I used to hate spoilers. I didn’t care what it was—a book, an ad, a shopping list—I didn’t want to know what happened until it happened. I wouldn’t read the back of books or movie posters or reviews. I wanted to know as little as possible before going in. I thrived on surprise.
Now this would sometimes backfire. If I’d known a bit about Taken (2008) I would never have watched it on the plane. I just saw that Liam Neeson was in it. I used to like Liam Neeson. He was dead good in Rob Roy.1 But Taken? Worst. Most Appallingly Immoral. Movie. Of. All. Time. If I could unwatch it I would.2
Taken and a few too many hideous final seasons of TV shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars3 have made me more inclined to be spoiled so I know which shows to stop watching. I still wish I’d known not to watch the final season of The Wire. Such a let down after four brilliant seasons. Especially that fourth season. Wow!
I also don’t enjoy books that deal with people dying of diseases. Especially cancer. I’ve lost too many people I love to that disease and I just can’t deal. The few times I’ve accidentally read such a book I have been deeply unhappy about it. And, no, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. Me no want to read about it.
Gradually, I have become considerably less hardcore about spoiler avoidance than I used to be. Partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because in this world of Twitter, and friends who can’t keep their bloody mouths shut,4 it’s getting harder and harder to avoid them.
My spoiler stance has also shifted because the last few times I was spoiled—on both occasions it was a TV show—it made my viewing experience more pleasurable, not less.5 Which was quite a surprise let me tell you.
Rest assured I will stick to my policy of not spoiling here. I was once 100% in the no-spoilers camp. I understand!
Besides there are plenty of books/TV shows/movies that if you know what’s going to happen next you might not bother. Because what-happens-next is the main thing they have going for them. Don’t get me wrong those books/TV shows/movies can still be fun but they don’t make me want to read/watch them more than once.6
I’ve been enjoying HBO’s Game of Thrones largely because I’ve read the books. I like seeing how it translates to screen. Knowing that the red wedding was imminent made watching it more tense not less and I got the added pleasure of seeing other people’s reactions. On the couch next to me and on Twitter.
I think another shift in my opinion of spoilerfication was writing Liar: a book written specifically to have more than one way of reading it. I made a big song and dance of getting folks not to spoil it because I felt that knowing ahead of time what the big secret was would shift how a person read the book. Particularly as there’s no guarantee that the big secret in the book is true. So if you went in knowing what that big secret was you read the book with that in mind and likely with the expectation that the big secret was true. I wanted readers of Liar to be open to figuring out how they felt about the big secret as they read, not to go in with their minds already made up.
It was a pain. I was chastised several times by people who said my call for readers not to spoil was me being a hypersensitive author trying to control my readers. That once my book was published it was no business of mine whether people spoiled it or not. And they’re right. But I was requesting, not ordering. It’s not like I have the power to stop anyone from spoiling if they want to. There are no spoiler police I can call.
Don’t get me wrong if I was to publish a book like Liar in the future I’d still want people not to spoil it. To this day I am made uncomfortable when people describe Liar as a [redacted] book because for many readers Liar is not a [redacted] book. Those readers think the big secret is a big ole lie. And there’s loads of textual evidence to support them. I deliberately wrote it that way.
But the whole thing was needlessly stressful and made me want to write books where spoiling makes no difference. Like romances. Knowing ahead of time that the hero and heroine get together? Well, der, it’s a romance! It’s not about that, it’s about the how, and you can’t really spoil the how. Because the how is about the texture of the writing not about particular events.
I’ve also come across readers who were told that Liar was a [redacted] book who read it and decided that it was definitely not a [redacted] book and that being spoiled really didn’t affect how they read it.
I was unspoiled reading E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and I’m glad because I had no idea where it was going. It was a very pleasurable and [redacted] surprise. I’m looking forward to rereading to see what kind of book it is when I know what happens. Double the pleasure!
And, Emily, you have all my sympathy for trying to get people not to spoil it. They will. Which is a shame cause it’s a hell of a surprise. But the book’s so excellent I think in the long run it won’t matter. Besides I know for a fact that there are plenty of readers who are going to enjoy it more knowing the big secret before they start reading.
TL;DR: I’m chiller about spoilers than I was but I won’t spoil you.
- What? I like movies with kilts.
- I find it very hard to stop watching a movie once I start watching it. It’s a curse. But Taken may well have broken me of the habit.
- Both of which are (mostly) otherwise genius.
- Youse know who youse are! *shakes fist*
- It also let me know when to close me eyes during a certain gruesome scene.
- Which is frankly a relief. There’s already too many books etc I wish to read/watch multiple times. I don’t have enough time!
I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.
I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2
But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.
I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.
Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.
I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.
And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.
(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)
Don’t do what I did.
If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.
Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.
TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.
- I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties.
- Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I?
- Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one.
- “Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia.
As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes.1 It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.2
The good people at Allen & Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:
Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.
- The alliteration is in homage to Truth Sydney’s fabulously over the top tabloid of the period.
- Which may I point out is less than a year away!
Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.
Your suggestions clarified two things for us:
1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.
2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.
We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.
Update: We’ve both decided we won’t be looking at historicals.
Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).
- Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce.
Dear Person Yelling Questions at Me from their Car while I am on My Bike Waiting for the Lights to Change,
My face is redder than red because I’ve just left a very intense hour of boxing training where my beloved trainer took me at my word that I wished to work very hard.1 The jacket I’m wearing is not, in fact, making me hot. It is a fine example of modern engineering with multiple vents letting in all the cool air while still keeping Australia’s vicious sun off my delicate, pasty skin. Also, and this may shock you, Yelly Driver Person, when one cycles at speed it can get quite cold what with the cool breeze. Furthermore, the jacket’s bright yellow colour allows cars to see me and thus they can avoid inadvertently clipping me, though sadly, it seems to have attracted your yelling attentions. Sadly, every plus has a minus.2
But why, Yelly Person in Your Car, are you screaming these questions at me? Why must you know if “I’m overheating in my giant coat”? Why would I assume, perched as I am on my bike, waiting for the lights to change that these inane questions are being shouted at me by a total stranger? And once I realise they are, in fact, being shouted at me why on Earth would you presume I would answer you? What business is it of yours what my body temperature is or what I choose to wear when cycling or anything at all really?
Don’t get me wrong, out on my bike, I do communicate with drivers in their cars. We nod at each other. Sometimes we smile. When a driver kindly lets me cross when they don’t have to I say, “thank you” or “ta” and they say “no worries.” Why just the other day a truck driver next to me as we waited for the lights to change asked me to do them the favour of adjusting the side mirror. I did so. Thumbs up were exchanged and the nice truck driver allowed me to go first when the lights changed. It was a beautiful thing. Cyclist and driver helping one another and not a single, shouted inane question. You see, Yelly Driver Person, it can be done.
But not today. You are all incivility and I, once I realise your inanities are addressed to me, am all ignoring you. Had I realised earlier I would have had the pleasure of delivering this speech in person and then seen you watch slack jawed as the wings unfurled from my yellow cycling jacket, yes, the one that so offended you, and I took off into the evening skies keeping pace with the flying foxes and directed them to relieve themselves on your car.
Instead please to enjoy this letter.
Cycling Girl of Extremely Well Regulated Temperature.
- Will I ever learn?
- Except for the pluses that have no minuses. I’ll get back to you with a list.
One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.
Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.
I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.
Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.
I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:
This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.
Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.
Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.
At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:
And it was good. Really good.
TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.
- After their relieved that the goanna has gone away.
- Did I mention the bellbirds? I love them
Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag
#VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.
If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:
Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.
The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.
I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.
I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).
JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!
You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.
I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.
God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.
I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.
KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.
I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.
Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”
JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.
I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone.
KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.
There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.
JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.
It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.
All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.
Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.
Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.
It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?
I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.
Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.
The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.
KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:
1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).
I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.
Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.
JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!
1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.
Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.
I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.
Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.
The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.
I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)
KE: I have a few other comments.
We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.
There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.
Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:
“I love you, Jen—really.”
Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”
Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.
What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.
JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.
That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.
It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.
Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.
I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:
“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”
This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”
She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.
“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.
“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”
Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.
So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?
Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.
Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.
We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.
But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.
At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.
I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1
If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.
TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.
- Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files.
There are an awful lot of articles right now that spend a lot of time bagging the Millennials, who are supposedly the generation after Generation X, who are supposedly the generation after the Baby Boomers. Even in articles about something completely unrelated to generations the Millennials get bagged. Take this evisceration of a poorly researched article about Mexican food which ends:
Of course, America doesn’t give a shit about actual facts: at last count, this pendejada had been shared over 40,000 times on Facebook and garnered nearly 600,000 page views. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Millennial, is why your generation is fucked.
Seriously? Poor research and shoddy journalism didn’t exist until the Millennials came along? Tell that to Mr Randolph Hearst and his tabloids of yesteryear that routinely made stuff up. I roll my eyes at you, sir.1
You may detect a hint of skepticism about generations. You’d be right. I do not believe in them. There is no way everyone born within a decade or so of each other have the same tastes and aspirations and experiences and shitty research skills.
For starters these generational labels don’t even apply to the vast majority of people born within their timespan. The way they are used in Australia and the USA, which is all I know about, they usually only include relatively affluent, able-bodied, white people. Because factoring in class and race and anything else is too complicated, isn’t it? Even amongst the anointed ones there are vast differences in politics and world view and how well off they are. It’s still absurd to think that all the affluent, able-bodied white people born within the same decade are all the same.
So what is the point of generational labels?
They’re mainly used: 1) to help advertisers figure out how to sell things to people, 2) to let previous generations bag on current generations.
When the Generation X tag first started being used many of us so-called Generation Xers would talk about how stupid it was. Actually, we do work really hard. We are, too, politically engaged. We are, too, feminists.2 Those of us still living with our parents did so because the rents were way higher than for previous generations and we couldn’t afford to move out. We are not a lazy generation. Nor are the Baby Boomers, nor are the Millennials.
But now I’m seeing plenty of the so-called Generation Xers bagging so-called Millennials in the exact same ways we were bagged. I’m also hearing them say, “Oh, it’s not like when we were bagged. These Millennials really are lazy and indulged and all about themselves. They really are the Me Generation.” Yes, there was even a Time magazine cover story about the Millennials being the Me Generation.
Sigh. Do you know who was first called the Me Generation? The Baby Boomers. Then it was applied to, you guessed it, Generation X. And so on and so on.
That Time article begins like this:
I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.
And I roll my eyes at you, too, sir. They always have proof. Every single time.
Am I saying there have been no changes in people in Australia the USA over the period in which we’ve been talking about these generations? Of course not.
A century ago in Australia and the USA the vast majority of people were living in extended family households. Far fewer people, back then, were left alone to raise their children. They were helped by grandparents, siblings, aunts etc. etc. Far fewer people lived alone. Far fewer people were ever alone. We were vastly more socially connected back then than we are now. This basic shift in how most of us live has caused a great many changes. Some good, some not so good.
We still don’t understand the extent of those changes. But some researchers believe that the rise in depression and other mental illnesses, including, yes, narcissistic personality disorder, is closely connected to these changes in our basic family unit.3
Those changes to the family unit did not happen over night and those changes didn’t all of a sudden manifest themselves in one single generation. The very idea is absurd. And yet generation after so-called generation we keep repeating that absurd notion.
I keep seeing people say that teenagers are addicted to social media. Yet when I go out you know who it’s hardest to get to put their damn phone away? The adults right up into their forties. When I see teenagers out together their phones are mostly in their pockets. Anecdotal evidence I know.
But if you don’t believe my observations about an extremely small sample size—and why should you—then read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated she’s got proof! Her basic thesis is that teens are not addicted to social media, they’re addicted to each other, to socialising and often, because of the tight controls of their parents, social media is the only way they can socialise.
You know what my generation was/is mostly addicted to? Socialising with our peers. As was the previous Baby Boomer generation.4 We humans we are very social creatures.
TL;DR: There is no such thing as a coherent generation who are all the same. Historical change happens much more slowly than that. Stop leaving out class and race and other important ways in which identity is determined. Also: GET OFF MY LAWN!5
- Though am very grateful to you for this particular corrective piece of journalism. One of the things I love best about the internet is that while, yes, false information spreads quickly; the corrections spread quickly too. And it’s much easier to find correct information than it was in the days before the internet.
- Except for those of us who don’t and aren’t.
- There are, of course, many other theories to do with our increasing dependence on technology etc. But I’m most persuaded by the research on these changes in how we live.
- Before then you’re getting into a time when teenagers haven’t quite been invented yet.
- The lawn I don’t have because I live in a flat.
My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.
I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.
Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*
Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.
Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:
Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.
What is Razorhurst about?
Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:
The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.
Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.
Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.
When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .
Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count.1 It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.
Why is it called Razorhurst?
Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:
Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .
Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .
Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!
As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.
Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Magistrates.2 Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.
What inspired you to write Razorhurst?
I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history.3 Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.
I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.
TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.
- Mind you, that was not hard to achieve given that no one dies in my trilogy or in How To Ditch Your Fairy or Team Human and the death in Liar takes place before the book starts. (Or does it? And was there really only one death in Liar? I could be lying but only because I’m contractually obligated to do so.) So, really, a body count of one means that Razorhurst is bloodier than my other novels.
- Truth, Sunday, January 3, 1932.
- It’s very much not like that anymore. Check out this little characterisation of Surry Hills these days. As a resident I would like to point out it’s not entirely like that either.
I often think about how to make the world a better place. What would I do if I were world dictator? Other than ban coffee,1 I mean, and banish all the smokers to Bulgaria. Obviously, there are many, many, many things about this beautiful, broken world that need fixing. Clean water and food for everyone! Shelter and clothing! And like that.
My utopia would also highly prize education. Particularly Early Childhood Education.2 There would be well-trained, well-paid, early childhood teachers. And when I say well-paid early childhood teaching would be the highest paid job attracting the bestest and brightest.3 Some would be skilled at working with kids from a very early age, even newborns. They’d be available to all parents.
That’s right, no parents would be left alone to raise their kids without any support. So if you have kids and you live far from your family and closest friends, or if your family are the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children, there would always be someone to help you. Multiple someones. I’m convinced that each child needs a minimum of three adult carers (though five is better). Yes, I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. And two adults—especially when one of them is in full-time employment so the family can eat and keep a roof over their head—is insufficient.
Here in Australia there are almost 20,000 children in foster care. There aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them. And every year that equation gets worse as there are more kids taken into care and fewer carers.
In my state, New South Wales, the government has responded to the crisis by throwing money at the foster care end of things which, obviously, does need more money. However, it’s even more crucial that families are helped before things get so bad their kids are taken away.4
If all new parents, no matter how poor or how rich, were given support and training and access to people and places to help them with their kids I reckon their chances of government intervention would go way down.
I’d also like us to completely revamp our education system from top to bottom so that it worked more like this experimental class in Mexico. The headline of that article puts the emphasis on finding geniuses but what I thought was coolest was that every student improved and learned and that they all seemed to really enjoy going to school. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if school was like that for everyone?
In case you think there’s no way any country could turn its education system around to that extent have a little squiz at what’s been going on in Finland for the last decade or so. Pretty impressive, eh?
Tragically, I am not dictator of the world, I am a novelist, which means I am dictator of those worlds I create. I think I’ll be writing a novel where everything is built around that kind of education from cradle to grave and see how it could go horribly wrong . . . (The problem with a fully functioning utopia is that they’re not great for generating plot. Unhappy people make more plot than happy people.)
What’s your utopia?
- Just kidding. I would never do that. Scott would die. So would my parents.
- Sentence caps cause I am emphasising its importance.
- I would reverse the way teachers are paid. In my world primary school teachers would be the next best paid after the early childhood educators. Then those who teach children 12 years and up to the end of high school. Then, lastly, university educators would be at the bottom of this extremely well-paid scale. In my world lawyers and advertising agents and CEOs would be paid way less than educators.
- I’m not going to go into the total economic disparity in whose kids get taken away and whose don’t. Let’s just say rich folk no matter how vile their treatment of their offspring very rarely have their children taken away. And there are all too many cases of working class families have their kids taken away for no good reason.
Today, Justine has graciously agreed to host a guest post from Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. Workshop graduate Rachel Halpern is here to talk about the confidence Alpha gave her as a teen writer.
I came into Alpha in the comfortable certainty that I would never be a writer. Even applying to Alpha seemed daring and ridiculous, and getting in was a complete shock. I was seventeen, old enough to have given up on the silliness of “someday I’ll be a real author.”
Getting in was a hit of confidence I badly needed, amazed that I’d made it into a 20 person program so cool that Tamora Pierce – my literary idol at the time – was willing to teach there. But it was still pretty clear, reading my fellow students’ work, that I had gotten in on a bit of a fluke – everyone there was obviously very talented, and I couldn’t quite believe anyone had put me among them.
At Alpha, though, it turns out these incredible students and staff and authors all take you seriously as a writer. That all these amazing people took my writing seriously – wanted to know what my story was about, where I was planning to send it – it was transformative to someone who’d long ago given up on writing something that anyone else would bother to read. I was so sure I’d never get anything published – and I probably never would have, without Alpha telling me to keep writing and keep submitting at a time when that seemed arrogant and impossible.
At Alpha, we’re encouraged to not only write new stories, but to read them aloud in bookstores, in front of our fellow students and the awe-inspiring guest authors who’ve come to read their own work. The staff coach us not just on how to make our writing the best it can be, but how to perform it to best effect. The underlying message, as with so many parts of Alpha, is You are good enough. Your writing is important. If it’s worth reading aloud, it must be worth reading at all. They tell us where we should send our work, which are the best magazines in our field, that we deserved to be paid for our work. They told us that rejections were a badge of pride, proof that you were sending your work out at all. They treated us, in short, like “real” writers, and taught us to treat ourselves the same way.
Coming out of Alpha, that confidence affects every aspect of our writing lives. That confidence is what keeps us writing. It’s what keeps us sharing our stories, with our friends, read aloud in bookstores, with critique partners. It’s what keeps us sending stories out, to contests and magazines, keeps us pursuing publication.
As a teenager, certain my writing was a pointless hobby, it seemed so outrageous to even consider someday being published. Even just writing seemed like such a waste of my time.
At Alpha, though, they didn’t treat me like “just a teenager,” or like a hobbyist. Through serious critiques and exciting lectures and just by listening and reading my work, they told me I was a writer.
We get a lot out of Alpha that lasts beyond that short exciting summer workshop – lifelong friends, tremendous writing advice, a critique group that helps us years after we graduate. But most of all, we get the message: you are writers, and you are good enough to write.
Alpha graduateRachel Halpern is Editor-in-Chief at Inscription Magazine. She is a Dell Award finalist whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
For more information about Alpha, visit our website. To support the scholarship fund, which provides financial assistance to young writers accepted into the workshop, please consider making a donation. All donors receive a PDF copy of the Alphanthology, a completely alumni-created illustrated flash fiction anthology.
There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.
Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.
I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.
I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.
Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.
Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.
I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.
As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.
More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.
I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.
But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.
Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2
Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism
- In the 1970s a friend of my mother’s was once excluded from a women’s group because she’d had a male child and was thus harbouring the enemy. I hasten to add that was a fringe view back then.
- I mean today I do. There are days when not so much.
If I could go back in time and change one thing about my writing career it would be to sell How To Ditch Your Fairy under a different name. And then Team Human would also be under that name.1
Justine Larbalestier would be my author name for my older, less funny, scarier YA and Something Extremely Catchy would be the author of my lighter, funnier, younger books.
All too often fans of HTDYF or TH pick up Liar and, well, it does not go well. But usually it goes way better than the other way around. The people who read Liar first tend to run the gamut from Huh? to THIS IS THE WORST BOOK EVER when reading HTDYF or TH.
When people fall in love with Liar and ask me what they should read next I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly or any of these books. I don’t suggest any of my own books because none of them are like Liar.2
Most readers like their favourite authors to stick to writing within the one genre. When they pick up a book by Favourite Writer they like to know what to expect and they get annoyed when they don’t get it.
Yes, there are also readers like you, who love the writers who do something different with every book. But you are a rare creature. I know you’re thinking, “But different names will just make it harder for me to find all your books and read them!”
Not so. The kind of readers who read all my books, sometimes even my scholarly ones, are usually the kind who read my blog and follow me on Twitter. You can rest assured when I start writing under another name this website and my Twitter feed will loudly proclaim it. It will also be noted in the bio on the books: Awesome Pen Name also writes as Justine Larbalestier. Rest assured I will not make it hard for anyone to find all my books!
Think of Nora Robert who also writes as J.D. Robb. It’s not exactly a secret, is it? Or Seanan MacGuire writing as Mira Grant. In fact, the only writers who try to keep their pen names secret are the likes of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Super famous and popular already. Lucky bastards.
I cannot judge these readers who want one kind of book from their favourite writers because I am that kind of reader. When I first picked up one of Heyer’s detective novels I was horrified! I’d expected a bubbly and delightful regency romance, not a leaden, predictable, detective novel. It was a nightmare.
I like knowing which writers to turn to when I’m in the mood for something very specific: smart, feminist, sexy Victorian romance (Courtney Milan), being scared shitless (Stephen King), erudite, treacherous, complicated historicals (Hilary Mantel), having my heart broken (Jacqueline Woodson). Etc.
So, yes, I wish I had managed my writing career as my reader self would have liked it. Justine Larbalestier for my older books, a different name for my younger ones. If I ever start writing adult romance or adult crime, you can bet I’ll be using a different name.
Writers, readers, publishers what’s your take on this?
- Different Name and Sarah Rees Brennan, obviously.
- Though that will change in July when Razorhurst comes out, which is definitely closer in feeling to Liar than anything else I’ve written.
I find writing short stories much, much harder than writing novels.
Every time I say so someone looks at me as if I have lost my mind and says something along the lines of:
But novels are so much longer than short stories!
That is true.
The shortest length people give for a novel is usually around 50,000 words. Though pretty much only YA and Children’s goes that short and still calls it a novel.
The longest length I’ve seen given for a short story is 30,000 words.
So, yes, novels absolutely are longer than short stories.
However, I do not find the number of words I’m dealing with the most challenging thing about writing fiction.1 In fact, the more words you have, the more space you have.
Look it at this way, when you tell a story to a friend, if it’s about people they don’t know, the first thing you have to do is explain who the people are, then you have to explain where the story takes place, and then, and only then, can you tell the story.
The less the person you’re telling the story to knows about the who, where, or when of the story the more you have to tell them in order to tell the story.
Say I’m telling my sister a story about mutual friends. It could go something like this:
Magpie did that thing again. Yeah, in front of everyone, and you know what her dad’s like.2
Seventeen words and my sister is laughing her arse off. But if I was telling that story for an audience that doesn’t know Magpie, or what “that thing” is, or who “everyone” are, or what her dad’s like, then it’s going to take considerably longer.
When you’re writing a short story, mostly your audience isn’t going to know anything. They won’t know who your characters are, where they are, or what’s going on. You have to convey all of that to them in not many words. The fewer words you have the harder it can be. You start having to make decisions about what the audience really needs to know. If you’re telling your story set in a world that’s not like ours then it’s even harder.
Obviously, I’m speaking of how I write and tell stories. There are writers who are naturally spare with words, who have never struggled to say everything they wanted to say in a mere three thousand words. I’m not one of them.
What mostly happens to me when I start a short story is that it turns out to be too big for that small frame. My fourth novel, How To Ditch Your Fairy began life as a short story. I was writing it for a series Penguin Australia does called Chomps, which are around, I think, 20,000 words. It swiftly became apparent that it was not a short story. Too many characters, too much world building, too much going on. The final novel was 65,000 words. Which is not a particularly long novel but it is not a short story by anybody’s measure. 20,000 words did not allow me the space to tell the story I wanted to tell.
I find that all that extra space makes the novel a much more forgiving form than the short story. A novel doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful; a story needs to be pretty close to perfect.
Think of it this way: a few mistakes on a huge, detailed quilt are not nearly as glaring as mistakes on one square of that quilt that you hold in your hands. Your eyes can only take in so much with a large scale detailed work like a quilt, or a novel. But with a small square, or a short story, the flaws are glaring.
When I write a short story I want every single sentence to be perfect. Obviously, I’d like that for my novels as well but I know it to be impossible. (A novel is, after all, a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.) Because a short story is smaller, I wind up spending way more time going over and over and over and over and over every clause, every sentence, every paragraph, trying to make them perfect. Even though I know perfection is impossible.
Short stories do my head in.
I have yet to write a single short story I am happy with. Obviously, if I could go back in time there are things I’d change about my novels, but I’m basically happy with them. They don’t itch at me with their many imperfections the way my short stories do. And they don’t take me nearly as long to write either. I have many short stories I’ve been working on for more than thirty years.
I’ve been given loads of great advice over the years from wonderful short story writers such as Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan.3 Margo keeps telling me to stop trying to tell the whole story and hone in on the most important part.
Makes perfect sense, right? But it turns out I can’t do that because I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it by which time it’s a novel not a short story. I’m one of those writers who works out what they’re writing on the page. I don’t outline, I just type.
I have learned to accept that I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist. Many writers are good at one and not the other. Many are good at both such as the aforementioned Karen Joy Fowler and Margo Lanagan. There’s no shame in not being able to write short stories, or not being able to write novels. It is what it is.
So there you have it. That is why I find writing short stories much harder than writing novels.
Tl;dr: Short stories are too damned short not enough space! Also: perfection evades me. I have novel brain.
- Though, yes, that does have it’s challenges.
- Names and genders and relationships may have been changed.
- And, yes, they’re not bad at novels either. A bit rude really to be good at everything.
Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.1
Here’s what I have noticed:2
I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4
V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.
I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?
I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7
Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.
What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?
For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.
As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.
As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.
II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.
So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9
In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.
Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.
I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.
On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].
III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.
I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.
IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.
I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:
I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.
Jenny Thurman added:
There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.
I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.
Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.
Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.
The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.
If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.
V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?
See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.
I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.
So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.
Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.
VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.
What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.
- This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject.
- As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject.
- Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism.
- Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about.
- It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist.
- Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere.
- There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example.
- Not literally. That would be terrifying.
- I know, right? What is wrong with them?!
- Except for the lovers from her one and only upbeat book with a happy ending: Price of Salt aka Carol.
Adam Roberts wrote a blog post on why he doesn’t write a blog post letting everyone know what awards his work is eligible for. John Scalzi responded writing about why he does do that. They both write science fiction for adults.
I don’t write such posts and never have because, as Scalzi puts it, that kind of self-promotion makes some of us feel squicky. It doesn’t make him feel that way; but it surely does me.
However, and this is a big however, I write in a field, Young Adult, where there is no popularly voted award that has as big an impact as winning a Hugo does. In science fiction the Hugo is the big deal.
All the game changing awards in my field are juried awards:
The biggest in the US is the Newbery Award. Win a Newbery and your book will stay in print forever. YA isn’t actually eligible for it but many of us YA writers also write books that are more middle grade and are thus eligible. The Printz and the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature division are the big YA awards. Neither has the impact of a Newbery win.
In Australia the big awards are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards which also has an effect on sales, though not on the scale of the Newbery. Then there’s the much more recent Prime Minister’s Literary Awards which includes a YA category. Get shortlisted for one of those and you get $5,000 tax free. Win one and you get $80,000 tax free. How good would that be? Very.
So it’s a pretty easy decision for me to make. In my world popularly voted awards are pretty irrelevant and juried awards aren’t going to be swayed by me posting a LOOK AT WHAT I WROTE THIS YEAR VOTE FOR ME VOTE FOR ME screed. Au contraire. I can imagine how the Newbery jurists would respond to a Dear Newbery Jurists post. Or an ad in Publishers Weekly addressed to them. *shudder*
To be honest, I don’t worry about awards or pin my hopes on them. I won’t lie: it’s lovely to win one. It’s lovely to be shortlisted. I’ve written about how much being shortlisted for a CBCA meant to me.
But I’ve been a juror for some awards so I know first-hand how random they can be. How it depends on the interactions of the jurors. I’ve seen great books not make short lists because I was the only one on the jury who recognised their greatness.1 We’ve discovered months after the decision process was over that, in fact, one or two wonderful books weren’t even nominated. We jurists never got to see them. Aaargh!
At least in the world of books, there is no system of deciding who wins awards that is fair and just and guarantees the very best books triumph.2 That’s because no one can ever agree on what those books are.
That’s why I think it’s best for us writers not to worry about it too much. I try to restrict my worrying to the stuff I have control over. I figure the best thing I can do for my writing career is write the very best books I can, whether they win awards, and sell tonnes of copies or not.
Tl;dr: Awards are random, life is short, write the books/stories/poems/blog posts that you want to write.
I have had a few more thoughts on this subject after reading Amal El-Mohtar’s excellent piece on it. Here’s a little snippet of what she says:
Recently I went on a tear on Twitter because I saw women for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect speak up about how difficult they find it to overcome shyness and low self-esteem enough to talk about their work, and what an ongoing struggle it is for them to find value in their art, to think of it as in any way contributing anything to the world.
. . .
You cannot with one breath say that you wish more women were recognized for their work, and then say in the next that you think less of people who make others aware of their work. You cannot trust that somehow, magically, the systems that suppress the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, will of their own accord stop doing that when award season rolls around in order to suddenly make you aware of their work. You MUST recognize the fact that the only way to counter silence is to encourage speech and make room for it to be heard.
I completely agree with El-Mohtar. The ones who are least likely to blow their own horns3 are the ones who most need to, the ones who people like me and El-Mohtar most want to hear from.
But I can’t lie. I’m really glad I’m in a field where popularly voted awards are no big thing so I don’t have to make others aware of my work come award time. Even after what El-Mohtar says in her cogent post. Even knowing that it’s largely socialisation that makes me feel squicky about it in the first place.
I do write an annual post on the last day of the year to keep track of what I’ve been up to professionally. Somehow that doesn’t feel squicky because it feels more like it’s addressed to myself. I feel the same way about the anniversary of going freelance posts I write. Those are for me, not to spruik my books or myself, which would be tacky.
Why do I think it’s tacky?
I’m a writer. I make my living by writing books. Why do I think it’s tacky to remind people about that and have them buy said books? Why don’t I have any buy buttons on my website? Why I do find everything associated with selling my work uncomfortable? Yes, I do think a large part of it is because of my socialisation as a woman. Particularly as an Australian woman. I definitely think that Australians and British people, on the whole, are more uncomfortable with the whole selling thing than those from the USA. For me it’s partly gender and partly culture.
But there are plenty of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people from the USA who are also mighty uncomfortable with the whole process.
On top of all of that there’s the whole ridiculous notion that we shouldn’t be making money out of art in the first place. Artists being above all that.
Amar El Mohtar is so very right. She ends her piece by calling for us to stop this stupid debate:
Can we please just accept — and make widespread the acceptance! — that making lists during Awards season is fine? That it’s standard? That there is a vast difference between stating one’s eligibility and campaigning for votes? That lists are extremely helpful to nominating parties who are rigorous in their reading and want to see conversations in fandom expand and diversify? And that rolling one’s eyes about the whole process helps precisely no one while in fact hindering many?
I’m with her and am going to try very hard not to give into my feelings of squickiness at self promotion in the future.
Update the Second: And now Gwenda Bond has joined the discussion with this passionate post. She begins by talking about how she almost didn’t write it:
So…I almost talked myself out of making this post, but then, hey, I said I was going to start blogging again and these are the kinds of things I’m interesting in blogging about. Even though it is a little scary, for reasons the post will make clear. The thing is, publishing books is—even though our books are not ourselves—extremely revealing, by which I mean it opens us up to lots more casual judgment and criticism, especially when we voice opinions that not everyone agrees with or wants to hear.
All too many of us stay silent for those reasons.
Do read the whole post because Gwenda beautifully articulates so much of what this discussion is actually about. Not merely who does and doesn’t self-promote but how we are perceived when we do self-promote.
This blog post began with me talking about staying quiet about achievements because of choosing not to blow our own horn.4 But as both El-Mohtar and Bond make clear, there’s a tonne of silencing going on. Women being attacked for speaking up about their own worth and it really has to stop.
- Shocking, I know. And I’m sure the other jurors felt the same way about the books I did not recognise the greatness of.
- Popularly voted awards have their own sets of issues.
- So to speak.
Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”
I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.
I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3
The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5
Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?
I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.
When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.
The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.
However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.
Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8
But that’s not entirely true either.
The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.
However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.
How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9
With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.
I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.
In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.
Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.
Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.
To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.
This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.
To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12
The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.
I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!
In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.
Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.
- As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral.
- When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest.
- But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out.
- Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism.
- I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post.
- Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read.
- No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close.
- That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere.
- Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense.
- Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous.
- Which is plenty of engagement, by the way.
- Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy.
And, lo, another year has passed and it is time for my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life this year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2014. I do this so I have a record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” category.)
For me, 2013 was wonderful personally and professionally. I wrote heaps and heaps and heaps and I liked what I wrote and the resulting pain was manageable. Yes, there will be a new novel from me this year. And a short story for an extremely cool anthology. More on those below.
I usually start this post with a section on what books I had out and how they did. But, um, I had no books out this year. None. Not only no book, I did not publish a single thing, not so much as a haiku, let alone an article, or a story. This blog and my tweets are the sum total of my public writings this year.
I’ve now had two book-less calendar years since my first novel was published in 2005: 2011 and 2013. It’s as if I think I’m a fancy writer of Literachure or something. Yes, when I freak out about the two year gap between my last book and the one that’ll be published in 2014, my romance writer friends look at me with pity and horror, my YA writer friends say that’s a bit of a worry, my crime writer friends ditto, but my literary friends congratulate me on my exceptional productivity. A book every two years! So fast! You’re amazing, Justine!
It’s all relative, eh?
So here’s a new section instead:
What I wrote in 2013
I rewrote my Sydney Depression-era novel in preparation for its imminent publication of which more below.
I also wrote 40,000 words of a brand new book that came out of nowhere. As my novels so often do.1
I continued to work on the never-ending New York Depression-era novel. *sigh* It will never be finished. I’ve accepted that now. As well as working (a little) on my fairy godmother middle grade, which would have been finished by now if I hadn’t gotten distracted by the brand new novel. What? Some of us don’t have long attention spans, okay?
I also wrote a short story. This is very very very unusual for me. The last time I had a short story published was 2008. I can’t tell you much about the anthology except that I was so intrigued by the concept I couldn’t refuse despite the fact that writing short stories is insanely hard.
Yes, they’re much harder than novels. In this case there was a 2,500-word limit. Many of my blog posts are longer than that. How do you build a world and tell a story in 2,500 words?! Madness. Yet many other writers have managed it. So . . . I have given it my best shot. Which at the moment involves a first draft that is more than twice the length it should be, doesn’t make much sense, and is begging me to turn it into a novel. All this despite much excellent advice from Margo Lanagan.
You may have noticed that I also resumed blogging. At the end of October I started blogging roughly once a week. Go, me! I plan to do that even more consistently next year. I.e. tomorrow. Hello, 2014, I will blog in you. Even though blogging is dead. What can I say? I like dead things. Mmmmm . . . zombies.
Books out Next Year
At last a new novel from me! It will be published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014. That’s right, Australians and New Zealanders, only six months till you get to read my first solo novel since Liar! It’s been a while between drinks, eh? Um, five years. Gulp.2 It will be my seventh novel and tenth book.
The novel is called Razorhurst and takes place over a winter’s day in 1932. There are no zombies or vampires or unicorns or werewolves or witches, but there are ghosts. I’ll have heaps more to tell you about it in the coming months. This website’s going to get a spruce up as well courtesy of Stephanie Leary. That way it will be sparkly and new in time for the sparkly and new book. Exciting, eh?
Writing Plans for 2014
Well, obviously, there’ll be copyedits and etc for Razorhurst. I’ll be finishing the short story. It is due 1 Feb, after all. The anthology it’s in will be published by Allen & Unwin either later in 2014 or early 2015. Again, I’ll let you know more when I know more. It’s a stellar line up of authors and, as I said, a very cool concept.
Then I plan to finish the novel that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows what will take my fancy? Back to the New York Depression-era novel? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere. Knowing me, the safest bet would be the last one.
I may finally have a good idea for an historical romance. So I might write that. I did talk about how much I’ve been wanting to write one of those and then got myself a master class on how to do so by some of the very best in the business. Isn’t twitter an amazing thing?
All of this writing is possible because the RSI management is continuing to go well as I described last year. I have been able to write as much as six hours a day, which I thought would never be possible again. Dance of joy! I continue not to push it and to always have a couple of rest days each week. As well as exercising. I am so very good. (Mostly.)
What else happened in 2013
I was in the US briefly. Most of which I spent sick with the flu. Fun! My favourite part, other than seeing all my wonderful friends, was teaching at the Alpha writing workshop for teens. The students and staff were fabulous. If you get asked to teach there, do it!
Other than that, all my travel was in Australia, including attending several Writers Festivals. My favourites were the Adelaide and Brisbane Writers Festivals. They had innovative topics for their panels and, stunningly, programmed YA writers with folks who write for grown ups, as well as mixing up writers from different genres. Shocking, I know, but it worked really well. The diversity of the panels was reflected in the diversity of the audiences. I would go back to both those festivals in a heart beat. If you’re invited say YES. They’re fabulous.
I hung with friends and family. I gardened. I cooked. I read a tonne and listened to loads of new music and watched vast amounts of TV.3
My fave new TV show is Sleepy Hollow because it’s insane and the dynamic between the two leads is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
My favourite new (to me) romance writer is Cecelia Grant, who, like Courtney Milan, seems to delight in writing historical romances that break the rules. No bad sex4 allowed? Right then says Cecelia Grant and writes some of the funniest terrible sex ever. The hero can’t be a virgin? Ha! say Courtney Milan and makes one of her heroes a professional virgin. Romance has some of the most rigid rules in fiction so finding authors who are brilliant at messing with those rules, while still writing a romance, is a great joy. Cecelia Grant is brilliant at it and every bit as good a writer as Courtney Milan. I cannot wait for her next novel.
Another new-to-me author was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her latest novel, Americanah, after being blown away by her wonderfully witty Ted talk on why we should all be feminists which was recommended to me by just about everyone whose taste I trust on Twitter. Americanah has the same wit and wisdom and I loved it. Remember, I read very little realism—especially not for adults—it’s so not my thing. But this tale of the one who migrated to the USA (though she returns) and the one who stayed, and of their relationship to each other, was fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down.
I related to the novel strongly as I am someone who migrated to the USA, but then went home, and will go back again. Like her main character, I have dual citizenship, and continue to live my life in two countries. Yes, Nigeria is very different to Australia, and the specificity of the characters’ experiences in the USA, and back home, are different to mine. But there’s also a lot of similarity. What can I say, this novel really spoke to me. Adichie is a gorgeous, smart, insightful, funny writer, and I’ll be reading everything else she’s ever written.
My three favourite albums this year were Dessa’s Parts of Speech, Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé.5 There’s not a bad song or dud note on any of them. These three were the soundtrack to my year.6
Make sure you read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. It’s her best book yet and comes out early 2014.
And now it’s time to party! Oh, how I love New Year’s Eve.
May you have a wonderful 2014 full of whatever you love best.
- For those counting my published out-of-nowhere novels are How To Ditch Your Fairy, Team Human and now the Sydney novel.
- In my defence there were other books. Such as an anthology with Holly Black and a novel with Sarah Rees Brennan.
- But not movies I’ve basically given up on them. The last three I saw were unspeakably terrible. Except for Byzantium. That was quite good but would have been vastly better if it were a TV show.
- To be very clear “bad sex” does not mean rape. Bad sex is consensual sex that’s ungood.
- Yes, the Beyoncé album is what spurred me to read Americanah because of her sampling of the speech in “Flawless”.
- Oh, okay, the second half of my year. Dessa’s album didn’t come out till June, Monáe’s till September, and Beyoncé’s hasn’t even been out a month yet.
I’ve been asked a lot lately by new writers whether they should self-publish their first novel or go with a traditional publisher.
To me the answer is very obvious: find an agent and publish the traditional way.
What follows is my reasons why I think the answer is obvious but first a disclaimer.
Disclaimer 1: I have never self-published. Unless you count the short stories on this site and even then they were all published somewhere else first. I have zero direct experience with self-publishing though I have seen several friends go through the process. Some to a great deal of success. I am definitely not anti-self-publishing. If you have questions about self-publishing I recommend you read what Courtney Milan has to say about it. Her blog is a fantastic resource.
I do, however, know a lot about traditional publishing. To date I have had nine books published by the following publishers: Allen & Unwin Australia (How To Ditch Your Fairy, Liar, Zombies v Unicorns, Team Human), Penguin Australia (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Penguin USA (Magic or Madness Trilogy), Bloomsbury USA (HTDYF, Liar), Harper Collins USA (“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell, Team Human), Simon & Schuster USA (Zombies v Unicorns) and Wesleyan University Press (Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Daughters of Earth).
Disclaimer 2: I come out of the YA publishing category. Everything I say here is shaped by that fact. As Courtney Milan points out in the comments below it’s very different in her genre of romance.
Ask Yourself This Question First
Why do you want to be published?
There are many many answers to that question. But the most usual ones are: because I want to be read by people who don’t know me, because I want a career as a writer.
But sometimes people answer that they just want to see their work as a real book with their name on the spine and they don’t really care who reads it and they don’t want to have to send out to get an agent and all that jazz.
In that case, self-publishing probably is the way to go. You pay to have a few copies made with your name on the cover and then give them to your friends for Christmas.
This post is addressed to the people who want their work to be read beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.
Why You Should Try To Get Published The Traditional Way First
I first sent out a story for publication when I was fifteen years old. It was rejected. And repeat. A lot.
I sold my first short story almost twenty years later. My first novel sale came not long after.
Yes, you read that right, it took me twenty years to get published.
Getting published the traditional way is a slow, gruelling, heart-breaking and soul-destroying process. At least it was for me.1 My first two novels never sold. I know people whose first ten or more novels never sold.
I was desperate to get published back then. DESPERATE.2 I get the impatience many people feel with how long everything takes in publishing. It really is awful sending your work out over and over and over again to the same No, no, no no, HELL NO. No matter how the agents phrase it that’s what it sounds like on the receiving end.
Or even worse: no response at all. Despite your multiple queries.
Here’s why I think it’s worthwhile going through the gruelling process of finding an agent. (For why you need an agent read this excellent article by Victoria Strauss.) And then the just as awful process of your agent trying to sell your book to a publisher.
You learn to deal with rejection.3
Being a professional writer means dealing with rejection all the time. Every time my latest novel goes out to publishers it gets rejected. Multiple times. I can’t remember now how many publishers rejected HTDYF and Team Human. I find it best to forget those things but, trust me, at the time, it felt like an endless chorus of NOs.
You only need one yes. No matter how long it takes.
My first novel, Magic or Madness, was published in loads of different countries, each successive book of mine has been picked up by fewer foreign language markets. I’ve been rejected by pretty much every language market in the world. Eastern Europe has never published so much as a haiku of mine. I try not to take it too personally.4
You don’t need a tough skin. I certainly don’t have one.5 But you do not need to be able to keep writing despite rejection.
All too often I hear from people whose first novel has been rejected by gazillions of agents. Years now they’ve been sending it out, rewriting it, sending it out again. They’re filled with despair. They’re ready to give up. I ask them how their second novel is doing? They blink at me. They have not started a second novel, let alone finished it and sent it out to agents.
Always have a novel on the go.
When your first one is out there trying to land you an agent get started writing the second novel. And so on. Did I mention that I didn’t sell my first novel? Or my second? That I know people who did not sell their first ten novels? Jonathan Letham did not sell his first novel. From memory I think he sold his fourth. His earlier novels then sold after the first one to be sold was published. This is a very common story.
Keep writing is good advice when you’re trying to find an agent and it’s good advice when you’re a career writer whose agent is trying to sell what will be your hundredth published book when it finds a home.
Never stop writing!
People trying to find representation for their first novel often think that once they find an agent their book will automatically sell. Not true.
They also often think that once their first novel sells all their subsequent novels will also sell. Sadly, not always true either.
True story: there are successful, published writers whose agents have not been able to find a home for all their books.
Rejection: it just keeps on giving.6
You Learn How To Write
In those 20 years I was sending out and being rejected I never stopped writing.
I would occasionally get little hints from my rejectors as to why my stories weren’t working for them. Some of those comments were useful, but far more useful was all the feedback and comments I received from other writers. Having my work critiqued by other writers improved my writing immeasurably and prepared me for the brutal edits I would get once I became a published author.
(Here’s a post on how to find people to critique your work. Check out the comments as well.)
Even more helpful was learning to critique other people’s work. It is eye opening to read someone else’s unpublished work and see that they’re making similar mistakes to the ones you make. Suddenly you understand what everyone was talking about when they were critiquing you. It teaches you to see the flaws in your own work.
Obviously continuing to write was also very important. During those twenty years I learned how to write novels. I learned that I was better at writing them than I was at short stories. I learned to write stories and novels that people other than me wanted to read and that is when, at last, they started to sell. (Hopefully you’ll be a faster learner than I was.)
Once You’re Published
This is when your learning curve takes off with a steepness that is dizzying. No critique I have ever received from friends has ever been as detailed or demanding as any of my editorial letters.
I am a much, much better writer because I have been professionally edited, copyedited, and proofread.
Had I self-published I would never have learned how far my work was from where it needed to be. I would not have learned how much time and effort goes into getting a novel to a publishable standard. The many revisions and fact checking and proofing that are needed.
Then after the long and exacting editorial process, there’s the design of the interiors of book. What fonts are used, how the titles, and sub-titles look, how the words are arranged on the page. Then, of course, there’s the cover. Is there a more important ad for a book? No, there is not.
Traditional publishers do all that for you. And, on the whole, they do it pretty well.7
They also know how to distribute your book: how to get it to readers. They have long established relationships with booksellers all over their country. They know how to get books reviewed and talked about. They’ve been doing so for years, decades even.
You, a first-time, unknown novelist have little of that knowledge.
There’s a reason the majority of successful self-publishers already had a career publishing with traditional publishers. Or were very well-known in fan fiction circles. They had what is known in the industry as a “platform”. They already had a core audience; they didn’t need a traditional publisher.
An unknown first-time novelist does not have an audience. That’s why they should go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers can make a new author known, can help build their audience.
When Courtney Milan started publishing her own work she’d already published many books with a traditional publisher. Her name and work were already known by many romance readers. She had dedicated and loyal fans such as me, who were willing to buy her books no matter who was publishing them.
Most importantly she had the knowledge and the contacts to do it right. She knew which editors, copyeditors, proofreaders etc to hire. She knew what professional books look like and how to produce same.
Writers with platforms, who have the inclination to do all the hard yards in producing their books exactly how they want them to be, can now do that. I think that’s wonderful for the industry. And truly great for writers.
I have never self-published but I certainly don’t rule it out in the future. The landscape of publishing has changed a vast deal since I started out. Self-publishing has changed a vast deal. We writers now have more options.
However, the vast majority of first-time authors, without a platform, are still better off going the traditional path. Even if they wind up self-publishing in the end they’ll do so with a great deal more knowledge of what they’re doing than they would otherwise.
Which ever path you pick, GOOD LUCK!
And keep on writing!
Update: I’ve had to not let some comments through. I get that you love what you’re doing and it’s working for you. By all means make the case for self-publishing on your own blogs. But really if the best you can do is to call me names? Then no. I am not letting your comments through.
Update 2: On checking the IP address of the nasty comments I discovered they’re all coming from the same person.
Update 3: Added a disclaimer to make it clear that what I have to say is shaped by being a YA writer.
- I do know a couple of people who were picked up by an agent and whose first novel sold basically within minutes of sending out. That’s unusual. Also annoying.
- I wonder if self-publishing had existed back then if I would have gone ahead and published my work as it was? Back then I was pretty sure what I was writing was genius despite all the rejections. Reading it now I know it was rubbish and it being published back then would have been at best really embarrassing.
- Which is not to say you ever learn to like it. I hates rejection, I does. HATES IT!
- But let’s just say I’m not barracking for any Eastern European football teams in the World Cup.
- Oh, the tears this profession of mine has made me weep. Fortunately a fair few of them have been tears of joy.
- Show me the profession that doesn’t involve waiting and being rejected. I suspect it does not exist.
- Yes, there are exceptions. Horrible exceptions. No industry is perfect. Least of all publishing.