And then I was taken out by a microorganism

Well, a virus anyway. Do they count as microorganisms? I remember debating this question with my sister at the dinner table when we were kids – are viruses alive? – but I don’t remember what we concluded.

Given how old we were, we probably concluded my sister was a booger. That’s how most of our intellectual sparring wound up.

Anyway, I’ve got a cold. That doesn’t mean I haven’t found anything to challenge your little brain, however. Here’s an excruciatingly comprehensive round-up of the #YesGayYA topic that’s been blazing through the YA blogosphere (and you know it’s been BLAZING like a supernova if I mentioned it already, because I am always the last person to know anything) (and yes, I noticed they didn’t round up my paltry contribution, and that’s really ok). My Takei post got a lot of eyeballs, so I figure there are a few of you interested in the topic.

You know who else has a lot of eyeballs? The Harvester of Eyes, that’s who.

So you see, having a cold is bad, but it could have been much, much worse.


Seraphina Sequel plot outline is GO! I get to start writing!

It’s… it’s kind of shocking how excited I am about this. I suppose it’s a good thing that I like to write, eh?

Working title is Dracomachia. That could change, of course.

[Rachel bounces off, stage left…]

I touch on a touchy subject

In the almost-one-year since I joined Goodreads, the topic of authors reviewing books there has come up again and again. I haven’t been in on most of the conversations, and I’m not going to link to them (lest I draw the Eye of Sauron toward myself), but the upshot is usually something like this: authors should not post negative reviews on Goodreads because it will come back and bite them in the butt someday.

If you can’t say something nice, in other words, say NOTHING.

This morning I read a short blog post by one of my favourite YA authors, Melina Marchetta, wherein she explains why she only posts 5-star reviews on Goodreads (and never reviews other Australian authors). I get it – I don’t want to offend anyone either, particularly – but it also makes me sad. Marchetta’s books have such an unconventional, strong, fearless voice that it’s jarring to hear her express, well, fear.

It makes me wonder whether I ought to go through and excise all my sub-stellar reviews. Should I be more cautious? Am I too stupid to know when to be scared?

Phoebe North makes a good case for bad reviews in this guest post at YA Highway. It’s a well-reasoned post, and I tend to agree with her.

So I’m going to lay out my own reviewing policy right here: I am going to say what I think, plainly and honestly. If I don’t like a book, I will say so. I’m not a troll; I am a thinking, interested reader who values thoughtful, honest criticism. I will never make a comment about a book that I wouldn’t consider fair play on one of my books. I’m also a writer, and if  this comes back to bite my bum, well, that’s the portion of my anatomy best suited to being bitten, frankly. It could use a few bites.

And please, you reviewers, when it’s my turn to face the firing squad in turn, be honest. I expect it — no, I require it. There is no book so impeccably written and so universal in its appeal that everyone in the world is going to love it. Not the Bible. Not even The Giving Tree – I gave that 1 star, and I love Shel Silverstein with a love that is true.

(Of course, Uncle Shelby is also dead, and won’t be biting my behind anytime soon… OR WILL HE? Truly, if any author could rise inconveniently from the grave, he’s the one.)

It’s OK to be Takei in YA

I feel like I ought to link to the current big YA brouhaha: Agent asks authors to “straighten” main character.

This is not the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening, and it’s appalling, to be sure.

I just want to add my data point to the debate, however: my book, in all its incarnations, has always had gay characters in it. There was even a transsexual in one version (who sadly is no more, not for being transsexual but because I was having to engage in painful, artificial plot-acrobatics to keep her).  I have never, ever, not ONCE been asked by my agent or either of my editors* to change anything about these characters.

Let’s call it out when it happens – that’s important! – but don’t imagine publishing is some kind of monolith. Good books will find a home. Keep writing, and don’t despair.

* Yes, I’ve been through two editors. I think I broke the first one.

Edited to add: Was the title of this post too obscure? Here’s what I was referencing:



[This post has a sister: Symphony. You may wish to read that one first, but it’s not strictly necessary.]

One of my favourite books is This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University; before that, he was a session musician and sound engineer. I have always been one to ask stupid questions about music — Why does it exist? How does it have the power to move me? Why do Rush songs always sound like noise to me the first time I hear them? It’s very exciting to see this guy asking the same questions (well, maybe not the one about Rush) and then running experiments to find out the answers.

(In some alternate universe, I became a neuroscientist instead of a fiction writer. Of course, there’s also a universe where I’m a plumber, so my mileage definitely varies.)

Back when I was reading this book for the first time, this passage in particular struck me:

There is nothing intrinsically catlike about the word cat or even any of its syllables. We have learned that this collection of sounds represents the feline house pet. Similarly, we have learned that certain sequences of tones go together, and we expect them to continue to do so. We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so-on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brain has performed of how often they have gone together in the past (112).

He goes on to discuss how our brains form schemata of musical genres, how the most interesting music violates our schematic expectations a little bit, and how if something violates our schema a lot, it sounds weird (at best) or like indecipherable noise (at worst).

The interesting part, to me, was the idea that these things are learned, that there is nothing inherently happy about a major scale or sad about a minor one. I have two stories from my own life that illustrate exactly this point.

(Those of you who know me well have probably heard the first story, because I love telling it. You can go get yourself a snack now and come back later.)

I was raised on classical music, if you recall. My teenage rebellion – such as it was – consisted of listening to cheesy 80s music (in secret!) and The Beatles (openly). Neither of these musics were that alien to me; 80s pop isn’t that different from Vivaldi, all bright and bubbly, and early Beatles music is straightforward enough. When I went off to college my roommate had The White Album, which excited me greatly. Here was some Beatles I’d never heard before! Sweet! I blazed through disc 1 and found it everything I could have hoped for. Disc 2 was ok, but then, out of nowhere, I hit the Wall of Cacophony.

It was “Helter Skelter”. I could not make head or tail of it. It sounded like noise to me. I sheepishly put disc 2 away, and did not attempt it again.

Fast forward to many years later, my son (Beatles-mad at the age of 4) gets The White Album for Saturnalia. I put the second disc on eagerly because I can’t wait to hear this nightmarish mess of a song again. “Helter Skelter” comes on and… and there’s nothing to it. I find it perfectly tuneful, practically an ear-worm, in fact. Years spent slowly learning the language of rock have rendered the song perfectly comprehensible to me. “Helter Skelter” is easy.

A second anecdote, and then I’ll let you go (those of you with the snacks can come back now)…

When I was in college I took a class on Indian music, taught by surbahar master Ustad Imrat Khan. Surbahar is to sitar as cello is to violin. Anyway, he was teaching us about ragas – which are kind of like modes and kind of like scales – and how certain ragas pertained to specific seasons or times of day. Well, there was this skeptical grad student in the class who raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. How can this arbitrary cluster of notes mean ‘evening’?”

And master Khan said nothing, but picked up his surbahar and started playing this smoky blues riff. When he’d finished, he looked up at the class – most of whom had their mouths hanging open by this point – and said, “Where were you, just then? What time of day was it? That’s how.”

Interesting stuff, music and brains. I think about this more than I should, probably.

Merry updates

* I finished a plot outline for the sequel to Seraphina on Wednesday, and am feeling quite jolly about it. It was only the fourth attempt, which isn’t bad (for me). I sent it to El Señor Don Gato Editor, who appeared to rather like it, which means there will be lots of revisions.

* Yes, there would also have been lots of revisions if he hadn’t liked it, except that they wouldn’t be “revisions” so much as “Could you please start over and come up with an actual plot this time? What? I said please!”

* Revisions are good. Revisions mean there’s something there worth revising. As the folk saying goes: “Thou canst put no shyne uponst a cow pye.”

* It is so a folk saying. Go ask anyone. “Uponst” is a regional dialectic variation, accepted by fauxlorists all over the world.

* I am pleased to inform you that it looks like plotting is a skill one can learn, given enough time and enough banging of head upon table. I’ve done the experiment so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

* That’s “plotting of books,” not “plotting to make mischief.” I have a natural talent for the latter. The former, well. It’s just a good thing I’m stubborn.

* Yes, the silliness of my blog posts does increase proportionally with how merry I am. You may graph it if you wish.

Edited to add: Ooh! We are getting close to a finalized cover at last! It just needs to go through one more round of approval next week, I believe. I hope this one gets the thumbs up, because I really like it.

Across a crowded room (full of books)

Here’s an interesting post by Cory Doctorow on marketing, or as he puts it, “getting people to care about the products of your imagination”. The article’s focus ends up being on self-publishing, but I think it’s relevant for any author, really.

What interested me most (because I approach everything obliquely for some reason) was the first few paragraphs where he described his early bookselling career. I’ve been a bookseller, too, and he’s got his finger on something I often used to feel: the pathos of publishing, that books (even good ones) are ephemeral. So many shine briefly and then disappear.

Long ago, I worked in an antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, where I eventually became a buyer. People would bring in old books and I would offer them money — or not. Age alone does not make a book valuable: someone also has to want it, and most of the books that have ever been published are long forgotten (often justly, but sometimes not). That was an unusual store in that it was tactically disorganized, forcing patrons to browse. I think young Doctorow, based on his description of himself, would have loved it. It was for exactly that kind of reader, in search of a serendipitous book, and that is the kind of context where books – obscure books, books that have disappeared undeservedly – are united with readers who will appreciate them. That was a beautiful thing, to my mind.

Later, I worked at Children’s Book World, where we prided ourselves on being able to unite books with readers in a different way. We all read extensively, we got to know our customers, and we played matchmaker. It was very, very satisfying.

Doctorow seems hopeful that the internet and electronic media will keep books available longer, but there’s still that crucial step, connecting reader with text. Sites like Goodreads help bridge the gap; book review blogs do too. I like to pretend to myself that I’m doing something useful in that direction right here. But I think readers are also an important part of the equation, readers who actively look for a book that will speak to them, regardless of how difficult it may be to find.

What’s the most serendipitous book you ever found, and how did you find it? Or – if you will permit me to pose the question spookily – how did it find you?