“Just How Things Were”: bigotry in historical romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marley was dead; to begin with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, no.

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

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

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

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

Doing Everything At Once: the ‘simultaneous action’ problem

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

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

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.

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

Bob drew the gun before pointing it at Janey.

Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas if you break it up:

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

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

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

Consider this pair:

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writers: Stop Doing This!

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

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

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

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

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

(wait for it…)

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

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

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

  • Don’t start with the weather.

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

(1984, George Orwell.)

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

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

 ***

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

Good advice turned into bad rules

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

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

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

(The Rapture, Liz Jensen.)

The same principle applies to this delightful string of admonitions.

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

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

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

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

Pig Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

he was hit by the ball

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

he was hitting the ball

I was going to the shop

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

I was the queen at last!

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

Preference and prescriptivism

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

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

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

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

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

Bias

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

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

***

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

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

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

_______________

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

Return Key of the Jedi (or how to do paragraphs)

I picked up a book recently without checking the sample (it was a freebie on a promotion to push the series, and I am a sucker for that). This is what I posted on Facebook shortly thereafter.

I started this book.

It basically has one-sentence paragraphs.

All the way through.

Some of them are pretty long sentences and maybe have dialogue in them so it looks like a normal paragraph but after a while without taking a breath you realise it’s still indeed just one big old sentence.

Others are short.

I’m not sure if the author’s return key is malfunctioning or if he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how paragraphs work or indeed what the editor was doing.

I mean, I use one-sentence paras myself (sparingly) and they are very effective as a dramatic thump.

But when each sentence is a paragraph, it’s more of a plod than a thump.

I’m on page 10 and I’m already planning how to hide the author’s body.

It’s 300 pages long.

Oh boy.

I hurled that particular book across the room (metaphorically, ereaders are expensive) but it’s far from alone; it’s just one of the more egregious examples of an increasingly common stylistic quirk which I should like to invite you to kill with a hammer right now. I’m not sure where this trend has come from although I am mildly inclined to blame the internet—even a three-sentence para can easily look like a wall of text on a mobile phone screen. I do, however, have a strong idea where it can go.

Okay, let’s start with definitions. A paragraph, according to Cambridge, is

a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.

Bear in mind here that a sentence can be one word (eg “Help!” or “Wolves!”).

And that’s it. That’s all you need. Anyone who gives you extra rules about What Paragraphs Must Be is shining you on, whether they claim a paragraph must consist of a compulsory number of sentences, or insist that you need a new line for every single sentence. People really do say the most nonsensical stuff–my daughter once came home from school with a worksheet claiming that a paragraph is always 3 to 7 sentences, no exceptions. I would love to get my hands on the know-nothing prescriptivist random rule-clown who made that nonsense up.

Paragraphing, like absolutely everything else in writing, is a tool, and you need to use it consciously. I’m going to use a chunk of my latest book, 1920s paranormal romance Spectred Isle (available from all good retailers hint hint), to demonstrate what I mean. This is going to be longish, because you can’t really demonstrate paragraphing without, er, paragraphs of text, but think yourself lucky; I was going to use the first chapter of Bleak House. (Which let it be said, is a masterclass in both paragraphing and sentence length, not to mention gleeful ignoring of prescriptivist writing rules: try it here.)

In this sequence Saul, an archaeologist who doesn’t yet know he’s starring in a paranormal, is visiting Camlet Moat, the ancient location of a moated manor house in a north London park. Camlet Moat is kind of weird. For a start, it’s hard to find…

Saul would have liked to keep to the water edge, but he didn’t want to cause irreparable damage to his shoes or trousers; he couldn’t afford to be wasteful. He went back to the path and followed it. It appeared to head only away from the Moat, and he had to double back on himself twice and walk what seemed like a very long and circuitous route before he finally spotted the dark, rough wooden planks sitting low in the algae-coated water that apparently constituted a bridge. Saul had a momentary qualm, wondering how deep the moat was and picturing himself sodden and covered in green slime, before he set a tentative foot on it.

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot.

He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

Got it? Bought the book? Good, now let’s have a closer look.

First para: quite long. It’s all on the same theme, telling us about the irritating difficulty Saul has in finding Camlet Moat (he can’t follow the water’s edge, the path doesn’t seem to go there, the bridge is uninviting). It’s long and cumulative because Saul’s journey is long and the factors are cumulative, it’s very much one damn thing after another.

Second para: shorter, giving us a breather, and separating/marking the pivotal moment when he crosses the bridge, because that will turn out to be important in the story. Note that the last word is “Camelot” (PLOT KLAXON). You can nudge something into the reader’s attention in a quiet yet effective way by making it the last word.

Third para: again all on a theme, this time Camlet Moat’s atmosphere of spring and growth and life and renewal. Another long one, to really build up the mood of life and growth and nature, before—

Fourth para: Bam. One sentence, four words, and thus a sufficiently dramatic contrast to the preceding text to grab the reader’s attention. It serves as a record scratch effect, saying: Hang on a second, this is important. The reader might not yet see why that’s a big deal, but the paragraphing makes it clear that it is.

Fifth para: Building up length again and atmosphere too, and once again we end the para on a key word, this time “afraid”. He should be.

You see? Now let’s faff around with that a bit and see how quickly we can ruin it.

The one-sentence paragraph throughout.

He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks.

He stood, listening, but heard nothing.

Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still.

Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears.

He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

It’s excruciating, isn’t it? Like an early-reader primer, My First Supernatural British Island. Saul sees the terrifying wood demon. Run, Saul, run!

Obviously, this style gives the text all the rhythmic subtlety of a jackhammer; it also means the lack of birdsong has virtually no impact, because the line is no longer in any way differentiated from those around it. But also, note how the sentences that aren’t simple and declarative start to look just weird and bad. Those doubled-over looping structures without the ‘to be’ verbs  (starting ‘Not a chirrup’ and ‘Still and silent’) don’t work any more: they need to be part of an ongoing stream of thought to mark the weird atmosphere.

Long as dogs

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot. He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid. But that was absurd. There was no living creature but himself on this tiny island, and nothing to do him harm. He wasn’t lost in a vast and pathless ancient forest; he was in a Cockfosters park, with work to do, and if the birds weren’t singing, well, that was merely…something ornithological, not his field. He made himself walk forward, and not turn and look, because it was ridiculous to feel as though there was a presence around him, watching.

While not being nearly as bad, it’s still not great. We lose a lot of impact when the important points aren’t marked out—we could miss the importance of crossing the bridge; the new different atmosphere of Camlet Moat doesn’t stand out; the lack of living creatures doesn’t sound like a big deal if it’s just one sentence among many; we no longer have his fear standing starkly before he dismisses it in the next para that I merged in.

Long paras like this are also harder to follow. There’s nowhere to take a breath, plus they are very likely to be merging separate sequences of thought/action into one. Look for a break point and use it.

Paragraphing Rules (more of a guideline really)

  • Paragraph mindfully. This is a tool to be used. If your paragraphing is simplistic, your writing will be simplistic.
  • A sequence of paragraphs all the same length will begin to seem monotonous, whether they’re one sentence or the prescribed 3-5 or all half a page.
  • If you’ve got a new or separate concept/thing to cover, give it a new para to flag that to the reader.
  • If you want the reader to notice something (a pivot point, a thought) consider setting it apart with its own para. Conversely, if you want to drop in a clue without drawing the reader’s attention, the middle of a para is a good place to hide it.
  • A one-liner is great as a “Bam!” effect, but like all stylistic effects, use very sparingly because they become obtrusive quickly.
  • In multi paragraph speech the convention is to give each para a new set of opening quotes, but no closing quotes till the speech is finished.

“It was fresh and clean there, and it made my heart lift in a way I haven’t experienced in too long. I come from a small country town, and the place reminded me of my boyhood. So I walked without thinking for a while, and then I realised.

“There was no birdsong. I mean, seriously, there was none. At all. Have you ever been in a wood without birds? Or, like, buzzing things? Or anything? Dude, it was freaky.”

There is something to be said for breaking up long speeches with actions or interjections to avoid this, if you can do it in a non-obvious way.

___________________________________

KJ is a writer and editor. Spectred Isle, book 1 of the Green Men series, is out now. An Unsuitable Heir, which concludes the Sins of the Cities trilogy, comes out 3 October. They both have lots of lovely paragraphs.

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.

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.

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!

 

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.