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.
I am thrilled to announce that, in line with the publication of Rag and Bone, artist Mila May has created a graphic novel-style version of the events of chapter 2. Which are, let me say, quite sinister events.
Rag and Bone continues the story of Ned Hall, waste-man, and Crispin Tredarloe, accidental warlock, who first appeared in ‘A Queer Trade‘. (You don’t have to read ‘A Queer Trade’ first. I would, but hey, I’m that sort of person. Anyway, it’s 99c. What can go wrong?)
Ahem. So we’re in the Victorian London of my Charm of Magpies series. Ned buys and sells used paper from his store next door to a rag and bottle shop. Crispin’s life is slightly more complicated. He was trained to use his magical powers via a pen made from his own fingerbone that writes in his own blood–a dangerous, unlawful practice. He could be arrested for it, but that’s the least of his problems: a blood pen can steal your soul.
Luckily, after the events of ‘A Queer Trade’, Crispin’s been learning to manage his magic the proper way, without using the illegal blood pen. So everything’s absolutely fine now. Right?
Without further ado: I give you Mila May’s Rag and Bone.
Rag and Bone is out now from Samhain.
Mila May is available for character art, covers and more. Her attention to detail slays me every time.
Rag and Bone will be my last book with Samhain, as they are very sadly closing their doors. They have been a wonderful publisher to work with, taking on my first book out of the slush pile at a time when Victorian paranormal m/m romance wasn’t even a subgenre yet. My editor Anne Scott has been endlessly helpful and supportive; all my covers with Samhain are glorious, from Lou Harper, Angela Waters, Kanaxa, and Erin Dameron-Hill. I will miss them quite painfully and they are a massive loss to the romance community and to publishing. I’m glad Rag and Bone made it out under their aegis. They are still in business, just not taking on new titles as they wind down, so check them out here.
I was just thinking I haven’t rageblogged in ages, and feeling happy that I have my Twitter feed curated to be interesting and challenging but not aneurysm-inducing, and then this comes along.
I have a lot of things to say in response to this. Most of them are two-word phrases ending ‘off’ or ‘you’, but let me try to be a little more articulate.
I don’t know anything about the Huffington Post’s payment to writers, never having written for them. I do know they ‘broke even’ on $146million revenue in 2014, and there has been speculation that it may be sold for $1billion. Apparently it’s not turning a profit because of investment, but this is a huge site bringing in huge amounts of money through advertising revenue. They are not unable to pay writers. If they don’t, one can only assume it’s because they don’t want to.
This is not an unusual state of mind. The Twitter account @forexposure_txt quotes the many and varied ways people have of asking other people to give their time, skills, experience and talents for nothing.
Our society has a general idea that content, knowledge and creativity should all be free. Free: it’s such a glorious word, isn’t it? Free, free as a bird! The creative heart should be free to sing, and the creative mind should be free to imagine. And the creative work they produce should be free to anyone who’d like to use it for their own profit on an advertising-festooned website.
Let’s just look at that quote, shall we?
We know it’s real… It’s not been forced or paid for.
‘Real.’ That’s the holy grail, of course. We want writing to be genuine and real and heartfelt; we despise the false and the fake. The opposition here is clear: either writing is ‘real’ and from the heart, or it is ‘forced’ and thus insincere. And what could cause someone to write in this ‘forced’ and fraudulent way?
Well, the nimble coupling of “forced or paid for” shows us that. The villain here is greed, of course, sordid financial considerations. Writing, according to this, has either literary worth or financial worth but not both. In fact, assigning financial worth by paying writers negates the potential worth of what they write. Because if it’s paid for, it’s not real. Instead of writing because your Muse compels you, like a proper artist, you’re just doing it for filthy lucre. You sell-out scumbag.
Let’s be honest: if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.
That all seems rather at odds with the internal memo from Arianna Huffington quoted here for a HuffPo strand saying they should:
start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity and grace.
You know what’s a real challenge for many people? Paying their rent; feeding their families; keeping afloat. You know what makes that harder? Not being paid.
I face the challenge of my monthly bills with ‘perseverance’ because I keep writing in the face of people who pirate my books and pay me puny sums for hours of work. I face it with ‘creativity’ because creativity, writing, is what I’ve got to sell. But I’m fucked if I’ll face it with ‘grace’ when someone who’s probably on six figures tells me that the very act of putting value on my work makes it intrinsically less valuable.
The thing that actually makes writing forced for many authors is the knowledge that you have to jam out another thousand words, meet that deadline, do that goddamn article, somehow wedge another book in this year because otherwise you aren’t going to earn enough. It’s not the act of being paid that leads to soulless writing for profit: it’s the fact of needing money in the first place.
Paying authors lets them write. It doesn’t make them less genuine, or less hungry (except in the actual literal sense, obviously), or less heartfelt, or less busy. It just makes them able to live and thus do their job, ie writing. In which it is exactly like the salary paid to the people who edit magazines and websites that ask writers to contribute for nothing, which I assume they don’t turn down because they’re keeping it real, man.
And you can trust me on this. After all, I wrote it for free.
KJ Charles is a full time writer and freelance editor. Rag and Bone is out from Samhain on 1 March.
Look, I would not normally blog about my holidays, but seriously. Mr KJC and I ditched the kids and went to Burma (now, but disputedly, called Myanmar) and it was perhaps the most extraordinarily interesting and beautiful place I’ve ever been. It’s also hauling itself out of the grinding poverty caused by years of abuse by the psychotic regime of the generals, and tourism is playing a large part in that, so I wanted to share the love. Plus I’ve had so many people ask about it that this seems the only sensible place to answer everyone at once. So without further ado, here are my holiday snaps. Feel free to bail out now.
It’s hot there. We went in December, the depths of winter, and it was maybe 33 in Yangon, 28-30 in Bagan. However, the nights are cold everywhere except Yangon. We went to a hill station, Kalaw, and it was about 4 degrees at night. Staying in unheated houses on our hill walk was bitter. Bring a jumper and thermal pyjamas if trekking.
December was getting very dusty and dry. Given the choice I’d suggest going in October, when the rainy season is recently over and everything is fresh and in bloom.
The food is really good. REALLY good.
Lots of curries and tons of vegetables. People will ask if you like it spicy with almost too much regard for timid Western palates.
Eat the street food, it’s amazing.The tiny quail’s eggs inside pancakes are particularly good.
You can’t drink the tap water, but pretty much everywhere uses bottled water for ice and often to wash vegetables for salad (an environmental disaster, I know). The only thing that made me sick were the malaria pills, which weren’t even necessary. Not only is there no malaria on the main tourist trail, I didn’t get bitten by a mosquito once, and I am normally an all-you-can-eat blood bonanza.
It’s really safe. No sexual hassle, no sense of threat anywhere–except on one occasion where our guide got in the way of a military person on holiday, who went psychotically, frighteningly Taxi Driver on us, screaming with unfettered rage, spittle flying–because someone had spoiled his photo. That was a reminder that the country is still emerging from the grip of one of the worst regimes in the world. So was the man we met who reminisced about his friends being jailed for eight years after the failed 1988 rebellion and emerging from prison utterly broken in mind and body. Terrible, terrible things have been done to this country. It still felt like a good place of good people. It deserves so much better.
All the guidebooks say to bring fresh, new, unfolded dollars. They aren’t kidding; people will hand tatty ones back. Same for 5000 kyat notes. Smaller denominations tend to resemble snot rags, and that appears to be fine.
This is a Buddhist country. You need sandals that can be easily slipped off for visiting temples, and clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Don’t be that tourist. I brought a bunch of stuff and ended up wearing a longyi most of the time because they’re so absurdly comfortable. So did Mr KJC in the end.
There is very little hassle, people are polite and dignified. Our guides took us to a lot of places like jaggery (palm sugar) makers, cigar makers, silver workshops etc.
This is the sort of thing I have always tended to avoid the hell out of, but at the moment this is still people working by hand, with extraordinary skills, using incredibly intricate traditional techniques, really worth seeing, and producing fantastic work. We brought *so much stuff* home.
Perhaps the worst thing I saw on my travels was in a fairtrade shop for a charity that is attempting to bring water tanks to rural villages, where women have to walk miles each way on mountain roads to get water. The shop was selling handmade goods like a hand-woven bag of wonderful quality for $12. A tourist–a European tourist who was doubtless spending thousands of Euros on her holiday–stood in there and bargained to drive down the price of fairtrade goods being sold for the benefit of people so poor their lives are basically medieval. What the hell can you say about people like that.
Rangoon, as was.
A thriving city visibly transforming itself into a modern capital, but still with markets on many corners, restaurants where you eat sitting on plastic stools on the road, missing paving slabs through which you can fall into open sewage, packs of dogs roaming the street and howling at night.
If you like cities, this is the absolute best; we stayed five days, just roaming through crowded streets, checking out the crumbling colonial architecture, exploring the fabulous markets, eating any amount of wonderful things, and people-watching.
If you don’t like cities, just go to Shwedagon Paya, which is pretty much a Buddhist St Mark’s Square.
The stupa is covered in real gold, estimated value $30bn, and topped with diamonds.
World Heritage Site doesn’t begin to describe this. It’s a massive plain with over 2500 pagodas, stupas and temples, many a thousand years old. I mean, there are so many. It’s incomprehensible; it leaves you slack-jawed.
Many have old frescos and paintings, you can go into some of them and watch the sunset over the plain, or splurge on a hot air balloon trip.
Hti’s Cocktail Bar does the best rum sours we had in Myanmar (the local Mandalay rum is excellent). Their happy hour is a two-for-one deal, which they interpret as ‘if you order two rum sours we’ll bring you four’. I’m not going to argue with that.
A hill station, with plenty of old colonial buildings and a big military presence because of rebels in the northern Shan State. It’s an interesting place to roam.
It also has an absolutely fantastic dive bar that only serves rum sours (brutal ones), with everyone huddled round the circular bar from the cold, half locals and half tourists, talking in five languages at once, and a guy on guitar singing Coldplay songs in Burmese.
Trek to Inle
You could easily walk Kalaw to Inle in two days, one night. (It’s downhill; the other way would be very hard work.) Don’t even think about doing it without a guide, you’re a long way from rescue helicopters here. Our walk looped through fields and forests and over railway lines.
It was outstandingly, staggeringly beautiful. This is a hill walk, you don’t need big trekking boots. Our guide wore flip flops.
We stopped in various villages. Tribe is still a big thing in Burma, there are maybe 130 ethnic groups, and people in neighbouring villages have mutually incomprehensible languages.
Most of the agriculture is done by hand in the hills of the Shan state, and many villages are self sufficient, producing their own oil and rice.
There was no running water where we stayed overnight, electricity only from solar panels, and that very limited. Washing facilities are a bucket of water outside. We brought travel backgammon and played by torchlight because it was pitch dark by 6.30. The stars were beyond belief.
Glorious. A huge lake fringed by houses on stilts. People grow food on floating rafts of earth and compost that can be moved around and staked into place. I can’t tell you how lovely this place is.
A village off Inle Lake that is basically a big market, and an incredible area of ruined stupas. Just, honestly, jawdropping.
We didn’t go to Mandalay, but everyone we spoke to who did says it’s a concrete traffic jam. We didn’t make it to Mawlamyine either but I really wish we had, it sounds stunning.
Basically, this was the trip of a lifetime and a massive privilege to have the chance, and if you are thinking about it and in a position to go, I can’t say enough good things. Happy to answer questions in the comments!
We had our flights and hotels booked for us, and guides arranged where necessary, through Pro Niti Travel, who are a local firm and were absolutely excellent. I recommend wholeheartedly.
Ending the year with a bang here…
I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed the contract for a second trilogy with Loveswept (Penguin Random House, publishers of the Society of Gentlemen).
Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé and the dishonest, the trilogy is about high birth, low life, family secrets, blackmail, lies, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name loud and clear, with pictures. A pornographer and a socialist join forces to investigate murder in London’s sexual underworld; a fraudulent spiritualist and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret; a music-hall trapeze artist may not survive an unexpected inheritance unless a private enquiry agent can find some answers.
You may be familiar with the works of Wilkie Collins, who was basically Dickens on crack. He wrote balls-to-the-wall sensation fiction full of murder and inheritance shenanigans and people unmentionable in polite society, and did so while drinking laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) by the pint, chased down by champagne. Well, this is my go at Wilkie Collins, though not at his personal habits unless things deteriorate quite considerably over here.
This is a mostly m/m romance trilogy—it includes my first genderqueer main character—and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into this project. More news as it comes!
I am also making my first venture into self-publishing with ‘A Queer Trade’. This 16K story, first published in the Charmed & Dangerous anthology, introduced Ned Hall and Crispin Tredarloe, who star in the forthcoming novel Rag and Bone (coming from Samhain, March 2016). I’m bringing out ‘A Queer Trade’ in early February as a separate edition. How about this cover by Catherine Dair?
‘A Queer Trade’ and Rag and Bone are both set in the Charm of Magpies world, running alongside the Magpie stories. ‘A Queer Trade’ happens in the summer of A Case of Possession, and Rag and Bone takes place simultaneously with the opening action of Jackdaw. (You don’t have to read ‘A Queer Trade’ to follow Rag and Bone, but as with any series, it helps to know what’s gone on, and they are reasonably closely linked. Anyway, I like it.)
Rag and Bone comes out on 28 March, and here’s the cover again (Angela Waters for Samhain) for the sheer glorious loveliness of it. I might have to write about 15 more of these.
In other news, A Seditious Affair is now out in ebook and audio, and the reviews are pretty nice so far.
This book is, in all ways, an absolute triumph for KJ Charles. (Binge on Books)
A fabulous installment in what is shaping up to be a wonderful series (Joyfully Jay, 5*)
I’m not one to sob over a book, but I’ll admit to having a tight throat on a couple of occasions. It’s all glorious. (Sinfully, 5*)
A Seditious Affair is not a fluffy read but it is a story you can really sink your teeth into. It’s complex, sensual, raw and gosh darn it – SUPER romantic. It’s one of my favorite reads of 2015. (For What It’s Worth)
Let me tell you why this novel is so phenomenal that I skipped two meals and disconnected my phone so I could read it uninterrupted. … heart-wrenching romances, clever characters, buckets of chemistry, and a conflict that keeps your turning pages as fast as your e-reader allows you. (Just Love, 5*)
Ms Charles has done an amazing job of weaving a compelling and deeply romantic love story through the rich tapestry of real historical events. … I was completely won over by both Silas and Dominic, who are wonderfully drawn, strong characters, and by the sheer depth of emotion that lies between them… Without doubt, A Seditious Affair is one of the best books I’ve read this year. (All About Romance, A+)
That’s it from me for now. I’m signing off for Christmas and then off on holiday, back in mid January. Season’s greetings, happy new year, and see you in 2016 for more books!
I want to take a moment here. The Secret Casebook is a gay Victorian occult detective romance rooted in British folklore and Victorian pulp. It started off as a squib, a short story for an anthology, but the characters wouldn’t go away. It led to a collaboration with Jordan L Hawk (Remnant, still free!) which remains one of my most enjoyable writing experiences ever. And then when I wrote the whole Casebook it turned into a story about stories, and writing, and hiding, and the toll taken by concealment and social injustice. In some ways it’s a pulp paranormal romance romp and in some ways it’s very serious indeed, and it’s a novel in short stories which is not exactly usual anyway, and to be honest I’ve always felt grateful to my editor Anne Scott and publisher Samhain for letting me have my head and do it, because I couldn’t have blamed them for asking, ‘what the hell is this?’ (They didn’t just let me have my head: they gave me a gorgeous Kanaxa cover. Can’t ask for more.)
And now it’s walked away with two wins in the Rainbow Awards including joint Best Gay Book, which…wow. So there you go. I’ll just be over here purring quietly for the next month.
I’m immensely proud of and honoured by all of this. Huge thanks to my editors and publishers (Samhain, Loveswept, JCP Books), and I recommend checking out the full Rainbow Awards results for what I can only describe as a massive and magnificent shopping list. So many excellent books, so much work put into this by judges and organisers, and publishers and editors and cover artists (let alone the authors). It’s a privilege to be part of it.
In other news (but still me me me, sorry), the blog tour for A Seditious Affair begins tomorrow, with the book publishing on 15th December. I have done lots and lots of posts about stuff, and there’s giveaways running, so do check the stops out. Links go to site homepages.
Just Love Romance 09-Dec Excerpt
Ellie Reads 10-Dec The Past and Points of View
Boys in our Books 11-Dec A Kink without a Name
Sinfully… 12-Dec Putting the Romance into History
The Breakfast Octopus 13-Dec Interview
All About Romance 14-Dec Mind Your Language. On getting historical vocabulary rightish
Ever After Romance 15-Dec Standalones and Overlaps: telling several stories at once
Joyfully Jay 17-Dec Historical attitudes and Regency Radicals
I will probably mention it when the book publishes. *cough*
Earlier in the year, when the appalling earthquake hit Nepal, I made a deal with the members of my Facebook chat group. If they’d donate to the Disaster Emergency Committee to help Nepal, I’d write them a short story set in the world of my book Think of England.
So they did, raising a little over $2000. And I did, writing a short from Daniel’s point of view.
I’m now making the story generally available: find it in the Free Reads section of my website. You can get it as a pdf, with no restrictions; however, if you like it, and you’re in a position to donate to the Nepal fund, please consider doing so. Nepal is still in desperate straits, they need help, and if you enjoy the story and have even just a couple of bucks to spare, it will make a difference.
‘Song for a Viking’ is 3,500 words, and it overlaps the last chapter of Think of England. If you haven’t read Think of England it’ll be no good to you. Sorry. If you have, you may wish to refresh your memory of the ending first so you see what’s going on.
It was fun to write from Daniel’s point of view, and to go a bit beyond where I left our heroes in that book; I hope you enjoy it!
*The story is not precisely free, because it was brought to you by the generous donations of the KJ Charles Chat Group (the Facebook group where I talk about my books, give advance news, and occasionally post exclusive extracts, deleted scenes and whatnot). If you’d like to join the group, click here; if you feel like expressing your appreciation or helping some people who need it, donate to the Nepal fund right here.
Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.
Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.
Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”
Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”
Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”
That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.
This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.
This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.
Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.
Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.
Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.
Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.
He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.
“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”
Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”
Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.
I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:
- You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
- The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
- There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.
This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.
Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”
Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”
Did you spot the jump?
*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***
We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:
She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.
Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:
She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.
And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.
Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:
“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.
Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?
David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.
*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***
The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.
So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.