A Month of Writers, Day Twenty Three: Justine Larbalestier

Yay! Justine Larbalestier is here! She’s one of my favorite people, you know. And she’s also an excellent writer, with her “Magic or Madness” trilogy, of which the latest installment, Magic’s Child, is featured above, racking up all sorts of awards, honors, and “best of” list appearances. Honestly, if I detailed how cool she is, I’d get all sloppy, so it’s best I keep this part short.

But despite being so damn excellent, Ms. Larbalestier admits to the occasional fault or two. For her Month of Writers contribution, she outlines what some of those alleged faults might be.


I have many faults, but the one I’m feeling baddest about at the moment is my tendency to dismiss a writer on the basis of very little. For example:

  • If I meet a writer and I think they’re obnoxious I won’t read them. This is very very bad of me. Because I am a writer and I can be totally obnoxious (especially if my blood sugar is low), so if other people are as intolerant as I am, and they meet me when I haven’t eaten, odds are they will never read me. To make this even more circular I am most especially likely to decide a writer is obnoxious and I will not read them when my blood sugar is low and I am being obnoxious.
  • I will read one short story, or worse one or two pages of a short story or novel, and if it doesn’t immediately grab me, I will decide the writer is vastly overrated and never read them. This despite the fact that my own short stories in no way reflect the quality of my novels. Or vice versa. And many writers improve. So an early sucky story says nothing about their later quality. Not to mention that my mood (blood sugar levels) greatly affects whether I will keep reading a story.
  • If I hear a writer read, and they’re not any good at it, I will never read them, no matter how much praise I’ve heard. A bad reading kills the writing for me stone cold dead. This is particularly unfair as I’m an erratic reader and suckiness is sadly part of my repertoire (especially if my blood sugar is low).
  • If a friend whose taste I trust tells me a book sucks I won’t read it unless it is the only book available. This is why it took me so long to discover the joys of the Bartimaeus trilogy—a friend I love and trust told me it sucked. They were so wrong! But why are my friends going to be any more consistent than I am? They have their blood sugar issues too.
  • I also won’t read book by people who have dissed writers I adore. I don’t care how much they’ve been raved about, or by whom, or how many people insist that I will love love love them, if they’ve dumped on Angela Carter, or Georgette Heyer, or Dorothy Dunnett, or Patricia Highsmith, or Ruth Park, or any number of other writers, I won’t touch their books with a barge pole.

Writing is a tenuous profession and too many of us passionate readers are certifiably insane. It’s shockingly easy to turn off potential readers. You can do it with a word (use “jasmine” and you’ve lost Margo Lanagan), a bad clothing choice on the part of a character (I put a book down once because the supposedly hip protag was wearing hot pink lycra), a factual error (I have stopped reading otherwise fine books because they had Canberra being a short bus ride from Sydney).

You can also lose readers through no fault of your own: because they don’t like your cover, because they don’t like your author photo, or the way you spell your name, or won’t read paperbacks, or books by Australians.

So you’ll never catch me insulting fellow writers on my blog—too risky! I don’t want to piss them off (we writers have such long memories), or their fans (ditto), nor do I want to rack up any more bad karma (I’m bowed under the weight of what I’ve already got!). And I resolve to make sure my blood sugar levels are where they should be before reading a new book or attending a reading.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

16 Comments on “A Month of Writers, Day Twenty Three: Justine Larbalestier”

  1. I’ve been reading your recent posts quietly. Now I come whit some nonsense, ha ha ha.

    What´s whit the editorial designers? Why all UnitedSatesOriented books looks like romantic novels? Maybe that´s why in Mexico the reading average is so low… The books in México always looks like if they contained the ultimate philosophy in them

    Has the cover design a lot of impact on the sales?

  2. A very refreshing essay.

    “Biccie”, I am sorry to say, did me in. Not so much that I didn’t read what you wrote here, but pretty badly.

  3. She’s right about not insulting other writers. There’s more than a dozen authors I won’t touch because they badmouthed a favorite of mine. Especially with the internet today anything you say will be held against you forever.

  4. Dunno, she seems to be making a strong argument that she wouldn’t read her own work. If she wouldn’t, I don’t see why I’d want to, either.

  5. Ironically, reading this essay has made me somewhat disinclined to read this author’s work. But I usually try not to let little, irrelevant stuff keep me from discovering good works to read.

  6. So… if you ever meet her in person, and you’re a writer, offer her candy from the word go?

    (Actually, maybe that’s not a bad plan, for every writer one meets, except to maybe writers of children’s books.)

  7. Ack. We read her first book. Well written, yes, but we could not get past the idiocy at the end re: pregnancy. (Actually, I could, because I know nothing of these things, but my wife, who has the studies to back it up, had issues) – you cannot possibly know that you are pregnant that soon after intercourse – indeed, you cannot BE pregnant that soon after intercourse, regardless of how magic you may be. Sperm simply do not swim that fast.

  8. Actually, the New Kinsey Report says seven hours is the minimum from intercourse to fertilization, that being the time it take the sperm to undergo capacitation. And in fact, the sperm can make its journey in as little as five minutes. (The egg’s travels are much longer, but they may have started before intercourse.)

    In Magic Lessons the time delay between intercourse and detection is about 24 hours. (Don’t forget those time zones!)

    This is a common problem for us novelists: everyone who’s done ten minutes of research is a frickin’ expert. Not that your wife is an idiot, Mike, it’s just that most people don’t realize how data of this sort are normalized for the general public—that is, publicly available data don’t take into account the vast variation of the real world as opposed to the textbook world. Yes, the stock answer is “2 to 5 days from intercourse to fertilization.” And, no, that’s not misinformation, it’s just information designed for non-experts, because it fits some 80%-of-the-time norm.

    The real variation is between seven hours (time for the sperm to undergo capacitation) and eight and a half days (the current record-holding sperm life span).

    And just to win all future arguments in advance, note that magic is used both in detecting the pregnancy and at conception, the latter being missed by some readers. (Old Man Cansino is pulling their strings.)


  9. PS Irony alert: Justine’s blog entry above is about how people often reject books and authors for silly reasons. And here we have a case in point: the reader possesses a smidgen of expertise that a novel seems to contradict, and gives up on the series because of its “idiocy.”

    We’ve all done this. I know I have.

  10. Rubén: The reason for the horrible cover designs in the US is that more than half of books bought in the US are bought in supermarkets or their functional equivalents rather than bookstores or their functional equivalents. The cover designs are aimed toward the impulse shopper rather than the discriminating book-buyer.

    In other words, the cover designs are supposed to look like a bag of chips. Interesting but annoying, that.

  11. I liked this essay and thought it was a very funny take on something that is true to human nature. My mother watches tennis (doesn’t play tennis, just watches it) and she has completely inexplicable likes and dislikes for certain players. What is even crazier is that I inherit this and I can’t explain why! Agassi good, Sampras bad. Why? Mom says so. We all have irrational tastes with some things to some extent.
    Besides, there are so many books and authors in the world, we all have to find some way to discriminate. At least I would, or else I would have to quit my job to read full time. Hey, that’s not a bad idea. . .

  12. I’ve heard(probably here) cover design is not very much an author’s-preference thing at all.

    That said, I’d think I’d rather have a cover that limited the size of the title words. Makes the title harder to see but it makes it more distinguished-looking. Like, “gosh, the title isn’t so huge, that might be more intriguing than the rest of the tinder on this bookshelf.” I probably don’t know at all what I’m talking about.

  13. Nice choice. Justine Larbalestier’s magic series is a really fun read. Nice concept, well executed and likeable characters. I am sorry to hear about her bias against writers with poor reading skills. This is actually a huge fear of mine. Being dyslexic, vocalized reading is often a challenge. Should I ever manage to finish a novel I deem publish worthy, and you know some publisher actually agrees with me, I dread the expectation of a public reading.

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