I picked up a book recently without checking the sample (it was a freebie on a promotion to push the series, and I am a sucker for that). This is what I posted on Facebook shortly thereafter.
I started this book.
It basically has one-sentence paragraphs.
All the way through.
Some of them are pretty long sentences and maybe have dialogue in them so it looks like a normal paragraph but after a while without taking a breath you realise it’s still indeed just one big old sentence.
Others are short.
I’m not sure if the author’s return key is malfunctioning or if he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how paragraphs work or indeed what the editor was doing.
I mean, I use one-sentence paras myself (sparingly) and they are very effective as a dramatic thump.
But when each sentence is a paragraph, it’s more of a plod than a thump.
I’m on page 10 and I’m already planning how to hide the author’s body.
It’s 300 pages long.
I hurled that particular book across the room (metaphorically, ereaders are expensive) but it’s far from alone; it’s just one of the more egregious examples of an increasingly common stylistic quirk which I should like to invite you to kill with a hammer right now. I’m not sure where this trend has come from although I am mildly inclined to blame the internet—even a three-sentence para can easily look like a wall of text on a mobile phone screen. I do, however, have a strong idea where it can go.
Okay, let’s start with definitions. A paragraph, according to Cambridge, is
a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.
Bear in mind here that a sentence can be one word (eg “Help!” or “Wolves!”).
And that’s it. That’s all you need. Anyone who gives you extra rules about What Paragraphs Must Be is shining you on, whether they claim a paragraph must consist of a compulsory number of sentences, or insist that you need a new line for every single sentence. People really do say the most nonsensical stuff–my daughter once came home from school with a worksheet claiming that a paragraph is always 3 to 7 sentences, no exceptions. I would love to get my hands on the know-nothing prescriptivist random rule-clown who made that nonsense up.
Paragraphing, like absolutely everything else in writing, is a tool, and you need to use it consciously. I’m going to use a chunk of my latest book, 1920s paranormal romance Spectred Isle (available from all good retailers hint hint), to demonstrate what I mean. This is going to be longish, because you can’t really demonstrate paragraphing without, er, paragraphs of text, but think yourself lucky; I was going to use the first chapter of Bleak House. (Which let it be said, is a masterclass in both paragraphing and sentence length, not to mention gleeful ignoring of prescriptivist writing rules: try it here.)
In this sequence Saul, an archaeologist who doesn’t yet know he’s starring in a paranormal, is visiting Camlet Moat, the ancient location of a moated manor house in a north London park. Camlet Moat is kind of weird. For a start, it’s hard to find…
Saul would have liked to keep to the water edge, but he didn’t want to cause irreparable damage to his shoes or trousers; he couldn’t afford to be wasteful. He went back to the path and followed it. It appeared to head only away from the Moat, and he had to double back on himself twice and walk what seemed like a very long and circuitous route before he finally spotted the dark, rough wooden planks sitting low in the algae-coated water that apparently constituted a bridge. Saul had a momentary qualm, wondering how deep the moat was and picturing himself sodden and covered in green slime, before he set a tentative foot on it.
It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot.
He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong.
The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.
Got it? Bought the book? Good, now let’s have a closer look.
First para: quite long. It’s all on the same theme, telling us about the irritating difficulty Saul has in finding Camlet Moat (he can’t follow the water’s edge, the path doesn’t seem to go there, the bridge is uninviting). It’s long and cumulative because Saul’s journey is long and the factors are cumulative, it’s very much one damn thing after another.
Second para: shorter, giving us a breather, and separating/marking the pivotal moment when he crosses the bridge, because that will turn out to be important in the story. Note that the last word is “Camelot” (PLOT KLAXON). You can nudge something into the reader’s attention in a quiet yet effective way by making it the last word.
Third para: again all on a theme, this time Camlet Moat’s atmosphere of spring and growth and life and renewal. Another long one, to really build up the mood of life and growth and nature, before—
Fourth para: Bam. One sentence, four words, and thus a sufficiently dramatic contrast to the preceding text to grab the reader’s attention. It serves as a record scratch effect, saying: Hang on a second, this is important. The reader might not yet see why that’s a big deal, but the paragraphing makes it clear that it is.
Fifth para: Building up length again and atmosphere too, and once again we end the para on a key word, this time “afraid”. He should be.
You see? Now let’s faff around with that a bit and see how quickly we can ruin it.
The one-sentence paragraph throughout.
He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong.
The thought stopped him in his tracks.
He stood, listening, but heard nothing.
Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still.
Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears.
He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.
It’s excruciating, isn’t it? Like an early-reader primer, My First Supernatural British Island. Saul sees the terrifying wood demon. Run, Saul, run!
Obviously, this style gives the text all the rhythmic subtlety of a jackhammer; it also means the lack of birdsong has virtually no impact, because the line is no longer in any way differentiated from those around it. But also, note how the sentences that aren’t simple and declarative start to look just weird and bad. Those doubled-over looping structures without the ‘to be’ verbs (starting ‘Not a chirrup’ and ‘Still and silent’) don’t work any more: they need to be part of an ongoing stream of thought to mark the weird atmosphere.
Long as dogs
It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot. He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid. But that was absurd. There was no living creature but himself on this tiny island, and nothing to do him harm. He wasn’t lost in a vast and pathless ancient forest; he was in a Cockfosters park, with work to do, and if the birds weren’t singing, well, that was merely…something ornithological, not his field. He made himself walk forward, and not turn and look, because it was ridiculous to feel as though there was a presence around him, watching.
While not being nearly as bad, it’s still not great. We lose a lot of impact when the important points aren’t marked out—we could miss the importance of crossing the bridge; the new different atmosphere of Camlet Moat doesn’t stand out; the lack of living creatures doesn’t sound like a big deal if it’s just one sentence among many; we no longer have his fear standing starkly before he dismisses it in the next para that I merged in.
Long paras like this are also harder to follow. There’s nowhere to take a breath, plus they are very likely to be merging separate sequences of thought/action into one. Look for a break point and use it.
Paragraphing Rules (more of a guideline really)
- Paragraph mindfully. This is a tool to be used. If your paragraphing is simplistic, your writing will be simplistic.
- A sequence of paragraphs all the same length will begin to seem monotonous, whether they’re one sentence or the prescribed 3-5 or all half a page.
- If you’ve got a new or separate concept/thing to cover, give it a new para to flag that to the reader.
- If you want the reader to notice something (a pivot point, a thought) consider setting it apart with its own para. Conversely, if you want to drop in a clue without drawing the reader’s attention, the middle of a para is a good place to hide it.
- A one-liner is great as a “Bam!” effect, but like all stylistic effects, use very sparingly because they become obtrusive quickly.
- In multi paragraph speech the convention is to give each para a new set of opening quotes, but no closing quotes till the speech is finished.
“It was fresh and clean there, and it made my heart lift in a way I haven’t experienced in too long. I come from a small country town, and the place reminded me of my boyhood. So I walked without thinking for a while, and then I realised.
“There was no birdsong. I mean, seriously, there was none. At all. Have you ever been in a wood without birds? Or, like, buzzing things? Or anything? Dude, it was freaky.”
There is something to be said for breaking up long speeches with actions or interjections to avoid this, if you can do it in a non-obvious way.
KJ is a writer and editor. Spectred Isle, book 1 of the Green Men series, is out now. An Unsuitable Heir, which concludes the Sins of the Cities trilogy, comes out 3 October. They both have lots of lovely paragraphs.
I have been reading a lot recently—like, a lot—so I thought I’d share some joy. I have divided these into the reading experience rather than genre (because I felt like it, sue me). Somewhat less romance than usual as I have not been in a romancey mood recently.
Books to make you feel warm and fuzzy
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
A glorious story of a Sikh Londoner who inadvertently finds herself teaching a remedial English class for the widows of the title, who then start writing erotica, which then starts getting circulated in their community… It’s lively and hilarious and moving, and a spectacular first novel.
Another debut novel, this a m/m romance and one of the best of the year for me. Nick is a Russian Jewish immigrant to the US now studying in London, dealing with his sense of rootlessness and not belonging as he slowly comes out of the closet. I can’t wait for book 2.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Incredibly endearing picaresque tale of the motley crew of a spaceship, with wonderfully likeable characters you won’t want to leave; highly readable even for non SFF fans as it’s very much character based. Book 2, A Closed and Common Orbit, made me sob uncontrollable happy tears for about half an hour, and they can be read independently, but why not glom both.
Kith and Kin
Another book that made me happy-cry. A really engaging, delightful found-family novel, as a gay couple attempt to adopt while struggling with screwed up family and friends.
The Nothing Girl
This is like the literary equivalent of a hot bath and a nice cup of tea on a rainy day. It’s warm and comforting and indulgent, and anyone who has a problem with those things lacks soul. Taylor’s writing has that kind of British fictional 1950s quality, of a comfortable world where terrible things happen but everything is basically okay. Pure escapism.
Fun fun fun
Jackalope Wives and other stories
I have read everything by T Kingfisher recently and could have recced any of them here. I picked this one because this story collection is superlative. A wonderful wry writer with a deceptively elegant style, magnificent imagination, deep kindness and a dry-as-a-bone hard edge. Read one, glom everything she’s written.
The Glamour Thieves
Sci fi with romance plot (which is not finished in this book, the first in a series, so HEA-needers be warned). It’s about elves and orcs in a hi-tech world stealing cars and fighting necromancers with neuro-controlled drones while alternately pining and having wild elf-orc sex. I mean, you want that or you don’t. (I would. It really is enormous fun. )
This and its sequel Resistance are more superhero fun than every single Marvel movie put together. Just gleeful. Funny, imaginative, wry, with some brilliant powers, great action sequences, and excellent jokes. Loved the pair of them, massive recommend.
Nineteenth-century Chinese steampunk! I bought this ages ago and lost it, and then read it with great enjoyment only to discover the books had gone out of print so I couldn’t get the follow up. Fortunately, the author is bringing them back this autumn. Am dying to find out what happens next.
The Prey of Gods
I just loved this SF/fantasy hybrid. Gods and hi-tech in future South Africa with a wonderfully diverse cast (gay and trans MCs, lots of women, I think pretty much all POC) and magnificent imagination. Stonkingly good storytelling and vivid adventure with tons of heart along with the ideas. I couldn’t stop reading this one.
The Djinn Falls In Love and other stories
A really good story collection, with something for everyone, which sent me down a lot of rabbit holes reading other authors.
Not feelgood, still amazing
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
Queer American dystopian horror, as an off-grid community is attacked by the protective animal spirit they summoned. Gory, dark, and funny, and the first of a series.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Do not let the cover persuade you this is chick lit. A compelling and almost soap operatic look at a polygamous household in Nigeria. Secrets both ridiculous and horrendous come spilling out when the ludicrous patriarch Baba Segi can’t get his fourth wife pregnant, balanced by the darkly comic narrative style.
I Do Not Come To You by Chance
Another book set in Nigeria, this one a look at 419 email scammers. It’s a fascinating look at the people who do these, the social and economic pressures that drive them, the excuses we make to ourselves. Thoroughly engaging and bitterly funny, a terrific and enlightening read.
Escape From Baghdad!
Absolutely bananapants gonzo adventure of two arms dealers and a torturer trying to find hidden treasure in Iraq post Saddam’s fall and getting mixed up with ancient mystic cults, also militias and general madness. A stonking book with a massive on page body count and no holds barred, so not for the faint of stomach.
The Magic Places
There’s a few books recently about children who went to magic worlds and how they cope when they come back. (Every Heart a Doorway and Among Others are two I’ve read recently.) This one is more literary than fantasy, interspersing the story of a long ago summer and a boy who didn’t come back with that of the girl who didn’t go, now an adult and embarking in a wildly inappropriate relationship with the missing boy’s married father. It’s magical and human and reflective about imagination and solitude; I thought it was wonderful.
There is an apparently very widely held belief that it is not acceptable to judge a book, TV show, or movie unless you have consumed it. “Give Confederate a chance!” people say. “You can’t decide to avoid a book just because the advance reviewers are saying it’s offensive! It’s censorship to say you don’t want a TV proposal to be made and aired! You can’t judge until you’ve tried it!”
Oh yes I can. Just watch me.
Take Confederate. This programme about a US South that still has enslavement is still at a very early development stage. The makers said they haven’t yet written a script; they have not announced whose point of view it will be; they haven’t said if the Confederacy will be a Dallas-like glittering sexytimes place or the rather more realistic backward hellhole pariah state. They have simply sold the idea of “the South still has slavery” to HBO as just that, an idea; HBO have judged it as an idea and found it good. Yet for some reason those who think it is a bad idea are being told to wait for the finished product to judge.
Mate. If the people at HBO can judge this on the basis of its idea, so can I.
As it happens I think it sounds like shatteringly offensive garbage that will cause real-world damage. Maybe I’m wrong and it will be an artistic and human triumph that finally persuades those people who hadn’t yet grasped that enslavement is bad. But I’ve judged the idea and found it wanting, and I’m not going to give it any money until such time as new information causes me to change my mind. This is what we in the ideas business call “the market”, which is this newfangled thing whereby people decide if they want to buy your stuff based on what they hear and think about it. Nifty, eh?
/takes deep breath, resets sarcasm calibrator/
It’s not just Confederate of course. This happens over and over again in the book world. Copies are released, reviewers cite problems, other readers say “wow, I won’t read that,” and someone comes hopping in to say “Judge for yourself! You can’t judge a book till you’ve read it!”
I was an acquiring editor for 20 years. Judging a book before I’d read it was literally my job. There is a quote that I heard on the radio from an agent, which goes:
People ask, can you really judge a submission from three chapters? You can judge a book from three chapters, from one chapter, from the first page, from the synopsis, sometimes from the covering letter, and in extreme cases from the envelope.
This is entirely true. Like many acquiring editors, I developed the Envelope Call superpower and used to upset interns by handing back unopened envelopes saying “Nope, terrible slush, take it away”. They would protest, “You can’t say that without even looking!”, open it, scan the pages and go, “…oh.”
I can judge a book on any damn thing that comes my way and so can you. The current Romanceland row is about a taboo dark romance* which is a “swoonworthy” father/daughter* story with extended scenes of rape* and incest*. You might have decided to nope out at any one of those stars; you might equally have decided to one-click. Either of those actions is, wait for it, judging the book before you’ve read it. That’s what buying a book or even downloading a preview is: a judgement.
You might of course decide your initial judgement was misplaced, because opinions evolve with new information. (“My friend said it was amazing so I’ll try it after all.” “The first page of the preview made me want to throw up so I stopped.”) But it’s all a series of judgements, positive and negative. If I buy a book, I’ve judged that I want to read it, and put my money where my mouth is. When I read something I am judging that this book is more worth my time than the other seven billion books I could be reading instead. That’s a hell of a call.
I looked at the taboo dark romance in question. The blurb contains the following line in the content warning: “This book is only for the brave, the open-minded, and the ones who crave love in even the most dismal of situations.” Which is to say, if you don’t like rape and incest in your romance you’re cowardly and closed-minded, unlike the braver, better humans who buy it. Okay.
That blurb line is an Envelope Call for me all on its own. Not for everyone; others may find it intriguing or flattering or challenging, as was doubtless the intention. But I am putting a big red R for Reject on the book (and to be honest the author’s entire oeuvre) because of that line, just as people are making the Envelope Call on Confederate. I don’t need to open this envelope of worms, because I have already seen the signs that point to Terrible, take it away.
Perhaps in your head those signs point to a giddy wonderland of reading or viewing pleasure. People vary; my one-click may be your one-strike-you’re-out. Perhaps new information will come along to change my mind. Maybe Confederate won’t be a calamitously bad idea in practice, though I fail to see how.
But the world is full of media and art clamouring for our attention and our money. We constantly sort and winnow and judge based on the idea, the blurb, the envelope, because that’s all we have time to do. And the idea that anyone is in any way obliged to do more than glance at the envelope is creative entitlement of the most nonsensical kind.
It’s our time and our money, and we can judge how to spend both precisely as we see fit. Which means we all have the right to cry: That looks terrible. Take it away.
My latest release is Spectred Isle, a 1920s m/m paranormal romance. You have to buy it now you’ve heard that it exists, because if you choose not to you’re judging it without reading it, and that’s censorship.
I’m thrilled to share info about my new paranormal series, Green Men, which launches on 3rd August with Spectred Isle.
The Green Men series is set in England, 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring in, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.
The occult battles fought in the War Beneath the War have torn the veil protecting our world from what lies outside. With most of the country’s arcanists dead, and the Government unwilling to face the truth of the damage done, a small group pledged to an ancient duty must protect England from supernatural threat.
The Green Men series covers a motley crew of occult experts, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military experiments as they fight supernatural and human threats, save the land, and fall in love.
The story starts with a m/m romance, Spectred Isle (yes I am quietly smug about that title, thanks for asking) in which a disgraced archaeologist finds himself unwillingly dragged into a series of bizarre supernatural events, and only an aristocratic and evasive arcanist can save him. It was a joy returning to paranormal, which I haven’t written in two years, and I had a glorious romp around in real British history as well as ancient and modern English and London myths.
Here’s the stunning cover by Lexiconic Design!
And the blurb…
Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.
Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.
Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
The Green Men series is set in the world of The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal a generation on. It’s not necessary to have read the Secret Casebook, but if you have you’ll recognise a few characters and references. If you haven’t but would like to, it’s in a super-bargain LGBT Fantasy Storybundle for just two more days at the time of writing (check it out, it’s an amazing value offer including some absolutely marvellous books). Otherwise the Secret Casebook is available here.
Spectred Isle publishes 3 August. It’s going up for preorder now (depending on how fast the stores get the links up), and print will be available via Createspace.
Sins of the Cities is my take on the Victorian sensation novel. There’s murder, family secrets, disputed inheritance, peculiar lines of work, ongoing love stories, and fog. Lots of fog.
In fact, An Unnatural Vice is set during a real fog which was one of the worst of the 19th century. And I don’t just mean it was a bit murky out. The combination of pollution from home fires and factory chimneys and the murky atmosphere of a low-lying city in a river valley meant the air basically curdled. The 1873 fog lasted for a full week, during which time the Smithfield Cattle Show was held: more than 50 prize cows died of suffocation. Theatres had to be closed because nobody could see the stage. People died of respiration problems, in their hundreds, and also because they walked into ditches and the river.
A reporter wrote of a different and less severe London fog:
Night appears to be pressing close against the window-panes at noon-day… Traffic is not interrupted, although daylight is completely extinguished–so long as the pall remains above the housetops. When it descends to the surface of the ground, the discreet remain indoors; belated pedestrians are conducted home by link-boys […]; cabmen lead their horses, and vehicles moving at a snail’s pace frequently come to grief; the driver of the tram-car is unable to see his horses, and the conductor is hardly able to distinguish the hand that passes the fare.
To reiterate: that fog she’s describing is less bad than the 1873 one I use in An Unnatural Vice.
They called them pea-soupers for a reason. The air was thick; the fog would create banks in side streets and enclosed areas. You could not see to cross the road; lifelong Londoners would be hopelessly lost in their own neighbourhood. Now imagine you’re dodging a murderer…
An Unnatural Vice is set in that fog, and stars journalist Nathaniel Roy and fraudulent spiritualist Justin Lazarus, as they try to see their way clear in every sense. Nathaniel is a privileged moral crusader still mourning his long-dead lover; Justin is a gutter-bred scam artist who pretends to contact the dead for a living. It goes as well as you might expect…
“Spirits, if you wish to share your names now, give us that gift. Mark them where we may see them, if we are worthy to be told. Let us see now.” Lazarus closed his eyes, tilting his head back to expose his throat, a priestly action that had a wholly secular effect on Nathaniel.
Justin Lazarus was without question a disgraceful fraud, but as his lips moved in silent prayer, Nathaniel could not help the thought that he looked like a glorious fuck. The bad kind, of course; the kind that left a man feeling dirty and ashamed and degraded in his own eyes. The kind Nathaniel had never had in practice, and wouldn’t have admitted to imagining, but could see all too clearly. Bending the medium over his own table, holding him down. You want the furniture to move, Mr. Lazarus? That can be arranged.
All About Romance gave it a grade A/Desert Isle Keeper review, saying “I thought the first book in the Sins of the Cities trilogy was terrific, but this one is even better. … Their mutual enmity and lust are palpable, and the evolution of their relationship – from bitter enemies to devoted lovers – is gripping and romantic.”
I hope you enjoy it!
The Sins of the Cities trilogy has an ongoing series plot (think of it as a sort of inside-out three-decker Victorian novel), so while you can read this one alone if you must, it’ll make more sense read after An Unseen Attraction. Book 3, An Unsuitable Heir, is out in October.
And to celebrate, let’s have some Mila May art…here’s Nathaniel, Justin, and Justin’s housemaid Sukey. The complete set of cards dealt so far can be seen here.) Enjoy!
Or, I Read Something Annoying So Now I Have To Rant About It: The KJ Charles Story.
Specifically I read a piece about sensitivity readers. I am not going to put you through it because those are minutes of your life you’ll never get back, but suffice to say the linking tweet read “Sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they may not understand or respect” and the piece was, remarkably, even worse. This is an idea that keeps popping up, mostly in the opinions of white authors of literary fiction who are given media platforms bafflingly disproportionate to the number of people who read their books.
Notwithstanding what Lionel Shriver seems to believe, a sensitivity reader doesn’t appear out of the blue like a politically correct fairy godmother to say “You hurt my feelings,” or tell you to take out the bits where bad things happen. A sensitivity read is a part of an editing process that basically checks two things.
1) Is your representation accurate?
2) Is your representation perpetuating harmful stereotypes and clichés?
Point 1 is basically fact checking. I’m white, neurotypical, cis. I have written point of view main characters who are people of colour, neurodivergent, non-binary. In all those cases I got people from those groups to read the MS, and in every single case someone pointed out ways I could make it better. Things I hadn’t known about, but which were obvious omissions to people with those experiences; reactions or phrasing that seemed implausible to them; extra ideas about what someone in the character’s position might do.
Sometimes this is purely factual. (Different types of hair need different types of hair care. Your character with one hand is simultaneously holding a gun and opening a door.) More deeply, the sensitivity read checks for feel. Does this character, her reactions, her emotions, sound right to someone who has comparable life experience? Can a black/Jewish/disabled reader look at your black/Jewish/disabled character and think, “If I were her, I can imagine feeling that way”? Does it ring true?
I have had quite a few neurodivergent readers say nice things about the portrayal of Clem’s dyspraxia in An Unseen Attraction. I don’t think this would have been the case without my team of readers. My sensitivity readers shared their own (and often painful) experience in a multitude of tweaks and ideas and observations. They helped me turn Clem from my neurotypical idea of what it feels like to be dyspraxic to a character informed by the experience of dyspraxic people. If that character rings true, it’s because people shared their truth with me.
An author can do all the research she likes into dyspraxia; a dyspraxic person will always know more. I can’t believe I had to say that in words. But if you spend any time on Book Twitter, you will see multiple instances of authors insisting, “I looked into this and I’m sure I’m right” to people who’ve been living it for twenty, thirty, forty years and who are telling them they’re not.
I do get how this happens. The author creates a character, knows them intimately in her head. It is not easy to be told, “This is wrong, he would never react like this.” Excuse me? I know exactly how he’d react, because I created him! And yes, of course I, a white British middle class 40something woman, can understand and write a black teenage boy in the Chicago hood. We’re all human, are we not? Isn’t it appallingly reductive and divisive to suggest we are so different, so incapable of mutual understanding? I am large, I contain multitudes. Watch me Art.
We may be all human, but we’re also all shaped by our experiences, environments, bodies, natures, other people’s reactions to our bodies and natures. I don’t know what it’s like to experience a lifetime of racism or homophobia or transphobia, any more than my male Chicago youth knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of misogyny and the specific ways those experiences manifest and shape our reactions. We can be aware those things exist, of course, we can imagine and draw comparisons, and we can learn. But that requires listening, and a willingness to hear, and definitely not handwaving it away with “in the end, we’re all the same”. We’re all equal. We really aren’t all the same.
Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of flak for his speech about unknown unknowns, but it’s a spot-on concept. There are always areas of other people’s lives that we not only don’t know about but don’t know that we don’t know about. That’s why we have to ask—not just “Did I do this right?” but “What didn’t I do?” If someone doesn’t have the curiosity to ask, the urge to find out, and the longing to get it right…well, they don’t sound like much of a writer.
And this is where the bit about checking for harmful stereotypes comes in. Some authors see this as people trying to dictate what they’re allowed to write about and how they can tell stories. “God, [group] get upset about everything. They try to prevent anyone else having a say, they overreact to everything, they’re destroying literature!” wail such authors, who were all apparently sick the day their MFA course covered irony.
There are of course authors who just want to say what they like without taking any consequences. They want reviews that say “a searing look at our politically correct culture” and “fearless taboo-busting” rather than “grossly misogynist” or “wow, what an arsehole”, and when they do get the latter, they write thousand-word blog posts that can be summarised as “it’s fine for me to give offence but how dare you take it”. Those authors can go step on Lego.
But there is also the Well-Meaning Person who has put in a lot of work and done lots of research, and really honestly thinks that their story is valuable. Their story about a Jewish woman in a concentration camp falling in love with the Nazi commandant, say, or the enslaved person on a plantation who’ll do anything for his beloved “master”, or the disabled person who kills themself to set their loved one free to live a full life, or gets fully or partially cured as part of a happy ending. The story with gay characters who all die heroically/tragically, or the child abuse victim who becomes a serial killer to show that child abuse is bad.
I hope that previous paragraph made you cringe your skin off. If it didn’t, you need a sensitivity reader. Because that kind of book is published all the time—let alone books with subtler, smaller, less obvious fails. And almost every time the author is baffled and distraught by readers’ failure to understand. Look, my book clearly says racism is wrong, how is that offensive? My book shows that we’re all people and love can cross boundaries, how is that bad? I’m one of the good guys!
Because the author may well have thought hard and sincerely about the message she wants to give…but she hasn’t realised the message she’s actually giving. We all have unconscious assumptions, we all find it horrendously easy to stereotype, we can’t all know everything, and we may simply not realise that our brilliant idea is someone else’s “Oh please God not this again”. (Romance authors should be particularly aware of this: every four months someone comes along announcing their totally fresh and original new take on romance, in response to which everyone wearily cites thirty examples of people who did the thing in the 1990s. There’s nothing new under the sun, as the Book of Ecclesiastes told us about two centuries BC.) Basically, much though the Lionel Shrivers of this world like to stand on the platform of untrammelled free speech, a sensitivity read isn’t about saying “Don’t write this because I don’t like it”, so much as “This reflects or supports prejudice and stereotypes.” Less easy to go to the barricades over that, isn’t it?
It comes down to humility. Humility is often confused with being self deprecating, which is rubbish. Humility isn’t saying “Gosh, I’m not very good”; it’s about saying, “I can always strive to do better”. It’s about accepting you can be wrong, or crass, or biased, because that allows you to improve. It’s about knowing there’s always more to learn, and that other people can teach you those things. It is, in fact, about respecting other people.
As an author I need the confidence to believe that my stories are good enough for your time and money. But I also, simultaneously, need the humility to accept that they might need improvement, and the determination to do something about it (preferably before asking for your time and money). That improvement might be a development editor for the story, a line editor to point out my timeline is utterly borked, a copy editor for the poor grammar, a sensitivity reader to check the book’s concepts before I even start and to look at the characters and reactions as I go along, or all of the above. It’s all part and parcel of making a better book.
And sometimes people are wrong; groups are not monoliths; a sensitivity read by a single trans person does not give you “Approved by the NonBinary Community (TM)” status. It’s is always down to the author to do the work and take the responsibility. But sensitivity readers can help you do that work by giving you actual insight into the lives you’re depicting, and telling you: “This thing is incorrect, this thing is missing, this thing is a cliché, this thing just doesn’t ring true to my experience.”
We started with that Hurt Litfic Feelings tweet: Sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they may not understand or respect. Well, I know where I feel the lack of understanding and respect lies. It’s with the person who looks at an opportunity to make their book a more accurate, more deeply informed, wider, better depiction of other humans, as part of the editing process, and says, “No thanks. I already know best.”
Edited to add: Sensitivity reads are work; work should be paid. A good publisher should pay for a reader if such as required as part of the editorial process. Whether they actually will is another question. The only publisher I’ve worked with who has paid for a sensitivity read is Riptide Books, and more power to them for doing so. I’d like to hope more publishers will see the value in this, but given the constant chiselling away at editorial costs throughout the industry, I’m not holding my breath. If you are self publishing on a sensitive subject, you need to budget for this, same as for a copy editor, and if your publisher won’t stump up you need to do it yourself. No, that isn’t fair. (And IMO you should book the reader early on in the process and run your ideas by them, just to check you aren’t happily skipping into a field of mantraps.)
The formalised concept of sensitivity readers is relatively new, and authors are very used to just asking “would anyone who is of X group beta-read my MS?” I don’t think that it’s unacceptable to ask for beta readers once you have done all the work you can to make sure your representation is good–though others may disagree with that. But a full-on sensitivity read is something between a development edit and a line edit, including notes, and may potentially be very difficult for the reader (not only reading painful and unpleasant things but then having to communicate the author’s failings with no guarantee she won’t throw a “don’t call me racist!” tantrum). That is hard work, and a professional service, and it should be recognised as such.
And FFS, don’t throw a tantrum.
Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)
The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.
However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.
I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:
April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.
Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.
The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.
So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:
1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3
I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.
The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)
Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.
Here’s the thing, though.
The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.
I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.
So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?
Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.
All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.
The questions above
Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?
Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.
Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?
I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.
Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?
Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.
Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.
I am in a good mood because I have the rights for my ex-Samhain titles back and am about to launch my gorgeous new covers for the Charm of Magpies series. (Watch this space.) Therefore, a spectacular, if random, giveaway follows.
Regular followers will know that I support Saracens rugby team. If you’re thinking, blech, not interested in sport, here’s a post I wrote on how I as a lifelong sports hater started going to the rugby. It’s a pretty personal one about an intense and not very good time in my life when, as if things weren’t terrible enough, Mr KJC decided we ought to go see sportsball.
We live in North London, near the Saracens rugby team’s brand new stadium, and they were offering super cheap season tickets to locals. Frankly the idea seemed somewhere between stupid and awful, but it was coming on to winter and this was something positive and I didn’t have the strength for a row so I was like, “sure, buy us season tickets we can’t afford for a game I don’t care about.”
So we went. Let me say, rugby is incomprehensible. They throw the thing backwards and sort of run at each other, and kick it, and stop playing, and get in this rolling headbutt thing and…
And people around us, people in team regalia and stupid hats and scarves, were on their feet baying. Sarries! Sarries! And a player—memory tells me Chris Ashton—had the ball thing and he was sprinting for the line and OH MY GOD RUN DO IT PLEASE LET SOMEONE GET SOMETHING RIGHT TODAY OH GOD HE’S FLYING YESSSSSS!
In other ‘reasons to be interested in rugby’ I submit:
(That’s Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, and Owen Farrell, who all play for Sarries and England.)
So. Saracens are playing Harlequins at Wembley next month. We have places because we’re season ticket holders, but due to Easter hols we can’t go. This means I have two tickets going spare, and I’m offering them to a reader who’d like to see what all the fuss is all about.
That’s two free tickets to watch Saracens at Wembley, Saturday 8th April. For one of my readers. Because you’re worth it.
But KJ, I don’t know anything about rugby. Would I like it?
I didn’t have a clue when I started either. Don’t worry about it. Lots of incomprehensible things will happen on the pitch but the bloke behind you will doubtless offer a loudly voiced explanation. And you’ll definitely understand what’s going on when someone goes flying spectacularly down the pitch and hurtles over the line, or collides with someone approximately the size and shape of a fridge.
Honestly, it’s great to watch even if you’re not into sport. And there is a lot to be said for being part of a baying crowd and drinking beer in in the sunshine. (Beer not included; sunshine not guaranteed.)
Are the crowds scary/rough?
Not even slightly. Loads of women go. I’ve been bringing my son since he was 3; I’ve never felt threatened or even worried at a match, and never seen a fight. People drink a lot of beer, but my experience has always been super positive and friendly.
So, what’s the deal?
1) I pick a commenter at random according to the rules below.
2) You give me your word you’ll shout for Sarries. I’m not sending someone there to support Harlequins.
3) Tag me in social media if you have fun. 😀
The game is Sat 8th April so I’ll need to do this quickly. Comment on this blog post (NOT on Goodreads, to which this post copies—if you’re reading this there come to kjcharleswriter.com) before 10am GMT on 1 April to be entered for the random draw.
Members of my Facebook group KJ Charles Chat group get two entries, one here and one there, because they’re special. Feel free to join, if you are interested in free rugby tickets and queer historical romance! (FYI if you aren’t open to and respectful of queer romance and its readers, you will get your arse booted so hard you’ll bounce. Do not try me.)
- Comment once only on this blog post to enter. Please don’t comment unless you’re entering, it doesn’t half make a mess of things.
- I’ll pick the winner at random from comments here and in the KJC Chat group thread.
- The winner will need to give me a UK address to which I can post the tickets, and to be able to travel to Wembley on Sat 8 April. Please don’t enter if you can’t go.
- Commenters on this blog, leave your email address in the box thingy as you write your comment. Not in the comment itself, as that puts you at risk of spammers. Make it an email address you check regularly; I will redraw if you don’t reply to my email within the day, as there’s not long to go before the game.
- I will draw the winner at 10am on Sat 1 April, redraw in the evening if I have to, and post the tickets on Monday, registered.
- By entering you faithfully promise to support Saracens for the duration of the game. I’m so not kidding about this.
- This is a ticket giveaway, no purchase necessary. I take no responsibility for failure of the ticket to arrive, postal strikes, transport strikes, air strikes etc.
Enjoy! And watch out for the new Magpie covers, coming soon…
This post ought to be filed under “Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious”. I hope most of you reading it will mutter “duh” and move on. Everyone else, kindly have it tattooed on an unobtrusive body part.
The author’s biggest mistake is not, as you may think, having your heroine gaze into a mirror itemising her lush hair, full lips and high, firm breasts while feeling insecure about her ability to attract men. That’s #2. I’m talking about contracts.
Let’s start with some true stories.
Friend: [tells me about a complex set up she’s doing with a fellow creator involving transferring large sums of other people’s money]
Me: You’ve got that down in a contract, right?
Friend: Oh, I wouldn’t want to ask for a contract, that would suggest I didn’t trust her.
At a conference contracts panel
Me: Hands up who isn’t clear what “Grant of Rights” means in a publishing contract.
[most hands go up]
Me: Keep your hand up if you’ve signed a publishing contract.
[most hands stay up. Embarrassed laughter.]
And in general:
Author: I don’t understand what all this legalese means but Publisher has always treated me well in the past, so I’m signing.
Author: I can’t believe I’m really gonna be published! I got the contract today and you better believe I signed it right away and sent it back before they could change their minds LOL!!!
Author: My brother deals with loads of contracts for the local council. He looked over it and he reckons it’s fine.
If that lot didn’t make your eyes bleed, you need to know more.
Contracts are scary, dull, and full of incomprehensible jargon. Nobody likes reading them, nobody likes negotiating them. But if you are an author looking to sign with a publisher, you have to read, and understand, and negotiate. It is culpably foolish not to.
The publisher’s job, and thus the job of everyone who works for them, is to make money for the publisher. Not for the author–that’s just a side effect which keeps the business lubricated. I have worked in publishing my whole life, over two decades, half a dozen companies. I have been a commissioning editor and a managing editor; I have negotiated, issued, and amended contracts, and dealt with rights exploitation and reversion. I was a publisher long before I was an author. And I know what I am talking about when I say that the publisher does not approach the contract thinking, “What are the most favourable terms we can possibly give?”
Writers are at a disadvantage here because, generally, we want to be published. We want to believe in the goodwill of the publisher with whom we’re dealing; we’re afraid of rocking the boat by being stroppy and asking too much. We probably can’t afford lawyers at all, and almost certainly don’t have access to an experienced publishing contract lawyer; many of us are unagented. Our eyes glaze as we read, and we’re not really sure what a lot of it means, but, you know, they publish lots of people, don’t they? The editor is lovely; authors say nice things about the publisher on Facebook. Surely it’ll be fine?
No. It is never okay to sign something you don’t understand. Your trust in the publisher’s goodwill will not get your rights or money back when things go wrong. Your unwillingness to read boring legalese isn’t an excuse, it’s an Achilles heel that covers your entire leg.
You should not sign an unexamined contract even if you trust the other party so much you’d get a tattoo of their logo. Because the best of us make mistakes. A contract may unintentionally fail to include, say, a payment schedule, or a date by which the book must be published, or a means by which the author can act on non-performance. The person drafting it can have deleted a clause by accident [raises hand] or just not thought to include something. Contracts are complex and boring, which is a great combination for producing errors. And stuff goes wrong. Relationships deteriorate, people get into bad situations. Some problematic publishers are scam artists from Day One; some start off well but get in over their heads. Some contracts are drafted by spectacularly incompetent lawyers; some have quite evidently not seen a publishing law expert at all.
Checking the contract
It is not an implication of bad faith to scrutinise the contract with great care, or to ask what clauses mean, or to negotiate more favourable terms. This is what the contracts process is for. If you aren’t prepared to take the contract seriously, you might as well just hand over your MS and ask the publisher to give you money sometime. (Don’t do that.)
The opinion of your brother who does contracts for the council is worthless (on your publishing contract at least; I’m sure he’s a great guy otherwise). You need someone who knows what they are talking about and can see potential pitfalls, and you are probably better off talking to a publisher who isn’t a lawyer than a lawyer who isn’t a publisher. The publisher might see what’s missing.
Some professional bodies such as the Society of Authors will scrutinise contracts for members. The RWA does not do this for individuals, although they did, admirably, pay for a legal opinion on a recent contract amendment that affected a lot of authors (including me). An agent ought to assess contracts for you, and have a lawyer to call on. If they don’t, or don’t ever suggest changes, get a new agent. If you have a friend in publishing or know an experienced author, you might call on them for an extra pair of eyes, but at your own risk, and be aware it’s a big ask.
Watch out if you ask an author at the same publisher. Many authors, for understandable psychological reasons, fall into a “my publisher right or wrong” attitude. Ignore anyone who tells you to have faith in a publisher, human or corporate. This is a business, not a family, and certainly not a church.
I know this isn’t easy, and many people just throw their hands up and sign for lack of other recourse. But you can protect yourself, starting by learning to read contracts. If you’re capable of writing a publishable book, you’re capable of grasping the basic principles of a publishing contract. If you have the courage to put your writing out for people to buy, read, and review, you have the courage to write “Please explain clause 4” or “This clause doesn’t cover everything, please add…” And you will always be the person most concerned to protect your own interests. Nobody else in the process is going to put you first. Trust me on that.
There are tons of helpful posts by experienced authors, agents, and contract people out there. Some good information on Contracts 101 here and also here. I am not a lawyer or a contracts expert so I won’t presume to offer a checklist. I will, however, outline a few of the things that can go wrong, to give you an idea of the wonderful and exciting possibilities that await.
Grant of rights
Rights are everything in publishing. Most publishers will ask for all the rights they can get. If you don’t understand what rights are, do not sign anything till you do. Go away and learn or you will get screwed.
The publisher ought to specify which rights they are taking, in what languages and regions, and for how long. So you might grant World English Language electronic publishing rights for a seven-year term, or World rights, all languages, all editions and formats, for the full term of copyright. (Which means till after you’re dead.)
Everything not explicitly specified as going to the publisher should be reserved to the author. Do not accept open-ended wording like ‘all media forms currently in existence and hereinafter invented’. Traditional contracts routinely used that, and when ebooks came along it gave publishers electronic rights that they never negotiated or paid for, and which in a huge number of cases they will neither use nor release. If an older in-copyright book isn’t in e, chances are a publisher is sitting on the rights. It’s not worth their financial while to digitise the book, but it would be giving away an asset to return the rights to the author, so they don’t. Business, remember?
Things like audio rights and translation rights can be licensed to other publishers and can make a lot of money. If you grant, say, audio rights to the publisher, they will take a cut (specified in the contract) on any deal they set up. If you retain those rights you/your agent can sell them directly to an audiobook publisher, or you can arrange an audio version yourself. That’s a lot of work and you need to decide what’s best for you.
Publishers often demand subsidiary rights and then leave them unused, to the author’s impotent fury. Don’t sign these away without a “use it or lose it” clause: you give the publisher, say, 12 or 18 months from publication date to exploit those rights, after which period the author can request reversion (getting them back) if they haven’t been used. That gives the publisher a fair chance to make money but lets the author regain control if the publisher doesn’t do the work. And you can of course leave the rights with them after the expiry of that period.
If the publisher insists on controlling audio and translation but won’t agree to a “use it or lose it” clause, you will have to make your peace with never seeing any of those rights exploited, never making any money from them, never having an audiobook or a translation–because that is almost certainly what will happen. My own failure to insist on a “use it or lose it” clause is why my most popular series is not yet in audio, and why two of my other series will probably never be available in print. It is not something I will omit again.
It is not fun to fume in hopeless rage while a publisher sits on rights they will never use, but won’t revert, and it happens all the time. Publishing is a rights business and publishers hang onto rights like Gollum with the ring.
Failure to Publish
A crucial and often-omitted clause that covers when the publisher doesn’t publish the book, or doesn’t do so in a timely fashion. This is far more common than you may think. What you need is a set term in which the book must be published starting from delivery of the MS, and right of reversion if it isn’t. For example: “The Publisher will publish the Work within 12 months of delivery of the completed manuscript unless otherwise agreed in writing between Author and Publisher. If the Publisher fails to do so, the contract will automatically terminate and all rights will revert to the Author.”
The key here is to have the period start from your action, and not from any act of the publisher. (If they insist on the start being acceptance of the MS, then you need a specified time period, eg “at acceptance of the MS or within six weeks of delivery, whichever comes first”.) A small press of which I have heard has an 18-month failure to publish term that starts when the book is assigned an editor. That publisher has been known to sit on MSS for a year or more before assigning an editor, who then doesn’t even read the damn thing for another year, and there is nothing the author can do about it.
A refusal to include a decent failure to publish clause when asked is a flag so red your eyeballs should ignite. Use the flames to set fire to the draft contract and run away.
A large publisher’s boilerplate contract might forbid you to publish a competing work for a period (eg 2-6 months) either side of the publication date. Fine if you write massive non-fiction tomes once every decade, less so if you want to publish five romances a year. Make this extremely specific (“no competing work of male/male paranormal romantic fiction set in medieval France”). Otherwise signing a series to be published at four-month intervals might make it impossible for you to publish anything else in your genre that year.
Option clauses, giving the publisher first dibs on your next book, can be a problem. You don’t want to have a vile experience with a bunch of jerks and then find you’re obliged to submit your next book to them. Georgette Heyer wanted so desperately to get away from her detective-novel publisher that she wrote Penhallow, a murder mystery where the victim doesn’t die till 2/3 of the way through and we see who the murderer is as they do it. I assume the working title was Shove Your Option Up Your Arse. I have also heard of authors with popular series writing drafts in which their central couple die, purely in order to get out of options. Downside: the publisher might accept it anyway, and then you’re stuffed.
Term and Reversion
What triggers the end of contract. A “full term of copyright” contract may conclude if the book is not available for sale in any edition, which means never given that ebooks can sit on Amazon forever at no cost to the publisher. If you must sign a term of copyright contract make sure there’s a sensible sales threshold below which you can revert, such as fewer than 500 copies sold at full price in a 12-month period. But frankly, consider before signing if you’re ready never to have your book in your control again. (Several author advocacy bodies are trying to get rid of these lifetime contracts: see here for more.)
For smaller presses there is likely to be a set contract term, e.g. seven years from date of contract, after which the author may request reversion at any time. Make sure the reversion process is laid out and simple. Some publishers have rolling renewal clauses, e.g. a two-year contract term, but the contract automatically renews annually unless the author requests return of rights in writing six weeks before the renewal date. This sort of arrangement has no obvious purpose other than to trap authors into another year’s contract against their will.
These are only a few of the possible pitfalls. I haven’t even mentioned the big one, money, and there are many more. Many. What if your book isn’t professionally edited, or the editor demands unreasonable changes? Do you get a meaningful say on the cover? Are there provisions for redress in the case of publisher breach?
It may sound like I’m saying authors should fear and distrust contracts. Not at all. A good contract is the thing most likely to protect your working relationship with a publisher, by spelling out exactly what both sides’ rights and obligations are, with dates, and allowing for redress if those obligations aren’t met. That’s a sound basis for a business relationship, which is what the publisher-author relationship is. It is not a family, or a friendship based on warm feelings of trust. Good intentions, fine promises, and cute dog pictures are all great things for a publisher to offer in addition to a rock-solid well-drafted contract; they do not replace it.
It is absolutely fine to scrutinise the contract, ask for clarification, demand extra clauses and alterations to wording, or ask for clauses to be struck out. That’s negotiation. And you don’t have to be afraid that the publisher will withdraw your offer for asking. (That has happened once in my 20 year experience, and I’ve worked on contract negotiations that took two months and made me afraid to open my inbox. The one where we withdrew the offer was far, far beyond that.) There are of course publishers who will offer you ‘take it or leave it’ terms; to me this is a massive red flag. Consider: if this is how they’re treating you when you can still walk away, what will it be like when you can’t?
A bad contract is worse than no contract, just as a bad publisher is worse than no publisher. It may not seem that way when you’re desperate for publication; it bloody well will five years down the line. And you may feel that a publisher has you over a barrel now, but that barrel will not become more comfortable if you sign a document that allows them to keep you there for seven years.
Signing a contract without full consideration is the biggest professional mistake you can make. This game is hard enough at the best of times. Make sure you read the rulebook before you play.
KJ Charles has worked for seven publishers as an editor (including many, many contract negotiations) and with four as an author, and has made every possible mistake in that time.
Her newest release is An Unseen Attraction with Loveswept.