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1. Why I Cannot Write a Novel With Voice Recognition Software

Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful thansformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!

I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard.1 The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.

I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?

I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.

But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:


1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.

Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.

Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”

The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.2

2. Flow is incredibly important.

Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.

Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every c

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2. Farewell For Now

As some of you may have noticed I’ve not been around much online. Sorry! Thank you so much for all the concerned supportive emails. They are much appreciated. (You made me all teary.)

Here’s where things stand with me:

The good news: The original injury that caused me to cut back on blogging is completely healed. Yay!

The bad news: The RSI in my hands and forearms got worse.

I took four weeks off from the computer entirely. I have reorganised my computer setup. I’ve been doing a vast amount of physical therapy. I’m improving. Slowly and frustratingly but surely.

However, my time at keyboard remains limited and my top priority is my novel. All else—blogging, tweeting, emailing—is on hiatus until I can get through a day’s1 work without pain.

I see that all sounds depressing. But honestly I’m doing great. While I miss being in close contact with all my fabby online friends.2 I’ve been spending more time with friends in the real world. I’ve been reading more than I have in years. Watching lots of crazy good anime. Who recommended Moribito? I LOVE YOU.3 I’ve been cooking up a storm. And immersing myself in the WNBA, NBA, French Open, various cricket series and am ecstatic about the coming World Cup and Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Life is very good.

So this is farewell for now. Thanks for all the support. It means heaps.4

I’ll be back.5

  1. I.e. four hours.
  2. A LOT.
  3. Feel free to make more recs in the comments.
  4. Thanks to the lovely folks who inquired after my health at BEA. Even if most of you were Team Unicorn. What’s up with that?
  5. But not in a scary way. I swear that I’m not a cyborg from the future hellbent on wiping out humanity. Me, I like humanity.

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3. Why I’ve Not Been Blogging

(Or answering email or responding to IM requests or to comments or been on Twitter or read many blogs.)

Like almost every writer I know, I have a number of chronic—though not particularly bad1—injuries, that were caused by (or flare up when) I spend a lot of time at my computer. Sitting at a computer for long hours is not good for your body. Which is why so many writers, receptionists, data processors, computer programmers etc etc2 have repetitive strain injuries, headaches, chronic back and neck problems, shooting pains in the arms and hands and so on and so forth.3

Like many of you, I frequently spend more than fourteen hours a day at my computer.4 A recent injury (not sitting-at-computer related) has made that impossible. In order for my injury to heal I have had to drastically reduce my time at the computer, which forced me to prioritise what I do there:

  1. Write novel.
  2. Answer urgent business related email.
  3. Blog.
  4. Answer other emails.
  5. IM with friends.
  6. Read blogs, twitter etc.

Here’s what most days since the injury have looked like:

  1. Write novel.

I no longer spend more than four hours on the computer. If the pain flares before four hours I stop. Four hours is not long so my novel gets my top priority. Many days writing my novel is the only thing I do at the computer. Ironically, I’ve written more in the last month than in the previous six. The book’s going well and I’m loving it. Bless, this injury!5 I have not once gotten past no. 4 on my list. So that is why you have not heard from me.

The acute injury is improving, slowly but surely.6 However, I have decided to stick to the current regime at least until the injury is completely healed and maybe longer because I have experienced less pain with my other chronic injuries as well.

In fact, February has seen me increase the amount of walking I do every day, I’ve taken up Pilates7, and I’ve upped the amount of time I spend at the gym.8 Injury aside, I feel better than I have in a long, long time. I’ve been reading way more books and manga as well.9

Because of this injury I’m fitter than I was, more flexible and, best of all, getting more writing and reading done. All good, right?

Not exactly. The reduced computer time has meant that I have not been communicating regularly with many of my close friends. I’m massively behind on email. I no longer IM.10 I feel like I’m losing touch with my online communities, which may sound trivial, but as Varian pointed out last week that sense of community is very important. It’s a large part of why I blog in the first place. Not blogging and responding to your comments has been difficult.

In fact, that is why this post. I don’t much like whingeing about my health here.11 Boring! But I couldn’t really think of any other way to let people know that even when I’m not responding I’m thinking about them. I feel especially bad about all the lovely fan mail I’m not answering.12 Several of the letters people have written me about Liar and have reduced me to tears.13 Thank you.

Thank you also to all my guest bloggers. You’ve kept this blog alive with entertaining, moving, informative, funny, wonderful posts. Bless you all. And thank you readers for supporting the blog in my absence. I’ve been so delighted to see the continued volume of traffic and comments. Yay!

One last thing: I know a fair number of you are in your teens and twenties and spending a vast amount of time at computers.14 If you’re not already taking care of your

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4. New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

I know many people are all bah humbug about new year’s resolutions but I love them. This year I resolve to find a balance with my time online.

Let me explain: when I first became a published author of an actual novel I kind of went a little bit insane. I tracked down every teeny tiny reference to my book or me. I used every tool then available (and remember this was the long distant past of 2005) to stalk mentions online. At first there were few, very few, and I was convinced no one was ever going to read or review my baby Magic or Madness. Wah! Then there was what seemed a lot, which provided momentary flickers of joy—yay! good review!—and longer bouts of misery—boo! bad review.1 But then the mentions slowed down and lo there was despair again. No one is reading my book!

All of that slowed down my writing. Considerably. I was spending more time thinking about what people were saying about my book then, you know, actually writing the next one. Fortunately, for me I’d already finished my second book, Magic Lessons before my first appeared. But all the they-hate-me-they-love-me-they-think-I’m-meh-they’re-ignoring-me significantly affected the writing of the third book in the trilogy, Magic’s Child. I ran late, very late, because I was wasting so much time online googling myself and angsting about the results of those searches.

It got so bad I considered pulling the plug and not going online ever again, which, as you can imagine, is not possible. A large part of what I do online is directly related to my work: communicating with my agent and publisher, all the online promotery stuff my publisher likes me to do, research, keeping up with my field, blogging (my favourite thing ever!) etc. I can’t really let any of that slide for more than a week or so.

So instead I vowed to go cold turkey on self-stalking. I turned off my google alerts, unlearned the existence of technorati, icerocket, blogpulse etc etc and concentrated on finishing How to Ditch Your Fairy. It went well. I could go online without doing my head in. I was productive again! I learned that people would forward me any interesting reviews or commentary on my work.2 I did not need to seek out.

I also found that after several published books, bad reviews worry me far less than they used to. What I used to know only intellectually—that most reviews say far more about the reviewer than the reviewee—I now know all the way through me. Bad reviews rarely rile me now.

Thus I happily remained until 2009. Yes, I was still given to procrastinating. I would discover new blogs and be compelled to read through the entire archive. What? You can’t understand a blog until you’ve read the whole thing! And certain people still seem to think I spend an inordinate amount of time IMing with friends and family. What can I say? I don’t like phones. Plus some of those chats have led to Very Important Things. I’m just sayin’.

This year, however, for the first time in my online life, I was at the centre of a storm. People started saying things about me that were not true and were sometimes downright nasty. I’d become inured to people hating my books, but I’d never had strangers hating on me before. I’d seen many of my friends go through it. I’d even counselled these friends not to let it get to them, to make sure they took time away, that it’s not really as big a deal as it seems, and that those nasty, small-minded people don’t know them and what they say doesn’t matter. All of which is true.

But then it happened to me and I let it get to me. I fell off the wagon. I reinstated my google alerts. I used every search engine known to humanity to search out every single mention. I lost sleep. I lost days and weeks and months of work time.

I found some wonderful friends and allies du

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5. Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo

I have a rule that I never respond to bad reviews. I have blogged on several occasions about why I think doing so is pointless. However, I can’t help noticing a certain tenor in many Paranormal/Fantasy YA reviews lately. Everything seems to be talked about in terms of Stephenie Meyer’s Twlight books.

On the one hand it’s inevitable given that they are the most popular books, not just in YA, but in the entire world. Meyer’s had a huge influence and, yes, there are many Twilight knockoffs out there. But on the other hand, people seem to forget that Meyer’s books are very new. Twlight was first published in October 2005. YA fantasy had already existed for decades before Meyer. There were even YA vampire books before Twilight. Thus the constant accusations of ripping off Stephenie Meyer and jumping on the “paranormal bandwagon”1 are a bit rich, particularly when aimed at say, L. J. Smith, whose vampires novels were first published in the 1980s. Pretty hard to rip off a book pub’d almost 20 years after yours.

The constant accusations have led me to develop a bingo card so all us writers of YA Fantasy/Paranormal can tick each item off as we are accused. I admit I got the idea because I was recently accused of jumping on the paranormal bandwagon and ripping Stephenie Meyer off with my debut novel, Magic or Madness. As you’ll see below I get bonus points because MorM was first published before Twlight.2

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the urge to educate people about the timescales of publishing. Not to mention how influences, trends and fashions work. But not today. Today I am in a mocking mood.

So here is my (Sarah Rees Brennan, Diana Peterfreund and Carrie Ryan contributed) list of squares on the Paranormal/Fantasy YA Review Bingo Card.3 See if you’ve gotten a review that allows you to cross off each one. I suspect pretty much all of us who write YA fantasy will be winners.

  • Twilight ripoff (Extra points if the book that is accused of this predates Twilight)
  • Jumping on the paranormal bandwagon (Extra points if the term “paranormal” did not exist outside the Romance genre when your first books were published)
  • Being accused of rippping off a book published before or around the same time as your book
  • Being accused of jumping on a bandwagon that’s hardly a bandwagon such as the steampunk or killer unicorn bandwagon. Shouldn’t there be at least a dozen books before it becomes a bandwagon?
  • The line “haven’t we seen this before” appears in the review
  • Says vampires/werewolves/zombies/fairies/[supernatural being of your choice] is old hat
  • Claims your protag is a ripoff of Bella and/or Edward and/or Jacob
  • Criticises your character for not being as wonderful as Bella
  • Criticises your character for being as drippy as Bella
  • Complains your hero is not dreamy like Edward
  • Complains your character is drippy like Edward
  • Complains your vampires are inauthentic because they do not sparkle
  • Is unaware vampires existed before Twilight came out in 2005
  • Says your book is great because is exactly like Twilight
  • Says your book is great because is nothing like Twilight

I’m sure I’m missing some. Do please suggest more in the comments.

NOTE: Please don’t bash the Twilight books in the comment thread. Stephenie Meyer and her books have been an enormous boon to the field of YA. She’s created more readers than anyone since J. K. Rowling. The fact that the criticisms above keep happening is testament to that.

  1. ”Paranormal” is also a pretty rec

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6. The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way.
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder.
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones.

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7. Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.

Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.

To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”

What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!

Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.

That’s the risk you take when you write a book.

If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.

If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.

What should you do when you are criticised?

Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.

Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.

Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.

Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?

What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.

Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.

Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.

Thus endeth the rant.

  1. Trust me, I get that one all the time
  2. I am SO over vampires. Except for the good ones.

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8. Condescending Reviews are Us (update)

Maybe I’m being unfair, but Dwight Garner’s New York TImes review of LeBron James’ & Buzz Bissinger’s Shooting Stars gave off the distinct reek of Eau de Condescension (via Mitali Perkins):

“Shooting Stars,” a new collaboration between LeBron James, probably the greatest basketball player alive, and Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights,” is a different kind of book. It avoids speaking about James’s professional career with the Cleveland Cavaliers (he was the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player last season) almost entirely. And since James skipped college, well, ixnay on that too.

“Ixnay”? Seriously?

“Shooting Stars” reads like a better-than-average young-adult novel, “Stand by Me” with breakaway dunks and long, arching three-pointers. I suspect it will find its best and most eager audience among the teenagers and preteenagers for whom James is a deserving role model.

Let’s set aside the fact that Stand By Me is a movie not a YA novel1 and have a look at “better-than-average young-adult novel.” Given the lukewarmness of the whole review it’s pretty clear that Garner does not think much of YA. Though if he thinks Stand By Me is a YA novel then it’s more likely he hasn’t read much YA average or otherwise. The whole thing reminds me of Maureen Dowd dissing adult chicklit based on her reading of a satirical YA novel. The New York Times seems pretty hazy on what YA is.

Eric Luper suggests that we need to run a remedial seminar for them and make them read some better-than-average YA. What do youse lot think? And what should we put on the reading list? I suggest five or so books but they all have to be completely different from each other. Here’s my off the top of my head list. I made a point of not including any books by my friends:2

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (historical)
Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis (contemporary realism/comedy)
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey (fantasy)
All American Girl by Meg Cabot (chicklit)
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (science fiction)
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (contemporary realism/romance)

What would your reading list to school The New York Times book people about YA look like? Remember each book has to be really different.

Update: Scott says I should point out that this review really made me want to read Shooting Stars. So, yes, it’s condescending but now I really want to read the book. But, come on, I’m a basketball fanatic I was going to read it anyway.

  1. Based on a short story by Stephen King which is also not a YA novel.
  2. I’ve met Cabot and Duey and they are both delightful but I don’t know them well enough that I feel biased recommending their work.

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9. Writing too much

If my brain wasn’t broken I would do some basic research to find out what research has been done on overloaded brains.

I get to a point when I’m writing a lot when I just can’t. My brain mushes. Sentences turn murky. Gibberish dribbles out of my mouth. My typing slows and the level of typoes skyrockets. Always means I’ve written too much and I have to stop.

I wonder what’s going on. Almost all my writer friends get the same thing. Is it just fatigue? Or is there something specific to writing?

Anyone got any theories? Seen any research on it?

2 Comments on Writing too much, last added: 7/13/2009
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10. No, I won’t read your story

One of the hardest things I have to do is say no to the folks who write and ask me to read and comment on their work. In the last two weeks I’ve had five such requests. All for novels.

In the last week I finished reading exactly 0 novels. Let me repeat that: in the last week I finished reading no novels. Not a single one. Actually, it’s worse than that I haven’t finished a novel since January and it was a book I was asked to blurb.1

I get asked to read quite a few books every year. There’s the blurb books. Given that my career has been helped by other writers blurbing me, I always say yes to these requests. Yes, that is to reading the book. I won’t blurb a book unless I love it.

Then there’s all the novels I critique for friends. Right now I have six early draft novels on my hard drive. One of which I’ve had for seven months now. They are all wonderful writers whose work I adore reading. Not to mention that I owe them as they’ve all critiqued my own work. Yet here I sit with six unread mss, one unread blurb book, and dozens of unread 1930s novels.

Critiquing a novel requires a brain firing on all cylinders and lots of time.2 In its own way I find it every bit as challenging as writing. Given that I earn my living from writing, my own stuff gets top priority. At the end of the day if I have anything left over I start critiquing one of the backlog of novels. Though when a friend’s having a real emergency I’ll drop everything to critique for them. They’ve done the same for me often enough.

But lately I haven’t had anything left over. Rewriting the Liar novel has been the most challenging writing of my career.3 The research and writing of the 1930s novel takes up the rest of my time. Who knew trying to understand the Great Depression would be so hard? I guess my extremely sketchy knowledge of Economics has been a wee bit of a handicap.

And I have a life outside writing and reading. I know it sounds strange but sometime I go outside and, you know, do things. Often I do them with my friends and family. Also I cook, I clean, I buy groceries and pay bills. Life stuff.

That is why I say no to all outside critique requests. I simply don’t have the time or the energy. It’s also why there are so many posts about the writing process on this blog. I may not be able to help you directly, but maybe I can help indirectly.

Good luck with your writing!

  1. That is not usual. I’m a three-novels a week kind of a girl. But lately the majority of my reading has been non-fiction. This is what happens when you take on an historical project.
  2. Depending on the length, it takes me a solid ten or more hours to read and critique a novel.
  3. I took on an unreliable narrator and the unreliable narrator is kicking my arse. Mental note: never write an unreliable narrator EVER AGAIN.

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11. Evil drivers

I know many of the readers of this blog also drive and I’m quite sure now of you are evil but perhaps you could help explain to me how some drivers develop a pathological hatred of law-abiding pedestrians once they are behind the wheel of their petrol-guzzlers?

Yesterday I was minding my own business crossing the road legally: I had the pedestrian green light about half way across it started to flash. A very angry taxi driver in an unoccupied cab started trying to push his way past me and the other pedestrians in a most threatening manner. Readers, I confess that I and another pedestrian made a USian hand gesture in his direction at which point he turned red and started pounding his horn like one possessed as we pedestrians calmly completed our legal crossing of the road.

It was an astonishing reaction given that he was breaking traffic laws in a most arseholic manner and we were merely pointing out his arseholery. If he weren’t behind his metal cocoon he would have leapt out and strangled us.

What gives?

I would love to say this is the first such incident, but I have had demonic drivers honk as I and my fellow pedestrians cross the street legally so many times I have lost count. Are they unaware that flashing red signals that pedestrians may complete their crossing? Are they unaware that it is illegal to pound their horn in that manner? It’s also illegal to attempt to run over pedestrians.

Why do so many people turn into monsters behind the wheel?

And some folks wonder why I hate cars.

5 Comments on Evil drivers, last added: 12/20/2008
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12. Whingeing about writing

Recently me and some of my pro writer colleagues have been asked why we are always complaining about writing, and, the follow-up question: if it’s such a horrible job why don’t we get a better one?

Good question! Here are some of the answers:

  1. Whingeing is fun. Writers in particular are totally addicted to it. We can’t not whinge.
  2. Writers are boring. We don’t get out much so we don’t have much to talk about other than writing, which is one of the least interesting things ever. “Hey, guess what, guys? Today I typed! A lot. Like, I typed maybe 2,000 groupings of letters.” If we whinge about it we figure it sounds a bit more interesting. We don’t get another job because we’re boring and writing is boring: we belong together.
  3. Boasting about how you have the best job in the whole world is rude and skiteful and makes rational people want to chunder1 or kill you. “Look at me! I am so blessed and lucky! Why today I typed. A lot! I think I typed maybe 2,000 groupings of letters. I think I arranged them really well! Go me! Also I did that wearing pjs. And no one at work was mean to me. Because I work at home! Where the ice cream is. My life is perfect!” Oh, shut up, already. It is better to whinge than to skite.
  4. Writing is really hard. It makes writers bleed from the eyeballs. Demons take up residence in our brain and sip on our cerebrospinal fluid. But if we told you how it really was—how there are tiny goblins—trained by our evil publishers—that hold open our eyelids and slap our fingers back on to the keyboards thus making sure we never miss a deadline and keep churning out publishable product—you would never believe it so we just whinge about the lesser aspects of writing hell. We don’t get another job because we can’t. The contract with our publishers mean we are indentured slaves until we die.
  5. Writing is dead easy. Seriously all we do is sit around and type, luxuriating in our pyjamas, and ordering our minions around, while we feast on champagne and caviar. But if we let everyone know that then too many people would want to be writers. Thus, der, we pretend it’s really hard. “Ow, my brain! It burns! Too many groupings of letters today! I suffer!”

I hope that makes it all crystal clear. I live to answer your questions. And, um, write books. Like the one that’s due next Friday fer instance. Should get back to that. Or sleep, possibly. If the clanking pipes allow.

Oh, and also, what Maureen said.

Later!

  1. Or as me and a bunch of my friends used to say “muntah material”. We were studying Indonesian. Don’t ask.

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13. Deadline: Next Friday

I am currently not answering my phone or text messages, responding to emails or IM invites, or answering the door. All forms of communication are turned off. I am incommunicado until next Friday1 when the rewrites of the Liar book are due.

Rewriting the Liar book is all I am doing right now. It is the beginning and the middle and the end of each day. It doesn’t matter how much I want to play in my brand-new, shiny, shiny 1930s novel, or how much I want to gallivant about town, I’m not allowed.

I will probably still blog. If I don’t blog my head explodes. But I am unlikely to respond to your gorgeous comments. Though I will read and cherish them as I always do. Of course once I’m finished with the rewrites I head to Texas.

Right then, back to the grindstone goes me.

  1. Or, um, possibly next Monday.

1 Comments on Deadline: Next Friday, last added: 11/9/2008
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14. It’s just wrong

Even though I am much better at writing novels than I’ve ever been before it’s still insanely hard. Actually, it’s MUCH harder than it used to be when I didn’t realise how hard it was. Why? It makes NO sense!

Right now, stuck in the middle of rewriting the Liar novel, I have the distinct sense that I’ve exceeded my skill set. I simply don’t have the writerly chops to get this book to where it needs to be. Yet tragically, the only way I can get to the level of skill I need to be at is to, well, rewrite this book.

Did your head just explode? I know mine did.

To make me feel better I think you should all go to Holly Black’s blog and vote for her to watch Shaun of the Dead. She is afraid of zombies and attempting to conquer her fears. Let’s make her do it! Her other options, quite frankly, are deeply lame.

You will watch Shaun of the Dead, Holly, oh yes, you will!

1 Comments on It’s just wrong, last added: 10/29/2008
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15. Another reason I’m not answering email

Because I’ve spent the ENTIRE MORNING on hold with AT&T. And people wonder why I HATE the phone.

1 Comments on Another reason I’m not answering email, last added: 9/8/2008
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16. I got nothing

Well, I got lots of things but a couple of them are embargoed. [[Kicks embargos]] And most of them are all about the book I am currently writing (more than 70 thou words now) which is deadly dull to anyone other than the person what’s writing the book, which would be me.

Ordinarily I would demand that you lot entertain me, but seeing as at the moment I only emerge from the bunker to have a brief squiz at the internets for a few minutes of every day . . . So how about you entertain yourselves?

Or something.

I returns to bunker. Is happy there. Warm. Filled with writing vitamins. Mmmm . . . bunker.

2 Comments on I got nothing, last added: 8/20/2008
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17. Another reason books are teh devil

Just when you’re approaching the end of one book and you really must give that book all your time and all your brain, another one comes along and starts insisting you write it instead.

This is WRONG and must stop. IMMEDIATELY.

Bugger off, stupid new book. GO AWAY!

9 Comments on Another reason books are teh devil, last added: 7/18/2008
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18. The next novel

A bunch of questions are being asked about the next novel both here and in emails. Here are some answers:

When is it due?

August

When will it be published?

September 2009

Who is publishing it?

Bloomsbury USA

What is it about?

Lies

What’s it called?

As mentioned the working (and I hope permanent) title is the same as a song from the 1990s by an all-girl band. Feel free to guess. No one has gotten close so far.

Is it a sequel to How To Ditch Your Fairy?

No

Why isn’t it a sequel to HTDYF?

Because

Will there be a sequel to HTDYF?

Maybe

How long do you think it will be?

75,00-85,000

How long is it now?

54,013

Wow, you have quite a few words to go and August isn’t very far away—are you panicking?

Aaargh!! Damn you!! Leave me alone!! STOP asking questions!!

You seem a bit tightly wound—have you thought of maybe getting a massage or something?

I kill you. I kill you with my bare hands.

22 Comments on The next novel, last added: 7/11/2008
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19. cranky

This vid exactly expresses my current feelings. Be warned that it involves intemperate language and violence:

Do not ask me how many times Microsoft Word has crashed on me today. Let’s just say I better not run into Bill Gates anytime soon.

The first person who tells me I can switch stupid Mr Clippy off gets punched. He is switched off. But when Word crashes it magically gets switched on again. Have I mentioned that I HATE Microsoft Word?

Oh and the first person who tells me to switch to Scrivener gets yelled at. I have switched, but I’m doing final rewrites, and have to keep my doc in smelly Word in order not to blow formatting etc. Going back to Word after Scrivener is breaking my brain. Waaaah!!!

Heh hem. Talk amongst yourselves. My deadline still needs vanquishing.

16 Comments on cranky, last added: 12/26/2007
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20. Grace

In the vociferous arguing about the ins and outs of who behaved worst over the second test etc etc there are people implying that criticising the Australian cricket team is unAustralian and whingey.1

Please! I love my country, I love cricket, but when the men’s team behave like dickheads they should be called on it.

People who play sport at a professional level are not exempt from the social contract. No one is. Writers (to pick a random example out of the air) shouldn’t behave like dickheads either. Recently I was at an award ceremony where the speeches of the winners were generous and moving. All but one. This one person got up to accept their award without a gram of graciousness. Their speech was about the importance of their book and the judges’ perspicacity in picking it as the winner. That speech left me not wanting to read anything by that writer. I don’t even want to meet that writer.

Very few people in this world achieve things without considerable help; acting like you did it all on your own is graceless and rude.

Ponting’s and the rest of the team’s arrogance and inability to admit that they ever do anything wrong makes me ambivalent when Australia wins test matches. Don’t get me wrong. I love for Australia to win, but, well, I love it a lot more when they’re gracious in victory.2

So, yeah, this debate isn’t just about cricket. It’s about how people should behave. How we should treat the people around us. There’s a reason that photo of Flintoff offering commiserations to Brett Lee has become so famous. It captures a moment of perfect grace:


Getty Images

  1. though what’s more Australian than whingeing?!
  2. And aren’t ropeable when they lose.

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21. I don’t think about it like that, honest . . .

Interviews hurt my brain. Being asked to talk about my work in the abstract feels weird. Especially when I’m asked about what message I wished to convey, what I want to teach people, how I want to change the world, and why did I have this bit of my book symbolise x, y, or z.

The truth is I don’t think about any of that stuff when I’m writing a first draft. Nothing in any of my books is meant to symbolise anything. As far as I’m concerned my zombies are just zombies. I don’t set out to teach anyone anything and I have no overt messages to convey.


(The secret message of my books is that mangosteens are the best food in the universe, quokkas the cutest animal, and anyone who lives somewhere cold should have their head examined.)

If other people see my zombies as representing the corruption of Western capitalism or the horrors of commodification or whatever. That’s cool. If they learn something that’s fabulous, too. One of my favourite things is hearing what readers take out of my work. Mostly it’s not anything I intended. My readers teach me stuff.1

But I didn’t do that on purpose. Truly. I don’t write like that.

I know writers who do, though. A friend of my carefully plans all sorts of symbols and always talks about the message of their book. Not me, though.

I just had to answer a set of questions from the members of the Teen Advisory Group of the Kingsbridge Branch Library in the Bronx via their Young Adult Librarian, Andrea Lipinski. Their questions were awesome. There was nothing about metaphors or meanings or messages. Bless you all! They wanted to know if I believe in magic, whether I like Sydney or NYC better, who I think is the better writer me or Scott, whether my trilogy’s going to have a fourth book, and which of my characters is most like me.

So much more fun answering those kinds of questions! Especially as the answer to all of them is “Maureen Johnson.”

  1. Except for the loony readers. You know who you are!

1 Comments on I don’t think about it like that, honest . . ., last added: 1/15/2008
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22. I miss The Wire

Seriously, I’m not sure I want to watch tellie any more now that The Wire’s gone. What’s the point?

12 Comments on I miss The Wire, last added: 3/16/2008
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23. No WisCon for me

Several peoples have writ me saying, “See you at WisCon!” Alas and alack they will not. Scott’s niece Renee is graduating and we will be there to cheer her on. Go, Renee!

This is the second year in a row we have not been. I does not like it. WisCon is my favourite con in the whole world filled with all my favourite peoples. I love it so much that for a while there I organised the academic track and then the readings. I feel like I am a WisCon hometown girl. And here I am missing it again. Wah. Bad enough that I haven’t been to my real home in a year.

Hope everyone has fun without me. Even though that’s a little bit rude. I think you should all try to suffer for at least ten minutes or so. But, of course, because you’re all already in Madison you won’t even read this. Sigh.

10 Comments on No WisCon for me, last added: 5/30/2008
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24. Sad, homesick and whingey

I think the title says it all. Rather than me bore you with a description of same how about you lot cheer me up? Links to amusing sites, comics, whatever. Suggest fun reading, viewing, listening. Share an amusing anecdote. Make me think about something other than my not being in Sydney.

Yours in whingerland,

Justine

34 Comments on Sad, homesick and whingey, last added: 5/29/2008
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25. The writing-not-easy thing, part the millionth

Yes, again! What of it? I promise this will be the last whingeing-about-writing post. Truly.1

I think I’m still in shock that my job is not always a doddle. You see, I fully expected that it would be.

Let me explain:

A full-time novelist is all I’ve ever wanted to be. Obviously the main reason I wanted to do it is because I’ve always loved telling and writing stories and I’ve done it since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. But I also kind of figured that it would be easier than any other job. Writing stories was fun. Something I did when I wanted to take a break from the onerous crap that I had to do. Surely doing it most of the time would be even more fun?

I imagined my life as a full-time novelist would involve never having to get up before noon, writing only when I felt like it, never being stressed, six-figure advances for every book, mangosteens for every meal, and walking on rose petals while fairy dust fell from the sky.

None of this has happened! NONE of it.2

I’ll admit that my job is not as hard as some people’s. I’m not down a coal mine. I’m not in a war zone. I don’t run the risk of death or injury very often—though paper cuts can be nasty.3 Many people work way harder than I do. Like my sister, who does 3,000 hour a week in dark rooms, making everyone in Hollywood’s hair look real, and the monsters look super scary.4

What was I saying?

Oh, yes, I thought writing would be the easiest job on the planet and I’d never have to work hard. So every time I do have to work hard it’s a horrible shock. Thus my whingeing.

Though it probably is the easiest job on the planet, which leads me to the depressing thought that no job is without hard bits. How unfair is that?

  1. Though I am writing a novel about a compulsive liar so I could be practicing. Plus all I’m doing right now is writing. What the hell else do I have to blog about?
  2. Though I do occasionally get to eat mangosteens.
  3. Not to mention RSI and back pain.
  4. Or something. I’m never entirely clear on what exactly Niki does.

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