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By: Justine Larbalestier
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On Twitter ages ago N. K. Jemisin asked “*do* white writers want only white readers?”
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue. We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies” or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either. Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.
Addressing a White Audience
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism is never whom I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
This post is a thing that I do every so often. It started in 2006 when I posted my writing goals. I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out. And then in 2012 in anticipation of the publication of Team Human.
These goals of mine are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize. Winning prizes, making bestseller lists, having your books turned into genius TV shows are not things anyone can control, but I can control what I write. Not only can I control that, I do control that. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, eh?
The following are categories I plan to publish a book in. When I publish a book in a given category I cross the category out. I also randomly add categories when they occur to me. Mostly, to give me the pleasure of crossing them out.
First the genres:
Crime (what some call mysteries)
Mainstream or litfic
- Adult romance
The reason I am reduxing my writing goals post is because I just struck off another category: Historical. Woo hoo! Yes, with the publication of Razorhurst, set in Sydney in 1932, I have finally published an historical novel. And there was much rejoicing. I adore historicals. In fact, the very first novel I ever wrote was an historical set in thirteenth century Cambodia and never published. So this is a big crossing off day for me.
I have also added two new categories: adult romance and dystopia. Before any of you groan about how you’re totally over YA dystopia already I have a really awesome idea for one. In fact, I’ve already written a short story set in that world and it will be out late this year or early next. Very excited about turning it into a novel. But even if I don’t write that novel I’m still going to cross off dystopia when that short story is available.
As for adult romance. Read this post here and you will see me realising that adult romances are completely different to YA romances and that I really want to write one.
All I have left is adult romance, dystopia, western, horror and gothic. Some have said that Liar is horror. I do not agree. I wasn’t scared once writing it. The few times I have tried to write horror I have scared myself so badly I have had to stop writing. When I publish one of those I’ll cross it off the list.
I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:
Third person limited
The observant amongst you will notice that every item on this list is now crossed off. Yes, indeed, Razorhurst does make use of the omniscient point of view. I have conquered an entire list! Let there be rejoicing!
A series is a sequence of more than three books that: 1) have the same character or set of characters but each book tells a separate story. You could argue that Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe books are a series of that kind. 2) are a large story that is told across more than three books.
Some people classify trilogies as a series but I think they’re their own thing. I also admit that that’s very hair splitting and may be heavily influenced by my desire to have one extra thing on this list. Hey, it’s my list. I get to do that.
I suspect the 1930s NYC novel is a series. I’ve been working on it since forever and it shows no signs of being finished. So one day, maybe, I’ll be able to cross series off the list.
And lastly a whole new list:
- Fallen angel
- Evil piano
For those unfamiliar with my oeuvre the Magic or Madness trilogy was about witches. There were, obviously, fairies in How To Ditch Your Fairy and if you don’t think those fairies count then I wrote about more traditional fairies in the short story, “Thinner than Water.” I knocked over both vampires and zombies in Team Human. I don’t count the zombies in Zombies v Unicorns because I did not write those stories. I merely edited them.
I get to cross off ghosts because there are bazillions of them in my newest novel, Razorhurst. I am also, more controversially, crossing off siren because I believe the femme fatale is a kind of siren and Dymphna Campbell, one of the main characters in Razorhurst is most definitely a femme fatale. I’ll be very curious to hear your opinions on that those of you who have read Razorhurst.
I am aware that some of you are going to say that there are two more on that list that I could cross off. However, I have decided I can’t do that because in that particular book it is up to the reader to decide if the main character is an x or a y or possibly a z or possibly none of those. There is no definitive answer thus they all remain on the list. I will brook no argument on that topic.
My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. Have any of youse crossed anything off your writing goals list of late?
TL:DR My new book Razorhurst means I get to cross historical, omniscient, ghost and siren off my lists. Let the dancing commence!
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
- No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
- Nothing too complex.
- No adults.
- Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
- Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
- Young adults are unintelligent.
- Young adults have no adults in their lives.
- Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
We’ve all seen A Star is Born, right?
Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify. He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.
Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.
There’s the 1937 version, the 1954 version, and the 1976 version. Then there’s What Price Hollywood? from 1934, which is the exact same movie except instead of the swim the washed-up actor shoots himself.
My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.
Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.
*cough* I digress.
Where was I?
Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.
Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.
If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.
As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I recently finished the first draft of my Sekrit Project novel. And, yay verily, I was full of joy. There was dancing. Bouncing. Happiness and even more joy.
After the joy I spent a few days tinkering with it, fixing the egregiously rubbishy bits, adding things that needed adding, moving chapters around. As you do.
Then I sent it off to my wondrous, fabulous, worth-more-than-their-weight-in-mangosteens-and-other-precious-things first readers.
Then I kicked back and watched loads of Olympics and blogged and did many things that have nothing to do with Sekrit Project. And there was more joy.
After a week there was still some joy on account of OLYMPICS OH HOW I LOVE THE OLYMPICS but there was also creeping OMG THEY ALL HATE IT WHY HASN’T ANYONE GOTTEN BACK TO ME ABOUT IT NOT EVEN MY OWN HUSBAND IS IT REALLY THAT BAD thoughts.
Then yesterday one of my readers got back to me. She liked it! PHEW.
But more importantly Meg had really smart, useful notes for me. And I got to talk with someone who was not me about Sekrit Project and most especially about the second half of the book and the ending.
I think I got a little giddy. It was such a pleasure to finally talk about it. Poor Meg. I plied her with a million and one questions. And she answered them all for me in really useful ways. I have a much better idea of what is and isn’t working and how to fix it. Scott also came through with notes on the first half of the book. There was bouncing and dancing.
Both Meg and Scott’s notes were full of questions about character’s motivations, aspects of the worldbuilding that didn’t make sense to them, why certain things happen when they do and so on. Questions that make me realise that I had not achieved what I thought I had. All too often the book was too subtle, too opaque, too confusing. All of which I am now brimming with ideas for how to fix.
This world and people I have created changes once other people have seen them. Meg and Scott’s comments and questions have changed how I see them too. I love this part. I love how it gives me a million and one ideas for making the book better.
Have I mentioned that rewriting is my favourite part of the writing process? This is why.
I know there are lots of writers who can figure out all this stuff for themselves. But I really depend on feedback. I need to know how readers respond to what I’ve written because all too often what I think is there is not there. And I can’t discover that by reading and rewriting my book over and over again. I can’t do it alone.
So now I can rewrite to deal with all those problems and work towards the general embetterment of the book. And once that’s done I send it off to my agent. Then when both she and I are happy it gets sent out to editors. Who will in turn send me their own notes.
At least that is how I do it.
Trust me, every writer has their own methods. Some never show anyone anything other than their agent and editor. Some talk constantly about their book and what happens in it as they write and have several people read it as they go along. Some, like me, only let people read it once they have a complete draft. Some have everyone in the world read it and comment. Others none.
Whatever works for you is how to do it.
By: Justine Larbalestier
Blog: Justine Larbalestier
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
1930s NYC novel
, How To Ditch Your Fairy
, Magic or Madness trilogy
, New York City/USA
, Sekrit Project
, What to write next
, Writing goals & milestones
, Writing life
, Writing process
, Add a tag
I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.
I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.
Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.
For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.
And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.
The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.
The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.
By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.
It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.
I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.
Procrastination is good
The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.
Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.
Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.
Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.
Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.
Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.
Many books at once
I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.
The first words I wrote of Liar are:
I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.
That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar two years later.
At the time I had already started, but not finished, the book that was to become How To Ditch Your Fairy and was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.
Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.
Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.
If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.
If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.
In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you. Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.
I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.
A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:
She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.
Garth Nix chimed in to agree:
When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.
Diana Peterfreund agreed:
Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.
The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.
I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.
But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.
It was. But not in the way he was thinking.
Dear readers, I blew it.
I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.
I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.
My first professional writing gig and I blew it.
Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.
I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.
That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.
It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.
More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.
I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.
Happy sixth anniversary to me!
The discussion in the fanfic post got me thinking about the differences between writing to make a living, as I do, and writing solely for fun.
Many people in that thread talked about how writing fanfic was a learning experience that prepared them for becoming a professional writer. And there’s no doubt that that’s how fanfic has worked for many pros. However, the vast majority of writers of fanfic not only don’t become pros, they have no desire to do so. They write fanfic for a variety of reasons: fun, community, because writing is something they can’t not do and so on—they don’t do it as some kind of apprenticeship for becoming a “real” writer.
I know professional writers who also write fanfiction. So clearly it’s fulfilling a need that their paid writing isn’t. I also do a lot of unpaid writing. You’re reading some of it right now. Often I enjoy writing posts here more than writing novels.
Or, rather, I have a much less stressful relationship to this writing than I do to my novel writing because there’s not much riding on this blog, whereas my ability to pay my rent, buy food, stay in the profession that I love is tied up in the novels I write. Sometimes it takes awhile to push that stuff aside and just write. For me blogging is a relaxation; writing novels is an economic necessity.
Which is not to say that it can’t be fun. It can. I wouldn’t swap my job for any other job in the world. I love it. But it’s still my job and comes with all the stresses that any job has, including anxiety about losing said job.
Not everyone who spends a lot of time writing wants to be a professional writer. Frankly, I think that’s sensible. It’s very hard to make a living as a professional writer. Even if you do manage it’s just as hard to make it a sustainable career. I know lots of writers who’ve been able to support themselves for a year or two or four or ten but then demand for their work dwindle, fashion in the publishing world changes. In the 80s horror was huge, now not so much. YA’s big right now but who knows were it will be in ten years. Romance is pretty much always the biggest selling genre and yet it has the lowest advances. I know of romance writers with multiple bestselling books who only get around 20k per book.
The majority of pro novelists, who are making a living, write a book a year. Many write two or three or four a year. For many writers that’s an impossible pace to sustain and it can suck the fun right out of the writing. There are lots of reasons for not making writing your main profession. Most of the published writers I know are not full-time. Many of them claim to be happier that way.
When writing becomes your full time job it completely changes your relationship to writing. It becomes a business. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to force it when you’re not in the mood. You have to meet deadlines. You have to think about whether there’s a market for what you want to write. You can’t just write whatever you feel like unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a market for what you feel like writing.
In which case you’re probably Nora Roberts. Lucky duck!
Since everyone else is professing their love for Strange Horizons and urging folks to support their fund raising efforts I thought that I would jump on the band wagon. What can I say? I’m a sheep.
Like Scalzi and Nora, my first fiction sale was to Strange Horizons way back in 2001. At the time I had been trying to sell one of my short stories for just about a gazillion years. I thought it would never happen. So I would love them for that alone. But that is not even close to the best thing about Strange Horizons I love it and read it because it is a breath of fresh air in the stale and fusty world of adult genre. N. K. Jemisin puts it this way:
I love the speculative fiction genre, but it’s sick.1 Not dying—that’s crap—but not healthy either. The problem is societal, but because SF is the genre of society’s idealism, the symptoms of the sickness tend to be more visible here than in mainstream fiction. The cure for this sickness is, IMO, for the genre to take some collective purgative and restorative measures, like jettisoning old business models that don’t work and old attitudes that are actively harmful, and try something new.
SH represents this newness. They’re a new-paradigm speculative fiction market in every sense of the word: online not print; nonprofit not commercial; collaborative and not One Single Editor’s vision; weekly not monthly/quarterly/whenever the people involved get around to it. They actively seek out voices within the SF community that don’t get heard enough, whether those voices be newbies or PoC or writers from non-Western countries or literary writers or socialists or whatever. The fact that they’ve managed to stick around this long, in an era when SF magazines are dropping like flies, speaks volumes to me about the sustainability of their model. They offer a desired service to the community, ergo they’re still in business. And the fact that their authors (and the magazine itself) keep winning awards speaks to the quality of their work.
This, to me, is what an SF magazine should be and do.
I love Strange Horizons‘ diversity—in all senses of that word. So many adult genre anthos and magazines are the same voices over and over again. I quit reading them. I never know what I’m going to get when I read SH. That goes for the fiction as well as the non-fiction. It really is the best.
Do I think it’s perfect? No. For obvious reasons I wish they did a better job covering the world of Young Adult and children’s as well as manga and graphic novels. However, I’m well aware that they are an entirely volunteer organisation and they can’t do everything and what they do they do better than any other publication out there.
Bless you, Strange Horizons.
Why do so many people have an obsession with how old people are when they make art?
Hmmm. I think that sentence demands a bit more context. I keep seeing comments like, “OMG, Buffy is amazing and Joss Whedon was only in his early 30s when he first created it.” Or Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most influential French poets ever and he quit writing when he was 19!”
There must be something wrong with me cause I think, “So what?”
Either the art is good or it isn’t. Who care how old the person was who created. Doesn’t make it any better.
Not to mention that there’s an argument that the only reason people are still talking about Arthur Rimbaud is because he wrote all his poetry before he was nineteen. According to this argument his work was amazing for a teenager and that’s the only reason we remember him today. Well, that, and his truly crazy life, which makes for astonishingly entertaining biographies.1 And the fact that his lover, Paul Verlaine, was a one-man publicity campaign, who would not shut up about Rimbaud’s supposed genius.
*Heh hem* I digress. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer amazing because Joss Whedon was only in his early thirties2 when he started working on it or is it amazing because it’s amazing?3 I say it’s simply amazing and Whedon’s age is irrelevant.4
If a book or a poem or a movie or a computer game or a painting or whatever blows you away why does it matter how old the person was when they made it?5 If they were 62 does it stop being amazing? How about 72? If they were only 20 does that make it more amazing? Why? Explain to me cause I don’t get it.
Some people write their best work when they’re young. Some when they’re old. Some when they’re middle aged. Some are pretty consistent throughout their career. Some, like Georgette Heyer, have mixed careers, dotted with marvellous and indifferent work throughout. No matter how old you are you can only do the best you can at that momet in time. Not to mention that no matter how old you are, what you think is your best work, others may think is your worst.6
I think what bothers me about this constant, “OMG this book is amazing! And the author was only 12!” is that it undercuts the idea that those of us who make a living writing (or creating other art) work really hard at and strive to improve. It feed into the myth of genius, of someone just producing great work full blown out of no where, without an apprenticeship, without any hard yakka, or learning, or improving. I happen not to believe in genius. I don’t believe art comes out of nowhere.
I do, however, understand the feeling of panic when you realise that, say, Georgette Heyer’s first novel was published when she was a teenager. By the time she was fifty years old she’d published close to 40 novels. Many of my favourite writers have prodigious and enviable outputs. Patricia Highsmith for one. I still haven’t read all her novels and short stories. Diana Wynne Jones has also published an astonishing number of wonderful books and they keep coming. Yay! On the other hand, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter have a relatively small volume of work. All of which I treasure and clutch to my chest. My favourite Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published when she was in her seventies. If I can write half so well when I’m in my seventies, well, I’ll be very happy indeed.
I do envy writers like Wynne Jones and Heyer. I’ve published five novels, but my odds of writing another thirty-five before I turn fifty are, well, forget about it. Or even before I’m seventy. I’m not a super fast writer. I was able to keep up the one-novel-a-year pace for five years and in those years I was trying to write two a year. But next year there’ll be no new novel from me. I doubt I’ll ever write as fast as one a year again. But I have just as many ideas as I ever did. Sometimes I freak out realising that I may not live to write them all.7
But never for very long. Because, honestly, there are other things I’m more worried about not doing before I die. Like spending enough time with the people I love. Doing as much good as I can. Watching my friends’ children grow up. Eating more mangosteens. Stuff like that.
A while ago I posted about my writing goals. I updated it a year ago with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy. But now I have published Liar which is in a whole new genre and allows me to cross even more off my lists.
My goals are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize. Winning prizes and making bestseller lists is not something I can control, but I can control what I write. So that’s what my goals are about. Simple, really.
First the genres:
Crime (what some call mysteries)
- Mainstream or litfic (you know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis)
The publication of Liar allows me to knock three genres off that list. Though cheatingly I only just added one of them—problem novel. What? It’s my list! I can add to it if I want whenever I want. I could have added unreliable narrator and pretended it was a genre, too, you know. But I didn’t.
All I have left is western, historical and litfic. I’m writing an historical right now. The western is still aways off but will definitely happen. I also have a couple of ghost stories in mind so horror will also get knocked off. I don’t think I’ll ever manage litfic. Unless you think I can claim Liar as litfic? If more than one of you says I can then I’m crossing it off.
I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:
Third person limited
Why, yes, Liar does allow me to cross off another one: second person. Go, me! And the 1930s novel makes much use of omniscient. I will conquer the entire list! W00t!
And the last list:
Which sadly remains unaltered because Liar is a standalone. But I suspect the 1930s novel is a series. Though it might just be another trilogy, which would be really annoying.
My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. What have youse lot been crossing off your writing goal lists?
Searching for something else entirely, I stumbled across this old post from March 2007 where I asked my faithful readers to help me choose what to write next. I decided it would be fun to do an update. Fun for me, anyways.1
First on the list of possibilities is this one:
The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.
Sound familiar? Why, yes, it’s the book I wrote next: Liar which published in September this year. As it happens it involved no outlining at all. But I was right it was hard. Much harder than I knew at the time. It also generated more excitement than I anticipated.
The other now completed item on the list was this one:
Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!
The story was “Thinner than Water”, which was published in 2008 in Love is Hell. You can find a bit more about the story here. Even if I do say so myself it is an actual good story. I’m proud of it. But it was many years work and I think I’ll be sticking to novels from here on out.
I don’t know why the 1930s book isn’t on that list. I was already thinking about writing it in October 2006. Though the specifics didn’t come together until a fortuitous conversation with Cassie Clare in 2007. (Thank you, Cassie!)
The other idea on that list I’ve made a substantial start on is this one:
Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight years old) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.
I have, in fact, recently resumed work on it. Though as I am at work on many other things that does not mean the lodger novel will be finished any time soon.
Actually none of the other things I’m working on is included on that list. Mostly because I hadn’t thought of them way back then. Which just goes to show you that ideas really are a dime a dozen. Why, I just got a new one yesterday that I’m valiantly struggling against given that I already have four novels on the go. Five would be too many.
It was lovely looking at that list from almost two years ago and realising that in the intervening time I’d written two of them. Novels take ages and for me short stories take even longer. It will be many years before I write all those books. If, indeed, I write them at all. Most likely I’ll forgot about them and move on to other shinier ideas.
Because it’s not about the ideas, it’s about what you do with them. My barely sketched out idea of Liar from early 2007 doe
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Varian Johnson is not only a wonderful writer—you must read My Life as a Rhombus—he’s also an engineer who builds bridges. Real ones that you can walk or drive on. Why, yes, I am very impressed. Varian’s yet another writer who has a job in a completely unrelated field and still finds time to write novels. I begin to suspect that the one can be very inspiring for the other.1 Though writing at 5AM? Eeek.
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Varian Johnson is the author of My Life as a Rhombus and the forthcoming Saving Maddie. He’s a fairly lazy blogger, though you can find him on Twitter quite a bit. He is also active with The Brown Bookshelf, which he strongly suggests you check out as soon as you finish reading this post.
When Justine asked me to write something for her blog, I immediately said, “Yes.”
Then I said, “What the hell am I thinking? I don’t have time to write a post.”
After spending an hour or so thinking about how I didn’t have time to write a post, I decided to write about exactly that. Making time out of no time. Time management.
Because, Lord knows I’ve dealt with my share of time management issues. For all practical purposes, I have three “jobs”, all of which I’m juggling with varying degrees of success. Among other things:
1. I’m trying to write a new novel (due to my editor in seven months, which may seem like a long time, but as this is the first uncompleted novel I’ve sold, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time completely freaking out).
2. I’m teaching a course on Children’s Literature at a small liberal arts university. (Love the students, love the teaching, but the grading . . . grrr. I’d rather eat Lucky Charms.)
3. And I happen to also design bridges. (And “bridges” isn’t a metaphor—I mean honest to goodness, concrete and steel structures, like this.)
Of course, I haven’t listed all the other writing-related things I do—promotion for the new book (which hits stores in March—eek!!!), author events, tax stuff, etc. And I have a lovely, beautiful wife that I actually like to see every now and then, and a lawn to maintain, and—well, you get the picture. I have a lot going on.
So, clearly, I should know a few things about time management. Except I don’t. I mean, I have a few tricks that work from time to time, but in general, I often fiddle with my schedule, trying to tweak it just enough so I can make it through the next book without a nervous breakdown / heart attack / dismemberment by axe-wielding wife.
For what it’s worth, this is what I try to do:
SET UP OFFICE HOURS: I write—or at least attempt to write—every morning, at the ungodly hour of 5:00, when I’m the freshest. I type away a bit on my manuscript, answer a few emails, send a few twitter messages, and down a gallon or so of coffee. From 8:00 to 10:00 that night, I wash, rinse, repeat. Ditto for Saturday and Sunday morning
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s blogger, Lauren McLaughlin, is a crazy talented YA writer, who has one of the more unusual backgrounds of all the YA novelists I know. She used to be a Hollywood producer. This means that she has more confidence than anyone else I know and is extraordinarily good at saying “no” and meaning it. She is also one of the most focussed and driven people I’ve known. I am all admiration and awe.
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Lauren McLaughlin is the author of Cycler and (Re)Cycler, both YA novels about a teenage girl who turns into a boy for four days each month. She can be found all over the internet, but tends to materialize most frequently at her blog and
on Twitter. She strongly encourages people to read things for free whenever possible and has thusly provided the first three chapters of Cycler as a free download here.
The wise and wonderful Justine herself has invited me to occupy some air time on her blog, which I am only too thrilled to do, being a friend, as well as a fan.
I’m still fairly new to the world of publishing, having only published my second novel, (Re)Cycler, in the fall of 2009. But I’m even newer at being a mother, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what it’s like to be a rookie at these two endeavours.
Novels and babies can both be challenging, but if I had to crown one the Supreme High-Maintenance Pain In The Butt, I’d have to go with the novel. Babies spend the first three months in a semi-vegetative state and have no problem whatsoever about informing you, quite loudly, when they’re in need of something. Novels, on the other hand, never inform you of anything, but rather sit there dumbly while you work your tail off. And only after you’ve invested a week/month/year/lifetime in their progress do they casually scream that you’ve COMPLETELY FAILED AND HAVE TO START OVER!
You can’t start over with babies. They have to adjust.
Also, novels never look up at you in blind dumbstruck love then grab a fistful of your hair and suck it while nuzzling into your shoulder. (I know, it sounds gross. Trust me, it’s transporting.)
Because of deadline pressure, I had to work through the first four months of my daughter’s life. It was difficult at times, squeezing in writing sessions between the frequent feedings and changings, but luckily my husband was around to pick up the slack. And when I turned in that final draft, I took two whole months off, something I’d never done before. In fact, I’d never had more than two weeks in a row off in my life.
It was strange indeed to face each day without a gaping blank page staring back at me. The only thing staring back now was my daughter. And without the pressing need to squeeze four hours of writing into each day, life seemed to open up for us. I could truly focus on her and enjoy our time together without ever feeling crunched.
Alas, after two blissful months of full-time motherhood, my editor delivered her rewrite notes and it was time to be a writer again. But something had changed. My novel was a futuristic story about teenagers and surveillance, and all of a sudden I realized I wasn’t just writing about the future. I was writing about my daughter’s future. My editor, brutal genius that she is, had already done a bang up job of pointing out all the little ways I had failed. And now, I foun
There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2
Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?
Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.
So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.
Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.
That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.
I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.
I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and bra
NOTE: I am in Sydney, Australia where it is already April Fool’s Day. However, my blog is set to NYC time cause I was too lazy to change it.
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April Fool’s is the day I began my career as a full-time freelance writer. Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the completely insane plunge. The first year did not go well, but since then it’s mostly worked out great. I’ve been very lucky indeed.
For my own benefit some stats:
Books sold: 81
Books published: 72
Countries books have been sold in: 153
Countries said books have been written in: 64
Published words: 400,000 (Guestimate.)
Books written but not sold: 25
Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
Ideas collected: 2,372,456 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)
This week, as if in celebration of my seven years of freelancery, I discovered that Liar has been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2010 Book of the Year. I fell over I was so shocked.
Let me explain: For those of you who did not grow up in Australia, the CBCA awards are the most prestigious and longest established awards for young readers in Australia. USians: think Newbery. As a kid I would read the award winners and most of the shortlisted books every year. When I was nine I wrote a letter to the editor I was so indignant that the latest Patricia Wrightson6 book had not been considered for a CBCA because the judges decided that it was too old.7 Nine year old me’s head would have exploded to learn that one day something I wrote was going to be shortlisted for a CBCA. Frankly, the me of 2010’s head is not exactly in one piece having learned the news.
Congrats to everyone else on the shortlists and to the notables as well, which include my partner in crime, Scott Westerfeld8 and many, many, many other wonderful writers.
Today is also the day Karen Healey’s first novel, Guardian of the Dead is published in Australia, New Zealand and the US of A. Set in New Zealand, NOT AUSTRALIA AS SO MANY MISGUIDED USIAN REVIEWERS SEEM TO THINK,9 Guardian is one of the most original and unputdownable novel debuts I’ve read in ages. In fact, I was just discussing how cool it is with Melina Marchetta. How could you not buy a book that Melina Marchetta is recommending? I’m not going to tell you anything more about the book except that you should all run out and grab a copy. RIGHT NOW. OR I’LL JUST KEEP SHOUTING AT YOU. AND NO ONE WANTS TO BE SHOUTED AT.
That’s all. Happy April Fool’s day! Don’t believe a word anyone tells you today.
. . . I finish a whole manuscript.
. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.
. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.
. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.
. . . I get an agent.
. . . I get five rejections from publishers.
. . . I get ten rejections from publishers. (Would you believe twenty rejections? How about thirty? One hundred? One thousand? One million?)
. . . I start writing my second/third/fourth/fifth/etc book despite the fact that the first/second/third/fourth etc book hasn’t sold yet.
. . . I get an offer from a publisher.
. . . the deal is announced in Publishers Lunch.
. . . I get my first real editorial letter.
. . . I have my first hissy fit about my first editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book.
. . . I get my second real editorial letter.
. . . I have my second hissy fit about my second editorial letter.
. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book. Again.
. . . (And repeat. Or not. Depending.)
. . . I get my first copyedit.
. . . I have my first hissy hit about my first copyedit. (Only robots speak without contractions! “Me and LJ” is how my character would say it NOT “LJ and I” because my character is not the FREAKING QUEEN OF FREAKING ENGLAND!)
. . . I get my first ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of my very own book with my name on the front and EVERYTHING. Oh my Elvis! It’s real, people. Book by me! *faints*
. . . I get my first page proofs and am overwhelmed by the urge to completely rewrite everything and make the book, you know, ACTUALLY GOOD!! (Also notice that I use the word “actually” way too much and that is BY NO MEANS the only word I use WAY TOO MUCH. Wonder if I have also overused CAPS and italics and exclamation marks!!! Consider getting publisher to cancel book. Actually.)
. . . I get my first good review.
. . . I get my first bad review.
. . . I get my first meh review.
. . . I am enraged by an eleven year old who enjoyed my book but wished it was as good as [redacted]‘s bestselling piece of [redacted] about [redacted].
. . . I get my first box full of my own finished actually TRULY REALLY book what I have written MYSELF!!!
. . . I open said book on a page with a typo of “actualy” and the CAPS and italics in the wrong places.
. . . I realise that it is the last book in the entire world I wish to read.
. . . I go to my local bookshop and there is my book in a real actual book shop.
. . . I get a query from my publisher wondering where my next book is.
. . . I miss a deadline.
. . . I miss two/three/four/five/etc deadlines.
. . . I get my first query from Hollywood which goes nowhere.
. . . I am sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I bitch and moan about being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I am not sent on tour.
. . . I bitch and moan about not being sent on tour to promote my book.
. . . I get my very first fan letter. Someone read and enjoyed my book enough to write to me! Best. Day. Ever.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so moving.
. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so illiterate.
. . . I get more fan letters than I could ever possibly answer.
. . . I become a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I am disappointed when my next book only reaches no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I am not a New York Times bestseller.
. . . I think about killing those entitled bastards who whinge about their books only getting to no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.
. . . I quit my dayjob.