You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’
And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…
At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.
Fake an agent
Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!
Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.
(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)
Pretend the MS was requested
Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…
Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.
Ask to be requested
For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’
Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.
Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).
Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing. The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.
Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!
In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.
Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’. Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.
You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.
This post will not tell you how to do social media properly. I am in no way a high achiever in that field. In fact, I’m only slightly less unqualified to talk about the correct use of social media than about brain surgery. So I am not writing this in my capacity as author or editor, but purely as a reader.
I’m a painfully heavy book buyer. (When my husband and I last moved, the removal people estimated we had half a tonne of books. Matters have not improved since.) I download and read a sample off Amazon if a book or author even slightly piques my interest. If I like a book I will go through the author’s backlist like a cartoon chipmunk gnawing through a tree trunk.
And I love social media about books. I love seeing that an author I like has a new book out. I want to be linked to reviews that I might have missed, to see what other people are reading and recommending. I will cheerfully buy books because the author has an amusing Twitter voice, or a good blog, or has left interesting and pertinent comments on my blog, or seems like a fun person on Facebook. I want to hear about books!
And as a reader, I have had it up to here with hard sell.
Facebook and Twitter direct messages, without even exchanging a token civility, plugging books and demanding likes. Repeated announcements of how the book is doing in the Amazon sales rankings. Cross posting everything to Facebook and Twitter, so that people who were interested enough to friend as well as follow are now bored because they see everything twice. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets.
The other day I checked Twitter on my phone and my entire visible timeline was one author plugging her book. A link to an Amazon review, an Amazon sales ranking, a boast that she had 50 reviews on Goodreads, another sales rank…There was not one amusing comment or interesting link to suggest she was a human being, not a book promo robot. Nothing to give me any value in following her. Pure relentless LOOK AT ME BUY MY BOOK. Which I won’t, because I am assuming her writing is as tiresome and clueless as her social media presence. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you can’t manage a thoughtful tweet or funny status update, why would I believe you can create 200 pages of good text?
Obviously, authors have to use social media for self promo. Obviously we all want to sell books. But you don’t do that by grabbing your potential readers and screaming in their faces.
I used to work with a sales manager, let’s call him Harry, who was the greatest salesman I’ve ever met. (He was once mugged on a train; by the time they got to the station he had got the muggers to give back his credit cards and negotiated a refund of £20 cash as well.) He sold books like you would not believe, and he did it by having a fantastic, funny conversation with the book buyer, then in the last five minutes of his half-hour sales slot, telling them frankly, “this book will go a bomb for you, this is underwhelming, this one will need hand-selling but it’s really worth stocking.”
In effect, Harry sold himself as a reliable, truthful, intelligent, funny man, and buyers trusted him to be as good value professionally as he was personally. He built relationships, and people opened their hearts and their wallets to him. Of course he was there to sell books, nobody was under any illusions about that, but he made it part of a larger human exchange. Buying anything from Harry got you a package that included hilarious stories, disgraceful gossip, bizarre anecdotes about celebrities, raucous laughter and a general sense of your day being the brighter for having met him. He made it worth your while to hear his sales pitch. And he sold good books.
We all have to sell books, I know. I just wish we could all do it like Harry.
Am I being unfair? What are your self promo hates? Got any better ideas on how to do it right?
(And talking of self promo, my free story Butterflies is available for download at Smashwords. Only if you like that sort of thing. No pressure.)
It’s my birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. Which I do, because it’s the kind with a zero at the end. And a four at the beginning. Damn.
However, since a birthday is nothing without presents, I have a little something for you…
I wrote a short, scary (and somewhat sexy) story, The Caldwell Ghost, about a Victorian ghost hunter named Simon Feximal, journalist Robert Caldwell and a rather unusually haunted house. Then, because it turns out that writing Victorian pastiche gay romance ghost stories is really good fun, I wrote another one, Butterflies, in which Robert and Simon’s paths cross again when two bodies are found choked to death on butterflies. (I blogged over at Boys in our Books about the inspiration behind these.)
Cover design by Susan Lee.
The Caldwell Ghost is available from Torquere Press and at the usual places. But, because it’s my goddamn birthday, I’m making Butterflies a free download. Don’t say I never do anything for you.
I hope you enjoy it!
Catch up with me discussing romance and horror over at UK Gay Romance on Halloween, or talking about the inspiration for the stories over at Boys in our Books, or lurking in the pub pretending I’m still 39. You’re buying.
I’m writing scary stories at the moment. (I was meant to have written one scary story, but the characters kind of ran away with me and now I feel a novel coming on.)
My stories are the tales of a Victorian ghost hunter. Now, if you’re writing Victorian ghost stories, the master is MR James. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ and ‘Casting the Runes’ are probably two of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, and if you haven’t read them, you should. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is available on Gutenberg or as a free download on Amazon.co.uk at the time of writing. Go on, get it.
James is a master of classic Victorian sinister trappings – the ancient tomb, the crumbling manuscript, the faces in the yew trees. But an awful lot of his worst horror comes from very domestic details. The thing in ‘Oh Whistle’ has ‘a face like crumpled linen’. Effectively, it’s a haunted bedsheet. It’s terrifying. In ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ the haunting comes through the pattern of the curtains. (Laugh it up, till you read it, and then decide to replace all your curtains with blinds, just to be on the safe side.)
The most sinister line James ever wrote is in ‘Casting the Runes’, where the pursuing force finally catches up with its unfortunate victim. He puts his hand under the pillow in the dark, and finds
a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it
That’s all. No long bloody passages dripping with gore, no mutilation, no vampire spider death cults, just a mouth, with teeth, and hair, under your pillow. It’s one of the most frightening stories you’ll ever read.
Talking of terror, here’s a passage from E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you from feeling utterly unnerved by it. Statues walk the castle grounds at night, and there is a magic ring so sinister that you’ll be looking around hopefully for a giant eagle to fly you to Mount Doom. In the most memorable passage of this extremely memorable book, Gerald and his sisters have made a set of guys out of old clothes, broom handles, pillow cases, with painted paper bags for faces. Unfortunately, the creatures come alive (the ring again). And this happens:
. . . the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had not. “Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?” said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror, alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable, was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: “Can you recommend me to a good hotel?”
I read this thirty years ago. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now. And the reason it is so terrifying is that this creature, made of stuff lying around the house, behaves just like a normal person. If it was roaring and trying to rip Gerald’s head off, we could cope with that. The request for a hotel – a good hotel, mind you – is what makes the horror so dizzying.
Because, like so much else, fear begins at home.
I grew up in a house with a cellar. There was a door that I could see, out of the corner of my eye, from my seat at the kitchen table. The handle was a little loose. Sometimes, if my siblings were running down the stairs, it rattled, just a bit. There were eleven stone steps down to the hard-packed floor, and you had to turn round them to get to the far corner and the freezer. Which meant, in order to take anything from the freezer, you had to turn your back on the door. You could leave it wide, prop it open, but that didn’t alter the fact that you had to turn your back.
I knew that one day I would turn back and the door at the top would be shut. I knew, when that happened, it would not reopen. And if I ever return to that house, I can promise you I won’t be going into the cellar.
(There is a scene in The Magpie Lord where our heroes are thrown into a cellar to wait for death. I didn’t describe that cellar in the book, but believe me, I could draw you a picture.)
Not to say fear always has to come from the mundane. I like a good monster or a haunted-house tale with special effects as much as the next woman (my first ghostly story, The Caldwell Ghost, features a full-on haunting). But when I came to write my second ghost-hunter tale, I started with the most harmless thing in the world: a simple butterfly. Because it’s the little, innocent, normal things that get you in the end.
This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”
Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.
People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)
Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.
I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.
And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.
People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.
I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.
… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.
There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?
Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.
What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?
Back in the day, before I became a responsible washing-machine-fixing parent type, I travelled round Egypt with a boyfriend. This meant many interminable, uncomfortable bus journeys. On one of them, we were sat next to a pair of American backpackers. My boyfriend and the male backpacker talked across the aisle, while the girlfriends in the window seats read books.
Two months later, my boyfriend emailed me at work:
Remember those backpackers from the coach to Abu Simbel? I told them to look me up when they got to London and we arranged to do something tonight, but I forgot I have to work this evening. So I’ve given them your address and they’ll be there at 7.
It’s OK, I dumped him.
Anyway, they turned up at my tiny flat which I shared with two friends, neither of whom was excited about having a couple of randoms interrupt our planned viewing of the World Cup…
And it was brilliant. The conversation went from stilted hellos to hilarity within minutes. We all talked non-stop. They moved from ‘isn’t soccer a girl’s game?’ to screaming and leaping with excitement at every goal, the god Phoebus Apollo was playing for England in his incarnation as the young David Beckham, we didn’t run out of beer though I have no idea how. They stayed till the last tube, and after they left, my flatmates and I had this conversation:
Flatmate 1: You know something weird? We’re in their travelling story now. “Remember the time we met that English guy in Egypt and ended up watching the World Cup and getting hammered with total strangers in London?” They won’t bore on about Big Ben when they mention visiting London, they’ll be talking about hanging out with us.
Flatmate 2: You mean…we’re like…their supporting cast?
Flatmate 1: … Oh my God. I’m a minor character.
Me: Do we get our names in the opening credits? “Special Guest Star – KJ Charles?”
Flatmate 1: You wish. Half way down the end credits. *And* you’ll only be listed as “Girl in Flat”.
The thing is, we’re all supporting cast in each other’s stories. George Eliot in Middlemarch puts it significantly better than my flatmate:
[A mirror] will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.
The relevance of all this to writing? (Yes! There is relevance!) Supporting cast are not supporting to themselves. They may have a place in the book purely because of their interactions with the main characters, but that can’t be their motivation. If the doctor makes sexist remarks purely so the heroine can show off her snappy comebacks, he’ll be implausible. If the policeman pursues the heroes because the plot requires a secondary antagonist, he’s not a character, he’s one of those annoying Hero’s Journey archetype things.
So move the candle. Before writing the pursuing policeman, try imagining the story from his point of view, with everyone else as his supporting cast. What’s he actually after? How much does he care about arresting our heroes, as opposed to just improving his arrest record somehow? If he’s going to doggedly pursue your heroes through three books, why? Does he do that with everyone he wants to arrest? Why would he have this obsession if not because he’s a secondary character in their story?
That doesn’t mean that the reader needs (or wants) to hear about the motivation and backstory of every character. (Regular visitors may recall that I’m big on the author knowing things that she doesn’t tell the readers.) I’m currently editing a novel in which the author has given all the minor characters a ton of backstory (from the lawyer’s irrelevant childhood on an army base to the father’s favourite film) and I’m going Red Pen Crazy because all that stuff is bringing the book to a grinding halt.
But when that’s all gone, it will still be detectable that these characters have a hinterland and a personality, not just a plot role. Because the author knows who they are and what they want, her knowledge informs the writing in a thousand tiny, subtle ways. They have individual, plausible reactions. The main characters interact with them as people, not as information providers or Threshold Guardians. They have their own needs that aren’t neatly aligned to the main characters’ story. And that makes the book richer, probably better plotted, and more true.
When The Magpie Lord was in edits, my editor asked me (very carefully, and giving the impression of typing while positioned behind a protective surface) to change the name of one of the heroes.
This was a perfectly reasonable request. I’d made a schoolgirl error in giving the two main characters names beginning with the same phoneme. Sounds trivial; is not. At a normal reading pace you chunk* text, rather than taking in each letter, so that you don’t so much read the name ‘Crane’ as see ‘Cr—’ and fill in the rest. Therefore, if Hero 1 is Crane and Hero 2 is Crispin (which he was), readers may actually get confused – not because they’re idiots but because that’s how reading works.
So, fair play to my editor, she was quite right. Nevertheless, being asked to change my hero’s name was unbelievably hard.
I know it’s absurd. I know these are imaginary people I made up. I know it’s a story. The fact remains that when I got that email, I stared at the screen for about five minutes, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. I actually felt sick. I went for a very long walk on my own, and spent the first half of it getting my head round the very idea of changing the name. I described the request on my book group as ‘the most invasive thing that’s happened to me since my son’s suction-assisted birth’, and I stand by that as a not-at-all-overdramatic statement. (Ahem.)
Then I got over it and renamed the character ‘Stephen’, which is a far better name for him –still with the cadence and that slightly Old England ring to it, which was what I needed, but more solid, less fragile – and now I can’t remember why I ever imagined anything else. Listen to your editor, kids, she’s always right.
Of course it’s easy for writers now. David Copperfield started life as ‘Thomas Mag’, which is so glaringly wrong it’s almost impossible to imagine. Dickens’ notes show he went through Trotfield (horsey), Trotbury (clerky), Copperboy (weirdly metal) and Copperstone (too hard) before finally hitting on Copperfield. (Victorian nerd klaxon: Dickens readers may recognize that Trot– and –stone were important sounds for the book that made their way into other major character names.)
But Dickens couldn’t write the book with Thomas Mag and change it in edits. No search and replace for him. You had to get it right at the start, or live with it. My husband has a theory that Thomas Hardy named his characters as a shorthand reminder of their plot role — “Hmm, this guy needs to be angelic, sturdy and very English. I’ll remember that if I call him Gabriel Oak.” — and then found himself stuck with them. (Thomas Hardy fans, please address critiques of this theory to my husband. It’s nothing to do with me.)
There’s a lot to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way and getting it right at the start. Not least that I never want to change a main character’s name again.
* this is a real technical term, honest.
Ever changed a character name? Can you imagine your favourite characters called anything else?
My children are avid sticker book consumers. (Bear with me: this is an extended metaphor, not a parenting blog post.)
At first they simply wanted to jam the stickers onto the pages, upside down, off the edges, covering each other in great lumps of shiny paper, just for the pleasure of playing with sticky things.
Then they got a bit older and more careful. Put the penguins in the snow scene, put the pirates on the beach. They set up little bits of staging. “Look, Mummy, the baby dinosaur is going to eat the bird. Look, the pirate’s chopping the other pirate’s head off. Look, the polar bear is going to – I am playing nicely, Mummy!” Even when the sticker scene was long completed, they’d sit there poring over the pages, making up stories about what the absurdly juxtaposed creatures were up to.
Older still, and the sticker books have become more complicated. Now you have to put the sticker in the right place. The pirate has to be applied perfectly over just the right bit of rigging or it looks all wrong. The clothes must be put on the correct dolly in the correct order.
Let’s just consider that. The sticker book’s purpose is to give the child a scene to populate with characters, yet we insist the characters should be applied and arranged only in a certain way, the right way. These dinosaurs have to go in those trees. Those knights only fit if you use them to fight the dragon. The sticker for the Lego dumper truck must be applied over the silhouette of the Lego dumper truck. The boy dolly has to wear the boy clothes. This isn’t play any more, it’s an exercise in form filling. The books where you put the stickers wherever you like and create your own scene are babyish. Big boys and girls follow instructions. Even if the child, half way through a sticker page that was supposed to be fun, looks up and pleads, “Mummy, do I have to finish this?”
I’m sure you see where I’m going. In this case, I have been driven to distraction by the umpteenth repetition of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Writing’, which would be more accurately titled ‘10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard’, but you can put ‘top ten tips for writers’ into your search engine of choice and come up with any amount of vetoes and restrictions and rules. Let’s just start with his first tip, shall we?
Never open a book with weather.
– Elmore Leonard
To which I have only this to say:
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 snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
– Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
– Elmore Leonard
I’ve ranted about poorly chosen speech verbs myself, but never?
“Shut up,” he explained.
– Ring Lardner
Leonard goes on to say that writers should not go into detail to describe people, places, or things. I’ll just go home now. (In fairness, Leonard knew perfectly well that his rules were for himself, not for everyone. I’m just sick of seeing them repeated like they are a recipe for anything other than his prose style.)
I’m bored of reading text that feels like it’s been run through a set of rules. I’m bored of literary novels by authors that have been through the same Creative Writing MA course and learned to do the same things. I’m bored of genre fiction that knows how genre fiction should be written and does it just like that because it should, not because it wants to. I’m unbelievably bored of books that don’t play.
Of course authors need to learn how to write, which is mostly done by reading, and writing, and by being read, and by taking criticism and learning from it. A writer who doesn’t learn her craft is the child jamming stickers onto the page, and the wallpaper, and the cat.
But when ‘rules’ of writing (of what publishers say the market wants, of what the SFF establishment approves, of what gets a Booker prize nomination, of what this top author or that course dictates as the only good) kill the creativity and individuality and fun of the writer doing her own thing… well, that’s when the readers start to wail, Mummy, do I have to finish this?
I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.
This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.
In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*
* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)
The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance. It’s not even like she has a big family.
Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate.
In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.
If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.
I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.
Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?
“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
Conan Doyle was the master of the teaser. The Holmes tales are packed with little throwaway references to past cases, hinting at a world of untold stories, and spawning a healthy publishing industry of pastiche writers who are only too happy to speculate about ‘Merridew of abominable memory’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’ or the madness of Isadora Persano, involving ‘a remarkable worm unknown to science’. (Although the one about ‘the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant’ is taking the mickey, if you ask me.)
These little references give us a hinterland. A confirmation that the character exists outside the page, a sketch of landscape to populate with our own imaginations. If there were no untold stories, some of the magic would be lost.
And then there’s Harry Potter. A massively realised, detailed world, where the author knows everything down to preferred brands of cereal and the parentage of characters who appear once on p.312 – and where the reader hears about it. If JK Rowling had come up with the giant rat of Sumatra, we’d know what part of Sumatra it came from, how giant it was, and that the captain of the Matilda Briggs was a Hufflepuff who once dated Ron Weasley’s aunt.
Remember the fuss when Rowling announced that a ‘major character’ in HP4 was going to die? It turned out to be – I had to look this up – Cedric Diggory, and a lot of people felt very cheated, because he was not a major character by any definition. But in Rowling’s head, he was a major character, because in this massively realised world in her head, everyone was major. There was no Basil Exposition or Jimmy Plotfunction, just there to do a job in the service of the story. Everyone had a fully developed existence. Which, when that information is in the author’s head, informs the text on the page, creating a huge richness and reality.
I tend to think some of it ought to stay in the author’s head.
Many will disagree. A large part of the pleasure in Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter / The Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the author puts every possible bit of worldbuilding on the page, and the reader can wallow for hours and know all there is to know.
Me, I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want the author to know it, sure, but I like the sense of a story existing in a larger world. I love China Miéville’s books because of the joyful wastage of invention: he’ll casually toss out a two-sentence mention of some brilliant abomination that anyone else would use as the basis for a trilogy, and then never use it again. (But now we know it’s out there…)
This isn’t an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’. HP/LoTR etc are vastly popular with good reason. The immersive experience of reading a mammothly detailed series is an incredible one. But the untold story has pleasures too.
I’m thinking about this because there’s a point in The Magpie Lord, where our hero, Crane, is asked why he has seven magpie tattoos.
“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”
“…forced to have a tattoo?”
“It’s a long story.”
It’s a long story I didn’t tell the reader (Crane tells it off-page), and quite a few people have commented on this in reviews, wanting to know what happened. I’m delighted to the point of embarrassing public dancing that anyone cares enough to mention it. And yet…
For me, the throwaway line conveys that Crane’s life has been so extraordinary that he regards being forced to have a huge tattoo as, meh, just one of those things. By leaving it as an untold story, the reader can fill in the gap with her own speculations and ideas. As a told story it’s a little piece of his past nailed down, a little mystery revealed. And I wonder if a single truth (about the tattoos, the giant rat, or even that stupid trained cormorant) can be as pleasurable as the imaginative vistas opened up for the reader by not knowing. After all, seven is for a secret never to be told…
Then again, it’s a pretty good story.
Should authors tell all? What do you think?