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.

Sensitivity Reads and You

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.

Hey, Everyone, Be Nice!

At RWA 2015, an editor from Pocket Books answered a question on diversity by saying that ‘diverse’ topics/authors were published in a couple of particular lines and not as part of the general list. The implication was that authors (not even just books, which is bad enough) would be channelled to lines based on ethnic origin. (Obviously, agents representing non-white authors would thus find them a harder sell, with fewer chances for publication.)

Rightly, the RWA has come down on this like a ton of bricks, refusing to accept corporate flannel from Pocket (who say this isn’t their policy) and demanding a clear commitment to equal treatment for all RWA members. This is a professional issue and that’s what they’re for.

Today board member Alyssa Day tweeted this:

nice 1

‘Be nice’. Be nice.

The RWA is a membership organisation for professionals, with a substantial admittance fee. Its remit is to protect members’ interests. They are doing their job by going after a publisher who, according to their own editor, are behaving in a way that damages some RWA members’ interests.

And someone thinks they should be nice? Nice! What has ‘nice’ got to do with a professional dispute? What is there to be nice about?

There is currently a horrendous, damaging row going on in m/m romance. Some LGBT people reacted to material they found offensive and hurtful in forthright (or rude) terms; other people basically told them to shut up and sit down, it escalated. And a lot of people have ignored the hurt being complained of, and instead focused on the tone and manner in which the complaints were made. Because they were angry and blunt about stuff people liked. They weren’t being nice.

Now, I’m an author. I know words matter. I know people react differently to different tones. I know that it’s possible to put your case politely, and can be much more effective to do so.

I’m also a woman. I know that putting your case politely can also make it much easier for people to ignore you. I know that it’s possible to say the same thing politely a dozen times, and be ignored, and then when you finally stop being polite, they say, “Calm down, love!” or “There’s no need to shout!” as though raising your voice the thirteenth time is completely unreasonable.

And I’m a human being. I recognise that actually, sometimes, people are no longer able to put their case politely because they are driven to expletive-peppered fury by the relentless goddamn bullshit of other people…

…who then turn around and say, “Hey, be nice!”

Be nice when someone’s treating you as if you don’t matter, as if people like you have never mattered, when your pain is dismissed as less important than the comfort or embarrassment or convenience of the person causing your pain. Be nice.

Of course I don’t mean it’s good for everyone to shout and rage all the time, as if that’s the only alternative. I prefer civil discussion to shouting and raging too. I would much rather that everyone spoke respectfully, which is only likely to happen when everyone listens respectfully. Let’s try to do that, shall we?

But let’s have a clear example about telling people to be nice.

When my 7-year-old son comes up to me whining, “It’s not fair, my horrible sister won’t play with me because she’s horrible,” that is a teachable moment. That is a time to talk about tone, and being nice, and how the way you approach people makes a difference to how they listen.

When my 7-year-old son comes up to me with a cut lip shrieking that a boy hit him and took his football, I don’t tell him, “Speak more clearly and don’t cry, your tone of voice must be calm and reasonable.” I don’t tell him, “You’re angry, and anger isn’t nice, so that boy deserves the football more than you do.” Instead, I try to fix his problem, his real and legitimate distress, because that is what we do when someone is actually hurt.

Assuming we give a damn for people’s hurt, of course. Which we would, if we were nice.

Let’s be nice.

In a Huff: why writing should be paid

I was just thinking I haven’t rageblogged in ages, and feeling happy that I have my Twitter feed curated to be interesting and challenging but not aneurysm-inducing, and then this comes along.

It seems this quote was said by the editor of the Huffington Post UK (who is not the tweeter)huffpo

 

I have a lot of things to say in response to this. Most of them are two-word phrases ending ‘off’ or ‘you’, but let me try to be a little more articulate.

I don’t know anything about the Huffington Post’s payment to writers, never having written for them. I do know they ‘broke even’ on $146million revenue in 2014, and there has been speculation that it may be sold for $1billion. Apparently it’s not turning a profit because of investment, but this is a huge site bringing in huge amounts of money through advertising revenue. They are not unable to pay writers. If they don’t, one can only assume it’s because they don’t want to.

This is not an unusual state of mind. The Twitter account @forexposure_txt quotes the many and varied ways people have of asking other people to give their time, skills, experience and talents for nothing.

exposure 3

Our society has a general idea that content, knowledge and creativity should all be free. Free: it’s such a glorious word, isn’t it? Free, free as a bird! The creative heart should be free to sing, and the creative mind should be free to imagine. And the creative work they produce should be free to anyone who’d like to use it for their own profit on an advertising-festooned website.

Let’s just look at that quote, shall we?

We know it’s real… It’s not been forced or paid for.

‘Real.’ That’s the holy grail, of course. We want writing to be genuine and real and heartfelt; we despise the false and the fake. The opposition here is clear: either writing is ‘real’ and from the heart, or it is ‘forced’ and thus insincere. And what could cause someone to write in this ‘forced’ and fraudulent way?

Well, the nimble coupling of “forced or paid for” shows us that. The villain here is greed, of course, sordid financial considerations. Writing, according to this, has either literary worth or financial worth but not both. In fact, assigning financial worth by paying writers negates the potential worth of what they write. Because if it’s paid for, it’s not real. Instead of writing because your Muse compels you, like a proper artist, you’re just doing it for filthy lucre. You sell-out scumbag.

Let’s be honest: if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.

That all seems rather at odds with the internal memo from Arianna Huffington quoted here for a HuffPo strand saying they should:

start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity and grace.

You know what’s a real challenge for many people? Paying their rent; feeding their families; keeping afloat. You know what makes that harder? Not being paid.

I face the challenge of my monthly bills with ‘perseverance’ because I keep writing in the face of people who pirate my books and pay me puny sums for hours of work. I face it with ‘creativity’ because creativity, writing, is what I’ve got to sell. But I’m fucked if I’ll face it with ‘grace’ when someone who’s probably on six figures tells me that the very act of putting value on my work makes it intrinsically less valuable.

The thing that actually makes writing forced for many authors is the knowledge that you have to jam out another thousand words, meet that deadline, do that goddamn article, somehow wedge another book in this year because otherwise you aren’t going to earn enough. It’s not the act of being paid that leads to soulless writing for profit: it’s the fact of needing money in the first place.

Paying authors lets them write. It doesn’t make them less genuine, or less hungry (except in the actual literal sense, obviously), or less heartfelt, or less busy. It just makes them able to live and thus do their job, ie writing. In which it is exactly like the salary paid to the people who edit magazines and websites that ask writers to contribute for nothing, which I assume they don’t turn down because they’re keeping it real, man.

And you can trust me on this. After all, I wrote it for free.

______________

KJ Charles is a full time writer and freelance editor. Rag and Bone is out from Samhain on 1 March.

Starving Artists, Team Players and Plagiarists

One of the go-to observations about authors is that we’re not team players. Ask an editor/publicist about trying to organise authors for an event and the phrase “like herding cats” is liable to be used. When I tell most people that I work on my own all day in a shed, they ask things like “How do you cope?” and “Isn’t it terribly lonely?”, whereas authors tend to reply, “Oh, you lucky cow.” Authors say plangent and meaningful things like, “Writing is one of the most solitary activities in the world.” We are the isolated figure in a garret, alone but for the cast of characters in our heads.

Writing isn’t actually like this.

It’s all very glamorous-sounding in a ‘drinking yourself to death on absinthe’ kind of way. It is, however, a pile of crap.

Unless an author does her own covers and her own editing and no marketing and never communicates with readers, she has a team. Here’s a rundown of the people with whom I collaborate:

The agent who sets up and manages deals, holds my hand, looks at proposals and helps plan my career

The editor to whom I send the synopsis

The publisher’s team who sign off on the deal

The contracts person with whom I dicker over terms

The covers team who turn my cover art brief into something plausible and saleable

The designer who takes that brief and makes it lovely, and who listens to me when I raise objections and makes changes

The beta readers who look at my drafts and help me get the thing into shape for the editor

The development editor, who works on the story and characters, raising problems and identifying issues

The line editor, going through the MS to pick up my inconsistencies, my echoes, my infelicities, my clumsy phrasing and overused habits and poor stylistic choices and unintended implications and dangling threads

The copy editor, hitting the million tiny errors inexplicably still in there, oh my God I suck

The proofreader, saving all our necks at the last pass

The marketing team who put together promo materials, get the book into offers and magazines, send review copies

The rights team, who push the foreign and audio rights

The finance team who make sure all the copies I sell are properly accounted and my royalties promptly paid

The book bloggers and magazines who make space for me

The reviewers who read the ARCs and write and share reviews

The readers who choose to join my Facebook group or follow my blog or send me emails, who support and encourage me because they like my books. They owe me nothing, but when they choose to help and support me, they’re my team and I love them for it.

The fellow authors who hold my hand, talk me down when times are bad and rejoice with me over successes. Who understand, as only people ploughing the same furrow do.

And there are other and greater teams, of which all authors are part. For me there is Team Queer Romance, pushing the equality of everybody’s love story. Team Romance, the people who work separately and together to promote the genre we love. Team Author, the other people who get what you’re doing and understand what it means, why it’s the best job in the world and why it sucks.

That’s a lot of people to let down when you screw up.

When Laura Harner plagiarised m/f romances to make them into m/m romances, she didn’t just commit a theft of intellectual property from Becky McGraw and Opal Carew. She let down her teams: the readers who supported her by buying her stolen books; the m/m romance community of readers and authors that had created a market for them, the LGBT+ community whose lives she travestied by switching pronouns to make a story “gay”; the bloggers and conference organisers and cowriters who worked with her; the whole romance community who stand up for each other against the contempt of lazy journalists and litsnobs to whom she’s handed us on a plate as a target of idle mockery; the romance writers who put their heart and souls into their work; and the whole author community because for those who live by words, stealing them is an unforgivable treachery.

At least Harner self pubbed. I was the editor of a plagiarising author once, and I promise you, the sense of rage and betrayal inside the publishing house was tangible when we found out. I’m still angry. Publishing may be a business but the vast majority of publishing staff care deeply about books, and don’t like being treated with contempt any more than anyone else.

Authors aren’t isolated figures, and our choices don’t take place in isolation. We have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to the publishing team who works with us to make the books better, make them pretty, make them sell. We have responsibilities to the people who invest their time in reading and maybe reviewing, their money in purchasing. We have responsibilities to the people we depict in our books, the humans who see themselves in our stories (or don’t), the lessons our stories teach. We have responsibilities to other authors: not to make each other’s paths harder than they need to be, not to bring the genre or the profession into disrepute, not to shove each other down in the effort to get ahead ourselves.

Henry_Wallis_-_Chatterton_-_Google_Art_Project

Writing really isn’t like this either.

Authors are part of a huge complicated web of relationships, just like every other human in the world. It may not feel like that alone in the metaphorical shed. But if I plagiarise, treat others disrespectfully in my writing, or otherwise mess up, through commission or omission, I am letting more people down than just myself. And I forget that at my peril.

_________________

KJ Charles is an editor, writer and organiser of Queer Romance Month. Her most recent release is the short story “The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh“.

Censorship, Guidelines, Endorsement, Oh My

Backstory: The Goodreads MM Romance group runs an annual story event, in which authors write from prompts. This year there was a prompt asking for a romance where a black slave falls in love with the white slave-owner’s son, set in the American South. The story was  written, and published by the group, and a lot of people are extremely upset.

Many have said that the MM Romance group should not have published this story under the auspices of its event, and that the rules should be tightened to prevent this kind of thing. Other people, who don’t find this premise innately offensive, or who disagree that the context makes consensual love impossible, or who believe that unfettered free speech is the first priority, are arguing that this would be censorship, and that no content restrictions should be set.

I’m not going to write on why this story premise is offensive: I’m a white Brit, there are more qualified people doing that. Instead, I want to focus on the concept that asking a publisher to set guidelines/restrictions on content is censorship. As follows:

No, it isn’t.

If a publisher (any platform provider, from Big 5 to a Goodreads group) makes a decision not to publish a work, if a publisher sets boundaries and guidelines for submission that exclude a story, that is not censorship. All of publishing has rules on what they will and will not offer on their platform. That is how publishing works.

  • If I send a collection of poetry to Harlequin (as, when I worked there, someone did), they will not publish it because they don’t publish poetry. That’s not censorship. What would they do with a poetry book?
  • If I send a bestiality story to, eg, Riptide Press, they won’t publish it because like many, they have a specific and clear set of guidelines about their erotic content that excludes bestiality. Not censorship, guidelines. Take the horse porn elsewhere.
  • If I send a gay romance to a hardcore evangelical Christian publisher and they decline to publish it for religious reasons? Not censorship. They don’t have to publish books that would go against their beliefs.
  • If I send a story packed with homophobia and racism to a publisher, and they decline to publish because they feel it will damage their reputation? Not censorship. It’s them saying: This book will make us look like a publisher that supports hatred, and that’s not in our five-year marketing plan.

None of these publishers are censoring. They are setting guidelines for the kind of books they read, publish and market. A publisher that published everything that came over its threshold would be unspeakable. Trust me. I’ve read slush pile. To publish something is literally to put your imprimatur on it: if you publish it, you endorse it. Which is why publishing without a quality/content filter is likely to seriously damage your reputation.

The MM Romance group has made a statement declining to moderate the prompts and stories they publish, including the following:

Any time we discuss content restrictions we come up against the question of censorship. Censoring either our prompt writer or authors is not something the moderators support. […] There has never been a vetting process for either prompts or stories. Stories are beta read, edited and formatted but are never judged based on their content. [my italics]

Hurrah for free speech! Except that the italicised statement is not true.

  • The group specifically bans stories with underage sex.
  • The group publishes m/m. If I send in a heterosexual romance, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.
  • The group publishes romance. If I submit a thriller with no romantic content, an extract from my literary novel about the Dutch porcelain trade, or an essay on the feeding habits of the mantis shrimp, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.

In other words, the group does indeed judge and select texts on their content. And that is not censorship, and it would still not be censorship if they, for example, stated that racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism etc must be handled with respect, care and sensitivity, and that stories would be accordingly vetted pre-publication. You could then have a lifetime of argument, since one person’s sensitive treatment is often another person’s cack-handed mess (I’m informed the slave book was intended to be respectful), but at least there would be a principle to refer to, a basic idea of what is and is not okay, and a means by which to say: hang on, you messed this up. We all mess up, all the time, and guidelines are one way to do it less.

Declining to publish is not censorship. Censorship is preventing something from being published, the way governments do. A specific publisher declining to publish is saying: “This is not for our platform, it does not work for us.” It does not stop an author from seeking out a platform that wants them, or creating their own. Plenty of publishers declined Harry Potter, and JK Rowling got her voice heard in the end.

Of course, people don’t always decline to publish for good reasons. Say (as happens) that a publisher declines, eg, a children’s book with black main characters because they think they won’t sell enough copies. Overall, if every children’s publisher does this, it has the effect of censorship, because it means there are very few stories to point to and say, “look, of course they sell”, and a vicious circle is created. This is why it is extremely important to talk about this, and look at the numbers of what’s being published, and who’s writing it. But it is also not the same thing as declining books based on clear explicit guidelines; in fact, it’s the opposite because this is hidden, back-room, unaccountable stuff.

The consequence of publishers applying guidelines is not that books that they deem unacceptable cannot be written or published. It might be that the authors would have to consider critical feedback and modify their stories if they wanted publication in a particular place (again, this is how publishing works and informed critical feedback is generally a good thing, even if it’s no fun). It might be that if they weren’t prepared to make changes, they’d have to spend longer looking for a platform, or self publish and thus not benefit from a publisher’s imprimatur and promotion. But none of this would be an infringement on the author’s free speech. It would merely be the consequence of other people declining to amplify that speech for them in its original form.

And that’s how it goes. Because freedom does not mean freedom from consequences. And free speech doesn’t come with a book deal attached.

___________________

My blog aims to be a safe space, including the comments. Anything that I deem likely to infringe that will be deleted without discussion as soon as I see it. My platform, my rules.

Ten Things Not to Say To Romance Authors

Or, at least, ten things not to say to me, but that’s insufficiently clickbaity.

Every profession has its own list of remarks they don’t want to hear. Vets cringe at the 94th hand-up-animal’s-bottom joke; doctors refuse to tell people what they do at parties for fear of, “Ah, you’ll want to hear about my knee.” This is my personal and idiosyncratic list, put together in anticipation of the approaching festive season’s conversation-making. Some of them are genuinely well meaning, few of them are answerable, all make me wince.

Have I read any of your books?

People ask this all the time. I have no idea in what way I could possibly be qualified to answer.

Romance? Isn’t that all–

If you stop right there, I won’t have to hurt you. Don’t say mommy porn, hearts and flowers, Barbara Cartland, Fabiohousewife. Don’t say anything. Just finish your drink and back away slowly, and we’ll all be fiiiine.

What’s your book about? What’s the story?

Don’t get me wrong: If someone has read my work and actually wants to know what I’m working on, that’s a massive compliment. However, if this is an out of the blue question, it’s painful for everyone, because I am appalling at elevator pitches.

This is fine:

What’s your book about?

– It’s a historical romance.

Cool.

What’s bad is when the conversation instead goes…

But what’s it about? What’s the story?

– Well, it’s a romance. It’s about people falling in love.

But what’s it abooooout? What happens?

– Fine, well, there’s a radical printer—do you know about the radical movement in the Regency? No, well, it’s in the book, and anyway he’s having an anonymous relationship with this guy who turns out to be Home Office—no, well, Regency politics again, it’s in the book—and it’s complicated because they are both linked to…people in other books, and…they sort of have to work out their political, personal and social relationships only there’s this conspiracy… [tails off in the face of uncomprehending stare]

Seriously, it took me 75,000 words, a ton of research, three rounds of edits and a companion book on either side to achieve what I wanted with A Seditious Affair. I cannot convey it in two sentences at a party while trying to balance a warm glass of wine and a sausage roll. Can we just stick to “it’s a historical romance”?

How do you find the time to write?

This one sounds innocuous, but I have a feeling, if you looked into it, you’d find female writers get asked this a lot more than men. Before I quit my job, I got a lot of people asking me how I “juggled” having a job and kids and writing. Nobody ever asks my husband, a keen triathlete, how he “juggles” his family obligations to make time for his training. And, come to that, when people talk about, say, TV, they will compare notes on their rewatch of all 144 episodes of Buffy and their plans to watch three of the new HBO dramas and nobody ever comments on long that will take. But if you’re writing a novel, people want to know where the time comes from. Call me Virginia Woolf, but it’s almost as though there’s something self-indulgent about a woman writing books when she must have other things to do.

The Carlsberg Gambit

Carlsberg had a slogan, “Probably the best lager in the world”, which they have extended to an ad campaign that goes, “Carlsberg don’t do [hairdressing / Friday nights in / whatever], but if they did, it would probably be the best [X] in the world.” This is, inexplicably, something people do to writers.

Oh, yes, I’ve often thought of writing a book, but I’d need to do so much on it. I have so much to say and I’d want to do the story real justice. I’d have to spend so long crafting it, it would be a labour of love, I couldn’t just rush something out. [NEON FLASHING SUBTEXT: Unlike you.]

Or to put it another way: “I haven’t written a book, but if I did…”

Why do you write [X]?

There are two answers to this. One of them is a massive sprawling analysis of my personal history, my political and social convictions, my nightmares and desires and obsessions, my way of seeing the world, the ever-fermenting brain chutney of all the things I’ve read and learned and seen. The other is, “Because.”

When are you going to write…

When are you going to write a proper book (not romance!), a grown-up book, a literary novel, a real book. The author equivalent of “When are you going to find yourself a husband?”

(From a random partygoer or relative): I’ll read it if you give me a free copy.

…thanks?

How do you do your research for sex scenes hurr hurr

/fakes laugh, changes subject/

Oh, you write romance. Is that like Fif—

No.

___________________________

Feel free to add your own cringe-inducers in the comments!

KJ Charles tweets @kj_charles and writes for Loveswept and Samhain. The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh short story is out this month.

KJ is an organiser for Queer Romance Month, an amazing collection of blog posts, flash fiction and essays on the theme of We All Need Stories, which you should go check out right now.

Declarations of Interest and why you should

So this email has been going round on Twitter shared by @lotte_le:

interest

Let’s have a refresher course on basic ethics, shall we? As follows:

DECLARE YOUR INTEREST.

That was quick, eh? See you next week!

 

Okay, we have space for a bit more.

Declaring interest is a bedrock principle of functional communities. If you are a councillor who awards the contract for rubbish collection services, you must declare that your brother-in-law runs the bidding garbage truck company. If you are asked to be in charge of an inquiry, you need to say that one of the accused is a family friend. If you run a website that reviews cosmetics, you should mention that you run your own cosmetics company under a different name.

It may be that your brother-in-law’s company is the best by miles, or that you would apply the law no matter what it cost your personal life, or that you scrupulously avoided ever plugging your own product on your site. Conflicts of interests happen all the time; we all live in small worlds. If I review an m/m romance, it’s quite likely that I will have interacted with the author on social media, and as a freelance editor it’s not outside the realms of possibility I have or will have worked with them.

But the only way to deal with interests is transparency. You put your interest out there, and let people take a good hard look at your behaviour and your opinions in the light of what they know.

And if you don’t declare interests, people have the right to draw their own conclusions as to what motivated your decisions, which may well be worse than the reality. You might get your brother-in-law the contract because you really think his is the best company, but the voting public is entitled to assume you’re taking a backhander because you hid your interest. Your family friend might be innocent, but who will believe it when the inquiry stinks of cover-up? What value do your genuine negative lipstick reviews have when people decide you were trashing your rivals?

There are laws about this stuff. The Federal Trade Commission in the US requires that you disclose any ‘material connection’ such as payment or free product accepted in return for a review, because your review is endorsing the product. If I might decide to buy a book on the basis of your five-star rave, I have a right to know if you actually spent money on it or not. I definitely have the right to know if you were morally blackmailed into leaving it by big sad kitten eyes and pleas of ‘but bad reviews hurt authors!’

The free book business is a tricky one. The whole point of the ARC (advance reading copy) is that the author gives the reviewer something (a free book), and in return gets a benefit (a review). You might well feel this teeters on the edge of dodgy by its very nature. Let’s be honest, it kind of does.

I have been contacted by readers who have offered to leave five-star reviews if I give them a free copy. Blog tour companies have been known to ask the bloggers to suppress 1 or 2* reviews. Goodreads is full of books that have been five-star-spammed by hardcore fans in return for freebies. And, as we see here, there are authors who feel that the act of giving a free book entitles them not just to a review but to a good review. (There are also, needless to say, vast numbers of authors who would never dream of policing reviewers, and reviewers who are scrupulous in declaring interests. There is nothing wrong with the ARC system except when it’s abused. But it’s basically an honour system, and any honour system is open to abuse by the dishonourable.)

This hurts everyone in every direction. It bumps the unethical author up the rankings, it disappoints the reader suckered into buying overpraised books; it damages the authors who don’t game the system; it devalues the honest reviews that people slave over. It undermines the reading community. It stops the system working. 

A declaration of interest does not “discredit a review” as the email says. It does the opposite, by demonstrating that you have considered basic ethical principles. Hiding that interest discredits the reviewer, the author, the book, and the whole damn system. No author should ever ask for that, and no reviewer should ever feel obliged to agree.

A quick checklist for the ethically challenged:

  • It is fine to offer an ARC in return for a review.
  • It is never okay to ask for only a positive review.
  • It is never, ever okay to ask for a negative review to be suppressed.
  • It is never, ever, ever okay to ask a reviewer not to declare her interest. You are asking her to be dishonest and possibly to break the law.
  • If you are prepared to violate your personal integrity and the law, you should probably set your price higher than a free e-book. Have some self-respect.