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Cottingley_Fairies_1

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.

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

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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.

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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!

 

KJ magpie200

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

charmed-cover-200

Which comes first–chicken, egg, book?

My husband has an idea for a book. It’s a great idea based on a bit of real-world technology that would make a cracking thriller. He’s been brewing this for a year or more. Finally, he asked me plaintively, “Okay, I’ve got the idea for the book, but how do I get the characters? How do I know who should be in it? The people would be different depending on where I take the plot, but the plot depends on the characters—which comes first?”

Welcome to my life.

I’m told some people get a character pop up and demand a story. For me it always starts with a nugget of inspiration: a setting, a weird historical fact, a concept. But how do you take a concept and add the characters? And when you have a concept and characters, what about a plot?

You see this go wrong a lot. Thrillers where it’s quite obvious that the author had a brilliant idea, worked out a plot to maximise it, and bolted in some plastic people to go through the required actions. Romances where an adorable pair of lifelike characters have a meet-cute and then not very much actually happens.

It is hard to do right. It feels really hard every time I start thinking about a new book. What’s it about, who’s in it, what’s going to happen? Which comes first?

Short answer: neither. Neither comes first, because it’s a push-me-pull-you, back and forth. Crossing over the same ground, over and over in different directions and permutations, weaving the threads. This is all getting a bit metaphorical so here’s how a story I wrote recently happened:

I know that I want to write about X thing.

Hey, the Victorians had waste-men who collected and sold on used paper! Suppose one of them got some paper he shouldn’t have?

Start thinking about characters. I write romance so I need a pair.

The waste-man, obviously. And the guy who’s looking for the papers, who has to spend ages going through the waste-heaps with bonus sexual tension developing. Who is the other guy? Lawyer, maybe, looking for a missing will?

How does the concept lead to a plot?

The lawyer is searching for the document and…eventually finds it? Meh. What’s this about anyway? What’s at stake here?

Go back to the concept.

The waste-man has paper that’s dangerous. To him, or to other people? How’s it dangerous? If it’s a will, who knows he’s got it? If it’s state secrets, ditto.

And the characters:

The waste-man is going to blackmail the lawyer—no. Or is the other guy an agent of the state? But he could just seize it. The waste-man is going to sell—no. The waste-man is illiterate, maybe, so he doesn’t know to give it back? Um. Or is the paper in a foreign language…

It’s magic paper, you spanner. That’s what it is. It’s magic paper, and the waste-man doesn’t do magic, and it does, I don’t know, VERY BAD THING TBC, and the other guy is a magician.

Leap to the plot!

Because someone lost some papers and the magician has to find them and the papers do VERY BAD THING TBC and they have to work together to stop the thing. Which is when they fall in love.

But wait! Who are these people to be in this situation? What about them causes them to clash with each other and with the plot?

Um. The waste-man is working class, the magician is his opposite… the magician is in a panic and the waste-man has to talk him down… the waste-man is a decent guy…

Hang on, hang on. If these papers are so bad and dangerous, what was the magician doing with them?

Plot and Character answer together: He was doing bad things.

There was a lot more to be braided in from here. The magic system: it’s got to have to do with writing, because paper, and it’s got to cause the VERY BAD THING TBC, and we have to know why the magician would do bad things. Which takes us back to the characters: why would the magician do that? Is he a bad person, and if not, how was he brought into it? What about him means the waste-man works with him–or is he forced to? Which takes us back to the plot…

charmed-cover-200That is a very very short summary of how the story ‘A Queer Trade’ came together, or alternatively a very long way of saying that plot is character in action. You shuttle back and forth, from concept to character to plot, with each step leading to the next. If X, then Y. If character A is like this then he can’t behave like that, so he behaves like the other instead, and therefore character B will do this

It can start from anywhere. I could have thought of the VERY BAD THING TBC first and worked from there; I could have imagined a stoic Victorian labourer faced with a panicking and slightly fey magician and wondered how they met. And it can go anywhere. In a different mood I could have taken the lawyer route and written a lovely missing-will story with no external threat and a character-based plot. As it happens, I was in the mood for animated corpses. I so often am.

It doesn’t matter where you start, and you don’t need to know where you’re going. What matters is that you weave plot and character together as you go. Because if you try to develop one first and then fill the other in on top, you might have a brilliant plot, or a marvellous character study, or a genius concept, but you won’t have a book.

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‘A Queer Trade’ appears in the anthology Charmed and Dangerous.

My most recent release is A Fashionable Indulgence, the first book in a linked Regency trilogy. Don’t even talk to me about plotting *that* out.

Good Bad Language: a post about swearing

Warning: This is about profanity. Stop now if you don’t like swearing, because there will be a lot, and I am not going to use asterisks except once, in the next sentence. There is liberal use of c***; skip to the end for a postscript if this word particularly bothers you, or just abandon ship now. My advice is not to text-to-speech this one in public. Right, here we go.

Every few days, a post floats by on Twitter or pops up on a writing advice forum about profanity. Generally, the advice is the same: Swearing betrays poverty of imagination and language; you can convey the same effects without using rude words; you might upset people who don’t like swearing and what’s the point in turning off potential readers?

This is not the advice you are about to receive here.

Poverty of imagination/language

Swearing is just a lazy way to get an effect, we’re told. Shoving a few fucks into the dialogue isn’t the same as writing an effective character. Can’t you do some real writing?

To which I can only say, have you not seen The Thick of It?

No, he’s useless. He’s absolutely useless. He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.

I’ve come across a lot of psychos in my time, but none as fucking boring as you. I mean you are a really boring fuck. Sorry, sorry, I know you disapprove of swearing. You are a really boring f star star cunt.

If you do think about running with this pill story, I’ll personally fucking eviscerate you, right? I mean, I don’t have your education, I don’t know what that means. But I’ll start by ripping your cock off and I’ll busk it from there.

The creators of The Thick of It are not linguistically impoverished. They invented the brilliant word ‘omnishambles’ and created my favourite insult line ever (without a swear in sight):

My theory is, Malcolm built him in a lab from bits of old psychopath.

Swearing can be elaborate, hilarious and glorious. But even monotonous swearing of the kind that makes people tut about ‘poverty of vocabulary’ can be used to brilliant effect. Look at Trainspotting, which uses monotonous swearing to convey everything about its narrators – Scottish, rage-filled, of varying education, all of them spiralling into heroin and self-destruction and a mass of unfocused fury, turned inwards as much as out:

You fucking knew that fucking cunt would fuck some cunt.

You can hear the character in that line (roughly translated, ‘It was inevitable that the individual we’re discussing would one day cause severe injury to somebody’.) The accent, the words spat out like bullets, the incoherent emotion overwhelming any powers of expression. That’s character through poverty of language.

You can do without naughty words

Some say you can do just as well by telling the reader that the character swears without larding the dialogue with profanity. I dispute that. Here’s a scene from my book The Magpie Lord. Lord Crane has only just survived a magical murder attempt:

Crane got up on the second try, poured himself a very large brandy, spilling quite a lot, knocked it back in a single, painful gulp, sat on the floor again and began to swear. He swore fluently, inventively and with spectacular obscenity in Shanghainese until he ran out of epithets, switched to English, and started at the beginning again.

“You’re feeling more yourself, then,” said Merrick, when Crane reached an impressively foul climax.

“No, I am not. What the fuck, what the fucking, bloody devil-shit, what in the name of Satan’s swollen cock was that?”

“Do you speak in the House of Lords with that mouth?”

Magpie LordCould I have achieved the same effect by leaving out Crane’s line? Just say, ‘He swore foully’ and allow the reader to use her imagination? Really? ‘He swore foully’, unsupported, has about as much effect as claiming, ‘He spoke brilliantly about Wordsworth’s poetry’, or ‘She was a world expert in symbology’ and never letting us hear the character say anything on the topic.  The reader won’t believe you know what you’re talking about. I didn’t have to spend paragraphs on Crane’s swearfest, but imagine that scene without the single line of extreme foul-mouthedness and see how much weaker it is. (I may add, in response to the “lazy writing” thing, I spent ages getting that swear exactly right – stunned repetition, slightly foreign cast, an elaboration to convey the richness of his imagery, all of it with rhythm, structure and build – and I’m proud of it.)

There is a reason that George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion insisted on including the line, ‘Not bloody likely,’ rather than having it implied – the watcher has to hear Eliza say this shocking thing in her new cut-glass accent to understand how Higgins’ experiment has cut her adrift from class structures. There is a reason that Larkin’s poem doesn’t begin, ‘They mess you up, your mum and dad.’ And, because swearing is not a modern invention, let me give you one of my favourite poems by the Earl of Rochester (born 1647), ‘Upon His Drinking a Bowl’. I know the language is a bit flowery but don’t skip, the payoff is worth it.

Vulcan, contrive me such a cup
As Nestor used of old;
Show all thy skill to trim it up,
Damask it round with gold.

Make it so large that, filled with sack
Up to the swelling brim,
Vast toasts on the delicious lake
Like ships at sea may swim.

Engrave not battle on its cheek:
With war I’ve nought to do;
I’m none of those that took Maastricht,
Nor Yarmouth leaguer knew.

Let it no name of planets tell,
Fixed stars, or constellations;
For I am no Sir Sidrophel,
Nor none of his relations.

But carve theron a spreading vine,
Then add two lovely boys;
Their limbs in amorous folds intwine,
The type of future joys.

Cupid and Bacchus my saints are,
May drink and love still reign,
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then to cunt again.

Many bowdlerised versions of this poem replace cunt with ‘love’ in the last line. Love. Love?! Cunt here is a depth charge, blowing the classical imagery out of the water so the poem’s graceful elevated lyrics land in shards around us, leaving only the bare sordid truth of debauchery. ‘Love’ turns it into any other tedious seventeenth-century poem ever.

Not upsetting readers

It is true, some people don’t like reading profanity. Some don’t like reading sex. Some don’t like reading violence. Many don’t want to read queer romance. Some don’t like reading about magic because it’s tampering with the occult. I refuse to read YA, hard scifi, shifter romance, or any book containing a cute robin called Robbie. Do come back to me when you’ve thought of a story that will appeal to every single person in the world and I’ll agent you. I take 15%.

And, bluntly, if the main thought in your mind when writing is ‘How do I maximise my appeal to readers?’, rather than ‘what’s going to make this scene powerful and this dialogue convincing’, your book will suck, no matter how often you take it to a focus group and optimise for search engines.

 ****

As ever, it comes down to do it well.

Ask yourself why your character swears. You can convey a lot about them by what words they use – who says cunt, who never exceeds sod, who doesn’t swear at all? Is their swearing mostly sexual or religious, specifically abusive or just verbal decoration? Consider where they get their swears from – Army past, foreign travels? What about their social class? How can a Regency upper-class heroine let rip? Do they swear with spluttering fury, or elaborately worked eloquence? Does someone who normally swears like a bastard mind their language around just one person, or vice versa? Can you use an inadvertent ejaculation to betray your character’s shock or anger, and at what level of extremity will that kick in?

Know your registers. A Regency heroine cannot toss damn about in public; bloody obeys grammatical rules and cannot just be dropped randomly into a sentence to convey Britishness; calling someone a sodding tart is not the same as calling them a fucking whore.

Consider context. What impact does each swear have on the people around them? Are they trying to shock, or does it go unnoticed? If swearing is routine and similar among a variety of characters, that can be very boring. I am mostly a big fan of Richard Morgan’s fantasy series that began with The Steel Remains, but everyone swears identically. There is no difference between the battle-hardened social reject mercenary and the (non-fighting, political) emperor in the middle of his court. So we don’t get any sense of social or power divide between emperor and soldier, and because the emperor uses fuck all the time, his register has nowhere to go when he gets angry. This doesn’t seem to be making a point about the emperor’s court or ruling style. Everyone swears, it is grimdark, the end. Before you create a register in which, as Anthony Bourdain puts it, fuck is used principally as a comma, ask yourself how you’re going to escalate when people are really cross. (No, you may not put the swears in capital letters for emphasis. You’re not JK Rowling.)

FlightOfMagpies300Swearing lends power to not swearing. In my Charm of Magpies trilogy, Crane is spectacularly foul-mouthed throughout; his love interest Stephen uses four-letter words during sex and never elsewhere. When he swears for the first time outside the bedroom, in the third book, I hope the extremely mild word he uses will have all the impact of the most baroque explosion from Lord Crane – because it’s breaking his usual register and reflects a couple of extremely significant changes.

Swearing has power, and effect. It conveys mood and character. It can be explosive, done right. It can be monotonous and ineffectual done wrong, in which it is exactly like everything else we do with words.

Of course you don’t have to do it. If you don’t want to write swearing, then write characters who aren’t inclined to swear by personality or compelled by circumstance, and nobody will complain about it. Though you need to accept that if your battle-hardened Marine says, ‘Bother!’ when he stands on a landmine, people will laugh at you.

All I ask is, whether pro-swearing or not, pay as much attention to the rude words as to all the other ones. After all, you don’t want to be Terri in The Thick of It.

Terri: We don’t exchange insults with bloody Simon arsepipes titty-twat.

Ollie: Is that honestly the best swearing that you can come up with?

 ****

A note on cunt: Many Americans in particular regard cunt as a sexist term, and it can indeed be applied in a particularly unpleasant way as a synonym for woman. However, Brits most often use it as a swear without any specifically sexual connotations, either as a high-impact word on the tit – arse – cock – twat register, or, in some regions, as more or less a synonym for ‘person’. (‘My round, any of you cunts want a drink?’) Use it or don’t, as you see fit, but be aware of the cultural baggage.

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ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a perfectly civil human being on Twitter and Facebook and just debases the English language in her books. Her latest, Think of England, is hardly sweary at all, except for the line ‘you fucking shithouse cricket,’ which was irresistible.

Thanks to Marian Perera for the inspiration for this post, and check her blog post that tackles swearing in fantasy.

Body Parts All Over the Floor

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

His eyes were on Mary.

His arm went round her waist.

Jane’s head was in her hands.

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

His eyeballs were on Mary’s lap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes followed her round the room.

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

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

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

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

His fingers beat a nervous tattoo.

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

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

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

His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Curse you, Captain Exposition!

I was playing the fool on Twitter the other day.

Image

(This reminds me to note that Alexis Hall’s Shadows & Dreams, the second Kate Kane book, is out 15 June. The first, Iron & Velvet, was one of my favourite reads of last year, and if you like noir, urban fantasy, hardboiled lesbian detectives and/or laugh-out-loud funny writing, snap these up right now. But I digress.)

Captain Exposition is a menace. His pernicious influence is particularly apparent in historical and fantasy writing, where Terry Pratchett dubbed it ‘As you know, your father, the king…’ In this form, characters sit down and explain things to one another purely in order to inform the audience.

As you know, General, you led the invasion force that toppled our neighbouring country of F’l’zz, bringing the F’l’zz’rahi people, for such you know they call themselves, under our rule for the first time. You lost an eye in that conflict, to the sword of the notorious rebel known as the Black Persimmon.

You can just imagine the General muttering, ‘I know. He stabbed me in the eye.’

Exposition is vital to a book, of course. It’s how you convey backstory, setting and systems. What happened to the hero, which countries are at war, how the magic system or the terms of the grandfather’s will or the secret service division operates. The question is, how to convey it in a non-glaring fashion that doesn’t destroy characterisation or bring the plot to a screeching halt.

Exposition in narrative

You can, of course, plonk it on the page with all the bravura of a farmer tipping a pile of manure off a spade.

Rachel and Kirsty had a secret. Unknown to their parents, the girls were secret friends with the fairies and often helped them when they were in trouble.
(Daisy Meadows, every goddamn Rainbow Magic book ever)

My children, aged 5 and 6, are capable of spotting this, and will chorus a scathing ‘Infodump!’ at any adult foolish enough not to skip this bit when reading aloud. (Then again, when my daughter gets asked to ‘make a book’ for school, she always puts an ISBN and barcode on the back and writes a blurb, eg ‘A brilliant story for all little children.’ Editors shouldn’t breed.)

If you have the right narrative voice, of course, you can tell the reader anything you want.

But first a word must be said about Peter. He was the man that taught me all I ever knew of veld-craft, and a good deal about human nature besides. He was out of the Old Colony – Burgersdorp, I think – but he had come to the Transvaal when the Lydenburg goldfields started. He was prospector, transport-rider, and hunter in turns, but principally hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. […]

He was a man of about five foot ten, very thin and active, and as strong as a buffalo. He had pale blue eyes, a face as gentle as a girl’s, and a soft sleepy voice. From his present appearance it looked as if he had been living hard lately. His clothes were of the cut you might expect to get at Lobito Bay, he was as lean as a rake, deeply browned with the sun, and there was a lot of grey in his beard. He was fifty-six years old, and used to be taken for forty. Now he looked about his age.
(John Buchan, Greenmantle)

Shameless exposition, sure. But the spirit of place rolls off it. The reader is flatteringly included – I have no idea what Bob Macnab did in Swaziland, but I’m pretty sure it was dangerous and maybe illegal, and I like the narrator’s confidence that I’m part of his in-group even if I’m not. The exposition doesn’t just tell us about Peter, but about the narrator’s past and character, and about the world we’re in, and the kind of story this is.

Exposition in dialogue

Exposition can be conveyed through dialogue, with one character explaining things to another, but you need to beware Captain Exposition here most of all. The above speech about the Black Persimmon would establish the speaker in the reader’s head as a tedious cypher, and the General as some kind of idiot with short-term memory loss (‘Who was it stabbed me in the eye again? Oooh, his name’s on the tip of my tongue…’). If you find yourself typing ‘As you know’ or, even worse, having the victim of the exposition exclaim, ‘I know all this!’ then junk the conversation and do it again.

Characters should say things for a reason that isn’t ‘the reader needs to know’. In Think of England I have a crucial bit of exposition around the terribThinkOfEngland72weble thing that happened to the hero and his comrades in the war, which needs to be spelled out early on. I decided to have the hero insist on explaining it at a dinner party, to some social awkwardness, because he’s trying to get a reaction out of the other guests. It clues in the reader at the same time, of course, but as far as the character‘s concerned, he has every reason to say it.

It can work to have a rookie character, to whom everything can legitimately be explained (the Will Smith role in Men in Black), but apply some sense. I have read many a scene where the new recruit arrives on his first day at the paramilitary antiterrorist organization and is walked through their purpose and mission, and I sit there thinking, ‘Did nobody explain this to him before he signed up? Your recruitment process sucks.’ (Once again, Men in Black rocks this and makes it work.)

Make sure the conversation is worth having in itself, not just for exposition. If it helps us get to know the characters and shows their reactions and thoughts, it’ll feel much more like an interaction that humans might have.

You can use character thoughts for the same expository effect as dialogue, but again, fear Captain Exposition. ‘He reminded himself about the history of the Black Persimmon’ should set off the Infodump Klaxon just as much as ‘As you know’ in dialogue.

Also, beware the pluperfect in character thoughts.

The General had been tasked with tracking down the Black Persimmon, but when he had arrived in Fl’zz he had had second thoughts.

Too much makes for a painful reading experience.

Exposition in flashback

At least you can avoid pluperfects, and show action. But flashbacks must be controlled. Spread them out, make them clear so the reader doesn’t get temporally unhitched, and make them work for their place. They shouldn’t just be there to inform the reader, but to build character and increase anticipation. They absolutely cannot be allowed to stop forward momentum in the overall story – they should inform and drive the main narrative, should hold information that the reader is desperate to learn.

My latest MS, Jackdaw, has a huge amount of backstory (it starts with an established relationship that has fallen apart, and the flashbacks give the story of the relationship up till the collapse). I tell it with flashbacks throughout the first half for three purposes:

  1. Avoids infodumping it all in one go.
  2. Tantalizes the reader: we know from the start that a terrible thing happened but you have to wait till half way through to find out exactly what it was.
  3. Varies the tone. The main story begins very dark and angry, the flashbacks are at first to a wonderful happy time, which lifts the angsty mood and shows us different aspects of the MCs, as well as supplying necessary information. The flashbacks bring us up to where the main narrative started, and right as the two strands converge, we reach a turning point. Telling the whole story in narrative order would make the turning point feel less climactic. So the exposition supports the structure of the book instead of feeling tacked-in. (I hope.)

Incluing

Your best way of handling exposition is what fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton calls ‘incluing’ (clueing in the reader). This is “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.” Know your world and systems and setting. Allow your characters’ backstories to inform and bubble through their current reactions. Show it all in action.Don’t tell me that F’l’zz is a slave-based economy: show me slaves as a casual accepted part of the background. Don’t tell me the Black Persimmon stabbed the General in the eye: have a F’l’zz’rahi prisoner refer tauntingly to it, and show us the General’s reaction of quivering with remembered fear, cutting off the prisoner’s head in a snit, or reflecting that the Black Persimmon was kind of hot apart from the eye thing.

Let information trickle out in dialogue and thought and narrative and description, as part of character and events. Put it there for the reader to pick up on, let it soak in as you go, and have confidence in your story. You don’t have to tell everything at once in a big rush. Some things you might not have to openly ‘tell’ at all.

 How do you like to see exposition handled? Do you hate flashbacks? Got any good or bad examples? And will Captain Exposition defeat his arch-enemy Doctor Metatext? Tune in next week!

KJ Charles is off to the UK GLBT Meet for authors and readers 6-8 June so probably won’t be around for a bit. Think of England is out 1 July.

Finishing Your Book: a handy completion checklist

You’ve written your book. You’ve slaved over the plotting, wept blood on the characterisation, drunk your way through the sex scenes, got yourself under GCHQ scrutiny thanks to the websites you’re visiting for research, squeezed out multiple thousand words through your finger ends, and typed The End. But are you really finished?

Here, in honour of sending off my sixth book to the publisher, is my cut-out-n-keep Book Completion Checklist. It won’t catch everything but it might save you a bit of humiliation as the editor finds a delicate and tactful way to tell you you’re an idiot.

Have you removed vestiges of previous drafts?

That character who used to play a plot role? That conversation that no longer leads anywhere? The dinner party introducing half a dozen people who never come back?[i] The reference to the giant octopus that wasn’t actually in the finished story at all?[ii]

Have you got the characters’ names right?

Does a character’s name randomly change in the course of the book?[iii] If you changed the character’s name, say from Tim to Felix, did you click ‘replace whole word only’, or is your MS now full of words like ‘felixing’ and ‘infelixate’[iv]?

Did you go back and do the things you meant to go back and do?

Notes to self are a very useful way to get over a passage you’re stuck on without breaking flow, but is your editor going to come across ‘DESCRIPTION’ or, even worse, ‘HOT SEX SCENE HERE’?[v]

Have you found your Word of the Book?

There’s always one. Maybe for some bizarre reason you’ve qualified everything as ‘a little’. Maybe your characters have all developed the same nervous tic of shrugging, sighing or eye-shutting. Maybe you’ve used the word ‘glee’ thirty-two times in 60,000 words, despite the book not in fact being about high school musical societies.[vi] That Word function where it highlights all occurrences of what you’re searching on can be enlightening. Not to say blinding.

Have you tied up all your plot lines?

Is it all neatly squared away, with nothing dangling and unresolved? If the book includes, say, a plot-crucial murder, have you remembered to tell the reader who did it?[vii] (It’s useful to write your synopsis when the book is finished; it can be a very quick way to find out if you’ve actually made any sense.)

Did you do a timeline?

Not ‘are you pretty damn sure you’ve got the sequence of events right in your head’, but did you do it. Have you checked that pregnancies last approx 9 months, hawthorn isn’t flowering in what turns out to be September, everyone isn’t busily heading to work on Sunday[viii], it’s physically possible for all the action to take place in the time allotted, and that you haven’t just had it become night right in the middle of daytime because drama[ix]?

Have you done that other thing?

You know, the one you meant to do? It was in that scene, and you didn’t write it down when you thought of it because there was no way you could forget something so pivotal to the book? That thing? No? Oh well, never mind. You’ll remember what it was right after you’ve clicked Send.

_____________________________________

 References

[i] Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate and Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, to name but two

[ii] The Goonies. Yes, I know that’s a film.

[iii] Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic, error still there after more than three decades

[iv] KJ Charles, editor, error caught before publication

[v] idem

[vi] KJ Charles, repeat offender. If these get through, it’s not my editor’s fault

[vii] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (not just uncaught but an eternal mystery because the author forgot. “They sent me a wire asking me [who killed the chauffeur], and dammit I didn’t know either.”)

[viii] Me again. Thank God for editors

[ix] X Men 3: The Last Stand

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

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

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

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

For 273 pages. Gosh.

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

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

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

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What period is it from?

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

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

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

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