Free Charm of Magpies short story

Ho ho ho and sleighbells on top. This will be my last blog post of the year unless anything interesting happens, so merry Christmas and happy holidays, one and all.

FoSmock7Since it’s the ‘free stuff’ time of year—I mean, the season for giving—I have a little something for you. It’s Feast of Stephen, my long-promised Magpie story, a short coda to Flight of Magpies, in which Crane and Stephen finally make it to their Christmas getaway. There is storytelling, exchange of gifts, and a bit of magical smut (you’re welcome).

There are also a lot of spoilers for / references to Flight, so it’s really not going to be any good to you unless you’ve read the Charm of Magpies series. Sorry. (Call me Scrooge.)

Click here to download from Smashwords in whatever format floats your boat and don’t forget to appreciate the gorgeous cover by Susan Lee.

In other news…

I’m delighted to say Think of England won Best Gay Historical Romance in the 2014 Rainbow Awards and A Case of Possession came equal first in Best Gay Fantasy Romance. Yay I have certificates! I’m really immensely proud of this, and grateful for all the hard work put in, and by the fundraising efforts of the awards themselves, which have raised over $11K for excellent causes.

ATIPfinalTalking of excellent causes, the anthology Another Place in Time, in which I have a story, has now raised $5K for AllOut. So if you feel like doing some good and stuffing your stocking with some excellent historical romance by a range of terrific authors plus me, clicky clicky.

KJ magpieYou may also have seen that I have an exciting new magpie logo, courtesy of the marvellous Catherine Dair, and a full brand site revamp thing is underway so I’ll be integrating this blog into my website in the new year. Watch this space.

And finally, making me very happy, a teaser image for Jackdaw, out in Feb, from the ridiculously talented Lyudmila Tsapaeva.

Jackdaw_ready_1

Right, that’s it, I have fairy lights to untangle. Make sure you don’t accidentally watch Love Actually, beware the sherry, and see you in 2015.

Self Editing Tips: Line edits

As I said last week, self editing is no substitute for real editing. If you are self publishing and intend to charge for your work, you should hire a professional editor. I am well aware this can run to significant money, which most of us don’t have to spare. But a lot of the readers stumping up $5 a copy don’t have it to spare either, will resent spending it on a poorly edited or unsatisfactory read, and will be likely to review/make future buying decisions accordingly.

So it makes sense to reduce editorial costs by getting your MS into better shape before you send. I blogged previously on how to have a crack at your own development edits; now we move on to line edits. (Some of this stuff should probably have gone in the development edits blog post, but whatever, it’s here.)

Before we begin: An excellent general tip is to read your MS aloud. You will be amazed how much you’ll spot if you read it out loud–echoes, infelicities, typos, unclear sentences. It takes a while, and may require a solitary room/waiting till the kids’ bedtime, but it’s really worth it. Or, less good but still valuable, read it in a different format. Print it out, or send it to your ereader instead of reading on computer screen. That will defamiliarise the text and allow you to see things that your eyes are used to skimming over.

I have blogged on a lot of these issues before so rather than repeat myself I’ll just link where appropriate.

Speech tags

Small things, big problem. Blog post here. To summarise:

  • Don’t use thesaurus words (opined, declared, asseverated, proclaimed) when you mean ‘said’.
  • Don’t use dramatic speech verbs (snarled, snapped) if you haven’t written a snarly or snappy line. If you have, check you need the verb.
  • Don’t use non-speech verbs (nodded, hesitated, smiled) as speech verbs. I will hurt you. (Exception, as always: funny writing, eg ‘he oiled’ or ‘she oozed’. But do it consciously.)
  • Don’t overload with unnecessary speech verbs of any kind. You don’t need to tag every line and you can use action to vary the style.

‘Said’ is often called an invisible verb but it can still make its presence felt too strongly, and it is certainly worth taking out when it isn’t doing anything useful. Compare:

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon,” Stephen said, snuggling down into the bed.

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon.” Stephen snuggled down into the bed.

‘Said’ is useless there. However, that does not mean you should mark all dialogue with action. That’s agonising.

“I mean, look at this.” The purple-haired editor reached for her pen.

The aspiring writer drummed her fingers on the table.“What do you want me to do, use ‘she nodded’?”

“So help me God, if I see ‘nod’ as a speech verb again…” The editor’s face betrayed her rage and pain.

The writer’s foot was going to sleep. “Is it me or is this conversation taking forever?”

While I’m at it: Please make sure you know how to punctuate speech. I am appalled how many writers get this consistently wrong. It’s time-consuming for an editor to tidy up, and that’s a pure waste of your money.

“My name is Jim.” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“My name is Jim,” the man said.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

And, by analogy:

“What’s your name?” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

Pretty straightforward, but if I had a quid for every

“What’s your name?” the man picked up his cup.

“My name is Jim.” The man said.

that I’ve had to fix, I’d be writing this from a beach. Quite seriously, there are more valuable things you can pay a skilled editor to do than insert and remove capital letters.

Names and pronouns

This one is a bugbear of queer romance in particular: the Big Old Mess Of Pronouns.

pronouns

Don’t ask me for answers. Just look out for it. Remember that the reader will probably link any pronoun back to the previous noun, so if your viewpoint character is Jonah, but the last referent was Ben, Ben’s likely who the pronoun will be stuck to.

It’s tempting to use metonyms like ‘the smaller man’, ‘the blond’ etc in place of names, but this can become obvious and jarring. If doing this, make them earn their place. ‘The smaller man’ is pointless words, but if you frame it as ‘the evasive little bastard’ that gives us a flavour of the POV character’s thoughts. (Again: can easily be overdone.)

Sex scenes

People quite often seem to write these at white heat with a bottle at the elbow, resulting in heavy edits, and nobody likes getting them back full of red pen. Edit them yourself, in sobriety, or you’ll be cringing till your backbone snaps.

This is probably one for its own blog post since every scene has its own demands and every writer her own stylistic issues. Play it out in your head, though, remembering your characters’ relative height, weight and position, to double check that all the bits line up. If you’re using metaphors or euphemisms, keep them under control, and consider that if people actually want to read sex at all, they can probably cope with something a bit more plain-spoken than ‘her intimate dewy petals’.

(While I’m here, can I make a plea for physical plausibility? Limitless priaprism and receptivity in standard-issue humans is just silly, and unintentional silliness kills sexiness dead. As does the reader thinking words like ‘stinging’ and ‘tearing’ and ‘yeast infection’. Do you want your editor to leave comment boxes about this? No, I didn’t think so.)

Metaphors

Look at what your metaphors are doing and don’t pile up inconsistent ones. Thus: if you talk about a character moving with feline or snakelike grace, don’t give him ‘barked’ or ‘growled’ as a speech verb in the same paragraph. If a character has cutting wit in one line, don’t have him asking rapid-fire questions or hammering his point home in the next.

Point of view

If you are directly telling me what a character is feeling/seeing etc, you are in his POV. If you switch to another POV in the same paragraph/scene, you are head hopping, which is jarring for the reader and will cost you a lot of editorial time to fix.

pov

Never, ever, ever switch mid-para like the first example. Never.

Control switching, think about it, and preferably wait for a scene break before switching heads. This isn’t just style guide prescriptiveness. In a good scene of any kind, the reader should be immersed in the story via the POV character. When you switch POV, you jolt the reader out of the immersion, like a train switching tracks, and if you do it badly (so that the reader doesn’t realise you’ve switched heads for a few lines and the action makes no sense), that makes the transition even more distracting. It draws the reader’s attention to the fact that she’s reading a book–which is what you want her to forget.

So if you absolutely must switch POV mid-scene (think carefully about why you need to), at the very least put in a clear line break and do the switch at a significant mid-scene cliffhanger. Multiple switches in a single scene are a really bad idea. And I would be incredibly cautious about switching at all in any intense scene (sex, violence, deep dramatic emotion), when you need the reader totally immersed in the story.

More on POV here.

Repetition

A chronic problem and surprisingly hard to see until the book is published, at which point it might as well be in highlighter. Blog post here to avoid, uh, repeating myself.

Continuity

It is a very good idea to keep a list of your characters’ names, physical appearance and quirks, names of businesses/imaginary places, and all those other things. You can waste a lot of everyone’s time randoming whether your heroine’s cutesy business is the Donut Palace, the Doughnut Palace or The Doughnut Palace, or if her sister is Lucy or Lucie, and it’s always embarrassing to discover that you called two other minor characters Lucille and Lucian in the same book.

Pacing

Another one that I can’t summarise here. I will say this: if you find yourself skimming through a stretch of description or a conversation, I expect the reader will too. If your characters are wailing, “Do we have to go over this again?”, ditto. Take your own responses as a guide and see if you can trim or tighten.

Good habits

If you need to cut down editorial costs, sweat the small stuff. Get into the habit of doing things properly. Take, for example, the dash.

  • Train yourself to type an em dash/double hyphen instead of using a hyphen or spaced hyphen or whatever.
  • If you’re not sure about how to use em dashes, find a style guide, print out a list, and keep checking it till it’s second nature. Thus, part of yours might read:

Em dash for hesitation, no space “I think–regrettably–you’re right.”

Em dash with space if new sentence “I think– What’s that over there?”

Em dash outside quotes, no cap or full stop, if interrupting “I think”–he handed her a bun–“it’s teatime.”

I know this is tiresome–I’m currently training myself to use double quotes instead of my habitual single, and I resent it bitterly–but if you follow a style sheet and type things like em dashes correctly in the first place, rather than scattering inconsistently spaced hyphens around the text and needing all your broken speech tidied up, you will save editorial time, which is to say, your money.

***

This post just scratches the surface, and doesn’t go anywhere near what an edit should pick up about blocking, pace, length, unconscious prejudice (it happens), character consistency in speech and behaviour, etc etc. But if you want a professional product without breaking the bank, sorting out what you can yourself should cut down considerably on your editorial costs.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and Rainbow Award-winning romance writer who has made most of the above mistakes, so I know how you feel.

Self Editing Tips: Development edits

Self editing is no substitute for real editing. End of. It is not the case that you can do it yourself (I’m an editor and I can’t do my books myself), and your friend who reads a lot isn’t qualified to do it either. If you are self publishing and want to build a reputation or charge for your work, get an editor.

That said, I’m sure you don’t have hundreds of dollars stuffed down the back of the chair, and sums like $45/hour for line edits look pretty scary with no guarantee anyone will buy your book. So it’s a good idea to cover what you can yourself before it goes to the editor, instead of paying someone to do grunt work. And if you’re planning to submit to a publisher, it’s an excellent idea to make sure your MS isn’t full of obvious holes.

So here are some ways you can start to whip your MS into shape. (Again: this is not a substitute for a professional edit.) This is a pretty big topic so I’m going to do two blog posts covering the basics. Today, development edits; look out for line edits next week. Some of this is stuff I’ve blogged on already, so I’ve given links.

Beta readers and crit partners

A strong beta reader/crit partner is invaluable. Strong means someone who likes the genre, or is happy to read in it, but who will be honest with you about the book’s flaws. This is incredibly hard to do. This person may be your friend or relative, they may be about to send you their MS, they probably don’t want to hurt your feelings. It may be easier to find a partner from across the internet, to avoid the face to face difficulty.

You must make it clear that they should be honest. That requires the following from you:

  • Actively ask for what they didn’t like, not what they did. People want to give you positives. Ask for the negatives.
  • Take criticism on the chin. Don’t argue. Don’t say ‘You didn’t get it.’ Don’t say ‘You’re wrong.’ Don’t show your inevitable hurt feelings.
  • Even if they’re wrong in specifics or have blatantly misread, they’ve probably identified a problem. Don’t just reject without thinking.
  • Thank them for their honesty, and mean it. You should.

Again: No tantrums. If you can’t handle criticism from a beta reader, you’re going to die when the reviews kick in. You might as well cut out the middleman and have a huge social media meltdown right now.

Here are some of the questions to ask your reader:

  • Were you bored/did it drag? Where?
  • Does the plot make sense? Any holes?
  • Are the characters consistent?
  • Was anyone too stupid to live, or obviously serving the needs of the plot?
  • What didn’t you get?

I gave my ‘troubled’ first version of Flight of Magpies to two readers. They both – politely, lovingly, reluctantly – said, ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot.’ It hurt. It hurt so much I junked 30K words and started again. It would have hurt a lot more if I’d released a substandard book and heard ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot,’ on every review blog, and spoiled my beloved series with a crappy instalment that I could never get rid of.

Warning: There are people who take joy in slagging off other people’s work and relish finding clever ways to explain just how bad you were. That’s what Goodreads is for, not beta reads. If the response is all hilarious similes to convey how stupid/boring/confusing that bit was, close the email right there, thank them nicely for their time, and don’t ever ask them again. And when you’re taking your turn at beta reading, don’t be that person.

Structure

It’s hard to look at your own book’s structure but here are some tips.

Write a synopsis from scratch. If you have a glaring plot hole, you may well find it here. If you’re writing all about the adventure plot and nothing about the progress of the relationship, that’s a red flag for a romance. If it’s all ‘And then…’ rather than ‘But then’, if it’s a sequence of events rather than reversals and changes, that may suggest a too-simple narrative line.

Look at your romance arc. (If you’re not writing romance, there will be a similar list of questions for any genre fiction, eg your mystery or adventure arc.)

  • Is the book about internal conflict (problems between the two MCs) or external conflict (homophobic boss/evil ex/zombie incursion) or both?
  • If internal, is there enough of a plot arc and character development to show change and the overcoming of obstacles and the growth of the characters?
  • If external, are you relying entirely on those factors to create the obstacles? Are we still seeing romantic growth and tension?
  • If you use instalove, how are you maintaining satisfactory tension between the characters throughout the book?
  • Have you got a black moment? Even in a sweet relationship comedy, the relationship should rise and fall and rise. No obstacles=no plot.
  • Ensure it’s a shifting conflict – not the same point gone over and over again till one of them gives way.

Check things are going badly. It may be kind to the characters to let them off the hook, have them discuss all their issues sensibly or make everyone around them lovingly understanding, but it makes for a pretty boring book.

Are your hero/ines agents? Are they always reactive/helpless, or do they take agency? That doesn’t mean they should always be in charge: the story should flow from the characters’ flaws and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and obstacles easily overcome aren’t interesting. But we need to see how the MCs’ actions and responses change their situation, for good or ill.

Is enough stuff happening? Pages of banter that don’t advance the plot are a great deal more entertaining for the writer than the reader. Are we moving forward along some arc in every scene, whether action or emotion?

Have you woven in your backstory rather than infodumping?

Time lines

Keep track of ‘that morning’ and ‘three days later’. If you’re doing anything remotely complicated, or if this is a bugbear, I strongly recommend you invest in Aeon Timeline ($40, which is less than the editorial fee for unbuggering your dog’s breakfast of a timeline) or similar software. This allows you to track your timeline, check that it really is a Wednesday, and get character ages and ‘two months ago’ right every time.

Make sure that days have 24 hours and come one after another in chronological progression. Some real examples I have seen/perpetrated:

  • A dramatic ghost hunting scene taking place in the morning includes references to the dark and the moon because, you know, scary things happen at night.
  • All the action is happening on successive nights. The days somehow evaporate.
  • The heroine leaves work on a Saturday night and flees through a busy crowd of commuters heading to work the next morning which is, er, Sunday.
  • Our heroes cover 25 miles on foot between 7am and 10am.
  • Book set in England. Hero is jailed in February. He is released six months later and weeps at the daffodils in bloom, as well he might. (I can’t tell you how often this happens. CHECK. YOUR. FLOWERS.)

Read scenes for action

This is almost impossible to do yourself, because you know what ought to be happening. Try to play the scene as a film in your head.

  • See the hero get out of bed naked, have a screaming row with the heroine, and storm off to ride away on his motorbike without actually dressing!
  • Gasp as the heroine gets up three times without sitting down once!
  • Marvel as the villain stubs out a cigarette she never lit, then lights another one which she never smokes or stubs out before lighting the third!

Sex

Are the sex scenes serving the plot? Does each advance character development, our or their understanding, the emotional progress, or the plot action? If the sex scene doesn’t take us somewhere new, it’s porn, and it’s skippable. Yes, this applies even if you’re writing erotica. In a good book, each one should count.

Don’t place heat over character consistency. There is no point writing a shy, repressed virgin with a touch phobia and then having him bottom like a porn star first time.

Run the mental film to ensure limbs/orifices are in the right places. If his tongue is there, he’s going to require a spine made of Silly Putty to get his genitalia there. And how many hands is that?

***

This is only really scratching the surface of what a good development edit can do. You will almost certainly not be able to identify the bits where, eg, the story comes to a dead stop because of the brilliantly witty but pointless conversation between two beloved secondary characters, or you totally missed an obvious course of action that destroys your carefully worked out plot, or your carefully laid clues turn out to be undetectably obscure/glaringly obvious, or two scenes are simply in the wrong order for the emotional arc. This is why you need an editor. But she’ll have a chance to see the wood for the trees, and more cheaply, if you clear the undergrowth first.

Next week: some hints on clearing up for line edits.

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KJ Charles is a writer and, no kidding, freelance editor. Will beat hell out of your MS for $$.

Reasons to be Cheerful (with art, recs, comedy and quiz!)

One of the things that separates the United States from Britain, along with a large ocean and a shocking waste of tea, is Thanksgiving. The US has a national holiday all about counting your blessings; the British use ‘count your blessings’ as a polite synonym for ‘shut up’. If the British were forced to use the hashtag #ImThankfulFor, you’d mostly get ‘at least it’s not raining too heavily’ and ‘David Cameron will die one day’. This isn’t (just) grumpiness. I think it’s part of a national sense that talking about the good stuff you have is somewhere between bragging and tempting fate, just as I’ve read some cultures believe that praising a young child’s beauty or wonderfulness attracts the forces of evil, and you keep them under the devil’s radar by calling them Stinky Git for the first few years.

I’m OK with this because I’m British and rain is in my soul. But there’s a fine line between ‘not bragging about the good stuff you have’ and ‘not acknowledging how lucky and privileged you are when an awful lot of the world would like to be in your shoes’. I got married with the full support of the entire social structure and I can kiss my husband in public without fear; I don’t have to worry my son will be demonised because of the colour of his skin; I’m part of a nation that helped itself to other people’s land and is still coasting off the profits, rather than part of a nation that got raided; I can turn on a tap and clean water comes out. I’m not the 1%, I’m scrabbling for the mortgage, but by any reasonable standards I’m lucky beyond belief. And it’s very easy to take that as a given and not acknowledge one’s sheer baseline privilege.

That said, ‘I have clean water’ doesn’t make for much of a blog post. So, a day after the turkey business because creeping Americanisation of national holidays mutter mutter, a few of my reasons to be cheerful, which are also things that might make you cheerful too.

1) THIS ART OMG. Magpie fan and general genius Lyudmila Tsapaeva strikes again. This is glorious, all four characters absolutely spot on, and I am in love. (Earlier art here if you missed it – I think she’s got the characters perfect this time.) There is also a slightly NSFW version showing what the characters are thinking – join my Facebook chat group to see!

Jackdaw_Big_Trouble

2) The 2014 Goodreads M/M Romance Group Member’s Choice Awards are coming round, and counting anthology and collaboration, I’ve got sixteen nominations. Which is pretty incredibly pleasing.

7-N

Obviously that’s me me me, but going through the nominations reminded me that I’ve read a lot of good books in this genre this year. That’s really important. Those who followed Queer Romance Month will have seen a lot of amazing posts about the importance of visibility for LBGTQ characters in popular culture, and that visibility needs to be backed up with quality of writing and storytelling and editing that holds its own in any company. So, here are a few recs of my year’s most enjoyed queer romance reads. Thank me later.

Prosperity by Alexis Hall, a steampunky explosion of wonderfulness which I adore and you should read, plus there are a load of linked stories, one of which is an ENTIRE FREE 40K NOVELLA. Seriously. Free. And the cover is the most gloriously, ridiculously old-skool-tropey thing ever. Look at it and go back in alt time to the Bare Chest Romance of Yore.

ThereWillBePhlogiston_500x750

The Devil Lancer by Astrid Amara, pure Crimean War historical-paranormal joy.

The Reluctant Berserker by Alex Beecroft, a marvellous trope-bending story of a Saxon warrior

SA Meade’s Tournament of Shadows, a historical set in the Great Game period. /dies of intense satisfaction/

To Summon Nightmares by JK Pendragon. Gothic demon-raising shenanigans, great trans hero and lovely worldbuilding. A really strong new paranormal voice.

Business Makes Strange Bedfellows by EE Ottoman, a 19th-century vampire/reanimator horror lesbian romance. Which is like the best string of words ever. I don’t generally like vampire romance but this does it perfectly. Also, if you didn’t read EE’s QRM post, go read it now.

Jordan L Hawk’s SPECTR series was my crack as it was coming out in episodes. Hugely plotted, twisty, exciting, sexy contemporary paranormal, with a monster-of-the-week structure and a brilliant overarching conspiracy story.

Five Dates, a free (AGAIN WITH THE FREE), sweet and well written contemporary by Amy Jo Cousins, who is a writer to watch.

3) This Jezebel takedown of Love, Actually. Because if that misogynist dreck becomes a ‘Christmas classic’ I’m going to go full pagan.

4) The fact that for every irritating Black Friday sales pitch/whine that we don’t have that here/orgy of materialistic greed, there is something hilarious on Twitter…

black fridayor Facebook…

black friday 2

5) This never fails to make my editorial day: Authors doing a search and replace for character names without ticking the ‘whole word only’ box, leaving the editor with a game of Guess What They Used To Be Called. How many can you get?

The sign was painted scolinet

He had just hughed time

He had Italjames looks

She mary swiftly and walked away

Your felixing is dreadful

How irmavisting

I did that yesterstephen [clue: this one was me]

(Lovely blog post here from Becky Black on this.)

So that’s some of the things making me cheerful. How about you?

Why I Am Not An Ethical Author

The idea of an Ethical Author badge is floating round the internet again. Full write up here but the basic principle is that authors agree to abide by pledges as follows:

The Ethical Author Code

Guiding principle: Putting the reader first

When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline when it comes to my writing life.

Courtesy

I behave with courtesy and respect toward readers, other authors, reviewers and industry professionals such as agents and publishers. If I find myself in disagreement, I focus on issues rather than airing grievances or complaints in the press or online, or engaging in personal attacks of any kind.

Aliases

I do not hide behind an alias to boost my own sales or damage the sales or reputation of another person. If I adopt a pen name for legitimate reasons, I use it consistently and carefully.

Reviewing and rating books

I do not review or rate my own or another author’s books in any way that misleads or deceives the reader. I am transparent about my relationships with other authors when reviewing their books.

I am transparent about any reciprocal reviewing arrangements, and avoid any practices that result in the reader being deceived.

Reacting to reviews

I do not react to any book review by harassing the reviewer, getting a third party to harass the reviewer, or making any form of intrusive contact with the reviewer. If I’ve been the subject of a personal attack in a review, I respond in a way that is consistent with professional behavior.

Book promotions

I do not promote my books by making false statements about, for example, their position on bestseller lists, or consent to anyone else promoting them for me in a misleading manner.

Plagiarism

I know that plagiarism is a serious matter, and I don’t intentionally try to pass off another writer’s words as my own.

Financial ethics

In my business dealings as an author, I make every effort to be accurate and prompt with payments and financial calculations. If I make a financial error, I remedy it as soon as it’s brought to my notice.

Responsibility

I take responsibility for how my books are sold and marketed. If I realize anyone is acting against the spirit or letter of this Code on my behalf, I will refer them to this Code and ask them to modify their behavior.

The principles laid out here seem very sensible. They seem very reasonable. They seem like a pretty basic 101 of being a grown-up who sells books.

I’m not signing this, any more than I’m signing a Motherhood Pledge.

Retaliation

I will not throttle, defenestrate or club my child over the head with a brick, even when provoked.

I don’t have to sign that. Nobody should have to sign that. It ought to be a given, and if it’s not, I doubt a badge will help.

Let us say you are the kind of person whose response to a bad review is to stalk the reviewer online, lie to get her home address, drive to her house. We’ll call you, off the top of my head, ‘Kathleen’. Does anyone really believe that Kathleen, who was happy to lie and stalk, would hesitate at breaking an internet pledge? Or that Kathleen, who wrote a self-congratulatory article in a national newspaper about the whole thing, would have the insight to see that she could not in conscience sign an Ethical Author pledge in the first place?

And it’s not just lack of insight. Does anyone believe that someone who is prepared to copy-paste someone else’s work, go through and change names, plonk a probably stolen cover image on it and sell it as their own would hesitate to claim an Ethical Author badge to which they aren’t entitled?

You probably remember the old Westerns, where the good guy had a white hat and the bad guy had a black hat. It frequently struck me, as a child, that the bad guy’s first act should have been to rob a hat shop, steal a white one, put it on, walk up to the actual good guy as he got off the train, and shoot him. This would have saved me a lot of time on Saturday afternoons. This badge idea is effectively giving away white hats, without any checking, registration, enforcement of standards or sanction for failure to meet them, and hoping only the good guys put them on.

Let’s not bother with practical questions like: how do you define ‘professional behaviour’, when professional author John Grisham is out there defending his paedophile friend because old white men shouldn’t have to go to prison, or Daniel Handler makes racist ‘jokes’ about black authors at a book award ceremony, or Anne Rice encourages her fans to go after negative reviewers, or when publishers put white people on the cover of books about black people so they sell more, or when Hachette and Amazon engage in a months-long spat that massively damages author income, or when…oh, I can’t be bothered, it’s too depressing.

Let’s not question how the list of things an ethical author should do apparently doesn’t include anything about what you write in your books. (‘I may write racist misogyny but I don’t plagiarise it and I pay my editor, so I’m ethical!’)

Let’s certainly not go into what actually constitutes ethical professional behaviour when you have to address polite fans nicely saying bigoted things, or people emailing you to say that they pirated your book and want to complain about a typo, or people who link you to one-star reviews they left you, or people who totally didn’t get your book and say something that is just so unfair

I feel mean having a go at something so patently well intentioned but we all know about the road to hell. And it is a road to hell here, because ethics are not lip service, a badge for your sidebar, but something you live in your acts. You have to think about them, apply them, act on them. If you want to spell them out to readers, do it in your own words. Put in the effort.

And of course you can put on a badge too, nothing wrong with that, if you’re absolutely sure that this whole thing won’t fall off a cliff because it’s totally unregulated. Go for it. But no amount of ethical badges will make Kathleen Hale et al into ethical authors. Behaving ethically is what does that. And your best means of persuading readers, bloggers and everyone else that you are a decent person is still simply to behave like one.

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KJ Charles is not one of Nature’s joiners. Since you ask, my reviews policy is here and the reasons why I have one at greater length here. The rest you can deduce for yourself by following me on Twitter @kj_charles.

Seeing the People in your Head: characters in cover art

I once edited a romance author who would not describe characters. She mostly wrote tight third person on the heroine (that is, reader in the heroine’s head), and never had her heroine itemise her looks in a mirror, so her heroines were entirely featureless, and her heroes were given the absolute minimum of ‘tall,dark and handsome’. Asked to fill in character description sheets for the art form, she would refuse point blank and demand a landscape cover. She insisted that the reader should be able to physically identify with the heroine, to become the heroine, and that description just got in the way.

Obviously this makes a huge and rude assumption about the motives of romance readers (I don’t need to imagine a different life for me, thanks), not to mention their gender and race. Also, it meant her characters were fairly indistinguishable. And mostly, romances with landscape covers never sell. So I politely attempted to suggest that she might just fill in the goddamn cover form and stop bitching already, and got an email in return informing me that she would not tolerate a cliched, trite stock image on the cover that looked nothing like the characters in her head.

Which is, I suspect, what the ‘no description’ thing was about. She had a long career, she had written many books back in the days of illustrated covers where you could dictate what the characters looked like rather than having to sacrifice your firstborn to the Stock Photography Gods in the hope of someone roughly the same species as your hero, and she couldn’t handle having the person on the cover be different to the one in her imagination.

(Incidentally, the designer did a cover with a random guy in a jumper, safe in the knowledge that the author didn’t have his phone number. She went ballistic.)

Ask any author and you are likely to get wails of agony about cover models. The grossly overused ones (there is a whole blog series about this), the ones that look nothing like the character. Ask a cover artist and you’ll get wails about authors doing ludicrously specific descriptions and the difficulty of finding anything halfway decent on Shutterstock. Ask a reader and they’ll probably complain that the cover doesn’t look anything like the person in their head, who is not the same as the person in the book anyway.

No, not kidding. Stephen in A Charm of Magpie series is 5’0 tall, a fact which is repeatedly made clear. Yet I’ve seen readers insist, point blank, that he’s taller, or at least fight against it.

In The Magpie Lord, my inclination was to make Stephen taller.  Unfortunately, the text kept reminding me that he was not tall. (Kaetrin, romance reviewer)

Equally, Jake in the Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon is a dark-haired cop, unless you read what the author actually wrote, which is that he’s blond. I have to tell you, this is wrong: Jake is dark, dammit. I am not alone in this opinion, so much that Lanyon has commented with bewilderment on it. The books do actually make it clear he’s blond.  But…well…not in my head, he’s not.

I quoted Kaetrin above, from her blog post on the default hero and heroine. She says she has a tendency to ‘reset’ her mental image of heroes to a particular physical default (e.g. dark-haired six-foot white guy) unless the writing prevents her.

Do other people have their own default characters?  Might this explain (at least in part) why, when two people read the same book, they might see something completely different in the characters?

Certainly, two people can read a book and come out with a totally different mental image of the main characters. I was browsing reviews of a book I liked recently, one with both heroes on the cover, and came across a string of reviews which said:

  • the cover was perfect for both characters
  • the cover had a good Hero A but Hero B was nothing like the character
  • the cover had a good Hero B but Hero A was completely wrong
  • the cover was totally wrong for both characters
  • the cover was just a routine stock image thing with no effort put into it

(The last of which…I feel for the designer.)

I have, to date been incredibly lucky with my covers. If they aren’t the people in my head, they are at least in the same postcode. The one I had the most trouble with is the model used for Stephen. He’s not bad, I like him, he just isn’t how I see Stephen. Interestingly, he’s also the one for which I have had the most reader comments…and they have all been how lucky I am to have such a perfect model for the character.

Obviously, I want to howl He doesn’t look like that! But I’m wrong. Because if the reader thinks he looks like that, then he does. The reader’s Stephen is an intersection of their brain and my book and the character himself and possibly the cover image. That will always be the case, and it’s why my author was absurd to refuse description to ward off anyone seeing her characters in the way she didn’t want. The readers were never going to see what she saw anyway. They were going to make their own characters. All that her anti-description stance did was to ensure that they saw a default stock image.

Did I “create” Mr. and Ms. Default in response to a certain… blandness in characterisation in my reading?  In other words, was there a vacuum and Mr/Ms. Default was created by my imagination (aided perhaps, by pop culture) merely to fill it? (Kaetrin)

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I have been musing on this because I received an epic compliment this weekend. Reader Lydmila Tsapaeva sent me a drawing she did of the main characters of Flight of Magpies (and if you’re thinking this whole post is just an excuse to share it, ssshh).

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Obviously, I love this, and the fact that she did it, and just everything about this. I have rarely felt so thrilled. But what’s fascinating for me is, here are my characters visually mediated through a reader’s mind. I can see how she sees them. The Magpies cover designer, Lou Harper, is outstanding but she’s still stuck with finding and using existing photos of actual people*; Lydmila is going from my imagination via her own to the page, putting in characterisation and movement and interaction and life. This is as close to me seeing someone’s experience of reading me as it’s going to get.

For the record: Crane (the arrogant blond) and Jonah (the dark-haired pest) have been teleported from my brain here: we are in full agreement. Crane is quiveringly perfect for me. Lydmila’s Stephen (short redhead) is more, ooh, manic, less vulnerable than mine (though a lot closer than the cover photo model), and my Merrick (gentleman’s gentleman) is a lot rougher than hers. Which isn’t to say they’re ‘wrong’. They can’t be wrong: they’re how she sees the characters. But it’s fascinating to see how they work against (with? alongside?) how I see them, to consider the elements in what I wrote that may have led to her interpretation, from book character to image. And if you’re a Magpie reader, I’d love to know how they stack up against your version.

(Here, for comparison, are the photo versions of Crane, Stephen and Jonah (on the right of Jackdaw). For me, Crane is 8/10, Stephen 5/10 and Jonah 9/10 if he was a bit skinnier. I told you I was lucky.)

CaseOfPossession-A300 CaseOfPossession-A300 jackdaw small

*Let us all take a minute to consider that the Magpie Lord cover model actually exists as a human being. My God.

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Give me cover art complaints, criticism, funny stories or an explanation of why I’m wrong about Stephen in the comments!

Flight of Magpies is out now. Jackdaw is out in February. Huge, huge thanks to Lydmila Tsapaeva for the glorious art.

Hands up who forgot to put her new release on her own blog…

Look, it’s been busy, okay? In the last six weeks I have left my job, released a story in the Another Place in Time anthology, done a lot of freelance editing work, written a metric ton of blogs for Queer Romance Month including these on historical romance and happy ever afters, announced the sale of my Regency gay romance trilogy to Loveswept, and lined up another project TBA shortly. And it’s my birthday tomorrow. Frankly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I forgot to put my own blog tour and new release on my own blog.

*abandons plans to launch social media promotional service company*

FlightOfMagpies300Right, well. Flight of Magpies is out (*cough*yesterday*cough*), the reviews are nice, and you can find the various bits as follows (the giveaway runs till 2 Nov so you may still have time to enter):

I will also be visiting Becky Black in the near future, in the unlikely event you need to hear me communicate ever again….