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Watch Your Dangly Bits

Dangling participles. Sounds like an embarrassing medical condition; is actually an embarrassing editorial condition. Here I shall tell you how to identify and avoid them.

A quick refresher first of all (aka Stop! Grammar time!). This won’t take long, promise.

A participle is just a form of a verb. English uses present and past participles. Present ends in -ing; past can take various forms but -ed is the most common.

  • To go has the present participle going and the past participle gone.
  • To walk has the present participle walking, and the past participle walked. Confusingly, walked is the same for the perfect tense of the verb (I walked down the road). It’s a participle when it’s used with auxiliary verbs to form a different tense: I have walked, you might have walked, she should have walked).

You see participles all over the place but what we’re looking out for in this post is a very common construction when the subordinate clause comes before the main clause. Herewith a couple of examples of perfectly acceptable sentences. (Wrongness will be marked with an X.)

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

NB: a subordinate clause is one that has to be attached to a main verb because it doesn’t stand on its own. “The two men walked down the street” is a full sentence. “Talking animatedly” is not a sentence, and nor is “Having written one successful vampire book.” They don’t stand alone: they are there to tell us more about the main clause.

Let’s just flip those two examples around so we can see what’s going on here.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

She launched a vampire series, having written one successful book already.

You’ll notice I messed with the word order in the second sentence and have added words in order to make these proper-sounding sentences, but the participle is doing exactly the same work.

And what work is it doing? Well, it’s telling us about the subject of the sentence, and that applies whether the subordinate clause comes first or not.

The two men walked down the street talking animatedly.

Who is talking? The two men.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

Who wrote the vampire book? She did.

Got that? Right. Now look at this.

X Today I am interviewing Mary Jones, author of the Fangs for the Memory series. Having written one successful vampire book, I asked her more about turning it into a series.

Who wrote the vampire book here?

Well, according to the structure of this sentence, the interviewer (the I of the sentence) did. Flip it around:

I, having written one successful vampire book, asked her more about turning it into a series.

And that is a dangling participle—one that has come adrift from the subject and verb it is meant to modify, and thus changes the meaning of the sentence.

A few more examples.

X Vikram had thirty seconds to catch his train. Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

Who was running? The keys, apparently.  Flipped: “The keys fell to the pavement while running to the railway station.” This obviously isn’t the intended meaning, but it is what the words say because the subordinate clause doesn’t have a “Vikram” or “he” to attach itself to. The only subject in the main clause is “keys”.

It’s very easy to see something’s wrong with this sentence if we flip it. Compare the following pairs:

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

and

X Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

X The keys fell unnoticed to the pavement while running to the railway station.

This way round, it’s glaringly obvious that we’re missing Vikram was from the second sentence.

A few more examples:

X After writing the book, the editor will read it and send the author feedback.

Who’s written the book? The editor, apparently. (I wish.)

X Having abandoned his family for so long, the children no longer wished to meet their father.

Who’s the deadbeat? According to the grammar, it’s the children, even though they’re plural.

X Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.

I’m hoping it wore legwarmers, 80s style.

This isn’t trivial. The effect of dangling participles is awkward, confusing, often unintentionally comic. And that is bad writing.

The good news is, participles aren’t the only dangly bits! (I lied about that being good news, sorry.) Other modifiers can dangle as well.

Aged 5, Mozart wrote “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

X Aged 5, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was Mozart’s first composition.

Or

Dark-eyed and curvy, she was still beautiful at 60.

X Dark-eyed and curvy, any man would find her beautiful,

These examples are just clunky. But this error can get really nasty in some circumstances. Take a look at this:

Now a consultant physician, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

This sentence is grammatically correct…if the man is the consultant physician. If however that’s his ex-wife’s new job, this sentence has just sent every reader down an entirely wrong path.

Let’s unpack this. The grammar gives us this meaning:

He was now a consultant physician, and was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

But the way it’s worded suggests that the more likely meaning is:

He was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time: she was now a consultant physician.

It is not always obvious to the reader which is correct when meaning conflicts with grammar. Try these:

X Having surrendered, the Germans occupied the Channel Islands.

Even worse is when we involve passives:

X Having invaded without serious opposition, the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces.

For the record, the Germans invaded, the Channel Islands surrendered, and the Germans occupied them. Is that what the above sentences say? (No.)

Watch out for danglers. They aren’t hard to spot: just keep an eye out when you have a subordinate clause before the main clause, and make sure that it’s attaching to the thing it’s supposed to attach to. Ask yourself who’s doing it. (Who wrote the vampire book? Who’s aged 5? Who’s the consultant physician?) Flip the sentence around if you need to check.

This construction is, frankly, avoidable. It’s very journalistic, and can often lead to top-heavy sentences which are hard to parse. Plus, present participles in subordinate clauses often lead to what editors call Simultaneous Action issues, which is another kettle of fish altogether. (“Walking into the room, he sat on the sofa.”) Isn’t writing fun?

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While there are quite a few dangly bits in my new book Band Sinister, none of them are modifiers.

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today on Band Sinister

All buy links here.

Step 2 ???, Step 3 Profit

I was drifting through Twitter, as so often, when I came across this series of tweets by @quartzen. Text copied below for ease of reading.

 

I feel like modern writing advice is like…

  1. Just get a complete first draft down on paper, it’s okay if it’s awful, terrible, and the worst!
  2. ???
  3. Once you have a polished draft that’s as good as you can make it, look to beta readers, editing, and eventual publication!

***

It’s exactly like those “how to draw” things for kids where the first step is a couple of circles, maybe with a crosshair for facial features, the next step is “add some detail” (ie actually draw the thing perfectly), now you’ve got a great example of what you were trying to draw

Word.

Part of the reason Step 2 is usually missing is that it’s hard to give advice that applies to everyone. Some authors throw down a skeleton plot in their first draft that needs fleshing out; some people create well-developed worlds and characters first off, but have to go back and insert a skeleton to give their wobbling mass some story-bones. Some people go through multiple completed drafts; others find out what they’re doing while writing a much-revised first half of a first draft. (I’m that person. Generally speaking I loop over and over my first half to get everything in place, and then once I have that sorted it’s a straight trot to the end and I very rarely have to make significant changes to the second half.)

Also, each author changes with each book–you may find that Project X starts with a plot but Y is entirely character driven. Step 2 will be different not only for every author but for every author’s every MS.

All that said there’s a few broader points that we can apply: not to give specifics but to give a bit more shape to what Step 2 looks like.

2.i Work out what’s missing from your draft

Look at what you’ve got. Is it a well developed plot, populated with two-dimensional characters just doing what the story needs? Is it a lot of enjoyable interactions between well developed characters, but which wanders from place to place without a driving story? Have you gone big on the descriptions and low on the action, or vice versa? Are all the pieces there on the page, but it hasn’t come to life? Or is it a mass of inconsistent ideas glued together with willpower and fast typing?

Working out what’s missing from your story is not entirely easy because if you knew you’d have put it in already. It takes practice to identify these things. Unfortunately you really can’t assume a crit partner will do this bit for you–they’d have to be very good, omnipatient, and possessed of unlimited time. You really need to learn this yourself, which means being analytical, not too enamoured of your own work, and ready to kill your darlings.

So how to find your lacunae? Here are a bunch of general questions to consider:

Are my characters consistent?

It’s very common in a first draft for the heroine to start out motivated to avenge her brother’s death/terrified of public speaking/passionate about establishing her cupcake business, and then the author basically forgets about that, or switches that bit of motivation on and off depending on the requirements of the scene. It’s fine if your plot/character diverges from initial ideas, that’s what drafts are for, but you need to notice, go back, and tidy those up so your characters are consistent within their own messy humanity. If your characters’ behaviour is based on the exigencies of the plot from moment to moment, they won’t work as people.

And yes, this goes for minor characters too, especially villains. If your villain’s sole motivation is wanting to make the hero/ine unhappy, you need a damn good reason why, unless they are to be Darth Plotfunction.

Do I have a functioning skeleton for my book?

Writing a synopsis can be quite a useful way to work this out. If, for example, you discover that you didn’t mention the entire third of the book that they spend on a tropical island, that’s a sign to cut or rewrite. If you can’t unpick your own story to write a clear synopsis, are you sure the reader will be able to? Did you have to change anything about the story (eg massively expanding a plot element you gloss over in the MS) to make it work as a synopsis? Does that tell you something?

Does the plot carry through? Where does the drama peak? Do we reach a resolution, rather than just an ending? Has something changed in the world, characters, or reader’s ideas? Does ‘The End’ feel natural and inevitable? (If it’s in a series, have you made the reader feel satisfied with this book while still giving her a reason to grab the next?)

Where are my big emotional/story pivots?

The moment one or both MCs realises they’re in lust or love, the moment of betrayal, the moment of despair. Have I fleshed these out enough? If my hero has been a jerk, is there payback? Is the mystery resolved, the villain caught, the lie exposed? Have I given those sufficient space for impact? (Or, if I’m doing some smartarse playing about with off-page-resolution, does it work?)

Can I remove any scaffolding?

Those bits that were a trudge to write but we had to get the characters from A to B while informing the reader of Z: do I need them? Can I cut them/replace with a single, ‘Three weeks later…’ line? My editor at Samhain once flagged up a lengthy bit of dialogue with the comment “This feels like you’re explaining the plot to yourself”, which still stings because hoo boy was she right. Write that scene/conversation by all means, if it helps. Then cut it.

Are all the plot elements relevant and resolved?

Don’t leave loaded Chekov’s guns lying around. If you put in eg the hateful stepfather’s threat to take over the family business, use it or lose it. Do not be in love with your amusing sassy neighbour if he has no actual plot role. Same with sequel-bait siblings/friends in romance. Make them earn their place.

How much worldbuilding have you done vs how much you need?

Historical novels and SFF might need a lot more than contemporaries, but that isn’t a licence either for 500 pages of plotless scene setting, or for an assumption that everyone is deeply familiar with your small American town as detailed over the previous 18 books.

***

Then, if writing genre especially, ask yourself what kind of book it is. I am not being simplistic here. I edited for years at Mills & Boon, I read slush pile by the metre, and I can’t tell you how many romance novels forgot to include the romance. No, really.

Sample questions for a romance writer. Adapt for your genre.

How prominent is the romance in my story?

Is that as prominent as it needs to be given the setting/secondary plot? If it’s a romantic suspense, you can’t do 10% romance and 90% suspense, but 10% suspense and 90% romance isn’t really going to fly either. Have I concentrated too much on other non-vital stuff, eg, the house renovation plotline, and thus ignored the romance between the hero and his two gay dolphin shifter lovers for chapters at a time?*

*a real book, I swear to you

Are there enough love scenes of appropriate heat for your story?

May be UST for 80% of the book and then a kiss, may be non stop fisting, but either way is it right for what you’re trying to do?

If it’s a sexy romance (not erotica), does each sex scene advance the plot/characterisation in some way?

Can you cut any of the sex scenes without losing something important? If yes, either do so or make them work for their inclusion.

Is there internal conflict (problems within the relationship)? Is there external conflict (problems not to do with the relationship)? Do both have enough time to develop and be resolved?

You don’t need both internal and external conflict, but if you lack one, the other needs to be bloody good. If you can’t identify any conflict, what is driving your story, and what will give the reader any inducement to carry on reading? (If your answer is ‘they’ll just want to hang out with my characters being happy’, you’re either a spectacularly talented writer or, er, wrong.)

How have you paced the story?

It might be that you want a whirlwind romance focused entirely on the couple in bed, it might be you’re doing a slow-burn with a big cast where they don’t even meet till half way through, but either way we need to see the story develop steadily, enough to give us a plausible development of love, overcoming of conflict, and satisfying resolution, without longueurs or rushing.

***

If you’ve asked yourself all that you should have at least a pretty good idea of your story’s weaknesses, inadequacies, self-indulgences, and cheats that will allow you to move to step 2.ii.

2.ii Fill in the holes, shore up the structure, prune the growths.

Your second draft should be focusing on fixing the problems you’ve identified and marshalling your story elements into better shape. This might be small shifts of focus, or cutting the secondary plot with the amusingly camp neighbour’s dog, or giving the hero a new background and motivation, or replacing the MCs with two totally different characters (yep, been there). It might be a brief tidy of an existing MS, or a total rewrite from the ground up.

This is the part nobody can advise you on or, rather, the part for which there is infinite advice out there but you’ll need to go looking for what you specifically need–whether that’s advice on worldbuilding, pacing, characterisation, suspense plotting, or using sex scenes to build character.

In the end, you can only fix something when you have an idea of what’s wrong with it. So that’s Step 2, as best as I can advise you, except for:

2.iii Go to 2.i

Yup, sorry. Do it again. Reread your second draft for bits where the plot falls apart, bits where the characterisation isn’t singing, bits you want to skip because boring, bits you did a Note to Self on and then forgot about. Don’t stop looking at the structure until you feel that you know what you’re trying to do, and feel reasonably certain that you’ve done it.

***

This may all seem massive and daunting. It shouldn’t be. If you regularly read books and think about them, you already know what it looks like when a book is badly paced, has too much description, lacks conflict, has inconsistent characterisation etc. The hard bit is taking off your Proud Creator blinkers and/or the filter of knowing what you were trying to do, as opposed to what you actually achieved, and applying that critical insight to your own work. But that’s also a vital step in your evolution as a writer. Go to it, and good luck.

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KJ Charles was an editor and book fixer for long enough to get a handle on Step 2 and is now a romance writer and 2018 RITA nominee. Her most recent release is Unfit to Print.

How Books Start: the intersection of research and inspiration in historical romance

Think of England coverI’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.

I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.

At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.

So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that

…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.

Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).

This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).

Let’s find out more about shooting parties!

There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.

These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:

In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.

WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?

You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).

And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?

Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…

Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.

And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.

_______________

If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it. 

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.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________

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.

Return Key of the Jedi (or how to do paragraphs)

I picked up a book recently without checking the sample (it was a freebie on a promotion to push the series, and I am a sucker for that). This is what I posted on Facebook shortly thereafter.

I started this book.

It basically has one-sentence paragraphs.

All the way through.

Some of them are pretty long sentences and maybe have dialogue in them so it looks like a normal paragraph but after a while without taking a breath you realise it’s still indeed just one big old sentence.

Others are short.

I’m not sure if the author’s return key is malfunctioning or if he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how paragraphs work or indeed what the editor was doing.

I mean, I use one-sentence paras myself (sparingly) and they are very effective as a dramatic thump.

But when each sentence is a paragraph, it’s more of a plod than a thump.

I’m on page 10 and I’m already planning how to hide the author’s body.

It’s 300 pages long.

Oh boy.

I hurled that particular book across the room (metaphorically, ereaders are expensive) but it’s far from alone; it’s just one of the more egregious examples of an increasingly common stylistic quirk which I should like to invite you to kill with a hammer right now. I’m not sure where this trend has come from although I am mildly inclined to blame the internet—even a three-sentence para can easily look like a wall of text on a mobile phone screen. I do, however, have a strong idea where it can go.

Okay, let’s start with definitions. A paragraph, according to Cambridge, is

a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.

Bear in mind here that a sentence can be one word (eg “Help!” or “Wolves!”).

And that’s it. That’s all you need. Anyone who gives you extra rules about What Paragraphs Must Be is shining you on, whether they claim a paragraph must consist of a compulsory number of sentences, or insist that you need a new line for every single sentence. People really do say the most nonsensical stuff–my daughter once came home from school with a worksheet claiming that a paragraph is always 3 to 7 sentences, no exceptions. I would love to get my hands on the know-nothing prescriptivist random rule-clown who made that nonsense up.

Paragraphing, like absolutely everything else in writing, is a tool, and you need to use it consciously. I’m going to use a chunk of my latest book, 1920s paranormal romance Spectred Isle (available from all good retailers hint hint), to demonstrate what I mean. This is going to be longish, because you can’t really demonstrate paragraphing without, er, paragraphs of text, but think yourself lucky; I was going to use the first chapter of Bleak House. (Which let it be said, is a masterclass in both paragraphing and sentence length, not to mention gleeful ignoring of prescriptivist writing rules: try it here.)

In this sequence Saul, an archaeologist who doesn’t yet know he’s starring in a paranormal, is visiting Camlet Moat, the ancient location of a moated manor house in a north London park. Camlet Moat is kind of weird. For a start, it’s hard to find…

Saul would have liked to keep to the water edge, but he didn’t want to cause irreparable damage to his shoes or trousers; he couldn’t afford to be wasteful. He went back to the path and followed it. It appeared to head only away from the Moat, and he had to double back on himself twice and walk what seemed like a very long and circuitous route before he finally spotted the dark, rough wooden planks sitting low in the algae-coated water that apparently constituted a bridge. Saul had a momentary qualm, wondering how deep the moat was and picturing himself sodden and covered in green slime, before he set a tentative foot on it.

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot.

He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

Got it? Bought the book? Good, now let’s have a closer look.

First para: quite long. It’s all on the same theme, telling us about the irritating difficulty Saul has in finding Camlet Moat (he can’t follow the water’s edge, the path doesn’t seem to go there, the bridge is uninviting). It’s long and cumulative because Saul’s journey is long and the factors are cumulative, it’s very much one damn thing after another.

Second para: shorter, giving us a breather, and separating/marking the pivotal moment when he crosses the bridge, because that will turn out to be important in the story. Note that the last word is “Camelot” (PLOT KLAXON). You can nudge something into the reader’s attention in a quiet yet effective way by making it the last word.

Third para: again all on a theme, this time Camlet Moat’s atmosphere of spring and growth and life and renewal. Another long one, to really build up the mood of life and growth and nature, before—

Fourth para: Bam. One sentence, four words, and thus a sufficiently dramatic contrast to the preceding text to grab the reader’s attention. It serves as a record scratch effect, saying: Hang on a second, this is important. The reader might not yet see why that’s a big deal, but the paragraphing makes it clear that it is.

Fifth para: Building up length again and atmosphere too, and once again we end the para on a key word, this time “afraid”. He should be.

You see? Now let’s faff around with that a bit and see how quickly we can ruin it.

The one-sentence paragraph throughout.

He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks.

He stood, listening, but heard nothing.

Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still.

Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears.

He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

It’s excruciating, isn’t it? Like an early-reader primer, My First Supernatural British Island. Saul sees the terrifying wood demon. Run, Saul, run!

Obviously, this style gives the text all the rhythmic subtlety of a jackhammer; it also means the lack of birdsong has virtually no impact, because the line is no longer in any way differentiated from those around it. But also, note how the sentences that aren’t simple and declarative start to look just weird and bad. Those doubled-over looping structures without the ‘to be’ verbs  (starting ‘Not a chirrup’ and ‘Still and silent’) don’t work any more: they need to be part of an ongoing stream of thought to mark the weird atmosphere.

Long as dogs

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot. He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid. But that was absurd. There was no living creature but himself on this tiny island, and nothing to do him harm. He wasn’t lost in a vast and pathless ancient forest; he was in a Cockfosters park, with work to do, and if the birds weren’t singing, well, that was merely…something ornithological, not his field. He made himself walk forward, and not turn and look, because it was ridiculous to feel as though there was a presence around him, watching.

While not being nearly as bad, it’s still not great. We lose a lot of impact when the important points aren’t marked out—we could miss the importance of crossing the bridge; the new different atmosphere of Camlet Moat doesn’t stand out; the lack of living creatures doesn’t sound like a big deal if it’s just one sentence among many; we no longer have his fear standing starkly before he dismisses it in the next para that I merged in.

Long paras like this are also harder to follow. There’s nowhere to take a breath, plus they are very likely to be merging separate sequences of thought/action into one. Look for a break point and use it.

Paragraphing Rules (more of a guideline really)

  • Paragraph mindfully. This is a tool to be used. If your paragraphing is simplistic, your writing will be simplistic.
  • A sequence of paragraphs all the same length will begin to seem monotonous, whether they’re one sentence or the prescribed 3-5 or all half a page.
  • If you’ve got a new or separate concept/thing to cover, give it a new para to flag that to the reader.
  • If you want the reader to notice something (a pivot point, a thought) consider setting it apart with its own para. Conversely, if you want to drop in a clue without drawing the reader’s attention, the middle of a para is a good place to hide it.
  • A one-liner is great as a “Bam!” effect, but like all stylistic effects, use very sparingly because they become obtrusive quickly.
  • In multi paragraph speech the convention is to give each para a new set of opening quotes, but no closing quotes till the speech is finished.

“It was fresh and clean there, and it made my heart lift in a way I haven’t experienced in too long. I come from a small country town, and the place reminded me of my boyhood. So I walked without thinking for a while, and then I realised.

“There was no birdsong. I mean, seriously, there was none. At all. Have you ever been in a wood without birds? Or, like, buzzing things? Or anything? Dude, it was freaky.”

There is something to be said for breaking up long speeches with actions or interjections to avoid this, if you can do it in a non-obvious way.

___________________________________

KJ is a writer and editor. Spectred Isle, book 1 of the Green Men series, is out now. An Unsuitable Heir, which concludes the Sins of the Cities trilogy, comes out 3 October. They both have lots of lovely paragraphs.

The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)

The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.

However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.

I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:

April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.

The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.

So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:

1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3

I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.

The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)

Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though.

The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.

I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.

So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?

Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.

All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.

***

The questions above

Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?

Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.

Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?

I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.

Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?

Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

___________________________________

Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

Suspending disbelief: how high can you go?

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.

stork

Here are the storks in Storks.

from 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.

stork tweets

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.

But I think there’s more to dig out here for worldbuilding purposes, and it was brilliantly put by Twitter user @aprotim.
deviation

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?

  1.  Linda is a bank teller.
  2.  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

stork teeth

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.

Punctuating Dialogue: The Wilder Shores

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.

Em dash

“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.

Ellipsis

“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.

“Natalie.”

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?

Example 1

“This”—he held it out to her as he spoke—“is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Example 2

“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.

Edith POV

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.”

Frederick POV

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.”

Or

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.

speech analysis new

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.)

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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!

 

Under A Wandering Star: Reining In Points of View

Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.

Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.

Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”

Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.

This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.

This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.

Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.

Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.

Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.

Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.

He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.

“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.

I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:

  • You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
  • The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
  • There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.

This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.

Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”

Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”

Did you spot the jump?

 

 

*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***

 

 

We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:

She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.

Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:

She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.

And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.

Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:

“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.

Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?

David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.

 

 

*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***

 

 

The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.

So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.

You’re welcome.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her Society of Gentlemen trilogy is published by Loveswept. She is also opinionated on Twitter @kj_charles