This post ought to be filed under “Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious”. I hope most of you reading it will mutter “duh” and move on. Everyone else, kindly have it tattooed on an unobtrusive body part.
The author’s biggest mistake is not, as you may think, having your heroine gaze into a mirror itemising her lush hair, full lips and high, firm breasts while feeling insecure about her ability to attract men. That’s #2. I’m talking about contracts.
Let’s start with some true stories.
Friend: [tells me about a complex set up she’s doing with a fellow creator involving transferring large sums of other people’s money]
Me: You’ve got that down in a contract, right?
Friend: Oh, I wouldn’t want to ask for a contract, that would suggest I didn’t trust her.
At a conference contracts panel
Me: Hands up who isn’t clear what “Grant of Rights” means in a publishing contract.
[most hands go up]
Me: Keep your hand up if you’ve signed a publishing contract.
[most hands stay up. Embarrassed laughter.]
And in general:
Author: I don’t understand what all this legalese means but Publisher has always treated me well in the past, so I’m signing.
Author: I can’t believe I’m really gonna be published! I got the contract today and you better believe I signed it right away and sent it back before they could change their minds LOL!!!
Author: My brother deals with loads of contracts for the local council. He looked over it and he reckons it’s fine.
If that lot didn’t make your eyes bleed, you need to know more.
Contracts are scary, dull, and full of incomprehensible jargon. Nobody likes reading them, nobody likes negotiating them. But if you are an author looking to sign with a publisher, you have to read, and understand, and negotiate. It is culpably foolish not to.
The publisher’s job, and thus the job of everyone who works for them, is to make money for the publisher. Not for the author–that’s just a side effect which keeps the business lubricated. I have worked in publishing my whole life, over two decades, half a dozen companies. I have been a commissioning editor and a managing editor; I have negotiated, issued, and amended contracts, and dealt with rights exploitation and reversion. I was a publisher long before I was an author. And I know what I am talking about when I say that the publisher does not approach the contract thinking, “What are the most favourable terms we can possibly give?”
Writers are at a disadvantage here because, generally, we want to be published. We want to believe in the goodwill of the publisher with whom we’re dealing; we’re afraid of rocking the boat by being stroppy and asking too much. We probably can’t afford lawyers at all, and almost certainly don’t have access to an experienced publishing contract lawyer; many of us are unagented. Our eyes glaze as we read, and we’re not really sure what a lot of it means, but, you know, they publish lots of people, don’t they? The editor is lovely; authors say nice things about the publisher on Facebook. Surely it’ll be fine?
No. It is never okay to sign something you don’t understand. Your trust in the publisher’s goodwill will not get your rights or money back when things go wrong. Your unwillingness to read boring legalese isn’t an excuse, it’s an Achilles heel that covers your entire leg.
You should not sign an unexamined contract even if you trust the other party so much you’d get a tattoo of their logo. Because the best of us make mistakes. A contract may unintentionally fail to include, say, a payment schedule, or a date by which the book must be published, or a means by which the author can act on non-performance. The person drafting it can have deleted a clause by accident [raises hand] or just not thought to include something. Contracts are complex and boring, which is a great combination for producing errors. And stuff goes wrong. Relationships deteriorate, people get into bad situations. Some problematic publishers are scam artists from Day One; some start off well but get in over their heads. Some contracts are drafted by spectacularly incompetent lawyers; some have quite evidently not seen a publishing law expert at all.
Checking the contract
It is not an implication of bad faith to scrutinise the contract with great care, or to ask what clauses mean, or to negotiate more favourable terms. This is what the contracts process is for. If you aren’t prepared to take the contract seriously, you might as well just hand over your MS and ask the publisher to give you money sometime. (Don’t do that.)
The opinion of your brother who does contracts for the council is worthless (on your publishing contract at least; I’m sure he’s a great guy otherwise). You need someone who knows what they are talking about and can see potential pitfalls, and you are probably better off talking to a publisher who isn’t a lawyer than a lawyer who isn’t a publisher. The publisher might see what’s missing.
Some professional bodies such as the Society of Authors will scrutinise contracts for members. The RWA does not do this for individuals, although they did, admirably, pay for a legal opinion on a recent contract amendment that affected a lot of authors (including me). An agent ought to assess contracts for you, and have a lawyer to call on. If they don’t, or don’t ever suggest changes, get a new agent. If you have a friend in publishing or know an experienced author, you might call on them for an extra pair of eyes, but at your own risk, and be aware it’s a big ask.
Watch out if you ask an author at the same publisher. Many authors, for understandable psychological reasons, fall into a “my publisher right or wrong” attitude. Ignore anyone who tells you to have faith in a publisher, human or corporate. This is a business, not a family, and certainly not a church.
I know this isn’t easy, and many people just throw their hands up and sign for lack of other recourse. But you can protect yourself, starting by learning to read contracts. If you’re capable of writing a publishable book, you’re capable of grasping the basic principles of a publishing contract. If you have the courage to put your writing out for people to buy, read, and review, you have the courage to write “Please explain clause 4” or “This clause doesn’t cover everything, please add…” And you will always be the person most concerned to protect your own interests. Nobody else in the process is going to put you first. Trust me on that.
There are tons of helpful posts by experienced authors, agents, and contract people out there. Some good information on Contracts 101 here and also here. I am not a lawyer or a contracts expert so I won’t presume to offer a checklist. I will, however, outline a few of the things that can go wrong, to give you an idea of the wonderful and exciting possibilities that await.
Grant of rights
Rights are everything in publishing. Most publishers will ask for all the rights they can get. If you don’t understand what rights are, do not sign anything till you do. Go away and learn or you will get screwed.
The publisher ought to specify which rights they are taking, in what languages and regions, and for how long. So you might grant World English Language electronic publishing rights for a seven-year term, or World rights, all languages, all editions and formats, for the full term of copyright. (Which means till after you’re dead.)
Everything not explicitly specified as going to the publisher should be reserved to the author. Do not accept open-ended wording like ‘all media forms currently in existence and hereinafter invented’. Traditional contracts routinely used that, and when ebooks came along it gave publishers electronic rights that they never negotiated or paid for, and which in a huge number of cases they will neither use nor release. If an older in-copyright book isn’t in e, chances are a publisher is sitting on the rights. It’s not worth their financial while to digitise the book, but it would be giving away an asset to return the rights to the author, so they don’t. Business, remember?
Things like audio rights and translation rights can be licensed to other publishers and can make a lot of money. If you grant, say, audio rights to the publisher, they will take a cut (specified in the contract) on any deal they set up. If you retain those rights you/your agent can sell them directly to an audiobook publisher, or you can arrange an audio version yourself. That’s a lot of work and you need to decide what’s best for you.
Publishers often demand subsidiary rights and then leave them unused, to the author’s impotent fury. Don’t sign these away without a “use it or lose it” clause: you give the publisher, say, 12 or 18 months from publication date to exploit those rights, after which period the author can request reversion (getting them back) if they haven’t been used. That gives the publisher a fair chance to make money but lets the author regain control if the publisher doesn’t do the work. And you can of course leave the rights with them after the expiry of that period.
If the publisher insists on controlling audio and translation but won’t agree to a “use it or lose it” clause, you will have to make your peace with never seeing any of those rights exploited, never making any money from them, never having an audiobook or a translation–because that is almost certainly what will happen. My own failure to insist on a “use it or lose it” clause is why my most popular series is not yet in audio, and why two of my other series will probably never be available in print. It is not something I will omit again.
It is not fun to fume in hopeless rage while a publisher sits on rights they will never use, but won’t revert, and it happens all the time. Publishing is a rights business and publishers hang onto rights like Gollum with the ring.
Failure to Publish
A crucial and often-omitted clause that covers when the publisher doesn’t publish the book, or doesn’t do so in a timely fashion. This is far more common than you may think. What you need is a set term in which the book must be published starting from delivery of the MS, and right of reversion if it isn’t. For example: “The Publisher will publish the Work within 12 months of delivery of the completed manuscript unless otherwise agreed in writing between Author and Publisher. If the Publisher fails to do so, the contract will automatically terminate and all rights will revert to the Author.”
The key here is to have the period start from your action, and not from any act of the publisher. (If they insist on the start being acceptance of the MS, then you need a specified time period, eg “at acceptance of the MS or within six weeks of delivery, whichever comes first”.) A small press of which I have heard has an 18-month failure to publish term that starts when the book is assigned an editor. That publisher has been known to sit on MSS for a year or more before assigning an editor, who then doesn’t even read the damn thing for another year, and there is nothing the author can do about it.
A refusal to include a decent failure to publish clause when asked is a flag so red your eyeballs should ignite. Use the flames to set fire to the draft contract and run away.
A large publisher’s boilerplate contract might forbid you to publish a competing work for a period (eg 2-6 months) either side of the publication date. Fine if you write massive non-fiction tomes once every decade, less so if you want to publish five romances a year. Make this extremely specific (“no competing work of male/male paranormal romantic fiction set in medieval France”). Otherwise signing a series to be published at four-month intervals might make it impossible for you to publish anything else in your genre that year.
Option clauses, giving the publisher first dibs on your next book, can be a problem. You don’t want to have a vile experience with a bunch of jerks and then find you’re obliged to submit your next book to them. Georgette Heyer wanted so desperately to get away from her detective-novel publisher that she wrote Penhallow, a murder mystery where the victim doesn’t die till 2/3 of the way through and we see who the murderer is as they do it. I assume the working title was Shove Your Option Up Your Arse. I have also heard of authors with popular series writing drafts in which their central couple die, purely in order to get out of options. Downside: the publisher might accept it anyway, and then you’re stuffed.
Term and Reversion
What triggers the end of contract. A “full term of copyright” contract may conclude if the book is not available for sale in any edition, which means never given that ebooks can sit on Amazon forever at no cost to the publisher. If you must sign a term of copyright contract make sure there’s a sensible sales threshold below which you can revert, such as fewer than 500 copies sold at full price in a 12-month period. But frankly, consider before signing if you’re ready never to have your book in your control again. (Several author advocacy bodies are trying to get rid of these lifetime contracts: see here for more.)
For smaller presses there is likely to be a set contract term, e.g. seven years from date of contract, after which the author may request reversion at any time. Make sure the reversion process is laid out and simple. Some publishers have rolling renewal clauses, e.g. a two-year contract term, but the contract automatically renews annually unless the author requests return of rights in writing six weeks before the renewal date. This sort of arrangement has no obvious purpose other than to trap authors into another year’s contract against their will.
These are only a few of the possible pitfalls. I haven’t even mentioned the big one, money, and there are many more. Many. What if your book isn’t professionally edited, or the editor demands unreasonable changes? Do you get a meaningful say on the cover? Are there provisions for redress in the case of publisher breach?
It may sound like I’m saying authors should fear and distrust contracts. Not at all. A good contract is the thing most likely to protect your working relationship with a publisher, by spelling out exactly what both sides’ rights and obligations are, with dates, and allowing for redress if those obligations aren’t met. That’s a sound basis for a business relationship, which is what the publisher-author relationship is. It is not a family, or a friendship based on warm feelings of trust. Good intentions, fine promises, and cute dog pictures are all great things for a publisher to offer in addition to a rock-solid well-drafted contract; they do not replace it.
It is absolutely fine to scrutinise the contract, ask for clarification, demand extra clauses and alterations to wording, or ask for clauses to be struck out. That’s negotiation. And you don’t have to be afraid that the publisher will withdraw your offer for asking. (That has happened once in my 20 year experience, and I’ve worked on contract negotiations that took two months and made me afraid to open my inbox. The one where we withdrew the offer was far, far beyond that.) There are of course publishers who will offer you ‘take it or leave it’ terms; to me this is a massive red flag. Consider: if this is how they’re treating you when you can still walk away, what will it be like when you can’t?
A bad contract is worse than no contract, just as a bad publisher is worse than no publisher. It may not seem that way when you’re desperate for publication; it bloody well will five years down the line. And you may feel that a publisher has you over a barrel now, but that barrel will not become more comfortable if you sign a document that allows them to keep you there for seven years.
Signing a contract without full consideration is the biggest professional mistake you can make. This game is hard enough at the best of times. Make sure you read the rulebook before you play.
KJ Charles has worked for seven publishers as an editor (including many, many contract negotiations) and with four as an author, and has made every possible mistake in that time.
Her newest release is An Unseen Attraction with Loveswept.
I watched the animated film Storks the other day. There are many silly things about this film, but the one that stuck in my throat was this.
Here is a stork.
Here are the storks in Storks.
Those are seagulls. Look at the heads. Look at the beaks. Seagulls.
This was bugging me the next morning such that I was forced to tweet.
There’s an obvious answer to that which Chesterton sums up very well in one of the Father Brown stories:
“It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.”
AKA: they’re bloody seagulls. Obviously.
Chesterton’s explanation is true as far as it goes: if a book presents us with something that we know to be wrong, without explanation, we don’t accept it. Obviously, if London is made of sentient jelly which has the power to suck down Tube stations and spit them out again in different places and that’s why Oxford Circus is now south of the river, that’s a perfectly good reason. I will happily suspend my disbelief, if you just give me a hook to hang it off.
For an implausible thing to feel right and true in a story, it must have a reason. If there isn’t a reason, it’s unconvincing. But if every implausibility has a different reason, what you get is a mess.
In the alt history programme SS-GB we accept any amount of divergence from reality because it all flows from the same point of deviation: the Nazis won. (And therefore Churchill is dead, and therefore swastikas everywhere, etc.) We accept all that immediately from the basic premise. However, if SS-GB decreed that everyone in the UK was legally obliged to have a cat, we’d all be sitting up and saying, “What?” because that doesn’t arise from the premise. It requires us to be given and accept a second, unrelated explanation. (“In this reality Hitler was super fond of cats.”) It’s not just that it deviates from the real world in which I live; it also diverges from what I thought to be the case for the fictional world in which the Nazis won.
And this is the point about economy of deviation. Deviations that come back to a single premise (“there are ghosts”; “the city is made of jelly”; “people have superpowers”) can be the root of a massive branching and flowering tree of story, and lead to all kinds of weird and wonderful things, and we’ll happily go with them because they flow from the initial premise. But unrelated deviations requiring separate explanations—or, worse, which are unexplained–sap at the verisimilitude of the story because we like things to fit.
There’s a famous statistics puzzle that goes as follows:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?
- Linda is a bank teller.
- Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
The correct answer is 1. It is more probable that one thing will happens than that two will. (Think of it this way: the odds of A happening are better than the odds of A happening and also B happening.)
But this is counter intuitive for humans. The majority of people will go for option 2, and this is why we say lies, damn lies and statistics. We have been given a story that leads us to feminist and not to bank teller, therefore bank teller alone is a less plausible outcome for humans than feminist bank teller because it doesn’t fit the story. It diverges from the facts we have; it requires a second explanation; it isn’t convincing. Option 1 may work for statisticians; it doesn’t work for novelists at all. (This is the principle of Occam’s Razor and Chekhov’s Gun: we don’t want dozens of different reasons for things.)
To return to Storks: I am not bothered by the base concept of “storks actually create and deliver babies” because that’s a given for the universe. I am also not bothered by the stork having teeth inside its beak
horrifying though that is, because anthropormorphism is part of the animated universe. Those are both givens of the story. But I am bothered by the storks looking like seagulls, because that is a divergence from my world which is unexplained by anything in the film. It’s not based on anything; it doesn’t lead from or flow to anything. It was done for the convenience of the animators (just as a pivotal row in a romance novel may arise because the author feels “we need a row here” rather than out of the characters and their situation). And as such, it feels troubling, annoying, and deeply implausible in a film which features a submarine made of wolves.
Readers of An Unseen Attraction will be aware that our hero Clem’s housekeeper makes a pretty good ginger biscuit as a cure-all for distress.
The ginger biscuits were not long in coming, and Clem was pleased to see their restorative effect. He wasn’t sure what Polly put into them, and nor was anyone else; there were women up and down Wilderness Row formally Not Speaking to her because she refused to give out the recipe. Clem didn’t have a sweet tooth in general but could happily have eaten a plateful at a sitting, and they had much the effect on the system that a stiff drink had on people in books. Rowley nibbled an edge listlessly, sat up, took a second one, and let his hunched shoulders relax a little for the first time since he’d come back.
Clem smiled at him. “They are good, aren’t they? But you do have to have something terrible happen to you first, because she doesn’t like to waste the ginger.”
Well, if you’re more generous with your ginger than Polly, here’s a recipe. I hope nothing terrible happens first.
- 100g butter (at room temperature)
- 100g caster sugar
- 75g fine brown sugar (or you can use 175g caster and no brown if you prefer)
- 1 medium egg
- 1.5 tbsp golden syrup
- 250g self raising flour
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 150g crystallized ginger chunks (chopped to appropriate chunks-for-cookies size)
- 2 tsp ginger liqueur (completely optional)
- Pre-heat the oven to 180/ Gas Mark 4.
- Beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the egg and golden syrup (pro tip: if you oil the spoon very lightly before measuring out the golden syrup, it just slides right off into the bowl and makes life much easier) and the liqueur if using, and continue beating until well combined. Mix the flour and ground ginger into the biscuit mixture and stir until combined. Stir in the crystallized ginger.
- The dough will be sticky. Shape into 20 walnut-sized balls and place on greased or lined baking sheets. They spread so don’t crowd them. Best to use 3 trays.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden. The tops will crack and the inside will look a little ooshy. Do not be tempted to cook till they look completely done: they will firm up as they cool, and you want the chewy inside.
- Leave on the baking tray until cool enough to transfer to a wire rack (they will be very soft when you take them out of the oven). Allow to cool completely before serving insofar as that’s possible. I mean, warm is fine. Look, just let them cool enough to firm up, okay? Or at least, don’t burn your mouth.
NB: the ginger liqueur is totally optional. I happen to have a bottle of The King’s Ginger in the house so I use it; don’t make a special trip to the shop. However, if you do have it, you can also make the ginger equivalent of a Kir Royale: put a splosh of ginger liqueur in a champagne glass, top up with sparkling wine for a fizzy, fiery drink. This is a Ginger Royale or, as we call it at ours, a Prince Harry.
In which I introduce my new Victorian Sensation queer romance trilogy, with FAQs and illustrations. (Art by the ubertalented Mila May.)
What do you mean, Victorian Sensation?
I’m glad you asked me that. The Victorians were far from being the repressed nothing-on-Sunday bores of popular imagination. The snobs and the moralisers are always with us, but if you look at what people were actually up to–books, plays, newspapers–they loved scandal, drama, melodrama, murder, sex, mysteries, booze, romance, sentiment, off-colour jokes, raucous music hall, theatrical spectacle, and pretty much everything that is fun.
Victorian Sensation was basically what we now call genre fiction, on crack. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes! If you fancy a read, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon were the acknowledged rulers of the genre. I particularly like Lady Audley’s Secret with its antiheroine running rings round the posh boys; Armadale is distinguished by a magnificent villain continually off her face on drugs, and no fewer than four characters called Allan Armadale, one of whom very reasonably calls himself Ozias Midwinter to avoid attention.
What I’m getting at is, this is not going to be drawing-room tea parties, and nobody is putting frills on their piano legs.
Go on, then, tell me about it.
The Sins of the Cities trilogy (obviously it’s a trilogy; everything Victorian happens in three volumes by law) is set in London, winter 1873, a year distinguished by one of the worst fogs ever recorded. We begin with An Unseen Attraction, in which we meet Clem Talleyfer, an unassuming lodging-house keeper with a lovely sweet pet cat.
Clem’s busy running his house, managing the lodgers, getting by, and maybe just slightly pining after his newest lodger: the taxidermist next door, Rowley Green. Meet Rowley.
Just two gentle, reserved, quiet men getting along. Two of the nicest characters I think I’ve ever written, actually. What could possibly go wrong?
Yeah, right, KJ. We’ve met you.
OK, so it’s possible things may take a very slight turn for the murdery. But just a bit.
You’re not fooling anyone but yourself.
Fine. Sex! Murder! Secrets in high places! Slumming! Mysterious strangers! Femmes fatales! Aristocratic families brought low! Ludicrously implausible coincidences! Everything happening in three volumes!
Ah yes. Three volumes?
Each book is a standalone romance featuring a separate couple, and each has a proper ending. But there’s also an overarching story running across all three books–so don’t expect all the loose ends to be tied up till book 3. They all feature the same cast of characters, many of whom are linked because they go to the Jack and Knave, a discreet and unassuming pub for a particular clientele. Would you care to meet some of the Jack and Knave’s regulars?
Go on, then.
We play the Diamonds in book 2, An Unnatural Vice. For now, meet Nathaniel, lawyer turned journalist, wealthy archbishop’s son, and upstanding member of society. Unfortunately, let’s just say, his love interest is very much a knave. (Nathaniel is kind of screwed.)
And here’s the Jack of Spades: private enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz. A practical man. His King of Spades…well, you’ll find out in due course. I couldn’t give everything away now, could I?
And that, for now, is where matters stand. A quiet taxidermist, a gentle-hearted lodging-house keeper, and his friends from the pub…oh, and the Queen of Hearts. Did I mention the Queen of Hearts?
Well, go on, then, who’s she?
That, my friend, would be telling.
The hands are dealt, the cards are on the table. Let the games begin.
A quick post re Samhain Publishing’s imminent closure and what that means for my books.
Samhain have announced that they will be shutting down, with their website going dark at the end of February. For me, the affected titles are the entire Charm of Magpies series including Jackdaw and Rag and Bone, and the standalone titles Think of England, Non Stop Till Tokyo, and The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. That’s…quite a lot of my books.
***If you bought books directly from the Samhain site, DOWNLOAD THEM.*** Get everything to your library. There should be time enough that the site won’t fall over from demand, unlike the disgracefully rushed ARe closure, but if you’re having problems, take screenshots.
Books will start going off third party vendors (Amazon, Kobo etc) at the beginning of March (again, if you have Samhain titles stored in the cloud, download now).
Print titles will be available for a while longer as stock is sold through, but if you really want a print copy of anything Samhain, consider buying it now.
March is when they’ll start officially giving authors their rights back. My books may not be available for a period while this chunters through. I haven’t decided on what I do next, but assuming I self pub, it will take a while to reformat, tidy up, and get new covers done, and if I move to another publisher it will take considerably longer. On the other hand, there will probably be cool new cover art. That’s always fun.
A bit of good news is that return of rights mean I will at last be able to do audio books. This is something readers have been asking for, and hopefully I can get that in motion soon.
More news once I work out what to do; fist bump to all the authors affected as well as the excellent professionals who worked with Samhain–designers, editors, in house staff. This is a sad ending, but I had a very happy relationship with Samhain for a long time, starting when they offered to publish The Magpie Lord and changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for that.
A more cheerful post about EXCITING NEW SERIES follows!
This year I mostly read the news, obsessively, while everything caught fire. But I also read some books.
I’ve been making more effort to review on Goodreads recently, in large part to jog my terrible memory. I didn’t think I’d been great about it this year, but in fact I still have enough fabby reads listed for a good hefty summary post, so here it is. Romance, SFFH (that’s sci fi, fantasy and horror) and a bit of non fiction.
I have been trying to diversify my reading and seek out more own-voices writers, particularly in romance—it was not flattering to me quite how much of a conscious effort that took at first—and it’s made a huge difference to my reading enjoyment, with the vastly increased range of ideas and perspectives, characters and topics and settings and lives on offer for me to splash in.
These are in no particular order apart from Documenting Light, which is first, and for which there is a giveaway if you scroll to the end. (But read the post first. I put effort into this, you know.)
A competent person would include covers but I have a stinking cold and a sick child, so, not competent.
Documenting Light by EE Ottoman (trans, m/nb)
If you’re going to read one book based on this rec list, make it this. Real, emotional, beautifully written, fascinating story of two people, one trans, one nonbinary, who are really just trying to get by and find one another. It’s all about being seen, now and in history; about small touches and little braveries that add up to big stuff, and it’s lovely.
A Champion’s Heart by Piper Huguley (m/f)
Extending her series about sisters finding love in the early years of the 20th century. This one is set in the Great Depression, with a boxer returning to find the woman he left behind. Superb historical detail—the black family’s journey out of the South is hair-raising; the casually dropped racism is hair-curling—and intense spirit of place and time, as ever with this author, who is also not afraid to show her previous heroines in an unsympathetic light. /applauds wildly/ Faith informs the book very heavily, but doesn’t offer easy answers.
Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (m/f)
This historical series is so good with its small-town setting and concentration on local life and interaction. This book is the story of a starchy valet turned butler and the freewheeling housemaid he falls in love with. It’s brilliant on the minutiae, which brings the atmosphere to life and feeds into the characters, and a hot, sweet romance too. And how often do you see servants in starring roles in British historicals? Not enough, that’s how often.
Fit by Rebekah Wetherspoon (m/f)
Another great series, this one contemporary. I glommed all three in like 36 hours but the first remains my favourite. BDSM that doesn’t take itself seriously—this book is laugh-out-loud funny—and a gorgeous heroine who is properly fat and doesn’t have to get thin for her HEA. All too rare. Loved it.
Eleventh Hour by Elin Gregory (m/m)
I LOVE THIS. A world weary spy is partnered with a back-office chap of no experience but a talent for cross-dressing in order to carry out a surveillance operation on an international terrorist of the Joseph Conrad school. Wonderful 1920s atmosphere, great sexual tension, utterly delightful leads, exciting plotting. Just gigantic fun.
Daughters of a Nation by Alyssa Cole et al (m/f)
A historical romance anthology from the authors of the excellent The Brightest Day collection. Tough, timely POC-focused romance set at various point in the struggle for suffrage in America. This is important stuff that needs to be remembered and written and these authors are doing a cracking job of that.
Gays of our Lives by Kris Ripper (m/m)
I love this whole contemporary series with all sorts of leads, including f/f and trans characters, and recommend them all so far. This one is laugh-out-loud funny at points and its narrator, Emerson, may be the grouchiest hero ever committed to paper, a gloriously misanthropic git.
Coffee Boy by Austin Chant (trans, m/m)
I don’t think I can improve on my description of this as a hot bath and fluffy towel of a book. Delightful happy-making short read with a prickly young trans man and a really irritable boss getting to know one another. Give yourself a lunchtime lift.
Roller Girl by Vanessa North (trans, f/f)
A really lovely, uplifting book about the women of a roller derby team. I kind of want a book about each one of them. Loved Tina and Joe and all the female friendships and fun. Actually wanted to play roller derby for a brief moment. Lovely.
Shatterproof by Xen Sanders (m/m)
Dark, lyrical, weird, magical, scary. A very fairytale feel for a paranormal story about depression and despair, and about finding hope in the darkness. A super intense, immersive read of the kind that really takes over your brain. I loved it.
SF, Fantasy, Horror
The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L Howard
If you haven’t read the Johannes Cabal series and you like sarcastic and occasionally lethal necromancers, Lovecraftian parody, genre bending, and fun, oh boy you are in for a treat. I love all five books. For heaven’s sake read in order, this is #5. I think Johannes Cabal The Detective is my favourite but all of them are hilarious, plotty, gleefully demented and sometimes deeply warped.
Bonesy by Mark Rigney
I glommed the entire Renner and Quist series. American gothic horror with a sense of humour, pairing a redneck and a dodgy ‘priest’ investigating mysteries. Very likeable, frequently very horrifying indeed.
Skin Deep Magic by Craig Laurance Gidney
This and his other short story collection Sea Swallow Me are outstanding. Gidney is a terrific, inventive, evocative writer who ought to be more widely known. Romantic, fantastical, strange, sometimes really dark and scary. Superb stuff.
Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett
Is it another series I glommed like a cartoon squirrel going through a tree? Why yes it is. Absolutely wonderful fantasy with an understated m/m romance at the centre, delightful world building, huge warmth, interesting plots and a new one coming out next year oh my god I cannot wait. Read them all!
The Serpent by Claire North
The first of three linked spec fic novellas with a lovely concept about a mysterious mystic game-playing sect. You need to read all three, really, but I think this was my favourite. I want the author to write more in her Kate Griffin persona though, I miss Matthew Swift.
Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley
Sequel to the utterly glorious urban fantasy The Rook. I loved this one just as much. Ingenious, funny, twisty, well-plotted, lovely strong female leads, and vast quantities of gleeful inventiveness.
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones
Not sure whether to put this under romance or fantasy, both are valid. A nice twisty political/mystical conspiracy plot in a well developed mitteleuropeanish fantasy setting; a delightful slow burn f/f romance. Hugely readable fun.
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla et al
This has been getting column inches for a reason. A terrific collection of essays about the British immigrant experience, from all kinds of perspectives that often don’t get space. Often angry, often hilarious, always thoughtful. Should be required reading for every Brit.
Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight against Filth by Lee Jackson
Let’s not mess about. Either you read that title and thought, Wow, Victorian drains, plumbing and rubbish disposal? That sounds intriguing! or you didn’t. If you did, I highly recommend this. Packed full of fascinating and often stomach-churning facts.
I was thinking of writing a romance series about the Bright Young Things of the 20s and 30s, but then I read this book and realised I’d rather floss with barbed wire. It’s noteworthy they couldn’t even tolerate themselves. Really interesting social history of a generation at an extraordinary point in time, as long as you don’t mind shouting “Oh my God you insufferable entitled twat!” at the pages a lot. A useful companion to this would be Among the Bohemians, which is about people around the same period who were kind of like the Bright Young People but generally with less privilege and more talent, so you’ll be shouting “Oh my God you insufferable smug twat!” instead.
If you are going to read about the Bright Young Awfuls, I strongly recommend Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols which is a pre Vile Bodies expose novel, and also a queer romance under the thinnest possible veil, written in the 1920s.
Richmond Unchained by Luke G Williams
Biography of a black British boxer who competed for the English title, became a national superstar, and was a guard of honour at the Prince Regent’s coronation as George IV. An amazing story, as thrilling as any novel. The author’s a boxing journalist, and it shows because the accounts of Richmond’s two big fights are heart-stoppingly exciting.
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson
It’s about the history and practice of decapitation. What would you like me to say?
Because it’s Christmas and because I want people to read it, I am giving away an e-copy of Documenting Light to a randomly chosen commenter here. Just name one good book you read this year in the comments to be considered! Draw will be made on 16th December.
My most recent release was the story ‘The Price of Meat’ in the All In Fear queer horror anthology. Wanted, a Gentleman releases on 9 January, and then my new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities starts in February with An Unseen Attraction.
This is a general update blog post about me. I do post promo stuff occasionally in between rants about aristocratic titles and punctuation, you know.
Well, it’s been a hell of a year globally speaking, but an extremely quiet one for me, with only one book out. All that is about to change.
On 1 December, All in Fear releases. This is an anthology of queer horror which includes my penny dreadful alt-Victorian story ‘The Price of Meat’. A brief extract to give you the flavour:
In the time of England’s steep decline, when Victor II sprawled on the throne and lost colonies as carelessly as a child loses toys, there stood a number of institutions that should never have been permitted to exist. One was the foul and ancient liberty of Alsatia, to which we will return anon; another was Mr Fogg’s Asylum for the Weak-Minded, located to the west of London on the soot-grimed scrubland of Old Oak Common. It is there our story begins one cold, bright day in December 1870, as Mr Fogg himself conducted Johanna Oakley through its dark, draughty passages.
A corridor lined with heavy doors stretched in front of her, each with a great iron lock and a barred inspection hatch through which attendants might spy. Some hatches were firmly closed, keeping the unfortunates within closely confined; through the open ones came sounds. A sob; a laugh; a mutter of prayer, though whether to a merciful God, or to something quite different, Johanna could not tell. From one cell came the sound of a crying child: fearful, heartsick, hopeless weeping. She turned by instinct, but Mr Fogg grasped her arm.
“You don’t want to look in there.” His thin lips stretched over yellow, ridged teeth in a smile. “It is not a sight for a pretty young lady such as yourself.”
She detached his hand from her arm with unconcealed distaste. Mr Fogg’s smile widened to show both rows of teeth, and bony gums. “Such a privilege to be visited by a genteel young lady. I do adore young ladies. I cherish your delicate constitutions.”
Johanna’s hands tensed within their concealing muff. “Take me to Miss Wilmot now, if you please.”
Mr Fogg moved on, if possible at a slower pace than before, and paused to indicate a door with the head of his cane. “There’s a young lady in there, you see—” He smashed the cane against the door with such sudden violence that Johanna jumped, and a tiny, muffled shriek came from within. “Quiet!” he bellowed, and turned back to Johanna with an oily smile. “You see how nervous the patients are. We must regulate their behaviour for their own good. There is one lady in the separate rooms for whom the doctor prescribed a fortnight’s absolute silence and solitude to ease the habit of complaint for which her husband had her confined. Yet she continually breaks the regime by speaking out, to herself or the attendants, and then the fortnight must be started again, you see. Again and again.”
“How long have you kept her in solitary confinement for this?” Johanna asked.
“Oh, more than a year now. This is Miss Wilmot’s accommodation.”
Johanna looked at the thick, locked, barred door. “I hope you are treating my friend with the greatest respect and kindness, sir. You will answer for it if not.”
“Oh, we give her the most tender care,” Mr Fogg said, a smile oozing across his face. “The tenderest care for the tenderest flesh. Such a delicate young lady. You may have a half-hour only, and I must remain in the room. I cannot permit Miss Wilmot’s constitution to be upset.”
Next: a freebie. I’ve written a free coda, currently running around 6500 words, to the Society of Gentlemen series. It’s called A Private Miscellany, and it will be available free exclusively to my newsletter subscribers, coming in an email around 20 Dec (date tbc). Sign up here. You can always unsubscribe again, I won’t feel hurt, but they reasonably often have free stuff and tbh I send about 5 of these a year. I’m not an assiduous marketer. (It will be available to new subscribers after that date as soon as I master the technical challenge of setting up a welcome email. However, since I can’t set the clock on my oven, it might be safer to subscribe now.)
The freebie will be 100% meaningless if you haven’t read the Society of Gentlemen series, but they are ridiculously cheap and were rather well reviewed (“to truly appreciate the magnificence of this series you need to read the whole lot of them, preferably one after the other. This is because the stories are as intimately entwined as the lovers”), so why not treat yourself to some cravats and smut for Christmas so as not to feel left out?
Then! Bringing the new year in on 9th January is my new Georgian road trip Wanted, a Gentleman, which Romantic Times listed as a 4.5* Top Pick (“a romp of a novella. … a perfectly compact romance that shows a couple can be cranky and still head-over-heels for each other.”
AND THEN. In February, the new Victorian Sins of the Cities trilogy kicks off with An Unseen Attraction. Much more to come on that nearer the time, so I’m just going to put the cover here for now. Purr.
The trilogy will be publishing in Feb, June, and October 2017, assuming nobody tweets “I dare you to push the nuclear button ha ha chicken” at Donald Trump before then.
AAAAND FINALLY. I offered around the time of Brexit to give free development edits to British BAME aspiring romance authors. There’s a slot going still so if you are or know anyone who’d be eligible and likes FREE EDITS, please hit me up!
That’s my State of the Nation. Next time: probably more obscure quibbling about punctuation, tbh.
I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.
Instead, I’m going to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.
I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,
Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.
That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.
***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***
An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.
Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).
Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.
So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.
A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.
This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.
Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.
Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box. And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.
I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.
I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.
Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.
That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.
KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.
This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.
Last week I wrote about basic dialogue punctuation, and people wanted more, so here it is. If you aren’t up for XXXX Hot Ellipsis Action, bail out now.
In this post we’re going to do ellipses, em dashes, and the different impressions you can give of broken, hesitant, or simultaneous speech. Before we go any further, though, a reminder: Punctuation is not something handed down from on high. It is a convention by which writers attempt to convey the patterns of language—and language is spoken, not written. Punctuating dialogue is an exercise in making readers translate the marks on the page into dialogue that sounds the way you want in their head.
So don’t think, “I must make my dialogue punctuation correct according to CMOS*.” Think: “My punctuation must convey the way my characters are speaking.” And that has to be done within conventions (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy or whatever), because shared conventions are how writing works—but the aim, the goal, the point here is for you to represent your character’s cadences and meanings as accurately as possible.
*CMOS=Chicago Manual of Style, a collection of notes made by some people on how they thought American English should be written down. A style manual. Not to be confused with “an eternal and immutable universal truth”.
Break or trail?
An overview of basic em dash and ellipsis use and their different effects. I wrote on this subject in a previous blog post so I’m copying lots of it here to save my sanity.
… is an ellipsis (plural ellipses), and indicates hesitation or trailing off
— is an em dash and indicates a break or interruption
In the following string of examples, we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.
The dash here indicates Natalie shoving herself into Jenny’s speech, talking at the same time.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.
Here Natalie (OR IS SHE???) consciously interrupts to stop Jenny. We need the dash to show Jenny’s speech is broken.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
There was a massive explosion and the roof fell in.
Jenny is interrupted by an external factor.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?
“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.
A phonetic transcript might render this as “Yooouuu’re” as Jenny drags the word out in a pathetic attempt to pretend she hasn’t forgotten the name.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.
Jenny has Romance Heroine Speech Impediment. There is no cure..
Action within dialogue
You can use em dashes to work action into a speaker’s dialogue. People often get tripped by this, but once you grasp what the punctuation is doing it’s easy to tell which to go for.
Read the following. In both, Frederick is telling Edith he knows she shot Mabel. What’s happening differently?
“This”—he held it out to her as he spoke—“is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
“This—” he held it aloft then threw it onto the table with a clatter “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
*** pause for thought***
Example 1 is continuous speech. The action goes on simultaneously with the words. Therefore, the em dashes are outside the quotation marks because they are not part of the dialogue. In a playscript we’d represent it as:
FREDERICK: This is the gun with which you shot Mabel. [He holds it out as he speaks]
Example 2 is interrupted speech, therefore the em dashes go within the quote marks to show a pause in the flow of speech. However, the action is part of a continuity of Frederick doing stuff (speaking or acting) so it’s all part of the same sentence. Thus there is no cap or full stop on the interpolation. In a playscript:
FREDERICK: This [he throws it onto the table; she jumps] is the gun with which you shot Mabel.
You might think of it as “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel” vs “This! is the gun with which you shot Mabel” but we don’t punctuate like that outside Twitter.
Just ask yourself if the speech is continuous or interrupted and you’ll get this right.
A Digression: interpolations and point of view
If the interpolation is about someone who is not the speaker, you can risk confusing the reader. Be very wary. Here Frederick is speaking, but Edith is the subject of the interpolation.
“This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
That seems fine in isolation, but let’s have a look how it works in text.
She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?
Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
In Edith POV we could easily misattribute the dialogue to her. In Frederick POV, this risks looking like POV slippage. Frankly, I’d rewrite both, in the first example to clarify the dialogue attribution (probably ditching the break as overcomplicated), in the second to make Frederick the subject.
She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?
Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand, that he was pointing it at her. She let out a hoarse shriek as he said, “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” he pointed it at her and relished her shriek “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”
It’s easily done, so keep an eye out.
Stopping and starting
After a break, you may go back to where you left off; or you may go into a new sentence. Punctuate the second part accordingly.
“I would tell you”—he shrugged—“but I’d have to kill you.”
“I would tell you, but…” He gave her a helpless look. “Anyway, let’s talk about your mum.”
Equally, in interrupty dialogue, consider if the interruptions are new sentences or part of a single sentence (which may be shared between two speakers) and punctuate accordingly. Have a read of this and see how the different breaks work.
“The fact is—” Jim began.
“—you’re an alien,” Matt said over him. “We know, and—”
“We know and we don’t care!” Chloe interrupted. “We love you, Jim, only…”
She shot a desperate glance at Matt, who braced himself to say it. “Only, it’s the, uh, the…” he made waggly finger gestures “…tentacles.”
“But without the tentacles—”
“—which are kind of a big deal, if I’m honest—”
“—we wouldn’t even have noticed. Well, you know, the tentacles and the, uh… Well, we don’t need to talk about the smell.”
“The smell? But”—Jim was going red—“the smell is one of my best features.”
And, for your analytical pleasure, a breakdown. Kind of like the one this post is giving me.
Note on ellipses: There is any amount of disagreement on punctuating ellipses. British use doesn’t put a full stop after an ellipsis that ends the sentence (on the grounds that the ellipsis is the punctuation), US does.
If you trail off with an ellipsis, and then have an interpolation, you can punctuate for a new sentence or for an extremely hesitant single sentence.
“Yes, but…” He made a face. “You’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, starts again]
“Yes, but…” he made a face “…you’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, trails back on again to complete sentence]
You don’t put ellipses outside the quote marks. See this wrongness:
X “Yes, but”…he opened his hands…”you’re wrong.”
It doesn’t work because punctuating dialogue like this, outside the quotes, shows us the action is simultaneous with the speech, and the dialogue itself is continuous (without the interpolation it reads “Yes but you’re wrong.”). There is no hesitation happening anywhere, therefore it makes no sense to use ellipses. Use em dashes or move the ellipses inside the quote marks, depending on whether you mean a break or a hesitation.
Is this all immensely complicated and making you sweat? Okay, look. The line of dialogue “You think I’m lying but I saw an alien” can be presented in the following ways, and this is not an exhaustive list. Exhausting, but not exhaustive.
“You think I’m lying but…I saw an alien.” [no space]
“You think I’m lying but— I saw an alien.” [space after em dash, new sentence]
“You think I’m lying but…” He trailed off, then made a face. “I saw an alien.”
“You think I’m lying but—” he thumped the table in frustration “—I saw an alien.”
“You think I’m lying but”—his eye was twitching violently now—“I saw an alien.”
“You think I’m lying.” He sounded exhausted, almost despairing. His voice dropped to a mumble. “But I saw an alien.”
“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly, “but I saw an alien.”
“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly. “But I saw an alien.”
All of those are grammatically correct. All of them have different implications as to the cadence, the pauses, the meaning of the speaker, the rhythm of the prose. (Exercise: go through that list and ask yourself what each one says about how the line is delivered—tiny pause, bigger pause, with simultaneous action, as two separate parts…)
Working with editors
One final note here, but an important one.
The author’s job is to be aware of what you want your dialogue to say, and pick the punctuation that supports it. If you aren’t sure you’ve done it right, ask your editor for help. The editor’s job is to ensure you’ve done what you want to do correctly within the conventions.
If the editor suggests changing ellipses to em dashes “because you use ‘interrupted’ as a verb, and this section appears to be broken speech”, that is helping you use punctuation to support your meaning. That’s her job. Equally, if the editor points out that you’ve broken two-thirds of your dialogue with dashes and asks you to consider varying your structure because it’s becoming really noticeable, she’s doing what she’s paid for.
If, on the other hand, edits come back with ellipses changed to em dashes “because that’s house style” or “because CMOS says…” (rather than “because this is an interruption, not a hesitation”), that is not okay. CMOS doesn’t know what you meant in that sentence; house style is unlikely to cover every possible nuance of punctuation. Maybe house style will reflect your meaning as well as or better than your original, but maybe it won’t. You need to check this, and be sure that your meaning is the editor’s no.1 priority. (I’d like to say “a good editor won’t do this to you”, but there are publishers who enforce an inflexible house style on editors who would rather not, as well as plenty of places who hire people with no damn experience.)
The only real defence against bad advice is for you to be confident in your knowledge. I stet the hell out of attempts to change my punctuation in ways with which I disagree, but I have a lot of experience and an, uh, uncompromising personality. The more you learn, and the more you equip yourself with the tools of the trade, the more able you’ll be to say, “No, I know what I meant, and that’s how I want to express it.”
(I have Opinions on any form of editing that prioritises the style guide over the author’s voice, intent, or meaning. Buy me a pint some day and I’ll tell you all about it. Meanwhile, see here for the very useful word stet.)
KJ Charles writes, edits, and probably puts too much thought into punctuation. Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January, and don’t imagine for a second that comma was a casual choice. An Unseen Attraction, first in the new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities, follows in February, and before then there’s a short novella in a December horror collection. More on that soon!
*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.