‘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.
– Mummy, tell me a story. About a princess, and a cat, and a … fridge.
– A fridge?
– An ANGRY fridge.
My kids used to ask me for these all the time. They’d pick three items from whatever drifted across their mind or vision – cows, trees, forks, balls, trains, the colour yellow – and wait expectantly for a story. (I don’t know why three, except it’s a natural storytelling number.)
It’s surprisingly easy to do. Not that The Angry Fridge and Other Stories is going to win the Carnegie, but once you start telling a story about a princess, and you know that a fridge has to play a role, and you consider why a fridge would be angry (because it’s empty? Is that because the cat ate all the food?) the story pretty much writes itself.
I’ve recently done some sticker storybook gigs. Each book has a topic, eg Monsters, and offers a few pages of stickers – various monsters, footprints, caves, monster grooming products, funny food, whatever. The idea is that the child writes a story and uses some of the stickers, rebus style. I was asked to do a couple of sample stories for each book. Pick some stickers and write a story round them. It was harder than the three-item story by an order of magnitude. The possibilities seemed endless. Is the monster nice? Scary? On holiday? At war? I could write anything! Where do I start?
And then we come to writing novels, where your sticker sheet encompasses all known and unknown creation, past present and future. That’s a lot of stickers to choose from.
This is why the notorious blank page is such a terrifying thing to writers. It’s not scary because it’s empty. It’s scary because it’s potentially full of everything in the world, and how the hell do you start from there? You end up flailing, writing half a dozen versions of the same scene, or not writing at all because how can you tackle anything of that magnitude?
And the answer is, reduce your options. Pick a sticker, and millions of options fall away. For every choice you make, you home in on the actual final shape of the story, like a sculptor cutting away all the bits of stone that aren’t the statue.
A small practical example. I’ve got a final showdown scene to do. Our heroes (soldier and spy) are outnumbered and in big trouble in a remote country house, with bad guys all round and a McGuffin to retrieve, and damned if I know how we’re going to get there. Is the showdown outside? Inside? Who’s getting killed, who’s folding? Is our spy actually going to be there or has he buggered off to manipulate events from behind the scenes? Are we talking about a siege or a capture/turnaround situation? Too many options!
So pick a sticker. Say the soldier has a shotgun that holds two rounds, while the villains have cutting edge semi-automatic rifles that chamber six rounds and shoot far faster than a shotgun. And immediately the shape of a scene springs out: this can’t simply be a shootout, the soldier is outgunned, the spy has to box clever.
Or pick a different sticker. The soldier has a revolver with six rounds, the villains have fowling pieces loaded with buckshot, we have a siege situation, this is the soldier’s big story moment…
Almost, it doesn’t matter what you pick (within reason – I’m not working an angry fridge into this). But pick something, reduce your options, and watch the shape of the story emerge from the fog of limitless possibility.
There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall. – Cyril Connolly.
I’ve never read anything by Cyril Connolly (except for his hilarious 007 cross-dressing spoof, ‘Bond Strikes Camp’, which is probably not relevant here), and I’m prepared to bet money that he didn’t take responsibility for childcare, so I’m not entirely clear what makes him a guru on good art and family life. However, he said it and people quote it, and the recent Zadie Smith/Lauren Sandler kerfuffle has brought it up again, so here we go.
The thing people tend to say when I tell them I’m getting published is, ‘How do you find the time to write?’ This is because I’ve got two kids. In fact, I’ve got two kids, a full time job, a marriage, a house that needs maintenance, and a cat. At least the cat looks after himself.
How do I find the time? Well, for a start, when my kids were very small, I didn’t. There may be people who can make up stories while cripplingly sleep deprived, or disappear into the worlds in their head while changing nappies. I am not one. The only thing I wanted to write for a very long time was ‘HELP ME’ in big jagged letters on the toilet wall. The pram in the hall is the enemy of sanity, Cyril, art be buggered.
Now the kids are out of the damn pram, the itch to write is back. But I still have the job/marriage/house. So how do I find the time?
Well, I don’t. I make the time with the twin gods of communication and selfishness. My husband and I agreed we would pay for a cleaner rather than dedicate leisure time to housework. We agreed that Wednesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings would be my writing time. Not ‘just put on that load of laundry’ time, not ‘crap, the kids have drawn giraffes all over the hall and it needs scrubbing off’ time. My writing time and mine alone. (My husband gets triathlon training time in return. I’m not a complete cow.)
It’s not much. At most two hours a session, six hours a week. Six hours a week is damn all to write in. It’s also a huge slice out of my non-job non-child non-sleep existence. It means I don’t watch TV (no Killing, no Wire, no whatever the hell everyone’s raving about this week – I do not have time) and I read far less than I’d like, and I don’t do the evening manuscript-reading that would make my working life more manageable, and any writing session where I feel tempted to surf Twitter is time lost forever that can’t be made up. It kind of means the house may occasionally be a disgusting tip.
You need a very understanding family for this. (I am in awe of single parents at all times, but particularly ones who write. I have no idea how you do it.) You need to talk clearly and frankly about what you can and can’t have, and stick to it. You need to be – just for a bit, just at the agreed times – selfish.
I’m not saying it’s easy. But the pram in the hall doesn’t have to be a sombre enemy. It can just be something you bark your shins on.
– This contract is asking for a definition of ‘Editor’, can you supply something?
– How about ‘irritable, tea drinking pedant’?
– I’ll put that in the boilerplate.
I can’t better that, but it made me think of some of the other things that I have done as an editor aside from make tea and swear at Word.
- Briefed an illustrator to draw an invisible dragon.
- Negotiated swear words. (‘You can have all the twats and both pricks but we have to lose the shit.’)
- Written the hitherto untyped sentence, ‘We’re going to need a lot more accordions in this.’
- Fielded calls from men pitching erotic novels who want to explain the ins and outs of the plot. Tip: the purpose of their call may not be to pitch a novel.
- Measured the slush pile with a ruler. (9 feet 4 inches.)
- Let a particularly loquacious author keep talking on the phone just to see how long she would go on unchecked. Cracked at 1 hour 20.
- Edited a book translated from the Chinese, where the author had used English quotes for the chapter epigraphs, translated them into Chinese, and now couldn’t supply the originals. Spent a day in the library attempting to source original quotes based on text that had gone into Chinese and out again. Speed read Tom Jones in the process. Didn’t find the quote.
- Worked out what had gone wrong when the MS included several big chunks of text like this but extending to entire paragraphs:
Ks,rd ;sihjrf jrstyo;u/ |Upi do;;u ;oyy;r yjomg.| jr rcv;so,rf/
and retyped it into English.
- Used the word ‘tweak’ to describe both the alteration of a semi-colon to a colon, and a complete rewrite of the ending.
- Had an email argument with an author over a single comma that lasted two full days and eventually covered three sides of A4 with closely argued reasoning, examples and citations.
- Discussed the finer points of editing erotica including dubious consent with a colleague while out one evening. Silenced the entire pub.
So if you’re wondering why the editor still hasn’t got back to you on your MS…this is what she’s doing.
Or making tea. One of them, anyway.
I had a silly Internet conversation.
Alex: When you become a world renown writer with like 10 books on the NY Times top selling books list, can you make one TERRIBLE psychology pun in a book, so I know that you love me
KJ: If you can give me a good psychology gag appropriate to the Edwardian era (Freud, I suppose?) I’ll see if I can get it in the one I’m doing now. Hmm. I’m looking at 1902 here, would that be hideously anachronistic? Off to Wikipedia!
KJ: Oh bah, the period’s wrong. I shall keep this challenge in mind, somehow.
Alex: Wait, this is not the wrong era
Alex: oh, out by a few years
KJ: 1902 so Freud wasn’t famous yet
KJ: Alright, the Psychotherapy Gag Gauntlet has been thrown down and accepted subject to me writing a book set after 1904.
And there the matter rested and I thought no more about it.
Three weeks and 20,000 words later, I was doing a conversation that revealed backstory.
I knew that my hero, Daniel da Silva, had been kicked out of Cambridge. I knew why, it’s important for his character and reactions, but I wasn’t sure what he’d done next. I was sure he’d finished his degree somehow, he’s a stubborn sort. So, when I came to that part of his backstory, I wondered if he’d he’d gone abroad.
Where? Well, Germany was the European centre of education in 1902. And a German education would mean he speaks fluent German, which would open up all kinds of new fields for his part-time employment as a spy. I had already started wondering if maybe his mother should be German, to give him fluent language skills; the foreign education is a much more elegant solution.
So, I had a useful backstory point. Nothing serious. But at this point, a number of existing plot points and issues started to coalesce.
- If da Silva speaks German, lived there, has probably been travelling for spying purposes in the German alliance states of fin de siècle Central Europe, he might well have encountered some cutting edge thoughts on how the mind works.
- In fact, Da Silva has a phobia of going underground. Might he have sought out and consulted some forward-thinking doctor about that?
- Curtis, his counterpart, has a post-traumatic psychosomatic injury. You try saying that in Edwardian English. But if da Silva was able to discuss that in the context of modern (1902) thought…
- Da Silva is ultra-modern, intellectual, Jewish, Continental, introspective – all the things that Freud represented that were alien to a stolidly English mindset, such as Curtis’s, which da Silva is busy upsetting, leading to some wonderfully difficult conversations.
- And after quite a lot of subterfuge, sneaking, verbal sparring, psychological cave torture and bare-knuckle fighting, I really needed a scene where the two of them could stop, and talk, and laugh…
Bugger me. What I needed, quite specifically, was one of the psychology jokes that Alex had sent me.
Now, I absolutely did not twist the plot to shoehorn in a joke. I’d entirely forgotten about the silly Facebook chat at that point. But somehow, spending five minutes three weeks ago looking at early psychology on Wikipedia had fermented at the back of my mind till I had a really useful bit of backstory, a way to talk about one of the characters’ issues, a running theme that clarified the contrast in personality and background between them, and a terrific joke for a scene that needed the sort of connection that comes with shared laughter.
I’m not sure what this goes to show about writing, except that you never know what will prove fertile ground for the story to grow. But thank you, Freud, for the glory that is the human subconscious. And thank you, Alex, for the joke.
My brother used to wind people up by adding speech tags in conversation.
Me: I was going to the shops –
Him: “She announced.”
Me: And I saw this bloke –
Him: “She revealed.”
Me: Will you shut up?
Him: “She demanded” – Ow, that really hurt!
Me: “He yelped.”
Speech tags can be just as annoying for a reader, plus you can’t punch the author. All the following horrible speech tags are real examples I’ve encountered as an editor, and all of them jar me right out of any immersion as a reader.
This is Not a Synonym For “Said”
“I’d like a drink,” she averred.
“It’s a nice day,” she opined.
“My name is John,” he pronounced.
See also ‘declared’, ‘asserted’, etc.
These are all (more or less) acts of speech, but they are attention-grabbing, a bit jargony, have specific meanings, and are absolutely not synonyms for ‘said’. I don’t need ‘opined’ to work out that a character is expressing an opinion, and if she isn’t expressing an opinion, then it’s the wrong word. The only reason I want to read ‘pronounced’ is if a character’s name is Xgafjbnvk and he’s explaining how to say it.
If a character is doing something with their speech that the author needs to convey – whispering, hissing, snarling or shouting – that’s fine. (If used sparingly, and if the dialogue supports it. Even better is to make the dialogue snarly or shouty.) But using a tag as a regular synonym for ‘said’, rather than conveying a precise meaning about how the character spoke… basically, just don’t.
This is Not a Speech Verb At All
“I agree with you,” he nodded.
You can nod your head till they give you a red hat with a bell on it and force you into a dubious relationship with an elderly gnome, but it won’t create audible speech.
“Wonderful,” she smiled.
Smiling is not speaking, nor is laughing, or giggling. This may not bother everyone but it bothers the hell out of me. They are different acts. Speak with a giggle, smile after you speak, rely on the dialogue to create the character’s light and joyous mood. Or use these as speech verbs and watch me have a brain haemhorrage on your MS. Whichever.
“I – I’m not sure,” she hesitated.
Yuk. Not only is this not a speech verb, but it’s one of those cases where either the action is made clear by the dialogue itself, in which case it’s unnecessary, or the action isn’t in the dialogue, in which case it’s the wrong word. Wrong on so many levels.
Yeah, Well, “Said” Isn’t All That Either
‘Said’ is a much more ‘silent’ word than other speech verbs, but it can still make its presence felt too strongly. I made great efforts to avoid horrendous speech verbs in my own writing, and then had my editor gently point out that my Hemingwayesque reliance on ‘said’ was heavily overdone and became obtrusive through overuse. (She put it much more nicely than that.) And she was absolutely right. I went through The Magpie Lord deleting ‘said’ and turning it into action wherever possible, and the writing sharpened up nicely.
Compare these three. Which is punchiest and most visual?
“You’re dead meat,” John threatened, reaching for the knife.
The very definition of trying too hard.
“You’re dead meat,” John said, reaching for the knife.
What does ‘said’ add here? We know he said it. It’s in quote marks.
“You’re dead meat.” John reached for the knife.
So, down with speech verbs! Bin the thesaurus, lose the obtrusive or inaccurate speech tags, and make your writing visual and active…
… she pleaded.
My name is KJ Charles and I’m a first-time novelist. (The Magpie Lord, Samhain, Sept 13.)
In my other life, I’m an experienced commissioning editor. (For the purposes of this blog I’m an anonymous editor, so I can give actual examples without feeling too constrained about authors thinking, ‘Is she talking about me?!’ (Honestly, darling, I’m not. It’s those other authors.)
This blog is about what it feels like to straddle both sides of the publishing fence. I’m pretty sure it means you get splinters in your bum.
I’m hoping to give some insights for aspiring writers, new authors and people interested in the word business as to how the system works, and why things happen the way they do. I will also be blogging about how it feels to be edited rather than editing. Expect expletives.
But first things first. Me.
I’m a commissioning editor, meaning I buy and edit MSS. I’ve spent my whole career in various forms of publishing. I have taken on a lot of new authors out of the slush pile.
I also write in my free time (hollow laugh). I have completed two full length novels, one of which got me an agent and some nice feedback, but no publication. I took a long time off writing when I had my children (the pram in the hall is the enemy of creativity, particularly when it’s got my son in it) and have only recently got back behind a keyboard again.
Knowing the game from the other side gave me some advantages in knowing what editors want and what to expect. Someone brilliantly referred to ‘the book moving through the publishing process like a rat moving through an anaconda’. It’s easier to be the rat if you know how anacondas work. This blog is aimed at sharing that knowledge.
So, on with the show!