In Which I Take More Photographs

Yesterday, I posted some photographs of a Lion and a Unicorn. Here’s where they live:

Southern entrance to Main Quad

They’re over the southern entrance to the Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney, which is Australia’s oldest university. On the left side of the photo you can see part of MacLaurin Hall, the original university library. Here’s another view of MacLaurin Hall:

MacLaurin Hall

I sat for exams in that building a couple of decades ago. (I blame the extremely distracting neo-Gothic architectural details for my poor results.)

If you walk through the Lion and the Unicorn entrance, you’ll find yourself in the Main Quadrangle, which features a beautiful jacaranda tree:

Jacaranda tree, Main Quadrangle

The tree is covered in vivid purple flowers in late spring. It’s said that if you haven’t started studying by the time the jacaranda flowers, you’ll fail all your exams. Here’s another view of the Main Quad, showing the Clock Tower and Carillon:

Clock Tower, Main Quadrangle

According to Tess van Sommers, who wrote the text of University of Sydney Sketchbook, “If architect Edmund Blacket had had his way, this tower would have had even more ornate turrets than it has now; some almost deliriously convoluted pinnacles were among his rejected designs.”

At the left side of the photo, you can see a bit of the Great Hall, a “scaled-down version of Westminster Hall in London”. At the moment, most of it is covered in scaffolding, so I didn’t take a photo from the front, but it’s a fairly spectacular edifice. Apparently, its construction in the 1850s and 1860s did not go smoothly, with workmen often abandoning the site to join the latest gold rush, while politicians kept raising doubts about “the need for such frivolities as gargoyles”. Also, “for some years, the frontal majesty of the block was marred by an approach through cow pastures” and what is now Victoria Park featured a dam in which horses bathed and occasionally died.

But what, you may ask, does all this have to do with my current writing project? Good question. I don’t have a very detailed answer yet, but wait and see. It’s possible that something interesting and historical and book-shaped will (eventually) appear.

In Which I Take Some Photographs

Last month I bought my very first camera, so that I could take some photos of the setting of my next novel. This work-in-progress doesn’t even have a title yet. All I’ve done so far is read a lot of books about the subject, fill a folder with research notes and think up some fairly silly jokes and snippets of dialogue. The next step – organising all of this into some sort of coherent plot – seems so overwhelming that I’ve been avoiding it. However, today I decided to go for a long walk around the place in which the novel is set, in the hope that this would inspire me to do some work. I took my camera along and here are some of the results.

First, the Lion:

The Lion

His ferocity is slightly diminished by the fact that a few of his front teeth have fallen out. Actually, I’m not sure if the Lion is going to make it into my book, but the cute little gargoyle in the top left corner of the picture definitely is.

And then, the Unicorn:

The Unicorn

I’m assuming it is a Unicorn (and not just a horse with a weird lump on its forehead), because it’s helping the Lion hold up a coat of arms. Poor Unicorn has lost most of its horn, but hey, if you were a hundred and fifty years old, bits of you would probably be falling off, too.

Next is Mephistopheles, spitting into a fountain:

Mephistopheles

Unfortunately, he’s missing most of his nose, but he still looks quite evil. He was (supposedly) designed by Australian architect Leslie Wilkinson in 1925, and possibly inspired by Australian artist Norman Lindsay. (I accidentally typed ‘Normal Lindsay’ just then, which I’m sure he would have found highly insulting.)

And then there’s Gilgamesh, who is either hugging or strangling a lion:

Gilgamesh

I have to admit that I don’t yet know much about Gilgamesh, except that he was the king of Uruk (now Iraq and Kuwait) in about 2500 BC and was regarded as a demigod in Mesopotamian mythology. He also went on a ‘quest to seek immortality’, which is very useful for my purposes. I’m choosing to believe he is embracing the lion, even though the lion doesn’t look very happy, because Gilgamesh also found ‘compassion, friendship, courage, love and peace’ on his quest. That’s nice, isn’t it?

Tomorrow: More photographs from my expedition, and I’ll explain where you can find Gilgamesh and his friends. (Shh, Sydneysiders, I know you’ve already worked out where the photographs were taken! But I’m trying to create some suspense here!)

In Which I Acquire Two Shiny New Things

Last week, I acquired two shiny new things. The first was a shiny new camera. I’ve never owned a camera before (no, not even one in a mobile phone, because I’ve never owned a mobile phone, either), so this has been a very exciting and time-consuming experience for me (hence the lack of blogging). Oh, the wonders of modern technology. This camera can do anything – it even has a MAGIC shooting mode. Unfortunately, I am a Muggle, so most of the magic has eluded me. This is particularly disappointing because one of the MAGIC modes can cause objects to sparkle. This immediately made me want to go around taking pictures of people, then showing them the photos and saying, ‘LOOK! You’re a sparkly vampire!’, but so far, the only thing I’ve managed to turn into sparkles is a picture frame. However, I will persist. I actually bought the camera so I could take photos of the setting of my next book (which is set in Sydney, where I live), so those photos may appear on this blog in the near future. Or not, depending on how my photography skills develop.

The other shiny new thing I acquired was the Uncorrected Bound Proof (or ARC, if you’re American) of my new book, The FitzOsbornes at War, which looks like this:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' Australian ARC cover
Click on the image to see the cover more clearly

Pretty, huh? I tried to make it sparkle, but all that happened was that a red splodge with an uncanny resemblance to a lobster claw appeared on Sophie’s frock. (Oh, camera, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.) Here’s a photo of the spines of all three Montmaray books, so you can see how enormous the third book is:

'The Montmaray Journals' Australian covers
Click on the image to see the covers more clearly

Actually, it doesn’t look much bigger than the second book, but it really is – it’s more than five hundred pages. Massive. My next book’s going to be a lot shorter.

Here, have a photo of a rainbow lorikeet:

Rainbow lorikeet

FitzOsbornes at War Update

Australian edition of The FitzOsbornes at War
Copyedit of manuscript: Done!
Proofreading of 500+ pages of typeset book: Done!
Book cover: Done! (Although not by me.)

North American edition of The FitzOsbornes at War
Copyedit of manuscript: Done!

So, that was my holiday season! Hope you all had a lovely, relaxing break over the holidays and read some good books.

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Those beautiful, elaborate paper sculptures that have been popping up in Edinburgh libraries seem to have come to an end, sadly. Thank you, Mysterious Sculptor, for sharing them with us.

Which reminds me of my favourite entry in this year’s Creative Reading Prize in the Inkys – the amazing book sculpture (I’m not sure how else to describe it) of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Look at wee Harry, climbing through the tunnel with his broom, and Slytherin’s locket, and the detailed blurb on the back cover! Fabulous work, Rebecca. (And yes, my favourite entry last year was the French-knitted Harry Potter.)

I love this: Lies I’ve Told My 3 Year Old Recently. Except the fourth one isn’t actually a lie. Tiny bears DO live in drain pipes.

The FitzOsbornes don’t live in a drain pipe, but they are on the Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Books of 2011 list. However, in the interests of balance and to stop myself getting a big head, I should point out that not everyone liked The FitzOsbornes in Exile. This Goodreads reviewer, for example, who said:

“The book was very unrealistic. First off, the reactions to certain situation were very unnaturally calm and anyone had real emotion to any situation. The story wasn’t bad but it shouldn’t have been that long for such a plot that wasn’t that interesting. Overall, the book left me with a very empty feeling. Nothing was settled. You never found out what happened to everyone. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.”

So, if you haven’t read any of my books: you’ve been warned.

But if that warning doesn’t put you off, you still have time to enter my Montmaray book giveaway. Entries close on the 4th of December (which is actually the 5th of December for Australians).

The FitzOsbornes At War

The publication date for the Australian edition of The Montmaray Journals, Book Three: The FitzOsbornes at War is:

2 April, 2012

Give or take a week or so. I mean, we’re not talking a Harry Potter-style release date here, with security guards monitoring the cartons of books, and an electronic billboard doing a countdown, and thousands of costumed fans lined up outside bookstores at midnight. (Although, if you want to dress up in a 1940s frock and take your Portuguese Water Dog on a leash when you buy your copy, you can, of course! And please send me a photograph.)

EDITED TO ADD: Current publication date for the North American edition is 9 October, 2012, but this could change!

That GayYA Thing

A month or so ago, while I was locked in my Editing Bunker, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere about the lack of gay (and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) characters in books for teenagers. It started off as an argument about whether a particular literary agent had asked two particular authors to remove a gay character from their book, and turned into a wider debate about the experiences of LGBTQ authors and the success (or otherwise) of Young Adult books featuring LGBTQ characters. For those who missed it, there’s an excellent summary and discussion at cleolinda’s livejournal. During the debate, Malinda Lo, a YA author, gathered some data, constructed some graphs and concluded that “less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters”.

So: books, teenagers, gayness and maths. How could I possibly resist adding my opinions, even if I am rather late to the discussion? So, here are some of my random thoughts on the GayYA thing:

All of my YA novels contain gay characters. I’ve never had a literary agent or publisher ask me to de-gay my writing. If they had, I’d have gone looking for another agent and/or publisher. I can honestly say that I’ve experienced FAR less homophobia in the YA publishing industry than in my previous career as a speech and language pathologist.

That’s not to say that things in YA Book World are perfect, and I was saddened to read the accounts of YA authors who had experienced discrimination when trying to get their LGBTQ stories published. I’m also wondering how much of this debate is specific to the United States, which (I think) is a more overtly religious society than Australia. The only homophobic comments I’ve seen about my Montmaray books have come from United States readers (one of them was even a youth librarian – how depressing). I know David Levithan would disagree (he made a speech* here a few years back, complaining about how backwards Australia was compared to the United States, regarding attitudes to gayness), but I actually think Australians are more tolerant. Or possibly more apathetic. At least we don’t have crazy book bannings just about every week.

In addition, I’m sad to say I have to agree with Sarah Rees Brennan’s comment about YA books being less likely to be bestsellers if they contain LGBTQ characters. As she points out, books are more likely to sell well if they get a huge push from their publishers, and publishers tend to put a huge amount of effort behind books only if a) the authors are popular already, or b) they think the book is likely to appeal to (that is, not put off) lots of readers. On the other hand, the reasons a book becomes a bestseller are often complicated and mysterious. Certainly, my books don’t sell very well, but I doubt that has much to do with the gay characters. It’s far more likely to be due to the girls in my books being more interested in giving speeches at the League of Nations than swooning over hot male vampires/werewolves/fallen angels.

I’m also dubious about the “less than 1%” statement by Malinda Lo. Her definition of an ‘LGBTQ YA book’ was fairly broad – she counted any YA book “published by a traditional publisher that includes a main character or secondary character that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning; or a story line related to LGBTQ themes.” Even so, her list seemed to have some obvious omissions, some of which were pointed out by commenters on her blog post. (Also, why isn’t The FitzOsbornes in Exile on her list? It was published in the US by a traditional publisher; it has gay and bisexual characters; it’s even been nominated for next year’s American Library Association’s Rainbow Books list. Is Toby not gay enough? Is Simon not bisexual enough?) In fairness to Malinda Lo, she acknowledges her list may be incomplete. And she does note that “even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books”. Which is very low. Although this percentage will probably come as a relief to those Montmaray reviewers who complained about Toby’s gayness – they often went on to bemoan the ‘fact’ that every second YA book nowadays contains disgusting homosexuals.

I think it’s good for LGBTQ teenagers to be able to read YA books about their lives. It’s even better if straight teenagers can read about LGBTQ lives, because that might help to decrease homophobic bullying in schools. But I also know that teenagers often read books that are (gasp!) published for adults. This is especially true for books involving LGBTQ issues (ugh, the ‘issues’ word), because until recently, a lot of those books were published as adult, not YA, in Australia, even when the protagonists were teenagers or young adults. This applied to books by Australian authors (for example, Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas and Sushi Central by Alasdair Duncan) and international authors (for example, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon).

All of this made me think about my favourite books about LGBTQ teenagers and young adults, so here are a few of them:

'Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You' by Peter CameronSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) by Peter Cameron

I love this book – it’s so funny and sad and wise and wonderful. I wish I could have read it when I was a teenager, because oh, how I would have related to awkward, alienated James. The novel isn’t really about being a gay teenager, any more than it’s about surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, although both of these are part of the story. As the starred review in Kirkus said, “Cameron’s power is his ability to distill a particular world and social experience with great specificity while still allowing the reader to access the deep well of our shared humanity”.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

A semi-autobiographical novel about a girl adopted into a Pentecostal family in a mill town in the north of England. Teenage Jeanette is forced to give up her family, her church and her community after she falls in love with another girl. It’s not as grim as it sounds – there’s plenty of humour and originality alongside the rage and heartbreak. What I really liked about this novel, apart from the inventiveness of the writing, is that it doesn’t pretend that being different is easy. It was also made into a brilliant BBC television series.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) by Michael Chabon

About the bisexual son of a Jewish gangster, who spends the summer after his college graduation getting entangled with a charming, sophisticated gay man and his self-destructive friend. I’m not sure if this counts as YA (the narrator is in his early twenties, and it contains explicit – though not gratuitous – sex), but it’s the sort of book that will really appeal to some older teenagers, and the writing is terrific.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan

Mostly about a very large and very gay football player called Tiny Cooper, who writes a musical about himself, his many loves and his friends. It made me laugh and cry.

'About A Girl' by Joanne HornimanAbout a Girl (2010) by Joanne Horniman

I can’t write about this book, because it would be weird and awkward if the author, who is on my blogroll, read it. But I agree with this review.

Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown

I can’t claim this is a Great Work of Literature, but it’s lots of fun. Molly, a feisty beauty from a poor Southern family, fights her way into college, then gets expelled after the authorities discover she’s in a lesbian relationship with her roommate. She then goes to New York to seek her fortune and have many adventures.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) by Hanif Kureishi

Okay, this was a film first, but the script was published (with an autobiographical essay titled The Rainbow Sign), so I’m counting it as a YA book. It’s about Omar, a gay Pakistani teenager who opens a laundrette in London during the Thatcher years, and his lover is a former skinhead, and Omar’s uncle is a drug dealer, and it’s really funny and gritty and wonderful.

More LGBTQ YA reading:

  • Daisy Porter’s LGBTQ book reviews at QueerYA
  • Lee Wind’s LGBTQ book reviews, plus discussion of LGBTQ issues, at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?
  • Christine A. Jenkins’ bibliography of YA books with Gay/Lesbian content, 1969-2009
  • Malinda Lo’s list of LGBTQ books, 2009-2011 (scroll down to the end of her post for the link to a downloadable pdf)
  • Alex Sanchez’s list of Gay Teen Books
  • The American Library Association’s Rainbow Books lists for 2008-2011
  • William E. Elderton’s annotated lists of gay and lesbian books for teenagers. It hasn’t been updated recently, but contains lots of Australian and New Zealand authors.
  • * The only link I can find to the podcast of David Levithan’s speech is here (scroll down to the first comment for the link).

    Finished! Sort of . . .

    I have finally finished the structural edit of The FitzOsbornes at War, and have sent it off to my publishers, and now I feel like this:

    'Jove Decadent' (1899) by Ramon Casas
    'Jove Decadent' (1899) by Ramon Casas

    (Except I’m not really feeling decadent, just exhausted.)

    For those who aren’t sure what a structural edit is, the nice people at Alien Onion have provided a helpful explanation here. In the case of The FitzOsbornes at War, my editors (two of them, one in Australia and one in the United States) sent me a long letter full of questions and suggestions, such as:

    Could you explain in more detail about Toby’s plan to do [mysterious thing]?

    and

    It would be good if there was a scene that actually showed Sophie doing [important thing], instead of her merely talking about it, three months later.

    and

    It’s great that Toby tells Sophie all about [shockingly awful thing], but how come she never mentions it in her journal ever again?

    and

    It would be nice if that Big Declaration of Love scene was even more romantic and soppy.

    And, because my editors are very efficient, they also pointed out some smaller issues that usually fall into the area of copy-editing. For example, Toby’s birthday suddenly moved from March to February, and Sophie’s favourite dress became mysteriously longer over the course of a year. Oops! All fixed now.

    The manuscript now goes off to the copy-editors, who will pore over it with their magnifying glasses and identify all my narrative inconsistencies, historical errors and convoluted sentences, so that I can fix those, too. Then the whole thing goes off to the typesetters, who print out proofs, which are then proof-read by everyone, including me. So, as you can see, the book is practically done!

    I’ve also had a look at three potential covers for the Australian paperback edition of The FitzOsbornes at War. They are all beautiful, and I have sent off my feedback on each one. I thought the first was a tiny bit too modern, the second was a little too similar to the first two Montmaray Journals books, but the third was just right. Well, with a few tiny tweaks . . . Anyway, we shall see.

    I’ve also just heard back from my American editor, who has already read the revised final chapter of the new draft and it made her cry! (Because it was so emotionally-involving and heart-rending, not because the writing was so bad that she regretted having ever signed up the book in the first place.) Yes! My job is done!

    Anatomy Of A Novel: A Brief History of Montmaray

    The Alecton attempts to capture a giant squid off Tenerife in 1861. Illustration from Harper Lee's 'Sea Monsters Unmasked', London, 1884.
    The Alecton attempts to capture a giant squid off Tenerife in 1861. Illustration from Harper Lee's 'Sea Monsters Unmasked', London, 1884.
    Simmone Howell has very kindly invited me to be part of her Anatomy of a Novel series, in which “authors (mostly Australian, mostly YA) dissect their own books for your delight”. It’s a really fascinating set of blog posts, by authors such as Melina Marchetta, Michael Pryor, Kirsty Murray and many more. I’ve written about the fictional and real-life inspirations for A Brief History of Montmaray here (and yes, one of those inspirations may possibly be the Giant Squid).

    At the moment, I’m still stuck in my Editing Bunker, but I hope to emerge next week with some new blog posts.