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metteharrison July 30 2014, 20:49

From Book 9 on Love

"Do you think he loves you?"

She hesitated. "I think he does. But I guess this makes me wonder if he really does. Or if he loves only some part of me that's the part he's always seen when he sees me. Or if it's worse than that, and the thing he loves isn't really me. It looks like me, you know, but it isn't really me. It's some fantasy version of me that he's invented because he can't really handle the real me."
She had just put into words the thing that I had been afraid to put into words. I had been married over thirty years, and I wondered the same thing.

Of course, to be fair, Kurt and Brad might justly wonder that. Maybe we humans were incapable of actually loving each other fully in this mortal world. Maybe we were incapable of bearing the full sight of the reality of each other, and so we saw only what we could see. Mormons believed that you had to be transformed into something greater than mortal stuff in order to bear the sight of God as Joseph Smith had, as other prophets in the Bible had.
metteharrison July 29 2014, 21:42

Write a Better Book

When I was an aspiring author, I remember hearing other aspiring authors spending a good deal of time complaining about how this or that NYT best-selling author had just published a piece of crap, and how publishing was all totally about who you knew and once you had it made, everything you wrote would be published, no matter what. Yeah, I actually still hear that part a lot.

But here’s what I believed then and repeated whenever I was given the chance:

You have to write a book that’s not as good as what is being published right now. You have to write a book that is better. In fact, you have to write a book that is so good people find themselves unable to say no. They just love it so much they can’t think of a reason to say no.

Because editors and agents are looking for reasons to say no.

How do you write a book that is so good that people can’t say no?

1. You learn the skills of writing. Usually this means writing a lot of words. Sometimes they get published in smaller magazines or by smaller presses. A lot of the time, they don’t. I’ve said it a lot of times, but I wrote 20 really bad books before I got published, so yeah, that was at least 1 million words.

2. You tell a story that is yours to tell. That means giving up on following trends. If you happen to hit a trend, that’s not why you hit it, so I’m going to insist that’s not following a trend. Sometimes you’re mad about what isn’t out there being published already. Or you’re mad because what’s being published on a certain subject isn’t the truth—and you know it. Sometimes you write the story that’s yours because you are so much in love with a certain genre or story or character that you couldn’t NOT write it, even when people told you it wasn’t ever going to sell.

3. You get feedback from other people. And somehow (believe me, this still eludes me on occasion), you figure out how to hear the useful advice and how to ignore the other advice.

4. You revise the crap out of your book. You do the delicate dance that is truly the art of writing, in keeping what is good and throwing out what is bad. You leave it when the revising is done. But you don’t leave it before then and go work on something shinier. Although if there is something shinier, it makes me wonder if this is really the story that is only yours to tell. Maybe it is and you just lack any self-confidence. That’s not unusual, come to think of it. But look at every word, every sentence, every scene, every chapter. Be willing to do the big changes if they are necessary. Listen to your heart or your gizzard or whatever you believe in.

5. You do the work of meeting editors and agents however you can. Sometimes it’s by forming a relationship by sending manuscript after manuscript in. Sometimes it’s by going to conferences that are nearby. Sometimes you volunteer for something writing-related, and stuff happens. I don’t believe that bad writing is going to be published just because you know someone (it happens, but I wouldn’t count on it), but you learn a lot from these connections. People tell you things about the industry that’s useful to know, for now and for the future. And also, it’s always good to have friends to get advice from. And to hang with.

I’m not going to pretend this is an easy formula. It’s not. You’re signing up for a long apprenticeship and there are no guarantees.

I will admit that I have become more cynical about the publishing world than I once was. Maybe that’s me or maybe it’s that publishing has actually changed. But I still think it’s good advice to write a better book than the one you see published today that you hate. I also think that every book has a lesson to teach you, bad or good. And I think it behooves authors not to diss other authors, however easy it is and however good it makes you feel temporarily. We’re in this together. Let reviewers and readers diss us. They do it plenty.
larbalestier July 29 2014, 02:33

BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)



Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.

Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. :-)

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

  1. Pun intentional.
slayground July 29 2014, 00:55

Hope: Holly Schindler

A tiny ray of hope appears inside me, the same way a little stream of light pours from the hallway through my bedroom door's keyhole at night.

- from the novel The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler

For similar ponderings, please check out Definitions of Hope, a series of hopeful musings from various authors and other artists.

sartorias July 28 2014, 22:18

Writing mentors and editors and Horse Camp--

I get letters every so often (yesterday, and two last week making three, which prompts a post) asking about critique and editing services. I can only take on one project at a time, and my commitment to Book View Cafe puts them at the head of the line. But I can personally vouch for these following:

Author Judith Tarr is having a sale on mentoring and editing, and other goodies.

Also, there is Debra Doyle's critique and editing service. She tells you exactly what you get, and what she promises.
jbknowles July 28 2014, 10:45

Changing magic to power, inspired by Holly Black

Hello Teachers!!!! Today I'm going to cheat a tiny bit and share with you a post I wrote back on July 19, 2010, which I wrote after attending a lecture by Holly Black. Yes, the Holly Black. It was a lucky day! And since that day, I have been using what I learned to help my own students understand world building and why it's important no matter what your genre. I hope you'll give the exercise a try! :-) And THANK YOU, Holly, for inspiring me yet again. <3

Using world building techniques in realistic fiction via Holly Black
Original link: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/382006.html

This Saturday I attended the Vermont College of Fine Arts Special Day on fantasy. Holly Black (blackholly) was the first speaker and I believe had everyone in that room aching to go home the minute she finished to tackle our projects and answer the insightful questions she proposed when creating a magic system.

Hold up.

Magic system?

I know. The theme was fantasy after all. And no, I'm not writing one.

But as I sat there listening to how Holly builds her brilliant plots, I realized all the questions she asks of magic can be directly asked about the underlying theme running through the microcosm each of our characters lives in (home, school, community).

Here's one example. Change the word "magic" to "power" when thinking about realistic fiction. (You can use another word, too, this is just the first example that came to me.)

1. Who has the magic?
2. What does it do?
3. How do you make it happen?
4. How is the user affected?
5. How is the world affected?
6. How are magic users grouped and perceived?

Let's try it, with some tweaks/notes:

1. Who has the power? (parent, relative, friend, teacher, bully—or the "who" could be a "thing" such as a disability, disease, economic situation, etc., which gives the illusion of having power)
2. What is it? (money, influence, abuse, manipulation, a secret, pain, threat of death, etc.)
3. How is it used? (physically, psychologically, emotionally, as a threat, etc.)
4. Why does the person use it? (to gain power, feel superior, survival, etc.)
5. How is the world/victim affected? (weakened, hurt, victimized, drawn inward, scared, etc.)
6. How are those in power (the bad guy/thing) grouped and perceived? The victims (our hero/main protagonist)?

Well, this is rough but you see what I mean. And you can see how having a clear understanding of the ins and outs are essential in developing plot and character no matter what you're writing. Even if they may seem obvious to you on the surface, going deeper you may discover a lot more. In fact I'm sure you will.

Holly went on to discuss in depth how to look closely to really understand the world you've created, and how important it is to understand all the costs of magic (to those who have it and don't), to understand the limits, and what the rules of the magic say about the world. And again, all of her points made me think deeply about the real worlds I've created for my own characters, grounded in the contemporary landscape we know, and what those say about the world, too.

Holly said, "How we set up our magic system reflects how we feel about the world... In writing fantasy, you're telling us what you think about the world." And aren't we doing that in everything we write? Fantastical or not? I love that. And I would add that it's not only what we feel, but what we believe we know. (I say believe, because sometimes, we end up being wrong. But part of that journey from saying things with such conviction, to opening your mind to other possibilities, to seeing the light in a place you once condemned to darkness, is how we make sure the world keeps changing.)

Finally, Holly noted well that when we write, we are in conversation with every book we've read. Every time we write we add to that conversation. She said it far more profoundly, but I love that notion. It's how we get better.

Well, I think I probably got this a bit jumbled but I loved the way Holly posed these questions and how they got me thinking more closely about the how's and why's of the dynamics within my own character's household, group of friends, etc., and what they mean more globally. Because there are different rules within each setting, and you do have to understand where they come from and why they stick in order to fully understand your character's motives, flaws, desires—and what they say about your character's world, as well as the one you—all of us—live in.

Don't you think?


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Answer the questions above in relation to your own current work-in-progress.
sartorias July 27 2014, 13:41

I HATE that song!

Over at her blog, rachelmanija asked people to name the most obnoxious, ear-grating songs they have ever heard. Not ordinary songs they happened to be hearing when something terrible happened that made them hate the song. Actual stinkers that drive them straight out of the room.

It has been fun to see how passionate people get about music, though not a surprise. Sometimes I wince with embarrassment when people name something I rather like. But the responses are so intense. Music is so very personal at times.

My answer was: pop versions of "Jingle Bells."

Pretty much anything by John Denver, or Barry Manilow. Both the quality of their voices and their music drives me straight out of a room.

I loathed the sound of Carole King's voice, though I liked a lot of her songs if someone else sang them.

Another song I really, really hated was "American Pie." During 1971-2 you could not get away from it and its several thousand nasally whining verses. After which it ear wormed you. Blast and damn, it's ear worming me NOW. I have to go put on some Ernst Bloch, or maybe For Minor, to counteract the evil spell.
sartorias July 26 2014, 15:59

The sf world

Yesterday rachelmanija and I drove down to San Diego to meet our agent at a lunch thrown by The Gotham Group. It was held in a restaurant two blocks from Comicon.

It took a little over an hour to drive down, and two hours to park. The only reason we did eventually park was because my daughter's roommate, who works at one of the hotels, came down to drive us into the employee lot of the hotel he works at, to take his space until he showed up for work.

The hotel is right there, so we walked from it to the restaurant, some of our walk carrying us past the Comicon site. Thousands of people, thousands all moving along and having a good time. The people-watching opportunities outside of what I am sure is a stunning con full of great stuff was in itself a whole lot of fun. There were some great costumes, and some not-so-great but still full of the old-days verve (like a guy dressed as some sort of warrior with a gigantic futuristic gun rather obviously made of toilet paper roles, duct tape, spray paint, and plastic bits). A gorgeous woman in black with black wings feathered in what looked to me like raptor patterns.

Young families with their babies in costumes--at one point a man walked by one of these family groups whose laughing, chubby round infant was dressed as Batman, and he said, "That's the happiest baby-Bat I've ever seen."

Another thing often not heard, "Pardon my dinosaur leg," as disassembled bits of a gigantic tyrannosaurus rex were toted by.

An astounding number of hawkers, including some earnest young fundamentalist Christian youths urging people thru megaphones to choose between God and Satan. They didn't threaten or harass anyone, and no one bothered them--paradigms brushing past one another, not colliding, as alas is happening so grievously in other parts of the world.

I would have tried to get pix but the crowds were so intense there was no getting back far enough to snap a shot, and it was also pretty hot.

I don't see anyone arguing anymore, but Comicon serves as a fine reminder that SF and F are alive and well in all media.
sararyan July 25 2014, 19:59

Beach best practices

Bring lots of books, but remember that you’ll also want to watch beach TV. Reliable channels include Waves, Clouds, Dogs, and Children. Sometimes you can get Horses or Storms; occasionally Sparklers.


Someone’s going to be Beach-Fire-Building Alpha. If that’s not you, assist them by gathering kindling, carrying foodstuffs to be carbonized, and not complaining when smoke drifts your way. If you’re the Beach-Fire-Building Alpha, rule benevolently, and gracefully accept all praise of your skills.


Consider not taking sunset photos because geez, aren’t there enough of them in the world already?




Feel grateful.


Originally published at sararyan.com. You can comment here or there.

metteharrison July 25 2014, 14:07

The Stages of Publishing and Time:

1. The author writes a book. This may take anywhere from a month to many years.
2. Agent sends book to editors who might be interested in it. This may take anywhere from a couple of weeks to years.
3. Editors make offers on the book. Can happen in a day. Can take years. May never happen. I have many books that have never made it past this stage. For whatever reason, no offer was ever made.
4. Contract negotations occur. If you have a good agent, this will take a couple of weeks at least, and can drag out for several months.
5. Editorial letters are written and sent to the author. Author has a chance to decide whether to agree with editor about making changes or to refuse to make changes or to make other changes the editor has not necessarily suggested. This usually takes about a year, but can go more quickly. It can also end in a book that never comes out because agreement is never come to between editor/publisher and author.
6. Book covers take months to create, even if they are done with photography. The publisher's art director will have input, as will the editor, and other people from the publisher. The author is sometimes given a chance to say something about the cover (though not always). This will often happen in tandem with the editorial process, but not always. Problems with cover art can occur, and then the art department has to start all over again. Takes months.
7. Often ARCs are created at this stage, when an editor feels confident enough about the manuscript to think it is ready to be sent to reviewers. ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) are paperback, cheaper versions of the book, sometimes even without the final cover on them. They are free (even though you sometimes see them for sale on ebay) and they wlll have errors in them.
8. Manuscript goes to copyediting. Usually takes a couple of months for copy editor to go through manuscript with fine-toothed comb. Authors often are given a deadline at this point to get manuscript back to publisher. Sometimes the author has only a week to make final changes, sometimes several weeks.
9. Copyedited manuscript is turned into a "galley" which is typeset the way the final book will look. Authors often get a chance to make final changes, though contract will limit exactly how many changes are allowed. This isn't the time for major alterations. Takes a couple of months.
10. ARCs are sent out to major reviewers and publicity for the book begins. Reviewers needs at least a few weeks to read the books and write reviews, though they will usually get a couple of months. Also, ad copy for ads needs to be written, and ad campaigns have to be managed. (Some books have virtually no publicity, but for others, it may feel like the book is being talked about long before it will be available in stores. This is to make people aware of the book so they rush out to buy it soon after it arrives, so bookstores will bring in even more books to sell in subsequent weeks.)
11. Books are printed, often in China because it's cheaper, and the slow boat wait begins. Can take months.

Hopefully, this explains why it takes about two years for a book to move from an acquired manuscript to a finished product, and why it may take much longer than that.

slayground July 25 2014, 13:00

Poetry Friday: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

If you can't see the video player above, click here to hear Ozymandias as read by Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad.

View all posts tagged as Poetry Friday at Bildungsroman.

View the roundup schedule at A Year of Reading.

Learn more about Poetry Friday.

metteharrison July 23 2014, 22:09

What I Love About Writing

So, we writers complain a lot that writing is hard. And it is. It can be really, really hard. It can be so hard we think about quitting. Maybe more than sometimes. Our dearest companions sometimes may suggest to us that we do something other than writing, temporarily or permanently because of our bad moods about writing.

But when writing goes right, and by that I don’t mean being easy, but by that feeling of satisfaction you get when by God—you captured something in words that no one else has been able to write before—writing is such a joy.

There is a time to commiserate with writers about the terrible pay, the lack of control of creative people over our own work, the grind of writing to deadline, the pressure to do more than write by having a “presence” on the internet, the emails, the cover art issues, the business end even when you are getting paid, and of course, the

I’m not going to write anymore about that now, though. I am going to write about the sheer, unadulterated pleasure that is writing on a good day, on the right day when it turns right because you got that sentence right or you figured out who the murderer is or because you know now why your main character does that thing she does.

Why I love being a writer:

1. Writing in my pajamas, whenever the notion strikes me.

2. Eating food while writing.

3. Sitting down and rocking the world.

4. Reading a note from someone who “got” your book in just the way that I one day hoped someone would.

5. Finding out a truth about myself that I would never have known if I hadn’t been writing that character that day.

6. The light that goes off in the middle of the night and you know how you’re going to do that revision and fix EVERYTHING!

7. When I’m cooking dinner and my characters talk to me about what they would be eating instead.

8. Cutting out the weight that was holding my book down and now it feels so free, so clean, and so pure.

9. Surprising my editor and making her say, “Woah! That is awesome!”

10. When people tell me the part they loved about the book, and that they wanted more and were sad when they reached “THE END.”

11. Figuring out what the next chapter is going to be about.

12. Writing dialog that makes you want to read it out loud.

13. Taking out a notebook when your brain is on fire and writing words down with an actual pen.

larbalestier July 23 2014, 21:30

Writing Goals: Reduxing the Redux of the Redux



This post is a thing that I do every so often. It started in 2006 when I posted my writing goals. I updated it in 2008 with the publication of How To Ditch Your Fairy and then again in 2009 after Liar came out. And then in 2012 in anticipation of the publication of Team Human.

These goals of mine are not stuff like Become NYT Bestselling Author or Win Nobel Prize.1 Winning prizes, making bestseller lists, having your books turned into genius TV shows are not things anyone can control,2 but I can control what I write. Not only can I control that, I do control that. So that’s what my goals are. Simple, eh?3

The following are categories I plan to publish a book in. When I publish a book in a given category I cross the category out. I also randomly add categories when they occur to me. Mostly, to give me the pleasure of crossing them out.4

First the genres:

  • Romance
  • Historical
  • Crime (what some call mysteries)
  • Thriller
  • Fantasy
  • SF
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Mainstream or litfic5
  • Western
  • Problem novel
  • YA
  • Gothic
  • Dystopia
  • Adult romance

The reason I am reduxing my writing goals post is because I just struck off another category: Historical. Woo hoo! Yes, with the publication of Razorhurst, set in Sydney in 1932, I have finally published an historical novel.6 And there was much rejoicing. I adore historicals. In fact, the very first novel I ever wrote was an historical set in thirteenth century Cambodia and never published. So this is a big crossing off day for me.

I have also added two new categories: adult romance and dystopia. Before any of you groan about how you’re totally over YA dystopia already I have a really awesome idea for one. In fact, I’ve already written a short story set in that world and it will be out late this year or early next. Very excited about turning it into a novel. But even if I don’t write that novel I’m still going to cross off dystopia when that short story is available.

As for adult romance. Read this post here and you will see me realising that adult romances are completely different to YA romances and that I really want to write one.

All I have left is adult romance, dystopia, western, horror and gothic. Some have said that Liar is horror. I do not agree. I wasn’t scared once writing it. The few times I have tried to write horror I have scared myself so badly I have had to stop writing. When I publish one of those I’ll cross it off the list.

I’m also aiming to publish books that use the following povs:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Omniscient

The observant amongst you will notice that every item on this list is now crossed off. Yes, indeed, Razorhurst does make use of the omniscient point of view. I have conquered an entire list! Let there be rejoicing!


  • Standalone
  • Trilogy
  • Series
  • Collaboration

A series is a sequence of more than three books that: 1) have the same character or set of characters but each book tells a separate story. You could argue that Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe books are a series of that kind. 2) are a large story that is told across more than three books.

Some people classify trilogies as a series but I think they’re their own thing. I also admit that that’s very hair splitting and may be heavily influenced by my desire to have one extra thing on this list. Hey, it’s my list. I get to do that.

I suspect the 1930s NYC novel is a series. I’ve been working on it since forever and it shows no signs of being finished. So one day, maybe, I’ll be able to cross series off the list.

And lastly a whole new list:

  • Witch
  • Fairy
  • Vampire
  • Zombie
  • Ghost
  • Siren
  • Psychopath
  • Werewolf
  • Demon
  • Fallen angel
  • Goblin
  • Troll
  • Evil piano7

For those unfamiliar with my oeuvre the Magic or Madness trilogy was about witches. There were, obviously, fairies in How To Ditch Your Fairy and if you don’t think those fairies count then I wrote about more traditional fairies in the short story, “Thinner than Water.” I knocked over both vampires and zombies in Team Human. I don’t count the zombies in Zombies v Unicorns because I did not write those stories. I merely edited them.

I get to cross off ghosts because there are bazillions of them in my newest novel, Razorhurst. I am also, more controversially, crossing off siren because I believe the femme fatale is a kind of siren and Dymphna Campbell, one of the main characters in Razorhurst is most definitely a femme fatale. I’ll be very curious to hear your opinions on that those of you who have read Razorhurst.

I am aware that some of you are going to say that there are two more on that list that I could cross off. However, I have decided I can’t do that because in that particular book it is up to the reader to decide if the main character is an x or a y or possibly a z or possibly none of those. There is no definitive answer thus they all remain on the list. I will brook no argument on that topic.

My happiness at crossing stuff of my list is great. Have any of youse crossed anything off your writing goals list of late?

TL:DR My new book Razorhurst means I get to cross historical, omniscient, ghost and siren off my lists. Let the dancing commence!

  1. Though I would make no objections should such a thing happen. None at all.
  2. Well, not unless they’re hugely wealthy or know hugely wealthy people who are willing to buy gazillions of copies of their books from New York Times reporting stores. But then you wind up with the * meaning this book QUITE POSSIBLY CHEATED.
  3. Well, except that I’m only counting them once they get published, which is not actually something I can control. It’s something I hope (fervently) will continue to happen.
  4. No, it’s not cheating. I made up this system. I set the rules.
  5. You know, Literature: professor has affair with much younger student in the midst of mid-life crisis. Though I have never written such a book nor will I. But enough of my readers declared Liar to be literature that I decided to cross it off the list.
  6. Razorhurst will be out in the US next March.
  7. This one is for Courtney Summers.
metteharrison July 22 2014, 20:46

Let’s Get You Stronger

This is something that one of my early therapists told me. She was actually pretty smart, but I didn’t keep seeing her for very long because I wasn’t ready for some of the things she had to tell me. In this case, I told her all these things that had crushed me and when she said that her job was to help me get stronger, I was so furious. I didn’t want to get stronger. I wanted the world to get easier. Basically, she was saying that I was going to have to change, to do work, and I was too depressed to think about any of that.

This is a frequent problem with depression. If someone in your life is depressed and you find yourself thinking up brilliant suggestions for them which they hate, well, you’re not doing the wrong thing necessarily. It’s just that often you have to wait for the depressed person to initiate movement toward change. I’m not sure you can do much to push them forward except standing by them and giving support—sometimes even when it seems ridiculous. Say “yes” and nod a lot, make sympathetic noises. And eventually they may get to the part where they have enough energy and enough clarity to change.

That change may include medication or it may not. It may include therapy. It may include weird things that you think are stupid. Diet changes. Exercise changes. Sleep changes. Relationship changes. They may change things that didn’t need to be changed and they regret them. But at least they’re trying something. Of course they can’t see clearly, but the energy to do some change is a good thing at base.

And the truth is, my therapist was right. There was nothing she could do to make the world less cruel, to take away the pain that I was suffering. There might be people around me doing things that hurt me more. But she and I couldn’t change them. I wanted to point fingers and say everyone else was doing everything wrong, that they were the problem. This is pretty common in depression. And I’m not even saying it wasn’t true. It just didn’t matter that much. Because when you’re the one in pain, you’re mostly the one who has to change—even if the only thing you can change is getting rid of the people in your life who are unable to stop causing you pain.
metteharrison July 21 2014, 22:53

It's All Fodder

It’s easy to get depressed when you get rejection letter after rejection letter. Knowing that it’s part of the process helps a little, but doesn’t take away the sting completely. And there are other parts of the writing process that are even more painful. Giving up on a manuscript and putting it aside. Rewriting a manuscript so that large chunks you love are gone. Realizing that a manuscript you’re working on is derivative—or that something far too similar has just been published by someone you never heard of.

When you are feeling like this sucks and there is no point in writing another word, I hope it’s helpful to hear things like this:

1. This is all going to make a great book someday. Either a book about a writer or a book about someone who is rejected in ways that are like a writer.

2. I’m making that editor into the villain in my next manuscript.

3. The people who rejected me are going to wish they hadn’t. (Sometimes this actually does happen.)

4. Anger and despair are just more fuel for the creative fire.

5. Now that I’ve suffered, I really get what other artists are talking about.

6. I can write characters who have been through bad stuff a lot better now.

7. If I can figure out why people do these things that hurt me, I can write better villains. And make them suffer even more when I take away everything they care about. Mwahahah!

8. I’m going to devise a fantasy world in which things like this don’t happen. And I’m going to spend a lot of time worldbuilding to show how it can be done.

9. I get to the god of my next novel and I will make all the people I create suffer the way I’ve suffered, and it will be delicious!

10. I am going to work on my inspiring talk on how to keep working hard, no matter how bad the rejection gets, and aspiring authors are going to one day give me standing ovations.

jbknowles July 21 2014, 13:05

Maybe I was wrong...

Hello and welcome to Week #3 of Teachers Write! I hope you're all having a wonderful time writing and creating and thinking and learning. I know I have!

Today I want to talk about moments of clarity. Moments of realization. In real life, these can come like a slap to the forehead, or sometimes more deeply, like a fist to the heart. I'm going to give an example.

Last week, my son and I spent five days volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. We got up early, met with an incredibly inspiring group of people, received our goals for the day, and got to work. By the end of the day we'd be tired and sweaty, and extremely grimy. My job for most of the week was putting up vinyl siding which had been stored in a wet spot of ground that received little sun. Each strip was covered in mud, leaves, pine needles and a fair amount of slugs which I continuously stuck my fingers in. We'd sweep the siding off (there was no electricity or running water for a hose) cut it with what we lovingly called "snips" which had my hands bruised by the end of the week, and cross our fingers that we'd measured correctly and hung them true. Most of the time, our fearless leader would come around the corner, inspect our work, and have us start over. It was difficult, and frustrating, but we kept our sense of humor.

As you can imagine, coming home to electricity, water, soap and (honestly) a toilet, was pretty nice. On one day, I went out to check our blueberry bushes and discovered several were ripe and ready to eat! Plus, they were HUGE. Beautiful, plump and oh so sweet. I took a photo of one and posted it on Facebook. Then, since I'd been away from electronics all day, I started to read headlines from the BBC, and catch up with friends' posts. And I realized that while I was off feeling so good about building this home and then celebrating the glory of a blueberry, horrifying events were happening. In that moment, I thought of that stupid blueberry photo and how insensitive and lost in my world I'd been. It was my punch to the heart moment.

Here's what I wrote on my Facebook wall:

"After I posted my blueberry photo, I realized how crazy and selfish it is to post a photo of an especially large blueberry when there is so much horrific violence going on around the world. And close to home, learning of the tragic death of a woman who babysat for us when we were kids. I am thinking about all the people who are touched by grief every day. Every day there are horrors and tragedies. And every day there are things like the wonder of a blueberry you picked from a bush you've been nurturing for ten and a half years. And every day there are cats doing cute things. And baby photos posted by a proud new grandparent. Every day there is sadness. And every day there is joy. And every day there is love. And who gets what every day seems to be a cruel crapshoot. And I don't know what to do about that except try to remember it. And try to be more kind. So I am sorry about the blueberry. But I am also grateful for it. Maybe more so because it grows despite the sorrow."

After that initial punch of guilt over the blueberry I realized that the world continues to spin no matter what happens on it. I have had my share of grief and I know what it feels like to not understand how this is so. There have been days in deep sorrow when I couldn't understand how people could keep going on with their daily lives, oblivious to the pain next door. But they do. We all do, eventually. And this, too, is another type of moment of clarity, or realization: That when faced with despair, we have a choice. We can feel the despair, and carry on trying to make the world a better place, or we can feel the despair and let it win.

The day after the blueberry incident, after feeling that despair and anger over all that senseless killing, I was filled with more determination than ever. I wasn't changing the world, but small acts of good work add up, and they do make the world a little better. I really believe that. I went back to that frustrating siding with a vengeance. I was determined to work harder. To make that house more beautiful. Liveable. Loveable. It fueled me. On the last day, we nailed the final piece of siding up. But the walls were still dirty-looking and it was hard to feel 100% proud. So another woman and I (she is a teacher!) filled a bucket with water from a nearby stream, got some rags, and washed every last strip until it looked new. We had to refill that darn bucket over and over because the water got muddy so fast. I fell in the stream up to my knee and had to spend half the day with one wet foot. It was gross and stinky but I didn't care. Because in the end, the siding did look just like new.

So what does all of this have to do with fiction? I would argue that this is how stories work. The protagonist makes a big realization, usually early on in the story, and it's what sets the story in motion. It's how quests begin. They hinge on a choice: give up or carry on and try to fix the problem. Fixing the problem, solving the mystery, trying to survive, whatever the situation, that's your story. And whatever it is that fuels your character to try, that's your characterization.

So what, specifically, is your character's big realization and what fuels him or her to try to make things better, or survive?

I started this entry talking about my work with that gross siding. And it seemed like kind of a drawn out story to get to my point. But I told it because of all the parallels I see in writing, and in particular revision. We almost never get it right the first time. We think we've measured correctly, or at least well enough, but when we step back and look, we can see it's a little off balance. So we take things down. We get help. We get feedback. we remeasure. We try again. We get dirty. We get frustrated. (Luckily there are no slugs!) But something in us doesn't let us give up. Something fuels us to keep going. And eventually, we get it right. Then we clean it up. And hopefully we feel good about it. Hopefully we feel proud. :-)

Today, I want you to think about your story, your protagonist, and what he or she is facing. Why is his or her story important to you? Why is this story worth telling? Try filling in the blanks:

This is a story about a _________________ who realizes/learns that _____________________________________________________ . So, he/she __________________
_____________________________________________________________________________________ .

This story is important to me because ______________________________________________ .


If you aren't working on a particular story, try writing to the prompt, "Maybe I was wrong..."

I hope you'll share what you come up with!

And as always, have fun. :-)


My son and I, working for Habitat for Humanity
westerfeld_blog July 20 2014, 16:21




Behold the new website, reskinned in honor of Afterworlds (which now has its own page at last). I hope you enjoy the new look.

Let me know in the comments below if anything is broken anywhere, especially in the Forum.

Next week I’ll be at San Diego Comic Con, so if you’re there come see my panel, Sunday at 1PM or come to my signing at the Mysterious Galaxy Booth (#1119) on Saturday, 1:00p.m. – 1:30p.m.

If you’re in San Diego but not going to Comic Con, come see me at the The Yellow Book Road Bookstore, where I’ll be talking about Leviathan and Afterworlds.

The Yellow Book Road Bookstore
2750 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego, CA 92106
Sunday, July 27
Store: 619-955-5188

And finally, here’s the awesome animated cover for the UK edition of Afterworlds:


Pretty cool. See (some of) you on San Diego!

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