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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.

Avoid:

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.

Self-editing: Repetition, echoes, and saying the same thing over and over again

The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.

Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.

Word repetition

‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated.  His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’

It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.

Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.

NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.

Concept repetition, micro level

Peter and John are alone in a room.

‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’

Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.

‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]

, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]

John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]

prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]

‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]

And without repetition:

‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’

Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).

Content repetition, macro level

A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.

Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!

What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.

Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.

Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.

Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)

 

So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…

‘Argh, They’re Watching Me!’ Thinking about Readers.

Writing copy has a solid rule, whether it’s back cover blurbs or catalogue copy: think about the audience. What do they need to know, what do they want to know, what will persuade them to buy your product.

But can you think about the audience while writing fiction?

There are many people who write to order, of course. Writing series books to a set brief is a thriving art. And publishers’ search for the Next Big Thing usually entails trying to reproduce the Current Big Thing, so if you can knock out a quick and competent The Michelangelo Cipher or 49 Colours of Red on demand, you will probably make a nice living, and more power to your typing fingers.

But if you’re trying to tell your own story, the thought of an audience can be paralysing. There are people who never send their work to a publisher because they’re terrified of what someone else will say. I didn’t show The Magpie Lord to anyone before sending it to Samhain – I needed to have a publisher’s imprimatur before I had the nerve to tell anyone, ‘I wrote this, and actually, at least two people think it’s quite good.’

Plenty of people don’t write because their awareness of a ghostly audience, of eyes on their work, is so crippling that they stop before they begin. What if my boss thinks I’m a psycho? What if my mother reads the sex scenes?! If I wrote something else, would it sell more? People say, write the book you want to read. But what if I’m the only person who wants to read it?

Of course, the standard writing-tips response is, don’t think about the audience, just write from the heart, etc. But that’s only partially true, because stories exist for an audience. An unread/unheard tale is like an unconsummated love affair, or an uneaten cake. It might be a thing of beauty but it hasn’t achieved its point. And if you entirely disregard your audience while writing, you may well end up with an unreadable book.

Essentially, you have to entirely ignore the question of ‘Will anyone want to read my Edwardian country-house spy romance?’, while focusing hard on, ‘Will readers of my Edwardian country-house spy romance find this plot point gripping, this conflict compelling?’ Ignore the invisible audience that might hate your work, and focus on doing your best for the invisible audience who will love it…if you do it right.

Of course, as soon as you get published, you have an additional, even more crippling worry: not only might people read it, but, worse, they might not read it. But that’s another blog.

Are you aware of the invisible audience when you write? Tell me how you handle it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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