants, as well as a breast pocket. I like them to be soft and loose fitting, and deliciously comfortable. It’s a bonus if they can also have goofy, gorgeous or gelid patterns on them.
I mentioned on Twitter that most women’s pjs do not have pockets and the sadness this fills me with. How I am forced to mostly wear men’s pyjamas which typically do not have as interesting prints as women’s. Soon we were in a discussion about the paucity of pockets in women’s clothing, the awesomeness of pockets, and of pjs, and there was much bonding.
Though there was also some who made distinctions between kinds of pjs. For them pjs are what you wear to bed and lounging pjs are what you wear to write in. Okay . . . sounds very Katherine Hepburn-y, and I love her, so I’ll go with it. But I do not make such a distinction. Then there was mention of “house dresses” which I’d only ever heard of in ye olde Hollywood movies. Must be a thing of the USA.
But there was also a distinct minority who questioned the need for pockets in pjs. I admit to being bewildered by the question but it swiftly became apparent that there are people who only wear pjs to sleep in.
I know. I was shocked too.
Then it turned out that there are people who don’t like pockets. Who don’t want pockets on any of their clothing. There was talk of pockets always having holes, ruining the lines of clothing, making people look fat (!).
I must confess at that point I fainted from shock.
Where do they put their phone? Their keys? Their sekrit decoder ring (when not in the company of people where it can be worn freely)? I don’t understand!
The answer was in their bags (or purses as those from the USA call them). Don’t get me wrong. I have handbags, I have backpacks. I use them. I even have some I love dearly but in my heart of hearts I wish everything I needed when I left the house would fit into my pockets. That I could be unencumbered by bags.
For bags weigh me down, pulling on one shoulder, or the other, or both in the case of backpacks. I am always inadvertently whacking into things with bags or being whacked with them. They are little violent, destructive beasts.
Worst of all bags eat my stuff.
I know the only pen I’ve ever liked is in the bag I bought in Rome many, many years ago. The first fancy bag I ever bought myself. And Italian bag! My Italian bag. I still have that bag though it is faded and frayed and somewhat less fabulous than it once was. The pen should be in there. But can I find it? No, I cannot. That stupid Italian bag ate my favourite pen. I have never found a pen like it since. I no longer like pens. All because of that bag.
In conclusion: Pyjamas are the best WITH pockets. Purses (bags) are the devil. The end.
It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.
Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.
There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.
But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.
Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.
Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol. because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.
Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.
Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.
Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.
It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?
What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.
Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.
Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.
Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.
But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.
Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?
Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries. Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual me to get my head around.
Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.
But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.
This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.
All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.
None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.
One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?
Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.
Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.
It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?
If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.
Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.
My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.
I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.
Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.
I think that’s a good thing.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.
But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.
Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.
They could all be better. You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.
This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Every novel ever published fits that definition.
Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!
On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:
For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.
It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.
I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 12,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.
Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.
But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?
Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.
This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.
At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.
A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.
It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?
I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.
The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.
My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.
It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.
I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.
We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.
Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.
Next week I will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I have one event left which is not yet sold out:
Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013, 11.15 am
Me and Kelly Gardiner
Details here. Price: $7.
Melbourne Writers Festival
We have had excellent email exchanges with our moderator Jordi Kerr, which makes me believe it is going to be a most splendid panel. We will certainly argue with the very idea of a strong woman. Because that’s what strong women do.
Then the following week I will be at the Brisbane Writers Festival where there are still available tickets and a few of my events are free. I’m really excited about BWF. They have a brand new director, Kate Eltham, who comes out of science fiction and thus knows how to do panels right. This is the most diverse and interesting set of panels I’ve ever had at a writers festival. I cannot wait.
A SPORTING NATION
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE: Friday 6th
TIME: Fri 3:30–4:30PM
From the long slow burn of a test match to the glories of a ‘specky’, Watson, Larbalestier and Lunn discuss their sporting passions and why sport inspires the best, and sometimes the worst, writing and language.
I’m so excited about this panel. The only other time I’ve been on a panel about sport was because I suggested it myself. This time it was their idea and they put me on the panel with two of the most famous sports obsessives in Australia and our email exchanges with moderator Lee McGowan have been most excellent. It is going to be fabulous.
THE GENRE GHETTO
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 6:30–8PM
Funny, personal and heartfelt stories about being genre nerds and being proud. Live storytelling from Fraction, Wendell, Larbalestier, McKenzie and MacBride.
I’m very curious about this one. I certainly have more than my fair share of stories about being dissed in often very amusing ways for being a writer of young adult literature. I was never much of a nerd as a kid, however. Indeed back then we would have said “dag” and it didn’t mean the same thing and I wasn’t one.
VENUE: Maiwar Green, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 8–11PM
No ticket required. That’s right THIS ONE IS FREE
‘Juvenilia’ (stories we wrote as teenagers) set featuring Kevin Kwan, Clementine Ford, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Kimberley Freeman (Kim Wilkins), Stuart MacBride and Benjamin Law reading work they scribbled in their youth. A special ‘Juvenilia’ mixed tape set by Simon Reynolds will wrap up the night.
Okay, so I have no idea how this one is going to work. But I’m imagining a cool jazz band from the 1960s in skinny pants and black turtle necks clicking their fingers cooly in the background as we read you the excruciatingly bad shit we wrote as teens. The audience will be torn in two between their intense desire to laugh and their equally intense desire to be all cool in the face of the awesome jazz. May the laughter win.
THE RISE AND RISE OF YA
VENUE: Queensland Terrace, State Library of Queensland
DATE Saturday 7th
TIME Sat 10–11AM
Young Adult (YA) fiction is the fastest growing category of publishing and 55% of YA is purchased by adult readers. YA stars Justine Larbalestier, Steph Bowe and Melissa Keil explain why we love it, read it and write it.
There’s so much to say about this. I have so many opinions! Can’t wait to hear what the others have to say too. Despite living here I am still much less clear on YA in Australia than I am on the genre in the USA.
See you in Melbourne and/or Brisbane!
Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop. Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.
If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world, and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.
Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.
Here’s the event page on FaceBook for those of you who, unlike me, are on FaceBook. And here are the details for the non-FB types like myself:
WHEN: Thursday, 22nd August at 6:30pm
WHERE: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney
DRESS: Prizes for best costume
Tickets are on sale now and are strictly limited. Purchases can be made at Kinokuniya (at the cashier counter) or over the phone: 02 9262-7996.
Be there or be extremely sad you missed a wonderful event.
P.S. For those of you in Melbourne and Brisbane we will be there very soon at your fine writing festivals. Click here for my Melbourne events and here for my Brisbane events.
Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!
You can watch the whole thing here. Yes, it’s two hours. But they’re an awesome two hours. You can also read Trudy’s take on the extraordinary conversation here.
Here’s why bell hooks is important to me:
When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.
That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.
bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.
Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.
If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.
And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.
The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?
Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.
Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.
Back to my story and moving forward a decade:
Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.
My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.
When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.
I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.
However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.
I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.
Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.
Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.
There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.
None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day. Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.
The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.
I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.
Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.
Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.
Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted. Wish me luck.
View the story “How to write romance” on Storify
Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.
Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:
For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.
Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.
At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which made me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.
Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.
But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.
At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)
On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.
The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.
At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.
What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.
Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target. Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.
The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.
I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.
If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:
Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:
The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.
The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!
To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.
To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.
You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.
Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.
Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.
Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!
Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.
At the Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel about sport and writing alongside Hugh Lunn and Don Watson moderated by Lee McGowan. All three are sports obsessives and so it was great fun and excellently moderated and much territory was covered and if anyone wants me to talk about sport in front of any kind of audience at all I AM SO THERE.
By which I mean: PLEASE INVITE ME TO TALK ABOUT SPORT MORE.
There were a few themes that emerged during the discussion. Both Hugh and Don were mournful for how sport in this country used to be, for past athletes who were humbler and more dedicated than the athletes of today. They seemed to also have a fair amount of sadness that Australia is no longer the great sporting nation it once was.
I do not share their concerns so that made for some fun exchanges.
I pointed out that during the decades of Hugh’s and Don’s coming of age as sport enthusiasts, the 1950s and 1960s, the athletes in this country were largely still amateurs. Most had day jobs and were paid a pittance—if they were lucky—to represent their club or their country. We were still in the midst of a shift from amateurism to professionalism.
Even now for many sports that shift has barely begun, particularly for women’s sports. That’s why Ellyse Perry is one of the few dual internationals left—representing Australia in both cricket and soccer. Back in the day it was de rigeur for the best Aussie athletes to play cricket in summer and their preferred code of football in the winter. These days the men cannot play both even if they want to: being an elite cricketer or a footballer is a full-time gig. That’s why Ellyse Perry is helping stack the chairs after one of her club games and fully professional blokes like Shane Watson are, well, not.
Everything that follows is stuff I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to.
Probably the main reason Australia doesn’t seem to be as successful a sporting nation as it once was is that back then we didn’t actually have that much competition. If you look at the lists of say, tennis, champions in the 50s and 60s there are very few that aren’t Australian or from the UK or or the USA.
Let’s think about why, shall we?
Firstly, tennis used to be predominately a British game. Every single tennis champion until 1915 were British or from the USA or Australia. And they remain the vast majority until the 1980s. My evidence: these lists of grand slam champions. Tennis is now an international game, played all over the world. China now has a grand slam champion. I predict that there will many more.
Then there was this little thing called World War II, which set back most of Europe’s sporting programmes for many years. Australia was relatively unaffected. (As was the USA.) Australians could keep on training and playing and winning with far less competition than they would have had if there hadn’t been a world war.
Basically, while there is still nowhere near a level playing field, there are many more nations competing against us at all levels and in more sports than there once were. And as more countries around the world spend more money on their athletes our sporting achievements will continue to seem not nearly as good as they did up until the 1960s when it must have felt like we won almost everything.
It’s also important to remember that until relatively recently most people were unable to train and compete, even in those wealthy countries like Australia and the USA, because of reasons of ethnic, racial and sexual discrimination. There’s a reason there have been so few African-American tennis champions. It was a sport for the wealthy. Now it’s a middle class sport played all over the world, which means the pool of talent has deepened and widened. The odds of a relatively small country like Australia regaining it’s former tennis glory are small indeed.
I would argue that the athletes who are at the top of their sport today are truly amazing. Samantha Stosur may have only won a single grand slam but the competition she is up against is much, much tougher than it was for, say, Margaret Court. And Stosur has managed to stay at a very elite level for quite a few years now, which is remarkable. This makes players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer some word which is like a hundred times stronger than “remarkable”.
Further to Samantha Stosur. I am so sick of her being bagged by the Australian press. She was the no. 1 in doubles for more than a year. She’s been as high as no. 4 in singles. She won the US Open against Serena Williams. SERENA WILLIAMS. She has 5 grand slam titles. And 28 career titles. But you’d never know it listening to the Australian press who can only talk about what a choker she is. Because apparently only singles grand slam titles count. Or something.
So here’s what I hate about contemporary sporting culture: that it’s all about winning. Sadly though I think that’s what sport’s pretty much always been focussed on. Fans turning on their idols because they lose a match is not a recent development.
I love watching Stosur play because you can see her fighting herself. Frankly, she reminds me of myself while writing. Some days it all goes so well; other days OMG stupid words! Why do you defy me?! Some days I fall to pieces. And I’m a writer. There is no opponent, there is no global audience watching my every move. If I were a tennis player I would be a much, much bigger head case than Stosur. Honestly I have no idea how they do their job day in day out with so many people watching and commentating on every move.
One of the reasons I love tennis is that it’s such a psychological sport. The more unemotional players who hold it together have never interested me nearly so much as the ones for whom the battle against themselves is almost as mighty as the battle against their opponent. It’s one of the reason I love Serena Williams’s play so much. She’s such a confidence player. I mean on top of just being amazing. Watching herself dig herself out of a hole—like she did at this year’s US Open—it is a thing of beauty and also of agony.
For another example of this insanity check out this tweet about the fact that Roger Federer one of the greatest players the game has ever seen is no longer winning every little thing:
“Do you think the great Swiss player is finished?”
I know what my response would be were I Federer. It would not be polite.
That’s another thing that drives me nuts. Why shouldn’t athletes keep playing their sport as long as they’re good enough to do so? It’s not like Federer needs a wild card to get into events. He’s still a highly ranked player. He’s just not number one any more. It’s total bullshit that he’s tarnishing his legacy. No, he’s not. No matter what he does now he will have still won a gazillion grand slams and been world number one for basically forever.
Athletes already have a shorter career that almost any other profession without us spectators and commentators howling from the stands that they’re finished because they’ve got from world’s best ever to still pretty bloody good.
Well, felt good getting that sporting rant off my chest. As you all were.
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It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.
The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.
As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?
Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.
Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.
The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.
There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.
Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.
So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.
One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.
Let books roam free!