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Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA

Discussions of historical romance frequently break into two factions: those who want their histrom to align with modern values about things like consent, equality, and bigotry, and those who don’t because those weren’t the attitudes of the time and that’s part of historical accuracy.

I am of the former group, even though I bang on about historical accuracy when it comes to stuff like modes of address. I need to be able to see a romance hero as a good person by my standards. The fact that a slave-owner or a homophobe might have been considered a good person (by people he wasn’t maltreating) in 1810 is a matter of profound indifference to me: I’m reading it in 2018, and this guy sucks. I’ll take gritty depictions of the past in other genres, but if you want me to buy into a romance and a Happy-Ever-After, don’t give me heroes that I’d happily set on fire.

This doesn’t mean that I want the past erased. It doesn’t do to forget the vileness of which humans are so readily capable. People’s pain ought not to be lightly handwaved away. And the truths of history are not incompatible with romance, when approached from the right angle. There are histrom authors taking on America’s filthy history to magnificent effect—Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series with black heroes and heroines during the Civil War is brutal; Piper Huguley and Beverly Jenkins don’t shy away from the corrosive effects of racism; Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series keeps the homophobia of Georgian Scotland front and centre. All of these are wonderful. It can be done.

But. Also.

You can’t throw a bun on Romance Twitter without hitting someone defending romance as the genre of hope, of the world as it should be, of escape and happiness and love. Romance creates a fantasy, and historical romance is pretty much always a fantasy no matter how much research we do into the top speed of a phaeton or the exact materials used for a ball dress, or what the hell a peignoir might be. The dukes with abs, the governess marrying a nobleman, the earls with a sideline in espionage: it’s all a fantasy, and that’s absolutely fine because, as I wrote last time, you will take my fluff from my cold dead hands.

And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution, that any romance starring a POC must be about racism and injustice, that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings, let alone fluffy stories along the way, because history was too cruel.

I’ve been sustained for years by Georgette Heyer’s glorious fantasies of women finding love and respect in a glittering Regency that never was, and my knowledge of the actual period’s brutal politics, deep misogyny, and general nastiness doesn’t undermine that pleasure. That sort of fictional escape should not be denied to readers of colour and/or queer readers–and particularly not on grounds of accuracy or historical realism that are not applied elsewhere.

We know that m/f histrom heroes and heroines are immune to lice, syphilis, terrible dentistry, death in childbirth. We know that the heroine will be safe when the book ends: that her husband won’t use her total financial dependence against her or rape her at will as he could because he now owns her body and all her property. In the right kind of modern histrom, we know from the start that the hero won’t be infected by misogyny or toxic masculinity, and will understand the concept of enthusiastic consent without needing a Basic Human Decency 101 class. All that is part of the histrom fantasy—because wow, was none of that guaranteed to actual women in actual history.

So if someone insists historical romance featuring marginalised people must come with the full complement of historical misery–that nobody could possibly have had a happy life with loving family, friends like themselves, good allies, non-bigoted acquaintances, and avoided running foul of unjust law–I need to know that they are applying the same standards to white m/f.

Of course, many people do exactly that. Most histrom readers expect books to show the oppression of the time to some degree, whether light touch, partial engagement, or full-on harsh reality; some people simply don’t read the genre because the happy gloss doesn’t work for them. Some people find it impossible to let go of the exploitation and colonialism that probably underpin a rich aristocrat’s wealth and privilege (which is a real bummer if you just wanted to enjoy a relaxing escapist duke book). Those are all entirely valid stances and down to the individual.

What is not valid is to be on board with duke/governess stories and all the rest of the glittering balls and yet simultaneously to assert that Regency fluff with POCs is unrealistic, or that m/m love stories must be played out under the shadow of the pillory and the gallows. That is to gatekeep who gets the fantasy and who gets the (worst of) reality. And it’s not only unjust: it’s also as historically inaccurate as it gets.

We can state as a matter of cold hard statistical fact that there were far more happy real-life queer people and people of colour in Regency England than there were handsome eligible dukes. This is simple mathematics, because queer people and people of colour actually existed, whereas the number of desirable dukes can be counted on the fingers of one foot. You want historical realism? Check out this babe.

That’s the fifth duke of Devonshire, a repeat adulterer who blamed his wife for having miscarriages, installed his mistress in the family home and made them both pregnant at the same time, and condemned his wife for having an affair while he was fathering numerous illegitimate children with multiple women. She was a writer, supporter of science, and early activist for women’s rights; he was a no-account hypocritical dullard who regarded her with utter indifference and made her life miserable. I don’t think a punny title is going to save this one. Also, those are not romance abs. And this portrait is probably flattering. Wow.

It is of course absolutely fine not to like stuff: modern values in historical romance, or fluff, or the basic concept of setting a romance in terrible unjust times, or anything else. But it’s not okay to support escapist fantasy for some people while denying it to others. And it is particuarly questionable to exclude anyone from a fantasy on grounds of realism. That just isn’t how fantasy works.

___________________

 

Cover of Band SinisterMy new book, Band Sinister, comes out 11th October and is pure Regency m/m fluff with a bastard baronet, an innocent country gentleman, a hellfire club, and a 100% happy ever after.

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out tomorrow at the time of writing, from the usual stores.

You Will Take My Fluff From My Cold Dead Hands

In these times when UK/US politics are best represented by a gif of fifteen killer clowns in a burning wheelie bin plummeting off a cliff, we need to hang on to our small joys. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news, the fire-hose of human awfulness, bigotry, hate, cruelty and callousness. And it’s also easy to feel like we’re somehow cheating by turning away or taking time to enjoy anything. Something terrible happens, and Twitter will not only inform us in horrifying detail but also bring a chorus of people shouting HOW DARE YOU TALK ABOUT A TV PROGRAMME NOW? HOW DARE YOU PROMOTE A BOOK WITH THIS GOING ON? WHY AREN’T YOU SCREAMING?

The thing is, asking people to feel nothing but rage and misery is counterproductive. Let’s face it, we’re all screaming, and some kind of appalling ‘this’ is always going on somewhere. I strongly believe in being aware, and in acting meaningfully on that awareness. (PROTEST. CALL YOUR REPS. REGISTER TO VOTE. ACTUALLY VOTE.) But I also believe that we don’t help anyone by staring at the news till we’re driven to despair. We’re only human; we are not emotionally or mentally built to carry the pain of the world. Everyone needs time out to recharge, to catch the small joys as they fly, to take a break and remember why people are worth fighting for. Time with loved ones, time outside in the fresh air, knitting, jigsaws, cooking, clubbing, making soap: anything that centres you is great. Personally, I read romance novels, and so do a hell of a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

I want happiness and joy. I want and need to read about a world where a woman can get emotional support from a man who respects her, or a queer couple can have a happy ever after, and I know everything will work out absolutely fine. More than that: Sometimes I want stories where those things go without saying. I want books where a woman’s problems in the workplace don’t include misogyny or sexual harassment. Where the big obstacle to the gay romance isn’t homophobic relatives but the need to find the stolen diamonds. Where the trans spaceship captain’s gender is an aspect of the character, not the plot. Where black women wear the best floofy dresses to Regency balls; where the bad guy’s aim is to steal the family estate rather than rape; where women and POC and LGBT+ people and all the intersections thereof can exist without being harassed, bullied or hurt for their identity just like white cishet male characters can all the goddamned time.

/deep breath, count to ten/

I am in no way against romances that confront hard issues. I adore stories that show triumph over adversity, and love winning in a hostile world, and I entirely understand the concerns about erasing marginalised people’s real suffering by writing historical fluff. (This is a huge, complex, and valid argument that I’m not getting into here but my own feeling is, if historical fluff exists for white cishets, it can exist for everyone else, and if it can’t exist for everyone else, we need to ban all dukes, syphilis-free rakes etc right now.)

I sometimes want a fictional world where misogyny, homophobia, and racism aren’t an ever-present poisonous cloud. I certainly want that to be an option on the shelves. And I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.

It is a radical act of imagination to make stories as friendly to women and marginalised people as they are to white cishet men. It is re-envisioning the entire world. It is staking a claim for our equal humanity: our right to drink at parties, our right to walk at night or hold hands with a lover, our right to fly dragons or spaceships. Our right to be carelessly happy, or at least to have problems that aren’t grounded in our identity (have you found those missing diamonds yet?). Our right to be loved and respected as equals.

Fluff may seem as sweet and light and insubstantial as candyfloss, but it is also a weapon, because it shows us a world that’s worth fighting for. (Think of that as the sharp stick running through the candyfloss. Poke it into someone’s eye.) If you want to rest in a fluffy world while gathering your strength for the next round out there, go for it. Take care of yourself exactly as you need to, and don’t let anyone shame you for doing so.

And then make sure you vote.

***

Here is a Twitter thread I did to recommend comfort reading. I strongly recommend the #romanceclass books in particular as an antidote to toxic masculinity.

My new book, Band Sinister, is the fluffiest thing I have yet written. I hope it helps.

Cover of Band SinisterSir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out 11 October, from the usual stores.

 

Step 2 ???, Step 3 Profit

I was drifting through Twitter, as so often, when I came across this series of tweets by @quartzen. Text copied below for ease of reading.

 

I feel like modern writing advice is like…

  1. Just get a complete first draft down on paper, it’s okay if it’s awful, terrible, and the worst!
  2. ???
  3. Once you have a polished draft that’s as good as you can make it, look to beta readers, editing, and eventual publication!

***

It’s exactly like those “how to draw” things for kids where the first step is a couple of circles, maybe with a crosshair for facial features, the next step is “add some detail” (ie actually draw the thing perfectly), now you’ve got a great example of what you were trying to draw

Word.

Part of the reason Step 2 is usually missing is that it’s hard to give advice that applies to everyone. Some authors throw down a skeleton plot in their first draft that needs fleshing out; some people create well-developed worlds and characters first off, but have to go back and insert a skeleton to give their wobbling mass some story-bones. Some people go through multiple completed drafts; others find out what they’re doing while writing a much-revised first half of a first draft. (I’m that person. Generally speaking I loop over and over my first half to get everything in place, and then once I have that sorted it’s a straight trot to the end and I very rarely have to make significant changes to the second half.)

Also, each author changes with each book–you may find that Project X starts with a plot but Y is entirely character driven. Step 2 will be different not only for every author but for every author’s every MS.

All that said there’s a few broader points that we can apply: not to give specifics but to give a bit more shape to what Step 2 looks like.

2.i Work out what’s missing from your draft

Look at what you’ve got. Is it a well developed plot, populated with two-dimensional characters just doing what the story needs? Is it a lot of enjoyable interactions between well developed characters, but which wanders from place to place without a driving story? Have you gone big on the descriptions and low on the action, or vice versa? Are all the pieces there on the page, but it hasn’t come to life? Or is it a mass of inconsistent ideas glued together with willpower and fast typing?

Working out what’s missing from your story is not entirely easy because if you knew you’d have put it in already. It takes practice to identify these things. Unfortunately you really can’t assume a crit partner will do this bit for you–they’d have to be very good, omnipatient, and possessed of unlimited time. You really need to learn this yourself, which means being analytical, not too enamoured of your own work, and ready to kill your darlings.

So how to find your lacunae? Here are a bunch of general questions to consider:

Are my characters consistent?

It’s very common in a first draft for the heroine to start out motivated to avenge her brother’s death/terrified of public speaking/passionate about establishing her cupcake business, and then the author basically forgets about that, or switches that bit of motivation on and off depending on the requirements of the scene. It’s fine if your plot/character diverges from initial ideas, that’s what drafts are for, but you need to notice, go back, and tidy those up so your characters are consistent within their own messy humanity. If your characters’ behaviour is based on the exigencies of the plot from moment to moment, they won’t work as people.

And yes, this goes for minor characters too, especially villains. If your villain’s sole motivation is wanting to make the hero/ine unhappy, you need a damn good reason why, unless they are to be Darth Plotfunction.

Do I have a functioning skeleton for my book?

Writing a synopsis can be quite a useful way to work this out. If, for example, you discover that you didn’t mention the entire third of the book that they spend on a tropical island, that’s a sign to cut or rewrite. If you can’t unpick your own story to write a clear synopsis, are you sure the reader will be able to? Did you have to change anything about the story (eg massively expanding a plot element you gloss over in the MS) to make it work as a synopsis? Does that tell you something?

Does the plot carry through? Where does the drama peak? Do we reach a resolution, rather than just an ending? Has something changed in the world, characters, or reader’s ideas? Does ‘The End’ feel natural and inevitable? (If it’s in a series, have you made the reader feel satisfied with this book while still giving her a reason to grab the next?)

Where are my big emotional/story pivots?

The moment one or both MCs realises they’re in lust or love, the moment of betrayal, the moment of despair. Have I fleshed these out enough? If my hero has been a jerk, is there payback? Is the mystery resolved, the villain caught, the lie exposed? Have I given those sufficient space for impact? (Or, if I’m doing some smartarse playing about with off-page-resolution, does it work?)

Can I remove any scaffolding?

Those bits that were a trudge to write but we had to get the characters from A to B while informing the reader of Z: do I need them? Can I cut them/replace with a single, ‘Three weeks later…’ line? My editor at Samhain once flagged up a lengthy bit of dialogue with the comment “This feels like you’re explaining the plot to yourself”, which still stings because hoo boy was she right. Write that scene/conversation by all means, if it helps. Then cut it.

Are all the plot elements relevant and resolved?

Don’t leave loaded Chekov’s guns lying around. If you put in eg the hateful stepfather’s threat to take over the family business, use it or lose it. Do not be in love with your amusing sassy neighbour if he has no actual plot role. Same with sequel-bait siblings/friends in romance. Make them earn their place.

How much worldbuilding have you done vs how much you need?

Historical novels and SFF might need a lot more than contemporaries, but that isn’t a licence either for 500 pages of plotless scene setting, or for an assumption that everyone is deeply familiar with your small American town as detailed over the previous 18 books.

***

Then, if writing genre especially, ask yourself what kind of book it is. I am not being simplistic here. I edited for years at Mills & Boon, I read slush pile by the metre, and I can’t tell you how many romance novels forgot to include the romance. No, really.

Sample questions for a romance writer. Adapt for your genre.

How prominent is the romance in my story?

Is that as prominent as it needs to be given the setting/secondary plot? If it’s a romantic suspense, you can’t do 10% romance and 90% suspense, but 10% suspense and 90% romance isn’t really going to fly either. Have I concentrated too much on other non-vital stuff, eg, the house renovation plotline, and thus ignored the romance between the hero and his two gay dolphin shifter lovers for chapters at a time?*

*a real book, I swear to you

Are there enough love scenes of appropriate heat for your story?

May be UST for 80% of the book and then a kiss, may be non stop fisting, but either way is it right for what you’re trying to do?

If it’s a sexy romance (not erotica), does each sex scene advance the plot/characterisation in some way?

Can you cut any of the sex scenes without losing something important? If yes, either do so or make them work for their inclusion.

Is there internal conflict (problems within the relationship)? Is there external conflict (problems not to do with the relationship)? Do both have enough time to develop and be resolved?

You don’t need both internal and external conflict, but if you lack one, the other needs to be bloody good. If you can’t identify any conflict, what is driving your story, and what will give the reader any inducement to carry on reading? (If your answer is ‘they’ll just want to hang out with my characters being happy’, you’re either a spectacularly talented writer or, er, wrong.)

How have you paced the story?

It might be that you want a whirlwind romance focused entirely on the couple in bed, it might be you’re doing a slow-burn with a big cast where they don’t even meet till half way through, but either way we need to see the story develop steadily, enough to give us a plausible development of love, overcoming of conflict, and satisfying resolution, without longueurs or rushing.

***

If you’ve asked yourself all that you should have at least a pretty good idea of your story’s weaknesses, inadequacies, self-indulgences, and cheats that will allow you to move to step 2.ii.

2.ii Fill in the holes, shore up the structure, prune the growths.

Your second draft should be focusing on fixing the problems you’ve identified and marshalling your story elements into better shape. This might be small shifts of focus, or cutting the secondary plot with the amusingly camp neighbour’s dog, or giving the hero a new background and motivation, or replacing the MCs with two totally different characters (yep, been there). It might be a brief tidy of an existing MS, or a total rewrite from the ground up.

This is the part nobody can advise you on or, rather, the part for which there is infinite advice out there but you’ll need to go looking for what you specifically need–whether that’s advice on worldbuilding, pacing, characterisation, suspense plotting, or using sex scenes to build character.

In the end, you can only fix something when you have an idea of what’s wrong with it. So that’s Step 2, as best as I can advise you, except for:

2.iii Go to 2.i

Yup, sorry. Do it again. Reread your second draft for bits where the plot falls apart, bits where the characterisation isn’t singing, bits you want to skip because boring, bits you did a Note to Self on and then forgot about. Don’t stop looking at the structure until you feel that you know what you’re trying to do, and feel reasonably certain that you’ve done it.

***

This may all seem massive and daunting. It shouldn’t be. If you regularly read books and think about them, you already know what it looks like when a book is badly paced, has too much description, lacks conflict, has inconsistent characterisation etc. The hard bit is taking off your Proud Creator blinkers and/or the filter of knowing what you were trying to do, as opposed to what you actually achieved, and applying that critical insight to your own work. But that’s also a vital step in your evolution as a writer. Go to it, and good luck.

____________________

KJ Charles was an editor and book fixer for long enough to get a handle on Step 2 and is now a romance writer and 2018 RITA nominee. Her most recent release is Unfit to Print.

How Books Start: the intersection of research and inspiration in historical romance

Think of England coverI’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.

I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.

At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.

So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that

…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.

Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).

This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).

Let’s find out more about shooting parties!

There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.

These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:

In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.

WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?

You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).

And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?

Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…

Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.

And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.

_______________

If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it. 

Cover of Unfit to Print

Stuck in the Middle: the story of a stalled project

This is a post about the genesis, exodus, and resurrection of a book. It’s for anyone who’s ever got 20K words into a project and thought, “…oh shit”, aka most writers. Gather round.

Some time ago, I came up with an idea for a romance trilogy. It would be Victorian London and it would focus on the people who don’t normally get romance novels—not just in terms of sexuality, gender and race but also class and occupation. My working name was “The Other Victorians”, based on Steven Marcus’s landmark study of Victorian pornography. Here’s the publisher pitch.

Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé, and the dishonest, The Other Victorians is a romance trilogy about high birth, low life, inheritance, family secrets, blackmail, betrayal, deception, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name very clearly indeed from inside plain brown wrappers.

A pornographer ­­­­­and a left-wing lawyer join forces to investigate murder in London’s gay underworld…

A fraudulent psychic and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret…

And a music-hall trapeze artist becomes the unwilling heir to an earldom–if a private enquiry agent can keep him alive long enough to claim it…

The premise of book 1 was that one hero is an earl’s bastard, who works as a pornographic bookseller. The brother dies leaving a collection of dirty photos, a suspiciously large number of which depict rent boys who have been murdered. Our hero goes to a crusading lawyer he used to know, hoping to dump the problem on his lap. This sets off the romance whereby the self-righteous firebrand needs to loosen up while the self-centred bookseller has to rediscover his moral centre. Shenanigans ensue including two intertwined crime plots, and a lot of bonking. Sounds pretty good, yes?

No. Oh God no.

I hated every word I wrote including ‘and’ and ‘the’ (as Dorothy Parker nearly said). I gouged out twenty thousand miserable words by sheer bloody-mindedness, and by the point I stalled for good I was considering faking my own death.

As it happens we were at my parents’ house for half term, and my mum has a sideline as a careers coach. She sat me down for a session to talk through whatever the issue was. We made pros and cons lists for writing it. (Pro: I’ve signed a contract so I have to. Con: I hate the book, the story, the concept, and the characters.) It culminated in her telling me to visualise the book sitting on a chair opposite me and asking me to describe my relationship to it, and me saying, “I don’t have one.”

At which point, because she’s rather good at her job, my mum said, “Well, what do you want to write?” She listened patiently while I yattered about how I hated my characters because they were basically not nice people and I didn’t want to write three books about these harsh, unkind people at war, I just wanted to write someone kind, and interesting, and I’d been looking into Victorian taxidermy recently and I really fancied writing a taxidermist because, like, if you actually look into Victorian taxidermy it’s not all weirdos killing sacks of kittens to pose them like Sylvanian Families, it was a real applied art that could be done with incredible sensitivity almost as a branch of natural history. Then she looked at me in the way mums do until I said, “…so maybe I could talk to my editor about changing the synopsis?” and she said, yes, why don’t you do that. Dear.

I worked out a new story, in which our heroes were a quiet, reserved taxidermist and a gentle, kind lodging-house keeper, and I went back to the publisher and said, “You know that erotic enemies-to-lovers full of sex and violence? You’re getting a sweet story about taxidermy instead,” and to their credit the publisher blinked a bit and said, “Fine.”

I learned a bunch of stuff from this. Most importantly, I realised when I started writing version 2 that actually the trilogy wasn’t about dodgy geezers as the pitch had said, it just featured them. What it was actually about was kindness to others: that was the deep theme of all three romantic conflicts and the overarching plot, and ended up becoming the series title. (It’s now called Sins of the Cities, which refers to the sin of Sodom: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”) That was an important realisation for me on a lot of levels. I have tended not to know what my books are about until they’re published, but it turns out that it’s pretty helpful if you work out what your subconscious is trying to write during rather than after the part where you type words.

So. There I was, finished the series, wrote some other stuff, left 20K of abandoned book throbbing in a file called USELESS. 20K is a lot of work and this 20k had been more than most. A year or so later, I opened it, wondering if I’d still hate it as much, and…

It was almost embarrassingly obvious. The characters weren’t bad: the problem was that I’d told them wrong. I’d focused on the angry clashing swords and shields, not the vulnerable bits they protected. But—and possibly because?—the actual big block was the whole ‘murdered rent boys’ plot. That was not a story I wanted to tell. There’s already infinitely too many stories about queer people being murdered for their sexuality or identity, and it’s not my job to add to piles of pain. I couldn’t write that story because I had no goddamn business writing that story, on a number of levels, and my subconscious knew it even if I didn’t. Thank you, lizard brain.

However. If that wasn’t the story…if I removed the macho posturing from the characters and the stuff I didn’t want to write from the plot…if I focused in on love, not hate or fear, and let the story flow from there…

Ding ding ding. I rewrote the existing 20K in two days, had the second half down in a week flat, and it’s coming out tomorrow (10 July) as Unfit to Print. There’s still the Holywell Street setting, the illegitimate earl’s son turned bookseller, the crusading lawyer, even a murder to solve–but the entire feel of the book is so different from the first draft it’s startling to me. It’s now a story about love lost and found, about rebuilding trust and letting yourself be vulnerable, about opening up rather than closing down. Turns out I work better if I’m lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Who knew.

What can you learn from this? Don’t ask me; do I sound like I know what I’m doing? But here are my takeaways for getting stuck on a book:

  • Take a step back and ask yourself if something’s making you uncomfortable. When I find I really don’t want to write something, there’s usually a reason.
  • Take a longer step back and ask yourself what your story is about. Not the elevator pitch (“It’s about Victorian jewel thieves”) but the deep heart (“It’s about being true to yourself and when that clashes with love”). If you can’t dig out what the deep heart of the story is, that may be your problem.
  • Play with what would happen if you flipped something. If your hero’s strength was kindness instead of kicking arse, if you gave your vulnerable heroine power…
  • Remember where it started to go wrong? You may be able to cut it back to there and take it off in another direction. If it sucked to write from the start, learn from that.
  • Sometimes you need a year to see why it’s not working. Give yourself time and space.
  • If you’re really buggered, call my mum.

This is not to say that every project that isn’t working should be dropped, or that every dropped project can be salvaged. But if you look at the twin questions of “what am I actually writing here?” and “do I actually want to be writing it?” you may find a lot becomes clear.

_____________

Unfit to Print is a 40k novella, out 10th July.

Cover of Unfit to PrintWhen crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing boy. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

All buy links here!

More on the Sins of the Cities series (aka the one with the taxidermist).

Do Not Mess with the Happy Ever After: defining the romance novel

There is a recurrent thing in discussions of romance novels which bubbles up every couple of months: Books That Aren’t Romance Being Listed As Romance.

Obviously this isn’t car manuals sneaking their way in. It’s books that are marketed as romance novels (or series) when one of the protagonists dies, or they part for good, or the romantic relationship in which we’re invested is otherwise ended or ruined. It’s lists of romance novels that include, say, Wuthering Heights, where they both die and about time too, or Me Before You, where the disabled hero serves the heroine’s emotional growth and then commits suicide (shall we not), or much of Nicholas Sparks’ oeuvre (death and tragedy represent) and so on and so forth. These are stories about romance and romantic relationships, yes, but they aren’t romance novels.

Let’s do a thing. Think of the one word that defines the romance genre. What is it you go to romance specifically for, what are you expecting and needing to find? I’ll give you a clue, it’s got four letters, ends with ‘e’.

If you said ‘love’ go to the back of the room. You get love in all kinds of books, including those mentioned above. The guy in Lolita is in love, in his way, and if you call that a romance we have a problem.

What romance novels specifically offer us is hope.  Hope that two people can come together and be better happier humans as a result. Hope that marginalised or disregarded or unhappy people can find love and joy in a hard world; hope that however flawed you are, however scared, however much you feel like a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit, there is a place and a person for whom you are just right; hope for the future. That’s the HEA/HFN promise that the romance genre offers (Happy Ever After/Happy For Now) and the key word there is happy. If a book doesn’t fulfil that by leaving us with the protagonists happy and together (for whatever definition of happy and together works for them) and us hopeful for their future as individuals and as lovers, it is not a romance novel.

This isn’t a criticism of books without HEA/HFN. Wuthering Heights isn’t a bad book because Heathcliff and Cathy don’t live happily ever after; it would be a far worse book if they did. It’s absolutely fine not to have an HEA/HFN. It just isn’t a romance novel without one.

Nor is this, as many idiots think, an indictment of the romance genre. The HEA/HFN requirement is not a limitation, it’s a definition. The HEA/HFN is to a romance novel as being warm-blooded is to a mammal: you can have a lot of variety within that classification, but if you don’t have that specific characteristic, you’re not part of that kingdom.

The reason this taxonomical stuff matters is because when you market a book–when you give it a title of a certain sort, with carefully chosen typography and cover treatment and a well-crafted blurb–you are making readers a promise as to what they’ll get. Imagine a book called The Sallow Road. The blurb reads, “In a surreal land, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” The cover shows a shadowy road stretching through disturbingly unnatural scenery, and four odd-shaped silhouettes: three sinister humanoids, the fourth all too clearly a schoolgirl. All that adds up to some kind of warped dystopian fantasy horror, quite possibly by Clive Barker. And the reader will thus have every right to be annoyed when they open it to read, “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” (Credit to Rick Polito for this amazing blurb for The Wizard of Oz, tweaked for my purposes.)

Say I write a novel where we see a named person commit a murder in the first chapter, and the book is about the murderer living undetected, and the impact of the unexplained death, which is never suspected or investigated, on her and on the people around her. This sounds like a pretty good read in a dark Gothic psychodrama way, or even a savage social satire, but the one thing it isn’t is a detective novel. Detective novels need a crime to be solved and a solution, and if I market my no-puzzle no-solution book as a detective novel with a mystery-type title and cover and blurb, and my advertising is specifically directed at detective-novel readers, I will get a lot of angry one-stars on Goodreads. This doesn’t say anything meaningful about the merits of my book vs the detective-novel genre as a whole, or about reader expectations vs the right of authors to tell whatever story they like. It’s just the inevitable consequence of offering A for sale and then supplying the purchaser with B.

Let’s put this another way because I’m hungry: You order gazpacho for lunch. You sit there happily awaiting the cool joy of a cold, tangy, refreshing tomato-based soup with a garlicky kick. And what you get instead is a hot, steaming bowl of minestrone. “What?” says the waiter. “It’s a Mediterranean tomato-based soup with vegetables and garlic, isn’t it? Yes, fine, I told you I’d bring you gazpacho, but don’t you think it’s a bit childish and predictable to expect every bowl of gazpacho to be cold? This isn’t your mother’s gazpacho! We’re reinventing soup!”

Well, you might eat the minestrone; you might even love it. But I suspect you’d be far more likely to send it back and/or leave a one-star on TripAdvisor, because you ordered gazpacho, your tastebuds are lined up for gazpacho, your personal circumstances, sitting in a Spanish courtyard on a hot day, are calling for gazpacho, and in the end it doesn’t matter how good the minestrone might be because if you’d wanted goddamn minestrone, you would have ordered goddamn minestrone. And this goes for the people who are ‘reinventing romance novels’ by writing things that aren’t romance novels but marketing them as romance novels in the hope of getting a slice of the largest and most voracious reading demographic, and then claim to be doing something special instead of just misleading advertising.

Of course some people can play with genre and even change (some of) the rules. Agatha Christie turned detective novels on their head with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (I won’t spoiler: if you don’t know the twist do not Google, just read it.) There was a furious outcry and it remains a jaw-dropper even now. Sometimes you positively want to be played with: Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, is all about presenting you with a thing that your eyes/brain say will taste a certain way, but does not, and it is indeed amazing. That’s fine for Agatha Christie, and a selling point for Heston Blumenthal. But it isn’t a licence for every passing jerk to serve minestrone while selling it as gazpacho.

The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

–Carl Sagan

When I pick up a romance novel, I might get werewolves; I might get dukes. I might get people desperately carving out happiness in dark oppressive periods of history, or a demographically implausible special ops team, or a small town where every family has six hot brothers who get married in birth order, or pretty much anything else. But what I am sure I’ll get when I close the book (or finish the series) is a sense of hope. Of love that lifts up the people involved, of people caught in a golden moment, of joy and fulfilment and things just being right, for once. That’s why people read romance novels, that is what romance novels do, and if you promise us that catharsis and snatch it away, you’re letting readers down.

It’s as simple as that. Don’t make false promises and you won’t get angry readers. (Well, not about that particular subject at least.) And if your question is “But KJ, how do I get my hands on all that sweet romance cash if I don’t want to write yawnsome predictable happy endings that don’t satisfy my soul’s dark cravings/desire for higher literary status?”, my answer is: You don’t, so don’t call your stuff romance and we’ll all be fine.

*****

Relevant to the above: My new book The Henchmen of Zenda is a queered version of the classic pulp adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s packed with sex, swordfights, and skulduggery, and I had an enormous amount of fun with it. I would probably call it “pulp adventure with strong romantic elements”, and romance readers who need to know about endings first should check my GR review and click on the spoilers.

Amazon

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Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

A retelling of the swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda from a very different point of view.

Readers say:

…a classic ripping yarn of swashbuckling Ruritanian highjinks, which is unabashedly gay AF.

… KJ Charles is always a delight and this book is no exception – her nuanced exploration of historical queer identities and her restoration of women into the narrative puts the complexity of history back on the page. Sarcasm, swordfights, and sex – what’s not to love?

… a story with murder, treason, double and triple crosses, where characters change allegiances every few chapters, where all the players have their own motives, and the reader is left breathless, wondering what in the hell could possibly happen next.

…an absolute delight.

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“Just How Things Were”: bigotry in historical romance

Historical detail is my jam. I am not here for histrom that is modern day people in silly hats; that takes all the fun out of it. I don’t want magic horses that are basically cars with legs, or letter-carrying boys who work with the speed of text messages, and I really don’t want dukes who come with belief in full social equality ready installed. If I want modern things I’ll read contemporary.

Regency romance in particular has as one of its main joys the social stratification, the play of power and status and reputation and responsibility. I wrote a Regency about a marquess’s brother in love with his valet where the entire conflict depended on the power imbalance between the two, and it took a good half of the book for the lord to get beyond his ingrained assumption that he makes the rules, that he is the one who gets to decide that this relationship is impossible and morally wrong, and the valet has no input into that decision. (The valet disagrees.) It was massive fun to do precisely because the power imbalance and the attitudes were such a big gnarly mess.

Social attitudes of the time are a huge part of historical fiction. But historical fiction is still a thing of its own era. If you read books written by Victorians set in ancient Rome, you’ll learn a lot about Victorian England, because people write themselves, their concerns, their views of what’s right and wrong.

I don’t see that as a flaw in historical fiction; I see it as a feature. I am writing books in 2018 for an audience reading them in 2018, and I don’t think the fact they’re set in 1818 is a reason in itself to write things that will be repugnant or wrong to a modern audience. My characters can be at least partially people of their time without being rancid by my own time’s standards.

I dare say you’ve encountered the form of ‘historical accuracy’ often used as an excuse by writers or a critique by certain readers. This is the ‘accuracy’ that insists that any woman in a medieval type setting must be raped, preferably on-page. That everyone in the past must have been virulently homophobic, that everyone was a bigot, that it’s impossible that humans ever cared about people unlike themselves. This is the ‘accuracy’ that denies mixed marriages happened before about 1980, and doubts that white Brits in the Georgian period would have boycotted slave sugar, and writes to inform authors that their white hero was implausible for not raping their black heroine on sight. (All examples recently seen in the wild on social media. God help us. It’s funny how rarely you get told off for not being progressive or liberal enough, for ignoring the many people who fought for other people’s rights, or who fell in love and lived happily, or who existed as people of colour in Europe before 1950. It’s almost like some people have a vested interest in making the past seem a crappier place.)

I am not, of course, arguing that historical romances shouldn’t deal with hard subjects or have bigotry on page.  Writers like Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, and Beverly Jenkins engage with American racism continually and directly; Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses deals with English anti-Semitism; EE Ottoman’s The Doctor’s Discretion handles transphobia, homophobia and racism; and I could name you a dozen more historical romances that take on appalling historical attitudes, sometimes even voiced by the main characters.

But these narratives don’t simply present bigotry as a thing, a fact of life like corsets and taxation. These books show us the cruelty and wrongs done by bigotry; where main characters are responsible they learn as part of their arc that earns them a HEA; where other characters are responsible, the narrative engages with that. These books critique past attitudes from the perspective of the present, because it is not the Regency now. It is 2018 and I am not here for historical hatred as a feature, a bit of window dressing, just how things were. Don’t make a fuss, it’s historically accurate. That’s very easy to say if you’re not the reader who’s been slapped in the face by another bit of dehumanisation or violence presented as entertainment.

Romance is all about our engagement with the main characters. Well, I’m not engaging with unredeemed bigots. I don’t want to see their HEAs; I don’t want them to have the happiness they’d deny to other people. I don’t care if it’s probable that someone in 1800 would have displayed unexamined bigotry; that doesn’t entitle them to an HEA in the book I’m reading right now.

And that is not shying away from historical reality. On the contrary, I think refusing to engage with historical attitudes that present bigotry as acceptable is shying away from current reality, in which the same attitudes are making a comeback. Historical attitudes changed because people fought them. Sometimes failing to take a stand is a stand.

Authors don’t have to deal directly with bigotry when writing historicals, of course. You can just not put it in the book, along with all the other things we don’t put in books. Very few historical romances mention headlice, or menstruation, or bad breath, because those are not things most readers want to dwell on, and I’d far rather read about the MCs’ headlice than their hatred. Or you can sketch bigotries in lightly, without shoving them in the reader’s face. Or you can give those attitudes to someone who isn’t the hero or heroine of the damn book. You can do a whole lot of things.

But what you can’t do is depict vile attitudes without examination or consideration, and expect modern readers not to care or object or decide your character can go step on Lego just because the book’s set in the past. It may be; we’re writing and reading right now.

________

NB: I have delected a specific reference to a book from this post because the situation is more complex than I originally realised. My general principle stands. 

 

The Storyshower: thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, don’t tell” (henceforth SDT in this post) is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. As with most writing advice, it’s a useful thing to consider, but gets wildly extrapolated into an iron law by people who use maxims as a substitute for thoughtful consideration of the thing in front of them.

The basic principle of SDT is that giving information is less powerful than describing and allowing the reader to infer. Thus, “Bob had been drinking” is boring and flat, and it is far better to write “She could smell gin on Bob’s breath” or “Bob’s eyes were unfocused, his gait unsteady” or “The reek of stale beer preceded Bob into the room by several seconds” or what-have you.

The usual quote offered here is this, supposedly by Chekov (it’s not):

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

That’s wonderfully pithy and memorable, and absolutely evokes the way in which imagery can convey much more than basic information. The glint gives us a mental picture which is vivid and specific in a way that the basic shining moon is not; the broken glass gives us a mood.

The problem here is, not to state the bleeding obvious: light glints on broken glass in the daytime too. The only reason you got that lovely mental picture of moonlight on broken glass is because the first half of the maxim–the declarative part you aren’t supposed to say–literally tells you the moon is shining. If the quote was “Don’t describe the scene; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” nobody would repeat it because it would be nonsense.

Here’s a passage about Tolkein’s Mordor which was cited in a post I found as a great example of SDT.

The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

This is hard work for the reader. It is dense stuff that demands unpicking as we go, and the collision of multiple images is actually quite disorienting. Are the pools water or mud or ash? Are filthy entrails usually white and grey and what does that look like? What kind of graveyard is filled with rows of cones? What is ‘an obscene graveyard’ meant to convey? This is exhausting stuff in quantity, unless you do what’s clearly intended, which is to skate over the whole thing getting an overall impression from the words, rather than digging into each image in turn. If you read it quickly, you’re fine. If you read 500 pages of this, you’d need a drink.

Given this, do we really want to apply SDT as some kind of blanket rule, where ‘showing’ is always better? Can we think of any counter examples where simple declarative telling works quite well?

Marley was dead; to begin with.

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The blanket maxim of SDT is not only applied to line edits. I was impelled to write this post because a friend asked me about some editorial advice she’d had. Her MS has a scene in which one MC reflects briefly on last night’s sex and an exchange with his lover about their problem. (Paraphrased to avoid identification.)

MS: They’d made love twice more last night, and talked further about Gideon’s impossible task.

Editor: We need to see this on page. Show, don’t tell!

What is this nonsense. We don’t need this sex on page if there are a) other love scenes or b) no on-page bonking in the book; we don’t need more on Gideon’s impossible task if the MS has already established what it is. The purpose of this paragraph is to tell us they’re building up physical and verbal intimacy; it’s a shorthand line for events we don’t need spelled out.

Imagine a book where you couldn’t fast-forward with “They had walked through the monotonous landscape for three days without incident” or “She spent a week going through the documents” because we have to show not tell everything that happens. Give me a break.

***

Let’s do some close work. I wrote a book called A Fashionable Indulgence (on sale at the time of writing!) in which our hero Harry is being held at knifepoint, and the valet Cyprian comes to the rescue.  Here is a key scene. I have renamed the baddie to avoid spoilers.

“No,” James said thickly. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The blade dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. James’s hand jerked in shock and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.

Cyprian. Of course Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. Of course he’d come from nowhere, he moved like a cat in slippers.

Is this SDT? There is certainly lots of showing. I never say “Cyprian arrived” or “James was startled.” I don’t say “He had a gun”, but let the reader and characters infer it from “I could shoot you”. I don’t say James digs the knife into Harry’s skin, or cuts him; that is entirely done in Harry’s POV and focused on the knife, not the person using it.

There is also plenty of telling. The blade dug into Harry’s chin. James’s hand jerked in shock. Harry gasped. The knife cut him.

And there is…stuff in between. I have Harry reflect “he moved like a cat in slippers”. Is that showing, or highly decorated telling? And I don’t say “Cyprian silently arrived with a pistol” but Harry thinks exactly that across two sentences in the next para. This makes sure the reader’s understood what’s happening, but it also conveys Harry’s mental state of bewildered acceptance at Cyprian’s extraordinary and unexpected appearance. Is that telling us what’s happening, or showing the reader how Harry feels…or is it by any chance both?

Let us try running this sequence a couple of different ways. Here’s this done with every single aspect as SDT.

“No.” The phlegm was audible in James’s speech. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The sharp metal edge dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. A hot line of pain seared his skin, shocking a gasp from him.

He shouldn’t be surprised Cyprian had appeared without warning; Harry was all too used to his smooth, silent slipping through the house. He wondered if he could smell gunpowder from a pistol or if that was his imagination.

I did my best with this but I don’t think it’s an improvement. Making every sentence show-y instead of tell-y loses clarity and slows us down considerably.

This is not to suggest going the other way. Let us write this all telling no showing, in the style of the maestro Dan Brown.

“No,” James said. His voice sounded thick with emotion. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me.” He pressed the blade harder against Harry’s chin. “And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. Cyprian had arrived without anyone hearing him. James’s hand jerked in shock, and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.

Harry was now so bewildered that it seemed inevitable that Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. It wasn’t even surprising that he’d appeared as if from nowhere. The renowned valet David Cyprian always moved quietly.

Yeah, no.

The problem with SDT as a general maxim is twofold. Firstly, it ignores the needs of the specific piece of writing. Sometimes I want to tell you that Bob reels into the room as though dancing with the spirits on his breath; sometimes I need the stark gut-punch of “He was drunk.” It depends on the effect I am trying to produce, the way I want to vary my rhythms, the narrative style and character point of view, the type of book I’m writing, whether the information has to be got out of the way or dwelled on in detail or lightly sketched. It depends.

And secondly, stating the obvious again:  All writing is telling. If I write “Great cones of earth, fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light” I am still telling you what I want you to picture, and how I want you to think about it. I’m just doing it in elaborate ways that you may not notice as telling. It’s called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” for a reason.

So if you are inclined to say “Show, don’t tell!” you might want to dig into that a bit more. This is too bare. The para could use more variety in sentence structure. We’re not getting a sense of the MC’s emotion here. I think you need to spell this part out.

SDT as a prescriptive trend turns good advice into a meaningless law (“watch out for this” into “don’t do this at all”). Let’s not blunt our tools with overuse.

Doing Everything At Once: the ‘simultaneous action’ problem

I last bloggged about silly stylistic fads and Rules for Writers. These often arise from perfectly good editorial advice (don’t overuse passives) that get generalised into sweeping laws (don’t use passives at all!) and are applied regardless of whether the author is doing the thing well or badly.

One of the more pervasive of these is the Simultaneous Action fad. This wildly popular editorial trend holds that actions must be spelled out in sequence lest the reader interpret them as being simultaneous. So:

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.

Simultaneous Action tells us that this sentence presents Bob as doing both things at once. However, obviously enough, the gun must be pulled before it can be pointed. Both things cannot happen at the same time, yet (Simultaneous Action devotees say) the grammar of this sentence means the reader is presented with exactly that. Therefore this sentence must be amended.

Bob drew the gun before pointing it at Janey.

Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.

As you may suspect, I disagree profoundly with this as a generally applied rule. Let’s do some digging. We will start, as we so often do, with a video of a man juggling knives on a unicycle while playing the harmonica.

Asked to describe what you just saw, you would probably say “inexplicable”. Further pressed, you might say, “The man rode a unicycle while juggling knives and playing the harmonica.” You would not say, “The man rode a unicycle before juggling knives and then played the harmonica” because that isn’t what happened. Some actions are in fact simultaneous. Got it? Good. Hold that thought.

That principle grasped, let’s look again at our examples.

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey. / Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.

Imagine this action as if it’s in a film. Does Bob draw the gun slowly, wringing out the tension as his arm comes slowly up, and we wonder who he’s going to point it at–the woman he’s only just met and has no reason to trust, or the best friend who we know has betrayed him? Or does Bob draw the gun in a single swift arc of the arm, almost too fast to see, leaving us gasping at the sudden threat of violence?

You can picture both of those, right? One of them is a sequence of actions, both of which are important—Bob draws the gun, then points it, as two separate things. The other is a flowing action—Bob produces and aims the gun, as part of the single action unit of the draw. His movement isn’t “two things at once” simultaneous in the way of Knife-Juggling Unicycle Guy, but neither is it separated into “draw [pause] point”. We see it as one sequence, draw to point, which I’m going to call an action flow.

This crucial distinction between individual actions and action flows is what Simultaneous Action faddery ignores. And that causes problems. Because authors, lacking cinecameras and large casts of pretty people, have to convey what happens using words and style.

Janey ran down the corridor, vaulting the fallen bodies of zombies, skidding around the corner, barely breaking stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob, and dived out of the window.

(Looks like Bob should have trusted Janey. Bad decision, Bob.)

The above is a pretty standard action sequence. We start with “ran” as the verb to kick us off, then use present participles (vaulting, skidding) to convey the breathless ongoing sequence of her non-stop movement, and conclude with “dived” to mark the final action. Did you have any trouble understanding what was happening in the action (except for the tentacle stuff)? Were you confused about the sequence of events?

No. You didn’t and weren’t. Nevertheless Simultaneous Action editors will insist that this entire sequence must be rephrased because events must be clearly stated as happening one after another, with markers.

Janey ran down the corridor. She vaulted the fallen bodies of zombies before skidding around the corner. She barely broke stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob. Then she dived out of the window.

This is quite seriously what is being done to text as we speak. If you have been affected by issues raised in this blog post, call the hotline.

It should be obvious that the second example is not as good. I’m not claiming the first is deathless prose—I do these posts for free, you know—but it uses style and structure to mimic Janey’s non-stop hurtling to escape. The reader doesn’t get a break from the action till Janey does. Whereas the second presents what was a single action sequence as a series of discrete events, making it slower, and losing the impression of breathless speed, in order that nobody should read the sentence as Janey running, vaulting and skidding all at the same millisecond–a misreading that no English speaker would ever make.

Needless to say, there are times when actions aren’t part of a flow and shouldn’t be presented as such.

He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.

As it stands this isn’t a smooth sequence, so it does indeed jar the reader. The sitting doesn’t happen as a natural consequence of the walking, so it looks weird to run them together in this specific phrasing. The editor is quite right to flag it, no argument there. But consider this:

He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne, ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and finally sitting on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

Here we have a continuing stream of action that starts with walking in and concludes with sitting, and it works perfectly well. You might argue that the present participles (ing words) become repetitive, and that would be very fair. Change it up on that basis by all means. But to change it on the grounds that each action must be clearly demarcated as separate is nonsensical. No reader would interpret the above as our hero walking, dodging, ducking, and sitting simultaneously, like Unicycle Juggling Guy. It is a sequence of movements, their order made clear by the sequence of phrases, which are all part of an ongoing action flow.

Whereas if you break it up:

He walked into the room. He dodged waiters with trays of champagne as he went, and ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid a fundraiser. Finally he sat on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

This breaks the flow of action, and foregrounds the people who were formerly just background description, making the dodging sequence seem more important than it is. It also creates a very repetitive sentence structure akin to a primary school essay. “And then I did this and then I did that.” That is pretty hard to avoid if you’re turning text into strings of separate actions, and I have seen far too many examples of Simultaneous Action editing leading to this effect.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think all text should be action flows and full of ings. My point is one that regular readers will recognise: authors need to consider what they are trying to do, and then do it mindfully, using whatever tool is appropriate.

Consider this pair:

He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne and ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

and

He walked into the room and immediately had to dodge two waiters with trays of champagne, which put him in the sights of a fundraiser. He ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman, cursing the crush, and saw his target on a sofa against the wall. He took a steadying breath, sauntered over as casually as possible, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract her attention.

These two passages are using different sentence structures (action flow vs events in sequence) to do different things.

This first passage whizzes through everything between entry and locking onto the target. The ing clauses give us a bit of scene setting and atmosphere without slowing the pace of the sequence, so that we get from entry to target in one manageable sentence, and can now get on with the plot without further ado. The overall impression is that our MC is smoothly and competently doing his job.

The second passage uses a series of discrete actions because this MC is different. He’s having more trouble with the job than the first guy. There’s more detail in order to slow the pace and point up the challenge of what he has to do, but the consecutive-actions structure is also crucial here. He’s got to dodge, then to duck, then to spot his target, then to go over and sit down. We’re as relieved as he’s pretending to be by the end of all that.

If I told you that one of these passages stars a James Bond style spy hero, and the other has an accountant who must track down his brother’s killer, would you find it difficult to guess which was which? Thought not. And the flow of action (or lack thereof) is an important stylistic trick in achieving that. It’s not as immediately obvious as the added text, but it makes a vital contribution to the overall impact. Which is what style is for.

Simultaneous Action is basically just another overly-prescriptive trend that takes perfectly good advice (“don’t do this badly”) and turns it into a meaningless law (“don’t do this at all”). See also Disembodied Parts and Don’t Use Was.  Of course editors should change text that jars the reader by running events into one another when they don’t flow.

He drew the gun, blowing Bad Jack’s head off.

But to apply that principle to all action flows because some are done badly is pointless, restrictive, and takes perfectly good tools out of the author’s kit. It can’t go out of fashion soon enough.

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Simultaneous Action fans will doubtless disagree. Feel free to argue, with the proviso that I am not at home to circular reasoning along the lines of “editing for Simultaneous Action improves style because Simultaneous Action is bad style, QED”.

KJ Charles is an editor of twenty years’ experience turned romance novelist. An Unseen Attraction and Wanted, a Gentleman have just been nominated for EPIC awards for historical romance.

Writers: Stop Doing This!

So I was on Twitter yesterday (my first mistake) and I came across this gem by an actual literary agent with an actual literary agency.

Delete all the adjectives and adverbs from your book. All of them. Get rid. Your book will read better, and be more appealing, as a direct result.

The direct result here was that the agent got body slammed from forty directions at once and took the tweet down. So perish all stupid writing tips. Except it won’t perish, because the tweet in question had been liked 40+ times and retweeted eight before Writing Twitter descended in a cloud of harpy wings. Some people read that and thought, “Ooh, agent advice!” and ran off to take all the adjectives and adverbs out of their MS. This stuff does harm.

I asked on Twitter for the stupid prescriptive writing advice people receive. Here is an incomplete list of the responses.

  • Don’t start with the weather.
  • Don’t use “said”.
  • Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
  • Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.
  • Don’t use indirect speech.
  • Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
  • Don’t use dialect.
  • Use proper names, not pronouns.
  • Don’t overuse proper names.
  • Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).
  • Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
  • Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
  • Don’t use “was” at all.
  • Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form. (Seriously.)
  • Don’t use auxiliary verbs because they ‘slow things down’. (“I had met him before”, “you could go”.)
  • Don’t use fragments (i.e. every sentence must have a verb).
  • Don’t have simultaneous action. Two things cannot happen at the same time, apparently.
  • No disembodied parts. (“His fingers slid down her leg.”)
  • Don’t use first person narrative.
  • Don’t use second person narrative.

(wait for it…)

  • Don’t use third person narrative.
  • Don’t write in present tense.
  • Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
  • Don’t begin sentences with adverbs or conjunctions.
  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.

I swear to you, all the above are responses to one tweet. This is stuff writers are being told, and they are being told it by agents, editors at publishing houses, freelance editors, beta readers, teachers, blog posts, every jerk who did one term of grammar and thinks CMOS has legal force, and other writers who have internalised the drivellings of the above.

If you’re at a loose end, a fun thing to do is go through that list and find brilliant counterexamples. It won’t take long. Here, I’ll go first.

  • Don’t start with the weather.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

(1984, George Orwell.)

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

(Bleak House, Charles Dickens, and there’s another four paragraphs of this.)

 ***

There are, I think, four things going on in that list of idiocy. One is good advice turned into bad rules, one is pig ignorance, one is personal preference/prescriptivism, and the last is bias. Let’s do the easy one first.

Good advice turned into bad rules

Sticking with the weather example: Anyone who has read slush, or English homework, will be painfully familiar with books that open with the weather, and wimble around in unengaging description until the author finds the plot. It’s an easy way into the story, and people taking the easy way rarely do their best work. (There’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is a classic bad-book quote.)

Weather openings can indeed be slow and unengaging. But you don’t have to stop doing a thing because some people do it badly. You just have to do it well.

That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…

(The Rapture, Liz Jensen.)

The same principle applies to this delightful string of admonitions.

  • Use proper names, not pronouns.
  • Don’t overuse proper names.
  • Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).

You just know what’s happened here, don’t you?

And round and round we go. (Since you ask, the answer is obviously to use all three mindfully and in a varied way. “Jenny gripped the rail and tugged at the gun in Natalie’s hand as hard as she dared. She needed it and the bloody woman wasn’t letting go.”)

The same goes for many more prohibitions, “never do”s that ought to be phrased as “keep an eye out”. “Consider your use of adverbs carefully” is good advice; “cut all adverbs” is not. I did an entire blog post on the absurd “disembodied parts” shibboleth which sums up most of my feelings on all this.

Pig Ignorance

This plays a larger part than you may think. Look at this lot.

  • Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
  • Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
  • Don’t use “was” at all.
  • Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form.

What’s going on here? Well, “don’t use passive voice” is a very common bit of writing advice. We all mock the politician who says “mistakes were made” instead of “I made a mistake”. And passive voice can be distancing or unengaging. “The bell was rung, the dogs were released, and the fox was quickly brought to ground” is not a thrilling description of a hunt.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. It means you should use it carefully, e.g. when you need to foreground the object of the action rather than the actor. If Zainab is being unexpectedly invested as Queen of the Fairies, we might well write “The crown was placed on her head, and rainbow light flooded the room” rather than wasting everyone’s time with specifics of who placed the crown. Equally, if our POV protagonist Jim has been captured and has a bag over his head, it makes sense to write “His arm was jerked up behind his back” rather than “Someone jerked his arm up behind his back.”

Note that, in giving the above examples, I used two passives: Zainab is being invested, Jim has been captured. Have a quick go at rewriting the para in the active voice and you will swiftly see why passive is useful there.

So “don’t use passive” is bad advice. Yet people give it, and having given it, they extrapolate to this extraordinary and bizarre belief that “was” indicates passive voice. So you will find people telling you that “He was hit by the zombie” and “He was running from the zombie” are both passive. (I am using zombies here as there is a helpful rule of thumb: if you can add “by zombies” it’s passive. Thus “The crown was placed on her head [by zombies]” and “She was crowned [by zombies]” are both passive, but “She was queen” and “She was ruling Fairyland with an iron fist” cannot have [by zombies] and are thus active.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with not being able to analyse a sentence for passives, gerunds, or participles. Plenty of people are not native speakers, neurodivergent, or didn’t get that sort of education. You can easily have no idea what gerunds are while using them impeccably and effectively in your speech and writing. But there is everything wrong with giving prescriptive advice based on things you don’t understand, and people need to stop that right now.

Because what’s apparently happened is that people have taken the already bad advice “don’t use passives”

he was hit by the ball

and extrapolated it to “was –ing” forms that look like passives

he was hitting the ball

I was going to the shop

and then extended that to the frankly insane ban on “was”, as though you can use English while eliminating the verb “to be”.

I was the queen at last!

This is ridiculous nonsense whipped up out of half-understood precepts. Anyone who tells you not to use “was” is an idiot and should not be listened to, by zombies or anyone else.

Preference and prescriptivism

  • Don’t use first person narrative.
  • Don’t use second person narrative.
  • Don’t use third person narrative.
  • Don’t write in present tense.
  • Don’t use indirect speech.
  • Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
  • Don’t use “said”.
  • Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
  • Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.

That’s not writing advice, that’s “things the speaker doesn’t like”. The two are not the same. If you can make second person present tense work, and you’re doing it for a reason, more power to your elbow. Using only “said” is dull, using a string of “averred/opined/murmured/voiced/pronounced” is irritating. One story may need a prologue and another doesn’t. It depends.

  • Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
  • Don’t use fragments (ie every sentence must have a verb)

Prescriptivist garbage from the school that says you shouldn’t split infinitives because Latin didn’t. What do we want? Verbless fragments! Why do we want them? For effect! How do we use them? Mindfully!

This stuff makes me genuinely angry. Authorial voice depends on choices like tense and person. The rhythm of your prose depends on varying sentence length and structure. Advice like the above is intrusive and damaging, and worst of all pointless. I strongly recommend asking why any of the above is bad, and seeing if you can get an answer better than “I don’t like it”, “I heard it was wrong” or “It just is”. I bet you won’t.

Bias

Just take a look at the list of don’ts. Don’t use adverbs, adjectives. Always use active voice. Write simple sentences. Don’t play with form. Don’t use dialect.

What it means is “write like a certain type of author”. Write like Hemingway, or Elmore Leonard, or Raymond Chandler, or whatever other white American man the speaker has in mind. (I’m sorry, but let’s be real here.) This is advice coming from the belief that there is, in the end, only one good and proper way to write. And that is simply not true—as anyone who has read with any variety and diversity at all will know.

***

This epic is titled “Writers: Stop Doing This”. What I want you to stop doing is sharing, listening to, and worrying about this garbage.

That doesn’t mean you don’t take advice or accept crit. It means that when you see a “don’t do X!” you ask yourself why, you think of counterexamples, you look at how X works in the sentence and if it is causing problems, and consider whether there is a clearer or more effective way to do it. In fact, write mindfully.

We can all, always improve as writers. But we won’t do that by following the advice of some jerk on the internet who tells you to cut all the adverbs.

_______________

KJ Charles is an editor of 20 years’ experience, a full-time author, and pretty much out of patience.