It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1
Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2
There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.
But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.
Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.
Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.
Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.
Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.
Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.
It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?
What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.
Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.
Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.
Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.
But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.
Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4
Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.
Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.
But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.
This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.
All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.
None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.
- Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life.
- Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain.
- Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out.
- I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world.
- Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters.
- With a tiny bit of Spanish.
One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?
Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.
Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.
It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?
If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.
Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.
My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.
I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.
Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.
I think that’s a good thing.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.
But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.
Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.
They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.
This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.
Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!
- I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast.
- Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me.
On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:1
For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.
It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.
I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 12,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.
Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.
But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?
Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.
This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.
At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.
A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.
It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?
I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.
The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.
My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.
It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.
I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.
We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.
Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.
- Julia Gillard is no longer Australia’s female, atheist, living in sin Prime Minister. But I remain proud that she once was and that Australia has universal health care (no matter how imperfect), strict gun control and mandatory voting.
Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!1
You can watch the whole thing here. Yes, it’s two hours. But they’re an awesome two hours. You can also read Trudy’s take on the extraordinary conversation here.
Here’s why bell hooks is important to me:
When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.
That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.
bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.
Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.
If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.
And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.
- Though of course one question came from someone who would not be stopped in giving that speech.
The first time I attempted to write a romance novel I was fifteen years old. I sent away for the Mills & Boon guidelines and spent a few hours or days or weeks1 typing away trying to follow those guidelines and make lots of money. Back in those far distant days it was rumoured that Mills & Boon paid $10,000 per book. At the time I had never read a romance. But I loved to write and I wanted money. It seemed like it would be easy. I mean I had the instructions! What could go wrong?
Having never read a romance I had no idea how to follow the guidelines. They didn’t make any sense to me. Also, at the time, I had never written anything longer than a short story. I had no idea how to write a novel.2 I didn’t write more than a few pages before giving up because it was way too difficult.
Before I continue my tale of unsuccessful romance writing I should make it clear what I mean by the term. I consider a romance novel to be one in which the love story is the A plot. It is the front and centre of the book. If it’s published as a romance it also has to have a happy ending.3
Back to my story and moving forward a decade:
Now I was a voracious reader of romance. Thanks to Kelly Link I’d been introduced to such fabulous romance writers as Laura Kinsale. Surely now I’d be able to write one? Not so much.
My second effort went better than my first but it was not a romance. Somehow I could not let the love story be front and centre. I have tried many times since. My most successful efforts were How To Ditch Your Fairy and Team Human. But neither is a romance so much as they are novels with romances in them. The second one was more romance-y. Largely because I wrote it with Sarah Rees Brennan who is much better at writing all the romance emotions and make-out scenes than I am. The A plot of HTDYF is a girl getting rid of her annoying parking fairy; the A plot of Team Human is a girl trying to break up her best friend’s romance with a vampire. In both books the friendships carry more weight than the romances.
When my latest effort also started to transform into something non-romance-like I turned to Twitter for help. I follow many of my favourite romance writers there and I’d noticed that they are really amazing at responding to fans. So this fan decided to ask them for tips on how to write a romance.
I went in knowing that a big part of my problem was that I find it really hard exploring emotional vulnerability and focussing on love. That attempting to do so makes me feel exposed and, well, embarrassed. This was Marjorie M. Liu’s diagnosis when I discussed it with her. She should know; she’s an excellent writer of many genres, including romance.
However, after getting the fabulous advice of Tessa Dare, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas4 I realised that was not my only problem. There was stuff I hadn’t even thought about. For instance, I had been attempting to write a YA romance and it is, as Tessa Dare so patiently taught me, a very different beast to an adult romance.
I had thought the main difference was that in adult romance there are more explicit sex scenes. But Tessa5 immediately honed in on point of view. I.e. that often YA romances are in first person and also they’re almost always from the point of view of one person, not two, as is standard in adult romance.
Tessa argues that in a teen romance it’s about the protag getting to know and love themselves, getting the boy or girl is the icing on the cake. Whereas in adult romance getting the boy/girl is the cake.
Adults falling in love is very different from teens falling in love. Adults already know who they are what they want; teens are discovering all those things. (I think Sherry Thomas’s comment that the kind of romance she writes is about “the suppression of emotion not the expression of it” speaks to that.) It makes sense that YA romance is different to adult romance. I think that’s another reason why I have consistently failed at writing a romance. I’d been trying to apply the rules of adult romance to YA romance and it just doesn’t work.
There are some YA romances that have two points of view. Such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rachel writing Norah and David writing Nick. The book tells the story of one night where two teens meet and fall for each other bonding over music and the fact that neither of them drinks or does drugs. It’s heady and delightful but it does not have the traditional happily-ever-after ending. Yes, it end happily but there’s no sense that this is an eternal love. They only just met and they’re young. Who knows what will happen next? And there’s certainly no afterword detailing how many kids they’ll have.
None of the historical romances I’ve read—and I have read a lot—takes place over one day.6 Some of them take place over years. This is because it takes time to fall in love with someone and get together. It especially takes awhile when there are all sorts of obstacles in your way, which in romance there always are because conflict? Narrative needs it.
The teenage years only last from 13 to 19 and the vast majority of YAs don’t focus on 13- or 14-year-olds. They’re too young. Or 19-year-olds. They’re too old. It’s harder to do eternal love with such a constrained time frame. I have no evidence to back this up but the majority of YAs I’ve read have protags who are 16 or 17.7
I cannot believe it had never occurred to me that YA and adult romance were such different beasties. Thank you, Tessa Dare, for that lightbulb moment.
Note 1: It is true that there was a time when the heroine of your average romance was a teenager. But that has not been the case for many years now. While they still occur, they have become the oddity, not the standard.
Note 2: The writers who gave me advice mostly write historical romance which is by far my favourite kind of romance and is basically what I mean when I say “adult romance” throughout this post.
Below is Stephanie Leary’s Storify-cation of the exchange on Twitter. Hope you find it as useful as I did. That conversation has left me with a desire to try my hand at writing an adult romance, which is something I now realise I have never attempted.8 Wish me luck.9
- I honestly can’t remember how long it was now
- Or how to write a short story. But I was blissfully unaware of that back then.
- Romances published outside the category are allowed to have sad endings.
- And also Jo Bourne who I didn’t ask because I have not read her work. Looks Like I’ll have to now.
- I feel like we’re now on first name basis after several Twitter exchanges.
- Though if there is one point me to it cause that would be fascinating.
- I ranted on Twitter recently about how people are always claiming stuff about YA with nothing but anecdotal evidence and here am I doing the same thing. Sorry. If anyone knows of any actual research that has been done on this I’d love to hear it!
- Well, except for that attempt at 15 which I hardly think counts.
- But don’t hold your breath. I just started a new YA and have many other books on my to-write queue before I get to having a go at writing an adult historical romance.
Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.
Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:
For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.
Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.
At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which made me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.
Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.
But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.
At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)
On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.
The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.
At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.
What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.
Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.
The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.
I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.
If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:
Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:
The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.
The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!
To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.
To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.
You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.
Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.
Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.
Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!
Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.
- Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury
- Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were.
- Days I don’t write don’t count.
At the Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel about sport and writing alongside Hugh Lunn and Don Watson moderated by Lee McGowan. All three are sports obsessives and so it was great fun and excellently moderated and much territory was covered and if anyone wants me to talk about sport in front of any kind of audience at all I AM SO THERE.
By which I mean: PLEASE INVITE ME TO TALK ABOUT SPORT MORE.
There were a few themes that emerged during the discussion. Both Hugh and Don1 were mournful for how sport in this country used to be, for past athletes who were humbler and more dedicated than the athletes of today. They seemed to also have a fair amount of sadness that Australia is no longer the great sporting nation it once was.
I do not share their concerns so that made for some fun exchanges.
I pointed out that during the decades of Hugh’s and Don’s coming of age as sport enthusiasts, the 1950s and 1960s, the athletes in this country were largely still amateurs. Most had day jobs and were paid a pittance—if they were lucky—to represent their club or their country. We were still in the midst of a shift from amateurism to professionalism.
Even now for many sports that shift has barely begun, particularly for women’s sports. That’s why Ellyse Perry is one of the few dual internationals left—representing Australia in both cricket and soccer. Back in the day it was de rigeur for the best Aussie athletes to play cricket in summer and their preferred code of football in the winter. These days the men cannot play both even if they want to: being an elite cricketer or a footballer is a full-time gig. That’s why Ellyse Perry is helping stack the chairs after one of her club games and fully professional blokes like Shane Watson are, well, not.
Everything that follows is stuff I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to.
Probably the main reason Australia doesn’t seem to be as successful a sporting nation as it once was is that back then we didn’t actually have that much competition. If you look at the lists of say, tennis, champions in the 50s and 60s there are very few that aren’t Australian or from the UK or or the USA.
Let’s think about why, shall we?
Firstly, tennis used to be predominately a British game. Every single tennis champion until 1915 were British or from the USA or Australia. And they remain the vast majority until the 1980s. My evidence: these lists of grand slam champions. Tennis is now an international game, played all over the world. China now has a grand slam champion. I predict that there will many more.
Then there was this little thing called World War II, which set back most of Europe’s sporting programmes for many years. Australia was relatively unaffected. (As was the USA.) Australians could keep on training and playing and winning with far less competition than they would have had if there hadn’t been a world war.
Basically, while there is still nowhere near a level playing field,2 there are many more nations competing against us at all levels and in more sports than there once were. And as more countries around the world spend more money on their athletes our sporting achievements will continue to seem not nearly as good as they did up until the 1960s when it must have felt like we won almost everything.3
It’s also important to remember that until relatively recently most people were unable to train and compete, even in those wealthy countries like Australia and the USA, because of reasons of ethnic, racial and sexual discrimination. There’s a reason there have been so few African-American tennis champions. It was a sport for the wealthy. Now it’s a middle class sport played all over the world, which means the pool of talent has deepened and widened. The odds of a relatively small country like Australia regaining it’s former tennis glory are small indeed.
I would argue that the athletes who are at the top of their sport today are truly amazing. Samantha Stosur may have only won a single grand slam but the competition she is up against is much, much tougher than it was for, say, Margaret Court. And Stosur has managed to stay at a very elite level for quite a few years now, which is remarkable. This makes players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer some word which is like a hundred times stronger than “remarkable”.
Further to Samantha Stosur. I am so sick of her being bagged by the Australian press.4 She was the no. 1 in doubles for more than a year. She’s been as high as no. 4 in singles. She won the US Open against Serena Williams. SERENA WILLIAMS. She has 5 grand slam titles. And 28 career titles. But you’d never know it listening to the Australian press who can only talk about what a choker she is. Because apparently only singles grand slam titles count. Or something.
So here’s what I hate about contemporary sporting culture: that it’s all about winning. Sadly though I think that’s what sport’s pretty much always been focussed on. Fans turning on their idols because they lose a match is not a recent development.
I love watching Stosur play because you can see her fighting herself. Frankly, she reminds me of myself while writing. Some days it all goes so well; other days OMG stupid words! Why do you defy me?! Some days I fall to pieces. And I’m a writer. There is no opponent, there is no global audience watching my every move. If I were a tennis player I would be a much, much bigger head case than Stosur. Honestly I have no idea how they do their job day in day out with so many people watching and commentating on every move.
One of the reasons I love tennis is that it’s such a psychological sport. The more unemotional players who hold it together have never interested me nearly so much as the ones for whom the battle against themselves is almost as mighty as the battle against their opponent. It’s one of the reason I love Serena Williams’s play so much. She’s such a confidence player. I mean on top of just being amazing. Watching herself dig herself out of a hole—like she did at this year’s US Open—it is a thing of beauty and also of agony.
For another example of this insanity check out this tweet about the fact that Roger Federer one of the greatest players the game has ever seen is no longer winning every little thing:
“Do you think the great Swiss player is finished?”
I know what my response would be were I Federer. It would not be polite.
That’s another thing that drives me nuts. Why shouldn’t athletes keep playing their sport as long as they’re good enough to do so? It’s not like Federer needs a wild card to get into events. He’s still a highly ranked player. He’s just not number one any more. It’s total bullshit that he’s tarnishing his legacy. No, he’s not. No matter what he does now he will have still won a gazillion grand slams and been world number one for basically forever.
Athletes already have a shorter career that almost any other profession without us spectators and commentators howling from the stands that they’re finished because they’ve got from world’s best ever to still pretty bloody good.
Well, felt good getting that sporting rant off my chest. As you all were.
- I feel that we are on first name basis now that we have been in the panel trenches together.
- Australia remains one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
- Except soccer.
- I can’t even imagine how she feels about it.
It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.
The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.
As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?
Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.
Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.
The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.
There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.
Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.
So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.
One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.
Let books roam free!
Next week I will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I have one event left which is not yet sold out:
Wednesday, 28 Aug 2013, 11.15 am
Me and Kelly Gardiner
Details here. Price: $7.
Melbourne Writers Festival
We have had excellent email exchanges with our moderator Jordi Kerr, which makes me believe it is going to be a most splendid panel. We will certainly argue with the very idea of a strong woman. Because that’s what strong women do.
Then the following week I will be at the Brisbane Writers Festival where there are still available tickets and a few of my events are free. I’m really excited about BWF. They have a brand new director, Kate Eltham, who comes out of science fiction and thus knows how to do panels right. This is the most diverse and interesting set of panels I’ve ever had at a writers festival. I cannot wait.
A SPORTING NATION
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE: Friday 6th
TIME: Fri 3:30–4:30PM
From the long slow burn of a test match to the glories of a ‘specky’, Watson, Larbalestier and Lunn discuss their sporting passions and why sport inspires the best, and sometimes the worst, writing and language.
I’m so excited about this panel. The only other time I’ve been on a panel about sport was because I suggested it myself. This time it was their idea and they put me on the panel with two of the most famous sports obsessives in Australia and our email exchanges with moderator Lee McGowan have been most excellent. It is going to be fabulous.
THE GENRE GHETTO
VENUE: The Edge, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 6:30–8PM
Funny, personal and heartfelt stories about being genre nerds and being proud. Live storytelling from Fraction, Wendell, Larbalestier, McKenzie and MacBride.
I’m very curious about this one. I certainly have more than my fair share of stories about being dissed in often very amusing ways for being a writer of young adult literature. I was never much of a nerd as a kid, however. Indeed back then we would have said “dag” and it didn’t mean the same thing and I wasn’t one.1
VENUE: Maiwar Green, State Library of Queensland
DATE Friday 6th
TIME Fri 8–11PM
No ticket required. That’s right THIS ONE IS FREE
‘Juvenilia’ (stories we wrote as teenagers) set featuring Kevin Kwan, Clementine Ford, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Kimberley Freeman (Kim Wilkins), Stuart MacBride and Benjamin Law reading work they scribbled in their youth. A special ‘Juvenilia’ mixed tape set by Simon Reynolds will wrap up the night.
Okay, so I have no idea how this one is going to work. But I’m imagining a cool jazz band from the 1960s in skinny pants and black turtle necks clicking their fingers cooly in the background as we read you the excruciatingly bad shit we wrote as teens. The audience will be torn in two between their intense desire to laugh and their equally intense desire to be all cool in the face of the awesome jazz. May the laughter win.
THE RISE AND RISE OF YA
VENUE: Queensland Terrace, State Library of Queensland
DATE Saturday 7th
TIME Sat 10–11AM
Young Adult (YA) fiction is the fastest growing category of publishing and 55% of YA is purchased by adult readers. YA stars Justine Larbalestier, Steph Bowe and Melissa Keil explain why we love it, read it and write it.
There’s so much to say about this. I have so many opinions! Can’t wait to hear what the others have to say too. Despite living here I am still much less clear on YA in Australia than I am on the genre in the USA.
See you in Melbourne and/or Brisbane!
- I will delete any comments offering evidence to the contrary.
Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop.1 Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.
If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world,2 and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.
Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.
Here’s the event page on FaceBook for those of you who, unlike me, are on FaceBook. And here are the details for the non-FB types like myself:
WHEN: Thursday, 22nd August at 6:30pm
WHERE: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney
DRESS: Prizes for best costume
Tickets are on sale now and are strictly limited. Purchases can be made at Kinokuniya (at the cashier counter) or over the phone: 02 9262-7996.
Be there or be extremely sad you missed a wonderful event.
- My favourite Sydney bookshop—aside from all the other fabulous ones—if you live here and have never checked them out time to do so!
- Other than all the other really good ones.
As part of teaching at the Alpha Teen Workshop, I’ll be appearing in Greensburg, PA. Scott will also be there on account of we’re teaching the workshop together. Along with the fabulous Theodora Goss and Tamora Pierce. Stellar company, eh?
Here are the details:
Sunday, 14 July1
Barnes & Noble Greensburg
5155 Route 30
Greensburg, Pa. 15601
Click here for the store locator.
Hope to see some of you there. It’s ages since either one of us did an event in the USA. We are very excited.
I have never been to Pittsburgh before. Is there anything in particular I should make sure to see? Tell me of Pittsburgh, oh Pittsburghians.
- Given the date I imagine the entire event will be in French. I’m pretty sure I can still count to ten in French and ask where the window is. Which is all you need, right? Oh, apparently it is not. My French-speaking sister has just informed me that I am forbidden to mangle that fine language. English, it is then.
N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.
One of the points she makes is this:
women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.
I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”
How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.
As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):
To [Asimov's] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.
I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.
The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.
N K Jemisin also observes:
[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.
I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?
The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.
I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.
Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.
Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:
It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.
Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.
NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.
- The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy.
- There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929.
So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?
But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!
In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.
Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1
NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.
Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:
Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.
And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2
At the other end of the spectrum:
Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3
Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!
Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4
Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow
Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.
This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.
Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.
To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:
I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.
You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you
Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.
For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5
Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!
Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.
I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.
If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you
I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.
Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!
Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.
It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.
If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you
I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.
Tweet what you care about
Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.
It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.
I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.
It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?
Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6
IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS
This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.
They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:
#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?
#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.
Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.
Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.
Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.
I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack
Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.
- Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure.
- What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much.
- And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts.
- I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies.
- Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary!
- Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean.
Look what’s happening this Sunday, 26 May at 10AM1
Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This event is free and no bookings required.
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
Moderated by fancy NYC literary agent Barry Goldblatt (also known as Mr Libba Bray).
I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. Even though I always lose to Libba. She’s a total card shark. I bet me and Barry can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that. We’ll also tell the very weird story of mine and Libba’s second meeting. And talk about that wild, wild weekend in Austin.
SO MANY THINGS FOR US TO TALK ABOUT.
I hope you can join us. Be sure to ask Libba embarrassing questions. She loves that.
- 10 am? Excuse me? How can I be expected to be witty at TEN ON A SUNDAY MORNING? I should still be asleep! Or possibly contemplating a decadent brunch. It’s inhuman having a panel this early.
After Scott put up this post about his appearances for the rest of this year, I realised I should do likewise because most of those places he is, I will be also. An eerie coincidence, I know.
Most of the events are in Australia. Sorry, rest of the world, who may have some interest in saying hello. We’ll always have Twitter.
I’ll be interviewing the brilliant and wonderful Nalo Hopkinson on Saturday, 27 April (i.e. two days away) at 2:30PM, Forrest Room 1 & 2 at the Rydges Capital Hill. (Do come say hi. Unless I’m, like, on stage or in the ladies room or something.) Conference site.
INTERNET DEAD ZONE
I am turning off the internet for this whole week. No twitter, no nothing. It’s going to be AWESOME. The mental hygiene, I needs it. Oh, okay, I’m just turning it off for me, yours will still chug along. (Probably.)
Sunday, 26 May
Sydney Writers Festival
Pier 2/3 Club Stage
FUN AND GAMES WITH LIBBA BRAY AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
I imagine this will involve juggling and poker. I bet we can get Libba to pop out her fake eye. I love it when she does that.
Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW
This is free and no bookings required.
Alpha Teen Workshop
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
I’ll be teaching at this week-long writing seminar for teenagers. Admissions for the workshop are closed, but there will be a bookstore appearance in Pittsburgh. I’ll post details when I know them.
href=”http://alpha.spellcaster.org”>the Alpha site.
Brisbane Writers Festival
There will be more wisdoms here in sunny Brisvegas. Again as soon as I know what I’ll be doing I will share with you. Festival site
There may be other events in which case I will let you know here on the blog. You can also check my appearances page which I am most scrupulous about keeping up to date.
I really hope I’ll get to see/meet some of you this year.
This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)
When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*
These are the offending words:
eyebrow (raise, lift)
mouth (open, close)
None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.
For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.
“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:
Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:
Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.
I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.
My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”
You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.
The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap of the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.
(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)
It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.
I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!
And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:
I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.
I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.
Here is my traditional anniversary post writing and publishing stats:
- Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
Books published: 9
Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
Books about to be finished: 1
Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)
For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.
I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2
Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.
I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.
Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?
But so much has changed since then.
My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be
For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.
I do now.
Wow, have I come a long way. I have had books remaindered. That’s right someone could gleefully recite Clive James’ brilliant poem, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”, about me.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)
Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.
It has now.
Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.
I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.
I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.
In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6
Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7
Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.
It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.
Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*
The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those two tomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8
The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.
YA Publishing Has Changed
Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9
Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.
There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.
They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.
I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.
So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.
YA Has Changed
I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.
That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12
(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)
For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.
New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.
I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.
Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.
I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):
- commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
- gorgeously written books they think will win prizes
Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.
Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear are unlikely to do either.
This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.
Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops
There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.
But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.
I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.
I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?
I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.
It Was Ever Thus
I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?
I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.
I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.
There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.
In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13
Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.
Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.
But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?
All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.
Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.
At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.
And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?
Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.
All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.
None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matter is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.
My writing is more important.
I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.
I was wrong.
Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.
Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.
I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19
If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.
To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.
Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.
One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.
The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.
Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.
My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.
Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!
- Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s.
- I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh.
- Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years.
- I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte.
- Those job titles work differently in Australia.
- And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing.
- Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending*
- Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three.
- Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction.
- Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005.
- I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out.
- There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop.
- Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA.
- In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days.
- That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever.
- She said euphemistically.
- Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano.
- Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical.
- Okay, they might blink.
- That’s for all my grammar nazi friends who freak out at the thought that the mighty “whom” will not be with us for that much longer.
- Though I’d like to point out to said grammar nazi friends that the contortions needed to use “whom” made for a way ugly sentence. I’m just saying . . .
I’ve never been before. Indeed, I’ve never done any events in Adelaide unless you count going to a friend’s wedding.2
Here are my events:
The readership for YA fiction continues to grow and grow. Yet for young women today questions of identity, sexuality and friendship remain as problematic as ever. This session asks – how do women write for girls? Join Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar, and Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown for a spirited conversation about women and words.
Isobelle is one of Australia’s most popular YA fantasy writers. Her fans span generations and all clutch her books to their chests like they are precious babies. She’s wonderful and funny and genuinely does not think like anyone else I have ever met. I did a panel with her at last year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival and it truly was awesome. Mostly because of Isobelle. So if you’re in Adelaide you want to see this.
I’m looking forward to meeting Vikki Wakefield. I’ve heard good things about her debut novel All I Ever Wanted. Yes, it’s true, not all Australian YA authors know each other. But we’ll fix that after a few more festival appearances.
My other event is:
As the debate about what it means to be a feminist is ongoing, this session brings together three writers, all of whom identify as feminists. Justine Larbalestier is a YA and fantasy writer, playwright Bryony Lavery is the author of iconic works including Thursday, and Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel On Black Sister’s Street, about a group of African women in the sex trade.
This panel marks the first time I’ve ever been on a panel with writers for grown ups (i.e. whose audience is presumed to be primarily adults, as opposed to mine which is presumed to be mostly teens) at a literary festival. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a festival in the world that is actively breaking down boundaries between genres and writers and readers. Honestly, I was so surprised when I saw this I thought they’d made a mistake. Then I looked at the whole programme. And, lo, it’s full of such inter-genre cross over panels. Way to go, AWW, way to go!
I like that they list all the panellists’ nationalities. I was excited when I saw there was a USian on both my panels. But a little bewildered when I looked the other panellists up and discovered none of them were from the USA. I’d been looking forward to asking where they were from, and if they knew NYC or any of the other cities I know, we could compare notes. Which is when I realised that I am the USian on those panels.
In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.
TL;DR:3 I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!
- Yes, that’s a real word. Shut up!
- Which, no, I don’t. It was a lot of fun, but. I love weddings! So much love! So many wonderful speeches about love! So many opportunities for it to all go horribly wrong! Especially at doomed weddings between those Who Should Not Marry. Someday I’m going to write a Doomed Wedding book. Though to be clear: the Adelaide wedding was not doomed. Um, I think I’m digressing.
- For the old people that stands for: Too long, Didn’t Read. You’re welcome.
One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:
[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3
Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?
Yes, it totally could.
But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.
Yes, you can!
Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.
Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:
The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.
The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.
The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.
Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.
I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6
The boring truth is that writers, on the whole, are a pretty happy bunch. Why, look here, writing even made it on to this list of the ten happiest jobs. Contrary to most people’s expectations we don’t feature on the lists of the most suicidal professions or the most alcoholic.
The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.
Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.
You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.
Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.
You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.
So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.
But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8
Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.
At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.
Bad things happen to all of us.
I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.
My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.
I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.
Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?
But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.
Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.
That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.
That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.
Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!
To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.
- Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best.
- They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical.
- Not an actual quote. You’re shocked, right?
- Hell, I write and I don’t even like coffee.
- Yay for rewrites!
- Lightweight. I know. Don’t care.
- Wish I could find that reference.
- Though sadly it can be a result of trying to make a living as a writer. Writing is also not on the list of the most lucrative professions.
- Obviously, I do not mean that I was non-stop Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Who is? Just that there was more happiness than not.
A few days ago I tweeted this:
It was in response to yet another casual dismissal of YA in the middle of a discussion about something else entirely. So often does this happen, particularly in regard to romance, that I scarcely even register it anymore.
I’m happy for people to hate whatever they want to hate. Go, for it. I mean, yes, I think it’s kind of silly to dismiss an entire genre. All genres have good and bad and mediocre examples. Yes, including, Ye Mighty Literachure. I could give you a long list of literary writers I think are awful and/or overrated. Living and dead.
I can give you the same list for every genre with which I am familiar. Yes, including YA and romance.
What bugs me is when the people doing the dismissing have no idea what they’re talking about. Such as this ancient op ed by Maureen Down where she dismisses chicklit on the basis of a handful of books and the only one she actually quotes from, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, isn’t even chicklit.
What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:
I only read good books. Because I am endowed (pun absolutely intended) with a superior mind, which those poor pea-brained readers and writers of chicklit/romance/YA/fantasy etc will never understand. I pity them. And must do so as publicly and often as I can. Or how will everyone know of my vast superiority?
And, yes, the go-to genres for dismissal to prove superiority are almost always ones tainted by girl germs.
Though science fiction also has a long history of being in this category. I would argue, however, it has started the journey towards respectability. That path upon which crime fiction is much further along. Yes, there are still people ignorantly dismissing both these genres but not as much as they used to.
Lots of people don’t read particular genres because they don’t like them. Well and good. I don’t like cosy mysteries at all. I’ve bounced off several highly recommended, gorgeously written ones. They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like their neatly wrapped endings. I don’t like, well, their coziness. I like my crime fiction gritty and disturbing.
I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler. If it’s published as a romance the two protags will get together by the end of the book. Whereas if they read a book that has a romance in it but within the context of another genre there’s the possibility that it will end miserably. Narrative tension!1
I know heaps of people who really only like realism and non-fiction. They don’t have the reading protocols for fantasy or science fiction. They can’t get past the whole zombies, dragons etc are real thing. I feel sad for them, but I get it. They don’t judge me for loving fantasy. They’re just kind of bewildered.
I have said more than once that I hate science fiction. Most recently on Twitter:
Yes, writing my PhD on science fiction and particularly focussing on excruciatingly bad examples of the genre turned me off the whole genre. Even though when I started Ursula LeGuin was one of my favourite writers. She still is. But the book of hers I wrote about for my PhD, Left Hand of Darkness, I haven’t read it since and it is one of the best books the genre has ever produced. One I used to reread regularly. I still highly recommend it. She’s a genius.
So even though Scott writes science fiction, as do many of my closest friends, and even though I myself have written a science fiction-ish novel. Yes, even though I love many sf books and films and tv shows, I react with dread and trembling to those two words together: Science + Fiction. GET IT AWAY FROM ME. The flashbacks! They burn!
No, it’s not rational at all. But at least I know what I’m talking about. Science fiction, oh I has read it. More to the point I do not think less of those who love sf best of all.
I wish people like Maureen Dowd would look at their motivations for dismissing a whole genre. That they would actually think before they open their mouths, ask themselves some pertinent questions:
Am I dismissing this genre of which I have read few examples, and those culled randomly from a bookshelf, without getting recommendations from people who know and love that genre, because I want to feel superior?
If the answer is yes then perhaps that says more about me than it does about the genre in question. Perhaps I am cooking the results before beginning the research? Perhaps I should shut my mouth on this subject in future?
I don’t care if they cling to their ignorance and prejudice. All I ask is that they stop blathering their nonsense in places where I can hear them or read them.
- I would argue that good romance has loads of narrative tension but it’s generated by the “how” not by the “if”.