News, new release and Queer Romance Month

It’s all about the exciting news this week.

First we have the release of gay historical romance anthology Another Place in Time. This is a collection of six stories put together by the lovely Susan Lee, ranging from Knights Templar to 1940s America, written by a selection of some of my favourite historical authors and also me. It’s being published to coincide with the US LGBT History Month, and all monies raised go to All Out. What I’m getting at is, go spend some money. The first reviews are in and stellar.

a consistently high quality anthology, not one of the short stories was less than a 5 star rating for me and I can honestly say I absolutely loved every single one of them (Sinfully Sexy)

ATIPfinalMy story, ‘The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh’, is my first foray into Regency. I’ve always loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances and had immense fun writing one of my own, with a hungover black sheep, a dangerous gambler, and a game of cards for very high and just slightly kinky stakes. I had to learn how to play ecarté for this story, dammit: the least you could do is read it. (This one is very high on the sexytimes, incidentally. Because I felt like it, that’s why.)

Badge-1-300x300Second: October is Queer Romance Month! A group of authors decided to put queer romance front and centre, and this is the result: a full month of posts, flash fiction, recommendations, giveaways and chat about all aspects of queer romance, by a bewildering variety of authors. I’ve been uploading posts all morning, which took ages because they’re too interesting not to read. Check out my introductory post on Love is Not a Subgenre here, and return daily through October for all the goodies. (And follow us on @queerromance too!)

Thirdly, of less import to anyone but me: I’ve made the leap. As of last week I’m now a full time writer and freelance editor. So, uh, more books from me (hopefully), and I’m at kjcharleswriter[at]gmail.com for anyone looking for development/line editing who hasn’t been scared off by this blog. Get in touch!

FlightOfMagpies300And finally, book 3 of A Charm of Magpies, Flight of Magpies, will be out at the end of the month. Stay tuned for a giveaway mid-Oct.

That’s it for news, unless you want to hear how my cat’s doing. (Eating craneflies. Bet you’re sorry you asked.)

 

Keep up on Twitter or join my Facebook group for extra book info and sneak peeks.

Ten Ways for Authors to Fail on Social Media

There’s been a lot of social-media career immolation going on this week. It may be the full moon. People making idiots of themselves is not a particularly edifying sight, so I’m not linking specific cases, but here are my basic principles of How Not To Do It for authors.

1) Interact online if you’re no fun to interact with.

Everyone tells you to be out there. Have a Goodreads or Facebook group, chat on Twitter, have a community, let them get to know you. But what if they don’t like you? I’ve had the experience of disliking an author’s online personality so much that it’s seeped into how I regard their books. I’ve chosen not to pick up books that would have otherwise been autobuys.

Obviously, authors have been unlikeable throughout history. This is why we have to sit alone in small rooms with our imaginary friends. But in previous years, it was reserved for their long-suffering loved ones and their editor. Now fans can get a share too.

This is a tricky one to judge, since most people don’t set out to be jerks. And I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should be silent, or a doormat. There are things we all need to stand up for, and stuff that shouldn’t be let go. Some people make their, uh, bracing interactive style a positive part of their brand (i.e. forceful without being a jerk). But if you’re getting into thin-skinned sulks, insulting your own fans, or picking fights with potential readers, you’re probably better off backing off.

2) Be vile.

Right. If you, the author, post a hilarious video/meme or an amusing blog post or whatever, and the response is, ‘wow, that is really racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic’, the correct approach is as follows:

  • Look again at what you posted.
  • Consider why the objection has been raised and if it is valid. If you can’t see what the problem is, ask, and listen to the answer with an open mind. You might learn something.
  • If you have caused real offence, even if you had no intention of doing so, apologise, and try to learn from the experience. If you think saying it was worth the offence caused, or that you’ve been misinterpreted, try explaining why and listening to the responses. Again, you may learn something.

If you stick your fingers in your ears, make disingenuous excuses, dismiss the complaint without considering it, mock the complainant or encourage your fans/followers/family to attack them, be aware that you might as well put ‘YES I AM A RACIST’ or whatever at the top of your website, because that’s what’s going to spread about you, and it will spread like herpes and be as hard to get rid of. It might even be accurate.

We are all crass or clumsy sometimes, and nobody likes to be called out. But empathy is a basic writer skill. Don’t reserve it for your own hurt feelings; summon it up for the people who were insulted or distressed by what you said and brought it to your attention in the hope that you’d listen to them. Or, as Chuck Wendig so wisely puts it, Don’t be a dick.

Obviously, not all offence is equal. You can offend a lot of men simply by being female on the internet, for example. And any kind of political discussion may upset someone: that’s politics. But I’m not talking about arguing gun control. I’m talking about things that mock, belittle or insult minority or vulnerable groups – the rape joke, the thoughtless use of ‘retard’ or ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘stupid’ or ‘rubbish’, the cartoons and videos and memes that casually, lightly, cruelly sneer at women, or racial groups, or whatever aspect of people’s identities.

Because if an author lacks the empathetic skills to understand why, say, ‘retard’ is a horrible word to use for ‘stupid’, and the linguistic ability to find an alternative, or the heart to care why they should – well, it doesn’t say much for them as a human being, but it’s a crashing indictment of them as a writer.

3) Bore.

ThinkOfEngland72web

LOOK A BOOK I WROTE A BOOK BUY IT BUY IT BUY IT NOOOOOOOW

Take Twitter. Most people don’t follow 5,000 accounts on Twitter, and if they do, they’re probably not that interested in you anyway. Most people follow a few hundred accounts, so their Twitter streams are not fast-flowing torrents. Therefore if you do automated tweets, multiple daily book plugs, retweeting FFs, repeating your jokes in case someone missed them etc, you might once hit the attention of the person who follows 5,000, but you will definitely annoy the crap out of the far more valuable person who follows just 200, of whom one is you.

Apply this principle to your preferred social media outlet and its own ways to be annoying (flooding Facebook with book spam, or…whatever it is people do on Tumblr, I don’t know, it scares me). The point is, don’t go after new fans without considering people who are already interested enough to follow you. That’s how mortgage companies behave, and nobody likes them.

4) Forget who you’re talking to.

I think of this as three circles of people.

Fans. Fans like extracts, early looks at covers and blurbs, writing updates and hearing about your massive yet fragile ego work. Love and cherish fans, because they deserve it. Consider setting up a group/place where you can interact with them directly, share goodies and give them things they’ll value, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your general social media presence.

The wider potential readership. People who might be interested in reading your books, but don’t care about cover reveals, new blurbs and so on. Or people who don’t read your books and probably never will but who like your social media and will share posts, retweet, etc. Swamping these people with marketing will not convert them into fans. If you blog/tweet/pin/exist in an interesting or amusing way, that may convert into sales, directly because you’re interesting, or via retweets and links and signal boosts that make other people aware of you. Or it may not, of course, but promising a cover reveal later this week!!! four times a day definitely won’t. ‘Too much promo’ is a really common reader complaint, and there’s just no need for it, when the internet offers all kinds of ways to talk to different groups of people with the stuff they want to hear.

People who will never read your books or share your content. Not everyone is a potential reader, tragic though that may seem, and promo-ing to these people is a waste of time. Focus on the people you want to talk to and don’t fret about meaningless numbers. I pick up rugby accounts whenever I tweet about my team; they slough off like sunburnt skin when I get back to queer romance; I’d be an idiot to focus on retaining rugby followers at the expense of, you know, readers.

5) Argue with reviews. Complain about reviews. Start fights about reviews. Bribe people to pull reviews.

(I added that last bit to the header because I have just read an author’s blog in which she makes it clear she’ll refund the cost of the book to dissatisfied readers as long as they don’t leave bad reviews. I, uh. No. No, no, no.)

Reviews: Just leave it. I don’t care if the review is the most baseless, nastiest thing you’ve ever seen. I don’t care if it gives one star based on the blurb, your hairstyle, or the fact that they misread The Magpie Lord as The Moggie Lord and were disappointed because it wasn’t about cats. JUST LEAVE IT. You know that famous incident, where an author argued with a bad review and everyone on the internet sided with the author and then the reviewer changed her mind and rated it five stars? No, you don’t, because it never happened. Grit your teeth and walk away. (Or use my handy flowchart!)

Passionate, committed, interactive readers are as important to authors as keyboards and caffeine. That doesn’t change just because one of them is passionately and interactively committed to hating your book.

6) Do lists of ten things if you only have five things to say.

Um.

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KJ Charles is the world’s least convincing social media guru and you probably shouldn’t listen to her. She is on Twitter, answers book questions on Goodreads, and has a Facebook presence for chat, author page for book news and group for fans/people who want goodies–join up! There’s also books, which you can buy, and free stories, which you don’t have to.

Tea and No Sympathy: the Invisible Editor

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 14.05.06

Editing is an underrated, underpaid skill in large part because it’s invisible. Good editing, in the reader’s experience, is a negative. Some people may note the absence of typos, or the lack of stumbles over poor sentence structure. Nobody but editor and author knows about the rambling, pointless plotline, the ending that weakened the whole book and had to be redrafted, the inexplicably omitted antagonist, irritating repeated word, massive plot hole, or 5000 words of unnecessary verbiage. By God you’ll see all that if it’s left in, and leave scathing reviews accordingly, but with a properly edited book, for all the reader knows, the author delivered an impeccable MS and every plot twist, satisfying scene and well structured ending is her genius. Nothing to do with anyone else, oh no.

And of course, because editors are invisible, you get people thinking they don’t need them. Authors who refuse to accept editing, self-published authors who say, ‘I’ll get my friend to read it over’. And, worse, people who work as editors without really understanding the job. People who think it’s about tidying up, who have no idea how to tackle deep structure or tonal issues or limp characterization, or how to do that without breaking an author’s heart.

Dinner party man: What do you do?
Me: I’m an editor.
Dinner party man: Don’t they have spellcheck for that?

I learned to edit working on travel guides. There is no room for sloppiness in a printed travel guide. There was no room for bringing them out late, either, since they are out of date from the day the author delivers. We used to edit in shifts, splitting MSS to finish them. People sometimes slept in the office. After that, I worked at a large romance publisher for several years, where the book turnaround was insanely fast. There is nothing like editing four books in a week and reading six slush MSS in between to get you good at X-raying a book, seeing the bones, and rearranging them to make a functioning skeleton. Do that enough and you don’t just have a vague feeling of wrong: you know exactly why this character’s decision weakens the book; why that scene, brilliant in itself, destroys the pacing, or alternatively needs to be twice as long; why these two plot points have to be rearranged; why this character ought to live rather than die.

I really feel this book should end on the obliteration of the entire human race.

(Editorial email from me to author. She agreed.)

As both an editor and an author who has benefited greatly from editing, I know how much work goes into this. I know how hard it can be to identify the problem with your own MS, and how hard it is to write the email that explains what has to be changed. I know that nobody wants to hear ‘massive rewrite’ and that it actually doesn’t feel that much better if the editor calls it a tweak. And mostly, I know that editors are the unsung heroes when it goes right, but the first in the firing line when it goes wrong.

Because, if you think for a moment, ‘This book is badly edited’ is kind of meaningless. What that actually says is, ‘This book is badly written and the editor didn’t fix it.’ But that’s the job. The author’s hacked out the raw material and the editor’s there to do anything from a light polish to a full-blown carving operation – but leaving no fingermarks, with no trace of her presence, just letting the story shine.

So when you read a book and you don’t notice anything wrong with it, spare a thought for the ninja editor, reading the clunky and the poorly structured, the repetitive and the nonsensical and the really quite alarming, the badly spelled and the just-not-quite-perfect…so you don’t have to.
_____________________________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor and author. Thanks to Andrea Pina for the inspiration for this post!

Yo ho here we go again: Piracy and who pays when

New book, new theft.ThinkOfEngland72web

I don’t usually spend that much time worrying about ebook piracy. It’s one of those things that could keep you awake all night if you think about it. But when a new book comes out, as Think of England did last month, and I check for reviews, and a piracy result comes up on the first page within a week of publication…

I’ve read several articles on justification for piracy. They all line up a variety of reasons why people pirate books, and tell publishers and authors to take note and address these concerns. A typical example quoted in GalleyCat:

 “I’ve pirated electronic versions of books I already own physically.”

“I limit myself to pirating things that are out-of-print or otherwise unavailable through a legal digital outlet.”

“I’m poor and I like to read, but I can’t pirate food, so I pirate everything else.”

“The library rarely has the books I want to read.”

“I only pirate textbooks from school … They are ridiculously priced an I have a hard enough time paying tuition.”

“If the ebook is more expensive than the paper-version I sometimes pirate it out of annoyance.”

“Pirating also lets me sample things i would not be willing to pay money for up front”

Hang onto that last for a moment. Now, here’s a lovely exchange one author had.

lawrenceThanks for clearing that up, Emmanuel, your a star lol.

But, sarcasm aside, look at that line:

I do believe in being able to read or listsin to someone’s work before taking home for good books and music being especially of those sins there a million of you guys all calling your selfs artist

Which I interpret to mean:

As there is a great deal of work on the market and quality can be variable, I like to sample goods before spending my money.

Hang on to that one too as we go back to my pirate site experience.

So I went to the site that came up on the first Google page for Think of England. It’s a forum for filesharing, where you post a request for a book or game or film and other people post links to offsite places you can get it for free. Here’s the request. If you are profprofferson, please feel free to step on Lego any time.

mobilism 2

Now, we’ve all heard plenty about the benefits of piracy. Exposure! People discussing your book! Building an audience! As it goes, my bank doesn’t currently accept exposure for the mortgage, but hey, it would be better than the nothing I otherwise get…if it actually happens. So I joined up and asked.

mobilism 1

Yes, I like to stir.

Within five minutes they’d deleted my comment. No kidding. However, I also got this message.

mobilism 3(NB that I haven’t sought or received Lee’s permission to reproduce this private message. What goes around comes around.)

Several things to note here:

  • Apparently, I ought to be pleased that people steal my books in an enthusiastic rather than a lackadaisical fashion. Oh, wow, you guys really like me! I feel so…unpaid!
  • They did indeed take down all my books on my request, at once.
  • Total lack of apology. Friendly chat, smiliness, pleasant, genuinely positive and helpful, from the person who had uploaded my book illegally for people to download for free. Remorse? Embarrassment at being caught? A sense of having done something wrong? No.

But mainly

I adored it, so bought it. … If I like something I’ll buy it.

Lee even linked me to a thread on her forum where members discussed how many ebooks they had actually bought rather than stolen. (I think this was meant to be encouraging.) There were people saying, ‘Well, I have at least a hundred books I paid for!’, claiming the moral high ground in a forum dedicated to taking things without paying. All of them were adamant that you should buy the book post-piracy if you liked it.

I do actually believe the people who have told me that they take for free and pay if they like the book. (‘Believe’ should not be confused with ‘approve of’. You can get a 10% free sample off Amazon if you want to try before you buy.) I think it is actually probably true that piracy helps many new authors build a name and a readership because it’s done by enthusiastic booklovers to a surprising degree.  I know really nice, committed, passionate booklovers who give their own time and effort for free to promote books, yet who have pirated. I know of people who will upload the books of authors they love to pirate sites, apparently in the belief it’s doing the author good, or no harm.

It simply seems that the burden of risk, for some people, has shifted from the buyer to the author. Previously if you bought a book and didn’t like it, you were out of pocket; now the author takes the hit. I suspect Emmanuel the Illiterate’s comment was referring to the explosion in availability of poor-quality product that’s happened with the self-publishing boom (and NB that the quality of trade editing has dropped like a rock in recent years as publishers cut costs, so that is not a dig at good self-publishers). It is undeniable that there’s a lot of crap out there. Equally, there have been some gigantic successes of authors who started publishing free fiction on the net, whose fans have gone on to buy the same work in book form over again.

Basically, it looks like a section of the market is moving to a model of payment by results, rather than payment in advance. Which is not, of course, legal, and it’s not how meals or haircuts or widescreen TVs work. But it looks more like that, in these cases, rather than simple theft to me.

Ebooks have brought much wider availability along with much wider stealability; access to bigger markets means we reach wilder shores. Maybe being involuntarily moved to a ‘payment by results’ model for a section of the market is part of the price of the huge reach authors now have.

I don’t have a neat conclusion for you. I might be completely wrong. But it’s worth authors remembering, for our own sanity, not every pirate is a thief, not every pirated copy is a lost sale, and piracy is not necessarily the catastrophe it feels like.

I still hope they tread on Lego.

 

Think of England is on dozens of torrent sites, or you could buy it here and my children will eat. /big puppy eyes/

Good Bad Language: a post about swearing

Warning: This is about profanity. Stop now if you don’t like swearing, because there will be a lot, and I am not going to use asterisks except once, in the next sentence. There is liberal use of c***; skip to the end for a postscript if this word particularly bothers you, or just abandon ship now. My advice is not to text-to-speech this one in public. Right, here we go.

Every few days, a post floats by on Twitter or pops up on a writing advice forum about profanity. Generally, the advice is the same: Swearing betrays poverty of imagination and language; you can convey the same effects without using rude words; you might upset people who don’t like swearing and what’s the point in turning off potential readers?

This is not the advice you are about to receive here.

Poverty of imagination/language

Swearing is just a lazy way to get an effect, we’re told. Shoving a few fucks into the dialogue isn’t the same as writing an effective character. Can’t you do some real writing?

To which I can only say, have you not seen The Thick of It?

No, he’s useless. He’s absolutely useless. He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.

I’ve come across a lot of psychos in my time, but none as fucking boring as you. I mean you are a really boring fuck. Sorry, sorry, I know you disapprove of swearing. You are a really boring f star star cunt.

If you do think about running with this pill story, I’ll personally fucking eviscerate you, right? I mean, I don’t have your education, I don’t know what that means. But I’ll start by ripping your cock off and I’ll busk it from there.

The creators of The Thick of It are not linguistically impoverished. They invented the brilliant word ‘omnishambles’ and created my favourite insult line ever (without a swear in sight):

My theory is, Malcolm built him in a lab from bits of old psychopath.

Swearing can be elaborate, hilarious and glorious. But even monotonous swearing of the kind that makes people tut about ‘poverty of vocabulary’ can be used to brilliant effect. Look at Trainspotting, which uses monotonous swearing to convey everything about its narrators – Scottish, rage-filled, of varying education, all of them spiralling into heroin and self-destruction and a mass of unfocused fury, turned inwards as much as out:

You fucking knew that fucking cunt would fuck some cunt.

You can hear the character in that line (roughly translated, ‘It was inevitable that the individual we’re discussing would one day cause severe injury to somebody’.) The accent, the words spat out like bullets, the incoherent emotion overwhelming any powers of expression. That’s character through poverty of language.

You can do without naughty words

Some say you can do just as well by telling the reader that the character swears without larding the dialogue with profanity. I dispute that. Here’s a scene from my book The Magpie Lord. Lord Crane has only just survived a magical murder attempt:

Crane got up on the second try, poured himself a very large brandy, spilling quite a lot, knocked it back in a single, painful gulp, sat on the floor again and began to swear. He swore fluently, inventively and with spectacular obscenity in Shanghainese until he ran out of epithets, switched to English, and started at the beginning again.

“You’re feeling more yourself, then,” said Merrick, when Crane reached an impressively foul climax.

“No, I am not. What the fuck, what the fucking, bloody devil-shit, what in the name of Satan’s swollen cock was that?”

“Do you speak in the House of Lords with that mouth?”

Magpie LordCould I have achieved the same effect by leaving out Crane’s line? Just say, ‘He swore foully’ and allow the reader to use her imagination? Really? ‘He swore foully’, unsupported, has about as much effect as claiming, ‘He spoke brilliantly about Wordsworth’s poetry’, or ‘She was a world expert in symbology’ and never letting us hear the character say anything on the topic.  The reader won’t believe you know what you’re talking about. I didn’t have to spend paragraphs on Crane’s swearfest, but imagine that scene without the single line of extreme foul-mouthedness and see how much weaker it is. (I may add, in response to the “lazy writing” thing, I spent ages getting that swear exactly right – stunned repetition, slightly foreign cast, an elaboration to convey the richness of his imagery, all of it with rhythm, structure and build – and I’m proud of it.)

There is a reason that George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion insisted on including the line, ‘Not bloody likely,’ rather than having it implied – the watcher has to hear Eliza say this shocking thing in her new cut-glass accent to understand how Higgins’ experiment has cut her adrift from class structures. There is a reason that Larkin’s poem doesn’t begin, ‘They mess you up, your mum and dad.’ And, because swearing is not a modern invention, let me give you one of my favourite poems by the Earl of Rochester (born 1647), ‘Upon His Drinking a Bowl’. I know the language is a bit flowery but don’t skip, the payoff is worth it.

Vulcan, contrive me such a cup
As Nestor used of old;
Show all thy skill to trim it up,
Damask it round with gold.

Make it so large that, filled with sack
Up to the swelling brim,
Vast toasts on the delicious lake
Like ships at sea may swim.

Engrave not battle on its cheek:
With war I’ve nought to do;
I’m none of those that took Maastricht,
Nor Yarmouth leaguer knew.

Let it no name of planets tell,
Fixed stars, or constellations;
For I am no Sir Sidrophel,
Nor none of his relations.

But carve theron a spreading vine,
Then add two lovely boys;
Their limbs in amorous folds intwine,
The type of future joys.

Cupid and Bacchus my saints are,
May drink and love still reign,
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then to cunt again.

Many bowdlerised versions of this poem replace cunt with ‘love’ in the last line. Love. Love?! Cunt here is a depth charge, blowing the classical imagery out of the water so the poem’s graceful elevated lyrics land in shards around us, leaving only the bare sordid truth of debauchery. ‘Love’ turns it into any other tedious seventeenth-century poem ever.

Not upsetting readers

It is true, some people don’t like reading profanity. Some don’t like reading sex. Some don’t like reading violence. Many don’t want to read queer romance. Some don’t like reading about magic because it’s tampering with the occult. I refuse to read YA, hard scifi, shifter romance, or any book containing a cute robin called Robbie. Do come back to me when you’ve thought of a story that will appeal to every single person in the world and I’ll agent you. I take 15%.

And, bluntly, if the main thought in your mind when writing is ‘How do I maximise my appeal to readers?’, rather than ‘what’s going to make this scene powerful and this dialogue convincing’, your book will suck, no matter how often you take it to a focus group and optimise for search engines.

 ****

As ever, it comes down to do it well.

Ask yourself why your character swears. You can convey a lot about them by what words they use – who says cunt, who never exceeds sod, who doesn’t swear at all? Is their swearing mostly sexual or religious, specifically abusive or just verbal decoration? Consider where they get their swears from – Army past, foreign travels? What about their social class? How can a Regency upper-class heroine let rip? Do they swear with spluttering fury, or elaborately worked eloquence? Does someone who normally swears like a bastard mind their language around just one person, or vice versa? Can you use an inadvertent ejaculation to betray your character’s shock or anger, and at what level of extremity will that kick in?

Know your registers. A Regency heroine cannot toss damn about in public; bloody obeys grammatical rules and cannot just be dropped randomly into a sentence to convey Britishness; calling someone a sodding tart is not the same as calling them a fucking whore.

Consider context. What impact does each swear have on the people around them? Are they trying to shock, or does it go unnoticed? If swearing is routine and similar among a variety of characters, that can be very boring. I am mostly a big fan of Richard Morgan’s fantasy series that began with The Steel Remains, but everyone swears identically. There is no difference between the battle-hardened social reject mercenary and the (non-fighting, political) emperor in the middle of his court. So we don’t get any sense of social or power divide between emperor and soldier, and because the emperor uses fuck all the time, his register has nowhere to go when he gets angry. This doesn’t seem to be making a point about the emperor’s court or ruling style. Everyone swears, it is grimdark, the end. Before you create a register in which, as Anthony Bourdain puts it, fuck is used principally as a comma, ask yourself how you’re going to escalate when people are really cross. (No, you may not put the swears in capital letters for emphasis. You’re not JK Rowling.)

FlightOfMagpies300Swearing lends power to not swearing. In my Charm of Magpies trilogy, Crane is spectacularly foul-mouthed throughout; his love interest Stephen uses four-letter words during sex and never elsewhere. When he swears for the first time outside the bedroom, in the third book, I hope the extremely mild word he uses will have all the impact of the most baroque explosion from Lord Crane – because it’s breaking his usual register and reflects a couple of extremely significant changes.

Swearing has power, and effect. It conveys mood and character. It can be explosive, done right. It can be monotonous and ineffectual done wrong, in which it is exactly like everything else we do with words.

Of course you don’t have to do it. If you don’t want to write swearing, then write characters who aren’t inclined to swear by personality or compelled by circumstance, and nobody will complain about it. Though you need to accept that if your battle-hardened Marine says, ‘Bother!’ when he stands on a landmine, people will laugh at you.

All I ask is, whether pro-swearing or not, pay as much attention to the rude words as to all the other ones. After all, you don’t want to be Terri in The Thick of It.

Terri: We don’t exchange insults with bloody Simon arsepipes titty-twat.

Ollie: Is that honestly the best swearing that you can come up with?

 ****

A note on cunt: Many Americans in particular regard cunt as a sexist term, and it can indeed be applied in a particularly unpleasant way as a synonym for woman. However, Brits most often use it as a swear without any specifically sexual connotations, either as a high-impact word on the tit – arse – cock – twat register, or, in some regions, as more or less a synonym for ‘person’. (‘My round, any of you cunts want a drink?’) Use it or don’t, as you see fit, but be aware of the cultural baggage.

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ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a perfectly civil human being on Twitter and Facebook and just debases the English language in her books. Her latest, Think of England, is hardly sweary at all, except for the line ‘you fucking shithouse cricket,’ which was irresistible.

Thanks to Marian Perera for the inspiration for this post, and check her blog post that tackles swearing in fantasy.

Selling books, not yourself: musing on writers and social media

As a writer, you have to sell yourself. We all know that. We have to market our books, our brand, our writerly personas. You can’t just sit around being JD Salinger these days. You have to have a Facebook account and a Twitter feed, a blog, a group. A bio, a picture, a persona. You have to sell yourself.

And you have to talk about stuff that isn’t your books, because nobody gives a damn for a Twitter feed that’s just “buy my book”. If you want “social media outreach” you have to give value. And that requires something interesting to talk about. Um… Other people’s books? What you saw on TV? Your commute? The weather?

Or, you can talk about your life. Because that’s always there, and it’s what you are, and we can all talk about ourselves endlessly. You can be funny, maybe, or political off the back of it, and once you have readers, they might even be interested in details about what your existence is like.

And also, it’s comforting. If you spend much of the day alone with the imaginary people in your head, a bit of human sympathy is lovely. My cat recently disappeared for five days. I tweeted and Facebooked about it, and the number of people who got in touch and sympathized and said kind things, and rejoiced with me when he turned up again, was wonderful and touching. It feels  natural to turn to the people out there to be happy with you in the good times and feel for you in the bad.

But…

When my cat came back, my first thought was to give him a hug and check for injuries. My second was to put a picture onto Facebook and Twitter. I don’t ever want that to be the other way around. I really don’t ever want that to be how I think about my relationships with people.

You may recall Julie Myerson, who wrote revealing personal things about her son, even after he begged her to stop, to the point where they are estranged. Or the columnist who wrote a column about how her husband had asked her to stop writing her column about him. The next column announced they were divorcing.

Everyone on social media needs to decide how much of their life to share and with whom. As a person, my FB profile is locked down. As an author it’s wide open, but I have a solid mental wall. I don’t name my kids or show their faces, and I don’t talk about non-trivial aspects of my marriage, to the extent that I’ve been known to delete my husband’s comments off this blog to stop him identifying himself. (I swear it’s that and not the damn fool things he says.) I’m not ashamed of any aspect of my life or particularly scared of being stalked. But this is my life, for me. I don’t want to spread my reality so thin it’s in danger of tearing.

That’s my choice, based on my (let’s face it, misanthropic) nature. Other people share a lot more, or a lot less. I follow many authors who blog movingly and generously on deeply personal issues of their identities, pasts, struggles with illness or disability in themselves or others, and much more. Some people simply share everything – partners, dating, domestic squabbles. Each to her own.

But what happens if the aspects of your life you’ve chosen to share as part of your professional persona become things that you don’t want to share any more?

Something I realised while I waited for my cat to come back: If I’d had the phone call telling me someone had put the moggy to bed with a shovel, I wouldn’t have wanted to go on Twitter to discuss it. I woudn’t have wanted anyone to ask about my cat, ever again. I’d have been curled up, wishing I’d never, ever said anything in the first place because it was my grief, not for others to see or poke at. I’m not a very extroverted person, granted, but that’s how I’d have been about a cat.

I really wonder how you cope when it’s a relationship, or a child.

I wonder if it can be good for anyone with their life falling about their ears to feel they have to blog or tweet about a terrible thing that happened. I wonder if it brings comfort, or if it’s adding another set of raw nerves to be scraped, another place to fear exposure and criticism and unkindness, another level of pain. I wonder if people feel obliged to update, or worry that readers will turn on them if they don’t approve of the author’s life decisions. I wonder how often, in our post-privacy world, people look back and wish they’d kept more behind the wall.

Writers have to promote ourselves. But we also have to keep ourselves whole, in our own lives, for our own sakes. And I don’t know how you pull back when you’ve put too much out there. Or how you can retreat from talking about intensely personal and distressing matters to tweeting a 99c special offer on your backlist.

This post started by talking about how you market yourself as a writer. We all want to sell books, God knows. But you’re not obliged to throw in yourself as a free gift.

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Think of England, a searingly honest expose of the sordid truth of my marriage*, is out now.ThinkOfEngland72web

*It’s actually a gay Edwardian adventure romance, but don’t let that put you off.

Body Parts All Over the Floor

There is a trend in editing these days which is much less fun than it sounds: the removal of what are known as Disembodied Body Parts.The idea is that it’s poor style to use the following constructions:

His eyes were on Mary.

His arm went round her waist.

Jane’s head was in her hands.

Apparently, there is a risk that readers will interpret these sentences as:

His eyeballs were on Mary’s lap.

His arm went round her waist, but his body had nothing to do with that and may have been elsewhere.

Jane had been decapitated and her corpse carefully arranged by a psychopath.

I’d have thought, if the reader is in any doubt at all about whether Jane is in a) despair or b) two separate pieces, the book has more problems than I can deal with here.

The construction undeniably lends itself to comically poor writing (‘her eyes followed him through the room and out of the door’).  But the prohibition seems to have gone from ‘don’t do this badly’ to ‘don’t do this at all’. I’ve seen all the (in my opinion innocuous) examples above flagged as actually wrong – as if a body part as subject turns readers into Martians, unable to parse simple sentences.

And in some cases, it apparently does. Sample comment from a writing forum thread:

prickI have a weary feeling that, if you asked this commenter, ‘Can I have a drink?’, he’d reply, ‘I don’t know, can you?’

I really doubt that more than one in a thousand readers would think twice about ‘he raised his eyes’ or ‘her head was in her hands’. That’s just how people use language  But the concept of disembodied parts has become a huge issue for many publishers, editors and style gurus. There are people who will tell you that it’s always wrong and apparently some publishers insist that it’s edited out entirely. (Just stating for the record, this is not an issue with any editor or publisher I’ve worked with as an author. I’ve always had nuanced and thoughtful editing throughout.)

Use of a part to designate the whole is a literary device so ancient it has Latin and Greek names. I can never remember these but I’ve been told pars pro toto (the part for the whole) or synecdoche, which is the one I’m going to use. By all means correct me if there’s a better term for this device.

People use this all the time in actual communication. I have my eye on you, I tell my kids, and they don’t try to brush it off their shoulders. His hands were everywhere, a friend complains about her date, and I don’t ask her if they were still attached to his arms, any more than I ask if she means they were in Abu Dhabi and Venezuela. It’s a simple, obvious, metaphorical use of language by humans. And it’s bizarre to assume that people don’t understand devices in writing when they use such things daily in speech.

I’m not suggesting that synecdoche of this kind is always good, of course; merely that it’s not always bad. Let’s take some examples.

His eyes started out of his head at her words, then quickly roamed round the room.

Obviously bad writing. The mixed metaphor gives an irresistible cartoony mental picture. I’m going to call this the Looney Tunes effect for shorthand.

His eyes were on Mary’s breasts. / Her head fell into her hands.

Definite ambiguities there, with potential Looney Tunes meaning. Rewrite.

His eyes followed her round the room.

A hidden mixed metaphor. ‘His eyes’ as metaphor for his look/attention; ‘followed’ suggesting a physical movement. The effect isn’t as glaring as the first, but still risks another Looney Tunes image. Eyes probably cause the most trouble as Disembodied Parts when used metaphorically to convey ‘look/gaze’, and definitely need to be used with care. This doesn’t mean auto-replacing ‘eyes’ with ‘gaze’, though. ‘Gaze’ is just as much a metaphor in uses like ‘Their eyes locked’ / ‘Their gazes locked’, so the change makes no difference there.

His fingers grabbed the axe. / His hand waved. / His legs walked.

That isn’t English. I don’t know why people cite this sort of thing as examples of Disembodied Parts when it’s actually examples of doing verbs wrong.

Okay, so far, so obvious: bad writing is bad. But it isn’t all bad.

His fingers beat a nervous tattoo.

Some people will read that and say, sarcastically, ‘What? The fingers tapped by themselves? Aren’t they attached to him?’ I suppose that’s a valid interpretation. It seems to me akin to reading ‘Exit’ on a door as an instruction rather than a description, and immediately walking out of the room. You can read it that way but there’s nothing forcing you to, and sense and common usage are against it. And if we’re to reject one form of metaphor because it can be interpreted to absurd effect, doesn’t that go for all metaphors? (‘”Icy look” implies that the look is made of frozen water. Consider revising.’)

I’m not just grumbling here. There is a small but crucial difference between ‘His fingers beat a nervous tattoo’ and ‘He beat a nervous tattoo with his fingers’, and there are very good reasons why an author might use one rather than the other.

Let’s dig into this a bit. And let’s do it sexy.

His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

The Disembodied Parts theory holds that fingers don’t move on their own, and that this is depicting Jonah’s sexual assault by Thing from the Addams Family. I think that’s ignoring a great deal of nuance.

Consider the following pairs, and note which of each strikes you as better. There will be a test.

1a) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. His fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh.

1b) Ben looked at Jonah, thinking how much he needed this man. He ran his fingers up Jonah’s thigh.

 

2a) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Ben ran his fingers up his thigh.

2b) Jonah held his breath, waiting for whatever would come next. Fingers ran up his thigh.

I’m going to guess you went for b) both times. Here’s why.

Example 1a is detached body parts because we’re in Ben’s POV. Separating Ben’s fingers from his POV is weird and awkward. As contrast, try this:

Ben would be insane to touch him now. Yet his fingers ran up Jonah’s thigh, apparently of their own accord.

Point up the separation between thought and movement, show that his body parts are indeed moving without conscious volition, and it works.

Example 1b is perfectly good English: simple declarative sentences. (We’ll come back to the overuse of first names.)

Example 2a puts us in Jonah POV for the first sentence, yet the second sentence has Ben as the subject and actor. Too much of this risks giving the impression of head-hopping. You could do it deliberately to indicate that Ben is leading the scene and Jonah is passive, but it risks detaching Jonah, and by extension the reader, from the immediate experience. Even more importantly, it’s very boring writing over a long stretch. Jonah did X. Ben did Y. Jonah did Z. The boy saw the ball. Run, Spot, run!

(I recently read three books from the same small press, different authors, all with glaring overuse of declarative sentences. ‘I did…I went…I touched…’ until they sounded like a child’s What I Did On My Holiday. When this subject came up on Facebook, someone mentioned this particular press as having an absolute ban on disembodied parts. I wonder if the two facts are related.)

Example 2b has us in Jonah’s POV, experiencing what he does: the touch of fingers. Ben’s fingers, still attached to his hand: I really think we can trust the reader to understand that. But the use of ‘fingers ran’ keeps us firmly located in Jonah, tells us that Ben is the actor without making him the subject, and foregrounds the physicality. Because the point here, the purpose of the sentence, the author’s intent isn’t to tell us that the fingers belong to/are moved by Ben. We know that. The point is that they are on Jonah’s leg. If you change the subject of the sentence to Ben, you change what the sentence is doing.

(I’ve used an m/m scene here in part because of the Pronoun Problem – whose thigh? Whose fingers? Seriously, you try writing a few of these. Synecdoche here is a great way to get around the clunky overuse of names as shown in example 1b.)

***

My point is, stylistic devices aren’t interchangeable. ‘She had her head in her hands’ does something different to ‘She put her hands to her head’ – description rather than act. ‘There were hostile eyes on him’ doesn’t have the same feel as ‘He was aware of hostile eyes.’ Different constructions give different effects. Used properly, with awareness and control, synecdoche is a terrific way to vary sentence construction, shift focus between characters, get the nuances you need, give physicality to a scene.

Used badly, it leads to bad writing, absolutely. But there’s no need to reject a stylistic tool because it can lead to bad writing. The logical end of that line of thought is that we should all throw away our keyboards for good.

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I suspect many people may disagree. Have at it in the comments!

My apologies to followers who received a draft version of this post earlier. I clicked the wrong button. Or, rather, my fingers clicked it. Stupid disembodied parts.

Think of England is out now. Remnant is a free story at Smashwords that features an actual independently moving severed limb. Compare and contrast!