Dear Authors: Don’t Listen to Book Snobs

Every once in a while you stumble upon an article that really gets your hackles up. Dear Self-Published Author: Do NOT Write Four Books a Year written by Lorraine Devon Wilke is one such article. Yes, Ramblers, my hackles are well and truly up. I’m bristling like an angry little hedgehog. I realise that it’s been a while since this article was published, but I’m responding to it anyway.

Everyone take a few minutes to read the article.

 

Okay, you done? Good.

So why has this article got all my spikes out? Because of the blatant book snobbery. I cannot stand book snobbery.

Let’s start from the beginning.

‘No matter what experts tell you, no matter what trends, conventional wisdom, social media chatter or your friends in the Facebook writers group insist upon, do NOT write four books a year. I mean it. Don’t.

Unless they’re four gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, amazingly rendered and undeniably memorable books.’

I’m only six lines into this thing, and already that slow burn of anger is gathering in my chest. Last year I read 283 novels. Many of them were very good. Many of them were memorable. Yet I have a feeling that none of them are what Lorraine Devon Wilke would describe as ‘gorgeously written’ or ‘amazingly rendered.’

Don’t get me wrong, Wilke is wholly entitled to her opinion. But the way she has written her article is that her opinion is fact, and should be held in higher regard than the ‘experts’ she dismissed in her opening line.

Six lines into her article and the author has, essentially, dismissed all genre fiction. And that’s where I stand up in righteous anger.

I am honestly so tired of this ugly attitude regarding books. I am so tired of genre fiction being sneered at by so-called literary critics who refuse to understand that, actually, not all books have to be rich in subtext and meaning. Sometimes people just want to read about wizards going to magical schools, or stormy love affairs, or crazy dystopian visions of the future. Sometimes people just want to be entertained. And what is so wrong with that?

In a matter of lines, Wilke has announced that, even if you can turn out four decent books a year – four decent genre books, I might add – then you shouldn’t be writing that many.

Wilke goes on to deride ‘hacks’ and asks, ‘isn’t the whole point of this exercise to write good books?’

Yes, Ms Wilke, it is, but what you can’t seem to understand is that different people have different ideas on what is ‘good’. I think Vampire Academy is a good book. Is it a literary masterpiece? Heck no. Is it damn good ride? Absolutely! I picked the book up because I wanted a fun escape into a world of warring vampires and forbidden love. And that’s exactly what I got. I didn’t pick up Vampire Academy expecting to see a richly textured literary triumph, resplendent with meaning and subtext. I wanted vampires, damnit.

But in Wilke’s view, books like that are no good because they’re not literary.

She goes on to laud Pulitzer Prize winner, Donna Tartt, proclaiming that it took Tartt 11 years to deliver her masterpiece. Now I am in no way deriding the length of time it took Tartt to write The Goldfinch as I am a firm believer in everyone working at their own pace, but if every author took 11 years to write one book then there’d be a lot fewer books in the world. And I for one see that as a very bad thing.

And what of all the authors who don’t want to be Pulitzer Prize winners? Don’t worry, Wilke hasn’t forgotten about us. She goes on to ask what, if we don’t wish to win Pulitzers and be hailed as literary geniuses, is the point of us writing?

The point is that we have stories we want to tell. We have worlds and characters that we wish to share with the world. Not everyone cares about the prizes.

But Wilke doesn’t stop there, oh no. She asks if we just wish to ‘achieve fame and fortune, quality be damned?’

Again, the point she seems to be missing here is that quality comes in many different forms. In terms of what it offers – vampires! Secret romance! Kick-ass heroine! – Vampire Academy is a quality book. I would bet money that Lorraine Devon Wilke doesn’t see it that way.

I will put my hands up and say that I will never be what is considered a ‘literary’ writer. I am well aware of what I can write and what I can’t. I can turn out entertaining genre fiction about ghosts and monsters and witches. I can turn out science fiction about lethal viruses and zombies. I can turn out romances with happily-ever-after endings. I will never be able to write something like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

But that’s never been what I want to write. I’ve always wanted to write genre fiction because it’s what I’m passionate about. And yes, I will take offence when some literary snob dismisses a huge percentage of books simply because they are not ‘literary’ and therefore don’t meet some standard that she presents as fact.

What is the point of me writing, Ms Wilke? Because I have stories that I want to share with the world. I don’t give a rat’s ass that my books will never meet your view of ‘quality.’ I write them because they’re fun to write and fun to read, not because I want to win a Pulitzer Prize. If an author’s only reason for writing is to win aforementioned Pulitzer Prize, then what makes them any less of a hack than a genre writer?

Wilke goes on to mock the advice given to authors about producing four books a year, and claims that ‘I’ll bet good money Donna Tartt, Anthony Doerr, and other quality writers aren’t getting that same message from their publishers. First tier, baby.’

At this point, dear Ramblers, I had to fight the urge to reach through the computer screen and hit Lorraine Devon Wilke on the head with a copy of Vampire Academy or Harry Potter or any other great work of genre fiction.

Let me just break down the problem I have with what Wilke has said.

1. She’s essentially saying that if you’re not Donna Tartt or Anthony Doerr then you’re probably not a quality writer.
2. She’s ignoring the fact that some authors do actually write full-time, and rely on the money they make to actually put food on the table, and clothe their kids. These authors wouldn’t survive if they only released one book a year. No doubt these are the ‘hacks’ that Wilke dismissed earlier in her article, but why should they curb their output simply because it doesn’t meet her standards?
3. The whole stuck-up attitude of this piece just makes me clench my fists. Once again battle lines are being unnecessarily drawn in the sand between literary and genre books, and it really makes me sick. Why can literary snobs not just respect the fact that a lot of people are more interested in genre fiction than literary fiction?

Wilke labours under the impression that every book in existence should be a literary masterpiece, one that takes years to complete, one that takes the reader’s breath away with every gorgeously rendered paragraph.

I read a couple of hundred novels each year. If every one of them took my breath away then I’d be dead!

Frankly Wilke’s whole article reeks of literary snobbery. It dismisses genre fiction and genre authors, ignoring the fact that the recent boom in genre fiction has been massively beneficial to the publishing industry, and ignoring the fact that many people – including myself – read and write these sorts of books because they’re entertaining. It doesn’t mean we deserve any less respect or consideration than our literary counterparts.

Obsessing Over Film Deals.

If you’re lucky enough to have your book published, if you’re lucky enough that your book strikes the right chord with a lot of people, then you might be lucky enough to have your book optioned by a production company.

BUT!

This is rare.

There have been a rash of book-based films in recent years – Beautiful Creatures, City of Bones, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Fault in our Stars and, of course, LOTR and Harry Potter.

It’s perhaps understandable that aspiring writers see these films and think that this sort of thing is easy or that it happens to every book.

It doesn’t.

I’ve read hundreds of books over the last couple of years alone, and only a tiny, tiny handful of them ever landed that film deal. (And the ones that do usually get butchered by cack-handed production companies, but I digress)

So it seems…naive of aspiring authors to obsess over things like film rights. But I regularly see it happen. Not only do authors plan out how their book-baby would be translated to the silver screen, they frequently plan out who would play their characters. Some authors even claim they can’t get on with writing their story until they’ve picked the perfect ‘cast.’

This isn’t a problem if you’re just doing it for fun. I’m sure lots of people like to daydream about their book-baby landing a film deal and being brought to life by today’s hottest stars. It becomes a problem when obsessing over a film deal gets in the way of actually writing something – or worse, is your sole reason for writing.

Let’s break down the reality of a film deal.

The Option

Having your book optioned does not mean it will ever actually make it to the screen. When a production company options your book, they pay you for exclusive permission to buy the film rights to your book. The option usually lasts between 1-3 years. If the production company has not done anything with your book in that time then the option expires.

The bad news? Your book isn’t being made into a film, after all.

The good news? You still get to keep the money that was paid to you for the option, and the book is now available to be optioned again.

Casting

Let’s jump forward and pretend your book is officially on its way to becoming a bona fide film. Time to track down your dream cast, right?

Wrong.

The author of the book is not going to have any say in the casting of the film.

Aside from the obvious – authors don’t generally get to decide who appears in a film – there is something rather pointless about obsessing over suitable actors and actresses. By the time the books have been:

a) published

b) become successful enough to attract a production company

c) been scripted

the actors/actresses the hopeful author has in mind could well have fallen off the Hollywood radar by then.

Even worse are the authors who believe they could – or worse, should – play the lead of the adaptation of their book. Again, I see it all the time – authors arguing that they’d be the best person for the role because they know the character the best, and because they wrote the thing, blah, blah, blah.

Yeah…it’s not gonna happen.

Unknowns are often cast in films – how would anyone become a star if no one took a chance on them? – but a production company is not going to cast the author of the book in the lead role. Expecting otherwise is beyond wishful thinking.

Realism

The reality of the film deal is that you get paid for the rights to your creation, and that ends your involvement with the production. You won’t be consulted about the changes the studio plans to make to your precious book-baby, and you might not be at all happy with the resulting film.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a look at five authors who hated the famous screen adaptations of their books.

  1. P.L Travers hated the Disney version of Mary Poppins. It might be a much-loved classic now, but the author of the book spent the premiere in tears. Subsequently, she refused to let Disney touch any more books in her series.
  2. It’s another film considered a classic, but Stephen King was deeply disappointed in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, claiming that Kubrick ‘just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel.’ He was also critical of Jack Nicholson’s performance in the lead role.
  3. Queen of the vampire genre, Anne Rice, took to Facebook to express her disgust of the screen version of Queen of the Damned. She told her Facebook fans to avoid watching the film as it had ‘mutilated’ her book.
  4. Roald Dahl thought the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film was ‘crummy’ and derided Gene Wilder’s perfomance as Willy Wonka. His contempt of the film prevented the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, from making it to the screen. I can’t help but wonder what Dahl might have made of the Tim Burton version of his beloved book.
  5. Richard Matheson has not liked a single film version of his book, I Am Legend. In response to the latest attempt, starring Will Smith, Matheson said, ‘I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it.’

All of these authors landed that coveted film deal and all of them were disappointed.

‘But mine will be different,’ I hear you cry. Maybe you like to imagine your book is so brilliant that no studio would dream of making a single change.

Wrong.

Maybe you think that all you need to do is explain to the studio that any changes they make will not be for the better. They will, of course, be very understanding.

Wrong.

It just doesn’t work like that. In very rare cases, some big-name authors (think good ol’ JK Rowling) might be able to bag themselves a seat on the production team. For the majority of authors this is not the case. Generally speaking, once the film people buy the rights to your book, they can do whatever they want with it.

The film deal obsession I see circulating among some authors boils down to unrealistic expectations. If you chase impossible dreams, you will end up disappointed. Set yourself achievable targets. Your book may be published, and it even may be made into a film, but you, the hopelessly hopeful author, will not be overseeing production. You will not be writing the script. You will not be choosing the cast. You will not be starring in the lead role.

M’kay?

M’kay.

 

Clean Reader and Body-Shaming.

So if you all haven’t heard, there is now an app called Clean Reader that exists to remove profanity and anything else it deems offensive from e-books and replace it with something more child-friendly.

The issues of censorship and mutilating someone else’s work has already been covered by writers far more eloquent than I – Chuck Wendig, Joanne Harris, Lilith Saintcrow and Jennifer Porter – but there is something else I would like to talk about regarding the Clean Reader app.

Please note, this post will contain ‘naughty’ words so any pro-Clean Readers, y’all know where the door is.

Apparently there are three levels to this app: Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean. Jennifer Porter gave Squeaky Clean a test run. The results were pretty horrifying. According to that app, the word ‘sex’ is bad. Yup. That’s right. Clean Reader designated ‘sex’ as a bad word that needed to be scrubbed from books.

What sort of mad fuckery is this?

The app that seems to want to shelter the innocent eyes of our cotton-wool swaddled offspring instead presents the toxic message that sex is bad. It presents the message that the word ‘sex’ is so offensive it must be removed from the pages of literature lest it corrupt the fragile minds of today’s youth.

Children are impressionable little things, and the last thing they need to be told is that a simple word – one referring to a completely natural act that will form a large part of their adult lives – is something to be ashamed of. After all, if the word is bad then the act itself must be downright horrific.

Oh, but it gets worse.

Not only is ‘sex’ on Clean Reader’s list of naughty words, so are anatomical terms like ‘vagina’ or ‘breasts.’ Yes, my dear Ramblers, these are filthy, shameful words and we must shield our little darlings from them. After all, we wouldn’t want kids understanding the correct terms for their own anatomy.

The sheer absurdity of this is astounding. The Clean Reader app takes the word ‘vagina’ and replaces it with ‘bottom’ therefore rendering all ‘scrubbed’ sex scenes as acts of anal intercourse. Well done, Clean Reader. That makes perfect sense.

I’m not alone in my concern over this. Author Joanne Harris points out that ‘trying to pass off the words ‘anus’, ‘buttocks’ and ‘vagina’ as the same thing is very confusing indeed, not to mention damaging.’

And she’s right. Those body parts are not all the same and it’s ridiculous to label them all as ‘bottom’ simply because someone thinks that’s ‘cleaner.’ It’s equally ridiculous to replace all mentions of ‘breasts’ with ‘chest.’ I cannot fathom how anyone can possibly say that breasts is an offensive word. This is flat-out body-shaming, especially with regard to women. Modern society likes to pretend it’s very enlightened but an ugly vein of sexism and slut-shaming still runs through our culture, and by condemning words like ‘breasts’ and ‘vagina’ as bad, Clean Reader is contributing to that stigma. It is sending impressionable young readers the message that sex is dirty and that their bodies are things to be ashamed of.

I repeat, what mad fuckery is this?

That sort of vile, toxic message is far more offensive and far more damaging than the odd f-bomb or use of cockwaffle.

What exactly do the creators of Clean Reader plan to do when it comes to educating their little darlings about the birds and the bees? According to their app, they will be telling their children that the man’s groin goes into the woman’s bottom. Awesome advice about sex, guys. The absurd nonsense their app comes up with to replace so-called explicit material sometimes ends up sounding worse than the original.

Need an example? I’ll borrow one from the ever-awesome Chuck Wendig.

Original material: “Oh, fuck, I want you to put your prick inside me and fuck my asshole.”

Clean Reader version: “Oh, freak, I want you to put your groin inside me and freak
my jerk.”

Riiiight, that’s not confusing for kids at all.

Here’s a thought, if you don’t want your kids reading explicit material then, y’know, don’t buy them explicit books. I know books don’t come with warning labels but things like erotica are usually pretty easy to identify. If the cover image of a bosomy heroine or bare-chested, muscle-rippling hero doesn’t give it away the blurb certainly will.

If the cover and the blurb don’t give much clue about the book’s content then how about parents read the book first and determine whether or not they think it’s suitable for their children, rather than relying on a very stupid piece of technology to do the parenting for them.

When I was a kid I had a pretty advanced reading age. The first school I was at recognised it pretty quickly and encouraged me to read more challenging books. I still wasn’t entirely happy with this and so started reading whatever books lay around my house. Some of those were adult books. Some of them contained ‘naughty’ words. I remember reading the words ‘bastard’ and ‘slut’ for the first time. Did my mum panic that her precious darling daughter was reading these words? No, she explained the meaning and the context in which the words were used. I have no doubt there are certain books she wouldn’t have wanted me reading at that age and I’m not saying we should be encouraging our children to read explicit books, but there’s a difference between deciding that some books just aren’t appropriate for children and handing them some ridiculous app that replaces perfectly reasonable words with nonsense. That is confusing and potentially very damaging for a child.

If your little precious darling is just too fragile to comprehend words like ‘vagina’ then keep them reading Winnie-the-Pooh for the rest of their lives. Assuming that ‘Pooh’ isn’t somehow offensive and replaced with something else (note, Winne-the-Pooh is fantastic and people should read it for the rest of their lives, just not exclusively)

There is a plethora of fantastic children’s authors out there – Jacqueline Wilson, Judy Blume, Vanessa Curtis, Lucy Daniels to name but a few. If your child wants to move on from those sorts of books and try something a bit more mature then let them. If they come across a word they don’t understand or that makes them uncomfortable, sit down and talk to them about it. What better way to show your kids the power of words? What better way to teach kids that some words can be ugly and hurtful? Isn’t it better to teach them these things rather than simply pretending this kind of language doesn’t exist?

Clean Reader might think it’s doing the right thing by shielding children’s virgin eyes from certain words, but I believe it would be far better to treat children with a little more respect and maturity, and actually discuss these things with them.

 

 

 

 

Entitlement: also known as being a brat

Landing a publishing contract is the dream for a great many aspiring writers. They see books on the shelves of libraries and shops, and dream of the day their own book will be up there. Okay, I can empathise with that.

What I can’t empathise with is a sense of entitlement.

While browsing Y!A a few days ago, I came upon a question asked by a young aspiring author. She had just finished her very first book and was planning to immediately self-publish it. When some other, more seasoned writers, advised her that her first work was unlikely to be good enough to publish, the aspiring author proclaimed, “Regardless, I DESERVE publication because I have worked very hard on this.”

Um…what?

Frankly, Ramblers, I find this person’s sense of entitlement rather sickening. On one hand, I want to applaud the author for recognising that writing is, in fact, hard work. On the other, I want to leap into the internet and smack the attitude out of her.

The thing that many hopeful writers don’t or won’t acknowledge is that publishing is a business. Agents and publishers are looking for books that will sell. They couldn’t give a rat’s left toe if you think you have ‘worked hard’ on your manuscript. They couldn’t give a donkey’s right nut whether you’ve worked on your manuscript for ten days or ten years.  They certainly won’t agree that you ‘DESERVE’ publication simply because of your hard work.

Anyone that wants to get anywhere in the writing/publishing industry needs to work hard. It’s not as if most authors just coast by and only one or two special snowflakes really, REALLY work hard and therefore deserve more than everyone else.

And has the young author in question really worked that hard? I’m not denying that it’s not easy to write a book and I applaud her for having the dedication to see it through till the end. But writing a single book often only scratches the surface of learning to write, especially if you’ve never written anything else. There is so much more to the process than most people can learn from writing just one book. Most authors have at least one – usually more – ‘bottom drawer books.’ These are the first unpublishable manuscripts that an author produces while still negotiating all the tricky hurdles that come with learning how to write. Those authors who DO sell their very first novel frequently have some background in writing, whether it’s a form of journalism, or a proven track record of selling things like short stories. They have experience and usually years of it.

It takes the average person 9 – 12 months to write a novel. So let’s say this young author is part of that average. That would mean she has worked for about a year on her book. Sounds like a lot, right?

Wrong.

No one can estimate exactly how long it takes someone to learn to write to a publishable standard as everyone is different and everyone learns and develops differently. But there is a saying in the writing world that rings very true.

‘You have to write a million bad words before you start writing the good ones.’

I’ll give you all a moment to let that sink in.

One million bad words. ONE MILLION!! That’s a lot of crap to sift through. Unfortunately it’s a necessary process, just like that professional violinist who picked up his first violin and produced a noise that sounded like a cat being strangled, or that Oscar-winning actress whose first production in a kindergarten Nativity play resulting in her wetting herself and screaming for her mummy. Everyone has to start somewhere but if they want to get somewhere, they have to acknowledge that it will take time.

The length of time it takes to write a single novel is not usually enough time to learn how to produce work that is of a standard where people are willing to pay for it. Most authors work for years and years and years before they write anything good. So for this author to proclaim that she deserved publication simply because she felt she’d worked hard, well…it sounds bratty. It sounds like a child stomping her foot and expecting Mummy to pat her on the head and tell her she’s done a good job.

The real world isn’t like that and the publishing world certainly isn’t. You are not entitled to be published simply because you feel you have worked hard. Many people who work hard in their chosen field will never see success. That’s life. Refusing to acknowledge that makes you look like a brat. There are many hopefuls authors who have worked for years to learn to write and still aren’t published. Nor are they on the internet claiming they deserve anything. Thinking that a year’s work somehow puts you ahead of everyone else that’s learning to write makes you look like a brat.

I remember starting my first proper novel – a fantasy epic – at the tender age of twelve. Do you know how long I worked on that bad boy? Five years. That’s right, FIVE YEARS! No one can possibly say I didn’t work hard at it. But at the end, when it was finally finished, it never once crossed my mind that I deserved publication simply because I’d put so much time and effort into it. I remember the crushing disappointment when I received my first rejection for that novel. It still didn’t cross my mind that I deserved publication simply because I’d worked hard. Even as a teenager, I didn’t have that sense of entitlement.

The reality of writing is that it takes most people several years and often several practise novels to start producing anything good. At no point during that learning period do they automatically become deserving of publication simply because they’ve invested some effort. Thinking otherwise is demonstrative of the entitled attitude that a lot of people today seem to have.

With Great YA Literature Comes Great Responsibility

YA is the train that shows no sign of slowing down. From barely existing a few years, it has become one of the fastest-growing book-booms in…well ever. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Tess Burton, Goodreads reviewer, shares her thoughts.

At the grand old age of 25, I fully realise I am no longer the target audience for Young Adult literature. Though I admit that I find it increasingly difficult to relate to a teenage protagonist, and high school drama really does just bore me to tears, I can’t seem to get enough of good old YA. And I can’t help but wonder; why, eh? (I apologise, that was inexcusable…)

I guess my affinity for YA lit has to do with the fact that it didn’t really exist when I was a young adult myself. Sure, there have undoubtedly been stories aimed at young adults since the beginning of time, all dealing with themes of growth, identity, angst and so forth. But it has only been in recent years that YA became a genre. When I was younger, the Harry Potters were bundled in with the Very Hungry Caterpillars, and it was tough to find literature to guide me through such a rough, hormonal period in my life. I think when I was sixteen I weaved back and forth between reading The Babysitter’s Club and my mum’s semi-trashy crime paperbacks; it was an interesting time for me.

But these days an increasing amount of publishing houses are developing their own YA imprints, libraries and book stores have dedicated YA sections – this genre is now a culturally accepted thing, and it is booming. I am so fond of this genre because I recognise its potential, I know what I would have gained from YA books if they were around when I was younger, but at the same time I see a responsibility to be upheld.

Now I am painfully, painfully, aware how much of an old lady I sound when saying this but, we have to be careful of what we’re putting out there for young adult readers. With so many YA books being published these days (especially with the current successes of self-publishing), avid readers like myself will know how many shit books you have to excavate in order to get to the good stuff. And I’m not just talking about poorly written books, there’s a fair risk of that in any genre; I’m talking about the YA books that are sending really, really questionable messages.

I hear you, young readers, I know what you’re saying. Does she think we’re idiots? Does she think we actually have difficulty distinguishing fiction from reality? Does she truly believe that we’re going to base our life choices on what we read in bedtime stories?

Well…yes.

Sorry, teens, but I remember what I was like when I was one of you. You are a highly influenceable target audience, and not because you’re not as intelligent as adults or because we grown ones have it all figured out (we really don’t, honest), but because the young adult era is a confusing and difficult time. There isn’t a single young adult out there who doesn’t need a bit of guidance, and that’s exactly what stories are there for.

“Young Adult literature serves to create a reflective space for young readers as they traverse the chaos of adolescence. It mirrors the experience of finding one’s individual identity in the face of cultural subjectivity.”*

Of course you’re not going to go out and falcon punch a dragon just because a relatable YA protagonist did so in the latest trendy YA trilogy and that means that you now have superpowers. This is the subconscious we’re dealing with here and, though you’re not aware of it, it is going to take the messages you consume to heart and it is going to influence your behaviour whether you like it or not.

It’s an awesome feature to take advantage of when done in the right way: I have a running joke with my best friend that when we’re discussing some fairly serious life stuff, we can always quote Dumbledore. And then we marvel at the goddess qualities of JK Rowling, and how she really helped to shape our childhood.

But on the flip side of the coin, there are books out there that can really do some damage. I’ve lost count of the amount of Mary Sues I’ve seen in YA; I can’t relate to a perfect protagonist, what is the damn point? And why, why, why do 90% of YA novels have to contain a love story? Worse still, why do what feels like the overwhelming majority of said novels feature only the love story as the focal plot point? Reading about love stories can be fun, I know, but speaking 100% from personal experience, it really isn’t all that good for you.

I’m a Disney kid, I’m the girl who devoured Twilight even though I knew I shouldn’t, I was so obsessed with finding The One when I was younger that it overtook my life. The books I read and the films I watched did nothing but reinforce that. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, I knew that I felt incomplete without that feeling of romantic love, and I wouldn’t be able to function properly in life until I found it. As cathartic as it was, I look back now and recognise it as damaging. In exactly the same way that fashion magazines promote an unhealthy self-image, unrealistic expectations in YA literature can really upset your psyche.

And it gets worse: there are a disturbing amount of YA novels that I, among others, believe promote incredibly dangerous behaviour. The number one example that I will always jump to is, and forever will be, the Hush, Hush series, which teaches us that it’s totally okay to fall in love with a guy after he has confessed to having tried to murder you. But, you know, it’s okay because he’s totally in love with you too now, he wouldn’t lie to you. *ahem*

Am I paranoid? Reading too much into it, maybe? I’m not so sure. When domestic abuse and sexual assault is so common, it’s hard to take this shit lightly. This hit home for me last year when a spate of YouTube scandals came to light; the community involved itself with a lot of positive communication during this time, but what was most disturbing to me was the amount of young adults who didn’t fully understand the true nature of consent. Education on subjects like this should be a massive priority in schools and homes, and it is sorely, sorely lacking. Though I’m not blaming YA literature for this lack of education, I can hardly stand by and watch novels actively involve themselves in the problem. I may not have a voice in the education system in this country, but I’m an internet book reviewer, I have a slightly higher voice in the world of YA lit and I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs.

I am grateful to the YA genre for giving confused, impressionable minds some guidance and relatability. But as an adult – a very opinionated adult – I can see the pitfalls and I’m worried. It worries me that there are so many novels like Runes, in which the female protagonist has a choice between a nice guy and a misogynistic, possessive, aggressive, vampire-with-a-silly-name, and she chooses the latter mainly because he is Mr. McHottieHot. It worries me that teenagers will read books like The Program and end up with unhealthy (and downright wrong) attitudes towards mental illnesses. It worries me that there isn’t enough diversity, that anyone other than white, straight teens aren’t adequately represented.

I want the YA genre to be the best it can be. My generation and those before it didn’t have the genre to look to, but now that it exists I want authors and publishers to remember how important it is to think about what’s being put out there. These books help shape the future, help change cultural attitudes and misconceptions, help to guide and strengthen teenagers as they cross the threshold into adulthood. As an aspiring writer, I want to make sure what I one day put out there will be positive and constructive, and as helpful as I can make it. And I only hope others do to.

This is the part where Tess recommends some brilliant YA novels

Angelfall by Susan Ee
Cracked by Eliza Crewe
Reader Player One by Ernest Cline
Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
The Assassin’s Blade by Sarah J. Maas
The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
In the After by Dimitria Lunetta
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

You can find Tess on Goodreads or visit her website.

Interview with Vanessa Curtis

Today, Ramblers, I’m excited to welcome Vanessa Curtis, award-winning author of books for teens and children, including Zelah Green which won the Manchester Children’s Book Prize. Her latest book, The Earth is Singing, is released on January 27th, Holocaust Day.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was a little I wanted to be a librarian. But I’ve been a writer since I was about eight or nine when I had my poems published in the school magazine.

If not, what were your original aspirations?

I thought I’d be a musician. I trained at college as a pianist so I always assumed I’d end up going into music. I did go into music but in a more part-time way, teaching piano lessons from home.

How old were you when you first started writing?

I started young, writing stories and poems when I was about eight or nine. English was one of the few school subjects I actually enjoyed.

What was the first thing you ever published?

An article revolving around sex that I wrote in my lunch-break when I was about eighteen. It was published in Girl About Town magazine.

What inspired you to write your first novel?

My first novel was an angsty confessional about the breakdown of my first marriage back in 1997. It was too self-absorbed, too personal, and too depressing to be publishable so it went into my folder of doom, along with my other unfinished or unpublished manuscripts.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?

Doing it. *laughs* I suppose not deviating or procrastinating on the internet. It’s difficult to keep the incentive going when you have long periods of waiting for publishers and agents to get back to you, especially when sometimes they say yes and then change their minds and say no. All the waiting and rejections and periods of time when you’re not being paid for your work. There aren’t many careers when you can can work for long periods of time and not get paid for it.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about being a writer?

That I can’t give it up. I have considered giving up, for the aforementioned reasons and because it’s hard, often thankless work, but if I try giving up for a few months I always find myself coming back to it.

What is your writing schedule/process?

My schedule is simply to fit my writing around giving piano lessons. My process is to get a vague idea first, followed by the typing of a very rough chapter by chapter synopsis. Then I discuss the idea with my agent before I go any further to see if she thinks it’s viable. After that there are months, possibly even years of research if I’m writing historical fiction, which I am now. Then I actually have to write the book.

How long does it take you to write a book?

It depends on the book. The first draft of The Earth is Singing took three to four months to write, with about six months of research beforehand. Then it was rewritten two or three times at the request of my agent/editor. The whole process probably took about two years.

How did you feel when you knew your first novel was going to be published?

Quite excited actually, as I hadn’t set out to write novels, particularly not children’s novels. Zelah Green was a change of direction, almost like a new career.

What do your friends/family think of your writing career?

I think my family are quite proud. My mother can’t read The Earth is Singing as it’s so close to her family history that it’s too painful to read. My friends are very loyal, always pre-ordering copies of my books.

Some people think that writing isn’t a real job. Have you encountered any such negative attitudes?

My dad said it to me! I think he regretted it afterwards when he saw my look of distress and horror. What he meant was I had chosen one of the hardest possible careers so I let him off. Now he’s really proud of me.

I had articles coming out when I was still quite young so I think people could see how serious I was about my writing career.

Do you ever encounter writer’s block?

Not writer’s block as such, but I am very good at delaying writing the beginning of a novel. And for about the first fifteen thousands words, I’m very good at getting distracted.

How do you deal with it?

Sometimes I literally trick myself into sitting at the computer. I tell myself I’m just passing by my desk, then I’ll just switch on the computer, then I’ll just put my fingers on the keys and see what comes out. And then I’ll have written a few lines.

Sometimes I’ll tell myself I can’t play the harpsichord until I’ve written a certain number of words, or I’ll tell myself i can’t have lunch.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

In different ways, really. I like strong biblical girls’ names so I sometimes pick them from the Bible. With Zelah Green, the name Zelah was something I spotted on a signpost on the way to Cornwall. I thought it was an unusual name for a character, and decided, ‘I’ll have that.’

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy walking, playing the harpsichord, teaching piano, doing writing commissions for other people, or running writing workshops at the local Arts Centre.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

I’ve changed my ideas on that as I’ve got older. Something to do with research – archiving or genealogy, that sort of thing. Maybe journalism full-time. I’d quite like to work in some kind of heritage property, anything to do with old buildings.

The Earth is Singing is your latest novel, released on Holocaust Day, January 27th. The book follows a young girl, Hanna Michelson, and what happens to her when Nazis arrive in her Latvian town. The book is an unflinching look at the atrocities perpetuated against Jews at this time. What was the hardest part about writing it?

Writing that scene in the Rumbula forest. I tried to tell it as it was, rather than trying to soften it, and I may actually have been writing about members of my own family, several generations back.

What have you learned from writing it?

How lucky I am and how lucky many of us are. Things like that could so easily happen again. That I don’t know very much about one particular side of my family. And also that I’d like to do more historical fiction.

Before the Nazis arrive, Hanna is an aspiring ballerina. What made you decide to have her dance?

I needed something light and graceful and lovely as a contrast to the harrowing scenes in the book. Also, I love ballet.

What made you write this book?

When I went to Riga (where the book is set) I visited the recently opened Ghetto Museum. On the walls there are photos of thousands of pre-war Jewish people going about their daily lives. All of these people will have been killed. I looked at these photos and looked at their eyes, and their eyes seemed to follow me around the museum, almost like they were telling me to write their story. I went home to write it, not caring if it was published or not.

People, especially schoolchildren, don’t know enough about what happened in Eastern parts of Europe during the Second World War. They’re taught a lot about Auschwitz but not much about the horrific situations in places like Latvia and Lithuania.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read more. It’s amazing how many people don’t read books in the genre they’re trying to publish in, or worse, don’t read books at all.

Continually strive to improve your work all the time. That process never stops, no matter how many books you’ve had published. I’m still trying to improve. It’s a lifelong journey.

 

The Earth is Singing is released on Holocaust Day, January 27th.

The Earth is Singing

Vanessa Curtis: DKW agency Goodreads

The Earth is Singing: Amazon Goodreads Waterstones

 

 

Know Your Genre

I recently encountered a young author who was in a state of great excitement over her Fantastic Idea. It was fresh and original and no one else had done it yet. If I’m honest I’m usually a tad sceptical of these sorts of claims as just about everything has been done before, but I thought I’d give the author the benefit of the doubt and ask what her Fantastic Idea was.

She told me she was going to write a book…about a mermaid. Yep. The conversation went something like this.

Me: A mermaid?

Her: Yes. It’s completely different to anything that anyone else is doing at the moment.

Me: Really?

Her: Everyone else is writing about vampires and werewolves. No one’s writing about mermaids.

Me: *facepalm*

The young author in question genuinely believed that a mermaid book was a Fantastic Idea that had never, ever been done before.

Riiiiiiight. I kept waiting for her to tell me that no one had yet written books about angels or faeries.

This girl was completely unaware that there are already a lot of mermaid books out there – I can probably name ten just off the top of my head. Basically, she hadn’t done her research. Research isn’t just finding out technical details for your novel – how fencing works or how to fix a car, that sort of thing – it’s reading other books in your genre.The best way to find out what’s been done before is to read.

Read, read, read, and then read some more.

If you think that writing a mermaid book is a completely original idea then you’ll probably end up writing something that’s been done a million times before. When you’re tackling a concept that’s been done so many times, you might want to think outside the box. And one of the best ways to do that is to see what’s already been done. Know your market. Read widely in your chosen genre.

And this isn’t even the first time I’ve encountered something like this. Spending time on the Y!A forums means I’ve come across multiple young authors claiming they are writing a paranormal novel and wanting to know which supernatural creature is more popular – vampire, werewolf, angel, or faerie.

Again, the best way to find these things out is to read books. It’s so simple and yet so many seem to be unaware of it. Seriously guys, read. I can’t stress this enough. You might come up with your Fantastic Idea about angels and demons then read some books in this genre and realise your idea really isn’t that original. In fact, it’s downright derivative.

Don’t panic – it just means you might have to look at your story from a fresh angle.

You can’t do this if you’re not aware of which angel/mermaid/werewolf/insert supernatural creature here books have gone before you. The books in your chosen genres are trailblazers. You don’t have to follow the path they’ve left but you should at least be aware of it.

 

You Can’t Steal Ideas

New writers are often paranoid writers. All too often they believe their idea is gold, the likes of which has never, EVER been done before. This makes their idea valuable and, as we all know, people like to steal what’s valuable.

Except, you can’t really steal an idea.

Let’s clear something up right now – ideas cannot be copyrighted. Ideas for novels are a dime a dozen. They are quite literally anywhere and everywhere in the world. And it’s very easy for people to come up with similar ideas.

A few years ago I had an idea for a book that I got really excited about. A few days after I started writing it, I found myself on Amazon, searching their recommendations for books I might like. By chance I stumbled upon a recommendation for a book that was to be released the following year. I read the blurb and…it was, quite literally, the same idea I’d had. I was stunned. I had not told one single person – not even my cat – about the idea. The author in question was a debut novelist who lived on the other side of the planet. There was no possible way I could have ‘stolen’ the idea from her.  I have no doubt that if I’d gone ahead and finished my book it would have turned out very differently to the one on Amazon. But the core idea, the concept at the heart of the novel was the same.

The idea probably represents about 1% of the work involved in writing a book. If anyone wants to copy an idea they are free to do so. But they still have the other 99% of the book to write. Even if they copied the core idea from someone or something else, by the time they finished that other 99% of the book, it would be completely different to the original source.
More than once I have heard people accusing JK Rowling of ‘copying’ Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series. There may be similarities in the basic ideas behind the books, but the books themselves are completely different. There are countless books out there that have similar core ideas, but the characters and the plots are completely different.
Here’s the thing, Ramblers – the idea doesn’t make the story. The execution of the story does. How many of you have ever picked up a book thinking it sounds really good, only to hate it once you start reading? I’ll bet it’s happened to all of us. You don’t automatically like a book just because you like the idea behind it.
It’s easy to get excited about ideas – I do it all the time – but do not forget that they are only a tiny part of writing a novel. They are nowhere near as valuable as some people think.

And to the people who still don’t want to believe this, who jealously guard their Fantastic Ideas like Smaug perched on his treasure-hoard, ask yourself what will you do if your book ever hits the shelves? Any of those sneaky idea-thieves could read your book and decide to ‘steal’ your idea. It’s not like having your book published means people can’t and won’t write something similar.

Paranoia is a chain you need to chuck off. The idea is not what matters, the finished product is. The best idea in the world could be butchered by an untalented writer, and the dullest idea could be rendered magical by someone skilled.

So ditch this silly notion that everyone’s out to steal your ideas and just focus on actually writing them.

Writing for Money

Hopeful authors are frequently told not to write for money because the chances are they’ll never see much of it. But sometimes this seems to get misinterpreted as meaning authors shouldn’t expect to be paid.

I once saw someone tell a young aspiring author that they’d lost all respect for them because the young author hoped to make money from their work. I’ve seen people say it’s okay to steal books because the authors shouldn’t be writing for the money anyway.

NO!

When people tell authors they shouldn’t be writing for they money, they mean the authors shouldn’t be writing JUST for the money.

Why?

Because authors, as a general rule, earn very, very little. Telling people this is not to discourage them, it to open their eyes to the financial reality of writing. It is not sneering at them because they hope to make money from their writing. That is not okay.

Why shouldn’t an author expect to be paid? They work hard on their books. Artists aren’t expected to give their paintings away for free. Photographers don’t offer their services for free. Just because something is a vocation doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve payment.

And what about those authors who are lucky enough to write full-time? For some people writing is their sole source of income. It’s the only way they can pay the bills, put food on the table, and clothe their kids. For some people writing is a job.

When you do your job, you get paid for it. Imagine going to do your job, working for eight or more hours straight, and then being told you don’t deserve to get paid because you shouldn’t be working for the money. Would you be pissed? Damn right you would.

Authors deserve to be paid. It doesn’t matter if they write every day or only release one book every few years. If anyone out there thinks authors don’t deserve to be paid, I challenge you to write a book – to spend years actually learning how, to spend months working on your manuscript, to put your heart and soul into it, and then be told you don’t deserve paying for it.

Authors weave magic in their pages. They take us out of their mundane lives and whisk us away on fantastical adventures. They give us friends to laugh, cry, and fall in love with. They take us to places we never thought we could go. They touch us in way we couldn’t imagine.
How can anyone not want to pay them for bringing so much joy into our lives?