*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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Punctuation 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—”
The editor, obedient to a style sheet or some inner compulsion, changes to an ellipsis.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”
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.
“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.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?
“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.
“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.
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.
KJ is an editor, a writer, and probably a massive pain to edit. Sorry about that.
I am fed up of seeing British-set historical romances that mess up with aristocratic titles. This is fundamental, and while some errors are pretty obscure, others stamp COULDN’T BE BOTHERED across your book. (I’m looking at you, authors who refer to Sir Samuel Smith as ‘Sir Smith’.)
Granted this is intricate and fussy stuff but if you’re writing aristos, it matters. The people inside the system care about the system, therefore if you’re writing characters inside the system, you have to care for the duration of the book. You cannot write about a society if you don’t understand its rules; you can’t write a book about a heroine constrained by social stratification if you have no idea what the social strata even are; you can’t do a faux pas scene of the out-group heroine getting it wrong if none of the in-group are getting it right.
You wouldn’t write a book about the Army in which an officer was addressed as ‘General’ or ‘Sergeant’ depending on the mood of the person talking to them, would you? Or describe an Army officer as ‘Admiral’? Well, same difference. If you don’t get titles right, you’re not respecting the setting–the very historicalness of the historical romance–and that means you’re not respecting the reader.
Debretts, the etiquette guide, has an online breakdown of every shade of address. Use it.
A guide follows–this is by no means exhaustive, but it is exhausting, so I’ve kept it as brief as possible. I am using the characters from my Society of Gentlemen and Charm of Magpies series where possible because a) I don’t have to make up names and b) plug.
EDIT: There is a host of outstanding additional information in the comments (including Reverend, titled people in the military and Mr/Miss), so keep scrolling! And thank you so much to everyone who’s contributed.
Titles are ranked in order of importance. We’re going to work our way up from low to high. Also, this is English and some of the titles work differently in Scotland. And if anyone spots any errors in this, please do have at it in the comments and I’ll correct!
Mr. Dominic Frey receives a knighthood for his services to the Board of Taxes. He is now Sir Dominic Frey. He is addressed as Sir Dominic.
He is NEVER. EVER. EVER. EVER addressed as “Sir Frey”. This form DOES NOT EXIST. “Sir” only ever goes with the first name—Sir Dominic. I swear, I will hunt you down if you get this wrong.
In the unlikely event that Mr Dominic Frey married a theoretical Mrs Eleanor Frey, she would now be Lady Frey, or if there was another Lady Frey around with whom she might be confused, Eleanor, Lady Frey. She is not Lady Eleanor, as that indicates a title in her own right.
If Sir Dominic and Lady Frey had had children, they would not have titles, just Mr/Miss.
Baronets are the lowest grade of hereditary title, and don’t count as peers. When Sir Dominic Frey is made a baronet for services to taxation, he remains Sir Dominic, married to Lady Frey, but now his eldest son John will inherit the baronetcy on his death to become Sir John Frey. None of his other children have titles.
The lowest rung of the peerage. When Dominic gets elevated to the peerage for his tireless work, he becomes Dominic Frey, The Baron Tarlton, and is addressed as Lord Tarlton. His wife is Lady Tarlton and his children are The Honourable John Frey and The Honourable Jane Frey (which will be written as “The Hon John/Jane Frey”). They are still addressed as Mr/Miss—nobody is called “The Hon/ourable” to their face. When Dom dies, The Hon John becomes Lord Tarlton. When The Hon Jane Frey marries Mr Smith, she becomes The Hon Jane Smith but he is still Mr Smith.
“The” takes a capital even in the middle of the sentence if it’s formally stating the title, eg on a legal document or an envelope/invitation. No need to use it in general narration/dialogue unless reading out a formal title.
Ranks above baron, but works the same. Viscount Wellford is called Lord Wellford; his wife is a viscountess, addressed as Lady Wellford. Children are The Hon. So Mark Heaton, The Viscount Wellford, has kids The Hon Robert Heaton and The Hon Georgina Heaton.
An earl, marquess or duke may also be a viscount or baron, and may give the lesser title to his eldest son and heir apparent as a courtesy. (A duke may also be an earl, even. The Duke of Richmond’s heir apparent has the courtesy title of Earl of March.)
An heir apparent is the eldest son. If there are no sons, a brother or cousin may be next in line, but doesn’t get a courtesy title because he is only an heir presumptive, i.e. could be pushed out of the way by the birth of a son.
If a title is substantive (i.e. it’s yours, not your father’s gift) you are formally “The Viscount Fortunegate”. If it’s a courtesy title, you’re “Viscount Fortunegate”, no The.
Courtesy titles of this kind are not automatic upgrades, but are always in the gift of the substantive holder. It might well go without saying and be done at once, but it’s not a fait accompli all the same.
In third place in the peerage. The seventh holder of the Crane earldom is Peter Vaudrey, full honours The Right Honourable The Earl Crane and Viscount Fortunegate. In the case of this title he is plain Crane; more commonly earldoms are ‘of’ somewhere (e.g. the earl of Lychdale). He is addressed as Lord Crane. His wife is The Countess Crane (or The Countess of Lychdale if there’s an of), and addressed as Lady Crane.
Lord Crane has two sons. His elder son The Hon Hector Vaudrey is accorded the viscountcy as a courtesy title and becomes Viscount Fortunegate (not ‘The’). He is addressed as Lord Fortunegate, wife Lady Fortunegate. Lord Crane’s younger son is The Hon Lucien Vaudrey.
Earls’ daughters get the courtesy title Lady, so if Lord Crane had a daughter Mary, she would be Lady Mary Vaudrey, addressed as Lady Mary. Earls’ sons are The Hon, not ‘Lord’.
Second from top. A marquess is married to a marchioness and possesses a marquessate. The Marquess of Cirencester is addressed as Lord Cirencester; his wife is Lady Cirencester. Marquesses may also miss out the ‘of’, more rarely.
As with earls, the heir apparent may use one of his father’s titles by courtesy, and the daughters are courtesy-styled Lady. Unlike earls, the younger sons of a duke or marquess have the courtesy style of Lord (e.g. Cirencester’s younger son Lord Richard Vane, called Lord Richard). When one of these younger sons marries his wife is addressed as Lady by his, not her, first name. So Lord Richard Vane’s wife would be Lady Richard. No, seriously.
The highest rank below the royal family itself. ‘Duke’ is an immensely important title, with only a handful existing at any time, except in romantic fiction where they outnumber the servants. Dukes and duchesses may be addressed as ‘Your Grace’. In formal descriptions dukes are The Most Noble The Duke of Wellington. Dukes are always ‘of’.
You will be profoundly relieved to hear it’s the same as marquesses except (of course there’s an except) Dukes are the only rank of the peerage who may be addressed by rank. (As in, “Really, Duke?” or a letter: “Dear Duke, thank you for your flattering proposal.” )
For all the peerage except dukes, speakers should say Lord/Lady, and not the rank. Your debutante, unless vulgar/ignorant, would never address an English peer as ‘Countess’ or ‘Countess Mary’. (NB: a Scottish baron can be addressed as ‘Baron’; check your Scots separately.)
When speaking to a duke/duchess, you kick off with Your Grace and can then potentially switch to Duke/Duchess or Sir/Ma’am.
Royal dukes (siblings/children of the king/queen) are His/Your Royal Highness.
When the Marquess of Cirencester dies, his widow Eustacia remains Marchioness of Cirencester, addressed as Lady Cirencester, until the new marquess marries. At that point the widow becomes the Dowager Marchioness of Cirencester (description) or the Dowager Lady Cirencester (address), although in more recent times she might go by Eustacia, Marchioness of Cirencester (description)/Eustacia, Lady Cirencester (address).
Case study time!
Take a deep breath, we’re going in.
Let’s say we have two brothers in the Vane family, elder George and younger Gideon. George Vane is formally The Most Honourable The Marquess of Cirencester and Viscount Rodmarton, and is addressed as Lord Cirencester.
Gideon is Lord Gideon (courtesy title as marquess’s younger son). Lord Gideon’s wife Anne is called Lady Gideon. Lord and Lady Gideon have two sons, Mr Matthew Vane and Mr Alexander Vane, neither of whom gets so much as an Hon.
Until Lord Cirencester (George) has a son, Lord Gideon is the heir presumptive (next in line but can be displaced by a son). When Cirencester has a son, Lord Philip, he is the heir apparent, because nobody can precede him in the line of inheritance. If Philip died, his younger brother Richard would be heir apparent; if both brothers died, Gideon would be heir presumptive once more, but could again be displaced by a new son.
Lord Philip is given the courtesy title of Viscount Rodmarton (not ‘The’ because it’s courtesy) and thus is now called Lord Rodmarton. Rodmarton’s children are The Hon Eustace Vane, The Hon Hugh Vane and The Hon Abigail Vane. (In some families, the heir apparent of the heir apparent may also have a courtesy title, if the grandfather has one lying around–if this were the case here, Eustace would be e.g. a baron, Lord Cricklade. It needs to be of lower rank than his father’s title.)
When Lord Cirencester (George) dies, Lord Rodmarton (Philip) becomes Lord Cirencester. He is also The Viscount Rodmarton (now a substantive title); he is called Cirencester because you always use the highest title. His son Eustace becomes Lord Eustace immediately if he doesn’t already have a courtesy title, and Lord Rodmarton when his father confers the courtesy title on him. Abigail becomes Lady Abigail; younger son Hugh becomes Lord Hugh. And since Philip is already married, George’s widow immediately becomes the Dowager Lady Cirencester.
Lady Abigail marries commoner Simon Nichols, and becomes Lady Abigail Nichols, addressed as Lady Abigail. Her husband is plain Mr Nichols. When the marquess’s younger son Lord Hugh Vane marries, his wife becomes—come on, you can do this—Lady Hugh. None of Lord Hugh or Lady Abigail’s children have titles or honorifics.
Lord Eustace/Lord Rodmarton’s kids are The Hon until Eustace becomes Cirencester in his turn, at which point they get an upgrade to Lord/Lady, and so it rolls on. See? Easy. /weeps/
Key facts reminder
- ‘Sir’ is ALWAYS used with the forename, NEVER the surname.
- Lord/Lady Firstname is used only for the daughters of an earl/marquess/duke or the younger sons of a marquess/duke.
- Nobody is addressed as their rank except dukes. Other peers are my lord/your lordship/Lord Title.
And the big one for those at the back…
Forms of address are not interchangeable.
Either you are Lady Vane, or you are Lady Abigail. It only changes if your circumstances do, e.g. with a marriage or a promotion-by-relative’s-death. It is incredibly common in histrom and steampunk to see authors use ‘Lady Abigail’ when someone’s being friendly and then switch it to ‘Lady Vane’ to show displeasure. I trust readers will now understand why that’s wrong. (Obviously, it’s fine for a miffed intimate to switch from the friendly ‘Abigail’ to the formal ‘Lady X’ to make a point.)
Again: Forms of address are not interchangeable.
Philip Vane is Lord Cirencester, or the marquess of Cirencester, or Philip, or Cirencester, depending on who’s speaking to whom about whom. Those are the options. You cannot describe him in narration or dialogue as Marquess Philip Vane, Marquess Cirencester, Marquess Philip, Lord Philip, or Lord Vane. Those are all wrong. Not optional choices you can make for variety or to show levels of intimacy: wrong.
Decide what rank the character holds, and you can pin the correct form down very easily. You do have to be sure about this. If you want your hero Benedict Walton to be called Lord Benedict because you love the way it sounds, he has to be a younger son of a duke or marquess. If you want Benedict to be a duke, he can’t be addressed as Lord Benedict. You could, however, make him an earl or marquess (probably without the ‘of’ as Benedict doesn’t sound like a placename) and have Benedict be his title, so he’s Frederick Walton, The Earl Benedict, addressed as Lord Benedict. See?
(Or you can ignore all this, make up an alternate universe, and set your own rules. Go for it. But any form of titling serves two purposes: to indicate status, and to mark in-group and out-group via knowledge of pointless rules. So an aristocracy where specific titles don’t matter and have no rules is an aristocracy that, basically, wouldn’t exist in human society. That’s the nature of the beast.)
It’s not that hard. Make sure you know what your aristo characters are meant to be called, both title and form of address, stick it to the screen on a Post-It note as you type, and bask in the quiet glory of knowing you got it right.
I will happily clarify or check titles for you as best I can in the comments.
Queries are simply letters which summarise your book and ask if an editor or agent is interested in reading it. Some people want a query letter alone and will request (or not) three chapters and synopsis on the back of it; others ask for the query letter plus three chapters and synopsis. (Click here for how to write a synopsis.)
Aspiring authors get pretty ground down by this stuff so herewith a few tips.
Firstly, this is honestly not as complicated as people make out. It’s just a basic letter so the agent/editor can see if the book might be appropriate for their list, and also if the author falls into the category Do Not Touch This Person With a Bargepole (‘bargepoles’ for short).
1) Read the guidelines of the publisher/agent you’re subbing to and follow them. There is no point at all in you querying an agent or editor who doesn’t handle your type of book, so don’t mess about. If you don’t follow instructions, you flag yourself as the kind of person who can’t follow instructions, i.e. a bargepole. If there are no guidelines, just do a standard letter as follows.
2) Address the letter to the person by name, and formally. Dear Mr Jones, Dear Ms Patel. If the editor is Alex Smith with no photo and no indication of gender, then Dear Alex Smith or phone the company to find out how they like to be addressed. Don’t guess, and don’t call them Dear Alex if you don’t know them. Consider if you’d like to be addressed as ‘Dear Agent’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’.
3) Contact details. I wish I didn’t have to say ‘include your contact details’ but I do. If you have a decent online presence, supply links. If your online presence is picking fights with strangers and moaning about your commute to 28 followers, don’t.
4) Introductory sentences: “I would like to submit my [TYPE] book TITLE for your consideration. The book is a [WORD COUNT] [SPECIFICS OF BOOK]. The manuscript is complete.” Thus:
I would like to submit my romantic novel* THE MAGPIE LORD for your consideration. This is a 50,000-word** gay paranormal romance set in the Victorian era***. The manuscript is complete. ****
* Say the type of book straight off because if the author is the kind of bargepole who submits poetry collections or histories of the Second World War to Harlequin, the editor would like to know that at once. (Do please check they accept your kind of book before you send the letter. You’d be amazed how many people don’t.)
** Word count matters as they may have restrictions. Plus, if it’s 2,500 words, or 2.5 million, that’s something the editor or agent would like to know now.
*** Brief specifics about the book here. A history of the Byzantine empire, a medical techno-thriller, just something to give a handle on your book. If you can make useful comparisons—the key word being useful—do so. “28 Days Later in space” or “a contemporary medical romance in the spirit of Betty Neels” is highly informative. Pro tip: no comparison to Harry Potter is ever useful, and particularly not claims of the MS being likely to sell at least as many copies.
**** Say the MS is complete if it is, because you’re wasting her time with a half written MSS. If it isn’t complete, stop reading this post and finish the damn thing. You get to sub back-of-an-envelope ideas later in your career. And don’t lie, because if the agent requests the full and it’s not written, you just blew your chance and marked yourself as a bargepole.
5) Paragraph about the book. This should be a top line summary, elevator pitch sort of thing. There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you try to write a really good blurb, that would do. (Because that’s so easy ahahaha. Blurb-writing tips here.) It should introduce the setting, MCs, plot and conflict. You don’t need to give the ending. And in the name of mercy keep it short.
London, 1880s. Lucien Vaudrey has returned from twenty highly enjoyable years of exile and disgrace in China to take up his unexpected inheritance of an earldom, but finds himself attacked by supernatural forces. He summons a magical law enforcer for help, but the man who arrives, Stephen Day, has every reason to want the entire Vaudrey family dead. Stephen and Lucien must now confront the past, and the unwanted attraction that ignites between them, while also trying to solve a series of magical murders—and avoid falling in love.
I did that in about 3mins, it could be better, but you see my point. Setting, characters, conflict, and since this is a romance, the romantic conflict too.
Don’t pull your hair out. Your good outcome here is that the editor skims it, doesn’t see any red flags, and reads on. Nobody is looking for authors with a genius at writing summary paragraphs. They just want to know they aren’t wasting their time in turning to the chapters.
I would, myself, stick to third person overview here, rather than trying to write in character. Even if the book’s in first person with a strong narrative voice, you’ll have to do a very good job to make that work for the editor in the 4-5 sentences of a pitch. I’m not sure any potential gain is worth the risk of failure. If you do try for an unusual voice, make sure it doesn’t get in the way of conveying what the book is about.
4) Relevant bio if there is any. If there isn’t, just don’t. The editor doesn’t need to know you’re a keen amateur hockey player if it’s a book about cats. She might care if it’s a hockey romance; she needs to know if it’s a history of hockey through the ages. If you have nothing useful to say here it’s absolutely fine to skip (unless the guidelines demand it).
Absolutely do not include irrelevant professional experience. (“I have worked in local government for twenty years, here’s my BDSM erotica set in ancient China.”)
If you’ve got relevant previous publications (including self pub with sales figures), mention. If you have irrelevant previous publications mention super briefly. (“This is my first novel, although I have published a number of gardening titles with PUBLISHER.”) The agent can follow up if interested, and knows you can finish a text. But don’t fill the page with this.
Story time: I once saw a query for a sci-fi space opera that came from a man who worked for a famous dog show. I know he worked for the dog show because he said so in a paragraph that went, basically, “I have worked at [org] for years, and have a number of qualifications regarding dogs including writing several dog books. However, this is not a book about dogs and despite my qualifications in the dog world I don’t want to write a novel about dogs. I have lots and lots of interests that aren’t dogs. I’m not obsessed with dogs at all. Please judge my SFF novel on its own merits, and not dogs!” The very first line of the MS was, I swear to you, ‘“Come over here!” the captain barked’, and I couldn’t stop laughing for days.
5) Good endorsements. If you’ve had a published, Googleable writer or relevant professional give you a nice quote, use it by all means. Otherwise, no. Absolutely don’t say that your mum/writing group liked it, or that you read it to some children and they were really enthusiastic. (Particularly if it’s hardcore erotica.)
6) Previous publication of the MS. If you’ve had the whole thing available free on Wattpad or whatever you need to make that clear because it might trip contract clauses regarding prior publication. If you have a 200K following on Wattpad, now is also a good time to mention that. Don’t keep this a secret for fear the agent or editor wouldn’t like it. These are relationships based on trust: don’t start by lying.
Okay? It’s not hard, honestly. A few additional tips for not looking like a bargepole:
- Don’t muck about with fonts and colours. It’s a professional communication.
- People often try things to ‘make their submission stand out’ but the thing about standing out is, it’s what bargepoles do. I still shudder at the query letter I received purporting to be from a bunny rabbit, signed Mr Flopsy with a paw print, plus a bunny author photo. That ‘stands out’ in that it gets pinned on the corkboard in the office kitchen, but not otherwise.
- If a snail mail query includes sweeties, author pics, fluffy gonks etc: bargepole. If there’s glitter or confetti in the envelope, I hope the sender treads on a slug in bare feet.
And a big one: This is not the place to rehearse your disillusionment with the publishing industry. I have seen all of the following:
- The Sore Loser. “My MS has been rejected by Faber and Canongate, but seeing the meretricious crap they publish now, I’m honoured they didn’t think my book was for them.”
- The Considerably Better Than You. “I am sorely disappointed by the tripe that passes for [genre] today and knew I could write a better book than any of the rubbish currently being published.” Bonus points if the author mentions the publisher’s own books as examples of said rubbish.
- The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. “I am well aware the elitist clique that runs the publishing industry works on the basis of ‘who you know’ rather than giving anyone else a chance, and I dare say you won’t even bother to read this submission.” Correct, but not for the reason the author thought.
- The Resentful. “My last book was left to sink without trace by X publisher, whose editorial and marketing left much to be desired. I trust you will do a better job.” Might well be true, but not this editor’s problem. Putting complaints that are nothing to do with the recipient in a query letter is not a good look.
- The Really Resentful. “I have the following pending litigation against previous publishers…”
Keep it professional, short and relevant, proofread the living hell out of it, and you’ll be fine. Good luck!
KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor and has read more query letters than she would care to count; she is now a published author and doesn’t have to write them any more. Oh happy day.
KJ is currently offering two free development edits to British BAME romance authors in the support of more diverse British romance, so if you’re an aspiring author ready to query, click here and take me up on it.
It’s been a while since I blogged. To be honest, I had the stuffing knocked out of me by Brexit.
There are a lot of things to hate about the results of the EU referendum—the damage to international relations, the economic catastrophe coming our way, the revelation of how mendacious and incompetent our leaders are, the limiting of our children’s prospects etc etc—but right now the worst thing seems to me the level of hateful bigotry it’s revealed and enabled in my nation.
Racism is on the march. We’ve seen the worst ever spike in recorded hate crimes. There have been petrol bombings of shops owned by immigrants, windows smashed, hateful messages and graffiti, people told to “go home” as if this wasn’t their home, as if Britain’s wealth didn’t come from travelling all over the world and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down and plenty that was, as if we are not an entire nation of immigrants dating back to the first person who ever rowed ashore and immediately complained about the weather. (A Swedish woman was told to “go home” in York. Yes, there’s a place with absolutely no history of Scandinavian immigration AT ALL, you ignorant bags of mince.)
Anyway. I was feeling pretty down about the state of our self-destructing rock in the sea, when I came across this from the excellent Nikesh Shukla on Twitter, whose The Good Immigrant is coming out soon:
This is absolutely right. I am a powerful believer in doing something in times of anxiety, unhappiness and anger, as a way to make myself feel better if nothing else.
I also believe passionately in the importance of fiction, both for a bit of escape and as a way of opening our horizons. To see ourselves and other people reflected in books, to see the world as it should be, to believe for a little while that things will be all right: those are important. Romance is important; diverse romance is doubly important at a time when the worst sort of people are trying to drive out the glorious variety of human experience that makes this country worth living in.
And therefore I am offering two free development edits to two aspiring British BAME romance writers, in an effort to help people towards publication and make for a more inclusive publishing landscape. Please spread and share.
About the offer
- This is only open to black, Asian, or minority ethnic romance writers of British identity or living in Britain, as a drop-in-the-bucket effort to increase the diversity of British romance.
- This is only open to aspiring writers, who are aiming for publication but not yet there. I’m trying to give a couple of newbies a hand to get started: please respect that. Anyone who doesn’t meet these criteria but is thinking of scamming a free edit should be aware that I’m really not in the mood. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, ask me below.
- Romance only please. It can be m/f, or any letter in the LGBTQA+ rainbow; any level of sensuality from none to scorchio. As long as there’s a central love story with a happy-for-now or happy-ever-after ending.
- I don’t do MSS that include rape, noncon, dubcon, torture or slavery as erotic elements.
- I specialise in historical and am particularly interested in diverse historical romance, which will be given priority.
- I will read the MS and send a development letter looking at plot, characterisation, pacing, and top-line elements of style, identifying how to make the book better and more saleable. Two reads, two authors, one MS each, no charge.
- My schedule resembles the end of The Italian Job and not in a good way, so I am hoping to read these MSS on holiday in August. Therefore I’d ideally like to have complete MSS in by end July. EDIT: If your MS isn’t ready but you’d like to stick your name down anyway, please do. I’ll make time.
Why you should trust me with your MS
I’m an editor of more than twenty years’ experience, several of those as an acquiring editor at Harlequin Mills & Boon where books I edited were RITA-nominated and one a winner. I worked with and acquired a number of aspiring authors from the slush pile who are now published and successful, including some USA Today bestsellers. I am now a freelance romance writer and editor making my living from romance.
As a writer: see my books here. Think of England was voted Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll. A Seditious Affair was voted tied first for Best LGBTQ+ Romance in the All About Romance 2016 Readers poll, and received Honourable Mention for Best Romance and Best Historical Romance set in the UK. The Washington Post called A Gentleman’s Position “an emotional, deeply romantic look at the remarkable lengths we will go for love.”
How to apply
If you are a British/UK-dwelling BAME-origin aspiring romance author with a MS that meets the criteria above, comment here (on my blog at kjcharleswriter.com and not on Goodreads, to which it copies). Please include a short (two-line) note of what your story’s about, the word count, and if it’s complete. Please leave your email address in the form bit along with your name when you make the comment. (Not in the comment, in case you get spammed).
I will pick the candidates based on who it seems I can best help, starting with diverse British historicals if any are available, because I would really like to read more of those and I’m fundamentally selfish. I may need to email you to chat about suitability. My decision is sole and final.
I’ll announce here when I have filled the slots.
I’ll moderate the hell out of the comments if I have to, so take jerkishness elsewhere.
There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.
Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.
It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.
But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.
I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.
Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.
So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.
And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.
The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.
Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.
A slightly misleading clickbait title there, because we can all screw up without assistance. We screw up by commission and omission. We forget, or erase; we don’t care, or do harm. We fail to listen, we fail to act. We say stupid things. Stupider than that. You know that thing you said twenty years ago that still comes into your mind at 3am and makes you sink your teeth into the pillow? Those. We write books or blog posts or emails or tweets that, in retrospect, make us wonder if we were high, or maybe possessed by whatever demon is wearing Donald Trump’s skin, or at least if we could use that as an excuse. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We say and do and write things that were meant to be funny or positive and turn out to be hurtful and stupid, stupid, why did I ever think that was a good idea? We fail.
The question is not whether we will screw up, but what we do about it.
The first step is usually to face the fact of screw-uppage, which is harder than it sounds. Denial is so much easier. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. You definitely said Thursday. I’m sure I didn’t get that email.
I like to see myself as a nice person. (Stop laughing at the back, I need my delusions.) To pluck an example out of a current situation in my genre: I believe in diversity and representation. I am working hard to turn my fictional landscape into one that’s home to a wide variety of people. But I have got that wrong before, in a number of ways, and I will doubtless get it wrong again, no matter how hard I work and how good my intentions. (I have an old manuscript in my drawer that I pulled out recently. It was written fifteen years ago with the absolute best of intentions, and I almost cringed myself to death reading it. Thank God fasting that everyone rejected the damn thing; how right they were to do so.) I don’t want to screw up, but the fact is, I’ve got a shedload of things wrong in my 42 years on the planet to date and I see no reason why that’s likely to change.
I don’t want to get things wrong, because to get it wrong likely means that I hurt someone, and I’m not here to hurt people (except fictional bad guys, who can expect to be eaten by eels). But it’s dangerously easy to let my desire not to hurt people morph into a refusal to admit I have done so. I am not the kind of person who hurts others, therefore I didn’t hurt others and you’re just oversensitive. You took it the wrong way, you misunderstood, you’re making a drama about nothing. Because if I did hurt you, there goes my cherished self-image as a nice person who’s good at stuff, to be replaced with the self-image of a crass, stupid screw-up blundering her way over other people’s feet.
And of course the problem there is that it’s all about me, about my feelings when I screw up, my desire not to be a hurtful person. Rather than about the fact that I hurt you.
Humans are ego monsters. My pinprick of shame at feeling like a bad person can very easily seem more real, more important to me than the punch in the gut I delivered to someone else. My rugby team has, as their operating principles, the four pillars of strength, work rate, discipline, and humility, which is something I often muse on while they’re resetting the scrum for the fifteenth time. Humility can sound weak, but it isn’t a weakness: it’s something we have to learn, and strive for, and it goes hand in hand with strength. Strength without humility is bullying, and overbearing, and ultimately not strength at all—because if I can’t say I was wrong or It’s not all about me, if I can’t look honestly at myself and take another person’s weight on my heart, how weak must I really be?
And humility doesn’t just mean saying sorry. I had a friend who screwed up a lot, and would always apologise freely and generously for doing so. It took me a long time to realise that her apologies demanded not just that her friends forgive her, but that we then had to reaffirm what a good person she was because she apologised so humbly for the things she’d done to us–rather, than, you know, not repeatedly screwing us over in the first place. She’s not my friend any more.
Offering an apology doesn’t entitle anyone to forgiveness, and a performative apology–the kind made in a spirit of “look how sorry I am, therefore you have to forgive me!”–is just another way for the apologiser to feel better. We all know it. One of the great romance moments is ‘the grovel’—where the alpha male hero (usually) is brought to acknowledge what he did wrong. Readers are scalpel-sharp at distinguishing a good grovel, which is about unconditionally expressing remorse, making amends, changing things, from one which is designed to win forgiveness, smooth over the unpleasantness and re-establish the status quo.
Apologies are important, acknowledgement is important, but to my mind, the fundamental question is whether, having screwed up, I do better next time. Even if that just means, in practice, finding different ways to make less bad mistakes.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
All of which is a great deal easier to say than do. But if I didn’t believe that people–I, we, all of us–can do just a tiny bit better by one another, I wouldn’t be writing romance.
KJ Charles just signed a contract to write horror. She is a writer and freelance editor who lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her most recent release is A Gentleman’s Position, which by coincidence features a hero with a lot of apologising to do.
It’s just a few days till A Gentleman’s Position publishes. This is the third book in my Regency ‘Society of Gentlemen’ trilogy, this one starring the highly principled Lord Richard Vane and his deeply unprincipled valet David Cyprian, and it’s going to tie up all sorts of things. Starting with Lord Richard’s conscience in knots. /evil grin/
We left the story in A Seditious Affair with radical bookseller Silas Mason moved into Lord Richard’s household; we pick things up a few weeks later in A Gentleman’s Position to see that Silas and Cyprian have struck up a friendship. So I wrote a special behind-the-scenes interlude, ‘A Confidential Problem’, about the, uh, challenging beginnings of that friendship, for a bit of insight into what was going on backstairs.
‘A Confidential Problem’ is a 4,000 word scene which takes place between chapters 15 and 16 of A Seditious Affair (after Silas has gone down to Arrandene, but before the finale). It’s not standalone, and won’t make any sense if you haven’t read A Seditious Affair, but since that’s still ludicrously cheap at the time of writing, I’d get on that now if I were you.
This story is only currently available via my newsletter. If you’re an existing subscriber you’ll get it. If you’re not, please sign up to be sent a download link. (Use that link rather than going to the newsletter page or you might miss it.)
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Subscribe to the newsletter here to get ‘A Confidential Problem’, or sit back and wait if you’re already a subscriber. I hope you enjoy it!
A Gentleman’s Position comes out on 5th April.
When I say bad things, I am not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ like schlocky airport novels and Jason Statham movies. I mean liking things that other people can point to and say “This hurts me”. Examples might be: citing TS Eliot as my favourite poet despite the antisemitism. Enjoying rape erotica, or books with loving depictions of torture. Liking thrillers that treat women as objects or parodies. Loving Piers Anthony’s Xanth series although they…no, I’m not going there, don’t ask. Problematic things.
Because many of us do like problematic things, and most things are problematic one way or another. Books are created by people within cultures, and both people and culture are often pretty crappy.
I’m going to use my own Bad Liking as an example throughout. I love Edwardian writing, particularly pulp shockers and detective novels. Some of this is outstanding, magnificently plotted, thrilling stuff. However, much of it is tainted with profound racism, antisemitism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia in the deepest sense of ‘fear’. White heterosexual Christian English upper-class able-bodied men are usually shown as the pinnacle of human evolution, the top of the pile. If you want to see the intersections of privilege in action, these books are for you.
I love them, but I know they contain awful things. Equally, I think that Chesterton’s 1911 poem ‘Lepanto’ is a masterpiece in poetic terms; it gives me goosebumps every time. I also know it is deeply problematic in its cultural politics, and the treatment of Islam is hide-behind-the-sofa bad. Does the poetry trump the Islamophobia; does the Islamophobia negate the poetry? Do I have to stop reading this poem, or denounce it, for the things wrong with it that are awful to a modern ear? Am I a bad person because I love it anyway?
1: Liking problematic things doesn’t [necessarily] make you a bad person
It’s very easy to feel personally accused when a thing we like is denounced. Which is why this gets so heated: if other people are slamming my favourites, my self-image as a nice person is threatened. Someone says, “This thing you love is shitty and hurtful”, and I hear, “You are shitty and hurtful for liking it.” And it’s important to remember that’s not [necessarily] true, and quite possibly isn’t what’s being said. (Square brackets exception: If you’re e.g. a massive racist and you read massively racist books to reinforce your worldview, you are a terrible person. I’m assuming basic decency on the part of readers here.)
So, say you read Edwardian pulp for the thrilling adventure sequences, or enjoy ‘dark romance’ without supporting kidnapping and mistreatment of women in reality, or see something lovely and hopeful in a romance trope that other people find objectionable or erasing. That happens. People are complicated; needs and ideas and experience and vulnerability intersect in a lot of complicated ways; many things are not problematic to Person A, no matter how glaringly obvious they are to Person B; and things can be simultaneously problematic and empowering to different people. Rape erotica might seem detestable exploitation to some, yet may also be a powerful way for rape survivors to handle their experience. People may choose to retreat into fiction that erases their problems by ignoring their existence. What’s good for one less-privileged person may also be harmful to another less-privileged person–as when a gay person finds something powerful in the ‘gay for you’ trope in m/m romance that makes many bisexual people feel erased and excluded. This stuff is very complicated.
But no: liking books with problematic things does not in itself make me, or you, a bad person.
2: Own your likings
There are two ways I can handle my unfortunate taste for Edwardian pulp.
- “It’s historical racism: people didn’t know any better so it doesn’t count. You can’t judge classics by today’s attitudes. It’s just part of the genre. Don’t read it if you don’t like it. If you say my favourite books are racist you’re implying I’m a racist, so now I don’t care about your opinion.”
- “This book has a lot of offensive aspects, I accept that.”
The reason I can like this stuff is because I am privileged (white cis het British). I am able to skid over the offensive or crass bits and enjoy the poetry, or the story. Good for me. But I have to remember that other people will not feel the same, that they may find these things brutally hurtful, and I should respect that. If someone posts a 1* review of Greenmantle or the Father Brown stories because they find them offensive, I don’t get to argue, “Oh, but it’s just the period they were written!” or “‘Foreigners = bad guys’ is a classic trope, get used to it,” or “The author’s really nice so he obviously didn’t mean the casual racism”. I need to accept that these issues are problematic, even if they aren’t hurtfully problematic for me.
A note on the all-too-popular “when you say my favourite books are hurting you, that hurts me, so we’re quits” argument: No. Firstly, this is very often an issue of privilege: men not having to worry about women’s problems, cis people not seeing trans people’s problems, het people missing queer people’s problems. If I have more privilege in this situation, I should be the one listening, because that’s basic fairness. Punch up, not down. And secondly, there is a big difference between “I feel bad because this thing erases or belittles people like me” and “I feel bad because someone was rude about a book I like”.
3: Learn what the problem is
People, being people, tend not to want to hear what’s wrong with our favourites. “Can’t you just let me enjoy this?” we say. “I like it, so don’t spoil my fun!”
But understanding what’s wrong doesn’t spoil books. Refusing to understand and sticking your fingers in your ears may spoil people. If I say, “I don’t care why X is a problem,” I’m not just refusing to take responsibility for my own choices: I am closing myself off from other people, and deliberately keeping my view narrow. That is the opposite of what books are meant to be about.
I have recently been made aware of several erasures and assumptions that I was making without noticing. Being told so was not very comfortable for me at all. But now I know a bit more than I did, and I hope that means I will write with better, wider understanding in the future. Which means I will write better books. Which is my job.
Critically engaging with problems–in books, in my own attitudes–makes me a better reader and writer, even if it stings. I don’t enjoy John Buchan’s WWI thriller Greenmantle less because I now notice its (really weird-ass) homophobia and Orientalism. If anything, my awareness of the context gives me a deeper understanding of what remains one of my favourite books, as well as helping me not be a jerk to other people about it.
Understanding the problem helps me formulate a nuanced response. If I know why people find a book problematic, I can weigh up the issues; maybe mitigate harm; hopefully avoid jumping into discussions of it with both feet and landing on someone’s toes.
4: Live with criticism
It doesn’t make problems go away if I deny that my favourite thing is hurtful to some people, or react angrily to criticism, or claim that everything is fine. I don’t have to agree that things I like are reprehensible. I don’t have to stop reading them even if I do agree. I can mentally dismiss criticism and walk away, or say, “I hadn’t considered that perspective,” and leave it at that. I can carry on liking the thing, knowing that other people have a massive problem with it, because life is complicated. But I can’t expect everyone else to shut up about their own needs for my convenience, and I cannot insist that nobody criticises the things I like, or points out that liking them is a matter of privilege.
Even better, though harder: I can try to listen, and open my perspective out, and then carry on liking the problematic thing with a fuller understanding. Or stop reading it, if I feel it is just really not okay, and find other books to supply whatever I was getting from it. Or even write the damn thing in a way that is less problematic in the first place. (I wrote Think of England specifically as a response to my difficulties with the Edwardian pulp I love, as an attempt to share the great things about it while acknowledging or avoiding the bad ones.)
All of which is to say: Liking books with problematic things doesn’t make you a bad person. How you handle that liking is what counts.
At RWA 2015, an editor from Pocket Books answered a question on diversity by saying that ‘diverse’ topics/authors were published in a couple of particular lines and not as part of the general list. The implication was that authors (not even just books, which is bad enough) would be channelled to lines based on ethnic origin. (Obviously, agents representing non-white authors would thus find them a harder sell, with fewer chances for publication.)
Rightly, the RWA has come down on this like a ton of bricks, refusing to accept corporate flannel from Pocket (who say this isn’t their policy) and demanding a clear commitment to equal treatment for all RWA members. This is a professional issue and that’s what they’re for.
Today board member Alyssa Day tweeted this:
‘Be nice’. Be nice.
The RWA is a membership organisation for professionals, with a substantial admittance fee. Its remit is to protect members’ interests. They are doing their job by going after a publisher who, according to their own editor, are behaving in a way that damages some RWA members’ interests.
And someone thinks they should be nice? Nice! What has ‘nice’ got to do with a professional dispute? What is there to be nice about?
There is currently a horrendous, damaging row going on in m/m romance. Some LGBT people reacted to material they found offensive and hurtful in forthright (or rude) terms; other people basically told them to shut up and sit down, it escalated. And a lot of people have ignored the hurt being complained of, and instead focused on the tone and manner in which the complaints were made. Because they were angry and blunt about stuff people liked. They weren’t being nice.
Now, I’m an author. I know words matter. I know people react differently to different tones. I know that it’s possible to put your case politely, and can be much more effective to do so.
I’m also a woman. I know that putting your case politely can also make it much easier for people to ignore you. I know that it’s possible to say the same thing politely a dozen times, and be ignored, and then when you finally stop being polite, they say, “Calm down, love!” or “There’s no need to shout!” as though raising your voice the thirteenth time is completely unreasonable.
And I’m a human being. I recognise that actually, sometimes, people are no longer able to put their case politely because they are driven to expletive-peppered fury by the relentless goddamn bullshit of other people…
…who then turn around and say, “Hey, be nice!”
Be nice when someone’s treating you as if you don’t matter, as if people like you have never mattered, when your pain is dismissed as less important than the comfort or embarrassment or convenience of the person causing your pain. Be nice.
Of course I don’t mean it’s good for everyone to shout and rage all the time, as if that’s the only alternative. I prefer civil discussion to shouting and raging too. I would much rather that everyone spoke respectfully, which is only likely to happen when everyone listens respectfully. Let’s try to do that, shall we?
But let’s have a clear example about telling people to be nice.
When my 7-year-old son comes up to me whining, “It’s not fair, my horrible sister won’t play with me because she’s horrible,” that is a teachable moment. That is a time to talk about tone, and being nice, and how the way you approach people makes a difference to how they listen.
When my 7-year-old son comes up to me with a cut lip shrieking that a boy hit him and took his football, I don’t tell him, “Speak more clearly and don’t cry, your tone of voice must be calm and reasonable.” I don’t tell him, “You’re angry, and anger isn’t nice, so that boy deserves the football more than you do.” Instead, I try to fix his problem, his real and legitimate distress, because that is what we do when someone is actually hurt.
Assuming we give a damn for people’s hurt, of course. Which we would, if we were nice.
Let’s be nice.