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Let’s Talk About Stets

AKA how writers and editors deal with disagreement.

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

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

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

stet 1

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

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

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

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

Should You Stet?

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

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

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

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

Dots and Dashes

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie.”

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”

“Natalie.”

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

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

or

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

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

or

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

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

or

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

“Natalie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea and No Sympathy: the Invisible Editor

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 14.05.06

Editing is an underrated, underpaid skill in large part because it’s invisible. Good editing, in the reader’s experience, is a negative. Some people may note the absence of typos, or the lack of stumbles over poor sentence structure. Nobody but editor and author knows about the rambling, pointless plotline, the ending that weakened the whole book and had to be redrafted, the inexplicably omitted antagonist, irritating repeated word, massive plot hole, or 5000 words of unnecessary verbiage. By God you’ll see all that if it’s left in, and leave scathing reviews accordingly, but with a properly edited book, for all the reader knows, the author delivered an impeccable MS and every plot twist, satisfying scene and well structured ending is her genius. Nothing to do with anyone else, oh no.

And of course, because editors are invisible, you get people thinking they don’t need them. Authors who refuse to accept editing, self-published authors who say, ‘I’ll get my friend to read it over’. And, worse, people who work as editors without really understanding the job. People who think it’s about tidying up, who have no idea how to tackle deep structure or tonal issues or limp characterization, or how to do that without breaking an author’s heart.

Dinner party man: What do you do?
Me: I’m an editor.
Dinner party man: Don’t they have spellcheck for that?

I learned to edit working on travel guides. There is no room for sloppiness in a printed travel guide. There was no room for bringing them out late, either, since they are out of date from the day the author delivers. We used to edit in shifts, splitting MSS to finish them. People sometimes slept in the office. After that, I worked at a large romance publisher for several years, where the book turnaround was insanely fast. There is nothing like editing four books in a week and reading six slush MSS in between to get you good at X-raying a book, seeing the bones, and rearranging them to make a functioning skeleton. Do that enough and you don’t just have a vague feeling of wrong: you know exactly why this character’s decision weakens the book; why that scene, brilliant in itself, destroys the pacing, or alternatively needs to be twice as long; why these two plot points have to be rearranged; why this character ought to live rather than die.

I really feel this book should end on the obliteration of the entire human race.

(Editorial email from me to author. She agreed.)

As both an editor and an author who has benefited greatly from editing, I know how much work goes into this. I know how hard it can be to identify the problem with your own MS, and how hard it is to write the email that explains what has to be changed. I know that nobody wants to hear ‘massive rewrite’ and that it actually doesn’t feel that much better if the editor calls it a tweak. And mostly, I know that editors are the unsung heroes when it goes right, but the first in the firing line when it goes wrong.

Because, if you think for a moment, ‘This book is badly edited’ is kind of meaningless. What that actually says is, ‘This book is badly written and the editor didn’t fix it.’ But that’s the job. The author’s hacked out the raw material and the editor’s there to do anything from a light polish to a full-blown carving operation – but leaving no fingermarks, with no trace of her presence, just letting the story shine.

So when you read a book and you don’t notice anything wrong with it, spare a thought for the ninja editor, reading the clunky and the poorly structured, the repetitive and the nonsensical and the really quite alarming, the badly spelled and the just-not-quite-perfect…so you don’t have to.
_____________________________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor and author. Thanks to Andrea Pina for the inspiration for this post!

Body Parts All Over the Floor

There is a trend in editing these days which is much less fun than it sounds: the removal of what are known as Disembodied Body Parts.The idea is that it’s poor style to use the following constructions:

His eyes were on Mary.

His arm went round her waist.

Jane’s head was in her hands.

Apparently, there is a risk that readers will interpret these sentences as:

His eyeballs were on Mary’s lap.

His arm went round her waist, but his body had nothing to do with that and may have been elsewhere.

Jane had been decapitated and her corpse carefully arranged by a psychopath.

I’d have thought, if the reader is in any doubt at all about whether Jane is in a) despair or b) two separate pieces, the book has more problems than I can deal with here.

The construction undeniably lends itself to comically poor writing (‘her eyes followed him through the room and out of the door’).  But the prohibition seems to have gone from ‘don’t do this badly’ to ‘don’t do this at all’. I’ve seen all the (in my opinion innocuous) examples above flagged as actually wrong – as if a body part as subject turns readers into Martians, unable to parse simple sentences.

And in some cases, it apparently does. Sample comment from a writing forum thread:

prickI have a weary feeling that, if you asked this commenter, ‘Can I have a drink?’, he’d reply, ‘I don’t know, can you?’

I really doubt that more than one in a thousand readers would think twice about ‘he raised his eyes’ or ‘her head was in her hands’. That’s just how people use language  But the concept of disembodied parts has become a huge issue for many publishers, editors and style gurus. There are people who will tell you that it’s always wrong and apparently some publishers insist that it’s edited out entirely. (Just stating for the record, this is not an issue with any editor or publisher I’ve worked with as an author. I’ve always had nuanced and thoughtful editing throughout.)

Use of a part to designate the whole is a literary device so ancient it has Latin and Greek names. I can never remember these but I’ve been told pars pro toto (the part for the whole) or synecdoche, which is the one I’m going to use. By all means correct me if there’s a better term for this device.

People use this all the time in actual communication. I have my eye on you, I tell my kids, and they don’t try to brush it off their shoulders. His hands were everywhere, a friend complains about her date, and I don’t ask her if they were still attached to his arms, any more than I ask if she means they were in Abu Dhabi and Venezuela. It’s a simple, obvious, metaphorical use of language by humans. And it’s bizarre to assume that people don’t understand devices in writing when they use such things daily in speech.

I’m not suggesting that synecdoche of this kind is always good, of course; merely that it’s not always bad. Let’s take some examples.

His eyes started out of his head at her words, then quickly roamed round the room.

Obviously bad writing. The mixed metaphor gives an irresistible cartoony mental picture. I’m going to call this the Looney Tunes effect for shorthand.

His eyes were on Mary’s breasts. / Her head fell into her hands.

Definite ambiguities there, with potential Looney Tunes meaning. Rewrite.

His eyes followed her round the room.

A hidden mixed metaphor. ‘His eyes’ as metaphor for his look/attention; ‘followed’ suggesting a physical movement. The effect isn’t as glaring as the first, but still risks another Looney Tunes image. Eyes probably cause the most trouble as Disembodied Parts when used metaphorically to convey ‘look/gaze’, and definitely need to be used with care. This doesn’t mean auto-replacing ‘eyes’ with ‘gaze’, though. ‘Gaze’ is just as much a metaphor in uses like ‘Their eyes locked’ / ‘Their gazes locked’, so the change makes no difference there.

His fingers grabbed the axe. / His hand waved. / His legs walked.

That isn’t English. I don’t know why people cite this sort of thing as examples of Disembodied Parts when it’s actually examples of doing verbs wrong.

Okay, so far, so obvious: bad writing is bad. But it isn’t all bad.

His fingers beat a nervous tattoo.

Some people will read that and say, sarcastically, ‘What? The fingers tapped by themselves? Aren’t they attached to him?’ I suppose that’s a valid interpretation. It seems to me akin to reading ‘Exit’ on a door as an instruction rather than a description, and immediately walking out of the room. You can read it that way but there’s nothing forcing you to, and sense and common usage are against it. And if we’re to reject one form of metaphor because it can be interpreted to absurd effect, doesn’t that go for all metaphors? (‘”Icy look” implies that the look is made of frozen water. Consider revising.’)

I’m not just grumbling here. There is a small but crucial difference between ‘His fingers beat a nervous tattoo’ and ‘He beat a nervous tattoo with his fingers’, and there are very good reasons why an author might use one rather than the other.

Let’s dig into this a bit. And let’s do it sexy.

His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

The Disembodied Parts theory holds that fingers don’t move on their own, and that this is depicting Jonah’s sexual assault by Thing from the Addams Family. I think that’s ignoring a great deal of nuance.

Consider the following pairs, and note which of each strikes you as better. There will be a test.

1a) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

1b) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. He ran his fingers up Jonah’s thigh.

 

2a) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Ben ran his fingers up his thigh.

2b) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Fingers ran up his thigh.

I’m going to guess you went for b) both times. Here’s why.

Example 1a is detached body parts because we’re in Ben’s POV. Separating Ben’s fingers from his POV is weird and awkward. As contrast, try this:

Ben would be insane to touch him now. Yet his fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh, apparently of their own accord.

Point up the separation between thought and movement, show that his body parts are indeed moving without conscious volition, and it works.

Example 1b is perfectly good English: simple declarative sentences. (We’ll come back to the overuse of first names.)

Example 2a puts us in Jonah POV for the first sentence, yet the second sentence has Ben as the subject and actor. Too much of this risks giving the impression of head-hopping. You could do it deliberately to indicate that Ben is leading the scene and Jonah is passive, but it risks detaching Jonah, and by extension the reader, from the immediate experience. Even more importantly, it’s very boring writing over a long stretch. Jonah did X. Ben did Y. Jonah did Z. The boy saw the ball. Run, Spot, run!

(I recently read three books from the same small press, different authors, all with glaring overuse of declarative sentences. ‘I did…I went…I touched…’ until they sounded like a child’s What I Did On My Holiday. When this subject came up on Facebook, someone mentioned this particular press as having an absolute ban on disembodied parts. I wonder if the two facts are related.)

Example 2b has us in Jonah’s POV, experiencing what he does: the touch of fingers. Ben’s fingers, still attached to his hand: I really think we can trust the reader to understand that. But the use of ‘fingers ran’ keeps us firmly located in Jonah, tells us that Ben is the actor without making him the subject, and foregrounds the physicality. Because the point here, the purpose of the sentence, the author’s intent isn’t to tell us that the fingers belong to/are moved by Ben. We know that. The point is that they are on Jonah’s leg. If you change the subject of the sentence to Ben, you change what the sentence is doing.

(I’ve used an m/m scene here in part because of the Pronoun Problem – whose thigh? Whose fingers? Seriously, you try writing a few of these. Synecdoche here is a great way to get around the clunky overuse of names as shown in example 1b.)

***

My point is, stylistic devices aren’t interchangeable. ‘She had her head in her hands’ does something different to ‘She put her hands to her head’ – description rather than act. ‘There were hostile eyes on him’ doesn’t have the same feel as ‘He was aware of hostile eyes.’ Different constructions give different effects. Used properly, with awareness and control, synecdoche is a terrific way to vary sentence construction, shift focus between characters, get the nuances you need, give physicality to a scene.

Used badly, it leads to bad writing, absolutely. But there’s no need to reject a stylistic tool because it can lead to bad writing. The logical end of that line of thought is that we should all throw away our keyboards for good.

________________________________________

I suspect many people may disagree. Have at it in the comments!

My apologies to followers who received a draft version of this post earlier. I clicked the wrong button. Or, rather, my fingers clicked it. Stupid disembodied parts.

Think of England is out now. Remnant is a free story at Smashwords that features an actual independently moving severed limb. Compare and contrast!

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…

 

Why Bad Books Get Published (or, Nobody knows anything)

So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.

Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???

Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.

Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]

Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –

Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –

Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]

Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.

Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?

Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.

[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]

Two things about the Boss Books.

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.

You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’

Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.

It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.

This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’

And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.

Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.

All I know is, it’s a bad book.

Cruel to be Kind: Don’t let your characters off too easily

‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.

During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)

Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.

Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?

No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.

He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.

She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.

Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.

If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.

And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)

About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?

I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.

Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.

Being an Editor: The other stuff

– This contract is asking for a definition of ‘Editor’, can you supply something?

– How about ‘irritable, tea drinking pedant’?

– I’ll put that in the boilerplate.

What editors do all day has been brilliantly summed up in this handy pie chart from Sarah Fletcher (www.sarahjhfletcher.com and @sjhfletcher).

being-an-editor

I can’t better that, but it made me think of some of the other things that I have done as an editor aside from make tea and swear at Word.

  • Briefed an illustrator to draw an invisible dragon.
  • Negotiated swear words. (‘You can have all the twats and both pricks but we have to lose the shit.’)
  • Written the hitherto untyped sentence, ‘We’re going to need a lot more accordions in this.’
  • Fielded calls from men pitching erotic novels who want to explain the ins and outs of the plot. Tip: the purpose of their call may not be to pitch a novel.
  • Measured the slush pile with a ruler. (9 feet 4 inches.)
  • Let a particularly loquacious author keep talking on the phone just to see how long she would go on unchecked. Cracked at 1 hour 20.
  • Edited a book translated from the Chinese, where the author had used English quotes for the chapter epigraphs, translated them into Chinese, and now couldn’t supply the originals. Spent a day in the library attempting to source original quotes based on text that had gone into Chinese and out again. Speed read Tom Jones in the process. Didn’t find the quote.
  • Worked out what had gone wrong when the MS included several big chunks of text like this but extending to entire paragraphs:

 Ks,rd ;sihjrf jrstyo;u/ |Upi do;;u ;oyy;r yjomg.| jr rcv;so,rf/

and retyped it into English.

  • Used the word ‘tweak’ to describe both the alteration of a semi-colon to a colon, and a complete rewrite of the ending.
  • Had an email argument with an author over a single comma that lasted two full days and eventually covered three sides of A4 with closely argued reasoning, examples and citations.
  • Discussed the finer points of editing erotica including dubious consent with a colleague while out one evening. Silenced the entire pub.

So if you’re wondering why the editor still hasn’t got back to you on your MS…this is what she’s doing.

Or making tea. One of them, anyway.

Speech Verbs, and Why You Shouldn’t

My brother used to wind people up by adding speech tags in conversation.

Me: I was going to the shops –

Him: “She announced.”

Me: And I saw this bloke –

Him: “She revealed.”

Me: Will you shut up?

Him: “She demanded” – Ow, that really hurt!

Me: “He yelped.”

Speech tags can be just as annoying for a reader, plus you can’t punch the author. All the following horrible speech tags are real examples I’ve encountered as an editor, and all of them jar me right out of any immersion as a reader.

This is Not a Synonym For “Said”

“I’d like a drink,” she averred.

“It’s a nice day,” she opined.

“My name is John,” he pronounced.

See also ‘declared’, ‘asserted’, etc.

These are all (more or less) acts of speech, but they are attention-grabbing, a bit jargony, have specific meanings, and are absolutely not synonyms for ‘said’. I don’t need ‘opined’ to work out that a character is expressing an opinion, and if she isn’t expressing an opinion, then it’s the wrong word. The only reason I want to read ‘pronounced’ is if a character’s name is Xgafjbnvk and he’s explaining how to say it.

If a character is doing something with their speech that the author needs to convey – whispering, hissing, snarling or shouting – that’s fine. (If used sparingly, and if the dialogue supports it. Even better is to make the dialogue snarly or shouty.) But using a tag as a regular synonym for ‘said’, rather than conveying a precise meaning about how the character spoke… basically, just don’t.

This is Not a Speech Verb At All

“I agree with you,” he nodded.

You can nod your head till they give you a red hat with a bell on it and force you into a dubious relationship with an elderly gnome, but it won’t create audible speech.

“Wonderful,” she smiled.

Smiling is not speaking, nor is laughing, or giggling. This may not bother everyone but it bothers the hell out of me. They are different acts. Speak with a giggle, smile after you speak, rely on the dialogue to create the character’s light and joyous mood. Or use these as speech verbs and watch me have a brain haemhorrage on your MS. Whichever.

“I – I’m not sure,” she hesitated.

Yuk. Not only is this not a speech verb, but it’s one of those cases where either the action is made clear by the dialogue itself, in which case it’s unnecessary, or the action isn’t in the dialogue, in which case it’s the wrong word. Wrong on so many levels.

Yeah, Well, “Said” Isn’t All That Either

‘Said’ is a much more ‘silent’ word than other speech verbs, but it can still make its presence felt too strongly. I made great efforts to avoid horrendous speech verbs in my own writing, and then had my editor gently point out that my Hemingwayesque reliance on ‘said’ was heavily overdone and became obtrusive through overuse. (She put it much more nicely than that.) And she was absolutely right. I went through The Magpie Lord deleting ‘said’ and turning it into action wherever possible, and the writing sharpened up nicely.

Compare these three. Which is punchiest and most visual?

“You’re dead meat,” John threatened, reaching for the knife.

 The very definition of trying too hard.

 “You’re dead meat,” John said, reaching for the knife.

 What does ‘said’ add here? We know he said it. It’s in quote marks.

 “You’re dead meat.” John reached for the knife.

Snap.

So, down with speech verbs! Bin the thesaurus, lose the obtrusive or inaccurate speech tags, and make your writing visual and active…

… she pleaded.