Justine Larbalestier's Blog
November 30, 2014
Here are two “facts” about writing I’ve been hearing lately that I must beat until their stuffing falls out and their non-factness is apparent to all.1
1. On average published authors write 2-3 novels before publication.
Um, what? How was such a statistic arrived at? Where does it come from? Why is everyone repeating it? Oh, who cares. It’s irrelevant.
It does not matter how many novels other authors wrote before they were published. It has no effect on you. I wrote two novels before I was published. Scott sold the first one he finished. I know of authors who wrote more than twenty novels before they finally sold one. Who knows what your path will be?
It’s like asking an agent how many authors they sign per year on average. Knowing that doesn’t increase or decrease your chances. The only thing that will increase your chances of finding an agent to represent you is writing a book an agent likes. It could be that the agent who falls in love with your book will take on no clients but you that month or year. Or they’ll take on ten. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fall for your book and your writing.
Being above or below this random number of 2-3 written books before selling first book makes zero difference to your writing career. It predicts nothing.
That stat is only useful if it helps people realise that selling your first novel is unlikely. Though, yes, it happens. In publishing pretty much everything has happened. Learning to write well is a long process. As I have chronicled it took me years to learn how to rewrite.
2. People’s second published novels are always much worst than their first.
Crap. Bullocks. Rubbish. Bulldust. Wallaroo droppings.
Yes, people talk about second-novel syndrome. But it mostly applies to people whose first novel was a huge success. Surprise! The vast majority of authors do not have a run away bestseller with their first novel. Therefore they do not have the over-the-top pressure for their second book to be as successful as their first.
Most novelists don’t have a huge hit with any of their novels. And for those that do get lucky? Well, it can happen with their fifth or sixth or tenth or whatever-th novel. Sometimes in the wake of all that attention and money raining down on them it can take a long time to write their next book.
I don’t think there is a second-novel syndrome; I think there’s next-book-after-a-huge hit syndrome.
Now I’ve cleared that up, let’s take a moment to consider what people mean by the second novel. Shockingly some authors’ second novels were written before their first novels, which is the case with Jonathan Lethem. Michael Chabon’s second novel was the third novel he wrote. My first published novel was the third novel I wrote.
Often we don’t know what order novels were written in. All we know for sure is the order in which they were published and, why, yes, there are many authors with super successful second novels whose second novels were better than their first.2
There’s Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which you may have heard of. Many consider it to be her best. I love P and P but for my money Persuasion is her finest work. Scott’s second novel Fine Prey is way, way, way better than his first Polymorph. Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is an amazing debut but I reckon her second novel, Price of Salt/Carol, is much, much better and breaks my heart every time I read it. Then there’s Infinite Jest, which I’ve never been able to finish, so not my thing, but which was certainly more successful than his first novel.
I could go on like this all day long. There are many great second novels and great third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc. novels. Most novelists get better the more novels they write. Usually, the more you do something the better you get at it. It’s called practice and training and like that. With most of my favourite living writers it’s their most recent book that’s their most accomplished.
I would argue that amazing debut novels are the exception not the rule. I’l blurb a flawed debut novel. I expect debut novels to be rawer. I cut them more slack because they’re a novelist’s first baby, their first attempt at that impossible task: writing a perfect novel.
In conclusion: most so-called “facts” about the writing life are no such thing. Every writer writes differently. There are as many different paths to publication as there are writers.
Or, you know, the people who read this blog. Both of them.In these discussions the word “successful” is usually used to mean “sold lots of copies.” I don’t think that’s the only measure of a book’s success. Quite a few of the so-called second-book failures are quite good. They simply failed to sell as well as the first.Yes, there are exceptions. No, let’s not name them.
October 5, 2014
I’ve not been blogging much because I’m accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. So far we’ve been to Raleigh, Lexington, Louisville, Philadelphia, Washington DC, St Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. And there’s much more to come. Check out the rest of the tour here. I’d be delighted to sign anything you want signed but mostly I’m just happy to say hi and chat.
We’ve had many adventures so far including staying in what I swear was a haunted hotel. Uncannily cold temperatures? Check. Eerie cold winds that came rushing out of the elevators/lifts? Check. Strange rustling sounds in the hotel room in the middle of the night? Check.
If you haven’t read Afterworlds yet you should. It’s definitely Scott’s best book so far.
Hope to see some of you soon!
September 17, 2014
I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.
The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.
Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.
I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.
My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”
Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”
MP: “They’d shout through the door.”
Me: “What if they’re mute?”
As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?
MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”1
Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”
MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”
Me: “But what if . . . ”
MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”
Me: *side eyes parents*
Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?
I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.
If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2
It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.
When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.
Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:
When the teacher asks you to stand up and tell the class a little bit about yourself on the first day pic.twitter.com/IY8gMcXebl
— Shakira (@shakiraevanss) August 29, 2014
And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.
When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.
Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.
There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.
Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.
I was a truly awful older sister. I’m not kidding. It speaks volumes as to what a fabulous sister I have that she forgives me.Punishment meted out by parents. Possibly for asking a few too many what ifs.
September 11, 2014
Apologies to those reading along with us but alas, travel, deadlines, and sundry other things have crashed down upon Kate Elliott and I and we will not be doing the book club for the next few months. We hope to resume next year.
In the meantime you can find our discussions of the books we’ve already read here.
Thanks to all who’ve been taking part. We’ve learnt a lot.
September 6, 2014
Today the Sydney Morning Herald is running my entry in their long-running Books That Changed Me series. I struggled mightily to get it down to four. Especially as they initially told me I could name five. There are too many books that have changed me! Too many books that I love with every fibre of my being!
The four that made the cut:
Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux (1939) is a novel that reads like history. Like geography. Almost geology. It’s slow, there’s no plot to speak of, it’s everything I don’t like about literary novels. I love it. Tennant lays bare Surry Hills from before the first world war up to the first hints of the next war. She swims in her joy at the Aussie vernacular. It’s bloody bosker.
Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979) because, well, fairy tales. When I was little I made up my own, and the ghostly echo of “Once upon a time” shapes all the fiction I’ve ever written. But it wasn’t until I read this explosion of a collection that I realised how much could be done to fairy fales, and how much they could do to me. Carter taught me the anatomy of the fairy tale and how to make use of the viscera.
I give people Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (1998) when they demand proof that novels for teens (YA) can be as good as the best novels for adults. In a scant 200 pages Woodson delves deep into New York City’s geographical, class, and racial fissures, and then she breaks your heart.
About Writing (2006) by Samuel R. Delany is the smartest book about writing I’ve ever read. In a series of letters and lectures Delany leaps from the intricacies of punctuating dialogue, to those of creating character, to existential questions about what it is that a writer can make a reader know. Delany with both his fiction and his non-fiction changed the way I write and how I think about writing.
These are the ones I couldn’t include:
I don’t know how old I was when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813). Very young. I’ve read it so many times that I could probably read it from memory. Yet every time I read it I find something new. On the last reread I focussed on the world of the servants. The time before that on her extraordinary world building with her razor focus on economics. It’s true that Persuasion (1818) is now my favourite of her novels but it was not the one that changed me when I first read it as a pre-teen.
I’ve always read True Crime as well as fictional crime. Always veering towards the dark: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosley, Denise Mina. At their core are these questions: What is evil? Why do people do evil things? Why are we fascinated? I picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) when I was very young and didn’t know who Charles Manson was and hadn’t thought much about the question of evil. This book meant I never forgot.1
I didn’t know which Octavia Butler book to pick. They’re all amazing. Even Survivor (1978), an early novel that she never wanted to see in print again. I read in the bowels of the Rare Books section of University of Sydney. It’s not her best but it’s still better than most every other novel by anyone else. Her stories in Bloodchild & Other Stories are a revelation. Each one perfect in a different way from the last. Read everything she wrote!
Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romances. She’s brilliant at torpedoing the constraints of the genre while working within it. Take Unclaimed (2011) in which a courtesan has to seduce a Victorian rockstar professional virgin who’s written the book on how to be celibate. She neatly upends the heroine as virgin; hero as rake paradigm of most historical romances and she does it with wit. Her latest, The Suffragette Scandal is her best book yet.
These fiction writers showed me what was could be achieved. They taught me to push past the constraints of genre and to think about the impact of every word. They changed me as a writer and as a person. I heartily recommend them all.
This is the one book on the list that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. But I think it’s important to note that some books that change you aren’t particularly good.
September 2, 2014
The distinction between Real Life and the internet is frequently made. Particularly by people for whom the internet is not a big, or in some cases any, part of their social lives. But the internet is not on a different planet. It’s right here on Earth it was created by people and is made up of people just like Sydney or New York City or Timbuktu.
The internet is a huge part of my life, and has been since the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the weird and wonderful World Wide Web. Oh, the glory of it.
I remember my very first email address. Hard to believe now, but back then email was a wonder. I could stay in touch with friends and family all around the world without stamps or envelopes or treks to the post office and without the insanely long waits.1
In those early days I spent a lot of time reading through various different rec.arts news groups. People exchanging opinions! As if they were in the same room! Except they weren’t! Woah! I joined loads of different listservs. I discovered weird and wonderful blogs and would lose days reading back through the archives. I even commented on some of them. By 2003 I had my own blog. Er, this one. In the last few years twitter has become a large part of my life and through it I have met many amazingly smart and witty an inspiring people.
Online I have found people who care about the same things as me. I’ve found communities I feel at home in. I loved it then and I still love it.
For twenty years now I’ve had many people in my life I think of as my friends whom I’ve never met in *cough* real life. But I know them. Not the way I know the people I’ve lived with. Not the way I know my closest friends. But in some cases I know my online friends better than some of my offline friends and acquaintances.
These online friends are not imaginary. We who spend big chunks of our lives online are real. We make each other laugh. We make each other cry. We annoy each other. We talk to each other several times a week. We fight bullies together. We share experiences. We care about each other.
When one of us dies it hurts.
Social media is not an abstraction. It’s real. It’s made up of real people, who live and die. Their deaths are real and painful.
Okay, obviously, not entirely true. As with snail mail it all depends on how good a correspondent a person is. But in the first days of email we were all so excited we were amazing correspondents. Until the novelty wore off . . .
August 25, 2014
Due to a terrible combination of deadlines, travelling, illness and other assorted calamaties Kate Elliott and myself will not be doing the book club this month. We’re bummed about it too. But life she threw too much at us this month.
We will be back in September to discuss Han Suyin’s A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is the first out of print book that we’ll be reading. I haven’t been able to find an ebook edition either. It’s truly out of print. Start putting it on hold at your library now.
You can see the schedule for the rest of the year here.
That discussion will be held: 30 September Tues in Australia and 29 September Monday in the USA.
August 13, 2014
I’m super excited to reveal what Razorhurst will look like when Soho Teen publish it in the USA next March. Quite a contrast to the Australian cover, eh? Yet at the same time they both have that gorgeous, strong font treatment.
I adore that font and those colours. I hope you do too. Everyone who’s seen this cover has been wildly enthusiastic uttering comments like, “I would buy that in a heartbeat.” “Utterly beautiful.” “Wow, that’s so commercial.” All of it music to my ears.
Soho’s edition will have a bonus glossary. Yes, you US readers are going to be spoiled. It also means the USA Razorhurst will be my first novel to have both a glossary and a map.1 That’s right, Soho are keeping the beautiful map used in the Allen and Unwin edition. Still gorgeous, isn’t it?
Map designed by Hannah Janzen
Map plus glossary? What could be cooler? Nothing. I can’t wait until all my US readers can get their hands on Razorhurst. March is so soon, youse guys!
Razorhurst is my fifth novel with a glossary. Because I love them: Words, definitions, dictionaries, glossaries, they are all my dearest loves.
August 7, 2014
Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:
I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.
My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.
However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.
I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed me. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.
If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.
These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.
I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.
It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.
Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.
Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!
What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!
Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.
Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath.For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea.
July 31, 2014
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.
Addressing a White Audience
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference.Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist.First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003.Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published.