I’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.
I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.
At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.
So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that
…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.
Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).
This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).
Let’s find out more about shooting parties!
There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.
These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:
In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.
WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?
You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).
And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?
Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…
Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.
And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.
If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it.
This is a post about the genesis, exodus, and resurrection of a book. It’s for anyone who’s ever got 20K words into a project and thought, “…oh shit”, aka most writers. Gather round.
Some time ago, I came up with an idea for a romance trilogy. It would be Victorian London and it would focus on the people who don’t normally get romance novels—not just in terms of sexuality, gender and race but also class and occupation. My working name was “The Other Victorians”, based on Steven Marcus’s landmark study of Victorian pornography. Here’s the publisher pitch.
Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé, and the dishonest, The Other Victorians is a romance trilogy about high birth, low life, inheritance, family secrets, blackmail, betrayal, deception, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name very clearly indeed from inside plain brown wrappers.
A pornographer and a left-wing lawyer join forces to investigate murder in London’s gay underworld…
A fraudulent psychic and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret…
And a music-hall trapeze artist becomes the unwilling heir to an earldom–if a private enquiry agent can keep him alive long enough to claim it…
The premise of book 1 was that one hero is an earl’s bastard, who works as a pornographic bookseller. The brother dies leaving a collection of dirty photos, a suspiciously large number of which depict rent boys who have been murdered. Our hero goes to a crusading lawyer he used to know, hoping to dump the problem on his lap. This sets off the romance whereby the self-righteous firebrand needs to loosen up while the self-centred bookseller has to rediscover his moral centre. Shenanigans ensue including two intertwined crime plots, and a lot of bonking. Sounds pretty good, yes?
No. Oh God no.
I hated every word I wrote including ‘and’ and ‘the’ (as Dorothy Parker nearly said). I gouged out twenty thousand miserable words by sheer bloody-mindedness, and by the point I stalled for good I was considering faking my own death.
As it happens we were at my parents’ house for half term, and my mum has a sideline as a careers coach. She sat me down for a session to talk through whatever the issue was. We made pros and cons lists for writing it. (Pro: I’ve signed a contract so I have to. Con: I hate the book, the story, the concept, and the characters.) It culminated in her telling me to visualise the book sitting on a chair opposite me and asking me to describe my relationship to it, and me saying, “I don’t have one.”
At which point, because she’s rather good at her job, my mum said, “Well, what do you want to write?” She listened patiently while I yattered about how I hated my characters because they were basically not nice people and I didn’t want to write three books about these harsh, unkind people at war, I just wanted to write someone kind, and interesting, and I’d been looking into Victorian taxidermy recently and I really fancied writing a taxidermist because, like, if you actually look into Victorian taxidermy it’s not all weirdos killing sacks of kittens to pose them like Sylvanian Families, it was a real applied art that could be done with incredible sensitivity almost as a branch of natural history. Then she looked at me in the way mums do until I said, “…so maybe I could talk to my editor about changing the synopsis?” and she said, yes, why don’t you do that. Dear.
I worked out a new story, in which our heroes were a quiet, reserved taxidermist and a gentle, kind lodging-house keeper, and I went back to the publisher and said, “You know that erotic enemies-to-lovers full of sex and violence? You’re getting a sweet story about taxidermy instead,” and to their credit the publisher blinked a bit and said, “Fine.”
I learned a bunch of stuff from this. Most importantly, I realised when I started writing version 2 that actually the trilogy wasn’t about dodgy geezers as the pitch had said, it just featured them. What it was actually about was kindness to others: that was the deep theme of all three romantic conflicts and the overarching plot, and ended up becoming the series title. (It’s now called Sins of the Cities, which refers to the sin of Sodom: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”) That was an important realisation for me on a lot of levels. I have tended not to know what my books are about until they’re published, but it turns out that it’s pretty helpful if you work out what your subconscious is trying to write during rather than after the part where you type words.
So. There I was, finished the series, wrote some other stuff, left 20K of abandoned book throbbing in a file called USELESS. 20K is a lot of work and this 20k had been more than most. A year or so later, I opened it, wondering if I’d still hate it as much, and…
It was almost embarrassingly obvious. The characters weren’t bad: the problem was that I’d told them wrong. I’d focused on the angry clashing swords and shields, not the vulnerable bits they protected. But—and possibly because?—the actual big block was the whole ‘murdered rent boys’ plot. That was not a story I wanted to tell. There’s already infinitely too many stories about queer people being murdered for their sexuality or identity, and it’s not my job to add to piles of pain. I couldn’t write that story because I had no goddamn business writing that story, on a number of levels, and my subconscious knew it even if I didn’t. Thank you, lizard brain.
However. If that wasn’t the story…if I removed the macho posturing from the characters and the stuff I didn’t want to write from the plot…if I focused in on love, not hate or fear, and let the story flow from there…
Ding ding ding. I rewrote the existing 20K in two days, had the second half down in a week flat, and it’s coming out tomorrow (10 July) as Unfit to Print. There’s still the Holywell Street setting, the illegitimate earl’s son turned bookseller, the crusading lawyer, even a murder to solve–but the entire feel of the book is so different from the first draft it’s startling to me. It’s now a story about love lost and found, about rebuilding trust and letting yourself be vulnerable, about opening up rather than closing down. Turns out I work better if I’m lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Who knew.
What can you learn from this? Don’t ask me; do I sound like I know what I’m doing? But here are my takeaways for getting stuck on a book:
- Take a step back and ask yourself if something’s making you uncomfortable. When I find I really don’t want to write something, there’s usually a reason.
- Take a longer step back and ask yourself what your story is about. Not the elevator pitch (“It’s about Victorian jewel thieves”) but the deep heart (“It’s about being true to yourself and when that clashes with love”). If you can’t dig out what the deep heart of the story is, that may be your problem.
- Play with what would happen if you flipped something. If your hero’s strength was kindness instead of kicking arse, if you gave your vulnerable heroine power…
- Remember where it started to go wrong? You may be able to cut it back to there and take it off in another direction. If it sucked to write from the start, learn from that.
- Sometimes you need a year to see why it’s not working. Give yourself time and space.
- If you’re really buggered, call my mum.
This is not to say that every project that isn’t working should be dropped, or that every dropped project can be salvaged. But if you look at the twin questions of “what am I actually writing here?” and “do I actually want to be writing it?” you may find a lot becomes clear.
Unfit to Print is a 40k novella, out 10th July.
When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.
Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.
Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing boy. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…
More on the Sins of the Cities series (aka the one with the taxidermist).
There is a recurrent thing in discussions of romance novels which bubbles up every couple of months: Books That Aren’t Romance Being Listed As Romance.
Obviously this isn’t car manuals sneaking their way in. It’s books that are marketed as romance novels (or series) when one of the protagonists dies, or they part for good, or the romantic relationship in which we’re invested is otherwise ended or ruined. It’s lists of romance novels that include, say, Wuthering Heights, where they both die and about time too, or Me Before You, where the disabled hero serves the heroine’s emotional growth and then commits suicide (shall we not), or much of Nicholas Sparks’ oeuvre (death and tragedy represent) and so on and so forth. These are stories about romance and romantic relationships, yes, but they aren’t romance novels.
Let’s do a thing. Think of the one word that defines the romance genre. What is it you go to romance specifically for, what are you expecting and needing to find? I’ll give you a clue, it’s got four letters, ends with ‘e’.
If you said ‘love’ go to the back of the room. You get love in all kinds of books, including those mentioned above. The guy in Lolita is in love, in his way, and if you call that a romance we have a problem.
What romance novels specifically offer us is hope. Hope that two people can come together and be better happier humans as a result. Hope that marginalised or disregarded or unhappy people can find love and joy in a hard world; hope that however flawed you are, however scared, however much you feel like a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit, there is a place and a person for whom you are just right; hope for the future. That’s the HEA/HFN promise that the romance genre offers (Happy Ever After/Happy For Now) and the key word there is happy. If a book doesn’t fulfil that by leaving us with the protagonists happy and together (for whatever definition of happy and together works for them) and us hopeful for their future as individuals and as lovers, it is not a romance novel.
This isn’t a criticism of books without HEA/HFN. Wuthering Heights isn’t a bad book because Heathcliff and Cathy don’t live happily ever after; it would be a far worse book if they did. It’s absolutely fine not to have an HEA/HFN. It just isn’t a romance novel without one.
Nor is this, as many idiots think, an indictment of the romance genre. The HEA/HFN requirement is not a limitation, it’s a definition. The HEA/HFN is to a romance novel as being warm-blooded is to a mammal: you can have a lot of variety within that classification, but if you don’t have that specific characteristic, you’re not part of that kingdom.
The reason this taxonomical stuff matters is because when you market a book–when you give it a title of a certain sort, with carefully chosen typography and cover treatment and a well-crafted blurb–you are making readers a promise as to what they’ll get. Imagine a book called The Sallow Road. The blurb reads, “In a surreal land, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” The cover shows a shadowy road stretching through disturbingly unnatural scenery, and four odd-shaped silhouettes: three sinister humanoids, the fourth all too clearly a schoolgirl. All that adds up to some kind of warped dystopian fantasy horror, quite possibly by Clive Barker. And the reader will thus have every right to be annoyed when they open it to read, “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” (Credit to Rick Polito for this amazing blurb for The Wizard of Oz, tweaked for my purposes.)
Say I write a novel where we see a named person commit a murder in the first chapter, and the book is about the murderer living undetected, and the impact of the unexplained death, which is never suspected or investigated, on her and on the people around her. This sounds like a pretty good read in a dark Gothic psychodrama way, or even a savage social satire, but the one thing it isn’t is a detective novel. Detective novels need a crime to be solved and a solution, and if I market my no-puzzle no-solution book as a detective novel with a mystery-type title and cover and blurb, and my advertising is specifically directed at detective-novel readers, I will get a lot of angry one-stars on Goodreads. This doesn’t say anything meaningful about the merits of my book vs the detective-novel genre as a whole, or about reader expectations vs the right of authors to tell whatever story they like. It’s just the inevitable consequence of offering A for sale and then supplying the purchaser with B.
Let’s put this another way because I’m hungry: You order gazpacho for lunch. You sit there happily awaiting the cool joy of a cold, tangy, refreshing tomato-based soup with a garlicky kick. And what you get instead is a hot, steaming bowl of minestrone. “What?” says the waiter. “It’s a Mediterranean tomato-based soup with vegetables and garlic, isn’t it? Yes, fine, I told you I’d bring you gazpacho, but don’t you think it’s a bit childish and predictable to expect every bowl of gazpacho to be cold? This isn’t your mother’s gazpacho! We’re reinventing soup!”
Well, you might eat the minestrone; you might even love it. But I suspect you’d be far more likely to send it back and/or leave a one-star on TripAdvisor, because you ordered gazpacho, your tastebuds are lined up for gazpacho, your personal circumstances, sitting in a Spanish courtyard on a hot day, are calling for gazpacho, and in the end it doesn’t matter how good the minestrone might be because if you’d wanted goddamn minestrone, you would have ordered goddamn minestrone. And this goes for the people who are ‘reinventing romance novels’ by writing things that aren’t romance novels but marketing them as romance novels in the hope of getting a slice of the largest and most voracious reading demographic, and then claim to be doing something special instead of just misleading advertising.
Of course some people can play with genre and even change (some of) the rules. Agatha Christie turned detective novels on their head with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (I won’t spoiler: if you don’t know the twist do not Google, just read it.) There was a furious outcry and it remains a jaw-dropper even now. Sometimes you positively want to be played with: Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, is all about presenting you with a thing that your eyes/brain say will taste a certain way, but does not, and it is indeed amazing. That’s fine for Agatha Christie, and a selling point for Heston Blumenthal. But it isn’t a licence for every passing jerk to serve minestrone while selling it as gazpacho.
The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
When I pick up a romance novel, I might get werewolves; I might get dukes. I might get people desperately carving out happiness in dark oppressive periods of history, or a demographically implausible special ops team, or a small town where every family has six hot brothers who get married in birth order, or pretty much anything else. But what I am sure I’ll get when I close the book (or finish the series) is a sense of hope. Of love that lifts up the people involved, of people caught in a golden moment, of joy and fulfilment and things just being right, for once. That’s why people read romance novels, that is what romance novels do, and if you promise us that catharsis and snatch it away, you’re letting readers down.
It’s as simple as that. Don’t make false promises and you won’t get angry readers. (Well, not about that particular subject at least.) And if your question is “But KJ, how do I get my hands on all that sweet romance cash if I don’t want to write yawnsome predictable happy endings that don’t satisfy my soul’s dark cravings/desire for higher literary status?”, my answer is: You don’t, so don’t call your stuff romance and we’ll all be fine.
Relevant to the above: My new book The Henchmen of Zenda is a queered version of the classic pulp adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s packed with sex, swordfights, and skulduggery, and I had an enormous amount of fun with it. I would probably call it “pulp adventure with strong romantic elements”, and romance readers who need to know about endings first should check my GR review and click on the spoilers.
Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.
Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.
Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.
A retelling of the swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda from a very different point of view.
…a classic ripping yarn of swashbuckling Ruritanian highjinks, which is unabashedly gay AF.
… KJ Charles is always a delight and this book is no exception – her nuanced exploration of historical queer identities and her restoration of women into the narrative puts the complexity of history back on the page. Sarcasm, swordfights, and sex – what’s not to love?
… a story with murder, treason, double and triple crosses, where characters change allegiances every few chapters, where all the players have their own motives, and the reader is left breathless, wondering what in the hell could possibly happen next.
…an absolute delight.
Historical detail is my jam. I am not here for histrom that is modern day people in silly hats; that takes all the fun out of it. I don’t want magic horses that are basically cars with legs, or letter-carrying boys who work with the speed of text messages, and I really don’t want dukes who come with belief in full social equality ready installed. If I want modern things I’ll read contemporary.
Regency romance in particular has as one of its main joys the social stratification, the play of power and status and reputation and responsibility. I wrote a Regency about a marquess’s brother in love with his valet where the entire conflict depended on the power imbalance between the two, and it took a good half of the book for the lord to get beyond his ingrained assumption that he makes the rules, that he is the one who gets to decide that this relationship is impossible and morally wrong, and the valet has no input into that decision. (The valet disagrees.) It was massive fun to do precisely because the power imbalance and the attitudes were such a big gnarly mess.
Social attitudes of the time are a huge part of historical fiction. But historical fiction is still a thing of its own era. If you read books written by Victorians set in ancient Rome, you’ll learn a lot about Victorian England, because people write themselves, their concerns, their views of what’s right and wrong.
I don’t see that as a flaw in historical fiction; I see it as a feature. I am writing books in 2018 for an audience reading them in 2018, and I don’t think the fact they’re set in 1818 is a reason in itself to write things that will be repugnant or wrong to a modern audience. My characters can be at least partially people of their time without being rancid by my own time’s standards.
I dare say you’ve encountered the form of ‘historical accuracy’ often used as an excuse by writers or a critique by certain readers. This is the ‘accuracy’ that insists that any woman in a medieval type setting must be raped, preferably on-page. That everyone in the past must have been virulently homophobic, that everyone was a bigot, that it’s impossible that humans ever cared about people unlike themselves. This is the ‘accuracy’ that denies mixed marriages happened before about 1980, and doubts that white Brits in the Georgian period would have boycotted slave sugar, and writes to inform authors that their white hero was implausible for not raping their black heroine on sight. (All examples recently seen in the wild on social media. God help us. It’s funny how rarely you get told off for not being progressive or liberal enough, for ignoring the many people who fought for other people’s rights, or who fell in love and lived happily, or who existed as people of colour in Europe before 1950. It’s almost like some people have a vested interest in making the past seem a crappier place.)
I am not, of course, arguing that historical romances shouldn’t deal with hard subjects or have bigotry on page. Writers like Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, and Beverly Jenkins engage with American racism continually and directly; Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses deals with English anti-Semitism; EE Ottoman’s The Doctor’s Discretion handles transphobia, homophobia and racism; and I could name you a dozen more historical romances that take on appalling historical attitudes, sometimes even voiced by the main characters.
But these narratives don’t simply present bigotry as a thing, a fact of life like corsets and taxation. These books show us the cruelty and wrongs done by bigotry; where main characters are responsible they learn as part of their arc that earns them a HEA; where other characters are responsible, the narrative engages with that. These books critique past attitudes from the perspective of the present, because it is not the Regency now. It is 2018 and I am not here for historical hatred as a feature, a bit of window dressing, just how things were. Don’t make a fuss, it’s historically accurate. That’s very easy to say if you’re not the reader who’s been slapped in the face by another bit of dehumanisation or violence presented as entertainment.
Romance is all about our engagement with the main characters. Well, I’m not engaging with unredeemed bigots. I don’t want to see their HEAs; I don’t want them to have the happiness they’d deny to other people. I don’t care if it’s probable that someone in 1800 would have displayed unexamined bigotry; that doesn’t entitle them to an HEA in the book I’m reading right now.
And that is not shying away from historical reality. On the contrary, I think refusing to engage with historical attitudes that present bigotry as acceptable is shying away from current reality, in which the same attitudes are making a comeback. Historical attitudes changed because people fought them. Sometimes failing to take a stand is a stand.
Authors don’t have to deal directly with bigotry when writing historicals, of course. You can just not put it in the book, along with all the other things we don’t put in books. Very few historical romances mention headlice, or menstruation, or bad breath, because those are not things most readers want to dwell on, and I’d far rather read about the MCs’ headlice than their hatred. Or you can sketch bigotries in lightly, without shoving them in the reader’s face. Or you can give those attitudes to someone who isn’t the hero or heroine of the damn book. You can do a whole lot of things.
But what you can’t do is depict vile attitudes without examination or consideration, and expect modern readers not to care or object or decide your character can go step on Lego just because the book’s set in the past. It may be; we’re writing and reading right now.
NB: I have delected a specific reference to a book from this post because the situation is more complex than I originally realised. My general principle stands.
“Show, don’t tell” (henceforth SDT in this post) is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. As with most writing advice, it’s a useful thing to consider, but gets wildly extrapolated into an iron law by people who use maxims as a substitute for thoughtful consideration of the thing in front of them.
The basic principle of SDT is that giving information is less powerful than describing and allowing the reader to infer. Thus, “Bob had been drinking” is boring and flat, and it is far better to write “She could smell gin on Bob’s breath” or “Bob’s eyes were unfocused, his gait unsteady” or “The reek of stale beer preceded Bob into the room by several seconds” or what-have you.
The usual quote offered here is this, supposedly by Chekov (it’s not):
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
That’s wonderfully pithy and memorable, and absolutely evokes the way in which imagery can convey much more than basic information. The glint gives us a mental picture which is vivid and specific in a way that the basic shining moon is not; the broken glass gives us a mood.
The problem here is, not to state the bleeding obvious: light glints on broken glass in the daytime too. The only reason you got that lovely mental picture of moonlight on broken glass is because the first half of the maxim–the declarative part you aren’t supposed to say–literally tells you the moon is shining. If the quote was “Don’t describe the scene; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” nobody would repeat it because it would be nonsense.
Here’s a passage about Tolkein’s Mordor which was cited in a post I found as a great example of SDT.
The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
This is hard work for the reader. It is dense stuff that demands unpicking as we go, and the collision of multiple images is actually quite disorienting. Are the pools water or mud or ash? Are filthy entrails usually white and grey and what does that look like? What kind of graveyard is filled with rows of cones? What is ‘an obscene graveyard’ meant to convey? This is exhausting stuff in quantity, unless you do what’s clearly intended, which is to skate over the whole thing getting an overall impression from the words, rather than digging into each image in turn. If you read it quickly, you’re fine. If you read 500 pages of this, you’d need a drink.
Given this, do we really want to apply SDT as some kind of blanket rule, where ‘showing’ is always better? Can we think of any counter examples where simple declarative telling works quite well?
Marley was dead; to begin with.
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The blanket maxim of SDT is not only applied to line edits. I was impelled to write this post because a friend asked me about some editorial advice she’d had. Her MS has a scene in which one MC reflects briefly on last night’s sex and an exchange with his lover about their problem. (Paraphrased to avoid identification.)
MS: They’d made love twice more last night, and talked further about Gideon’s impossible task.
Editor: We need to see this on page. Show, don’t tell!
What is this nonsense. We don’t need this sex on page if there are a) other love scenes or b) no on-page bonking in the book; we don’t need more on Gideon’s impossible task if the MS has already established what it is. The purpose of this paragraph is to tell us they’re building up physical and verbal intimacy; it’s a shorthand line for events we don’t need spelled out.
Imagine a book where you couldn’t fast-forward with “They had walked through the monotonous landscape for three days without incident” or “She spent a week going through the documents” because we have to show not tell everything that happens. Give me a break.
Let’s do some close work. I wrote a book called A Fashionable Indulgence (on sale at the time of writing!) in which our hero Harry is being held at knifepoint, and the valet Cyprian comes to the rescue. Here is a key scene. I have renamed the baddie to avoid spoilers.
“No,” James said thickly. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The blade dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”
“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. James’s hand jerked in shock and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.
Cyprian. Of course Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. Of course he’d come from nowhere, he moved like a cat in slippers.
Is this SDT? There is certainly lots of showing. I never say “Cyprian arrived” or “James was startled.” I don’t say “He had a gun”, but let the reader and characters infer it from “I could shoot you”. I don’t say James digs the knife into Harry’s skin, or cuts him; that is entirely done in Harry’s POV and focused on the knife, not the person using it.
There is also plenty of telling. The blade dug into Harry’s chin. James’s hand jerked in shock. Harry gasped. The knife cut him.
And there is…stuff in between. I have Harry reflect “he moved like a cat in slippers”. Is that showing, or highly decorated telling? And I don’t say “Cyprian silently arrived with a pistol” but Harry thinks exactly that across two sentences in the next para. This makes sure the reader’s understood what’s happening, but it also conveys Harry’s mental state of bewildered acceptance at Cyprian’s extraordinary and unexpected appearance. Is that telling us what’s happening, or showing the reader how Harry feels…or is it by any chance both?
Let us try running this sequence a couple of different ways. Here’s this done with every single aspect as SDT.
“No.” The phlegm was audible in James’s speech. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me—” The sharp metal edge dug harder against Harry’s chin. “—And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”
“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. A hot line of pain seared his skin, shocking a gasp from him.
He shouldn’t be surprised Cyprian had appeared without warning; Harry was all too used to his smooth, silent slipping through the house. He wondered if he could smell gunpowder from a pistol or if that was his imagination.
I did my best with this but I don’t think it’s an improvement. Making every sentence show-y instead of tell-y loses clarity and slows us down considerably.
This is not to suggest going the other way. Let us write this all telling no showing, in the style of the maestro Dan Brown.
“No,” James said. His voice sounded thick with emotion. “I tell you what. He’ll come with me.” He pressed the blade harder against Harry’s chin. “And you’ll send me money. A thousand pounds. Then I’ll let him go and you won’t follow me.”
“Or I could just shoot you,” suggested a smooth voice from behind Harry. Cyprian had arrived without anyone hearing him. James’s hand jerked in shock, and Harry let out a gasp as the knife seared his skin.
Harry was now so bewildered that it seemed inevitable that Richard’s valet was here with a pistol. It wasn’t even surprising that he’d appeared as if from nowhere. The renowned valet David Cyprian always moved quietly.
The problem with SDT as a general maxim is twofold. Firstly, it ignores the needs of the specific piece of writing. Sometimes I want to tell you that Bob reels into the room as though dancing with the spirits on his breath; sometimes I need the stark gut-punch of “He was drunk.” It depends on the effect I am trying to produce, the way I want to vary my rhythms, the narrative style and character point of view, the type of book I’m writing, whether the information has to be got out of the way or dwelled on in detail or lightly sketched. It depends.
And secondly, stating the obvious again: All writing is telling. If I write “Great cones of earth, fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light” I am still telling you what I want you to picture, and how I want you to think about it. I’m just doing it in elaborate ways that you may not notice as telling. It’s called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” for a reason.
So if you are inclined to say “Show, don’t tell!” you might want to dig into that a bit more. This is too bare. The para could use more variety in sentence structure. We’re not getting a sense of the MC’s emotion here. I think you need to spell this part out.
SDT as a prescriptive trend turns good advice into a meaningless law (“watch out for this” into “don’t do this at all”). Let’s not blunt our tools with overuse.
I last bloggged about silly stylistic fads and Rules for Writers. These often arise from perfectly good editorial advice (don’t overuse passives) that get generalised into sweeping laws (don’t use passives at all!) and are applied regardless of whether the author is doing the thing well or badly.
One of the more pervasive of these is the Simultaneous Action fad. This wildly popular editorial trend holds that actions must be spelled out in sequence lest the reader interpret them as being simultaneous. So:
Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.
Simultaneous Action tells us that this sentence presents Bob as doing both things at once. However, obviously enough, the gun must be pulled before it can be pointed. Both things cannot happen at the same time, yet (Simultaneous Action devotees say) the grammar of this sentence means the reader is presented with exactly that. Therefore this sentence must be amended.
Bob drew the gun before pointing it at Janey.
Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.
As you may suspect, I disagree profoundly with this as a generally applied rule. Let’s do some digging. We will start, as we so often do, with a video of a man juggling knives on a unicycle while playing the harmonica.
Asked to describe what you just saw, you would probably say “inexplicable”. Further pressed, you might say, “The man rode a unicycle while juggling knives and playing the harmonica.” You would not say, “The man rode a unicycle before juggling knives and then played the harmonica” because that isn’t what happened. Some actions are in fact simultaneous. Got it? Good. Hold that thought.
That principle grasped, let’s look again at our examples.
Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey. / Bob drew the gun and pointed it at Janey.
Imagine this action as if it’s in a film. Does Bob draw the gun slowly, wringing out the tension as his arm comes slowly up, and we wonder who he’s going to point it at–the woman he’s only just met and has no reason to trust, or the best friend who we know has betrayed him? Or does Bob draw the gun in a single swift arc of the arm, almost too fast to see, leaving us gasping at the sudden threat of violence?
You can picture both of those, right? One of them is a sequence of actions, both of which are important—Bob draws the gun, then points it, as two separate things. The other is a flowing action—Bob produces and aims the gun, as part of the single action unit of the draw. His movement isn’t “two things at once” simultaneous in the way of Knife-Juggling Unicycle Guy, but neither is it separated into “draw [pause] point”. We see it as one sequence, draw to point, which I’m going to call an action flow.
This crucial distinction between individual actions and action flows is what Simultaneous Action faddery ignores. And that causes problems. Because authors, lacking cinecameras and large casts of pretty people, have to convey what happens using words and style.
Janey ran down the corridor, vaulting the fallen bodies of zombies, skidding around the corner, barely breaking stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob, and dived out of the window.
(Looks like Bob should have trusted Janey. Bad decision, Bob.)
The above is a pretty standard action sequence. We start with “ran” as the verb to kick us off, then use present participles (vaulting, skidding) to convey the breathless ongoing sequence of her non-stop movement, and conclude with “dived” to mark the final action. Did you have any trouble understanding what was happening in the action (except for the tentacle stuff)? Were you confused about the sequence of events?
No. You didn’t and weren’t. Nevertheless Simultaneous Action editors will insist that this entire sequence must be rephrased because events must be clearly stated as happening one after another, with markers.
Janey ran down the corridor. She vaulted the fallen bodies of zombies before skidding around the corner. She barely broke stride even when she saw the tentacled horror that had eaten Bob. Then she dived out of the window.
This is quite seriously what is being done to text as we speak. If you have been affected by issues raised in this blog post, call the hotline.
It should be obvious that the second example is not as good. I’m not claiming the first is deathless prose—I do these posts for free, you know—but it uses style and structure to mimic Janey’s non-stop hurtling to escape. The reader doesn’t get a break from the action till Janey does. Whereas the second presents what was a single action sequence as a series of discrete events, making it slower, and losing the impression of breathless speed, in order that nobody should read the sentence as Janey running, vaulting and skidding all at the same millisecond–a misreading that no English speaker would ever make.
Needless to say, there are times when actions aren’t part of a flow and shouldn’t be presented as such.
He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.
As it stands this isn’t a smooth sequence, so it does indeed jar the reader. The sitting doesn’t happen as a natural consequence of the walking, so it looks weird to run them together in this specific phrasing. The editor is quite right to flag it, no argument there. But consider this:
He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne, ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and finally sitting on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
Here we have a continuing stream of action that starts with walking in and concludes with sitting, and it works perfectly well. You might argue that the present participles (ing words) become repetitive, and that would be very fair. Change it up on that basis by all means. But to change it on the grounds that each action must be clearly demarcated as separate is nonsensical. No reader would interpret the above as our hero walking, dodging, ducking, and sitting simultaneously, like Unicycle Juggling Guy. It is a sequence of movements, their order made clear by the sequence of phrases, which are all part of an ongoing action flow.
Whereas if you break it up:
He walked into the room. He dodged waiters with trays of champagne as he went, and ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid a fundraiser. Finally he sat on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
This breaks the flow of action, and foregrounds the people who were formerly just background description, making the dodging sequence seem more important than it is. It also creates a very repetitive sentence structure akin to a primary school essay. “And then I did this and then I did that.” That is pretty hard to avoid if you’re turning text into strings of separate actions, and I have seen far too many examples of Simultaneous Action editing leading to this effect.
I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think all text should be action flows and full of ings. My point is one that regular readers will recognise: authors need to consider what they are trying to do, and then do it mindfully, using whatever tool is appropriate.
Consider this pair:
He walked into the room, dodging waiters with trays of champagne and ducking behind a tuxedoed businessman to avoid an importunate fundraiser, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract his target’s attention.
He walked into the room and immediately had to dodge two waiters with trays of champagne, which put him in the sights of a fundraiser. He ducked behind a tuxedoed businessman, cursing the crush, and saw his target on a sofa against the wall. He took a steadying breath, sauntered over as casually as possible, and seated himself on the sofa with a loud sigh of relief designed to attract her attention.
These two passages are using different sentence structures (action flow vs events in sequence) to do different things.
This first passage whizzes through everything between entry and locking onto the target. The ing clauses give us a bit of scene setting and atmosphere without slowing the pace of the sequence, so that we get from entry to target in one manageable sentence, and can now get on with the plot without further ado. The overall impression is that our MC is smoothly and competently doing his job.
The second passage uses a series of discrete actions because this MC is different. He’s having more trouble with the job than the first guy. There’s more detail in order to slow the pace and point up the challenge of what he has to do, but the consecutive-actions structure is also crucial here. He’s got to dodge, then to duck, then to spot his target, then to go over and sit down. We’re as relieved as he’s pretending to be by the end of all that.
If I told you that one of these passages stars a James Bond style spy hero, and the other has an accountant who must track down his brother’s killer, would you find it difficult to guess which was which? Thought not. And the flow of action (or lack thereof) is an important stylistic trick in achieving that. It’s not as immediately obvious as the added text, but it makes a vital contribution to the overall impact. Which is what style is for.
Simultaneous Action is basically just another overly-prescriptive trend that takes perfectly good advice (“don’t do this badly”) and turns it into a meaningless law (“don’t do this at all”). See also Disembodied Parts and Don’t Use Was. Of course editors should change text that jars the reader by running events into one another when they don’t flow.
He drew the gun, blowing Bad Jack’s head off.
But to apply that principle to all action flows because some are done badly is pointless, restrictive, and takes perfectly good tools out of the author’s kit. It can’t go out of fashion soon enough.
Simultaneous Action fans will doubtless disagree. Feel free to argue, with the proviso that I am not at home to circular reasoning along the lines of “editing for Simultaneous Action improves style because Simultaneous Action is bad style, QED”.
So I was on Twitter yesterday (my first mistake) and I came across this gem by an actual literary agent with an actual literary agency.
Delete all the adjectives and adverbs from your book. All of them. Get rid. Your book will read better, and be more appealing, as a direct result.
The direct result here was that the agent got body slammed from forty directions at once and took the tweet down. So perish all stupid writing tips. Except it won’t perish, because the tweet in question had been liked 40+ times and retweeted eight before Writing Twitter descended in a cloud of harpy wings. Some people read that and thought, “Ooh, agent advice!” and ran off to take all the adjectives and adverbs out of their MS. This stuff does harm.
I asked on Twitter for the stupid prescriptive writing advice people receive. Here is an incomplete list of the responses.
- Don’t start with the weather.
- Don’t use “said”.
- Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
- Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.
- Don’t use indirect speech.
- Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
- Don’t use dialect.
- Use proper names, not pronouns.
- Don’t overuse proper names.
- Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).
- Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
- Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
- Don’t use “was” at all.
- Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form. (Seriously.)
- Don’t use auxiliary verbs because they ‘slow things down’. (“I had met him before”, “you could go”.)
- Don’t use fragments (i.e. every sentence must have a verb).
- Don’t have simultaneous action. Two things cannot happen at the same time, apparently.
- No disembodied parts. (“His fingers slid down her leg.”)
- Don’t use first person narrative.
- Don’t use second person narrative.
(wait for it…)
- Don’t use third person narrative.
- Don’t write in present tense.
- Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
- Don’t begin sentences with adverbs or conjunctions.
- Don’t use adverbs.
- Don’t use adjectives.
I swear to you, all the above are responses to one tweet. This is stuff writers are being told, and they are being told it by agents, editors at publishing houses, freelance editors, beta readers, teachers, blog posts, every jerk who did one term of grammar and thinks CMOS has legal force, and other writers who have internalised the drivellings of the above.
If you’re at a loose end, a fun thing to do is go through that list and find brilliant counterexamples. It won’t take long. Here, I’ll go first.
- Don’t start with the weather.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
(1984, George Orwell.)
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 snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
(Bleak House, Charles Dickens, and there’s another four paragraphs of this.)
There are, I think, four things going on in that list of idiocy. One is good advice turned into bad rules, one is pig ignorance, one is personal preference/prescriptivism, and the last is bias. Let’s do the easy one first.
Good advice turned into bad rules
Sticking with the weather example: Anyone who has read slush, or English homework, will be painfully familiar with books that open with the weather, and wimble around in unengaging description until the author finds the plot. It’s an easy way into the story, and people taking the easy way rarely do their best work. (There’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is a classic bad-book quote.)
Weather openings can indeed be slow and unengaging. But you don’t have to stop doing a thing because some people do it badly. You just have to do it well.
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…
(The Rapture, Liz Jensen.)
The same principle applies to this delightful string of admonitions.
- Use proper names, not pronouns.
- Don’t overuse proper names.
- Don’t use epithets instead of names (ie “the ninja” or “the short woman” or “my boss” or “the Duke”).
You just know what’s happened here, don’t you?
And round and round we go. (Since you ask, the answer is obviously to use all three mindfully and in a varied way. “Jenny gripped the rail and tugged at the gun in Natalie’s hand as hard as she dared. She needed it and the bloody woman wasn’t letting go.”)
The same goes for many more prohibitions, “never do”s that ought to be phrased as “keep an eye out”. “Consider your use of adverbs carefully” is good advice; “cut all adverbs” is not. I did an entire blog post on the absurd “disembodied parts” shibboleth which sums up most of my feelings on all this.
This plays a larger part than you may think. Look at this lot.
- Don’t use passive voice (“I was being chased by zombies”).
- Don’t use present participles (“I was eating a sandwich”).
- Don’t use “was” at all.
- Don’t use the verb “to be” in any form.
What’s going on here? Well, “don’t use passive voice” is a very common bit of writing advice. We all mock the politician who says “mistakes were made” instead of “I made a mistake”. And passive voice can be distancing or unengaging. “The bell was rung, the dogs were released, and the fox was quickly brought to ground” is not a thrilling description of a hunt.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. It means you should use it carefully, e.g. when you need to foreground the object of the action rather than the actor. If Zainab is being unexpectedly invested as Queen of the Fairies, we might well write “The crown was placed on her head, and rainbow light flooded the room” rather than wasting everyone’s time with specifics of who placed the crown. Equally, if our POV protagonist Jim has been captured and has a bag over his head, it makes sense to write “His arm was jerked up behind his back” rather than “Someone jerked his arm up behind his back.”
Note that, in giving the above examples, I used two passives: Zainab is being invested, Jim has been captured. Have a quick go at rewriting the para in the active voice and you will swiftly see why passive is useful there.
So “don’t use passive” is bad advice. Yet people give it, and having given it, they extrapolate to this extraordinary and bizarre belief that “was” indicates passive voice. So you will find people telling you that “He was hit by the zombie” and “He was running from the zombie” are both passive. (I am using zombies here as there is a helpful rule of thumb: if you can add “by zombies” it’s passive. Thus “The crown was placed on her head [by zombies]” and “She was crowned [by zombies]” are both passive, but “She was queen” and “She was ruling Fairyland with an iron fist” cannot have [by zombies] and are thus active.)
Now, there is nothing wrong with not being able to analyse a sentence for passives, gerunds, or participles. Plenty of people are not native speakers, neurodivergent, or didn’t get that sort of education. You can easily have no idea what gerunds are while using them impeccably and effectively in your speech and writing. But there is everything wrong with giving prescriptive advice based on things you don’t understand, and people need to stop that right now.
Because what’s apparently happened is that people have taken the already bad advice “don’t use passives”
he was hit by the ball
and extrapolated it to “was –ing” forms that look like passives
he was hitting the ball
I was going to the shop
and then extended that to the frankly insane ban on “was”, as though you can use English while eliminating the verb “to be”.
I was the queen at last!
This is ridiculous nonsense whipped up out of half-understood precepts. Anyone who tells you not to use “was” is an idiot and should not be listened to, by zombies or anyone else.
Preference and prescriptivism
- Don’t use first person narrative.
- Don’t use second person narrative.
- Don’t use third person narrative.
- Don’t write in present tense.
- Don’t use indirect speech.
- Don’t use prologues. Or epilogues. Or flashbacks.
- Don’t use “said”.
- Don’t use any speech verb except “said”.
- Don’t use any dialogue tags at all.
That’s not writing advice, that’s “things the speaker doesn’t like”. The two are not the same. If you can make second person present tense work, and you’re doing it for a reason, more power to your elbow. Using only “said” is dull, using a string of “averred/opined/murmured/voiced/pronounced” is irritating. One story may need a prologue and another doesn’t. It depends.
- Don’t use run-on sentences, or subordinate clauses, or semi colons.
- Don’t use fragments (ie every sentence must have a verb)
Prescriptivist garbage from the school that says you shouldn’t split infinitives because Latin didn’t. What do we want? Verbless fragments! Why do we want them? For effect! How do we use them? Mindfully!
This stuff makes me genuinely angry. Authorial voice depends on choices like tense and person. The rhythm of your prose depends on varying sentence length and structure. Advice like the above is intrusive and damaging, and worst of all pointless. I strongly recommend asking why any of the above is bad, and seeing if you can get an answer better than “I don’t like it”, “I heard it was wrong” or “It just is”. I bet you won’t.
Just take a look at the list of don’ts. Don’t use adverbs, adjectives. Always use active voice. Write simple sentences. Don’t play with form. Don’t use dialect.
What it means is “write like a certain type of author”. Write like Hemingway, or Elmore Leonard, or Raymond Chandler, or whatever other white American man the speaker has in mind. (I’m sorry, but let’s be real here.) This is advice coming from the belief that there is, in the end, only one good and proper way to write. And that is simply not true—as anyone who has read with any variety and diversity at all will know.
This epic is titled “Writers: Stop Doing This”. What I want you to stop doing is sharing, listening to, and worrying about this garbage.
That doesn’t mean you don’t take advice or accept crit. It means that when you see a “don’t do X!” you ask yourself why, you think of counterexamples, you look at how X works in the sentence and if it is causing problems, and consider whether there is a clearer or more effective way to do it. In fact, write mindfully.
We can all, always improve as writers. But we won’t do that by following the advice of some jerk on the internet who tells you to cut all the adverbs.
KJ Charles is an editor of 20 years’ experience, a full-time author, and pretty much out of patience.
I did a talk on edits and editing for NECRWA (which looks like it ought to be a necromancers’ club but is in fact a regional RWA chapter) and this has spurred me to commit some thoughts to keyboard. Thanks to Tamsen Parker for inviting me to speak!
The editor-author relationship can be a fraught one. It doesn’t have to be, and when an editor ‘gets’ an author, is in sympathy with her voice and intentions, and helps her nurture the book into something bigger and better and more wonderful, it’s magic. Nevertheless, it can be a scary world for new authors. There’s a range of people insisting you must get an editor, but they’re expensive, they all seem to offer slightly different things, you hear all these horror stories, and then there’s Chad in the writing group who says he wouldn’t dream of letting an editor change his vision or get their mucky paws on his text. Are you being messed about? The editor has suggested sweeping changes that made you feel like throwing up; do you have to do them? How do you cope?
So here’s a few basics of what an author ought to be able to expect from an editor, and then vice versa.
Editors owe authors the appropriate edits for the stage of the book, from a position of sympathy for what you’re trying to do.
The development edit should be a development edit: concentrating on plot, character arcs, pacing, story shape, the high-level stuff that the book is about. The development editor should not be picking up typos in text that might well be rewritten anyway; conversely, the copy editor should not be putting in their tuppence worth about not finding the MC sympathetic enough. (Exception: sometimes a copy editor or proofreader will call out something disastrous—racism, a huge plot hole–that’s got through the development and line editors. That’s an emergency service, though.)
There should be edits. A development edit that says “nothing to suggest!” worries the hell out of me. There’s no book that can’t be improved, and if you tell me your book has gone through edits without a single change, I’m going to draw conclusions about your editors rather than your genius.
Those edits should ‘get’ the book, even if the editor proceeds to gut the book. If an editor hates a book they need to hand it on. As a freelancer I refuse all books including noncon, dubcon and eroticised torture not because of a moral stance but because I would do a really bad job of it. (“Consider inserting explicit consent on pages 41, 67, 99, and 140-176 inclusive.”) If an editor declines to work on your book, that’s not an insult, but a professional assessment that they don’t feel they’re the right fit. Be glad they said no.
The editor should look at what your book wants to be (which may not be exactly what you thought it was going to be when you started, but that’s the fun of writing). They are not there to make it the book they want it to be, or to impose their voice. Editors who are novelists manqué are bad news.
The editor needs to respect your style (and, let me say here, I think there needs to be an incredibly good reason for house style to override authorial voice or intention).
Editors owe authors courtesy.
Having come to writing after twenty years in UK publishing, twenty years of being told that author management is one of the most important editorial skills and publishing is an author service industry, I have been gobsmacked by some of the lack of courtesy I’ve seen. (I will observe here that anyone can sell their editorial services, including people who feel qualified to call themselves editors because they’ve read a lot of books and hold opinions such as “you should never use the passive tense because ‘I went’ is much stronger than ‘I was going’.”* Ask for references or work history, is my advice.)
*Yes, I have seen this. Don’t get me started.
The editor may not leave snide remarks on the MS, or make jokes about whatever dumb mistake you made. All authors make silly mistakes; it’s the editor’s job to fix them, not point and laugh and belittle. The editor may not rant about how much they hated an aspect of the book: they need to point out why they think it will be problematic for the readership.
The editor may not take to social media to mock author mistakes. When an editor tweets laughing about the book they’re working on and the author sees that? Relationship destroyed. (That doesn’t mean never talking about work in progress, which can be done in a fun and engaging way, but the editor needs to think three times and tweet once.)
The editor ought to be on your side. They ought to be able to gut your book like a herring and make you feel better at the end of the process because you’ve achieved something better together. If the editor gives you the impression she’s cleverer than you and out of patience with your fumbling, you need a new editor because that one isn’t very good at her job.
Editors owe authors a timely response.
This is one of the commonest complaints. Editors in publishing houses are all overworked, freelancers are all trying to cram in as much as possible, and people don’t tend to go into the book trade because of their amazing administrative skills. Nevertheless, you ought to be able to ask for an ETA on your edits, get one, and be notified if it slips.
If there is slippage from the editor, they must not make it your problem. It is all too common for authors to wait months for overdue edits and then be told they only have a week to turn them round in order to keep to schedule. That is unacceptable behaviour, and publishing needs to deal with it.
If you’re using a freelancer, get a schedule at the beginning of the process. Life happens, so don’t be a jerk if there are problems, but if a freelancer fails to deliver and doesn’t keep you updated on delays, do not use them again or recommend them. A one-line email is a doable courtesy.
NB: A publishing contract should have editorial and publication schedules built into it. For example: the book will be published within 18 months of delivery of the completed MS/the date of the contract; the edits will be done in a timely fashion and the author will have four weeks to respond to edits, two weeks for proofs. Make sure your contract has these clauses. Do not accept a contract that says the book will be published within X months of edits being started, or of a completed edited MS being agreed. Make sure you have a solid inarguable date from which the failure to publish clause starts counting down. More on this here.)
And now let’s look at your obligations to the editor, because this is a two-way street.
Authors owe editors a MS that is completed up to the stage you’re at.
Don’t send the first nine chapters and promise you’ll deliver the rest soon unless by prior agreement (and if your editor agrees to that she’s nicer than me).
Don’t send the MS with [INSERT SEX SCENE HERE]. If you have done this, take a moment to hang your head in shame, and don’t do it again.
Don’t send rewrites mid edit, because the editor will end up wasting work or having to interpolate new stuff. This is a recipe for mistakes and misery. Finish it first, and save your changes till you get the edit back.
Authors owe editors a reasonable MS.
Editors are paid to clean up your MS but that doesn’t make them garbagemen. If you send your MS full of stray mistyped charact!@ers, missing chunks of text, unfinished sentences etc because you couldn’t be bothered to read it over, it’s pretty unprofessional. And if you send that to a freelancer, you will be paying good money for her to tidy up your trash. If I, as a freelancer, have to spend two hours fixing your ‘“Yes.” said Jim’ punctuation throughout the MS, that’s fine but it will cost you $80 plus and I will look upon your work with a jaundiced eye because it’s really very boring to do.
Plus, editors are only human. If I’m cleaning up your garbage, stitching up the big holes you left because you didn’t finish a paragraph, or retyping the two paras that go into dp,r yrcy yjsy ;ppld ;olr yjos because you were touch typing while watching TV and your fingers slipped*, there is every chance I will miss something else.
*Yes this did happen to me as editor. Two full paragraphs.
You will save time, money, and stress for everyone if you deliver a professionally competent MS to the best of your ability. You can learn a lot of this stuff. I have done two blog posts on self editing, here for devs and here for lines, and two on punctuating dialogue, here for basics and here getting fancy.
Authors owe editors a fair hearing.
Edit letters can be very tough to read. Authors are generally highly invested in their work, not to mention reluctant to strip six months’ work down for parts and do it again. But digging your heels in and rejecting everything outright, or throwing a fit across social media, is not an appropriate response (unless the editor is a catastrophic mismatch with your book).
By all means feel overwhelmed by an edit letter. Then take a walk / a deep breath / a drink, sleep on it, and come back to make a sensible list of changes that you agree will strengthen the book. Look at ones you disagree with and see if you can work out the underlying point. (Example: the editor says “this scene with Clarissa serves no purpose, suggest cutting.” If you say “NO I NEED IT GO AWAY” you get nowhere. If you say, “I think we need it to establish Clarissa’s relationship with her father because of chapter 30”, then you can work out whether you can do that elsewhere, or whether you can amp up the scene to make it earn its place in other ways.)
It is possible and sometimes right to reject edits (see here on the power of stet) but you need to do it after rational thought, not in a spirit of high dudgeon that the person you’re directly or indirectly paying to edit your book has, er, edited your book.
And remember, it is better to see your book professionally done over by an editor in private than to see it get a kicking from 200 reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads when it’s too late.
Authors owe editors a timely response.
What goes around comes around. Tell people in good time if you’re going to be late, warn about holidays, don’t leave edits to the last minute and then go silent for three weeks, and don’t expect to do any of the above and still have the editor keep to the original schedule.
Authors owe editors money.
Ahem. But seriously, if you’ve had the work, pay your freelancer, and do so on time.
KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor before becoming a full time author. Her next release is The Price of Meat, a Victorian penny dreadful short, details here.
I picked up a book recently without checking the sample (it was a freebie on a promotion to push the series, and I am a sucker for that). This is what I posted on Facebook shortly thereafter.
I started this book.
It basically has one-sentence paragraphs.
All the way through.
Some of them are pretty long sentences and maybe have dialogue in them so it looks like a normal paragraph but after a while without taking a breath you realise it’s still indeed just one big old sentence.
Others are short.
I’m not sure if the author’s return key is malfunctioning or if he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how paragraphs work or indeed what the editor was doing.
I mean, I use one-sentence paras myself (sparingly) and they are very effective as a dramatic thump.
But when each sentence is a paragraph, it’s more of a plod than a thump.
I’m on page 10 and I’m already planning how to hide the author’s body.
It’s 300 pages long.
I hurled that particular book across the room (metaphorically, ereaders are expensive) but it’s far from alone; it’s just one of the more egregious examples of an increasingly common stylistic quirk which I should like to invite you to kill with a hammer right now. I’m not sure where this trend has come from although I am mildly inclined to blame the internet—even a three-sentence para can easily look like a wall of text on a mobile phone screen. I do, however, have a strong idea where it can go.
Okay, let’s start with definitions. A paragraph, according to Cambridge, is
a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.
Bear in mind here that a sentence can be one word (eg “Help!” or “Wolves!”).
And that’s it. That’s all you need. Anyone who gives you extra rules about What Paragraphs Must Be is shining you on, whether they claim a paragraph must consist of a compulsory number of sentences, or insist that you need a new line for every single sentence. People really do say the most nonsensical stuff–my daughter once came home from school with a worksheet claiming that a paragraph is always 3 to 7 sentences, no exceptions. I would love to get my hands on the know-nothing prescriptivist random rule-clown who made that nonsense up.
Paragraphing, like absolutely everything else in writing, is a tool, and you need to use it consciously. I’m going to use a chunk of my latest book, 1920s paranormal romance Spectred Isle (available from all good retailers hint hint), to demonstrate what I mean. This is going to be longish, because you can’t really demonstrate paragraphing without, er, paragraphs of text, but think yourself lucky; I was going to use the first chapter of Bleak House. (Which let it be said, is a masterclass in both paragraphing and sentence length, not to mention gleeful ignoring of prescriptivist writing rules: try it here.)
In this sequence Saul, an archaeologist who doesn’t yet know he’s starring in a paranormal, is visiting Camlet Moat, the ancient location of a moated manor house in a north London park. Camlet Moat is kind of weird. For a start, it’s hard to find…
Saul would have liked to keep to the water edge, but he didn’t want to cause irreparable damage to his shoes or trousers; he couldn’t afford to be wasteful. He went back to the path and followed it. It appeared to head only away from the Moat, and he had to double back on himself twice and walk what seemed like a very long and circuitous route before he finally spotted the dark, rough wooden planks sitting low in the algae-coated water that apparently constituted a bridge. Saul had a momentary qualm, wondering how deep the moat was and picturing himself sodden and covered in green slime, before he set a tentative foot on it.
It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot.
He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong.
The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.
Got it? Bought the book? Good, now let’s have a closer look.
First para: quite long. It’s all on the same theme, telling us about the irritating difficulty Saul has in finding Camlet Moat (he can’t follow the water’s edge, the path doesn’t seem to go there, the bridge is uninviting). It’s long and cumulative because Saul’s journey is long and the factors are cumulative, it’s very much one damn thing after another.
Second para: shorter, giving us a breather, and separating/marking the pivotal moment when he crosses the bridge, because that will turn out to be important in the story. Note that the last word is “Camelot” (PLOT KLAXON). You can nudge something into the reader’s attention in a quiet yet effective way by making it the last word.
Third para: again all on a theme, this time Camlet Moat’s atmosphere of spring and growth and life and renewal. Another long one, to really build up the mood of life and growth and nature, before—
Fourth para: Bam. One sentence, four words, and thus a sufficiently dramatic contrast to the preceding text to grab the reader’s attention. It serves as a record scratch effect, saying: Hang on a second, this is important. The reader might not yet see why that’s a big deal, but the paragraphing makes it clear that it is.
Fifth para: Building up length again and atmosphere too, and once again we end the para on a key word, this time “afraid”. He should be.
You see? Now let’s faff around with that a bit and see how quickly we can ruin it.
The one-sentence paragraph throughout.
He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong.
The thought stopped him in his tracks.
He stood, listening, but heard nothing.
Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still.
Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears.
He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.
It’s excruciating, isn’t it? Like an early-reader primer, My First Supernatural British Island. Saul sees the terrifying wood demon. Run, Saul, run!
Obviously, this style gives the text all the rhythmic subtlety of a jackhammer; it also means the lack of birdsong has virtually no impact, because the line is no longer in any way differentiated from those around it. But also, note how the sentences that aren’t simple and declarative start to look just weird and bad. Those doubled-over looping structures without the ‘to be’ verbs (starting ‘Not a chirrup’ and ‘Still and silent’) don’t work any more: they need to be part of an ongoing stream of thought to mark the weird atmosphere.
Long as dogs
It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot. He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—
There was no birdsong. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid. But that was absurd. There was no living creature but himself on this tiny island, and nothing to do him harm. He wasn’t lost in a vast and pathless ancient forest; he was in a Cockfosters park, with work to do, and if the birds weren’t singing, well, that was merely…something ornithological, not his field. He made himself walk forward, and not turn and look, because it was ridiculous to feel as though there was a presence around him, watching.
While not being nearly as bad, it’s still not great. We lose a lot of impact when the important points aren’t marked out—we could miss the importance of crossing the bridge; the new different atmosphere of Camlet Moat doesn’t stand out; the lack of living creatures doesn’t sound like a big deal if it’s just one sentence among many; we no longer have his fear standing starkly before he dismisses it in the next para that I merged in.
Long paras like this are also harder to follow. There’s nowhere to take a breath, plus they are very likely to be merging separate sequences of thought/action into one. Look for a break point and use it.
Paragraphing Rules (more of a guideline really)
- Paragraph mindfully. This is a tool to be used. If your paragraphing is simplistic, your writing will be simplistic.
- A sequence of paragraphs all the same length will begin to seem monotonous, whether they’re one sentence or the prescribed 3-5 or all half a page.
- If you’ve got a new or separate concept/thing to cover, give it a new para to flag that to the reader.
- If you want the reader to notice something (a pivot point, a thought) consider setting it apart with its own para. Conversely, if you want to drop in a clue without drawing the reader’s attention, the middle of a para is a good place to hide it.
- A one-liner is great as a “Bam!” effect, but like all stylistic effects, use very sparingly because they become obtrusive quickly.
- In multi paragraph speech the convention is to give each para a new set of opening quotes, but no closing quotes till the speech is finished.
“It was fresh and clean there, and it made my heart lift in a way I haven’t experienced in too long. I come from a small country town, and the place reminded me of my boyhood. So I walked without thinking for a while, and then I realised.
“There was no birdsong. I mean, seriously, there was none. At all. Have you ever been in a wood without birds? Or, like, buzzing things? Or anything? Dude, it was freaky.”
There is something to be said for breaking up long speeches with actions or interjections to avoid this, if you can do it in a non-obvious way.
KJ is a writer and editor. Spectred Isle, book 1 of the Green Men series, is out now. An Unsuitable Heir, which concludes the Sins of the Cities trilogy, comes out 3 October. They both have lots of lovely paragraphs.
I have been reading a lot recently—like, a lot—so I thought I’d share some joy. I have divided these into the reading experience rather than genre (because I felt like it, sue me). Somewhat less romance than usual as I have not been in a romancey mood recently.
Books to make you feel warm and fuzzy
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
A glorious story of a Sikh Londoner who inadvertently finds herself teaching a remedial English class for the widows of the title, who then start writing erotica, which then starts getting circulated in their community… It’s lively and hilarious and moving, and a spectacular first novel.
Another debut novel, this a m/m romance and one of the best of the year for me. Nick is a Russian Jewish immigrant to the US now studying in London, dealing with his sense of rootlessness and not belonging as he slowly comes out of the closet. I can’t wait for book 2.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Incredibly endearing picaresque tale of the motley crew of a spaceship, with wonderfully likeable characters you won’t want to leave; highly readable even for non SFF fans as it’s very much character based. Book 2, A Closed and Common Orbit, made me sob uncontrollable happy tears for about half an hour, and they can be read independently, but why not glom both.
Kith and Kin
Another book that made me happy-cry. A really engaging, delightful found-family novel, as a gay couple attempt to adopt while struggling with screwed up family and friends.
The Nothing Girl
This is like the literary equivalent of a hot bath and a nice cup of tea on a rainy day. It’s warm and comforting and indulgent, and anyone who has a problem with those things lacks soul. Taylor’s writing has that kind of British fictional 1950s quality, of a comfortable world where terrible things happen but everything is basically okay. Pure escapism.
Fun fun fun
Jackalope Wives and other stories
I have read everything by T Kingfisher recently and could have recced any of them here. I picked this one because this story collection is superlative. A wonderful wry writer with a deceptively elegant style, magnificent imagination, deep kindness and a dry-as-a-bone hard edge. Read one, glom everything she’s written.
The Glamour Thieves
Sci fi with romance plot (which is not finished in this book, the first in a series, so HEA-needers be warned). It’s about elves and orcs in a hi-tech world stealing cars and fighting necromancers with neuro-controlled drones while alternately pining and having wild elf-orc sex. I mean, you want that or you don’t. (I would. It really is enormous fun. )
This and its sequel Resistance are more superhero fun than every single Marvel movie put together. Just gleeful. Funny, imaginative, wry, with some brilliant powers, great action sequences, and excellent jokes. Loved the pair of them, massive recommend.
Nineteenth-century Chinese steampunk! I bought this ages ago and lost it, and then read it with great enjoyment only to discover the books had gone out of print so I couldn’t get the follow up. Fortunately, the author is bringing them back this autumn. Am dying to find out what happens next.
The Prey of Gods
I just loved this SF/fantasy hybrid. Gods and hi-tech in future South Africa with a wonderfully diverse cast (gay and trans MCs, lots of women, I think pretty much all POC) and magnificent imagination. Stonkingly good storytelling and vivid adventure with tons of heart along with the ideas. I couldn’t stop reading this one.
The Djinn Falls In Love and other stories
A really good story collection, with something for everyone, which sent me down a lot of rabbit holes reading other authors.
Not feelgood, still amazing
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
Queer American dystopian horror, as an off-grid community is attacked by the protective animal spirit they summoned. Gory, dark, and funny, and the first of a series.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Do not let the cover persuade you this is chick lit. A compelling and almost soap operatic look at a polygamous household in Nigeria. Secrets both ridiculous and horrendous come spilling out when the ludicrous patriarch Baba Segi can’t get his fourth wife pregnant, balanced by the darkly comic narrative style.
I Do Not Come To You by Chance
Another book set in Nigeria, this one a look at 419 email scammers. It’s a fascinating look at the people who do these, the social and economic pressures that drive them, the excuses we make to ourselves. Thoroughly engaging and bitterly funny, a terrific and enlightening read.
Escape From Baghdad!
Absolutely bananapants gonzo adventure of two arms dealers and a torturer trying to find hidden treasure in Iraq post Saddam’s fall and getting mixed up with ancient mystic cults, also militias and general madness. A stonking book with a massive on page body count and no holds barred, so not for the faint of stomach.
The Magic Places
There’s a few books recently about children who went to magic worlds and how they cope when they come back. (Every Heart a Doorway and Among Others are two I’ve read recently.) This one is more literary than fantasy, interspersing the story of a long ago summer and a boy who didn’t come back with that of the girl who didn’t go, now an adult and embarking in a wildly inappropriate relationship with the missing boy’s married father. It’s magical and human and reflective about imagination and solitude; I thought it was wonderful.