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.

________________________________________

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!

Yes, I Write Romance.

One of the minor irritants of writing, editing or reading romance is that people who aren’t romance readers make jokes. Well, I say jokes. Usually jokes are defined as ‘things that are funny’, so we may need another word.

I can’t tell you the tedium of the unimaginative rote remark. I probably don’t have to. If you’re very tall, think of ‘How’s the weather up there?’ If you’re carrying a double bass on public transport, it’s doubtless ‘I bet you wish you played the flute!’ If you have a surname that lends itself to tiresome weak jokes and puns, you know the score all too well. (My real surname lends itself to puns and I write romance. This is why I need anger management classes.)

I edited for one of the most famous romance publishers in the world for five years. It got to the point where I refused to tell people my job at parties because the inevitable conversations were so deeply, profoundly, irritatingly, predictably dull.

Dull person: Romance novels?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: Like Mills & Boon?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: [bodice-ripper; ‘don’t they just give authors a plot and tell them to write it?’; all the same; ‘my granny reads them!’; Barbara Cartland; ‘don’t you want to write real books?’; 50 Shades of Grey; hahaha sex!]

I mean, I get it. Really. Romance is this totally silly genre which is about love and sex, something that no normal person is interested in at all. It’s completely trivial too – why would anyone take a genre seriously when it only makes up 17% of the entire US publishing market? Obviously any genre dominated by women as readers and writers is inherently laughable, because women. And I for one have never understood why you should be expected to look at good examples of something before dismissing it with contempt. I think it’s much better to look at something terrible published in 1974 and base all your theories on that.

Me: You make films?

Film person: Yes…

Me: I saw The Swarm! It was awful! Hahaha, you make films! It’s all hallucinatory giant bee sequences, dreadful dialogue, and random jump-cut nuclear explosions caused by bees, right?!*

* If you haven’t seen The Swarm, take a long weekend and stockpile beer.

I’ve had a lot of these conversations and have every expectation of more, so let’s just get some of it out of the way, shall we?

– Yes, I write romance. In which genres are your books published?

– Yes, I write romance. Yes, it has sex. I’m sorry you find sex so painful and unpleasant to think about. I understand there are some very good creams these days.

– Yes, I write romance. Yes, many romance books are crap. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. I think Sturgeon was an optimist.

– Yes, I write romance. Yes, they’re real books. You know what else is real? My royalty cheques.

– Yes, I write romance. Yes, I think I can do something creative that I love and am really pretty good at, and make a living from it. I’m sorry, were you expecting a punchline?

– Yes, I write romance. No, you don’t have to respect that or be courteous about it. Then again, I don’t have to be courteous to you either. Your call.

And no, you don’t have to read my books. But – new rule – if you want to make snide remarks about them with impunity, you have to buy them. Show me a receipt and you can go to town on the hilarious subject of romance novels. As long as you’re aware that you have to pay me to listen to it.

 

Fed up of it? Join me in the comments!

 

Think of England is out from Samhain right now. The Magpie Lord is a Romantic Times Top Pick for September! (“The dialogue between the heroes is fun and intense… The building steam combusts into heat that sizzles right off the pages.”) 

 

 

How to Speak Blurb: a translation guide

You pick up a bunch of books at random. The blurbs claim that they are ‘A hilariously trenchant romp’, ‘Breathtakingly original, written in rhapsodic prose’, and ‘Lyrical, charming and heartbreaking’. Do you wonder if you have stumbled across a cache of literature representing the pinnacle of human artistic endeavour, or do you think, ‘These all look pretty average’?

Some books are indeed breathtakingly original, brilliantly written, wonderfully charming, or even life-changing. Let’s face it, most aren’t. But publishers still have to put some sort of something on the back to make people spend money. ‘Pretty good, will pass the time pleasantly’, while honest and perfectly respectable, isn’t going to get past Marketing. And thus we end up with ever-increasing blurb inflation, where the starting point for a mildly amusing book is ‘hilarious’ and trying to convey that it’s actually, really funny requires a specialist thesaurus.

So, here’s a (not entirely serious) translation guide to blurb-speak.(Please note, this doesn’t mean that these words below aren’t sometimes used with soul-deep sincerity. Just that, even when the book is merely okay, mediocre or full-on bad, some poor schlub still has to find something to say.)

How to Speak Publisher-page0001(1)

KJ Charles: my big news

This one’s all about me.ToE Blog Tour Banner

First, just so we know, the Think of England blog tour is underway, with a giveaway through the tour of a copy of the book and a $25 gift certificate to All Romance ebooks. Here’s the dates, links as they go live:

Sunday 29 June            MM Good Book Reviews (“The suspense was excellent! … There are also a lot of layers to this story, which I find to be the best marker for success of any plot. I loved it all!”)

Monday 30 June            Boy Meets Boy Reviews (Spotlight)

Sinfully Sexy Blog post about Edwardian attitudes to homosexuality, and separate giveaway, plus lovely 5* review. (“Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. What more could I wish for?”)

Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. What more could I wish for? – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf
Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf
Downton Abbey meets M/M romance ~ an absolutely brilliant historical novel with industrial espionage, murder, blackmail and two unlikely heroes up against the odds. – See more at: http://sinfullysexybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/think-of-england-by-kj-charles-review.html#sthash.njfvEWNG.dpuf

Tuesday 1 July               The Blogger Girls (Excerpt) and a great review

Charlie Cochrane’s blog (interview)

Wednesday 2 July          Boys in our Books (Interview)

Thursday 3 July              Prism Book Alliance (Excerpt)

Friday 4 July                  Joyfully Jay (Guest Post on sex and the inexperienced hero). Also a fab review: ” another fabulous story from K.J. Charles. I have totally fallen in love with Curtis and Daniel and was thrilled to hear Charles plans more for them.  Excellent story and very highly recommended.”

Saturday 5 July              Love Bytes (Excerpt)

Sunday 6 July                The Novel Approach (Guest Post)

Think of England is out 1 July. Lovely reviews coming in already (“witty banter and rich dialogue…sizzling erotic tension…a fast-paced, action-filled plot full of imaginative twists and quirky ideas and a smoothly flowing narrative.”). It’s a Heroes & Heartbreakers Best Read of June with a fabulous review by Kate Rothwell (“I love those two separately, but they’re even better together—which is the mark of a successful romance, after all.”)

***

After all that… The big news is that I’m quitting my job to go freelance. This means bankruptcy and doom more time to write; it also means that I’ll be available for editing work from September (years of experience! reasonable rates!). There will be details on my exciting brand-new website in due course.

I’m really excited about this. I’ve spent nearly two decades in publishing and there is no denying that the admin-heavy treadmill of book production gets draining. I’m doing too little of what I love and am good at: the actual getting MSS into shape and making them work as their authors hoped and readers want. And I have a lot of stories of my own to tell, too.

This is inevitably going to mean marketing. I have a Facebook page and, more interestingly, a Facebook group. Do join the group if you want sneak peeks into works in progress or forthcoming MSS, advance info, and general chat about my books and stuff.

I’m also racing through a Regency short for a charity anthology, and then I have a whole lot of exciting writing plans to make for my new life. Given all that, this blog may go a bit quiet for a couple of weeks, because there’s only so many words a woman can scrape together at one time. See you on the other side of Promotional Mountain.

A Very Big House in the Country

My new book Think of England takes place in a country house called Peakholme. It’s an ultra-modern building, packed with ThinkOfEngland72webcutting-edge technology for the absolute latest in comfort and luxury. We’re talking hot-water heating, electric lights and – get this – a telephone. Neat, huh?

I should have probably mentioned, the book’s set in 1904. Electric street lighting had come in, in the towns and cities anyway, but most people didn’t have domestic electricity until the 1930s. Hot water radiators demanded investment in terms of boilers and installation and space that most people didn’t have. The telephone system was well established in the cities but rural and domestic connections were another matter. For an isolated country house in the north of England to have all of these things would have required an astonishing amount of wealth. You’d have to put in your own electrical generator, your own telephone exchange, and invest an insane amount of money.

Luckily (for them), some people had it to spend.

Peakholme was loosely inspired by a real and astonishing house called Cragside. Like my imaginary country house, although built a few years earlier, Cragside was created out of nothing, on a bare rocky slope miles from anywhere. It was a work of genius, taking a green approach to energy at a time when ‘green’ was a colour achieved by adding arsenic to paint and then using it for baby chew toys and kitchen shelving. Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. It had hot and cold running water, showers, and its own Turkish baths. The lightbulbs were specially designed for the system. The kitchen spit for roasting meat was turned by electric power to save labour. Its creator surrounded it by astounding gardens, importing trees including giant redwoods from all over the world, turning the bare ground to a thing of beauty.

Cragside olden days

It was the Victorian equivalent of a Bond villain’s ultra-tech hideaway and, no kidding, it was built by an arms dealer. Well, where else do you get that kind of money?

For the record, there is no similarity between the historical Lord Armstrong who built Cragside and my own wealthy arms manufacturer Sir Hubert Armstrong. Except for the job. And the surname. (Come on, it was irresistible. The phenomenon of people having jobs that sound appropriate to their names is known as nominative determinism, since you ask.)

Lord Armstrong (real) seems to have been a reasonably decent man: he gave large sums to charity, was strongly in favour of clean, renewable energy, and said of his arms business, “If I thought that war would be fomented, or the interests of humanity suffer, by what I have done, I would greatly regret it.” He added, “I have no such apprehension,” having sold guns to both sides in the American Civil War and developed battleships and gunboats, but nobody’s perfect.

Cragside is now run by the National Trust, and if you should ever find yourself in the region of Northumberland, I strongly recommend a visit. It’s a fascinating place to spend a day. (Photo from their website: the planting worked out pretty well.)

Cragside 2

Peakholme isn’t Cragside. I changed the location and the timing, updated the tech and altered the layout. I also, and with the greatest reluctance, abandoned its subterranean Turkish baths, despite the amazing potential of a subterranean Turkish bath in a romance novel. (There is a cut scene…) But Peakholme does have features that you might recognise if you visited Cragside, such as the terrifying quantities of stuffed hunting birds in murderous postures. Nothing like a dead eagle with a rat hanging from its beak to brighten up a room.

Peakholme, unlike Cragside, and despite the mod cons, is not somewhere you’d want to go. It’s seething with secrets, and very bad things have happened to some of its guests. When Captain Archie Curtis comes to stay he finds himself mixed up in espionage, betrayal and murder, and forced into an unwilling alliance with fellow guest Daniel da Silva, a decadent poetic foreign type and the last man Curtis would choose to trust…

Yeah, I’d visit Cragside, if I were you. It’s safer.

The first review of Think of England is in; the book comes out 1 July.

Curse you, Captain Exposition!

I was playing the fool on Twitter the other day.

Image

(This reminds me to note that Alexis Hall’s Shadows & Dreams, the second Kate Kane book, is out 15 June. The first, Iron & Velvet, was one of my favourite reads of last year, and if you like noir, urban fantasy, hardboiled lesbian detectives and/or laugh-out-loud funny writing, snap these up right now. But I digress.)

Captain Exposition is a menace. His pernicious influence is particularly apparent in historical and fantasy writing, where Terry Pratchett dubbed it ‘As you know, your father, the king…’ In this form, characters sit down and explain things to one another purely in order to inform the audience.

As you know, General, you led the invasion force that toppled our neighbouring country of F’l’zz, bringing the F’l’zz’rahi people, for such you know they call themselves, under our rule for the first time. You lost an eye in that conflict, to the sword of the notorious rebel known as the Black Persimmon.

You can just imagine the General muttering, ‘I know. He stabbed me in the eye.’

Exposition is vital to a book, of course. It’s how you convey backstory, setting and systems. What happened to the hero, which countries are at war, how the magic system or the terms of the grandfather’s will or the secret service division operates. The question is, how to convey it in a non-glaring fashion that doesn’t destroy characterisation or bring the plot to a screeching halt.

Exposition in narrative

You can, of course, plonk it on the page with all the bravura of a farmer tipping a pile of manure off a spade.

Rachel and Kirsty had a secret. Unknown to their parents, the girls were secret friends with the fairies and often helped them when they were in trouble.
(Daisy Meadows, every goddamn Rainbow Magic book ever)

My children, aged 5 and 6, are capable of spotting this, and will chorus a scathing ‘Infodump!’ at any adult foolish enough not to skip this bit when reading aloud. (Then again, when my daughter gets asked to ‘make a book’ for school, she always puts an ISBN and barcode on the back and writes a blurb, eg ‘A brilliant story for all little children.’ Editors shouldn’t breed.)

If you have the right narrative voice, of course, you can tell the reader anything you want.

But first a word must be said about Peter. He was the man that taught me all I ever knew of veld-craft, and a good deal about human nature besides. He was out of the Old Colony – Burgersdorp, I think – but he had come to the Transvaal when the Lydenburg goldfields started. He was prospector, transport-rider, and hunter in turns, but principally hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. […]

He was a man of about five foot ten, very thin and active, and as strong as a buffalo. He had pale blue eyes, a face as gentle as a girl’s, and a soft sleepy voice. From his present appearance it looked as if he had been living hard lately. His clothes were of the cut you might expect to get at Lobito Bay, he was as lean as a rake, deeply browned with the sun, and there was a lot of grey in his beard. He was fifty-six years old, and used to be taken for forty. Now he looked about his age.
(John Buchan, Greenmantle)

Shameless exposition, sure. But the spirit of place rolls off it. The reader is flatteringly included – I have no idea what Bob Macnab did in Swaziland, but I’m pretty sure it was dangerous and maybe illegal, and I like the narrator’s confidence that I’m part of his in-group even if I’m not. The exposition doesn’t just tell us about Peter, but about the narrator’s past and character, and about the world we’re in, and the kind of story this is.

Exposition in dialogue

Exposition can be conveyed through dialogue, with one character explaining things to another, but you need to beware Captain Exposition here most of all. The above speech about the Black Persimmon would establish the speaker in the reader’s head as a tedious cypher, and the General as some kind of idiot with short-term memory loss (‘Who was it stabbed me in the eye again? Oooh, his name’s on the tip of my tongue…’). If you find yourself typing ‘As you know’ or, even worse, having the victim of the exposition exclaim, ‘I know all this!’ then junk the conversation and do it again.

Characters should say things for a reason that isn’t ‘the reader needs to know’. In Think of England I have a crucial bit of exposition around the terribThinkOfEngland72weble thing that happened to the hero and his comrades in the war, which needs to be spelled out early on. I decided to have the hero insist on explaining it at a dinner party, to some social awkwardness, because he’s trying to get a reaction out of the other guests. It clues in the reader at the same time, of course, but as far as the character‘s concerned, he has every reason to say it.

It can work to have a rookie character, to whom everything can legitimately be explained (the Will Smith role in Men in Black), but apply some sense. I have read many a scene where the new recruit arrives on his first day at the paramilitary antiterrorist organization and is walked through their purpose and mission, and I sit there thinking, ‘Did nobody explain this to him before he signed up? Your recruitment process sucks.’ (Once again, Men in Black rocks this and makes it work.)

Make sure the conversation is worth having in itself, not just for exposition. If it helps us get to know the characters and shows their reactions and thoughts, it’ll feel much more like an interaction that humans might have.

You can use character thoughts for the same expository effect as dialogue, but again, fear Captain Exposition. ‘He reminded himself about the history of the Black Persimmon’ should set off the Infodump Klaxon just as much as ‘As you know’ in dialogue.

Also, beware the pluperfect in character thoughts.

The General had been tasked with tracking down the Black Persimmon, but when he had arrived in Fl’zz he had had second thoughts.

Too much makes for a painful reading experience.

Exposition in flashback

At least you can avoid pluperfects, and show action. But flashbacks must be controlled. Spread them out, make them clear so the reader doesn’t get temporally unhitched, and make them work for their place. They shouldn’t just be there to inform the reader, but to build character and increase anticipation. They absolutely cannot be allowed to stop forward momentum in the overall story – they should inform and drive the main narrative, should hold information that the reader is desperate to learn.

My latest MS, Jackdaw, has a huge amount of backstory (it starts with an established relationship that has fallen apart, and the flashbacks give the story of the relationship up till the collapse). I tell it with flashbacks throughout the first half for three purposes:

  1. Avoids infodumping it all in one go.
  2. Tantalizes the reader: we know from the start that a terrible thing happened but you have to wait till half way through to find out exactly what it was.
  3. Varies the tone. The main story begins very dark and angry, the flashbacks are at first to a wonderful happy time, which lifts the angsty mood and shows us different aspects of the MCs, as well as supplying necessary information. The flashbacks bring us up to where the main narrative started, and right as the two strands converge, we reach a turning point. Telling the whole story in narrative order would make the turning point feel less climactic. So the exposition supports the structure of the book instead of feeling tacked-in. (I hope.)

Incluing

Your best way of handling exposition is what fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton calls ‘incluing’ (clueing in the reader). This is “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.” Know your world and systems and setting. Allow your characters’ backstories to inform and bubble through their current reactions. Show it all in action.Don’t tell me that F’l’zz is a slave-based economy: show me slaves as a casual accepted part of the background. Don’t tell me the Black Persimmon stabbed the General in the eye: have a F’l’zz’rahi prisoner refer tauntingly to it, and show us the General’s reaction of quivering with remembered fear, cutting off the prisoner’s head in a snit, or reflecting that the Black Persimmon was kind of hot apart from the eye thing.

Let information trickle out in dialogue and thought and narrative and description, as part of character and events. Put it there for the reader to pick up on, let it soak in as you go, and have confidence in your story. You don’t have to tell everything at once in a big rush. Some things you might not have to openly ‘tell’ at all.

 How do you like to see exposition handled? Do you hate flashbacks? Got any good or bad examples? And will Captain Exposition defeat his arch-enemy Doctor Metatext? Tune in next week!

KJ Charles is off to the UK GLBT Meet for authors and readers 6-8 June so probably won’t be around for a bit. Think of England is out 1 July.

The Stiffest Upper Lips: my top ten early pulp fiction reads

I’m writing a lot about Victorian/Edwardian adventure fiction currently. This is because I love it (shamefully – see here for why it’s a Imageguilty pleasure) and because my forthcoming book Think of England is a romance set firmly in the Edwardian pulp milieu, with spies, derring-do, reticent British officers and mysterious foreigners (sort of). As a small tribute to a beloved genre, I rather cheekily grafted my hero, Archie Curtis, onto the family tree of one of the great Victorian adventurers: Sir Henry Curtis, the warrior hero of King Solomon’s Mines.

This isn’t something that will affect a reader’s enjoyment if you haven’t read King Solomon’s Mines, though I hope it will give a bit of extra pleasure if you have. However, discussions on this led various people including Liv Rancourt to request a reading list of great Victorian/Edwardian pulp fiction – so here it is.

A few provisos:

  • This is my personal Top Ten, spanning thirty years, randomly scattering among British and American, straight adventure, occult and sci-fi. There are many others I love and more I haven’t read so this makes no claim to be exhaustive or definitive. Recommend the hell out of me in the comments, please!
  • All these books are out of copyright. Free books! I’ve linked to Project Gutenberg where possible, where you can download them in various electronic formats for free, though the formatting can occasionally be a little shonky. You can also mostly get them for a few quid in new and tidier editions, or a few pence in a second-hand bookshop.
  • This is problematic stuff for a modern reader. Again, see my earlier post on bigotry in Edwardian fiction. Many of these books are written from a very imperialist perspective that unconsciously assumes British/white/Christian/male/het superiority. That’s how it was; the best of them challenge it. I haven’t included the most egregious examples of racism (Bulldog Drummond, Fu Manchu), but you are likely to come across it in casual comments throughout, and the sexism is frequently eye-watering. In a lot of ways these books also challenge the prevailing assumptions, and generally reveal, rather than actively support, the prejudices of their era, which was very different and a long time ago. But consider yourself warned.

Right, here we go. Images have been selected for my personal entertainment and may not be good reflections of the book.

King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard (1885)

Haggard-King Solomons Mines

The daddy. A grizzled South African hunter, Allan Quatermain, narrates his adventure with Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good RN, as they seek Sir Henry’s estranged brother through Africa. Includes desert treks, mass elephant slaughter, evil wizened priestesses, lost kings, diamond mines, hardship, derring-do, the classic ‘predict an eclipse of the sun and amaze the natives’ gag, and a roomful of dead kings being turned to stone.

Image

Take a wild stab in the dark what impression the film was trying to give.

This is just a magnificent adventure story. It is, obviously, massively imperialist and of its time, and the cod-medieval dialogue of the more heroic characters will make your hair hurt, but in its favour may I offer Foulata: a young black woman who falls for the white Captain Good, wins his affections and is not condemned for having a sex drive. I can only think of one other example of this happening in all Victorian lit, so kudos to Haggard, even if the character is so cardboard she’s flammable.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894)

The book that gave us Ruritania as a name for pointless romantic little Mitteleuropean kingdoms. A magnificent tale of mistaken identity, scheming dukes, swordfights, love, duty, sacrifice, characterless heroines, sexy redheaded men, and the utterly irresistible villain Rupert of Hentzau. You can’t not read this, honestly.

Image

Why do they never use a redheaded hero? Growl.

The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (1895)

Image

I cannot encourage you enough to read at least the first four stories in this collection. They are a tremendous example of early American Weird and a big influence on HP Lovecraft. ‘The King in Yellow’ itself is a play that sends anyone who reads it mad. The stories of its disastrous influence are incredibly decadent and perverse and unsettling, until the last three stories in the collection, which are so-so romantic fiction. I have no idea why this happens.

Dr Nikola series by Guy Boothby (1895-1901)

Image

Dr Nikola is a full-on antihero, a brilliant occultist looking for eternal life via Tibetan wisdom, but without any of that Buddhist ‘being nice to people’ stuff. Think Professor Moriarty but with a little bit more humanity, a tragic past, and possible uncanny powers. Dr Nikola has piercing hypnotic eyes and wears a black cat on his shoulders and is involved in large-scale plots across exotic locations and basically is a Bond villain. He’s the antagonist in his own books, with the victims of his plotting tending to be the viewpoint characters. Lovely stuff.

The Beetle by Richard Marsh (1897)

Image

Possibly the most magnificently inappropriate and inaccurate cover ever. This doesn’t happen.

Another occulty one. This is pure bloody genius and I implore you to read it. It was published the same year as Dracula and was initially more popular. The…villain? thing? person? god?… at its centre is deeply sexually ambiguous and the books is all about threats to the British Empire: homosexuality, the rise of the East and the power of other nations, the New Woman, the urban poor – basically it’s a sweaty, hallucinatory, sex-reeking fear-dream. Marvellous.

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1905)

Image

A cracking novel of psychotic vigilantes that would make Frank Miller proud. The four just men (actually three, one’s dead) are basically rich international terrorists who judge and murder people ranging from criminals to aristocracy. But let’s not say terrorists because they’re heroes. Honest.

If you’re okay with the brutal murder of a member of the British government, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t be, you will enjoy this hugely. It’s a howdunit rather than a whodunit: the main puzzle is how the Just Men get at their latest victim. Wallace made an epic mess of publishing this: he offered a gigantic £500 prize in the newspapers for anyone who guessed the solution correctly (it was serial publication) but forgot to limit the number of possible winners. Even though the book was a massive bestseller, the prize money bankrupted him and he had to flog the rights for £75. However, he went on to write another 170 novels and nearly 1000 short stories as well as 198 plays, so he was fine. (Sanders of the River is a great Kiplingish read set in Africa, if you want to read more, and there are several other Just Men books.)

Weirdly, this isn’t on Gutenberg but there are many cheap electronic editions.

The Mysterious Mr Sabin by E Phillips Oppenheim (1905)

Image

Got to have an Oppenheim. This is my favourite of his, another book more interested in the villain than in the nominal hero and heroine. Mr Sabin’s schemes are complex and large-scale, his morality flexible and his story a brilliant read. The sequels aren’t bad but – inevitably – he gets redeemed by the love of a good woman, which, meh.

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

Image

Don’t argue with me. This is brilliant.

Dinosaurs. Alive dinosaurs. Like Jurassic Park but on a big South American isolated plateau. Did I mention dinosaurs? And a hero who is basically, if Brian Blessed was a brilliant scientist? What the hell are you waiting for? (By all means read the other Professor Challenger stories, except, for the sake of your own happiness, The Land of Mist, where Doyle bastardises his own magnificent scientist hero to put forward his newly found Spiritualist beliefs. Depressing beyond words.)

King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy (1916)

Image

His disguises are rather better in the book. The uniform is a giveaway here.

If you’ve read The Peshawar Lancers you’ll recognise this book. The first half is a magnificent pulp classic about the adventures of a British secret agent in India during the First World War. The second half goes into mystical sub-She shenanigans and I wouldn’t bother, but the first half is amazing.

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

Image

I assume you already know about The Thirty-Nine Steps. Greenmantle is the second Hannay adventure, putting together his team of recurring characters: Peter Pienaar, the crack-shot Boer scout; John Scantlebury Blenkiron, the obese, dyspeptic, wonderfully placid yet brilliantly scheming American; Sandy Arbuthnot, the sex-on-a-stick Scottish aristo, Eastern wanderer and international man of mystery. God, I love Sandy. He may be even sexier than Rupert of Hentzau, with the thoroughbred-nervous thing he has going on. Mmm.

This book takes us from Berlin to Constantinople in the depths of the First World War, with shelling and spies and a sexually ambiguous thug of a German villain and a plot to set the Middle East ablaze. A tremendous galloping plot, and if you can read the last chapter without goosebumps you may be dead. Buchan was a man of huge talents and great sympathy, and although Richard Hannay glories in his duty and gets caught up in the struggle, he never loses sight of the humanity of the enemy or the pity and terror of war. If you like this, go read everything else Buchan wrote. You won’t regret it.

 

That’s my top ten (today; if you asked me tomorrow I might give different answers). Feel free to argue, scorn or add your own in the comments! Anything say 1870 to 1920 is legit…