So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.
Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???
Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.
Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.
[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]
Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.
Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]
Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.
Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?
Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.
[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]
Two things about the Boss Books.
First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.
Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.
For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.
You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’
Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.
It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.
This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’
And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.
Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.
All I know is, it’s a bad book.
The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.
Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.
‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated. His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’
It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.
Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.
NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.
Concept repetition, micro level
Peter and John are alone in a room.
‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’
Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.
‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]
, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]
John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]
prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]
‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]
And without repetition:
‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’
Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).
Content repetition, macro level
A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.
Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!
What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.
Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.
Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.
A staggering number of people say they can’t dump books. ‘Once I’ve started, I have to finish, even if I hate it.’ Whether it’s out of bloody-mindedness, self-doubt (‘everyone else thinks it’s good…), a vague sense of obligation to the writer, or even misplaced politeness of the kind that makes British people say ‘Sorry!’ when we bump into lampposts, people all over the world are locked into bitter unrewarding loveless relationships with books they don’t want to be reading.
Well, if you are one of those disturbingly conscientious readers, fear not: here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to book dumping. (Probably best to print it first).
Does the narrative viewpoint character look into a mirror for the sole purpose of providing the reader with a physical description?
Put the book down and give it to a charity shop when you’re next passing.
Does the female narrative viewpoint character look into a mirror for the sole purpose of providing the reader with a physical description, and then tell us how insecure she feels about her unattractive perfect teeth, blonde curls, cute nose and gigantic breasts?
Put the book down and make a special trip to the charity shop right now.
Does the book contain scenes of sickening violence, misogyny, rape, homophobia etc?
The author chose to include those. If you don’t think his reasons for doing so were good enough, feel free to ditch the book without feeling wimpish. (Read this excellent article on the rape of James Bond and realism in popular culture for more on this.)
Is a titled character such as Sir Richard Burton referred to as Sir Burton at any point?
Stop reading the book, tie it to a brick, and return it to the publisher via their window. There’s no excuse.
Is the book like this:
A young woman’s slow mental breakdown leads to her being subjected to forced shock therapy. She contemplates suicide and accustoms herself to a life constantly plagued by crippling depression.
But the cover’s like this?
That’s more poorly judged than deceptive, but there’s a lot of it about. I could name you two cases of psychological horror novels that were deliberately packaged as light comedy because the author’s previous, successful book was light comedy. Don’t blame the author (unless self pubbed), they are probably lying awake screaming. But don’t feel compelled to finish the book either.
Is it a mystery novel and you kind of want to know whodunnit?
The last chapter is right over there. Move your thumb, bit more – there you go. Oh,hey, turns out it was the uncle after all. Aren’t you glad you didn’t wait to find out?
Is it full of errors?
It may not be in the powers of the author to write, plot or characterize well. It is one hundred per cent within the powers of the author/publisher to have the text edited for spelling, grammar and punctuation. If they can’t be bothered to do that, you need not bother to read the work. This applies to self-published books as much as any. Yes, including free ones.
Did it win prizes, and you feel dumb because it’s doing nothing for you?
A.L. Kennedy was a Booker Prize judge in 1996, and called the Booker “a pile of crooked nonsense” with the winner determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. All of which sounds like a terrific reason to get on the prize judging committee, but not to feel compelled to finish a book. Remember, Vernon God Little won the Booker, and it’s more toxic than sarin gas. Dump! Dump!
Has everyone else in the known world read this book?
It’s 50 Shades of Grey. Feel free to kill it with an axe.
There you go. Walk away from the cycle of literary abuse. Find a new book that will treat you as you deserve. Be free.
Gabriel García Márquez was driving his family on holiday when a childhood memory of touching ice came into his head in the form of the first line of what would become One Hundred Years of Solitude. Apparently he slammed on the brakes, turned the car around, jettisoned the family holiday, and returned home to write. I somehow doubt his Nobel Prize for Literature is on the shelf next to a Father of the Year award.
When C. S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a daydream of a faun carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels through snowy woods. With somewhat less urgency than Marquez, he got around to writing a novel around that two decades later, adding a lion, a witch and a wardrobe.
Stephen King got Misery from a dream. Arthur Conan Doyle got Sherlock Holmes from his tutor at medical school. Chuck Wendig claims to get his ideas either from shady men in trenchcoats or from you while you’re sleeping.
Mostly, let’s face it, there isn’t an amusing story. You think of a thing and there’s another thing that kind of goes with the first thing, and a what-if, and a where, and then you wonder what kind of idiot would get into that situation, and then you have the outlines of a plot. You didn’t get the idea, it just grew in your head, like blue woolly stuff on forgotten cheese.
All that said…
My four year old likes to play with fridge magnets and present the results.
‘Mummy, how do you say that?’
‘What does it mean?’
‘WELL WHY IS IT WRITTEN, THEN?’
The other day he called me over to display the word ‘feximal’. Well, if ‘feximal’ doesn’t mean something, it should. Is it a superlative like ‘optimal’, and in that case, what would be a feximal outcome? Is it a classification of nature – animal, vegetable, feximal?
Or is it a name? And if it is a name, whose name is it? What kind of person has a name like that? And what first name could possibly go with it?
Well, I can now tell you. Simon Feximal is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the mould of Thomas Carnacki and Dr Silence. He has a complicated private life, and a set of living occult tattoos constantly rewriting themselves on his body, and his first story has just been submitted to a publisher.
So that’s where I get my ideas, apparently. Kiddy fridge magnets. How about you?
A: Hey, what are you reading?
B: It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?
A: It’s about two people who fall in love.
B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.
Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.
The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?
And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.) When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?
The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’
The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.
Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.
I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.
I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.
Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:
The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.
Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.
I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?
Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.
And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.
But KJ, why do I have to?
Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.
But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?
No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.
Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?
There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.
Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might. If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.
My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:
A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.
It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:
Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.
Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.
Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.
Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:
As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.
And who is he when he’s at home?
Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.
This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.
At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.
The Main Plot
Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’
A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.
Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.
Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)
So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced. And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.
Go on, tell me how you write them…
Writing copy has a solid rule, whether it’s back cover blurbs or catalogue copy: think about the audience. What do they need to know, what do they want to know, what will persuade them to buy your product.
But can you think about the audience while writing fiction?
There are many people who write to order, of course. Writing series books to a set brief is a thriving art. And publishers’ search for the Next Big Thing usually entails trying to reproduce the Current Big Thing, so if you can knock out a quick and competent The Michelangelo Cipher or 49 Colours of Red on demand, you will probably make a nice living, and more power to your typing fingers.
But if you’re trying to tell your own story, the thought of an audience can be paralysing. There are people who never send their work to a publisher because they’re terrified of what someone else will say. I didn’t show The Magpie Lord to anyone before sending it to Samhain – I needed to have a publisher’s imprimatur before I had the nerve to tell anyone, ‘I wrote this, and actually, at least two people think it’s quite good.’
Plenty of people don’t write because their awareness of a ghostly audience, of eyes on their work, is so crippling that they stop before they begin. What if my boss thinks I’m a psycho? What if my mother reads the sex scenes?! If I wrote something else, would it sell more? People say, write the book you want to read. But what if I’m the only person who wants to read it?
Of course, the standard writing-tips response is, don’t think about the audience, just write from the heart, etc. But that’s only partially true, because stories exist for an audience. An unread/unheard tale is like an unconsummated love affair, or an uneaten cake. It might be a thing of beauty but it hasn’t achieved its point. And if you entirely disregard your audience while writing, you may well end up with an unreadable book.
Essentially, you have to entirely ignore the question of ‘Will anyone want to read my Edwardian country-house spy romance?’, while focusing hard on, ‘Will readers of my Edwardian country-house spy romance find this plot point gripping, this conflict compelling?’ Ignore the invisible audience that might hate your work, and focus on doing your best for the invisible audience who will love it…if you do it right.
Of course, as soon as you get published, you have an additional, even more crippling worry: not only might people read it, but, worse, they might not read it. But that’s another blog.
Are you aware of the invisible audience when you write? Tell me how you handle it!
‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.
During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)
Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?
Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.
Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?
No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.
He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.
She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.
Someone’s trying to kill the hero.
It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.
Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.
If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.
And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)
About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?
I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.
Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.
“One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Anton Chekhov
Or, don’t introduce elements that serve no purpose in your story. Purpose doesn’t necessarily mean serving the progress of the plot, or being involved in the dramatic climax. It means that what you put in must enhance the reader’s experience in some way – by developing the plot, directing the action, deepening character, creating powerful atmosphere.
This principle doesn’t just apply to a dramatic object like a gun (the heroine’s karate skills / the rickety bridge over the chasm / the serious contagious illness in the village). It applies to pretty much anything you choose to put in a prominent position.
Let’s take a practical example that’s less obviously plot-directing than a gun. Say you’ve decided your hero keeps tropical fish. Why is that?
Just because. (It sets the scene. Fish are pretty.)
Bad. Go to your room and don’t come out till you can play nicely. I do not want to read five pages of fish-related scene-setting if you then forget all about it and the rest of the book might as well be set in a shed.
Basic character. (It shows my hero is kind of a geek.)
A bit better, though probably a slur against the fishkeeping population. You can use the fishkeeping to show us that he’s meticulous etc etc. Or you could have shown us that in a myriad of other ways and we wouldn’t have had to drag fish into it. I don’t sound excited yet, do I?
Basic plot set-up. (The love interest owns the cat shop next door to the hero’s fish shop. They meet after an unfortunate incident.)
Still not enough. If the only purpose of the fish shop is to introduce the protagonists, it’s a gimmick. You’re using the fish to start action, but not further it. You can do more!
Plot device/character in action. (The hero is supposed to be flying out for a weekend in Paris with his new lover, but his fish-sitter has pulled out at the last minute. Does he go, knowing he’ll come back to tanks of dead fish, or stay, causing a ‘You care more about those fish than about me!’ scene?)
Here we go. Bring in the fish, use them. The fish might be a practical problem – the demands of fishkeeping impact on the hero’s time for his new relationship. It might be a way to reveal backstory/character – why does the hero prefer fish to people? The hero’s changing responses to the fish might show his character development throughout the book. Or it might operate on a more metaphorical level, so that we observe the hero trapped in a small world, going round in circles, just keeping on swimming without going anywhere. (I don’t know, it was your idea to make him a fishkeeper.)
Whichever way, the fishkeeping element should interact with plot and character to move the story on, or tell us more about the people, or ideally both. If it doesn’t do any of those things, it’s just wallpaper: pretty but two-dimensional.
The Scene. (I wanted the hero and his lover talking on either side of a fishtank, looking at each other through the rippling water and shoals of fish, not quite seeing each other clearly.)
Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be part of an active developing plot strand. If the purpose of the tropical fish is to create a brilliant, memorable, well visualized scene, or if the aquarium setting broadens and deepens the reader’s feel for the characters and the characters’ understanding of each other, that’s the gun fired. The fish have achieved their point.
Chekhov’s AK-47. (Dead bodies are turning up with still-flapping tropical fish stuffed in their mouths. A brusque yet handsome cop must work with a reserved yet sexy fishkeeper to track down the Tropical Fish Killer before he strikes again.)
I swear to God I’ve read this.
As William Morris almost said, you should have nothing in your novel that you do not know to be useful. If you have an element in your story and don’t know what its purpose is, go back, find out what it’s for, and revise to work it in. If it doesn’t have any purpose, what’s the point?
‘Hi, I have a manuscript I’d like to send you but I see you don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Please call me back to ask me to send it to you.’ – Actual message on my actual voicemail.
It is really hard to get your MS read by a publisher.
That’s just how it is. Everyone is writing a book. Literally, everyone on this planet, all seven billion of us, with the single exception of an author I contracted three years ago and who still hasn’t bloody delivered, is writing a novel. Getting yours in front of an editor is hard.
There’s no magic bullet. But:
1) Find an agent or a publisher who might be interested in it.
Do your research. Look at the publishers of books similar to your MS. Check they accept unsolicited submissions. Use their website, or the Writers and Artists Yearbook or similar.
Sending your MS to people who don’t publish that genre is a waste of everybody’s time, particularly yours. It is, of course, possible that an editor at Harlequin will look at your poetry collection/history of the Hundred Years War/cookery book and say, ‘This is so amazing, we must find a way to publish it – let’s set up a completely new imprint!’ But it’s only possible in the sense that it’s possible somewhere in the universe there is a planet made entirely of snot: the principles of infinity dictate that it must happen, but I’m not expecting to see it in my lifetime. If the guidelines say, ‘We only publish short books (up to 20,000 words)’, I’m unlikely to change my mind for your 1.5 million word Suitable Boy fanfiction. If the agent says ‘no fantasy’ she means ‘no fantasy’ and if your fantasy is so brilliant that any agent would snap it up despite her seething hatred of all things elvish, still send it to agents who want to see fantasy.
2) Check the submission instructions and follow them.
Just do it, alright? If you can write a 50,000 word MS, you can read six lines of instructions. Or, to put it another way, if you can’t follow six lines of instructions, I’m going to query whether you can take editorial guidance.
If the ed asks for double spacing, then double space*. If it says ‘attachments in .rtf format, then find out how to save as RTF format**. If it says ‘first three chapters only’ then don’t send all of it***, or chapters 4-7****.
* My eyes hurt.
** I’m guessing they work on a crappy old Mac.
*** I suppose this makes no difference with electronic subs but it’s annoying as hell with paper. I have enough paper in my life.
**** …because you might as well say ‘Chapters 1-3 are awful.’
3) Don’t ‘make your MS stand out’ by doing damn fool things like putting glitter in an envelope, printing your work on deep red paper, enclosing topless glamour shots of yourself or pretending to be a rabbit complete with rabbit author photo and letter pp’d for Mr Flopsy.
None of this will be new to anyone interested in getting published. But if I had a pound for every lovingly crafted, sweated-over MS that I drop in the reject pile because it’s just not for my list, or it’s arrived in WordStar and I can’t open it, I’d be able to afford sorely-needed therapy. You may think the guidelines are picky or trivial or pointless; you may have heard from someone on the internet that editors put them there to weed out the people who don’t have the imagination and tenacity to ignore them (this…just…no); you may believe that only the writing matters and your story’s quality will shine through no matter how it is presented.
All I’m saying is, I’m a commissioning editor, and I made it my business to follow the submission guidelines exactly.