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Suspending disbelief: how high can you go?

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

Here is a stork.

stork

Here are the storks in Storks.

from storks

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

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

stork tweets

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

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

AKA: they’re bloody seagulls. Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is more probable?

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

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

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

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

stork teeth

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

Polly’s Ginger Biscuits

Readers of An Unseen Attraction will be aware that our hero Clem’s housekeeper makes a pretty good ginger biscuit as a cure-all for distress.

The ginger biscuits were not long in coming, and Clem was pleased to see their restorative effect. He wasn’t sure what Polly put into them, and nor was anyone else; there were women up and down Wilderness Row formally Not Speaking to her because she refused to give out the recipe. Clem didn’t have a sweet tooth in general but could happily have eaten a plateful at a sitting, and they had much the effect on the system that a stiff drink had on people in books. Rowley nibbled an edge listlessly, sat up, took a second one, and let his hunched shoulders relax a little for the first time since he’d come back.

Clem smiled at him. “They are good, aren’t they? But you do have to have something terrible happen to you first, because she doesn’t like to waste the ginger.”

Well, if you’re more generous with your ginger than Polly, here’s a recipe. I hope nothing terrible happens first.

  • 100g butter (at room temperature)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 75g fine brown sugar (or you can use 175g caster and no brown if you prefer)
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1.5 tbsp golden syrup
  • 250g self raising flour
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 150g crystallized ginger chunks (chopped to appropriate chunks-for-cookies size)
  • 2 tsp ginger liqueur (completely optional)
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180/ Gas Mark 4.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the egg and golden syrup (pro tip: if you oil the spoon very lightly before measuring out the golden syrup, it just slides right off into the bowl and makes life much easier) and the liqueur if using, and continue beating until well combined. Mix the flour and ground ginger into the biscuit mixture and stir until combined. Stir in the crystallized ginger.
  3. The dough will be sticky. Shape into 20 walnut-sized balls and place on greased or lined baking sheets. They spread so don’t crowd them. Best to use 3 trays.
  4. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden. The tops will crack and the inside will look a little ooshy. Do not be tempted to cook till they look completely done: they will firm up as they cool, and you want the chewy inside.
  5. Leave on the baking tray until cool enough to transfer to a wire rack (they will be very soft when you take them out of the oven). Allow to cool completely before serving insofar as that’s possible. I mean, warm is fine. Look, just let them cool enough to firm up, okay? Or at least, don’t burn your mouth.

20170224_175713

NB: the ginger liqueur is totally optional. I happen to have a bottle of The King’s Ginger in the house so I use it; don’t make a special trip to the shop. However, if you do have it, you can also make the ginger equivalent of a Kir Royale: put a splosh of ginger liqueur in a champagne glass, top up with sparkling wine for a fizzy, fiery drink. This is a Ginger Royale or, as we call it at ours, a Prince Harry.

Sins of the Cities: deal them in…

In which I introduce my new Victorian Sensation queer romance trilogy, with FAQs and illustrations. (Art by the ubertalented Mila May.)

What do you mean, Victorian Sensation?

I’m glad you asked me that. The Victorians were far from being the repressed nothing-on-Sunday bores of popular imagination. The snobs and the moralisers are always with us, but if you look at what people were actually up to–books, plays, newspapers–they loved scandal, drama, melodrama, murder, sex, mysteries, booze, romance, sentiment, off-colour jokes, raucous music hall, theatrical spectacle, and pretty much everything that is fun.

Victorian Sensation was basically what we now call genre fiction, on crack. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes! If you fancy a read, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon were the acknowledged rulers of the genre. I particularly like Lady Audley’s Secret with its antiheroine running rings round the posh boys; Armadale is distinguished by a magnificent villain continually off her face on drugs, and no fewer than four characters called Allan Armadale, one of whom very reasonably calls himself Ozias Midwinter to avoid attention.

What I’m getting at is, this is not going to be drawing-room tea parties, and nobody is putting frills on their piano legs.

Go on, then, tell me about it.

The Sins of the Cities trilogy (obviously it’s a trilogy; everything Victorian happens in three volumes by law) is set in London, winter 1873, a year distinguished by one of the worst fogs ever recorded.  We begin with An Unseen Attraction, in which we meet Clem Talleyfer, an unassuming lodging-house keeper with a lovely sweet pet cat.

Clem’s busy running his house, managing the lodgers, getting by, and maybe just slightly pining after his newest lodger: the taxidermist next door, Rowley Green. Meet Rowley.

Just two gentle, reserved, quiet men getting along. Two of the nicest characters I think I’ve ever written, actually. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, right, KJ. We’ve met you.

OK, so it’s possible things may take a very slight turn for the murdery. But just a bit.

You’re not fooling anyone but yourself.

Fine. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes!

Ah yes. Three volumes?

Each book is a standalone romance featuring a separate couple, and each has a proper ending. But there’s also an overarching story running across all three books–so don’t expect all the loose ends to be tied up till book 3. They all feature the same cast of characters, many of whom are linked because they go to the Jack and Knave, a discreet and unassuming pub for a particular clientele. Would you care to meet some of the Jack and Knave’s regulars?

Go on, then.

We play the Diamonds in book 2, An Unnatural Vice. For now, meet Nathaniel, lawyer turned journalist, wealthy archbishop’s son, and upstanding member of society. Unfortunately, let’s just say, his love interest is very much a knave. (Nathaniel is kind of screwed.)

And here’s the Jack of Spades: private enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz. A practical man. His King of Spades…well, you’ll find out in due course. I couldn’t give everything away now, could I?

And that, for now, is where matters stand. A quiet taxidermist, a gentle-hearted lodging-house keeper, and his friends from the pub…oh, and the Queen of Hearts. Did I mention the Queen of Hearts?

Well, go on, then, who’s she?

That, my friend, would be telling.

The hands are dealt, the cards are on the table. Let the games begin.

 __________________________________________________
An Unseen Attraction will be hitting the e-shelves on 21 February at all the usual places. (This post is a bit in advance but I’m going on holiday tomorrow and will be incommunicado for a week at least. I say at least because we’re going to the Yorkshire moors, so the chances of being eaten by a giant spectral hound are like 50/50 tbh.)

Samhain Closure

A quick post re Samhain Publishing’s imminent closure and what that means for my books.

Samhain have announced that they will be shutting down, with their website going dark at the end of February. For me, the affected titles are the entire Charm of Magpies series including Jackdaw and Rag and Bone, and the standalone titles Think of England, Non Stop Till Tokyo, and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. That’s…quite a lot of my books.

***If you bought books directly from the Samhain site, DOWNLOAD THEM.*** Get everything to your library. There should be time enough that the site won’t fall over from demand, unlike the disgracefully rushed ARe closure, but if you’re having problems, take screenshots.

Books will start going off third party vendors (Amazon, Kobo etc) at the beginning of March (again, if you have Samhain titles stored in the cloud, download now).

Print titles will be available for a while longer as stock is sold through, but if you really want a print copy of anything Samhain, consider buying it now.

March is when they’ll start officially giving authors their rights back. My books may not be available for a period while this chunters through. I haven’t decided on what I do next, but assuming I self pub, it will take a while to reformat, tidy up, and get new covers done, and if I move to another publisher it will take considerably longer. On the other hand, there will probably be cool new cover art. That’s always fun.

A bit of good news is that return of rights mean I will at last be able to do audio books. This is something readers have been asking for, and hopefully I can get that in motion soon.

More news once I work out what to do; fist bump to all the authors affected as well as the excellent professionals who worked with Samhain–designers, editors, in house staff. This is a sad ending, but I had a very happy relationship with Samhain for a long time, starting when they offered to publish The Magpie Lord and changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for that.

A more cheerful post about EXCITING NEW SERIES follows!

KJ’s 2016 Reading Roundup plus giveaway

This year I mostly read the news, obsessively, while everything caught fire. But I also read some books.

I’ve been making more effort to review on Goodreads recently, in large part to jog my terrible memory. I didn’t think I’d been great about it this year, but in fact I still have enough fabby reads listed for a good hefty summary post, so here it is. Romance, SFFH (that’s sci fi, fantasy and horror) and a bit of non fiction.

I have been trying to diversify my reading and seek out more own-voices writers, particularly in romance—it was not flattering to me quite how much of a conscious effort that took at first—and it’s made a huge difference to my reading enjoyment, with the vastly increased range of ideas and perspectives, characters and topics and settings and lives on offer for me to splash in.

These are in no particular order apart from Documenting Light, which is first, and for which there is a giveaway if you scroll to the end. (But read the post first. I put effort into this, you know.)

A competent person would include covers but I have a stinking cold and a sick child, so, not competent.

Romance

Documenting Light by EE Ottoman (trans, m/nb)

If you’re going to read one book based on this rec list, make it this. Real, emotional, beautifully written, fascinating story of two people, one trans, one nonbinary, who are really just trying to get by and find one another. It’s all about being seen, now and in history; about small touches and little braveries that add up to big stuff, and it’s lovely.

A Champion’s Heart by Piper Huguley (m/f)

Extending her series about sisters finding love in the early years of the 20th century. This one is set in the Great Depression, with a boxer returning to find the woman he left behind. Superb historical detail—the black family’s journey out of the South is hair-raising; the casually dropped racism is hair-curling—and intense spirit of place and time, as ever with this author, who is also not afraid to show her previous heroines in an unsympathetic light. /applauds wildly/ Faith informs the book very heavily, but doesn’t offer easy answers.

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (m/f)

This historical series is so good with its small-town setting and concentration on local life and interaction. This book is the story of a starchy valet turned butler and the freewheeling housemaid he falls in love with. It’s brilliant on the minutiae, which brings the atmosphere to life and feeds into the characters, and a hot, sweet romance too. And how often do you see servants in starring roles in British historicals? Not enough, that’s how often.

Fit by Rebekah Wetherspoon (m/f)

Another great series, this one contemporary. I glommed all three in like 36 hours but the first remains my favourite. BDSM that doesn’t take itself seriously—this book is laugh-out-loud funny—and a gorgeous heroine who is properly fat and doesn’t have to get thin for her HEA. All too rare. Loved it.

Eleventh Hour by Elin Gregory (m/m)

I LOVE THIS. A world weary spy is partnered with a back-office chap of no experience but a talent for cross-dressing in order to carry out a surveillance operation on an international terrorist of the Joseph Conrad school. Wonderful 1920s atmosphere, great sexual tension, utterly delightful leads, exciting plotting. Just gigantic fun.

Daughters of a Nation by Alyssa Cole et al (m/f)

A historical romance anthology from the authors of the excellent The Brightest Day collection. Tough, timely POC-focused romance set at various point in the struggle for suffrage in America. This is important stuff that needs to be remembered and written and these authors are doing a cracking job of that.

Gays of our Lives by Kris Ripper (m/m)

I love this whole contemporary series with all sorts of leads, including f/f and trans characters, and recommend them all so far. This one is laugh-out-loud funny at points and its narrator, Emerson, may be the grouchiest hero ever committed to paper, a gloriously misanthropic git.

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant (trans, m/m)

I don’t think I can improve on my description of this as a hot bath and fluffy towel of a book. Delightful happy-making short read with a prickly young trans man and a really irritable boss getting to know one another. Give yourself a lunchtime lift.

Roller Girl by Vanessa North (trans, f/f)

A really lovely, uplifting book about the women of a roller derby team. I kind of want a book about each one of them. Loved Tina and Joe and all the female friendships and fun. Actually wanted to play roller derby for a brief moment. Lovely.

Shatterproof by Xen Sanders (m/m)

Dark, lyrical, weird, magical, scary. A very fairytale feel for a paranormal story about depression and despair, and about finding hope in the darkness. A super intense, immersive read of the kind that really takes over your brain. I loved it.

 

SF, Fantasy, Horror

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L Howard

If you haven’t read the Johannes Cabal series and you like sarcastic and occasionally lethal necromancers, Lovecraftian parody, genre bending, and fun, oh boy you are in for a treat. I love all five books. For heaven’s sake read in order, this is #5. I think Johannes Cabal The Detective is my favourite but all of them are hilarious, plotty, gleefully demented and sometimes deeply warped.

Bonesy by Mark Rigney

I glommed the entire Renner and Quist series. American gothic horror with a sense of humour, pairing a redneck and a dodgy ‘priest’ investigating mysteries. Very likeable, frequently very horrifying indeed.

Skin Deep Magic by Craig Laurance Gidney

This and his other short story collection Sea Swallow Me are outstanding. Gidney is a terrific, inventive, evocative writer who ought to be more widely known. Romantic, fantastical, strange, sometimes really dark and scary. Superb stuff.

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett

Is it another series I glommed like a cartoon squirrel going through a tree? Why yes it is. Absolutely wonderful fantasy with an understated m/m romance at the centre, delightful world building, huge warmth, interesting plots and a new one coming out next year oh my god I cannot wait. Read them all!

The Serpent by Claire North

The first of three linked spec fic novellas with a lovely concept about a mysterious mystic game-playing sect. You need to read all three, really, but I think this was my favourite. I want the author to write more in her Kate Griffin persona though, I miss Matthew Swift.

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley

Sequel to the utterly glorious urban fantasy The Rook. I loved this one just as much. Ingenious, funny, twisty, well-plotted, lovely strong female leads, and vast quantities of gleeful inventiveness.

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Not sure whether to put this under romance or fantasy, both are valid. A nice twisty political/mystical conspiracy plot in a well developed mitteleuropeanish fantasy setting; a delightful slow burn f/f romance. Hugely readable fun.

 

Non-fiction

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla et al

This has been getting column inches for a reason. A terrific collection of essays about the British immigrant experience, from all kinds of perspectives that often don’t get space. Often angry, often hilarious, always thoughtful. Should be required reading for every Brit.

Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight against Filth by Lee Jackson

Let’s not mess about. Either you read that title and thought, Wow, Victorian drains, plumbing and rubbish disposal? That sounds intriguing! or you didn’t. If you did, I highly recommend this. Packed full of fascinating and often stomach-churning facts.

Bright Young People by DJ Taylor

I was thinking of writing a romance series about the Bright Young Things of the 20s and 30s, but then I read this book and realised I’d rather floss with barbed wire. It’s noteworthy they couldn’t even tolerate themselves. Really interesting social history of a generation at an extraordinary point in time, as long as you don’t mind shouting “Oh my God you insufferable entitled twat!” at the pages a lot.  A useful companion to this would be Among the Bohemians, which is about people around the same period who were kind of like the Bright Young People but generally with less privilege and more talent, so you’ll be shouting “Oh my God you insufferable smug twat!” instead.

If you are going to read about the Bright Young Awfuls, I strongly recommend Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols which is a pre Vile Bodies expose novel, and also a queer romance under the thinnest possible veil, written in the 1920s.

Richmond Unchained by Luke G Williams

Biography of a black British boxer who competed for the English title, became a national superstar, and was a guard of honour at the Prince Regent’s coronation as George IV. An amazing story, as thrilling as any novel. The author’s a boxing journalist, and it shows because the accounts of Richmond’s two big fights are heart-stoppingly exciting.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

It’s about the history and practice of decapitation. What would you like me to say?

________________

Because it’s Christmas and because I want people to read it, I am giving away an e-copy of Documenting Light to a randomly chosen commenter here. Just name one good book you read this year in the comments to be considered! Draw will be made on 16th December.

________________

My most recent release was the story ‘The Price of Meat’ in the All In Fear queer horror anthology. Wanted, a Gentleman releases on 9 January, and then my new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities starts in February with An Unseen Attraction.

 

The state of things: extract, free story, free edit, oh my!

This is a general update blog post about me. I do post promo stuff occasionally in between rants about aristocratic titles and punctuation, you know.

Well, it’s been a hell of a year globally speaking, but an extremely quiet one for me, with only one book out. All that is about to change.

On 1 December, All in Fear releases. This is an anthology of queer horror which includes my penny dreadful alt-Victorian story ‘The Price of Meat’. A brief extract to give you the flavour:

In the time of England’s steep decline, when Victor II sprawled on the throne and lost colonies as carelessly as a child loses toys, there stood a number of institutions that should never have been permitted to exist. One was the foul and ancient liberty of Alsatia, to which we will return anon; another was Mr Fogg’s Asylum for the Weak-Minded, located to the west of London on the soot-grimed scrubland of Old Oak Common. It is there our story begins one cold, bright day in December 1870, as Mr Fogg himself conducted Johanna Oakley through its dark, draughty passages.

A corridor lined with heavy doors stretched in front of her, each with a great iron lock and a barred inspection hatch through which attendants might spy. Some hatches were firmly closed, keeping the unfortunates within closely confined; through the open ones came sounds. A sob; a laugh; a mutter of prayer, though whether to a merciful God, or to something quite different, Johanna could not tell. From one cell came the sound of a crying child: fearful, heartsick, hopeless weeping. She turned by instinct, but Mr Fogg grasped her arm.

“You don’t want to look in there.” His thin lips stretched over yellow, ridged teeth in a smile. “It is not a sight for a pretty young lady such as yourself.”

She detached his hand from her arm with unconcealed distaste. Mr Fogg’s smile widened to show both rows of teeth, and bony gums. “Such a privilege to be visited by a genteel young lady. I do adore young ladies. I cherish your delicate constitutions.”

Johanna’s hands tensed within their concealing muff. “Take me to Miss Wilmot now, if you please.”

Mr Fogg moved on, if possible at a slower pace than before, and paused to indicate a door with the head of his cane. “There’s a young lady in there, you see—” He smashed the cane against the door with such sudden violence that Johanna jumped, and a tiny, muffled shriek came from within. “Quiet!” he bellowed, and turned back to Johanna with an oily smile. “You see how nervous the patients are. We must regulate their behaviour for their own good. There is one lady in the separate rooms for whom the doctor prescribed a fortnight’s absolute silence and solitude to ease the habit of complaint for which her husband had her confined. Yet she continually breaks the regime by speaking out, to herself or the attendants, and then the fortnight must be started again, you see. Again and again.”

“How long have you kept her in solitary confinement for this?” Johanna asked.

“Oh, more than a year now. This is Miss Wilmot’s accommodation.”

Johanna looked at the thick, locked, barred door. “I hope you are treating my friend with the greatest respect and kindness, sir. You will answer for it if not.”

“Oh, we give her the most tender care,” Mr Fogg said, a smile oozing across his face.  “The tenderest care for the tenderest flesh. Such a delicate young lady. You may have a half-hour only, and I must remain in the room. I cannot permit Miss Wilmot’s constitution to be upset.”

Next: a freebie. I’ve written a free coda, currently running around 6500 words, to the Society of Gentlemen series. It’s called A Private Miscellany, and it will be available free exclusively to my newsletter subscribers, coming in an email around 20 Dec (date tbc). Sign up here. You can always unsubscribe again, I won’t feel hurt, but they reasonably often have free stuff and tbh I send about 5 of these a year. I’m not an assiduous marketer. (It will be available to new subscribers after that date as soon as I master the technical challenge of setting up a welcome email. However, since I can’t set the clock on my oven, it might be safer to subscribe now.)

The freebie will be 100% meaningless if you haven’t read the Society of Gentlemen series, but they are ridiculously cheap and were rather well reviewed (“to truly appreciate the magnificence of this series you need to read the whole lot of them, preferably one after the other. This is because the stories are as intimately entwined as the lovers”), so why not treat yourself to some cravats and smut for Christmas so as not to feel left out?

Then! Bringing the new year in on 9th January is my new Georgian road trip Wanted, a Gentleman, which Romantic Times listed as a 4.5* Top Pick (“a romp of a novella. …  a perfectly compact romance that shows a couple can be cranky and still head-over-heels for each other.”

An Unseen Attraction_Charles(1)AND THEN. In February, the new Victorian Sins of the Cities trilogy kicks off with An Unseen Attraction. Much more to come on that nearer the time, so I’m just going to put the cover here for now. Purr.

The trilogy will be publishing in Feb, June, and October 2017, assuming nobody tweets “I dare you to push the nuclear button ha ha chicken” at Donald Trump before then.

AAAAND FINALLY.  I offered around the time of Brexit to give free development edits to British BAME aspiring romance authors. There’s a slot going still so if you are or know anyone who’d be eligible and likes FREE EDITS, please hit me up!

That’s my State of the Nation. Next time: probably more obscure quibbling about punctuation, tbh.

Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

__________________

KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.

Punctuating Dialogue: The Wilder Shores

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

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

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

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

Break or trail?

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

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

— is an em dash and indicates a break or interruption

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

Em dash

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

There was a massive explosion and the roof fell in.

Jenny is interrupted by an external factor.

Ellipsis

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

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

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

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

“Natalie.”

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

Action within dialogue

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

 

 

*** pause for thought***

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Digression: interpolations and point of view

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

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

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

Edith POV

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

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

Frederick POV

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

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

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

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

Or

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

It’s easily done, so keep an eye out.

Stopping and starting

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

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

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

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

“The fact is—” Jim began.

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

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

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

“But without the tentacles—”

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

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

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

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

speech analysis new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with editors

One final note here, but an important one.

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

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

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

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

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

______________________

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

 

Punctuating Dialogue, and Other Interesting Things*

*I lied about the other interesting things. Sorry.

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

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

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

speech 1

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

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

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

***

Standalone speech

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

“Here is the gun.” [statement]

“He’s got a gun!” [exclamation]

“Where is the gun?” [question]

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

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

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

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

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

***

Speech with speech tag

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

Statement

“Here is the gun,” he said.

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

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

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

“Here is the gun,” he snapped.

What you will very often see is this:

X “I have the gun.” He said.

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

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

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

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

“I have the gun,” he snapped.

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

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

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

.

Exclamations, questions, interruptions, hesitations

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

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

“Where is the gun?” he asked.

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

“But the gun—” she began.

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

Speech Tags that Aren’t

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

X “Here is the gun,” he smiled.

Try the following instead:

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling.

“Here is the gun.” He smiled.

We also see this usage extended to action markers.

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

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

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

***

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

The following aren’t English sentences:

X He said, and handed it to her.

X He said.

Therefore punctuate as one sentence along with the speech.

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

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

The following are English sentences

He handed it to her.

He smiled.

Therefore punctuate as two sentences with the speech.

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

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

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

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

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

Without speech:

X She shouted.

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

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

Without speech:

She shouted the words.

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

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

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

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

***

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

***

MASSIVE APPENDIX KLAXON

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “Here is the gun.”

He said, smiling, “Here is the gun.”

He smiled. “Here is the gun.”

And therefore

He asked, “Where is the gun?”

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

She began, “But the gun—”

***

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

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­________________________________

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

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

Let’s Talk About Stets

AKA how writers and editors deal with disagreement.

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

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

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

stet 1

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

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

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

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

Should You Stet?

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

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

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

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

Dots and Dashes

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie.”

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”

“Natalie.”

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

or

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

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

or

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

“Natalie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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