magpie

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.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

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.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

___________________________________

Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

Suspending disbelief: how high can you go?

I watched the animated film Storks the other day. There are many silly things about this film, but the one that stuck in my throat was this.

Here is a stork.

stork

Here are the storks in Storks.

from storks

Those are seagulls. Look at the heads. Look at the beaks. Seagulls.

This was bugging me the next morning such that I was forced to tweet.

stork tweets

There’s an obvious answer to that which Chesterton sums up very well in one of the Father Brown stories:

“It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.”

AKA: they’re bloody seagulls. Obviously.

Chesterton’s explanation is true as far as it goes: if a book presents us with something that we know to be wrong, without explanation, we don’t accept it. Obviously, if London is made of sentient jelly which has the power to suck down Tube stations and spit them out again in different places and that’s why Oxford Circus is now south of the river, that’s a perfectly good reason. I will happily suspend my disbelief, if you just give me a hook to hang it off.

But I think there’s more to dig out here for worldbuilding purposes, and it was brilliantly put by Twitter user @aprotim.
deviation

For an implausible thing to feel right and true in a story, it must have a reason. If there isn’t a reason, it’s unconvincing. But if every implausibility has a different reason, what you get is a mess.

In the alt history programme SS-GB we accept any amount of divergence from reality because it all flows from the same point of deviation: the Nazis won. (And therefore Churchill is dead, and therefore swastikas everywhere, etc.) We accept all that immediately from the basic premise. However, if SS-GB decreed that everyone in the UK was legally obliged to have a cat, we’d all be sitting up and saying, “What?” because that doesn’t arise from the premise. It requires us to be given and accept a second, unrelated explanation. (“In this reality Hitler was super fond of cats.”) It’s not just that it deviates from the real world in which I live; it also diverges from what I thought to be the case for the fictional world in which the Nazis won.

And this is the point about economy of deviation. Deviations that come back to a single premise (“there are ghosts”; “the city is made of jelly”; “people have superpowers”) can be the root of a massive branching and flowering tree of story, and lead to all kinds of weird and wonderful things, and we’ll happily go with them because they flow from the initial premise. But unrelated deviations requiring separate explanations—or, worse, which are unexplained–sap at the verisimilitude of the story because we like things to fit.

There’s a famous statistics puzzle that goes as follows:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1.  Linda is a bank teller.
  2.  Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is 1. It is more probable that one thing will happens than that two will. (Think of it this way: the odds of A happening are better than the odds of A happening and also B happening.)

But this is counter intuitive for humans. The majority of people will go for option 2, and this is why we say lies, damn lies and statistics. We have been given a story that leads us to feminist and not to bank teller, therefore bank teller alone is a less plausible outcome for humans than feminist bank teller because it doesn’t fit the story. It diverges from the facts we have; it requires a second explanation; it isn’t convincing. Option 1 may work for statisticians; it doesn’t work for novelists at all. (This is the principle of Occam’s Razor and Chekhov’s Gun: we don’t want dozens of different reasons for things.)

To return to Storks: I am not bothered by the base concept of “storks actually create and deliver babies” because that’s a given for the universe. I am also not bothered by the stork having teeth inside its beak

stork teeth

horrifying though that is, because anthropormorphism is part of the animated universe. Those are both givens of the story. But I am bothered by the storks looking like seagulls, because that is a divergence from my world which is unexplained by anything in the film. It’s not based on anything; it doesn’t lead from or flow to anything. It was done for the convenience of the animators (just as a pivotal row in a romance novel may arise because the author feels “we need a row here” rather than out of the characters and their situation). And as such, it feels troubling, annoying, and deeply implausible in a film which features a submarine made of wolves.

WantedGentleman_500x750

Punctuating Dialogue: The Wilder Shores

Last week I wrote about basic dialogue punctuation, and people wanted more, so here it is. If you aren’t up for XXXX Hot Ellipsis Action, bail out now.

In this post we’re going to do ellipses, em dashes, and the different impressions you can give of broken, hesitant, or simultaneous speech. Before we go any further, though, a reminder: Punctuation is not something handed down from on high. It is a convention by which writers attempt to convey the patterns of language—and language is spoken, not written. Punctuating dialogue is an exercise in making readers translate the marks on the page into dialogue that sounds the way you want in their head.

So don’t think, “I must make my dialogue punctuation correct according to CMOS*.” Think: “My punctuation must convey the way my characters are speaking.” And that has to be done within conventions (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy or whatever), because shared conventions are how writing works—but the aim, the goal, the point here is for you to represent your character’s cadences and meanings as accurately as possible.

*CMOS=Chicago Manual of Style, a collection of notes made by some people on how they thought American English should be written down. A style manual. Not to be confused with “an eternal and immutable universal truth”.

Break or trail?

An overview of basic em dash and ellipsis use and their different effects. I wrote on this subject in a previous blog post so I’m copying lots of it here to save my sanity.

… is an ellipsis (plural ellipses), and indicates hesitation or trailing off

— is an em dash and indicates a break or interruption

In the following string of examples, we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.

Em dash

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.

The dash here indicates Natalie shoving herself into Jenny’s speech, talking at the same time.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.

Here Natalie (OR IS SHE???) consciously interrupts to stop Jenny. We need the dash to show Jenny’s speech is broken.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

There was a massive explosion and the roof fell in.

Jenny is interrupted by an external factor.

Ellipsis

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

A phonetic transcript might render this as “Yooouuu’re” as Jenny drags the word out in a pathetic attempt to pretend she hasn’t forgotten the name.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.

“Natalie.”

Jenny has Romance Heroine Speech Impediment. There is no cure..

Action within dialogue

You can use em dashes to work action into a speaker’s dialogue. People often get tripped by this, but once you grasp what the punctuation is doing it’s easy to tell which to go for.

Read the following. In both, Frederick is telling Edith he knows she shot Mabel. What’s happening differently?

Example 1

“This”—he held it out to her as he spoke—“is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Example 2

“This—” he held it aloft then threw it onto the table with a clatter “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

 

 

*** pause for thought***

 

 

Example 1 is continuous speech. The action goes on simultaneously with the words. Therefore, the em dashes are outside the quotation marks because they are not part of the dialogue. In a playscript we’d represent it as:

FREDERICK:  This is the gun with which you shot Mabel. [He holds it out as he speaks]

Example 2 is interrupted speech, therefore the em dashes go within the quote marks to show a pause in the flow of speech. However, the action is part of a continuity of Frederick doing stuff (speaking or acting) so it’s all part of the same sentence. Thus there is no cap or full stop on the interpolation. In a playscript:

FREDERICK:  This [he throws it onto the table; she jumps] is the gun with which you shot Mabel.

You might think of it as “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel” vs “This! is the gun with which you shot Mabel” but we don’t punctuate like that outside Twitter.

Just ask yourself if the speech is continuous or interrupted and you’ll get this right.

A Digression: interpolations and point of view

If the interpolation is about someone who is not the speaker, you can risk confusing the reader. Be very wary. Here Frederick is speaking, but Edith is the subject of the interpolation.

“This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

That seems fine in isolation, but let’s have a look how it works in text.

Edith POV

She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?

Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Frederick POV

He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

In Edith POV we could easily misattribute the dialogue to her. In Frederick POV, this risks looking like POV slippage. Frankly, I’d rewrite both, in the first example to clarify the dialogue attribution (probably ditching the break as overcomplicated), in the second to make Frederick the subject.

She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?

Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand, that he was pointing it at her. She let out a hoarse shriek as he said, “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Or

He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” he pointed it at her and relished her shriek “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

It’s easily done, so keep an eye out.

Stopping and starting

After a break, you may go back to where you left off; or you may go into a new sentence. Punctuate the second part accordingly.

“I would tell you”—he shrugged—“but I’d have to kill you.”

“I would tell you, but…” He gave her a helpless look.  “Anyway, let’s talk about your mum.”

Equally, in interrupty dialogue, consider if the interruptions are new sentences or part of a single sentence (which may be shared between two speakers) and punctuate accordingly. Have a read of this and see how the different breaks work.

“The fact is—” Jim began.

“—you’re an alien,” Matt said over him. “We know, and—”

“We know and we don’t care!” Chloe interrupted. “We love you, Jim, only…”

She shot a desperate glance at Matt, who braced himself to say it. “Only, it’s the, uh, the…” he made waggly finger gestures “…tentacles.”

“But without the tentacles—”

“—which are kind of a big deal, if I’m honest—”

“—we wouldn’t even have noticed. Well, you know, the tentacles and the, uh… Well, we don’t need to talk about the smell.”

“The smell? But”—Jim was going red—“the smell is one of my best features.”

And, for your analytical pleasure, a breakdown. Kind of like the one this post is giving me.

speech analysis new

Note on ellipses: There is any amount of disagreement on punctuating ellipses. British use doesn’t put a full stop after an ellipsis that ends the sentence (on the grounds that the ellipsis is the punctuation), US does.

If you trail off with an ellipsis, and then have an interpolation, you can punctuate for a new sentence or for an extremely hesitant single sentence.

“Yes, but…” He made a face. “You’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, starts again]

“Yes, but…” he made a face “…you’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, trails back on again to complete sentence]

You don’t put ellipses outside the quote marks. See this wrongness:

X “Yes, but”…he opened his hands…”you’re wrong.”

It doesn’t work because punctuating dialogue like this, outside the quotes, shows us the action is simultaneous with the speech, and the dialogue itself is continuous (without the interpolation it reads “Yes but you’re wrong.”). There is no hesitation happening anywhere, therefore it makes no sense to use ellipses. Use em dashes or move the ellipses inside the quote marks, depending on whether you mean a break or a hesitation.

***

Is this all immensely complicated and making you sweat? Okay, look. The line of dialogue “You think I’m lying but I saw an alien” can be presented in the following ways, and this is not an exhaustive list. Exhausting, but not exhaustive.

“You think I’m lying but…I saw an alien.” [no space]

“You think I’m lying but— I saw an alien.” [space after em dash, new sentence]

“You think I’m lying but…” He trailed off, then made a face. “I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying but—” he thumped the table in frustration “—I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying but”—his eye was twitching violently now—“I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying.” He sounded exhausted, almost despairing. His voice dropped to a mumble. “But I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly, “but I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly. “But I saw an alien.”

All of those are grammatically correct. All of them have different implications as to the cadence, the pauses, the meaning of the speaker, the rhythm of the prose. (Exercise: go through that list and ask yourself what each one says about how the line is delivered—tiny pause, bigger pause, with simultaneous action, as two separate parts…)

Working with editors

One final note here, but an important one.

The author’s job is to be aware of what you want your dialogue to say, and pick the punctuation that supports it. If you aren’t sure you’ve done it right, ask your editor for help. The editor’s job is to ensure you’ve done what you want to do correctly within the conventions.

If the editor suggests changing ellipses to em dashes “because you use ‘interrupted’ as a verb, and this section appears to be broken speech”, that is helping you use punctuation to support your meaning. That’s her job. Equally, if the editor points out that you’ve broken two-thirds of your dialogue with dashes and asks you to consider varying your structure because it’s becoming really noticeable, she’s doing what she’s paid for.

If, on the other hand, edits come back with ellipses changed to em dashes “because that’s house style” or “because CMOS says…” (rather than “because this is an interruption, not a hesitation”), that is not okay. CMOS doesn’t know what you meant in that sentence; house style is unlikely to cover every possible nuance of punctuation. Maybe house style will reflect your meaning as well as or better than your original, but maybe it won’t. You need to check this, and be sure that your meaning is the editor’s no.1 priority. (I’d like to say “a good editor won’t do this to you”, but there are publishers who enforce an inflexible house style on editors who would rather not, as well as plenty of places who hire people with no damn experience.)

The only real defence against bad advice is for you to be confident in your knowledge. I stet the hell out of attempts to change my punctuation in ways with which I disagree, but I have a lot of experience and an, uh, uncompromising personality. The more you learn, and the more you equip yourself with the tools of the trade, the more able you’ll be to say, “No, I know what I meant, and that’s how I want to express it.”

(I have Opinions on any form of editing that prioritises the style guide over the author’s voice, intent, or meaning. Buy me a pint some day and I’ll tell you all about it. Meanwhile, see here for the very useful word stet.)

______________________

KJ Charles writes, edits, and probably puts too much thought into punctuation. Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January, and don’t imagine for a second that comma was a casual choice. An Unseen Attraction, first in the new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities, follows in February, and before then there’s a short novella in a December horror collection. More on that soon!

 

WantedGentleman_500x750

Punctuating Dialogue, and Other Interesting Things*

*I lied about the other interesting things. Sorry.

I talk a lot about the importance of cleaning up your own garbage in your MS before you send it to an editor. You need an editor, no debate. But there are some things anyone can do beforehand to save time and money: see my posts on self editing here on development edits and here for line edits.

One of the most common things I deal with as an editor is incorrectly punctuated speech. A lot of people apparently don’t know the conventions, or how to use them, and I see an awful lot of this in published books. (NB: Some authors are not native speakers, didn’t get the sort of education that teaches you this stuff, or are dyslexic or otherwise neurodivergent. No sneering, please.)

Speech punctuation is really important for clarity of reading. And if you consistently get it wrong in a MS, it creates literally hours of pointless, grubbing, repetitive work for an editor. (Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap.) That will be time for which you may be charged if self pubbing; the editor will doubtless miss some however hard she tries, so your MS will be riddled with errors; most of all, it is incredibly distracting. Editors are only human. If we become focused on the detail work of tidying up your speech punctuation we can easily miss bigger problems.

speech 1

Speech punctuation is something you can learn to get right. It will support your meaning, and free up your editor to do better things.

I’m now going to go over the real basics in mind-numbing detail. Some may think this is Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious; feel free to move on. I can only say, I have spent weeks and months of my life fixing this stuff, and read (paid for) far too many books in which it has not been fixed.

An X will indicate an example that is wrong diddly wrong.

***

Standalone speech

A speech unit can stand on its own, ending with a full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, ellipsis or dash.

“Here is the gun.” [statement]

“He’s got a gun!” [exclamation]

“Where is the gun?” [question]

“I did have a gun, but…” [broken speech: tailing off]

“I did have a gun, but—” [broken speech: interruption by self or other]

Any of these can act as a complete sentence by itself. If that’s the case, the next sentence is a new sentence and begins with a capital letter.

“Here is the gun.” The man held it out.

“Where is the gun?” He looked baffled, as well he might.

***

Speech with speech tag

Let’s say you want to add a speech tag to the speech. That turns the standalone utterance into one part of a single sentence (in which the sentence is made up of utterance plus speech verb). You may have to change the punctuation to indicate this.

Statement

“Here is the gun,” he said.

Here, the full stop has changed to a comma because the unit “utterance plus speech verb” is one sentence. For avoidance of doubt, it’s just the last sentence in the dialogue that needs amending.

“Here is the gun. Please shoot Edith,” he said.

This is how it works for any speech tag, not just ‘said’.

“Here is the gun,” he snapped.

What you will very often see is this:

X “I have the gun.” He said.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, handing it to her.

That’s wrong. “He said” is not a complete sentence. It needs either an object (see below) or the speech to make a complete sentence.

Either you punctuate these as one sentence, utterance plus tag:

“Here is the gun,” he said, handing it to her.

“I have the gun,” he snapped.

Or you set as standalone utterances followed by standalone sentences that tag the speech—that is, two sentences.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her as he spoke.

“I have the gun.” He sounded irritable, as though he thought she should have known.

.

Exclamations, questions, interruptions, hesitations

These don’t need the punctuation changing when speech tags are added. The speech tag becomes part of a single sentence as above, utterance plus tag, lower case.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

“Where is the gun?” he asked.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” he said.

“But the gun—” she began.

If the tag is a standalone sentence, punctuate as such.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words and heard them echo off the cathedral walls.

“Where is the gun?” He asked the question with a bored detachment that gave her chills.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” He shuffled his feet as he spoke.

“But the gun—” She snapped her mouth shut at his look.

 

***

Speech Tags that Aren’t

There is a tendency for authors to use things that are not speech verbs as speech tags. So we see, e.g., ‘smiled’ or ‘nodded’ or ‘grimaced’ used as speech verbs.  Please watch out for this. If it isn’t a thing you do with your mouth (or fingers, in sign language) that produces words, it isn’t a speech verb, because nodding and smiling don’t create words. If you would like to argue with me about this, carry on, as long as you do so only by means of nodding, smiling, and grimacing.

X “Here is the gun,” he smiled.

Try the following instead:

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling.

“Here is the gun.” He smiled.

We also see this usage extended to action markers.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

That is two sentences—a standalone utterance followed by a new sentence. Don’t punctuate it like a speech tag if it’s not one.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

***

All this excruciating detail adds up to one simple question: Is it one sentence or two? Is it a standalone utterance followed by a standalone sentence, or is it one sentence consisting of an utterance plus a speech tag? Easy way to check: read the second sentence alone and ask yourself if it works as a complete sentence in English.

The following aren’t English sentences:

X He said, and handed it to her.

X He said.

Therefore punctuate as one sentence along with the speech.

“Here is the gun,” he said, and handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, and handed it to her.

The following are English sentences

He handed it to her.

He smiled.

Therefore punctuate as two sentences with the speech.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

Notice that it makes a difference if the speech verb takes an object. This frequently trips people up. In the following examples using “she shouted”, I’ve marked the object of the speech verb in bold italic.

Here the speech verb doesn‘t work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

Without speech:

X She shouted.

Here, the speech verb has an object and thus does work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

Without speech:

She shouted the words.

Therefore, you need two sentences if the speech verb has a separate object, or one sentence if it’s referring to the speech itself.

X “He’s got a gun!” she shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

***

Oh, and if you know all this and you mean to type, “Hello,” she said, but you accidentally type a full stop instead of a comma, Word will autocorrect to “Hello.” She said anyway, despite your best intentions. So that’s good.

***

MASSIVE APPENDIX KLAXON

Anna Butler in the comments reminds me that dialogue tags can be tricky the other way around. A brief summary, then:

There are three basic forms of tagged speech as above: simple tag, tag with action, non-speech marker.

“Here is the gun,” he said. [simple tag]

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling. [tag with action]

“Here is the gun.” He smiled. [Marker, not a speech tag]

If presenting these the other way around, i.e. tag first, just remember that the speech unit doesn’t alter.  If the speech unit is a sentence with a capital letter, it stays that way–there is no reason for it to change. Here the unit is “Here is the gun.”

He said, “Here is the gun.”

He said, smiling, “Here is the gun.”

He smiled. “Here is the gun.”

And therefore

He asked, “Where is the gun?”

He said, “Well, there was a gun somewhere…”

She began, “But the gun—”

***

Okay? Right. Something more interesting next time, honest. [Edit: Sorry, also a lie. Next time: how to break speech!]

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­________________________________

KJ Charles just finished an enemies-to-lovers story about a fraudulent spiritualist with murder, plots, hate sex, Victorian sensation, and the most bastardy hero she ever wrote. She felt you’d rather hear about the minutiae of dialogue punctuation because she is a marketing genius.

Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, which is about, among other things, an 1805 Lonely Hearts bureau and an unexpected road trip to Gretna.  It is also more interesting than this post. Although, almost anything would be.

Let’s Talk About Stets

AKA how writers and editors deal with disagreement.

In recent days I’ve spoken to several new authors who have told me the same thing re their first edits: “I didn’t know what stet meant.” Argh.

Stet is one of the most important words for an author dealing with editors. It’s one of those bits of trade jargon so essential that it often doesn’t occur to professionals that it needs explaining. So the editor will say, “Stet where you feel appropriate”, and the newbie author, lacking the confidence to admit ignorance, nods in a “yes I will definitely do that” way, and things go wrong.

Stet simply means “let it stand” (it’s Latin) and in publishing terms it means “do not make this change; keep my original text”. So you can put stet next to a change you don’t want. Here the editor has cut a repetition, but it’s character voice that I want preserved, so I have reinserted my original text.

stet 1

It has become a verb of course. I stet, I have stetted. You can stet a specific change; you can also do blanket stets (“Please stet all Americanised spellings to British”) and you can also ask in advance for things to be left alone when sending a MS to the editor:

“The character Silas uses nonstandard grammar in both speech and deep 3rd person point of view. This is character voice; please stet throughout unless there is a problem with understanding, in which case please flag.”

Stet is an important tool in the editing process. If an editor makes a change or suggestion, the author may agree; or agree but change the change; or disagree but still change; or stet. Stet makes it uncompromisingly clear that you want your original kept as was, and that is extremely useful to a busy editor.

Many new authors don’t feel they can argue with edits. You really can: that’s why editing has a special word that’s designed for you to do exactly that. Whether you should is something we will come on to now.

Should You Stet?

It’s very easy to think, well, the editor is the expert so she must be right. The thing is, editors and proofers vary. Some are excellent,  some are not.  Some are hungover or tired or have been working for twelve hours straight. Some are experienced professionals and some are people who just like reading and work unpaid for a free copy of the book from the publisher. (Pause to consider why you are giving this publisher part of your income.) Some editors are high-intervention and prescriptive about grammar, some work for publishers with rigid style sheets and get in trouble if they diverge. Some misread, fail to understand, or don’t get it. I’m an editor, I’m pretty good if I say so myself, and I have failed in every possible way in my time. Nobody’s perfect.

What all this means is, you can’t just accept every change as though the editor is supporting your intended meaning. Hopefully the editor will be a knowledgeable professional whose every change improves the book; sometimes she won’t. The trick is knowing the difference.

I have worked with many authors who aren’t equipped with good grammar and punctuation. (Before anyone rants about how that’s a vital authorial skill, please remember the many marvellous story creators who are dyslexic or otherwise not neurotypical, writing in a second language, or were not beneficiaries of an education that gave them those tools.) I have also worked with many who just think that grammar and punctuation is boring stuff that’s the editor’s job to fix. (Feel free to rant about them.)

What I’m getting at is, I don’t know how good at writing, grammar and punctuation you are, or how good your editor is. I won’t tell you “stet everything!” or “stet nothing!” But here is a case study, dealing with something that’s come up for me a few times in recent edits, as a ‘how to handle it’ example which doubles as a punctuation class. There may be a test.

Dots and Dashes

This is an ellipsis: … Three dots. It signifies missing text, and in dialogue is used to show tailing off or hesitation.

This is an em dash: — It’s called an em dash because it originally was the same length as the letter M, twice as long as the en dash –, which is in turn longer than a hyphen. (These are not interchangeable little lines. Read up.) An em dash can be used to set off text which doesn’t need to be in parentheses—like this—and can also be used to show breaking off.

I have recently done a whole batch of copy edits in which the editor has replaced em dashes in dialogue with ellipses. This was so prevalent, across two MSS, that I suspect a style-sheet blanket rule of “incomplete speech takes an ellipsis” is being applied.

stet 5Punctuation matters. It is not something to which you can apply a universal style sheet because it changes the meaning of the text. And it is the author’s responsibility to keep hold of your meaning in edits.

Example! Here we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie.”

The editor, obedient to a style sheet or some inner compulsion, changes to an ellipsis.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”

“Natalie.”

But that changes the meaning. Allow me to demonstrate by filling in the gaps.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.

“Natalie.”

In the first example, Natalie is talking over Jenny; in the second she interrupts. Both need an em dash because Jenny’s speech is broken. And you can see they need an em dash because when we use an ellipsis, in the second pair, that gives a different effect: Jenny trailing off to try and think of the blasted woman’s name, or because she’s afflicted by Romance Heroine Speech Impediment.

The big question is, what does the author mean? (Not ‘what does the style sheet say’. Style sheets are just tools, and if an editor insists on the style sheet to the detriment of the author’s meaning or the quality of the text, that’s a massive problem.) What did you mean? Did you in fact want a break, or, actually, is the ellipsis more appropriate here and the editor was right?

Was the use of poor grammar a conscious choice to convey character, or does your grammar just suck? Is this multiply queried thing throughout the MS a quirk of your authorial voice, and if so, is it a grossly overused quirk that you ought to get under control because it’s going to annoy the hell out of people (KJ)? Is this deliberate for effect, or inadvertently clumsy, ambiguous, or just plain wrong, as we all are sometimes?

There is no shame in having got something wrong, or in realising there’s a better way; that’s what editors are for. And there is no piece of writing that can’t be improved. But if you feel that the editor’s amendment is not an improvement or just doesn’t look like what you meant, you can do the following:

Discuss, particularly if you don’t feel confident in your own punctuation/grammar. (“I intended to convey hesitation here, I’m not sure this works.”) Most editors will be thrilled to work with an author who listens and wants to learn; it saves a lot of time on the next MS.

Rewrite. There’s no law says you have to accept an editor’s change, but if something’s been flagged, it’s for a reason (good or otherwise) and it’s worth considering what that is. Perhaps you don’t feel there’s a problem but it’s worth tweaking in case; perhaps there’s a different way of phrasing it that dodges the problem altogether. You never have to accept the editor’s amendment as it stands; editors don’t get to stet their suggestions.

Or, if you meant exactly what you wrote in the first place, you don’t want it changed, you don’t think the editor has a good reason, then stet. The word is there for you to use; you’re the author and ultimately the editors are there to support your writing. That’s not a free pass to be overbearing, and if you don’t listen to good advice you’re a fool. The Dunning–Kruger effect applies to authors too.

But in the end, the author has to know what she means, and author and editor should be on the same side in bringing out that meaning in the best possible words. It’s your writing. Work on it, improve it, but own it. That’s your right, and it’s also your job.

____________

KJ is an editor, a writer, and probably a massive pain to edit. Sorry about that.

A Gentleman's Position_Charles

Enter Title Here

I am fed up of seeing British-set historical romances that mess up with aristocratic titles. This is fundamental, and while some errors are pretty obscure, others stamp COULDN’T BE BOTHERED across your book. (I’m looking at you, authors who refer to Sir Samuel Smith as ‘Sir Smith’.)

Granted this is intricate and fussy stuff but if you’re writing aristos, it matters. The people inside the system care about the system, therefore if you’re writing characters inside the system, you have to care for the duration of the book. You cannot write about a society if you don’t understand its rules; you can’t write a book about a heroine constrained by social stratification if you have no idea what the social strata even are; you can’t do a faux pas scene of the out-group heroine getting it wrong if none of the in-group are getting it right.

You wouldn’t write a book about the Army in which an officer was addressed as ‘General’ or ‘Sergeant’ depending on the mood of the person talking to them, would you? Or describe an Army officer as ‘Admiral’? Well, same difference. If you don’t get titles right, you’re not respecting the setting–the very historicalness of the historical romance–and that means you’re not respecting the reader.

Debretts, the etiquette guide, has an online breakdown of every shade of address. Use it.

A guide follows–this is by no means exhaustive, but it is exhausting, so I’ve kept it as brief as possible. I am using the characters from my Society of Gentlemen and Charm of Magpies series where possible because a) I don’t have to make up names and b) plug.

EDIT: There is a host of outstanding additional information in the comments (including Reverendtitled people in the military and Mr/Miss), so keep scrolling! And thank you so much to everyone who’s contributed.

Titles are ranked in order of importance. We’re going to work our way up from low to high. Also, this is English and some of the titles work differently in Scotland. And if anyone spots any errors in this, please do have at it in the comments and I’ll correct!

1) Knighthood

Mr. Dominic Frey receives a knighthood for his services to the Board of Taxes. He is now Sir Dominic Frey. He is addressed as Sir Dominic.

He is NEVER. EVER. EVER. EVER addressed as “Sir Frey”. This form DOES NOT EXIST. “Sir” only ever goes with the first name—Sir Dominic. I swear, I will hunt you down if you get this wrong.

In the unlikely event that Mr Dominic Frey married a theoretical Mrs Eleanor Frey, she would now be Lady Frey, or if there was another Lady Frey around with whom she might be confused, Eleanor, Lady Frey. She is not Lady Eleanor, as that indicates a title in her own right.

If Sir Dominic and Lady Frey had had children, they would not have titles, just Mr/Miss.

2) Baronet

Baronets are the lowest grade of hereditary title, and don’t count as peers. When Sir Dominic Frey is made a baronet for services to taxation, he remains Sir Dominic, married to Lady Frey, but now his eldest son John will inherit the baronetcy on his death to become Sir John Frey. None of his other children have titles.

3) Baron

The lowest rung of the peerage. When Dominic gets elevated to the peerage for his tireless work, he becomes Dominic Frey, The Baron Tarlton, and is addressed as Lord Tarlton. His wife is Lady Tarlton and his children are The Honourable John Frey and The Honourable Jane Frey (which will be written as “The Hon John/Jane Frey”). They are still addressed as Mr/Miss—nobody is called “The Hon/ourable” to their face. When Dom dies, The Hon John becomes Lord Tarlton. When The Hon Jane Frey marries Mr Smith, she becomes The Hon Jane Smith but he is still Mr Smith.

“The” takes a capital even in the middle of the sentence if it’s formally stating the title, eg on a legal document or an envelope/invitation. No need to use it in general narration/dialogue unless reading out a formal title.

4) Viscount

Ranks above baron, but works the same. Viscount Wellford is called Lord Wellford; his wife is a viscountess, addressed as Lady Wellford. Children are The Hon. So Mark Heaton, The Viscount Wellford, has kids The Hon Robert Heaton and The Hon Georgina Heaton.

An earl, marquess or duke may also be a viscount or baron, and may give the lesser title to his eldest son and heir apparent as a courtesy. (A duke may also be an earl, even. The Duke of Richmond’s heir apparent has the courtesy title of Earl of March.)

An heir apparent is the eldest son. If there are no sons, a brother or cousin may be next in line, but doesn’t get a courtesy title because he is only an heir presumptive, i.e. could be pushed out of the way by the birth of a son.

If a title is substantive (i.e. it’s yours, not your father’s gift) you are formally “The Viscount Fortunegate”. If it’s a courtesy title, you’re “Viscount Fortunegate”, no The.

Courtesy titles of this kind are not automatic upgrades, but are always in the gift of the substantive holder. It might well go without saying and be done at once, but it’s not a fait accompli all the same.

5) Earl

In third place in the peerage. The seventh holder of the Crane earldom is Peter Vaudrey, full honours The Right Honourable The Earl Crane and Viscount Fortunegate. In the case of this title he is plain Crane; more commonly earldoms are ‘of’ somewhere (e.g. the earl of Lychdale). He is addressed as Lord Crane. His wife is The Countess Crane (or The Countess of Lychdale if there’s an of), and addressed as Lady Crane.

Lord Crane has two sons. His elder son The Hon Hector Vaudrey is accorded the viscountcy as a courtesy title and becomes Viscount Fortunegate (not ‘The’). He is addressed as Lord Fortunegate, wife Lady Fortunegate. Lord Crane’s younger son is The Hon Lucien Vaudrey.

Earls’ daughters get the courtesy title Lady, so if Lord Crane had a daughter Mary, she would be Lady Mary Vaudrey, addressed as Lady Mary. Earls’ sons are The Hon, not ‘Lord’.

6) Marquess

Second from top. A marquess is married to a marchioness and possesses a marquessate. The Marquess of Cirencester is addressed as Lord Cirencester; his wife is Lady Cirencester. Marquesses may also miss out the ‘of’, more rarely.

As with earls, the heir apparent may use one of his father’s titles by courtesy, and the daughters are courtesy-styled Lady. Unlike earls, the younger sons of a duke or marquess have the courtesy style of Lord (e.g. Cirencester’s younger son Lord Richard Vane, called Lord Richard).  When one of these younger sons marries his wife is addressed as Lady by his, not her, first name. So Lord Richard Vane’s wife would be Lady Richard. No, seriously.

7) Duke

The highest rank below the royal family itself. ‘Duke’ is an immensely important title, with only a handful existing at any time, except in romantic fiction where they outnumber the servants. Dukes and duchesses may be addressed as ‘Your Grace’. In formal descriptions dukes are The Most Noble The Duke of Wellington. Dukes are always ‘of’.

You will be profoundly relieved to hear it’s the same as marquesses except (of course there’s an except) Dukes are the only rank of the peerage who may be addressed by rank. (As in, “Really, Duke?” or a letter: “Dear Duke, thank you for your flattering proposal.” )

For all the peerage except dukes, speakers should say Lord/Lady, and not the rank. Your debutante, unless vulgar/ignorant, would never address an English peer as ‘Countess’ or ‘Countess Mary’. (NB: a Scottish baron can be addressed as ‘Baron’; check your Scots separately.)

When speaking to a duke/duchess, you kick off with Your Grace and can then potentially switch to Duke/Duchess or Sir/Ma’am.

Royal dukes (siblings/children of the king/queen) are His/Your Royal Highness.

8) Widows

When the Marquess of Cirencester dies, his widow Eustacia remains Marchioness of Cirencester, addressed as Lady Cirencester, until the new marquess marries. At that point the widow becomes the Dowager Marchioness of Cirencester (description) or the Dowager Lady Cirencester (address), although in more recent times she might go by Eustacia, Marchioness of Cirencester (description)/Eustacia, Lady Cirencester (address).

Case study time!

Take a deep breath, we’re going in.

Let’s say we have two brothers in the Vane family, elder George and younger Gideon. George Vane is formally The Most Honourable The Marquess of Cirencester and Viscount Rodmarton, and is addressed as Lord Cirencester.

Gideon is Lord Gideon (courtesy title as marquess’s younger son). Lord Gideon’s wife Anne is called Lady Gideon. Lord and Lady Gideon have two sons, Mr Matthew Vane and Mr Alexander Vane, neither of whom gets so much as an Hon.

Until Lord Cirencester (George) has a son, Lord Gideon is the heir presumptive (next in line but can be displaced by a son). When Cirencester has a son, Lord Philip, he is the heir apparent, because nobody can precede him in the line of inheritance. If Philip died, his younger brother Richard would be heir apparent; if both brothers died, Gideon would be heir presumptive once more, but could again be displaced by a new son.

Lord Philip is given the courtesy title of Viscount Rodmarton (not ‘The’ because it’s courtesy) and thus is now called Lord Rodmarton. Rodmarton’s children are The Hon Eustace Vane, The Hon Hugh Vane and The Hon Abigail Vane. (In some families, the heir apparent of the heir apparent may also have a courtesy title, if the grandfather has one lying around–if this were the case here, Eustace would be e.g. a baron, Lord Cricklade. It needs to be of lower rank than his father’s title.)

When Lord Cirencester (George) dies, Lord Rodmarton (Philip) becomes Lord Cirencester. He is also The Viscount Rodmarton (now a substantive title); he is called Cirencester because you always use the highest title. His son Eustace becomes Lord Eustace immediately if he doesn’t already have a courtesy title, and Lord Rodmarton when his father confers the courtesy title on him. Abigail becomes Lady Abigail; younger son Hugh becomes Lord Hugh. And since Philip is already married, George’s widow immediately becomes the Dowager Lady Cirencester.

Lady Abigail marries commoner Simon Nichols, and becomes Lady Abigail Nichols, addressed as Lady Abigail. Her husband is plain Mr Nichols.  When the marquess’s younger son Lord Hugh Vane marries, his wife becomes—come on, you can do this—Lady Hugh. None of Lord Hugh or Lady Abigail’s children have titles or honorifics.

Lord Eustace/Lord Rodmarton’s kids are The Hon until Eustace becomes Cirencester in his turn, at which point they get an upgrade to Lord/Lady, and so it rolls on. See? Easy. /weeps/

Key facts reminder

  • ‘Sir’ is ALWAYS used with the forename, NEVER the surname.
  • Lord/Lady Firstname is used only for the daughters of an earl/marquess/duke or the younger sons of a marquess/duke.
  • Nobody is addressed as their rank except dukes. Other peers are my lord/your lordship/Lord Title.

And the big one for those at the back…

Forms of address are not interchangeable.

Either you are Lady Vane, or you are Lady Abigail. It only changes if your circumstances do, e.g. with a marriage or a promotion-by-relative’s-death. It is incredibly common in histrom and steampunk to see authors use ‘Lady Abigail’ when someone’s being friendly and then switch it to ‘Lady Vane’ to show displeasure. I trust readers will now understand why that’s wrong. (Obviously, it’s fine for a miffed intimate to switch from the friendly ‘Abigail’ to the formal ‘Lady X’ to make a point.)

Again: Forms of address are not interchangeable.

Philip Vane is Lord Cirencester, or the marquess of Cirencester, or Philip, or Cirencester, depending on who’s speaking to whom about whom. Those are the options. You cannot describe him in narration or dialogue as Marquess Philip Vane, Marquess Cirencester, Marquess Philip, Lord Philip, or Lord Vane. Those are all wrong. Not optional choices you can make for variety or to show levels of intimacy: wrong.

***

Decide what rank the character holds, and you can pin the correct form down very easily. You do have to be sure about this. If you want your hero Benedict Walton to be called Lord Benedict because you love the way it sounds, he has to be a younger son of a duke or marquess. If you want Benedict to be a duke, he can’t be addressed as Lord Benedict. You could, however, make him an earl or marquess (probably without the ‘of’ as Benedict doesn’t sound like a placename) and have Benedict be his title, so he’s Frederick Walton, The Earl Benedict, addressed as Lord Benedict. See?

(Or you can ignore all this, make up an alternate universe, and set your own rules. Go for it. But any form of titling serves two purposes: to indicate status, and to mark in-group and out-group via knowledge of pointless rules. So an aristocracy where specific titles don’t matter and have no rules is an aristocracy that, basically, wouldn’t exist in human society. That’s the nature of the beast.)

It’s not that hard. Make sure you know what your aristo characters are meant to be called, both title and form of address, stick it to the screen on a Post-It note as you type, and bask in the quiet glory of knowing you got it right.

I will happily clarify or check titles for you as best I can in the comments.

KJ magpie200

Free development edits for British diverse romance

It’s been a while since I blogged. To be honest, I had the stuffing knocked out of me by Brexit.

There are a lot of things to hate about the results of the EU referendum—the damage to international relations, the economic catastrophe coming our way, the revelation of how mendacious and incompetent our leaders are, the limiting of our children’s prospects etc etc—but right now the worst thing seems to me the level of hateful bigotry it’s revealed and enabled in my nation.

Racism is on the march. We’ve seen the worst ever spike in recorded hate crimes. There have been petrol bombings of shops owned by immigrants, windows smashed, hateful messages and graffiti, people told to “go home” as if this wasn’t their home, as if Britain’s wealth didn’t come from travelling all over the world and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down and plenty that was, as if we are not an entire nation of immigrants dating back to the first person who ever rowed ashore and immediately complained about the weather. (A Swedish woman was told to “go home” in York. Yes, there’s a place with absolutely no history of Scandinavian immigration AT ALL, you ignorant bags of mince.)

Anyway. I was feeling pretty down about the state of our self-destructing rock in the sea, when I came across this from the excellent Nikesh Shukla on Twitter, whose The Good Immigrant is coming out soon:

shukla

This is absolutely right. I am a powerful believer in doing something in times of anxiety, unhappiness and anger, as a way to make myself feel better if nothing else.

I also believe passionately in the importance of fiction, both for a bit of escape and as a way of opening our horizons. To see ourselves and other people reflected in books, to see the world as it should be, to believe for a little while that things will be all right: those are important. Romance is important; diverse romance is doubly important at a time when the worst sort of people are trying to drive out the glorious variety of human experience that makes this country worth living in.

And therefore I am offering two free development edits to two aspiring British BAME romance writers, in an effort to help people towards publication and make for a more inclusive publishing landscape. Please spread and share.

About the offer

  • This is only open to black, Asian, or minority ethnic romance writers of British identity or living in Britain, as a drop-in-the-bucket effort to increase the diversity of British romance.
  • This is only open to aspiring writers, who are aiming for publication but not yet there. I’m trying to give a couple of newbies a hand to get started: please respect that. Anyone who doesn’t meet these criteria but is thinking of scamming a free edit should be aware that I’m really not in the mood. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, ask me below.
  • Romance only please. It can be m/f, or any letter in the LGBTQA+ rainbow; any level of sensuality from none to scorchio. As long as there’s a central love story with a happy-for-now or happy-ever-after ending.
  • I don’t do MSS that include rape, noncon, dubcon, torture or slavery as erotic elements.
  • I specialise in historical and am particularly interested in diverse historical romance, which will be given priority.
  • I will read the MS and send a development letter looking at plot, characterisation, pacing, and top-line elements of style, identifying how to make the book better and more saleable. Two reads, two authors, one MS each, no charge.
  • My schedule resembles the end of The Italian Job and not in a good way, so I am hoping to read these MSS on holiday in August. Therefore I’d ideally like to have complete MSS in by end July. EDIT: If your MS isn’t ready but you’d like to stick your name down anyway, please do. I’ll make time.

Why you should trust me with your MS

I’m an editor of more than twenty years’ experience, several of those as an acquiring editor at Harlequin Mills & Boon where books I edited were RITA-nominated and one a winner. I worked with and acquired a number of aspiring authors from the slush pile who are now published and successful, including some USA Today bestsellers. I am now a freelance romance writer and editor making my living from romance.

As a writer: see my books here. Think of England was voted Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll. A Seditious Affair was voted tied first for Best LGBTQ+ Romance in the All About Romance 2016 Readers poll, and received Honourable Mention for Best Romance and Best Historical Romance set in the UK. The Washington Post called A Gentleman’s Position “an emotional, deeply romantic look at the remarkable lengths we will go for love.”

How to apply

If you are a British/UK-dwelling BAME-origin aspiring romance author with a MS that meets the criteria above, comment here (on my blog at kjcharleswriter.com and not on Goodreads, to which it copies). Please include a short (two-line) note of what your story’s about, the word count, and if it’s complete. Please leave your email address in the form bit along with your name when you make the comment. (Not in the comment, in case you get spammed).

I will pick the candidates based on who it seems I can best help, starting with diverse British historicals if any are available, because I would really like to read more of those and I’m fundamentally selfish. I may need to email you to chat about suitability. My decision is sole and final.

I’ll announce here when I have filled the slots.

I’ll moderate the hell out of the comments if I have to, so take jerkishness elsewhere.

KJ magpie200

Under A Wandering Star: Reining In Points of View

Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.

Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.

Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”

Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.

This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.

This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.

Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.

Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.

Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.

Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.

He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.

“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.

I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:

  • You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
  • The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
  • There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.

This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.

Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”

Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”

Did you spot the jump?

 

 

*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***

 

 

We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:

She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.

Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:

She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.

And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.

Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:

“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.

Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?

David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.

 

 

*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***

 

 

The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.

So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.

You’re welcome.

____________________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her Society of Gentlemen trilogy is published by Loveswept. She is also opinionated on Twitter @kj_charles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KJ magpie200

Being Edited, or How to Take Criticism

Let’s start with the obvious: nobody likes it.

Any aspiring author will read plenty of blog posts telling you to suck it up / not be a special snowflake / fall on negative criticism with cries of glee. You should like criticism. Love it. You should be like a kung-fu movie monk, immersing his hand in boiling tar to become stronger. Etc.

That’s just bobbins. Even unjustified criticism can hurt like hell; even trivial throwaway comments can sting for years. Negative criticism feels bad because it’s negative; you shouldn’t feel even worse because you aren’t Superman about it. Take your emotions out (BUT NOT ON TWITTER OKAY), give them an airing to the cat, scream in the bathroom. Face how you feel. Because, all the people telling you to suck it up? They feel just as bad when they get their MS slammed. And if they don’t, if they indeed have asbestos hands for criticism and shrug it off, I’m afraid I question their commitment to their work. I don’t care is a fine thing to say but if you actually don’t care about your book, I’m pretty sure I won’t either.

Negative criticism is a painful and unpleasant necessity. The problem is that as a species, humans tend to believe that painful unpleasantness should be avoided at all costs. Wasp stings hurt like hell, so we kill wasps. That god-awful friend of a friend zeroes in on our every failing: we spend the party on the opposite side of the room. We avoid painful experiences. And thus authors may decide not to have their MS read by anyone other than their mum and a few trusted sycophants friends (which is a fabulous way to get more negativity than you can shake a stick at when the book publishes). They try to control reviews. And even the most sensible of us often try to deal with negative criticism by persuading ourselves it’s wrong.

It’s human nature. The king surrounds himself with courtiers who assure him that his subjects adore him, even while the mob is hammering at the palace doors. We don’t want to hear this stuff, because it hurts. Unfortunately, you need to face the negatives to improve, and we all know it.

So, a few tips from me in my capacity as an editor who hands out criticism, a writer who has to take it, and a human being who screws up.

Constructive v Negative

People make a big point of how criticism must be constructive. Reviews should always be constructive, apparently. (For the record, this is arrant nonsense. The reviewer is not a post-publication beta reader.) Nobody should say “this is bad”, we are told, they should say “this is how it can be better.”

Well, yes/no. An editor or beta reader who’s just there to sneer is a waste of time (a full blog post on this topic here). But actually, not all readers know how books can be made better. That’s quite a complicated skill: we call that person a development editor. It’s perfectly reasonable to say what’s wrong (“I just felt the hero never got sympathetic”) without identifying which chapters and conversations were the lost opportunities.

And sometimes things are bad. Sometimes the correct editorial response is, “You should cut this chapter”, “You should cut this storyline” or “I’m afraid this MS doesn’t work and we decline to publish.”

Here’s the thing: most people hate giving that out. It is very hard to be the bearer of bad news, particularly because so many people shoot the messenger. (I rejected a book once at work and the author was still blanking me at a conference five years later.)

Some people are just malicious, of course. But sincere well-meaning negative criticism is hard to write and deliver, and it should be considered seriously. If you don’t feel like you can tell the difference any more, ask a writer friend for a second opinion.

The more it hurts, the harder you should look

“If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” is bobbins, just ask an anaesthetist. But I am aware that the crit that makes me flinch most is the stuff I was worried about on some level. If you tell me, “I hate your crappy badly written book,” I’ll merely hope you get a disfiguring skin disease. If you say, “The book falls into obvious halves because of the clunking character arc,” I will be up all night rearranging scenes in my head because you’re right. (You bastard.)

“Well, they’ll just have to like it.” (Hint: they won’t.)

It takes a fair bit of nerve to write, and a lot of self belief. You need be true to your story, follow your dream, all that inspirational poster stuff. However, if you conflate that with believing your book is perfect, you will have a problem. The time to tell yourself “haters gonna hate” and sail serenely by the negative reviews is after publication, not at editing stage. Without negative criticism, you won’t get better.

But this is my book!

As an editor, I believe passionately that the book is the author’s: her voice, her choices, her style. However, sometimes it is the author’s badly written or unpublishable book. As an author, I won’t make changes that go against the spirit of my book and the soul of my characters, but you better believe I’ll listen if my editor/readers tell me things that suggest I’m failing in what I was trying to do, or the words I chose to do it.

What, me?

The edits received in the stoniest silence of all are the ones that cut at the writer’s goodness as a person. This scene seems to me to be verging on rape, and I don’t think you intended that. This comes across as racist. A lot of readers will find this offensive. People struggle to accept that they’ve been hurtful. Authors tend to be high-empathy people and women in particular are socialised to be nice. Most of us don’t want to accept we’ve been crass or prejudiced. And it is human nature to reframe the story in a way that shines a flattering light on our own character. I’m not prejudiced or ignorant: you’re just oversensitive. God, lighten up!

I’ve caused offence with clumsiness, and been called out for it. I did not enjoy receiving that criticism, any more than I expect the complainers enjoyed making it, and it would be a lot easier to reassure myself that I’m a Nice Person and the complainer is oversensitive, rather than accept that I’m not actually the super-considerate person/writer I’d like to think.

But I’m really not. And if I want to be better, as a writer or a person, I have to look hard at painful criticism, not in a defensive spirit but with an open mind. Because denying I was wrong will not help me do better, but listening thoughtfully might.

***

We all get stuff wrong. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. Just grit your teeth, swear at the cat, and make an effort to get it right next time.

_________________________

KJ Charles dishes it out as an editor and attempts to take it as a writer. Her latest book is A Fashionable Indulgence, out now from Loveswept.