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Let’s Agree about Conflict

HEA=Happy Ever After, MC=main character, MS=manuscript

If you ask a reader what they need to get out of a romance, you’ll probably hear “A Happy Ever After, duh,” accompanied by a menacing look in case you were even thinking about screwing with that. They might also offer variations on ‘love’, ‘kindness’, ‘communication’, ‘consent’, and other good things.

Ask a romance writer what they need to put into a romance, and they’ll probably say, “Conflict.”

Back in the day when I edited for Mills & Boon, we had to do a form for each book we put forward at the editorial meeting. Basic details, synopsis, tropes/themes, and conflict. The ‘Conflict’ section came at the top of the text section, in bold. And if you couldn’t identify what the conflict was, or it looked lacklustre on page, woe betide you.

However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what conflict is and means. Let’s do a spot of digging.

For a start, ‘conflict’ can be a misleading term for what we’re discussing. The word evokes big rows, enemies to lovers, prickling hostility. I have a sneaking suspicion that this limited interpretation of ‘conflict’ is why the third-act argument is such an overused (and unloved) device: the author thinks Oh God, they’re getting on so well, but I need conflict, and often shoehorns it in against the grain of the story.  

Prickling hostility can be great. I adore a good ‘enemies to lovers’ story where the MCs are justifiably spitting furious. I don’t adore a story where they are put in opposition for no particular reason other than the supposed necessity of conflict.

I think we’d often be better off using ‘obstacle’. Because what we’re talking about here is, fundamentally, the things that keep our MCs from their HEA. Those obstacles may be internal (“I was hurt before and don’t want to love again”), external (“the criminal gang is trying to kill me so this isn’t a good time for a bonk”) or both (“I have been offered a great job 1000 miles away, how do I balance love and career?”). They can be hostile (“This bastard is trying to tear down my cupcake café to build a mall!”) or the opposite (“I have to give up the love of my life because I am a sparkly vampire and may cause them harm.”).

It is perfectly possible to write a terrific romance where the MCs never clash with one another, even in a small way. But even the lowest-angst, most comfort-blanket read has obstacles, things that get in the MCs’ way individually or as a couple. Where they struggle and how they deal with it is the engine that drives the plot, shows character in action, and lets the relationship develop.

So the question for the romance writer is:

What are the obstacles, internal and external, that complicate, slow, or threaten the relationship?

I can’t tell you how many slush MSS I slung in the reject heap because of the lack of obstacles. Again, this doesn’t mean ‘they didn’t have rows’. It means that the author didn’t dig into the difficulties, the problems, the insecurities, the practical or emotional issues getting in our lovers’ way. If we don’t feel those things exist or matter, we don’t get the payoff when they’re overcome.

Don’t forget the overcoming bit. We do need to come out at the end with a feeling that they’ve worked their way through or around the obstacles, and that they’ll be able to do so in the future. Overloading a book with conflict, or not dealing with it once raised, can make that hard to believe.

What sort of things may be obstacles?

We often think of conflict at plot level. MC1 doesn’t want children and MC2 has four. MC1 didn’t tell MC2 about their secret baby. MC1 is a policeman and 2 is an assassin, or a thief, or an activist who believes that the justice system is fascist and corrupt. MC1 is a princess, a werewolf, the boss, or all three (which would be cool). MC1 wants to shut down 2’s family mall to build a cupcake empire. MC1 is 2’s best friend’s little sister. You know the score.

But there’s a lot more obstacles than the obvious headliners.

Power imbalance is a big one. Where there’s any sort of difference between the characters there’s probably some sort of power imbalance, which can lead to uncertainty, insecurity, misunderstanding, resentment. Obvious areas for power imbalance are gender-related (including in queer relationships), and disparities in wealth, health, professional status, class, sexual experience, age, perceived attractiveness, perceived value as a person. It’s always worth thinking about these.

(For an entire book about power imbalance–across age, wealth, education, status, sexual experience, and class–Alexis Hall’s For Real traces a relationship between an older, authoritative, wealthy sub and a young, less secure, broke dom. It’s a masterclass in power imbalances going both ways, and the complexities of how they shift and seesaw.)

Differing moral standards can be a massive obstacle. Is it OK to lie/hide the truth from someone? For how long? About what issues? How far does family matter? If duties clash—family, career, partner—which do you prioritise? Did one MC do things which the other considers objectively bad? Which is more important, personal fulfilment or personal responsibility?

Obstacles don’t have to be huge or dramatic. We all know the relatively trivial issues on which relationships stub their toes occasionally. If MC1 comes home from work after a bad day and MC2 doesn’t offer sympathy, that can feel like the end of the world. If it matters to the character, it should matter to the reader.

Important: Characters can have serious issues without them being obstacles to the relationship. There’s very little more powerfully romantic than a MC who meets, e.g., their lover’s health issues or personal insecurities with kindness, help, and understanding. What could be an obstacle but isn’t matters just as much as what is. Both those things help define the relationship.

(I just read this excellent review of the wonderful Take a Hint Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert. The last two paras perfectly encapsulate how this book, and indeed the entire glorious Brown Sisters series, actively choose what things won’t be treated as obstacles in the story/relationship, and why that’s so important.)

Obstacles in action

Let’s take Will and Kim from my Will Darling Adventures: a couple who have so many obstacles, it takes them three books to get to their HEA. A few of those, and how they react:

  • Kim is rich, Will is not. A prickly topic for Will, but something he can accept, since Kim handles it with care.
  • Kim is upper class, Will is working class. For Will, veers back and forth from discomfort to resentment to catastrophe. For Kim, something he wishes Will would get over (until said catastrophe).
  • Kim is engaged. Explained quickly and then disregarded.
  • Kim is a rotten weasel liar. Massive relationship-breaking issue.
  • Will kills people. Mostly handwaved.
  • Will isn’t very good at talking about his feelings. Oh boy.

All these issues and more come up across the series, some as ongoing across the three books, some once, some intermittently. The progress of the relationship is shown in the way they handle, listen, accept, put down boundaries, change. (They also have to deal with an entire criminal conspiracy, but that’s not important right now.)

Note: I could have done all this differently. I could have had the wealth disparity be a running sore between them. I could have made Will unconcerned by class, or Kim far more concerned by it. I could have Will take a much more laissez-faire approach to the fact that a rotten weasel liar told him lies: well, he’s a secret agent so he would, right? But perhaps Kim’s engagement might have been a dealbreaker to Will’s conventional principles. What if Kim was horrified by Will’s penchant for violence? And so on.

All of those decisions could have worked. All of them would have led to the characters developing and reacting differently. And since plot is character in action, we’d have ended up with completely different books.

Let me add: I struggled with book 3, Subtle Blood (as chronicled here). The point at which I finally got a grip on it was when I realised that I’d missed a huge obstacle. Specifically, I had let Will get away with his insistence that he was basically fine, that he was coping with his experiences in the war, that he didn’t really need to talk about it. Wrong. Once I delved into that, and realised it was standing in the way of the deep emotional commitment we needed, the book came together. If I’d let that obstacle go unaddressed, the final relationship wouldn’t have anything like the same heft.

The art of fiction is, in many respects, finding where it hurts and then prodding at it.

Obstacles mean options!

If you aren’t sure about your story, focusing on the obstacles can be a great tactic to lever your way in.

Right now I’m planning my Doomsday Books duo. I know book 1 is going to star Joss Doomsday (smuggler) and Gareth Inglis (gentleman). Joss is clear in my mind and I’m waiting impatiently to get him on page. But I don’t quite know Gareth yet, and I’m still havering on the plot.

So here’s a simple ‘obstacles’ question: Joss is a smuggler. Is Gareth OK with that? Yes/No

If yes, is it simply not a big deal for him, in which case we’ll be looking for something else to drive the plot? Does he actively want to be involved—say, he needs Joss to smuggle something for him, and that’s what brings them together? Is he a gentleman villain scheming to take over the Romney Marsh smuggling racket himself, in which case it’s Georgian gang warfare and a cracking enemies to lovers set-up?

If no, is this a moral difference, to be discussed as part of a growing mutual understanding between two people of different backgrounds? Or is it adversarial? Is Gareth is a magistrate on a personal crusade to stamp out smuggling, who fully intends to see Joss hang?

You can probably think of half a dozen different ways this book might go, based on that single potential obstacle. We could be looking at anything from a frothy caper comedy to a raging angst-fest here, depending on how I answer the question. (I don’t know yet. We’ll find out in due course.)

***

Character creates obstacles; obstacles drive the plot. Obstacles—what they are, how the characters react to them separately and together, what matters and what doesn’t—are the heart of romance, just as grit is the heart of the pearl. Find them, and you’ve probably found your book.


Get your bucketloads of obstacles in the Will Darling Adventures, all out now!

#1 Slippery Creatures

#2 The Sugared Game

#3) Subtle Blood

How to Write A Book When You Can’t Write A Book

This one’s about getting very, very stuck on a book and how I got it written. I can’t promise it’ll help anyone else, but it’s what I did. Warning: epic length. If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, look away now.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

So. Back in the Before Times, I decided to write a trilogy: the Will Darling Adventures. 1920s pulp adventure romance, with a ‘difficult’ love interest who was in fact so difficult that the romance arc would take place over three books and there wouldn’t be a full Happy Ever After (HEA) till book 3. I wrote book 1, set the self publishing in motion, started work on book 2, and–oops! Covid!

I got book 1 out. I even managed to finish book 2, though I had to delay publication by two months. And then I went into book 3, Subtle Blood, like a LandRover driving into a tar pit, and like that LandRover, I stuck.

I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was full of writers screaming that their average writing speed had dropped to twelve words an hour, that their characters had become plastic mannequins, plots withered on the vine, inspiration turned to dust. The only creative boom was in people writing articles about how the pandemic was destroying creativity. Apparently when the world is going to shit and people are dying and you’re scared for yourself and your loved ones, your brain diverts resources away from inventing stories and towards survival.

Note to brain: That doesn’t help when you make your living inventing stories.

I created the Subtle Blood Scrivener folder in July 2020. By January 2021 I had four folders of false starts for the damn thing, none of which were going anywhere.

Image of four folders labelled: Subtle Blood, Subtle Blood v2, Subtle Blood 3 the Resubtlening, and Subtle Blood 4 JFC

I also had an entirely separate book that I’d written in the hope of loosening up my writing muscles. That book was a doddle. I still couldn’t write this one.

I’d plot it out, sit down, dig in, write a chapter, and feel myself thinking, No, wait, this isn’t it, start again. Over, and over, and over. None of my multiple versions got past chapter 7. Every word I wrote, every path I took, immediately seemed worse than all the other possible ones, like the supermarket trolley queue choice from hell. I wrote and rewrote and flailed.

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

Well, first I sat down and tried to work out what my problems actually were.

  • Global pandemic: pervasive terror, existential threat to way of life, homeschooling. Not much to be done about that.
  • Sequel panic: the incapacitating fear that if the third book isn’t good enough I’ll ruin everything and disappoint everyone like a terrible person. Solution: to have started therapy years ago. Also on the Not Much To Be Done About That pile.
  • Indecision.

That was the big one. I knew what the romance arc would be, that was easy. I had an inciting incident for the suspense plot: a murder in a gentleman’s club. But I could not work out how the suspense plot should develop. Every time I tried to write it, it fell apart in my hands like too-short pastry. To convey how bad this got: I wrote the first five chapters three times over with the same character as, respectively, the murderer, the victim, and the key witness. I’m only astonished he was never the detective. I tried, I really did. I just couldn’t make it work.

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

Clearly I needed to sit down and plan the bastard. I had tried to do this once or twice already (*Herbert Lom eye twitch*) but what I did now was to take a different visual approach.

You may be familiar with the advice to proofread your work in a different format–print out the text or proofread on your ereader, or even just change the font dramatically (people often say to Comic Sans, but let’s not go overboard). The idea is that the visual change makes your brain see the text as new and therefore pick up errors you previously skimmed over. This is why you get your finished print copy, open it at random, and instantly see a typo.

To achieve my different format, I bought a piece of mind mapping software called Scapple. This is in effect an infinitely scrolling piece of paper so you can keep on going as long as you like, in as much detail as you need, as well as off at tangents in all directions. (The lack of infinity, I now realise, is why mind mapping on paper has never worked for me.) It has bells and whistles I didn’t explore, but what it gave me was that open space, on–let me stress the importance of this–a different coloured background.

I feel quite embarrassed typing that. But the fact is, it looked proper different, and that helped.

Planning stage: Make decisions

I had to make a couple of big decisions even to start putting the mind map thing down. Part of this, not going to lie, was saying “Just pick one” to myself and sticking to it. This is because there is not one single Platonic ideal shape for a book to be. Every decision you make takes you off at a different tangent and makes the plot a different shape. Some of those decisions would be actually wrong (“Kim drinks an oddly coloured cocktail and turns into a velociraptor”) and others not great, but there will always be several paths that could lead to perfectly satisfactory outcomes.

Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.

So I opened Scapple. I picked the suspense plot path that I hoped would take me to the best place, and stuck to it, resisting every temptation (there were many) to jack it in and go back to the start with a different one. I bunged it down in note form, with all my questions and plot holes and options. I mucked about with that till I had a rough shape, adding and pruning as seemed good, exploring options if I felt compelled to, and dumping them if they didn’t work. If I didn’t have a specific event in mind, I put in what plot effects it needed to have (VILLAIN DISCOVERS PLAN SOMEHOW, BAD THING RESULTS) and came back later to work out how.

Once I had a rough outline most of the way (up to the climatic drama point of the third act, as I wasn’t sure how to play the ending), I put another set of notes above the main plot in red, giving the events from the villain’s perspective, i.e. what was happening behind the scenes at the same time. That let me make sure events made sense, and start to shape the ending. It meant going back to the main plot, answering questions, fiddling events to make them fit, getting things in logical order. By this point I was beginning to believe in the plot course I’d chosen. That helped a lot.

Next, I added in the romance arc as a set of notes below the suspense plot, this time in blue, again lined up with the timescheme.

Can you see the problem here?

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control.

Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

Specifically, what was missing was the conflict I had been building up to in the first two books but had somehow not followed through here. And, in fact, this conflict was starting to emerge organically now I’d nailed the suspense plot, because the events of the one set off emotional bombs in the other. Which is pretty much exactly what you want to happen.

And–you will be way ahead of me–once I started digging into the issues and interweaving the romance and the suspense plots properly, the damn thing really began to come together.

Looking at a different picture on the screen, laying it out a different way, helped me identify problems and see the job anew, as well as letting me regain a sense that I controlled it.

Writing stage: Don’t go back

So I made my mind map thing, worked out my plot strands, made decisions as I went, and I ended up with an outline.

Unfortunately, I don’t work well with outlines. I have form for coming up with a detailed synopsis, selling it to a publisher, and then delivering something completely different. (For example: an enemies to lovers romance with a pornographer and a crusading lawyer became a fluff-fest with a taxidermist and a gentle lodging house keeper. Whoops.)

I knew I was going to change things as I went along. And here we were going to hit the rocks, because I’m a looper.

What’s that? Well, some authors are plotters (get it all planned first) and some are what people insist on calling pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. deciding what happens next as you go). I define myself as a looper because my writing process basically goes:

  • Have a loose idea of the opening, the main plot, and the ending
  • Write the first two chapters. Realise the main plot isn’t quite what I thought. Loop back through the first two chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Write the next two chapters. Discover that actually the character needs to do X earlier for it to work. Loop back through the first four chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Get to chapter six. Decide that a lot of what I’ve done is unnecessary scaffolding. Loop back to chapter one and start cutting…

And so on. What this usually means is I get to 70% pretty slowly, but with an MS in excellent shape and a clear path to the end, which I then write at white heat. It works for me.

Until it didn’t. Because the looping had broken with Subtle Blood. I’d got trapped: going over the same five chapters again and again and again, like someone in a bad time-travel movie. Possibly one called Looper.

I didn’t want to start that again. So I vowed: no fixing, no checking. If I tweaked the plot as I went along, I would write XX FIX THIS at the point it diverged from the previous text, and carry on in the new direction. I would not go back and change anything until I’d reached the end. I would fill the MS with XX CHECK and XX REPETITION?? and any amount of work for Future Me, but I would have a finished draft before I tried to tidy up anything in it.

(XX is simply an easy way to pick these things up in search. You need to make them searchable or you end up with SEX SCENE HERE going off to your editor and then you’ll feel stupid.)

I decided this, and I wrote. I wrote plot scaffolding, and left it there. I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

We used to do a challenge at school where you had to eat a jam doughnut with sugar on the outside without licking your lips. This felt like that. It goes against everything that I stand for as an editor, writer, and human to knowingly ignore errors and plot holes and crap writing. But I had to get out of the loop, and that meant pointing my face to The End and not changing direction till I got there.

And, very slowly, I started to feel like the book was becoming mine. The plot clicked into place. There were ‘oh, of course it’s like this!’ moments. The characters stirred into life; the words started to flow; I woke up in the morning with new exciting ideas. I whipped through the last two chapters like…well, like a writer who was enjoying her book. And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional, and not some illiterate Phantom of the Opera hammering at the keyboard.

Cover of Subtle Blood

Then I sent it to my first trusted reader. She promptly identified several gigantic structural flaws I had been hoping were my imagination. I hate that.

I did some large-scale rewriting. Then I sent it to my second trusted reader. She identified more flaws, but at a more zoomed-in level, which was promising. Same for the third. (I sent these in succession, fixing the identified problems before passing the Death Spot to the next person.)

I spent weeks of eight-hour days doing nothing but edit. I switched fonts twice to refresh my vision. (Courier to Times New Roman to Calibri, since you ask. I was never quite desperate enough for Comic Sans.)

Now, over-editing is a thing. It is entirely possible to go through a MS so much that you kill whatever zizz it had, and create something that’s well-formed but lifeless. I suspect that’s a thing that happens with MSS that start off with loads of vigour but lack polish–whereas what I had here was a MS with the bare bones in place but lacking the animating spark. (If you’re thinking about Frankenstein’s monster at this point, you aren’t the only one.)

Because as I went through and tidied up and pulled it together and rewrote, rewrote, rewrote…

…it came to life. I had dug deep enough into the characters and motivations and done enough of the scut work that I could actually get into the fun parts, and it finally goddamn well came to life under my hands. Kim and Will sparked in my imagination, ideas bubbled out to refine and improve it, the hidden motivations and links and feelings revealed themselves, and the whole thing began to sing. It was glorious. And when I sent it to the last trusted reader, she told me it worked, and I very nearly cried.

So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

***

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

Because the first draft doesn’t have to be good, or even okay: it just has to exist. Once it exists you can make it better. Granted, writing like this isn’t fun, and editing it is chew-your-hand-off stuff, and you need good people who will tell you what’s wrong with it when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

But it’s still a lot easier than editing a blank page.


I didn’t spend ten months writing this bloody thing for people not to buy it, okay?

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

Goodreads reviews so you don’t have to take my word for it

Writers: Stop Doing This!

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.

Pig Ignorance

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.

Bias

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.

Giving purpose to your novel (Don’t shoot yourself with Chekhov’s gun)

“One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Anton Chekhov

Or, don’t introduce elements that serve no purpose in your story.  Purpose doesn’t necessarily mean serving the progress of the plot, or being involved in the dramatic climax. It means that what you put in must enhance the reader’s experience in some way – by developing the plot, directing the action, deepening character, creating powerful atmosphere.

This principle doesn’t just apply to a dramatic object like a gun (the heroine’s karate skills / the rickety bridge over the chasm / the serious contagious illness in the village). It applies to pretty much anything you choose to put in a prominent position.

Let’s take a practical example that’s less obviously plot-directing than a gun. Say you’ve decided your hero keeps tropical fish. Why is that?

Just because. (It sets the scene. Fish are pretty.)

Bad. Go to your room and don’t come out till you can play nicely. I do not want to read five pages of fish-related scene-setting if you then forget all about it and the rest of the book might as well be set in a shed.

 Basic character. (It shows my hero is kind of a geek.)

A bit better, though probably a slur against the fishkeeping population. You can use the fishkeeping to show us that he’s meticulous etc etc. Or you could have shown us that in a myriad of other ways and we wouldn’t have had to drag fish into it. I don’t sound excited yet, do I?

Basic plot set-up. (The love interest owns the cat shop next door to the hero’s fish shop. They meet after an unfortunate incident.)

Still not enough. If the only purpose of the fish shop is to introduce the protagonists, it’s a gimmick. You’re using the fish to start action, but not further it. You can do more!

Plot device/character in action.  (The hero is supposed to be flying out for a weekend in Paris with his new lover, but his fish-sitter has pulled out at the last minute. Does he go, knowing he’ll come back to tanks of dead fish, or stay, causing a ‘You care more about those fish than about me!’ scene?)

Here we go. Bring in the fish, use them. The fish might be a practical problem – the demands of fishkeeping impact on the hero’s time for his new relationship. It might be a way to reveal backstory/character – why does the hero prefer fish to people? The hero’s changing responses to the fish might show his character development throughout the book. Or it might operate on a more metaphorical level, so that we observe the hero trapped in a small world, going round in circles, just keeping on swimming without going anywhere. (I don’t know, it was your idea to make him a fishkeeper.)

Whichever way, the fishkeeping element should interact with plot and character to move the story on, or tell us more about the people, or ideally both.  If it doesn’t do any of those things, it’s just wallpaper: pretty but two-dimensional.

The Scene. (I wanted the hero and his lover talking on either side of a fishtank, looking at each other through the rippling water and shoals of fish, not quite seeing each other clearly.)

Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be part of an active developing plot strand. If the purpose of the tropical fish is to create a brilliant, memorable, well visualized scene, or if the aquarium setting broadens and deepens the reader’s feel for the characters and the characters’ understanding of each other, that’s the gun fired. The fish have achieved their point.

Chekhov’s AK-47. (Dead bodies are turning up with still-flapping tropical fish stuffed in their mouths. A brusque yet handsome cop must work with a reserved yet sexy fishkeeper to track down the Tropical Fish Killer before he strikes again.)

I swear to God I’ve read this.

As William Morris almost said, you should have nothing in your novel that you do not know to be useful. If you have an element in your story and don’t know what its purpose is, go back, find out what it’s for, and revise to work it in. If it doesn’t have any purpose, what’s the point?