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.



[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…


Lower Your Standards: getting through the book’s babyhood

In honour of my son’s fifth birthday the other day, I present a Parenting Metaphor. (This really is a post about writing, not a kiddy blog. Bear with me.)

My son was born 17 months after my daughter, and as parents of ‘two under two’ will know, this is a bad time. I recall my husband coming home to find me sitting on the floor, crying, holding a crying baby and a crying toddler who had just wet herself copiously over her brother, me, and the floor. (Which is what we were all crying about.) It was not good. So I called my friend Natalie, who speaks wisdom.

KJ [wails about disastrous house, empty cupboards, nappies, failed breastfeeding, unsleeping children] I just don’t know how you’re supposed to DO everything! How do I do it?

Natalie [audible shrug]: Lower your standards.

This is, quite seriously, the best advice I have ever received.

‘Lower your standards’ doesn’t mean ‘leave the child in a dirty nappy while you go to the pub’, of course. It means that you turn ‘playing educationally with your spotless children in an impeccable house while a casserole cooks’ into ‘playing with your children’, and the hell with the rest. It means you get the important stuff right. The rest of it can always be done later, when you have time – and if you never have time, that’s probably because it wasn’t really important. Pick it up if it starts to smell.

‘Lower your standards’ got me through early parenthood. The house did not fall down, nobody got cholera, the kids survived and so did we. We lowered our standards, and cleared up later, and you know what, it’s worked out pretty well.

And ‘lower your standards’ is also excellent advice for your difficult first draft. (Subject to deciding that it’s worth writing at all.)

  • Forget that blasted descriptive passage. If you need it, it will come, later. If you don’t, aren’t you glad you stopped trying to write it now?
  • Conversation not working, but you know where it needs to go? Force it. Leave a space if you have to. Don’t get bogged down. If it’s really where the book is going, it’ll come to you, and you’ll probably find out what your characters wanted to get at in fifty pages’ time. It doesn’t have to be perfected now. It will probably change anyway.
  • Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.
  • Your Edwardian heroes are on a train to Berlin and you need to find out the name of a station they stop at on the way? If it’s not plot-shapingly crucial, just put [STATION] in the MS and do it later. Do not break your writing flow to mess about with 1904 Continental railway timetables. (I’m talking to you here, KJ.)
  • Your subconscious will work with you, but it needs something to work on. If you just get the full story nailed, I guarantee that the little character notes and pertinent descriptions and seemingly trivial vital details will sing out on second draft. Like careers, manuscripts make most sense with hindsight.

Of course, your standards need to shoot back up in the second draft, when you remove the awkward transitions, and see, in the glorious light of a completed story, why that scene didn’t work and this conversation doesn’t flow. That’s the point where you start to get it all right. And when it comes to editing stage, your standards should be those of the Tiger Mother from Hell. Your finished book should be as perfect as you hope your finished offspring will be. (Hahahaha.)

But in the baby-and-toddler period, sometimes you just need to concentrate on keeping the damn thing alive.

Do you agree? Disagree? Are your standards too low even to engage with this conversation? Let me know!

When Stories Go Bad: what to do with a flatlining MS.

In my last blog I mentioned the editorial definition of ‘tweak’.

Tweak: A change to a book. May be the alteration of a comma to a semi-colon. May involve identifying a huge timeline flaw and swapping scenes according, bringing a character back from the dead, and changing the ending.

However, sometimes tweaking isn’t enough.

  • When you decide, after 30,000 words, that you’ve used the wrong main character, and the plot is actually someone else’s story…
  • When your plot for book 3 of a series would, you realise, utterly torpedo everything you’ve achieved in books 1 and 2 and/or banjax any hope of a book 4…
  • When you realise, after 30,000 words, that you have no idea at all where you’re going with this / you dislike your characters intensely / you’ve used POV that now mean you cannot tell a crucial part of the story except in an extended two-chapter flashback narrated by a minor character…
  • When it turns out your carefully worked-out plot that means none of the above will happen is as inert as a fish on a slab…
  • When every writing session is like wading through cold treacle and you have so many other things you want to write instead…

If you’re hoping for advice on what to do in these circumstances, you’ve probably come to the wrong shop, because I have no idea what’s wrong with your MS and I have enough trouble with mine. But here’s a few thoughts.

Is it really that bad? ‘Just get on and write it’ is good advice in some circumstances. Sometimes pages carved out of granite by your teeth will end up reading exactly like the sparkling pages that flow effortlessly from your dancing fingers. But if you have a long-lasting sinking feeling that it’s not working, it probably isn’t, and ‘just write’ may mean ‘just waste more time on this dirge’. So you need a brutally honest beta reader or crit partner that you can trust to say, ‘Mate, this is just not that good.’ That way you can believe them in the unlikely event they tell you it’s great. (They won’t. It sucks. Sorry.) It is very hard to be that beta reader, and if you have one, take them out to dinner or something and assure them you still love them. You should.

Is some of the basic structure salvageable? Can you cut it back to chapter three and start again from there? Kill that subplot that’s slowing it down? Drop the whole plot strand that’s taking your characters to a really stupid place and take the book in a totally different direction, from early on? Is this like a badly pruned tree that needs cutting back to the trunk to make it grow properly, or like a child’s self-inflicted haircut that requires a shaved head?

Can you strip it down for spares? It may be that some of those lovely chunks of dialogue and scenes will fit seamlessly into a revised version. Junking 30K words is less painful if 10K of them can be salvaged. However, the key word is seamlessly, not ‘stitched together like a minor villain from Hellraiser’. Be ready to let go.

Is this coyote ugly? Which is to say, do you need to chew off a limb in order to escape? Do you need to jettison the whole damn thing and start again with new story, characters, setting, genre and possibly author name? If this is or may be the case, do not be tempted to fiddle. Don’t tweak, don’t tinker, don’t twerk; don’t strip it down for spare parts; don’t try retelling it from a different perspective with a completely different ya di ya; absolutely don’t be tempted to think that you have to keep writing this one book because you’ve put so much time into it. That’s a sunk cost. Future time is the only time that counts.

 KJ Charles has junked much and restructured more, but is finally past the 30K word mark and I swear to God it’s working now. Commiserate or argue in the comments!

Get Some Perspective: musing on different points of view

I have a really great idea for a big fantasy novel. It’s got a nice concept, a whole developed magic system, a huge cast including three main characters who are flawed and sexy as all get out and two more decent ones who provide the moral and emotional grounding. It’s had two partial drafts adding up to 80K words so far, and it is stuck as a pig because I can’t find the right point of view to tell the story.

Seriously. I can’t make this story work because I have set about telling it from what turns out to be the completely wrong perspective, and it is killing me.

Let’s think about points of view, and if I don’t have a revelation by the end of this blog, I expect someone to solve it for me in the comments.

First person

Written as ‘I’. I’ve done this a couple of times, in my free ghost/romance short story and in my forthcoming romantic suspense Non-Stop Till Tokyo. It’s immediate and direct, but it’s confining, in that you have to nancy around a lot to convey things the narrator doesn’t see/know, and it can be alienating to the reader if the narrator’s quirks and flaws are too prominent or unappealing.

It’s possible for first person to be distancing. The stylistic device of an ‘I’ telling the story can be very present, reminding you that you’re reading a book. (My narrators always end up addressing the reader and commenting on their own stories. That works in some cases, it wouldn’t for this.) Ditto where the narrator is unreliable or flawed, and the pleasure lies in working out what’s really happening.

Often the viewpoint character isn’t the main character of the story. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, where Scout is really only a witness to the adult action, narrating an experience that the reader understand more than she does. Again, it works in some cases, not all.

I’m not, generally, a massive fan of first person in romance, even though some of my favourites (Widdershins and Glitterland) are first person.  Mostly, I prefer to watch. And I find it a bit weird to have first person in thrillers, where the question of whether the main character will survive is generally answered by the fact she’s narrating her past adventure, unless you’re reading one of those really tiresome books narrated by a dead person. (You may ask why I wrote a first person romantic suspense, given all that, and I can only answer, Shh.)

Second person

You go to the shops. On the way, you see a kitten die, alone. You are oddly unmoved.

However, you are not a poncy American novelist c.1987, or a Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure author, and you reject this as unnecessary showing off with no obvious benefits. You really can’t imagine how this would work for a romance novel, especially one with sex, though you feel a sudden unholy compulsion to try, which you tread on heavily if you have any sense. You start to feel slightly badgered by the author telling you what you are thinking. You wish she’d get out of your face.

Single viewpoint tight third person

All told from one character’s in-head perspective. I love tight third. You get all the benefits of first person – immediacy, a single perspective leaving the other characters as mysteries – while being able to look around a bit more, and without the stylistic awkwardness of first person. It makes it a lot easier to write characters who aren’t very self aware, to comment and supply backstory. But it has the same problem as first person in a large-scale story: you only get a restricted view of the action.

This can be what you want, of course. I used single tight third for A Case of Possession, the sequel to the alternating-viewpoint The Magpie Lord, because in the first book I needed to track what was going on in both characters’ heads, while in the second, one character was the focus of the emotional development so we needed to stay with him. My forthcoming Think of England uses single viewpoint tight third because much of the story depends on that character not having a clue what’s going on in his love interest’s head, and the reader needs to be on that emotional journey with him rather than ten steps ahead.

Both drafts for my godforsaken Problem Project are in tight third, from the POV of a character who isn’t actually turning out to be the dead centre of the story (as with To Kill a Mockingbird but in third). I did this to handle the worldbuilding – introducing a character to a new world and have people explain stuff to him, and thus to the reader – but I am just now realizing why that was an incredibly dumb thing to do: Tight third has to be a character right at the heart of the action. You can’t have a witness narrator, s/he has to be a key actor. Otherwise you have two layers of distance – the author talking about Bob talking about Florence.

Multiple viewpoint tight third person

Switching from one head to another. This is useful when you need more than one perspective. Benefit: you can get deeper into the characters, from inside and outside, seeing them as they see themselves and as others see them. You get a broader view and can cover a wider story without the need for other characters filling in what’s happened offstage. Risk: head hopping.

Bob smiled. He liked it when Florence got angry and he hoped to make her even angrier in a moment.

Florence glared at Bob, wishing he would stop smirking. ‘Please pass me the paintbrush,’ she said, wondering if she could jam it in his face.

James walked in, thinking about his dog…

Editor, stat!

Omniscient third

Story narrated from a non-character perspective, which can tell us what everyone is thinking and feeling and doing. Probably the easiest way to handle a big fat sprawling multi-character epic. But it can be distancing (you’re not in someone’s head) or revealing (the narrator knows all and thus can tell all) and it can make it hard to find a voice.

Bleak House alternates omniscient third with first person, keeping us engaged with Esther Summerson and puzzled by her mystery, while supplying clues and action and storyline to which she has no access. Plenty of books switch between omniscient and one or multiple tight third viewpoints.


So where does that leave me with the Problem Project? I have several characters with multiple interweaving relationships, in geographically and socially different locations. Two whose real motivations have to remain a mystery. One who will betray everything and everyone, hopefully including the reader. And a lot of worldbuilding to convey.

It’s starting to sound like I need alternating tight third perspectives (no omniscient narrator knowing everything, because I need to keep secrets, but several different POVs to give the reader the wide view and all the info). I still don’t know exactly who should be telling this story out of the extensive cast (the problem of picking the person to narrate out of a large cast is a post in itself), but now I can start to see a structure that will let them tell it.

You may even get to read this thing some day.


What’s your point of view preference? First, third, don’t notice? Do you need a viewpoint character in multi-character books? Like unreliable first-person narrators? Think I’m making a terrible mistake and should write this thing in second person, future tense? Thoughts welcome! 

Terrible Advice for Aspiring Authors

You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’

And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…

At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.

Fake an agent

Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!

Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.

(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)

Pretend the MS was requested

Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…

Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.

Ask to be requested

For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’

Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.

Get noticed!

Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).

Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing.  The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.

Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!

In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.

Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’.  Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.

You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.

In Someone Else’s Story: life as a minor character

Back in the day, before I became a responsible washing-machine-fixing parent type, I travelled round Egypt with a boyfriend. This meant many interminable, uncomfortable bus journeys. On one of them, we were sat next to a pair of American backpackers. My boyfriend and the male backpacker talked across the aisle, while the girlfriends in the window seats read books.

Two months later, my boyfriend emailed me at work:

Remember those backpackers from the coach to Abu Simbel? I told them to look me up when they got to London and we arranged to do something tonight, but I forgot I have to work this evening. So I’ve given them your address and they’ll be there at 7.

It’s OK, I dumped him.

Anyway, they turned up at my tiny flat which I shared with two friends, neither of whom was excited about having a couple of randoms interrupt our planned viewing of the World Cup…

And it was brilliant. The conversation went from stilted hellos to hilarity within minutes. We all talked non-stop. They moved from ‘isn’t soccer a girl’s game?’ to screaming and leaping with excitement at every goal, the god Phoebus Apollo was playing for England in his incarnation as the young David Beckham, we didn’t run out of beer though I have no idea how. They stayed till the last tube, and after they left, my flatmates and I had this conversation:

Flatmate 1: You know something weird? We’re in their travelling story now. “Remember the time we met that English guy in Egypt and ended up watching the World Cup and getting hammered with total strangers in London?” They won’t bore on about Big Ben when they mention visiting London, they’ll be talking about hanging out with us.

Flatmate 2: You mean…we’re like…their supporting cast?

Flatmate 1: … Oh my God. I’m a minor character.

Me: Do we get our names in the opening credits? “Special Guest Star  – KJ Charles?”

Flatmate 1: You wish. Half way down the end credits. *And* you’ll only be listed as “Girl in Flat”.

The thing is, we’re all supporting cast in each other’s stories. George Eliot in Middlemarch puts it significantly better than my flatmate:

[A mirror] will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.

The relevance of all this to writing? (Yes! There is relevance!) Supporting cast are not supporting to themselves. They may have a place in the book purely because of their interactions with the main characters, but that can’t be their motivation. If the doctor makes sexist remarks purely so the heroine can show off her snappy comebacks, he’ll be implausible. If the policeman pursues the heroes because the plot requires a secondary antagonist, he’s not a character, he’s one of those annoying Hero’s Journey archetype things.

So move the candle. Before writing the pursuing policeman, try imagining the story from his point of view, with everyone else as his supporting cast. What’s he actually after? How much does he care about arresting our heroes, as opposed to just improving his arrest record somehow? If he’s going to doggedly pursue your heroes through three books, why? Does he do that with everyone he wants to arrest? Why would he have this obsession if not because he’s a secondary character in their story?

That doesn’t mean that the reader needs (or wants) to hear about the motivation and backstory of every character. (Regular visitors may recall that I’m big on the author knowing things that she doesn’t tell the readers.) I’m currently editing a novel in which the author has given all the minor characters a ton of backstory (from the lawyer’s irrelevant childhood on an army base to the father’s favourite film) and I’m going Red Pen Crazy because all that stuff is bringing the book to a grinding halt.

But when that’s all gone, it will still be detectable that these characters have a hinterland and a personality, not just a plot role. Because the author knows who they are and what they want, her knowledge informs the writing in a thousand tiny, subtle ways. They have individual, plausible reactions. The main characters interact with them as people, not as information providers or Threshold Guardians. They have their own needs that aren’t neatly aligned to the main characters’ story. And that makes the book richer, probably better plotted, and more true.

Ten Rules for Writing Joyless Books

My children are avid sticker book consumers. (Bear with me: this is an extended metaphor, not a parenting blog post.)

At first they simply wanted to jam the stickers onto the pages, upside down, off the edges, covering each other in great lumps of shiny paper, just for the pleasure of playing with sticky things.

Then they got a bit older and more careful. Put the penguins in the snow scene, put the pirates on the beach. They set up little bits of staging. “Look, Mummy, the baby dinosaur is going to eat the bird. Look, the pirate’s chopping the other pirate’s head off. Look, the polar bear is going to – I am playing nicely, Mummy!” Even when the sticker scene was long completed, they’d sit there poring over the pages, making up stories about what the absurdly juxtaposed creatures were up to.

Older still, and the sticker books have become more complicated. Now you have to put the sticker in the right place. The pirate has to be applied perfectly over just the right bit of rigging or it looks all wrong. The clothes must be put on the correct dolly in the correct order.

Let’s just consider that. The sticker book’s purpose is to give the child a scene to populate with characters, yet we insist the characters should be applied and arranged only in a certain way, the right way. These dinosaurs have to go in those trees. Those knights only fit if you use them to fight the dragon. The sticker for the Lego dumper truck must be applied over the silhouette of the Lego dumper truck. The boy dolly has to wear the boy clothes. This isn’t play any more, it’s an exercise in form filling. The books where you put the stickers wherever you like and create your own scene are babyish. Big boys and girls follow instructions. Even if the child, half way through a sticker page that was supposed to be fun, looks up and pleads, “Mummy, do I have to finish this?”

I’m sure you see where I’m going. In this case, I have been driven to distraction by the umpteenth repetition of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Writing’, which would be more accurately titled ‘10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard’, but you can put ‘top ten tips for writers’ into your search engine of choice and come up with any amount of vetoes and restrictions and rules. Let’s just start with his first tip, shall we?

Never open a book with weather.

–  Elmore Leonard

To which I have only this to say:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

–  Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Or again

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

– Elmore Leonard

I’ve ranted about poorly chosen speech verbs myself, but never?

“Shut up,” he explained.

– Ring Lardner

Leonard goes on to say that writers should not go into detail to describe people, places, or things. I’ll just go home now. (In fairness, Leonard knew perfectly well that his rules were for himself, not for everyone. I’m just sick of seeing them repeated like they are a recipe for anything other than his prose style.)

I’m bored of reading text that feels like it’s been run through a set of rules. I’m bored of literary novels by authors that have been through the same Creative Writing MA course and learned to do the same things. I’m bored of genre fiction that knows how genre fiction should be written and does it just like that because it should, not because it wants to. I’m unbelievably bored of books that don’t play.

Of course authors need to learn how to write, which is mostly done by reading, and writing, and by being read, and by taking criticism and learning from it. A writer who doesn’t learn her craft is the child jamming stickers onto the page, and the wallpaper, and the cat.

But when ‘rules’ of writing (of what publishers say the market wants, of what the SFF establishment approves, of what gets a Booker prize nomination, of what this top author or that course dictates as the only good) kill the creativity and individuality and fun of the writer doing her own thing… well, that’s when the readers start to wail, Mummy, do I have to finish this?

You’ll Never Believe This, But… Coincidence in life and fiction

I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.

This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.

In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*

* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)

The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance.  It’s not even like she has a big family. 

Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate

In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.

If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.

I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.

Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?

The Art of the Blurb: How to write back cover copy

Many authors, both self pubbed and those with small publishers, find themselves writing their own back cover copy. Or, at least, staring at a blank screen thinking, ‘Do I have to?’

Yes, you do. The blurb is your biggest and best opportunity to sell your book. It’s what readers see. It’s their reason to click through or move on.

And this means, for each book, the blurb should be the most polished passage of writing you do – including the manuscript. Labouring over a MS and then knocking out a quick blurb is like spending hours creating a marvellous feast of molecular gastronomy, and then serving it on paper plates off which your toddler has eaten jelly.

So how to do it? Well, practice, mostly. I’ve been writing blurbs for fifteen years and it still makes my head hurt. But if you’re feeling stuck, some of this might help…

A blurb sells the book

The blurb is a selling tool.  Everything in your blurb should be directed at making readers want the book, preferably in exchange for money. The blurb is the sizzle that sells the sausage.

The blurb does not tell the story: it tells the potential buyer about the story. Major difference. If you find yourself telling the story, cut. Watch out for ‘And then’ connectives, which often signal that you’re giving a sequence of events. Turn them into ‘But’ connectives –  the ones that suggest obstacles, reversals, drama.

Telling the story makes boring blurbs. I used to work with a sales manager whose cry at sales conference rehearsals was, ‘Nobody cares.’

Editor, rehearsing presentation: ‘Polly Smith was sent to Lady Letitia’s Orphanage when her parents died in a hot-air balloon accident – ’

Sales manager: Nobody cares.

Editor: But it’s important for her reactions –

Sales manager: NOBODY. CARES.

Of course they’ll care when they read the book. But in the back cover copy, the expression you’re looking for to cover your three chapters of carefully crafted emotional dissection at balloon-related bereavement is, at most, ‘Orphan Polly Smith’ and quite possibly, just ‘Polly’.

What sells? A conflict, a romantic set-up, a mystery, a dramatic situation. Not a backstory, a description, or an explanation.

Answer the key questions

These should get you at least halfway to something usable.

Who are the main character/s?  Headline details only, and try putting the adjectives before the noun. ‘John is a photographer burned out after years covering conflicts in war zones’ is an infodump. ‘Burned-out war photographer John’ is the beginning of a sentence that might get interesting.

What’s the problem facing your hero/ine/s? A race against time, a family battle, the love interest being a zombie…

What’s at stake? The world? A child’s happiness? The love affair? The heroine’s braaaaains?

If you can tell the reader that [appealing person] in [interesting situation] has [thing going on] with [X at stake], you have 80% of a blurb right there.

Avoid the pitfall questions

There are some things it’s very tempting to tell the reader, but think twice.

Where/when are we? Unless the setting is really a major selling point, beware. If you start your blurb with ‘Devon, 1782. As the mist drifts through the chilly moorland…’, that clicking noise is the sound of a lot of readers going elsewhere.

Who else is in the book? The child/dog/sidekick might be one of the most effective things in the book, but are they part of what sells it? The cute dog may be the thing that readers will remember, but you’re not addressing existing readers here, you’re selling to potential buyers.

What’s important to the book is not necessarily what’s important to the blurb.

Keep it short

This is not an essay, it’s a selling tool. Go Edward Scissorhands. You won’t lose out by keeping it to three paragraphs; you may well lose readers if they have to plough through six.

A blurb sells the book that you wrote

Not the book that you suddenly feel you should have written, or the book that would probably have sold more copies. It might temporarily drive sales up to give the blurb a commercial spin (e.g. selling it as a romance when it’s that very different thing, a book about two people who occasionally shag). But it won’t endear the author to the misled readers.

Remember the classic Wizard of Oz TV guide listing?

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

You can pull in the Cormac McCarthy fans this way, but you won’t keep them once ‘Over the Rainbow’ starts.


Typos and errors. Spellcheck like mad. Get someone else to read it. Do not rush this. You wouldn’t use a picture of burned steak and soggy chips to advertise your restaurant; do not use sloppy writing to advertise your book.

Extract. No matter how good your writing is. Let people be stunned by the extract when they’re already hooked on the concept. Exception: a single fantastic line that sells the book, as a pull quote.

Spoilers. If your book’s impact depends on a massive unforeseen twist, for God’s sake don’t give it away on the back.


KJ Charles has five blurbs to write for work, which is why she’s blogging.