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Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.

 

The Still Small Voice of Doom: feeling flaky about your MS

I finished my MS the other day. I tend to edit as I go, so it was fairly clean. Everything had gone as per the synopsis. And I’d finished early. Yay! (I have four deadlines this year, I need to get on).

I told Mr KJC I’d reached The End. He said, “So have you sent it to the editor?” I said, No, I’ll send it to beta readers first. He said, “Well, have you sent it to them?” I said, Not yet. I’ll do that now.

I sent it to my beta readers. I twitched. I fretted.

Mr KJC said, “Why are you fretting?” I said, I’m not fretting.

Mr KJC said, “Why don’t just you send it to the editor, whose job it is to read your MS?” I said, I want to do some pre flight checks. Make sure the timeline’s okay. See if the readers spot anything.

Mr KJC said, “I’m pretty sure editors do that. I’ve been married to an editor for a decade, I know this.” I said, Yes, well, it’s my first book with a new publisher. I’m just being tidy.

Mr KJC said, “Are you wanting to make sure Teacher doesn’t tell you off?” I suggested he might shut up.

Then one of my beta readers texted me and said she liked it but wasn’t sure how the ending fitted the story. And I nodded and went about my business doing other things, and three days after that, I sat at my desk and said aloud, “Of course it doesn’t bloody work.”

It didn’t work. It didn’t work (since you ask) because it was making a big dramatic number out of an insufficiently significant plot strand, because it didn’t weave in the other main plot strands, because it ignored the Big Massive Existing Threat that touches on the entire cast of the whole trilogy in favour of a small localised threat that actually the heroes had already confronted successfully. It was, structurally, crap.

And I knew it.

That’s why I was finding all kinds of reasons not to do what you do with a finished MS, i.e. send it to the editor. Because it wasn’t finished, and I knew it wasn’t finished, but I had typed The End and I wanted it to be finished, and so I was ignoring the Voice.

You know the Voice. The one in your head quietly going, um, not really sure that’s…hey, aren’t you just jamming that in…what about that abandoned strand…are you sure that fits there? The one that niggles at that one little line every time you pass over it: are you just going to let this sit here? The one that is soft and mild and persistent and will not go away.

I’m not talking about the grating voice that says You can’t write books, who do you think you are? and Why aren’t you doing something better and more important, you loser? I mean the persistent little niggling wobbly-loose-tooth Voice that you don’t even really notice, except that you keep telling yourself, Sure the ending’s fine and Yeah, I can retcon it, build it up in editing and Well, it’s just a different sort of plot structure, that’s all, and That’s just a detail, tidy it up later.

The Voice talked to me a lot during the doomed first version of Magpie 3 where I ended up dumping 30K words. Hello, old friend, we meet again.

Thing is, though, the Voice knows its business. The ending was wrong, sure. But when I went over the MS and picked up the other little tiny points that the Voice had been niggling and nibbling and chewing at all along, they slotted together like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of a better ending. One that ties in the key themes to become proportionate and relevant, and which will do a hell of a lot more towards the two linked books. It’s pretty obvious this should have been the ending all along (duh), and the Voice was itching at me to see that, but I had an apparently perfectly good synopsis and a deadline, so I ignored it. More fool me.

One day I will listen to the Voice while I’m writing, rather than before I reach the end of the draft. One day. Meanwhile, the following:

  • If you’re feeling niggled at while you write, find a trusty beta reader to read the incomplete MS. That will help keep you on track and it’s always useful to have people’s thoughts on where the story is going.
  • Small pointless details that niggle at you are probably not small and pointless after all. Listen to your subconscious.
  • We all feel that this is the worst MS ever at some point. Ignore that feeling. But if you keep on thinking about/circling round/justifying something to yourself, especially if it’s specific rather than general self-doubt, you might as well face up to it now.
  • If you’re actively finding reasons not to send a finished MS off, it’s time to go hunting for the bits that made the voice say, Ummm…
  • Editors can fix this stuff. If you have an in-house editor, ask for help. If not, and you can stump up for a development editor, that’s what we do. Even if we’re not, apparently, fantastic at doing it for ourselves.

________________________________

KJ Charles is rewriting. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: bigotry in historical fiction

This is a post about offensive historical attitudes. If you don’t wish to see offensive words and ideas, move on swiftly.

I love late 19th/early 20th century pulp with a fiery passion. John Buchan, H Rider Haggard, E Phillips Oppenheim, Edgar Wallace, Talbot Mundy, Sax Rohmer and Richard Marsh. I love derring-do and English gentlemen tackling dastardly plots, mostly executed by dastardly foreigners.

It’s so awful.

I don’t usually believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, especially because people apply it to things like watching Buffy or reading romantic fiction or eating chocolate HobNobs, and if that merits guilt, I really wasted a Catholic upbringing. But I feel guilty as hell about some of these books, even bearing in mind the different mores of the time. I actually can’t read Bulldog Drummond, it’s too hateful. In pulp we fear, look down on, distrust or hate the following:

  • Foreigners – which is everyone unBritish, unless they’re American. Americans are good, if faintly ludicrous.
  • Women with breasts. Or sexy women. It’s OK if you have no secondary sexual characteristics or desire and are ‘boyishly slim’, also ‘brave’, and of course ‘gay’.
  • Queer people. Especially Germans, the filthy degenerates, who are also foreign of course. The Germans are all about unspeakable vice. Evil Colonel Stumm in Greenmantle has “a perverted taste for delicate things” (i.e. a nice room) and a “queer other side which gossip has spoken of as not unknown in the German army” and which scares the daylights out of poor Richard Hannay, before he goes on to marry a boyish brave gay, uh, girl. (Definitely.)
  • Jews. Don’t even. I’m not quoting this stuff.
  • Black people. Again, I shall leave this to your imagination, although here’s something worth considering:

What is a gentleman? I don’t quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers—no, I will scratch out that word “niggers,” for I do not like it. I’ve known natives who *are*, and so you will say, Harry, my boy, before you have done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who *are not*. (King Solomon’s Mines, H Rider Haggard, 1885)

Okay, the overwhelming assumption of white superiority is cringeable, but for 1885, that’s not bad. King Solomon’s Mines may reek of paternalism at best, but it has a black hero shown to be the full equal of the white hero, and a black woman with sex drive who is acknowledged the heroine of the book, however hamfistedly. Again, 1885. Give Haggard some slack.*

In general, though, the attitudes were really pretty gruesome, and it shows in the books. Though it’s often a little bit complicated. Fu Manchu, for example, is an appalling caricature of Chinese stereotypes, a living yellow peril, threat to the white race, blah. Genuinely, massively, horrifically racist. But I can’t help noticing that he always wins. Denis Nayland Smith can stiffen his upper lip till you could use it to scrape wallpaper, but he usually ends up bound in a remote strangely carved cavern under the influence of mysterious Oriental drugs, while Fu Manchu buggers off to get on with running the world.

And again, here’s a very interesting passage from The Thirty-Nine Steps. The spy Scudder tells Richard Hannay:

‘For three hundred years they [Jews] have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’

Okay, that’s not nice. But.

Firstly, the passage acknowledges the oppression of Jewish people, even if it’s in a passing, sneering way.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s spoken by a character who is full of crap. Sir Walter Bullivant, the spymaster says, quite specifically, that Scudder was an unreliable fantasiser and a bigot. ‘He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red.’ And the book shows us that there is no Jewish conspiracy. Scudder is simply wrong. (It was the Germans. Of course.)

So it’s not entirely simplistic. The pulp fiction often takes a much more nuanced view than you’d think.

Nevertheless, this was an overwhelmingly racist time. This was the time of the Dreyfus Affair, of gross and open anti-Semitism of the sort that led Europe down that awful path. The general attitudes were of the sort lightly outlined here, and you probably feel that’s quite enough.

***

Now, I wanted to write an Edwardian pulp pastiche. (Because. Don’t judge me.) It’s pretty hard to do that without the attitudes of the times. And it’s even harder to do it with.

Image

I write queer romance. I work on the assumption that my readers are non-bigoted humans who don’t need to be told that oppression and bigotry are bad things. I’m here to do pulp adventure and romance, not overt politics. And I don’t want to sit down and write hate. It’s draining and horrible.

But Think of England is a book about, among other things, being an outsider, being isolated, the odd one out. One of my heroes is not only Jewish, but gay, foreign-looking and (gasp!) a poet. It would have missed the point not to have that commented on and used as a weapon against him by the villains. It would miss the point if he wasn’t isolated by the supporting cast too, not because they’re evil but because that’s who he was in that time. And then there’s the other hero…

Because my other hero is an English officer and gentleman who would, technically, be just as ready to use those words and those attitudes as any villain, at least till he knows better.

I’ll be honest: I skimped it. I think you could write a dyed in the wool thoughtless racist hero and make it work, but I didn’t want to. I started to and then I decided that actually, a little bit of bigotry goes a long way. Once the reader understands the general atmosphere of casual dismissal, contempt, disregard, once we’ve seen the hateful hostile language, we don’t need it rammed in our faces again and again to keep on making the same hateful point. Line it in, let it sit, give the atmosphere without having to reiterate the words. Enough was enough a very long time ago.

It would be both dishonest and pointless to write an Edwardian pulp novel without any bigotry, but this is one of the very few times when I think homeopathic doses work.

What do you think? Should historical novels ignore the modern readers’ sensibilities for realism, or can we take the bigotry on board along with the poor dental hygiene and lack of plumbing, and not dwell on the gory details?

*If you should read both Think of England and King Solomon’s Mines you will get a sense of my fondness for the latter.

Think of England is out 1 July.

 

Dedications (they’re what you need)

This is a post about book dedications. Which is why it seems appropriate to title it in a way that will only be meaningful to a select group of readers (Brits of a certain age who will now be cursing me for the earworm. Sorry!).

For many authors, dedications are often a private message publicly spoken. To S, or To Philip will be meaningful to S/Philip, one hopes, but it’s still a private word, one to one, the reader excluded.

Then there are the personal dedications that are a bit more public facing. An explicit thanks, a message of love. Sometimes more. This is what John Steinbeck put in East of Eden:

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What kind of things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
JOHN

John Steinbeck, doing more in the dedication than most writers can manage in an entire novel.

Sometimes dedications are a quite blatant extension of the performance of writing. PG Wodehouse is the acknowledged master here, as almost everywhere else:

To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.

but I have a soft spot for Lemony Snicket, who runs a brilliantly macabre series of dedications to his inevitably deceased love through A Series of Unfortunate Events. I like The Penultimate Peril:

For Beatrice –
No one could extinguish my love,
or your house

And of course you can use a dedication to settle a score as Alfie Kohn does in No Contest: The Case against Competition:

Let me note, finally, that most of the research for this book was done in the libraries of Harvard University, the size of whose holdings is matched only by the school’s determination to restrict access to them. I am delighted to have been able to use these resources, and it hardly matters that I was afforded this privilege only because the school thought I was someone else.

Then there is the game-changer than leaves everyone else standing, particularly the typesetter:

Dedication

TO

PETER SCHWED

(Of the firm of Simon and Schuster)

DEAR PETE,

I have rather gone off dedications these last forty years or so. To hell with them about sums up my attitude. Today, when I write a book, it’s just a book, with no trimmings.

It was not always so. Back at the turn of the century I and the rest of the boys would as soon have gone out without our spats as allowed a novel of ours to go out practically naked, as you might say. The dedication was the thing on which we spread ourselves. I once planned a book which was to consist entirely of dedications, but abandoned the idea because I could not think of a dedication for it.

We went in for variety in those days. When you opened a novel, you never knew what you were going to get. It might be the curt take-it-or-leave-it dedication:

 

TO J. SMITH

 

the somewhat warmer

 

To My Friend

PERCY BROWN

 

or one of those cryptic dedications with a bit of poetry shoved in underneath in italics, like

 

TO F.B.O.

Stark winds 

And sunset over the moors. 

Why? 

Whither? 

Whence? 

And the sound of distant drums…

J. FRED MUGGS

Lower-Smattering-on-the-Wissel, 1912

 

or possibly, if we were feeling a bit livery, the nasty dedication:

 

TO THE CRITICS

THESE PEARLS

 

It was all great fun and kept our pores open and brought the roses to our cheeks, but most authors have given it up. Inevitably a time came when there crept into their minds the question “What is there in this for me?”  I know it was so in my case. “What is Wodehouse getting out of this?”  I asked myself, and the answer, as far as I could see, was, “Not a ruddy thing.”

When the eighteenth-century writer inserted on Page One something like

 

To

THE MOST NOBLE AND PUISSANT

LORD KNUBBLE OF KNOPP

From

HIS VERY HUMBLE SERVANT

THE AUTHOR

My Lord.

It is with inexpressible admiration for your lordship’s transcendent gifts that the poor slob who now addresses your lordship presents to your lordship this trifling work, so unworthy of your lordship’s distinguished consideration

he expected to clean up. Lord Knubble was his patron and could be relied on, if given the old oil in liberal doses, to come through with at least a couple of guineas. But where does the modern author get off? He plucks—let us say—P. B. Biffen from the unsung millions and makes him immortal, and what does Biffen do in return? He does nothing. He just stands there. If he is like all the Biffens I know, the author won’t get so much as a lunch out of it.

Nevertheless, partly because I know I shall get a very good lunch out of you but principally because you told Jack Goodman that you thought Bertie Wooster Sees It Through was better than War and Peace I inscribe this book

 

TO PETER SCHWED

TO MY FRIEND PETER SCHWED

TO P.S.

Half a league 

Half a league 

Half a league 

Onward 

With a hey-nonny-nonny 

And a hot cha-cha

P. G. WODEHOUSE

Colney Hatch, 1954

 

Not just a genius dedication (for Bertie Wooster Sees It Through) but sums up the history of the blasted things, thus saving me doing so.

I’m thinking about this as I move into edits on Flight of Magpies – mostly because the dedication bit is generally easier than actual work, and blogging is easier than both.

Dedications aren’t compulsory. Some people never do them. Others do a few and then stop. I like to dedicate, and when I think of the people I love, everyone I owe, I fear it will take an entire publishing career to work my way through them all.

But it’s important to me that each dedication should be meaningful, matching the person to the book. My friend and invaluable crit partner/life guru had to wait till my fourth book, Think of England, for her dedication because that was the right book for her. I want to dedicate one to my in-laws but one without seriously filthy sex in it, so they can share it with their friends without cringing. Sadly, I have a dearth of books without seriously filthy sex (specifically, one, and I already dedicated it to my own parents) so I fear the in-laws will be waiting for a while.

I didn’t have to think hard about the dedication for Flight of Magpies as it will fulfil another dedication function not listed above: the apology. Whereby hangs a tale.  The thing is, right, I sort of accidentally, you know, not really thinking and all that, totally not on purpose, but I kind of borrowed my friend’s surname (a bit) for, not to put too fine a point on it, one of my heroes. Note: it’s really embarrassing going round to a couple’s house for dinner and having to admit that you’ve used one of their surnames for a romance hero. Responses may include, ‘Hang on, did you write a romance novel about my boyfriend?’, ‘What’s wrong with my surname?’ and ‘So, about the sex scenes…’ You may also find your so-called friends referring to your lovingly crafted imaginative work of total fiction as ‘the book about Mark.’ (IT IS NOT ABOUT MARK.) Generally, I would advise against doing this at all, and you can spare yourself the trouble of a dedication. Sadly, it’s too late for me.

So the next one will be dedicated to my friends

For your own HEA

and the unauthorised loan of a surname. (It was an *accident*, goddammit.)

I think that covers everything.

Self promo, bribery and free stuff (a post about me)

I hate self-promo. So do you. Therefore, be warned that this post is an update on me and what I’m writing/doing, rather than writing advice or publishing snark, and feel free to run away. (Although there’s a free story, if you make it that far.)

Big award nomination news

The Magpie Lord is a 2014 DABWAHA (Dear Author Bitchery Writing Award for Hellagood Authors) Finalist. This is totally the best possible name for an award and I am delighted and honoured. Even better is that it’s up there with Joanna Chambers’ wonderful Provoked, which is one of my top three of last year. DABWAHA is run by Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, two of the best blogs, so this is a big deal and I am very thrilled.

There are several rounds of voting starting 18 March, and apparently it’s kosher for me to offer bribes. Cool! So stay tuned for shameless offers of…something. Feel free to suggest what in the comments. Not money, or my children, otherwise I’m game. I’m thinking a free short story, open to suggestions as to what you’d like to see, or I’ll come up with something next week.

Remnant (free story!)

I’m a big fan of Jordan L Hawk’s Whyborne & Griffin series, occult mystery/romances set in 1890s America. As it goes, I’ve written a couple of stories in that time period myself, featuring Simon Feximal, a British occult detective, and his lover/narrator Robert Caldwell. Therefore, once Jordan’s characters decided to head to Egypt via London for W&G book 4, it all came together like peaches and cream. Or, more accurately, like the Titanic and the iceberg.

Remnant (cover once again designed by ubertalented Susan Lee) is a mystery starring all four occult investigators: Simon, Robert, Whyborne and Griffin. Jordan and I wrote it in alternate chapters, with a lot of transatlantic evil cackling, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. It’s available on Smashwords and ARe right now, and it’s free, so dig in.

Non-Stop Till Tokyo

And now for something completely different: I have a contemporary romantic suspense thriller coming out in April. Kerry is a hostess in a Tokyo bar, drifting along in a sea of generous tips, until she is framed for the murder of a yakuza boss. She’s soon trapped in rural Japan, running for her life – and the one man who’s got her back may be poised to stab it.

Image

Non-Stop Till Tokyo is a bigger book than my published stuff to date, and my first contemporary, and my first het romance, and and and. Very different from what I’ve published to date, but what the heck, it’s nice to try something new! I’m happy with it, and I dearly love the cover by Angela Waters.

Think of England

My next m/m offering, Think of England is an Edwardian pulp adventure with derring-do, stiff upper lips, country-house parties, shameless homage to Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction, and a bit of social subversion going on. More on this one nearer the time.

Image

Again, the cover is gorgeous, this one Erin Dameron-Hill.

Flight of Magpies (A Charm of Magpies 3)

I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed the third book in the sequence that started with The Magpie Lord. Flight of Magpies, to be published by Samhain 28 October, brings back Stephen and Lucien. This time they’re in trouble with old enemies, new enemies, and unsuspected enemies. Which is a nuisance, because they’re having quite enough problems with their friends…

Underway

Current projects include: A historical story for a charity anthology. More Simon Feximal stories. Think of England 2. But first, another story set in Magpie-world, starring a secondary character from Flight of Magpies who pretty much demanded his own book as the price for not stealing that one. This book is writing itself so far, having elbowed its way to the front of the queue rather than waiting its allotted turn. This is typical of the character in question. Watch your pockets.

Oh, and I should have a proper website very soon. Woop!

Normal unpromo service will be resumed next time. I’ve saved up plenty of sarcasm.

(Not) Writing a Book

So I went to a party recently and I had The Book Conversation. There’s always one.

Woman: You’re KJ, you’re the writer, yeah? I’m writing a book too.

KJ: Really, what’s it about?

Woman: Oh…well, I mean, I haven’t actually started it yet. I’m really keen to do it, but I think I need more  experience of life before I start the writing.

KJ: Do you think that your stories and ideas might come now if you started actual writing? I find that I need to get down to it to see the ideas and the characters develop—

Woman [cutting that right off]: No. I definitely need to understand life more first. To have deeper experience, do you see?

KJ: Well, to be honest, I write gay paranormal Victorian romance, so I mostly use my imagination.

Woman [with just a smidge of condescension]: My book is rather different to that. A bit more weighty.

KJ [in my head]: And a lot less written.

I have had a lot of variants on this conversation. It’s my fault, of course. 95% of the time, the correct answer to the party statement ‘I’m writing a book,’ is ‘Wonderful, congratulations,’ and then nodding until you’ve finished your drink. (The perfect response is what the late great Peter Cook apparently used to say: ‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? Neither am I.’) But I love talking about writing and I tend to take what people say at face value, so I always say damn fool unwelcome things like ‘How much have you written?’ that presuppose the person is actually writing a book.

There is nothing wrong with not writing a book. Lots of people don’t write books. There’s a great deal to be said for more people not writing books, in fact, especially if I get to choose which ones. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the idea of being an author, or indulging in a bit of fantasy. I clearly spoiled my fellow partygoer’s fun by talking about writing as a thing she could do, rather than a thing that she was prevented from doing by her own artistic dedication. Sorry.

But it is a bit weird how many people seem to go from ‘I’d like to be a writer’ to ‘I’d be a writer if only I wrote’ to ‘I am a writer’. I mean, I occasionally daydream of doing a plumbing qualification and becoming vaguely competent around the house, but that doesn’t mean I tell people I’m a plumber. Still less that I would be a plumber, but I’m waiting for the Plumbing Fairy to magically turn me into a plumber with no effort on my part. (Which is what I am doing, of course.)

The problem is, basically, that people confuse ‘I want to write a book’ with ‘I want to have written a book.’

It’s fabulous if you have written a book. Congratulations! There it is, done, with all the characters worked out and the plot beautifully resolved. A huge great undeniable achievement, ready for the world to buy and read and leave 5* reviews for. Your publisher sells the foreign rights in twenty countries. There’s a movie deal. I think Michael Fassbender would be perfect for the hero, don’t you?

Writing a book, on the other hand, involves typing, swearing, getting the cat off the keyboard, junking 30K words over which you’ve wept blood because you made a stupid plotting error, your family getting annoyed you’re always writing, working for three solid hours at a stretch till your neck is killing you and discovering that you only achieved 800 words, not selling the book, and writing another one. (And a lot of good stuff too, of course—that feeling when the words are singing, the joy of bringing your characters to life, the plot clicking into place—but it is neither quick nor easy to earn the good stuff.)

I have written five published/to be published books. It’s amazing.

I am writing my sixth book now. It sucks.

_________

KJ Charles loves it really. A Case of Possession is out now. Non-Stop till Tokyo and Think of England are freshly up on Amazon for inspection.

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!

All About Sales: a rant

A couple of conversations I’ve had that left me wanting to slam someone’s head against a wall, possibly mine.

Me as author

Friend: But why write romance? Don’t you want to write something more literary?

Me: No. I like writing romance. And people buy it, which is more than you can say for a lot of literary fiction.

Friend: Well, I suppose, if you want to make money. I guess you can just knock them out for a quick buck, can’t you?

Me as editor

Me: Sorry, but you’ve delivered your MS much shorter than we agreed. I don’t think buyers will see it as value for money at the current length, and I think sales will suffer if we don’t make it a more substantial offering.

Up Himself Author: I think there are other, more important concerns than just the number of copies we sell.  I don’t feel I can compromise on the quality of my work by padding it out.

For the avoidance of doubt: I do not just write for the money. Very few people are in that privileged position. On a time and motion analysis of effort vs reward, I think most authors would agree writing is a lot less lucrative than hanging around on junctions with a squeegee. I don’t publish books with nothing but a balance sheet in mind, either. To publish in the niche that Up Himself Author writes is a constant struggle. The list is constantly teetering on the edge of financially unjustifiable. I still do it, because it ought to be done.

Notwithstanding, I want my list to be profitable, and I want to make a living by writing. That means writing and publishing books that plenty of people will pay money for. Apparently that gives people (who presumably expect to receive a salary for their work) the right to sneer.

But the fact is: Yes, it is about sales, because sales are people reading my books, as author or editor. Sales are royalty cheques that will cover my childcare costs while I write in the afternoons. Sales are paying a good designer to do a great cover. Sales are my salary as an editor. Sales are what allow me to make a business case to publish the author’s next book.  Sales may be what allow me to rejig my life to more writing and less paid work, rather than stealing writing time from my sleep and my family. Sales are what gets everyone else’s next book published. The extra 200 copies we’ll sell if Up Himself Author’s book comes in at a non-padded decent length will probably make a pass/fail difference when it comes to getting his next book accepted for publication by the editorial meeting.

You don’t have to care about sales. If you publish your stuff for free as a life-enhancing hobby and the fact that people read it is enough reward, that’s lovely. You are probably a deeply content person. But if someone – you, or a third party publisher – is paying money to get your writing out there, paying for editorial and cover costs and overheads and maybe an advance to earn out, and you genuinely don’t care about how many books you sell, you’re an idiot.

As if an author caring about sales somehow compromises the value of what they wrote. As if there’s something shameful about making something good enough that you can legitimately ask people to pay money for it. As if  creation loses value when it’s given a price.

I do not think anyone is or should be above sales. ‘Commercial’ is not a dirty word. Book buyers are the most precious thing in the world: people who give their time and money for books, thus keeping writers and the publishing industry alive. Sneering at sales is sneering at book-buyers, just as much as not caring about quality of content and value for money is sneering at book-buyers.

And the next person to imply that I ought to write or publish without hope of financial reward had better bring proof that they work for free, or I will have words. For which, no charge.

Read All About It: bonus features and adding to the story

One of Terry Pratchett’s ongoing tricks with the Discworld has been ‘the idea whose time has come’. Some genius/evil force from the Dungeon Dimensions creates an oddly familiar invention and the population of the Discworld embrace it as though there was a hole in their experience and history and thinking that could only be filled by this new innovation.

As ever, Pratchett makes an excellent real-world point. There are some things which, once invented, are clearly things we’ve always needed, not just as useful items but as ways of thinking and doing.

Take that terribly simple innovation enabled by the internet: the book bonus feature.  Back in the day, either you finished the story and drew a line under it or you wrote another full book. Snippets and ideas, little plot threads that didn’t fit in a novel, backstory that wasn’t plot-relevant: it all had to lurk in a notebook, unwritten, unread, waiting for an academic to pick you for their PhD.  We the reader never got to find out what happened to that lovely pair of minor characters, or to see that offstage scene, or to find out where the hero had been before the book began – because none of that got written, or at least published.

And now, we can. In one of my favourite romances of the year, Glitterland, the hero makes a rather dramatic gesture. Because of the way the ending is staged, we never get to see the lover find out about this (which is structurally correct but a little agony for the reader).  Except now there’s a free bonus feature with a post-ending scene so we can see his reaction. You don’t have to read it at all if you’re a ‘just the book’ purist, or you can wallow in it if you’re all teary over Ash and Darien. (I wallowed.)

This is on my mind as I have been spending the last few weeks writing shorts set in the world of The Magpie Lord. There will be a little taste of my hero Crane’s backstory in China, and a story that takes place two days after the ending of book 1. There’s also a print exclusive story set after the end of book 2, with another of Stephen’s cases of magical crime.

These aren’t plot-crucial. There’s nothing that will spoil a reader’s enjoyment if they don’t see it. They’re just bonus features, a little treat for readers who enjoy the characters, to deepen and broaden the experience of Magpie-world. If I wrote in a period before the internet, when there was no reasonable way to put out a 5000-word short just to amuse readers of the previous book, I wouldn’t have written them.

Here’s a funny thing, though.

The print exclusive story is happening because book 2, A Case of Possession, is a bit too short for print. My publishers are not the sort of skanky people who just mess about with font size and margins to stretch the text. (I speak as exactly that skanky publisher. I once made a 35K word text fill a 50K print length. Shame, shame.) However, book 2 is dedicated to my best friend, who ruthlessly insisted on seeing her name in print. So my publishers agreed that I could write a special exclusive story to make it work, and I muttered under my breath about lousy rotten friends and set off to come up with a story.

And as I wrote this unexpected thing, without any plan to fit it into the main flow of the characters’ ongoing adventures, I quite suddenly learned something about one of my main characters, Merrick. Something huge. Something that shines a completely new light on his backstory, and his relationship with Crane. Something that clarifies a massive plot difficulty in Magpie 3, which I am currently writing, and turns everything on its head, and enables me to go down a plot path that I’d been fearing and resisting because, until I knew this fact, it simply didn’t quite work – and now it does.

Magpie 3 will work in a completely different way to my original plan because of what I learned about Merrick in this short story. I don’t know if I’d ever have learned that about him if I hadn’t written it. I find that rather scary.

How often did a character remain unilluminated, a plot unexplored, because there was no opportunity to tell readers the story, and so the author never found out for herself? There’s no way of telling. But I’m glad I live in the age of the bonus feature. They’re useful little buggers.

The Smuggler and the Warlord will be exclusively on the Blog of Sid Love from 2 December. Interlude with Tattoos will be a free download from Smashwords and Goodreads from 10 December. I will probably mention it when they go live.

Image

Cover design by the fantastic Susan Lee

A Case of Possession will be out from Samhain 28 January 2014. I for one can’t wait.

Bonus features: do you love them, are you unexcited, or it is just evil modern nonsense?

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?