Tag: Malinda Lo

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Cover image for Scratch by Manjula Martin Edited by Manjula Martin

ISBN 978-1-5011-3457-9

“Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a fun house mirror reflection.” –Nina McLaughlin  

There are many books about writing as an art form. Library and book store shelves overflow with them. And there are some books about the business of writing, too, such as how to become a freelance writer, or find an agent. But the discussion of writing as an art form predominates, and discussing money remains a bit taboo. In a selection of essays and interview with writers from a variety of fields and at different stages of their careers, Manjula Martin aims to peel back the layers of polite obfuscation and create some transparency about the business and financial aspects of the American writer’s market. Divided into three sections, Scratch takes readers from the “Early Days” of trying to break into the industry, through the “Daily Grind,” of being a working writer, and on to that dreamed of “Someday” when the young writer has finally made it.

In reading this collection, I was struck by the varied and individual business and financial situations faced by the authors. For some writers, the pressure of having to support themselves and their families by writing was crushing. But that same pressure turned others into lean, mean, writing machines. In Malinda Lo’s words, “financial necessity can be extremely clarifying.” In her own contribution to the collection, “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin writes about how all her non-writing jobs have contributed to her work as a writer. As she puts it, “all this unwriterly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist.” On the flip side, in her essay “The Insider,” Kate McKean chronicles how building her career as a literary agent sapped most of her energy for many years, taking her away from her original dream of being a writer. With thirty-three authors included in the collection, Scratch can encompass quite a wide range of the experiences of American writers.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is “Faith, Hope, and Credit,” featuring a conversation with Cheryl Strayed. Incidentally, it was the online excerpt of this piece that first drew my attention to Scratch. In it, Strayed and Martin discuss what a $100 000 advance ends up looking like in real life, after it is taxed, after the agent takes a portion, and then paid out in four installments. Suddenly $100 000 doesn’t seem like that much money anymore, when parceled out over several years. And even while Wild was hitting and staying on the best seller list, Strayed’s rent check bounced during her promotional tour, because she was just that broke. Wild would eventually make Strayed very comfortable, but when it first became successful, Strayed had already spent the advance paying off the bills she incurred writing the book, but the royalties hadn’t started to come in yet. It is a good reminder that a writer’s financial situation is not always evident from the outside.

Of course, being paid to write can become a sort of insatiable obsession, as documented by Rachel Maddux in her essay “On Staying Hungry.” Many aspiring writers would define having made it as the point where you can live on your writing, but as Maddux points out, the goal posts are always moving. On the experience of finally landing her first cover story, she writes, “I expected to experience a sort of transcendent satisfaction, or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead, my stomach just grumbled, my appetite already recalibrating.” As Alexander Chee puts it in his piece, “there is no ‘made it’ point. There is only ever the making of work.” And there is always more work you could be doing, or chasing. There is always another next level.

The business of becoming a working writer isn’t an easy one, as new writers try to navigate the world of agents, advances, publishing houses, and freelancing. Any agent or editor seems like a good choice for a hungry, unpublished writer, but there are several horror stories and cautionary tales in Scratch about the fatality of the wrong fit. In “Five Years in the Wilderness,” Cari Luna writes about landing an agent for her first novel, which they were ultimately unable to sell. When Luna wrote her second novel, entirely different from the first, her agent didn’t feel that she could represent it, and they parted ways. At the time, this was a crushing blow, but in retrospect, Luna writes, “I see now that it was a very kind thing for my first agent to do, to recognize we weren’t a good editorial fit and set me free. Because I never would have walked away on my own.” Still more sobering is Kiese Laymon’s account of being jerked around by his editor for four years, destroying his health in the process.

Scratch is obviously most useful for, and aimed at, writers, but the main message of transparency and information sharing can be extrapolated to other creative professions. And folks in professions related to writing, such as librarians and book sellers, can definitely benefit from a better understanding of how writers are—or aren’t—being paid. The focus is on traditional revenue streams—publishing houses, magazines, teaching gigs, and speaking tours—but Kickstarter is mentioned in Laura Goode’s piece about funding the independent film she wrote. Self-publishing goes largely unaddressed. Overall, Scratch provides a good idea of the basics of the business of traditional American publishing as it stands today.

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Ash

Cover image for Ash by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316040099

“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”

When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.

Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.

By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.

Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you.  Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.

Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.


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Inheritance (Adaptation #2)

Cover image for Inheritance by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 978-0-316-25505-9

“I wanted to be an ordinary human girl who met another girl, and we liked each other and that was it. No complicated backstory to mess it all up.”

In Adaptation, Reese Holloway and her debate partner, David Li, crashed into the middle of a government conspiracy in a car accident that almost claimed their lives. Thanks to the alien medical technology, and the aliens, that the American government has been concealing for more than fifty years, they are both alive, but struggling to cope with the new powers that came with the Imrian DNA that saved their lives. Public interest in the Imrians is at a fever pitch, and Reese and David are caught at the centre of that maelstrom as a UN summit to treat with the alien visitors approaches.

Inheritance picks up right where Adaptation left off, with Reese and David stepping out of her mother’s house to address the press and finally reveal the truth about what happened to them in Area 51. But as soon as they are in front of the cameras, it becomes clear that there will be nothing simple about telling the truth. The government is prepared to interfere at every turn, and it remains to be seen if the Imrians can really be trusted. With public disclosure comes alien supporters, alien protesters, abductees who claim the Imrians are the aliens responsible for their kidnapping, and many more complications than they could possibly have foreseen. Inheritance is less action-oriented than Adaptation, and much more driven by political agendas and interpersonal relationships.

Young Adult fiction has an overwhelming tendency to write out parents, giving the teen protagonists broad freedom to pursue their adventures. But both Reese and David’s parents are present and involved, even though Reese’s parents are divorced, and her father has had to leave his job in Seattle to come help them deal with the situation. While writing out the parents makes logistics easier, Malinda Lo incorporates them into the story in a way that feels realistic, as they struggle to protect their children from powerful forces they couldn’t have imaged only months before. At the same time, Reese and David are still the ones caught at the centre of the conflict, and they still have to make difficult decisions about where their loyalties lie and who to trust. It is a fine balance, but Lo handles it masterfully.

Similarly well-handled are questions about gender and sexuality, which Lo addresses forthrightly. Trying to understand an alien culture and how it deals with these topics allows Lo to include these important discussions. Faced with a sudden onslaught of press attention, Reese actively decides to conceal her previous relationship with Amber, knowing the sensation it would cause. But this decision causes unexpected complications in her friendship with Julian, who can only see that she is going back into the closet. At the same time, the practice of susum’urda—the touch-based empathy that defines Imrian social interactions—is giving rise to an intense new relationship with David, even while Reese struggles to come to terms with Amber’s betrayal. However, for those to whom the concepts Lo is introducing are new and unfamiliar, the ending may seem implausible or rushed, even though the groundwork was clearly laid in Natural Selection. These books are best read in order, including the novella that fits between them.

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Natural Selection (Adaptation #1.5)

Cover image for Natural Selection by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 978-0-316-27837-9

“A lot of Imrians get freaked out about the idea of being isolated within their own consciousness because they’re so accustomed to knowing, always, how others feel about them. I’m not worried about it, since I’ve lived on Earth. Humans never know for sure how others feel.”

In Adaptation, Amber Gray is a mysterious character whose arrival in Reese Holloway’s life is a source of confusion and ultimately betrayal. We know very little about her past, or her motivations, and her people, the Imrians, remain largely mysterious. Natural Selection is a novella that fills the gaps in the universe created in Adaptation and its sequel, Inheritance, and offers the reader a window into Amber’s past, and a glimpse at Imrian culture and customs.

Set several years before Adaptation, Natural Selection tells, in alternating chapters, two stories from Amber’s youth. The first is set on Earth, where an end-of-year camping trip results in a classmate outing Amber, and exposing her crush on her best friend, Morgan. The second takes place on the Imrian planet of Kurra when Amber is fifteen. She was born, and has lived two thirds of her life on Earth, but has returned to Kurra for a coming-of-age rite known as kibila’sa. Both stories examine how Amber’s divided life has made her feel simultaneously at home and alien on both worlds. The existence of aliens is part of the big reveal in Adaptation, and keeping it hidden for most of the book didn’t leave a lot of room for Malinda Lo to build or develop her alien culture. Natural Selection not only introduces us to Kurra, but examines the significance of the Imrian’s touch-based empathy, known as susum’urda, the ability which Reese acquired in the adaptation chamber.

In addition to expanding on the diversity of the world that Lo imagined in Adaptation, Natural Selection opens up interesting possibilities for the resolution of the love triangle that is forming between Reese, Amber, and David. Amber has a mother (Ama) and two fathers (Ada and Aba). A bisexual love triangle is already unusual, but the Imrian culture also offers Lo the possibility of further subverting the traditional YA love triangle through a polyamorous relationship. Neither Amber nor David is really a fully developed love interest in Adaptation, but I was leaning towards liking David better primarily because he had never betrayed Reese. While it is not strictly necessary to read Natural Selection before Inheritance, the novella makes Amber a more relatable character than she was before, and a more viable love interest for that sequel.

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Adaptation

Cover image for Adaptation by Malinda Lo by Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316197960

“Reese remained standing until the birds were removed, leaving only a smudge on the pavement: the stamp of their final moments. When she sat down again, she felt unsettled, as if the ordinary world had been knocked off-balance and everything was not listing slightly to one side.”  

Reese Holloway, her debate partner and crush, David Li, and their debate coach are trapped in the Phoenix airport when several planes crash around North America after flying into flocks of birds. When the resulting no-fly order shows no sign of being lifted, they rent a car and attempt to drive back to San Francisco. Almost a month later, Reese wakes up in a top secret military hospital somewhere in the Nevada desert. The details of her medical treatment are classified, with a non-disclosure agreement that stipulates that not even her mother can know what happened there. Back home in San Francisco, life seems mostly to have gone back to normal after the bizarre events of June nineteenth, though a military curfew is in effect, and crews roam the city collecting dead birds. Reese tries to get back to normal too, but her life is thrown for an unexpected loop when she meets and falls for Amber, and starts to question her sexuality. At the same time, she is dreaming and remembering inexplicable glimpses of her time in Nevada, and experiencing headaches and other strange side effects. But Reese’s efforts to find out what happened to her and David in Nevada threaten one of the most deeply held secrets of the American government,

2014tbrbuttonThe first few chapters of Adaptation are utterly suspenseful and nerve-wracking, starting off with a dystopian or disaster movie feel that will have you completely on edge. But the vibe shifts when Reese wakes up in the hospital, and the crisis seems mostly to have passed. At first this seems like it should be a blessing, but the subtly-wrong world she re-emerges into is, in its own way, more eerie than the almost-apocalyptic world on the verge of chaos that she crashed out of with the accident. There, everything had obviously gone wrong and she could act accordingly, but the almost-normal world she wakes up to leaves her unsure how to react. Only David, who shared the crisis, and her best friend, the conspiracy-obsessed Julian, seem to see that things are not quite right. The situation is less overtly dangerous, but still suspenseful and mysterious, though the pacing is slower, and we have some room to explore the emotional aftermath of the accident.

Although Adaptation is more science fiction than dystopian from the moment Reese wakes up after the accident, it nevertheless gets at the heart of what is driving the current dystopian trend. Lo slips this observation into the narrative, in the form of a newspaper editorial on the crisis:  “Democracy, at its root, is based on faith that our representatives have our best interest at heart. If we as a nation no longer believe that they do, that may be even more disturbing than [the spoilery truth].” These discussions of government, the popularity of conspiracy theories, and the role and power of the media, add a welcome depth to the narrative.

Malinda Lo is known as an advocate for diverse books, so it should come as no surprise that she delivers on that commitment in her own work. Her characters come from a variety of backgrounds, and I especially loved that many of the characters, from the President to the head of Homeland Security, to the chief scientists, were women, and no one said anything about it.  Additionally, Reese, in the midst of a life changing crisis, finds herself being forced to confront her sexuality, which she has utterly supressed for a long time. While I liked David better than Amber, Lo’s writing seems more alive in the scenes between Reese and Amber than the ones between Reese and David. Love triangles are old hat in YA, but a bisexual love triangle is enough to stir things up.

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