Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.
Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.
Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”
Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”
Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”
That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.
This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.
This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.
Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.
Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.
Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.
Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.
He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.
“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”
Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”
Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.
I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:
- You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
- The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
- There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.
This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.
Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”
Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”
Did you spot the jump?
*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***
We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:
She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.
Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:
She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.
And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.
Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:
“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.
Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?
David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.
*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***
The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.
So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.
One of the go-to observations about authors is that we’re not team players. Ask an editor/publicist about trying to organise authors for an event and the phrase “like herding cats” is liable to be used. When I tell most people that I work on my own all day in a shed, they ask things like “How do you cope?” and “Isn’t it terribly lonely?”, whereas authors tend to reply, “Oh, you lucky cow.” Authors say plangent and meaningful things like, “Writing is one of the most solitary activities in the world.” We are the isolated figure in a garret, alone but for the cast of characters in our heads.
It’s all very glamorous-sounding in a ‘drinking yourself to death on absinthe’ kind of way. It is, however, a pile of crap.
Unless an author does her own covers and her own editing and no marketing and never communicates with readers, she has a team. Here’s a rundown of the people with whom I collaborate:
The agent who sets up and manages deals, holds my hand, looks at proposals and helps plan my career
The editor to whom I send the synopsis
The publisher’s team who sign off on the deal
The contracts person with whom I dicker over terms
The covers team who turn my cover art brief into something plausible and saleable
The designer who takes that brief and makes it lovely, and who listens to me when I raise objections and makes changes
The beta readers who look at my drafts and help me get the thing into shape for the editor
The development editor, who works on the story and characters, raising problems and identifying issues
The line editor, going through the MS to pick up my inconsistencies, my echoes, my infelicities, my clumsy phrasing and overused habits and poor stylistic choices and unintended implications and dangling threads
The copy editor, hitting the million tiny errors inexplicably still in there, oh my God I suck
The proofreader, saving all our necks at the last pass
The marketing team who put together promo materials, get the book into offers and magazines, send review copies
The rights team, who push the foreign and audio rights
The finance team who make sure all the copies I sell are properly accounted and my royalties promptly paid
The book bloggers and magazines who make space for me
The reviewers who read the ARCs and write and share reviews
The readers who choose to join my Facebook group or follow my blog or send me emails, who support and encourage me because they like my books. They owe me nothing, but when they choose to help and support me, they’re my team and I love them for it.
The fellow authors who hold my hand, talk me down when times are bad and rejoice with me over successes. Who understand, as only people ploughing the same furrow do.
And there are other and greater teams, of which all authors are part. For me there is Team Queer Romance, pushing the equality of everybody’s love story. Team Romance, the people who work separately and together to promote the genre we love. Team Author, the other people who get what you’re doing and understand what it means, why it’s the best job in the world and why it sucks.
That’s a lot of people to let down when you screw up.
When Laura Harner plagiarised m/f romances to make them into m/m romances, she didn’t just commit a theft of intellectual property from Becky McGraw and Opal Carew. She let down her teams: the readers who supported her by buying her stolen books; the m/m romance community of readers and authors that had created a market for them, the LGBT+ community whose lives she travestied by switching pronouns to make a story “gay”; the bloggers and conference organisers and cowriters who worked with her; the whole romance community who stand up for each other against the contempt of lazy journalists and litsnobs to whom she’s handed us on a plate as a target of idle mockery; the romance writers who put their heart and souls into their work; and the whole author community because for those who live by words, stealing them is an unforgivable treachery.
At least Harner self pubbed. I was the editor of a plagiarising author once, and I promise you, the sense of rage and betrayal inside the publishing house was tangible when we found out. I’m still angry. Publishing may be a business but the vast majority of publishing staff care deeply about books, and don’t like being treated with contempt any more than anyone else.
Authors aren’t isolated figures, and our choices don’t take place in isolation. We have responsibilities. We have responsibilities to the publishing team who works with us to make the books better, make them pretty, make them sell. We have responsibilities to the people who invest their time in reading and maybe reviewing, their money in purchasing. We have responsibilities to the people we depict in our books, the humans who see themselves in our stories (or don’t), the lessons our stories teach. We have responsibilities to other authors: not to make each other’s paths harder than they need to be, not to bring the genre or the profession into disrepute, not to shove each other down in the effort to get ahead ourselves.
Authors are part of a huge complicated web of relationships, just like every other human in the world. It may not feel like that alone in the metaphorical shed. But if I plagiarise, treat others disrespectfully in my writing, or otherwise mess up, through commission or omission, I am letting more people down than just myself. And I forget that at my peril.
This is the story I originally wrote for the Another Place in Time anthology, which sparked the idea for the entire Society of Gentlemen trilogy. It’s the same story so for heaven’s sake don’t buy it twice. Or, do buy it twice in the full knowledge that’s what you’re doing. It’s a free country.
‘Ruin’ is the story of Lord Gabriel Ashleigh, a somewhat useless younger son, who has managed to get drunk and lose everything to notorious and sarcastic gambler Francis Webster. Ash has a last chance to win it back in one more card game, although the stakes come as something of a surprise. *cough* This is me getting very Georgette Heyer, except with binking, that being an area in which Georgette was reticent. I’m rather fond of this story and very happy to see it available now.
The story is set in autumn 1818, a few months before the events of A Fashionable Indulgence. It’s not crucial to the events of the trilogy, but if you’re interested in the backstory of Ash and Francis and the ghastly Lord Maltravers (all significant secondary characters throughout the trilogy), well, here it is. Oh, and if it seems handy, there’s a Society of Gentlemen cast list here.
Backstory: The Goodreads MM Romance group runs an annual story event, in which authors write from prompts. This year there was a prompt asking for a romance where a black slave falls in love with the white slave-owner’s son, set in the American South. The story was written, and published by the group, and a lot of people are extremely upset.
Many have said that the MM Romance group should not have published this story under the auspices of its event, and that the rules should be tightened to prevent this kind of thing. Other people, who don’t find this premise innately offensive, or who disagree that the context makes consensual love impossible, or who believe that unfettered free speech is the first priority, are arguing that this would be censorship, and that no content restrictions should be set.
I’m not going to write on why this story premise is offensive: I’m a white Brit, there are more qualified people doing that. Instead, I want to focus on the concept that asking a publisher to set guidelines/restrictions on content is censorship. As follows:
No, it isn’t.
If a publisher (any platform provider, from Big 5 to a Goodreads group) makes a decision not to publish a work, if a publisher sets boundaries and guidelines for submission that exclude a story, that is not censorship. All of publishing has rules on what they will and will not offer on their platform. That is how publishing works.
- If I send a collection of poetry to Harlequin (as, when I worked there, someone did), they will not publish it because they don’t publish poetry. That’s not censorship. What would they do with a poetry book?
- If I send a bestiality story to, eg, Riptide Press, they won’t publish it because like many, they have a specific and clear set of guidelines about their erotic content that excludes bestiality. Not censorship, guidelines. Take the horse porn elsewhere.
- If I send a gay romance to a hardcore evangelical Christian publisher and they decline to publish it for religious reasons? Not censorship. They don’t have to publish books that would go against their beliefs.
- If I send a story packed with homophobia and racism to a publisher, and they decline to publish because they feel it will damage their reputation? Not censorship. It’s them saying: This book will make us look like a publisher that supports hatred, and that’s not in our five-year marketing plan.
None of these publishers are censoring. They are setting guidelines for the kind of books they read, publish and market. A publisher that published everything that came over its threshold would be unspeakable. Trust me. I’ve read slush pile. To publish something is literally to put your imprimatur on it: if you publish it, you endorse it. Which is why publishing without a quality/content filter is likely to seriously damage your reputation.
The MM Romance group has made a statement declining to moderate the prompts and stories they publish, including the following:
Any time we discuss content restrictions we come up against the question of censorship. Censoring either our prompt writer or authors is not something the moderators support. […] There has never been a vetting process for either prompts or stories. Stories are beta read, edited and formatted but are never judged based on their content. [my italics]
Hurrah for free speech! Except that the italicised statement is not true.
- The group specifically bans stories with underage sex.
- The group publishes m/m. If I send in a heterosexual romance, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.
- The group publishes romance. If I submit a thriller with no romantic content, an extract from my literary novel about the Dutch porcelain trade, or an essay on the feeding habits of the mantis shrimp, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.
In other words, the group does indeed judge and select texts on their content. And that is not censorship, and it would still not be censorship if they, for example, stated that racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism etc must be handled with respect, care and sensitivity, and that stories would be accordingly vetted pre-publication. You could then have a lifetime of argument, since one person’s sensitive treatment is often another person’s cack-handed mess (I’m informed the slave book was intended to be respectful), but at least there would be a principle to refer to, a basic idea of what is and is not okay, and a means by which to say: hang on, you messed this up. We all mess up, all the time, and guidelines are one way to do it less.
Declining to publish is not censorship. Censorship is preventing something from being published, the way governments do. A specific publisher declining to publish is saying: “This is not for our platform, it does not work for us.” It does not stop an author from seeking out a platform that wants them, or creating their own. Plenty of publishers declined Harry Potter, and JK Rowling got her voice heard in the end.
Of course, people don’t always decline to publish for good reasons. Say (as happens) that a publisher declines, eg, a children’s book with black main characters because they think they won’t sell enough copies. Overall, if every children’s publisher does this, it has the effect of censorship, because it means there are very few stories to point to and say, “look, of course they sell”, and a vicious circle is created. This is why it is extremely important to talk about this, and look at the numbers of what’s being published, and who’s writing it. But it is also not the same thing as declining books based on clear explicit guidelines; in fact, it’s the opposite because this is hidden, back-room, unaccountable stuff.
The consequence of publishers applying guidelines is not that books that they deem unacceptable cannot be written or published. It might be that the authors would have to consider critical feedback and modify their stories if they wanted publication in a particular place (again, this is how publishing works and informed critical feedback is generally a good thing, even if it’s no fun). It might be that if they weren’t prepared to make changes, they’d have to spend longer looking for a platform, or self publish and thus not benefit from a publisher’s imprimatur and promotion. But none of this would be an infringement on the author’s free speech. It would merely be the consequence of other people declining to amplify that speech for them in its original form.
And that’s how it goes. Because freedom does not mean freedom from consequences. And free speech doesn’t come with a book deal attached.
My blog aims to be a safe space, including the comments. Anything that I deem likely to infringe that will be deleted without discussion as soon as I see it. My platform, my rules.
Or, at least, ten things not to say to me, but that’s insufficiently clickbaity.
Every profession has its own list of remarks they don’t want to hear. Vets cringe at the 94th hand-up-animal’s-bottom joke; doctors refuse to tell people what they do at parties for fear of, “Ah, you’ll want to hear about my knee.” This is my personal and idiosyncratic list, put together in anticipation of the approaching festive season’s conversation-making. Some of them are genuinely well meaning, few of them are answerable, all make me wince.
Have I read any of your books?
People ask this all the time. I have no idea in what way I could possibly be qualified to answer.
Romance? Isn’t that all–
If you stop right there, I won’t have to hurt you. Don’t say mommy porn, hearts and flowers, Barbara Cartland, Fabio, housewife. Don’t say anything. Just finish your drink and back away slowly, and we’ll all be fiiiine.
What’s your book about? What’s the story?
Don’t get me wrong: If someone has read my work and actually wants to know what I’m working on, that’s a massive compliment. However, if this is an out of the blue question, it’s painful for everyone, because I am appalling at elevator pitches.
This is fine:
What’s your book about?
– It’s a historical romance.
What’s bad is when the conversation instead goes…
But what’s it about? What’s the story?
– Well, it’s a romance. It’s about people falling in love.
But what’s it abooooout? What happens?
– Fine, well, there’s a radical printer—do you know about the radical movement in the Regency? No, well, it’s in the book, and anyway he’s having an anonymous relationship with this guy who turns out to be Home Office—no, well, Regency politics again, it’s in the book—and it’s complicated because they are both linked to…people in other books, and…they sort of have to work out their political, personal and social relationships only there’s this conspiracy… [tails off in the face of uncomprehending stare]
Seriously, it took me 75,000 words, a ton of research, three rounds of edits and a companion book on either side to achieve what I wanted with A Seditious Affair. I cannot convey it in two sentences at a party while trying to balance a warm glass of wine and a sausage roll. Can we just stick to “it’s a historical romance”?
How do you find the time to write?
This one sounds innocuous, but I have a feeling, if you looked into it, you’d find female writers get asked this a lot more than men. Before I quit my job, I got a lot of people asking me how I “juggled” having a job and kids and writing. Nobody ever asks my husband, a keen triathlete, how he “juggles” his family obligations to make time for his training. And, come to that, when people talk about, say, TV, they will compare notes on their rewatch of all 144 episodes of Buffy and their plans to watch three of the new HBO dramas and nobody ever comments on long that will take. But if you’re writing a novel, people want to know where the time comes from. Call me Virginia Woolf, but it’s almost as though there’s something self-indulgent about a woman writing books when she must have other things to do.
The Carlsberg Gambit
Carlsberg had a slogan, “Probably the best lager in the world”, which they have extended to an ad campaign that goes, “Carlsberg don’t do [hairdressing / Friday nights in / whatever], but if they did, it would probably be the best [X] in the world.” This is, inexplicably, something people do to writers.
Oh, yes, I’ve often thought of writing a book, but I’d need to do so much on it. I have so much to say and I’d want to do the story real justice. I’d have to spend so long crafting it, it would be a labour of love, I couldn’t just rush something out. [NEON FLASHING SUBTEXT: Unlike you.]
Or to put it another way: “I haven’t written a book, but if I did…”
Why do you write [X]?
There are two answers to this. One of them is a massive sprawling analysis of my personal history, my political and social convictions, my nightmares and desires and obsessions, my way of seeing the world, the ever-fermenting brain chutney of all the things I’ve read and learned and seen. The other is, “Because.”
When are you going to write…
When are you going to write a proper book (not romance!), a grown-up book, a literary novel, a real book. The author equivalent of “When are you going to find yourself a husband?”
(From a random partygoer or relative): I’ll read it if you give me a free copy.
How do you do your research for sex scenes hurr hurr
/fakes laugh, changes subject/
Oh, you write romance. Is that like Fif—
Feel free to add your own cringe-inducers in the comments!
KJ is an organiser for Queer Romance Month, an amazing collection of blog posts, flash fiction and essays on the theme of We All Need Stories, which you should go check out right now.
Let’s start with the obvious: nobody likes it.
Any aspiring author will read plenty of blog posts telling you to suck it up / not be a special snowflake / fall on negative criticism with cries of glee. You should like criticism. Love it. You should be like a kung-fu movie monk, immersing his hand in boiling tar to become stronger. Etc.
That’s just bobbins. Even unjustified criticism can hurt like hell; even trivial throwaway comments can sting for years. Negative criticism feels bad because it’s negative; you shouldn’t feel even worse because you aren’t Superman about it. Take your emotions out (BUT NOT ON TWITTER OKAY), give them an airing to the cat, scream in the bathroom. Face how you feel. Because, all the people telling you to suck it up? They feel just as bad when they get their MS slammed. And if they don’t, if they indeed have asbestos hands for criticism and shrug it off, I’m afraid I question their commitment to their work. I don’t care is a fine thing to say but if you actually don’t care about your book, I’m pretty sure I won’t either.
Negative criticism is a painful and unpleasant necessity. The problem is that as a species, humans tend to believe that painful unpleasantness should be avoided at all costs. Wasp stings hurt like hell, so we kill wasps. That god-awful friend of a friend zeroes in on our every failing: we spend the party on the opposite side of the room. We avoid painful experiences. And thus authors may decide not to have their MS read by anyone other than their mum and a few trusted
sycophants friends (which is a fabulous way to get more negativity than you can shake a stick at when the book publishes). They try to control reviews. And even the most sensible of us often try to deal with negative criticism by persuading ourselves it’s wrong.
It’s human nature. The king surrounds himself with courtiers who assure him that his subjects adore him, even while the mob is hammering at the palace doors. We don’t want to hear this stuff, because it hurts. Unfortunately, you need to face the negatives to improve, and we all know it.
So, a few tips from me in my capacity as an editor who hands out criticism, a writer who has to take it, and a human being who screws up.
Constructive v Negative
People make a big point of how criticism must be constructive. Reviews should always be constructive, apparently. (For the record, this is arrant nonsense. The reviewer is not a post-publication beta reader.) Nobody should say “this is bad”, we are told, they should say “this is how it can be better.”
Well, yes/no. An editor or beta reader who’s just there to sneer is a waste of time (a full blog post on this topic here). But actually, not all readers know how books can be made better. That’s quite a complicated skill: we call that person a development editor. It’s perfectly reasonable to say what’s wrong (“I just felt the hero never got sympathetic”) without identifying which chapters and conversations were the lost opportunities.
And sometimes things are bad. Sometimes the correct editorial response is, “You should cut this chapter”, “You should cut this storyline” or “I’m afraid this MS doesn’t work and we decline to publish.”
Here’s the thing: most people hate giving that out. It is very hard to be the bearer of bad news, particularly because so many people shoot the messenger. (I rejected a book once at work and the author was still blanking me at a conference five years later.)
Some people are just malicious, of course. But sincere well-meaning negative criticism is hard to write and deliver, and it should be considered seriously. If you don’t feel like you can tell the difference any more, ask a writer friend for a second opinion.
The more it hurts, the harder you should look
“If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” is bobbins, just ask an anaesthetist. But I am aware that the crit that makes me flinch most is the stuff I was worried about on some level. If you tell me, “I hate your crappy badly written book,” I’ll merely hope you get a disfiguring skin disease. If you say, “The book falls into obvious halves because of the clunking character arc,” I will be up all night rearranging scenes in my head because you’re right. (You bastard.)
“Well, they’ll just have to like it.” (Hint: they won’t.)
It takes a fair bit of nerve to write, and a lot of self belief. You need be true to your story, follow your dream, all that inspirational poster stuff. However, if you conflate that with believing your book is perfect, you will have a problem. The time to tell yourself “haters gonna hate” and sail serenely by the negative reviews is after publication, not at editing stage. Without negative criticism, you won’t get better.
But this is my book!
As an editor, I believe passionately that the book is the author’s: her voice, her choices, her style. However, sometimes it is the author’s badly written or unpublishable book. As an author, I won’t make changes that go against the spirit of my book and the soul of my characters, but you better believe I’ll listen if my editor/readers tell me things that suggest I’m failing in what I was trying to do, or the words I chose to do it.
The edits received in the stoniest silence of all are the ones that cut at the writer’s goodness as a person. This scene seems to me to be verging on rape, and I don’t think you intended that. This comes across as racist. A lot of readers will find this offensive. People struggle to accept that they’ve been hurtful. Authors tend to be high-empathy people and women in particular are socialised to be nice. Most of us don’t want to accept we’ve been crass or prejudiced. And it is human nature to reframe the story in a way that shines a flattering light on our own character. I’m not prejudiced or ignorant: you’re just oversensitive. God, lighten up!
I’ve caused offence with clumsiness, and been called out for it. I did not enjoy receiving that criticism, any more than I expect the complainers enjoyed making it, and it would be a lot easier to reassure myself that I’m a Nice Person and the complainer is oversensitive, rather than accept that I’m not actually the super-considerate person/writer I’d like to think.
But I’m really not. And if I want to be better, as a writer or a person, I have to look hard at painful criticism, not in a defensive spirit but with an open mind. Because denying I was wrong will not help me do better, but listening thoughtfully might.
We all get stuff wrong. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. Just grit your teeth, swear at the cat, and make an effort to get it right next time.
KJ Charles dishes it out as an editor and attempts to take it as a writer. Her latest book is A Fashionable Indulgence, out now from Loveswept.
I told this story as part of my keynote speech at the UK LGBT Fiction Meet. I’ve been asked for the text, which is far too long to type out. But for those who weren’t there, I give you my favourite publishing story: The Tale of the Worst Phone Call, a.k.a. How KJ Went Off Customer-Facing Roles Forever.
This was back in the day when I worked for a small independent publisher. We had a narrow rickety building, maybe 15 staff, and a very profitable mass market list to prop up the boss’s occasional wild eccentricities.
The mainstay of the mass market publishing was what I’ll call the Mega Books list. These were highly profitable because brutally cost controlled: cheap content; all the same format, paper and cover stock; and always reprinted in multiples of two or four because doing two or four books together made the print runs significantly cheaper for reasons I won’t bore you with.
The Mega Books were collections. There was the Mega Book of Adventure Stories, the Mega Book of Science Fiction, there was Fantasy, Historical, Detectives, accounts of historical events, political speeches, anything as long as you could get 528pp of text for cheap. And there was erotica. The Mega Book of Erotica, of More Erotica, of Historical Erotica, Gay Erotica, Lesbian Erotica, Dark Erotica, et cetera ad nauseam. And I mean ad nauseam, because this was not high-end stuff. It was twenty years ago, issues like ‘consent’ and ‘trigger warnings’ were not on the agenda (at least, not that particular acquiring editor’s agenda), and…let’s just say that erotica comes in every flavour, and this one was frequently ear wax.
Anyway. There I am, junior marketing gonk, busily propping up the British book trade (or playing Minesweeper, one of the two) when the phone rings.
Receptionist: KJ, we have a complaint, can’t make head or tail of it. Here you go. /click/
So I take the call, and it is a quite posh lady who is incoherent, incandescent with rage.
Me: May I ask what the prob–
Customer: I bought The Mega Book of Reportage and I am shocked. This is absolutely disgraceful. Disgraceful!
This book is all eyewitness accounts of important historical events. The worst you could say is it’s got a £6.99 price tag for mostly out-of-copyright material. I am confused.
Me: What’s wrong with it?
Customer: Page 416!
Me: What about page 416?
Customer, spluttering: I’m not repeating it! Look for yourself.
So I grab a copy, turn to page 416, and it’s a report about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Me: Um, I’m looking at 416, what’s the issue here?
Customer: The issue? Just read it! Do you think that’s acceptable?!
Me: No, madam, I don’t, but you’re going to have to take that up with the Chinese government.
Me: The events of Tiananmen Square are not my responsibility, so I’m afraid–
Customer, full shriek: THIS IS NOT ABOUT TIANANMEN SQUARE!!!
This escalates. She still won’t tell me what the problem is, but now she is also absolutely livid at my obtuseness. She says I am mocking her, that she is going to sue. I am utterly baffled.
Across the room, the production manager starts waving wildly at me. I put the customer on hold, and the production manager says the words I should have thought of.
Here’s the thing: You make a book by printing on a huge sheet of paper, folding it over and over and cutting the edges. This creates a 32-page booklet called a signature. Put the various signatures together in the right order (10 for a 320-page book), sew or glue them at the back, stick on a cover, and Bob’s your uncle. Here’s a book printed without cover on the spine so you can see the signatures.
But, very, very rarely, the signatures can get accidentally swapped over. That is, if you have books A and B on press together, a signature of A might be exchanged with a signature of B. And now you have a copy of book A with 32 pages of book B in the middle of it, and vice versa.
Me: Did we reprint Reportage recently?
Production manager: Yes, we did.
Me: Did it go up with something else?
Production manager: Oh yes.
Me, bracing: Go on.
Production manager: Gay Erotica.
Of course. I reach for the file copy of Gay Erotica, turn to p.416…
…right in the middle of a fisting scene.
Of course, fisting scenes, like any sex scene, can be written with love, care and respect. This one was not. Not even slightly.
Clearly this was a horrendous fail on our part. The only way it could have been worse is if it had been Dark Erotica, for which the first proofreader actually walked off the job. It is not OK to sell erotica to people who didn’t want to buy it, the customer has a faulty product and a legitimate grievance even if she isn’t very nice, and the only professional response is a sincere apology.
Unfortunately, at this point I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. The production manager was sliding off her chair howling, the receptionist who’d come up for a nosey was lying on the floor hammering the carpet with her fist, and it took several minutes for me to get a grip on myself. All the while the customer was still on hold, and not getting any happier.
Me, finally: Shut up, all of you. I have to take the call, she’ll hear you. SHUT UP.
[takes customer off hold]
Me: Madam, we’ve discovered what the problem is, and I can only apologise. This is an incredibly unfortunate printers’ error and I am very, very sorry. I assure you, we are all extremely upset about this—
At which point the publicity manager swings into the room and announces, at full volume and entirely audible to the customer at the other end of the phone, “Oh my God, I just heard, that’s hilarious!”
I will draw a veil over the rest of the call. I can only add that some poor so-and-so must have paid £6.99 for a copy of Gay Erotica and got hit by 32pp of Tiananmen Square at just the wrong moment, but at least they never contacted me about it.
And that’s how I decided my future did not include customer service.
KJ Charles is a writer and editor who still twitches when the phone rings. Her most recent title is A Fashionable Indulgence.
If you get a book with signature swap (repeated pages or randomly wrong text), just call the publisher and they’ll replace it. There’s no need to shout.
So this email has been going round on Twitter shared by @lotte_le:
Let’s have a refresher course on basic ethics, shall we? As follows:
DECLARE YOUR INTEREST.
That was quick, eh? See you next week!
Okay, we have space for a bit more.
Declaring interest is a bedrock principle of functional communities. If you are a councillor who awards the contract for rubbish collection services, you must declare that your brother-in-law runs the bidding garbage truck company. If you are asked to be in charge of an inquiry, you need to say that one of the accused is a family friend. If you run a website that reviews cosmetics, you should mention that you run your own cosmetics company under a different name.
It may be that your brother-in-law’s company is the best by miles, or that you would apply the law no matter what it cost your personal life, or that you scrupulously avoided ever plugging your own product on your site. Conflicts of interests happen all the time; we all live in small worlds. If I review an m/m romance, it’s quite likely that I will have interacted with the author on social media, and as a freelance editor it’s not outside the realms of possibility I have or will have worked with them.
But the only way to deal with interests is transparency. You put your interest out there, and let people take a good hard look at your behaviour and your opinions in the light of what they know.
And if you don’t declare interests, people have the right to draw their own conclusions as to what motivated your decisions, which may well be worse than the reality. You might get your brother-in-law the contract because you really think his is the best company, but the voting public is entitled to assume you’re taking a backhander because you hid your interest. Your family friend might be innocent, but who will believe it when the inquiry stinks of cover-up? What value do your genuine negative lipstick reviews have when people decide you were trashing your rivals?
There are laws about this stuff. The Federal Trade Commission in the US requires that you disclose any ‘material connection’ such as payment or free product accepted in return for a review, because your review is endorsing the product. If I might decide to buy a book on the basis of your five-star rave, I have a right to know if you actually spent money on it or not. I definitely have the right to know if you were morally blackmailed into leaving it by big sad kitten eyes and pleas of ‘but bad reviews hurt authors!’
The free book business is a tricky one. The whole point of the ARC (advance reading copy) is that the author gives the reviewer something (a free book), and in return gets a benefit (a review). You might well feel this teeters on the edge of dodgy by its very nature. Let’s be honest, it kind of does.
I have been contacted by readers who have offered to leave five-star reviews if I give them a free copy. Blog tour companies have been known to ask the bloggers to suppress 1 or 2* reviews. Goodreads is full of books that have been five-star-spammed by hardcore fans in return for freebies. And, as we see here, there are authors who feel that the act of giving a free book entitles them not just to a review but to a good review. (There are also, needless to say, vast numbers of authors who would never dream of policing reviewers, and reviewers who are scrupulous in declaring interests. There is nothing wrong with the ARC system except when it’s abused. But it’s basically an honour system, and any honour system is open to abuse by the dishonourable.)
This hurts everyone in every direction. It bumps the unethical author up the rankings, it disappoints the reader suckered into buying overpraised books; it damages the authors who don’t game the system; it devalues the honest reviews that people slave over. It undermines the reading community. It stops the system working.
A declaration of interest does not “discredit a review” as the email says. It does the opposite, by demonstrating that you have considered basic ethical principles. Hiding that interest discredits the reviewer, the author, the book, and the whole damn system. No author should ever ask for that, and no reviewer should ever feel obliged to agree.
A quick checklist for the ethically challenged:
- It is fine to offer an ARC in return for a review.
- It is never okay to ask for only a positive review.
- It is never, ever okay to ask for a negative review to be suppressed.
- It is never, ever, ever okay to ask a reviewer not to declare her interest. You are asking her to be dishonest and possibly to break the law.
- If you are prepared to violate your personal integrity and the law, you should probably set your price higher than a free e-book. Have some self-respect.
My husband has an idea for a book. It’s a great idea based on a bit of real-world technology that would make a cracking thriller. He’s been brewing this for a year or more. Finally, he asked me plaintively, “Okay, I’ve got the idea for the book, but how do I get the characters? How do I know who should be in it? The people would be different depending on where I take the plot, but the plot depends on the characters—which comes first?”
Welcome to my life.
I’m told some people get a character pop up and demand a story. For me it always starts with a nugget of inspiration: a setting, a weird historical fact, a concept. But how do you take a concept and add the characters? And when you have a concept and characters, what about a plot?
You see this go wrong a lot. Thrillers where it’s quite obvious that the author had a brilliant idea, worked out a plot to maximise it, and bolted in some plastic people to go through the required actions. Romances where an adorable pair of lifelike characters have a meet-cute and then not very much actually happens.
It is hard to do right. It feels really hard every time I start thinking about a new book. What’s it about, who’s in it, what’s going to happen? Which comes first?
Short answer: neither. Neither comes first, because it’s a push-me-pull-you, back and forth. Crossing over the same ground, over and over in different directions and permutations, weaving the threads. This is all getting a bit metaphorical so here’s how a story I wrote recently happened:
I know that I want to write about X thing.
Hey, the Victorians had waste-men who collected and sold on used paper! Suppose one of them got some paper he shouldn’t have?
Start thinking about characters. I write romance so I need a pair.
The waste-man, obviously. And the guy who’s looking for the papers, who has to spend ages going through the waste-heaps with bonus sexual tension developing. Who is the other guy? Lawyer, maybe, looking for a missing will?
How does the concept lead to a plot?
The lawyer is searching for the document and…eventually finds it? Meh. What’s this about anyway? What’s at stake here?
Go back to the concept.
The waste-man has paper that’s dangerous. To him, or to other people? How’s it dangerous? If it’s a will, who knows he’s got it? If it’s state secrets, ditto.
And the characters:
The waste-man is going to blackmail the lawyer—no. Or is the other guy an agent of the state? But he could just seize it. The waste-man is going to sell—no. The waste-man is illiterate, maybe, so he doesn’t know to give it back? Um. Or is the paper in a foreign language…
It’s magic paper, you spanner. That’s what it is. It’s magic paper, and the waste-man doesn’t do magic, and it does, I don’t know, VERY BAD THING TBC, and the other guy is a magician.
Leap to the plot!
Because someone lost some papers and the magician has to find them and the papers do VERY BAD THING TBC and they have to work together to stop the thing. Which is when they fall in love.
But wait! Who are these people to be in this situation? What about them causes them to clash with each other and with the plot?
Um. The waste-man is working class, the magician is his opposite… the magician is in a panic and the waste-man has to talk him down… the waste-man is a decent guy…
Hang on, hang on. If these papers are so bad and dangerous, what was the magician doing with them?
Plot and Character answer together: He was doing bad things.
There was a lot more to be braided in from here. The magic system: it’s got to have to do with writing, because paper, and it’s got to cause the VERY BAD THING TBC, and we have to know why the magician would do bad things. Which takes us back to the characters: why would the magician do that? Is he a bad person, and if not, how was he brought into it? What about him means the waste-man works with him–or is he forced to? Which takes us back to the plot…
That is a very very short summary of how the story ‘A Queer Trade’ came together, or alternatively a very long way of saying that plot is character in action. You shuttle back and forth, from concept to character to plot, with each step leading to the next. If X, then Y. If character A is like this then he can’t behave like that, so he behaves like the other instead, and therefore character B will do this…
It can start from anywhere. I could have thought of the VERY BAD THING TBC first and worked from there; I could have imagined a stoic Victorian labourer faced with a panicking and slightly fey magician and wondered how they met. And it can go anywhere. In a different mood I could have taken the lawyer route and written a lovely missing-will story with no external threat and a character-based plot. As it happens, I was in the mood for animated corpses. I so often am.
It doesn’t matter where you start, and you don’t need to know where you’re going. What matters is that you weave plot and character together as you go. Because if you try to develop one first and then fill the other in on top, you might have a brilliant plot, or a marvellous character study, or a genius concept, but you won’t have a book.
‘A Queer Trade’ appears in the anthology Charmed and Dangerous.
My most recent release is A Fashionable Indulgence, the first book in a linked Regency trilogy. Don’t even talk to me about plotting *that* out.
A Fashionable Indulgence is out now! Go buy it!
This is book 1 of my Society of Gentlemen trilogy published by Loveswept, which is about Regency gentlemen, radical politics, class divide, nice clothes, murder, sordid goings-on at all levels of society, and why you should never trust puce. (THIS IS IMPORTANT.)
This is the first in a trilogy of m/m Regency romances about a group of gentlemen with unconventional desires in a time of social and political turmoil. Reviews are nice so far! Book 2, A Seditious Affair, is out in December. The linked story that started it all, ‘The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh’, will be available as a separate story in October, more soon!
You can get it, should you so wish, at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, ARe, the publisher and all the usual places. I have been/will be yattering on about stuff at the following locations throughout August, and there will be giveaways. I’ll link posts as they go up where possible but, like I said, holiday.
10 Smexy Books (with Ava March)
10 Bookaholics Not-So-Anonymous
12 Joyfully Jay (with Ava March)
12 All About Romance (with Ava March)
13 Fiction Vixen (with Ava March)
14 Prism Book Alliance (with Ava March)
14 Bayou Book Junkie
15 Sinfully… (with Ava March)
17 Boys in our Books
19 Christine’s Words
Which is why I’m not posting anything else here.
I’ll be back in late August with other new news, including on the Charmed & Dangerous anthology. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!