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The Storyshower: thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, don’t tell” (henceforth SDT in this post) is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. As with most writing advice, it’s a useful thing to consider, but gets wildly extrapolated into an iron law by people who use maxims as a substitute for thoughtful consideration of the thing in front of them.

The basic principle of SDT is that giving information is less powerful than describing and allowing the reader to infer. Thus, “Bob had been drinking” is boring and flat, and it is far better to write “She could smell gin on Bob’s breath” or “Bob’s eyes were unfocused, his gait unsteady” or “The reek of stale beer preceded Bob into the room by several seconds” or what-have you.

The usual quote offered here is this, supposedly by Chekov (it’s not):

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

That’s wonderfully pithy and memorable, and absolutely evokes the way in which imagery can convey much more than basic information. The glint gives us a mental picture which is vivid and specific in a way that the basic shining moon is not; the broken glass gives us a mood.

The problem here is, not to state the bleeding obvious: light glints on broken glass in the daytime too. The only reason you got that lovely mental picture of moonlight on broken glass is because the first half of the maxim–the declarative part you aren’t supposed to say–literally tells you the moon is shining. If the quote was “Don’t describe the scene; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” nobody would repeat it because it would be nonsense.

Here’s a passage about Tolkein’s Mordor which was cited in a post I found as a great example of SDT.

The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

This is hard work for the reader. It is dense stuff that demands unpicking as we go, and the collision of multiple images is actually quite disorienting. Are the pools water or mud or ash? Are filthy entrails usually white and grey and what does that look like? What kind of graveyard is filled with rows of cones? What is ‘an obscene graveyard’ meant to convey? This is exhausting stuff in quantity, unless you do what’s clearly intended, which is to skate over the whole thing getting an overall impression from the words, rather than digging into each image in turn. If you read it quickly, you’re fine. If you read 500 pages of this, you’d need a drink.

Given this, do we really want to apply SDT as some kind of blanket rule, where ‘showing’ is always better? Can we think of any counter examples where simple declarative telling works quite well?

Marley was dead; to begin with.

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The blanket maxim of SDT is not only applied to line edits. I was impelled to write this post because a friend asked me about some editorial advice she’d had. Her MS has a scene in which one MC reflects briefly on last night’s sex and an exchange with his lover about their problem. (Paraphrased to avoid identification.)

MS: They’d made love twice more last night, and talked further about Gideon’s impossible task.

Editor: We need to see this on page. Show, don’t tell!

What is this nonsense. We don’t need this sex on page if there are a) other love scenes or b) no on-page bonking in the book; we don’t need more on Gideon’s impossible task if the MS has already established what it is. The purpose of this paragraph is to tell us they’re building up physical and verbal intimacy; it’s a shorthand line for events we don’t need spelled out.

Imagine a book where you couldn’t fast-forward with “They had walked through the monotonous landscape for three days without incident” or “She spent a week going through the documents” because we have to show not tell everything that happens. Give me a break.

***

Let’s do some close work. I wrote a book called A Fashionable Indulgence (on sale at the time of writing!) in which our hero Harry is being held at knifepoint, and the valet Cyprian comes to the rescue.  Here is a key scene. I have renamed the baddie to avoid spoilers.

“No,” James said thickly. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The blade dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. James’s hand jerked in shock and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.

Cyprian. Of course Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. Of course he’d come from nowhere, he moved like a cat in slippers.

Is this SDT? There is certainly lots of showing. I never say “Cyprian arrived” or “James was startled.” I don’t say “He had a gun”, but let the reader and characters infer it from “I could shoot you”. I don’t say James digs the knife into Harry’s skin, or cuts him; that is entirely done in Harry’s POV and focused on the knife, not the person using it.

There is also plenty of telling. The blade dug into Harry’s chin. James’s hand jerked in shock. Harry gasped. The knife cut him.

And there is…stuff in between. I have Harry reflect “he moved like a cat in slippers”. Is that showing, or highly decorated telling? And I don’t say “Cyprian silently arrived with a pistol” but Harry thinks exactly that across two sentences in the next para. This makes sure the reader’s understood what’s happening, but it also conveys Harry’s mental state of bewildered acceptance at Cyprian’s extraordinary and unexpected appearance. Is that telling us what’s happening, or showing the reader how Harry feels…or is it by any chance both?

Let us try running this sequence a couple of different ways. Here’s this done with every single aspect as SDT.

“No.” The phlegm was audible in James’s speech. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The sharp metal edge dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. A hot line of pain seared his skin, shocking a gasp from him.

He shouldn’t be surprised Cyprian had appeared without warning; Harry was all too used to his smooth, silent slipping through the house. He wondered if he could smell gunpowder from a pistol or if that was his imagination.

I did my best with this but I don’t think it’s an improvement. Making every sentence show-y instead of tell-y loses clarity and slows us down considerably.

This is not to suggest going the other way. Let us write this all telling no showing, in the style of the maestro Dan Brown.

“No,” James said. His voice sounded thick with emotion. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me.” He pressed the blade harder against Harry’s chin. “And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”

“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. Cyprian had arrived without anyone hearing him. James’s hand jerked in shock, and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.

Harry was now so bewildered that it seemed inevitable that Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. It wasn’t even surprising that he’d appeared as if from nowhere. The renowned valet David Cyprian always moved quietly.

Yeah, no.

The problem with SDT as a general maxim is twofold. Firstly, it ignores the needs of the specific piece of writing. Sometimes I want to tell you that Bob reels into the room as though dancing with the spirits on his breath; sometimes I need the stark gut-punch of “He was drunk.” It depends on the effect I am trying to produce, the way I want to vary my rhythms, the narrative style and character point of view, the type of book I’m writing, whether the information has to be got out of the way or dwelled on in detail or lightly sketched. It depends.

And secondly, stating the obvious again:  All writing is telling. If I write “Great cones of earth, fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light” I am still telling you what I want you to picture, and how I want you to think about it. I’m just doing it in elaborate ways that you may not notice as telling. It’s called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” for a reason.

So if you are inclined to say “Show, don’t tell!” you might want to dig into that a bit more. This is too bare. The para could use more variety in sentence structure. We’re not getting a sense of the MC’s emotion here. I think you need to spell this part out.

SDT as a prescriptive trend turns good advice into a meaningless law (“watch out for this” into “don’t do this at all”). Let’s not blunt our tools with overuse.

Doing Everything At Once: the ‘simultaneous action’ problem

I last bloggged about silly stylistic fads and Rules for Writers. These often arise from perfectly good editorial advice (don’t overuse passives) that get generalised into sweeping laws (don’t use passives at all!) and are applied regardless of whether the author is doing the thing well or badly.

One of the more pervasive of these is the Simultaneous Action fad. This wildly popular editorial trend holds that actions must be spelled out in sequence lest the reader interpret them as being simultaneous. So:

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.

Simultaneous Action tells us that this sentence presents Bob as doing both things at once. However, obviously enough, the gun must be pulled before it can be pointed. Both things cannot happen at the same time, yet (Simultaneous Action devotees say) the grammar of this sentence means the reader is presented with exactly that. Therefore this sentence must be amended.

Bob drew the gun before pointing it at Janey.

Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.

As you may suspect, I disagree profoundly with this as a generally applied rule. Let’s do some digging. We will start, as we so often do, with a video of a man juggling knives on a unicycle while playing the harmonica.

Asked to describe what you just saw, you would probably say “inexplicable”. Further pressed, you might say, “The man rode a unicycle while juggling knives and playing the harmonica.” You would not say, “The man rode a unicycle before juggling knives and then played the harmonica” because that isn’t what happened. Some actions are in fact simultaneous. Got it? Good. Hold that thought.

That principle grasped, let’s look again at our examples.

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey. / Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.

Imagine this action as if it’s in a film. Does Bob draw the gun slowly, wringing out the tension as his arm comes slowly up, and we wonder who he’s going to point it at–the woman he’s only just met and has no reason to trust, or the best friend who we know has betrayed him? Or does Bob draw the gun in a single swift arc of the arm, almost too fast to see, leaving us gasping at the sudden threat of violence?

You can picture both of those, right? One of them is a sequence of actions, both of which are important—Bob draws the gun, then points it, as two separate things. The other is a flowing action—Bob produces and aims the gun, as part of the single action unit of the draw. His movement isn’t “two things at once” simultaneous in the way of Knife-Juggling Unicycle Guy, but neither is it separated into “draw [pause] point”. We see it as one sequence, draw to point, which I’m going to call an action flow.

This crucial distinction between individual actions and action flows is what Simultaneous Action faddery ignores. And that causes problems. Because authors, lacking cinecameras and large casts of pretty people, have to convey what happens using words and style.

Janey ran down the corridor, vaulting the fallen bodies of zombies, skidding around the corner, barely breaking stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob, and dived out of the window.

(Looks like Bob should have trusted Janey. Bad decision, Bob.)

The above is a pretty standard action sequence. We start with “ran” as the verb to kick us off, then use present participles (vaulting, skidding) to convey the breathless ongoing sequence of her non-stop movement, and conclude with “dived” to mark the final action. Did you have any trouble understanding what was happening in the action (except for the tentacle stuff)? Were you confused about the sequence of events?

No. You didn’t and weren’t. Nevertheless Simultaneous Action editors will insist that this entire sequence must be rephrased because events must be clearly stated as happening one after another, with markers.

Janey ran down the corridor. She vaulted the fallen bodies of zombies before skidding around the corner. She barely broke stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob. Then she dived out of the window.

This is quite seriously what is being done to text as we speak. If you have been affected by issues raised in this blog post, call the hotline.

It should be obvious that the second example is not as good. I’m not claiming the first is deathless prose—I do these posts for free, you know—but it uses style and structure to mimic Janey’s non-stop hurtling to escape. The reader doesn’t get a break from the action till Janey does. Whereas the second presents what was a single action sequence as a series of discrete events, making it slower, and losing the impression of breathless speed, in order that nobody should read the sentence as Janey running, vaulting and skidding all at the same millisecond–a misreading that no English speaker would ever make.

Needless to say, there are times when actions aren’t part of a flow and shouldn’t be presented as such.

He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.

As it stands this isn’t a smooth sequence, so it does indeed jar the reader. The sitting doesn’t happen as a natural consequence of the walking, so it looks weird to run them together in this specific phrasing. The editor is quite right to flag it, no argument there. But consider this:

He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne, ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and finally sitting on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

Here we have a continuing stream of action that starts with walking in and concludes with sitting, and it works perfectly well. You might argue that the present participles (ing words) become repetitive, and that would be very fair. Change it up on that basis by all means. But to change it on the grounds that each action must be clearly demarcated as separate is nonsensical. No reader would interpret the above as our hero walking, dodging, ducking, and sitting simultaneously, like Unicycle Juggling Guy. It is a sequence of movements, their order made clear by the sequence of phrases, which are all part of an ongoing action flow.

Whereas if you break it up:

He walked into the room. He dodged waiters with trays of champagne as he went, and ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid a fundraiser. Finally he sat on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

This breaks the flow of action, and foregrounds the people who were formerly just background description, making the dodging sequence seem more important than it is. It also creates a very repetitive sentence structure akin to a primary school essay. “And then I did this and then I did that.” That is pretty hard to avoid if you’re turning text into strings of separate actions, and I have seen far too many examples of Simultaneous Action editing leading to this effect.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think all text should be action flows and full of ings. My point is one that regular readers will recognise: authors need to consider what they are trying to do, and then do it mindfully, using whatever tool is appropriate.

Consider this pair:

He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne and ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.

and

He walked into the room and immediately had to dodge two waiters with trays of champagne, which put him in the sights of a fundraiser. He ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman, cursing the crush, and saw his target on a sofa against the wall. He took a steadying breath, sauntered over as casually as possible, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract her attention.

These two passages are using different sentence structures (action flow vs events in sequence) to do different things.

This first passage whizzes through everything between entry and locking onto the target. The ing clauses give us a bit of scene setting and atmosphere without slowing the pace of the sequence, so that we get from entry to target in one manageable sentence, and can now get on with the plot without further ado. The overall impression is that our MC is smoothly and competently doing his job.

The second passage uses a series of discrete actions because this MC is different. He’s having more trouble with the job than the first guy. There’s more detail in order to slow the pace and point up the challenge of what he has to do, but the consecutive-actions structure is also crucial here. He’s got to dodge, then to duck, then to spot his target, then to go over and sit down. We’re as relieved as he’s pretending to be by the end of all that.

If I told you that one of these passages stars a James Bond style spy hero, and the other has an accountant who must track down his brother’s killer, would you find it difficult to guess which was which? Thought not. And the flow of action (or lack thereof) is an important stylistic trick in achieving that. It’s not as immediately obvious as the added text, but it makes a vital contribution to the overall impact. Which is what style is for.

Simultaneous Action is basically just another overly-prescriptive trend that takes perfectly good advice (“don’t do this badly”) and turns it into a meaningless law (“don’t do this at all”). See also Disembodied Parts and Don’t Use Was.  Of course editors should change text that jars the reader by running events into one another when they don’t flow.

He drew the gun, blowing Bad Jack’s head off.

But to apply that principle to all action flows because some are done badly is pointless, restrictive, and takes perfectly good tools out of the author’s kit. It can’t go out of fashion soon enough.

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Simultaneous Action fans will doubtless disagree. Feel free to argue, with the proviso that I am not at home to circular reasoning along the lines of “editing for Simultaneous Action improves style because Simultaneous Action is bad style, QED”.

KJ Charles is an editor of twenty years’ experience turned romance novelist. An Unseen Attraction and Wanted, a Gentleman have just been nominated for EPIC awards for historical romance.

The Author’s Biggest Mistake

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?

Subsidiary rights

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.

Other works

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.

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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?

 

CONTRACTS

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.

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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.

Censorship, Guidelines, Endorsement, Oh My

Backstory: The Goodreads MM Romance group runs an annual story event, in which authors write from prompts. This year there was a prompt asking for a romance where a black slave falls in love with the white slave-owner’s son, set in the American South. The story was  written, and published by the group, and a lot of people are extremely upset.

Many have said that the MM Romance group should not have published this story under the auspices of its event, and that the rules should be tightened to prevent this kind of thing. Other people, who don’t find this premise innately offensive, or who disagree that the context makes consensual love impossible, or who believe that unfettered free speech is the first priority, are arguing that this would be censorship, and that no content restrictions should be set.

I’m not going to write on why this story premise is offensive: I’m a white Brit, there are more qualified people doing that. Instead, I want to focus on the concept that asking a publisher to set guidelines/restrictions on content is censorship. As follows:

No, it isn’t.

If a publisher (any platform provider, from Big 5 to a Goodreads group) makes a decision not to publish a work, if a publisher sets boundaries and guidelines for submission that exclude a story, that is not censorship. All of publishing has rules on what they will and will not offer on their platform. That is how publishing works.

  • If I send a collection of poetry to Harlequin (as, when I worked there, someone did), they will not publish it because they don’t publish poetry. That’s not censorship. What would they do with a poetry book?
  • If I send a bestiality story to, eg, Riptide Press, they won’t publish it because like many, they have a specific and clear set of guidelines about their erotic content that excludes bestiality. Not censorship, guidelines. Take the horse porn elsewhere.
  • If I send a gay romance to a hardcore evangelical Christian publisher and they decline to publish it for religious reasons? Not censorship. They don’t have to publish books that would go against their beliefs.
  • If I send a story packed with homophobia and racism to a publisher, and they decline to publish because they feel it will damage their reputation? Not censorship. It’s them saying: This book will make us look like a publisher that supports hatred, and that’s not in our five-year marketing plan.

None of these publishers are censoring. They are setting guidelines for the kind of books they read, publish and market. A publisher that published everything that came over its threshold would be unspeakable. Trust me. I’ve read slush pile. To publish something is literally to put your imprimatur on it: if you publish it, you endorse it. Which is why publishing without a quality/content filter is likely to seriously damage your reputation.

The MM Romance group has made a statement declining to moderate the prompts and stories they publish, including the following:

Any time we discuss content restrictions we come up against the question of censorship. Censoring either our prompt writer or authors is not something the moderators support. […] There has never been a vetting process for either prompts or stories. Stories are beta read, edited and formatted but are never judged based on their content. [my italics]

Hurrah for free speech! Except that the italicised statement is not true.

  • The group specifically bans stories with underage sex.
  • The group publishes m/m. If I send in a heterosexual romance, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.
  • The group publishes romance. If I submit a thriller with no romantic content, an extract from my literary novel about the Dutch porcelain trade, or an essay on the feeding habits of the mantis shrimp, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.

In other words, the group does indeed judge and select texts on their content. And that is not censorship, and it would still not be censorship if they, for example, stated that racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism etc must be handled with respect, care and sensitivity, and that stories would be accordingly vetted pre-publication. You could then have a lifetime of argument, since one person’s sensitive treatment is often another person’s cack-handed mess (I’m informed the slave book was intended to be respectful), but at least there would be a principle to refer to, a basic idea of what is and is not okay, and a means by which to say: hang on, you messed this up. We all mess up, all the time, and guidelines are one way to do it less.

Declining to publish is not censorship. Censorship is preventing something from being published, the way governments do. A specific publisher declining to publish is saying: “This is not for our platform, it does not work for us.” It does not stop an author from seeking out a platform that wants them, or creating their own. Plenty of publishers declined Harry Potter, and JK Rowling got her voice heard in the end.

Of course, people don’t always decline to publish for good reasons. Say (as happens) that a publisher declines, eg, a children’s book with black main characters because they think they won’t sell enough copies. Overall, if every children’s publisher does this, it has the effect of censorship, because it means there are very few stories to point to and say, “look, of course they sell”, and a vicious circle is created. This is why it is extremely important to talk about this, and look at the numbers of what’s being published, and who’s writing it. But it is also not the same thing as declining books based on clear explicit guidelines; in fact, it’s the opposite because this is hidden, back-room, unaccountable stuff.

The consequence of publishers applying guidelines is not that books that they deem unacceptable cannot be written or published. It might be that the authors would have to consider critical feedback and modify their stories if they wanted publication in a particular place (again, this is how publishing works and informed critical feedback is generally a good thing, even if it’s no fun). It might be that if they weren’t prepared to make changes, they’d have to spend longer looking for a platform, or self publish and thus not benefit from a publisher’s imprimatur and promotion. But none of this would be an infringement on the author’s free speech. It would merely be the consequence of other people declining to amplify that speech for them in its original form.

And that’s how it goes. Because freedom does not mean freedom from consequences. And free speech doesn’t come with a book deal attached.

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My blog aims to be a safe space, including the comments. Anything that I deem likely to infringe that will be deleted without discussion as soon as I see it. My platform, my rules.