Ten Rules for Writing Joyless Books

My children are avid sticker book consumers. (Bear with me: this is an extended metaphor, not a parenting blog post.)

At first they simply wanted to jam the stickers onto the pages, upside down, off the edges, covering each other in great lumps of shiny paper, just for the pleasure of playing with sticky things.

Then they got a bit older and more careful. Put the penguins in the snow scene, put the pirates on the beach. They set up little bits of staging. “Look, Mummy, the baby dinosaur is going to eat the bird. Look, the pirate’s chopping the other pirate’s head off. Look, the polar bear is going to – I am playing nicely, Mummy!” Even when the sticker scene was long completed, they’d sit there poring over the pages, making up stories about what the absurdly juxtaposed creatures were up to.

Older still, and the sticker books have become more complicated. Now you have to put the sticker in the right place. The pirate has to be applied perfectly over just the right bit of rigging or it looks all wrong. The clothes must be put on the correct dolly in the correct order.

Let’s just consider that. The sticker book’s purpose is to give the child a scene to populate with characters, yet we insist the characters should be applied and arranged only in a certain way, the right way. These dinosaurs have to go in those trees. Those knights only fit if you use them to fight the dragon. The sticker for the Lego dumper truck must be applied over the silhouette of the Lego dumper truck. The boy dolly has to wear the boy clothes. This isn’t play any more, it’s an exercise in form filling. The books where you put the stickers wherever you like and create your own scene are babyish. Big boys and girls follow instructions. Even if the child, half way through a sticker page that was supposed to be fun, looks up and pleads, “Mummy, do I have to finish this?”

I’m sure you see where I’m going. In this case, I have been driven to distraction by the umpteenth repetition of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Writing’, which would be more accurately titled ‘10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard’, but you can put ‘top ten tips for writers’ into your search engine of choice and come up with any amount of vetoes and restrictions and rules. Let’s just start with his first tip, shall we?

Never open a book with weather.

–  Elmore Leonard

To which I have only this to say:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

–  Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Or again

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

– Elmore Leonard

I’ve ranted about poorly chosen speech verbs myself, but never?

“Shut up,” he explained.

– Ring Lardner

Leonard goes on to say that writers should not go into detail to describe people, places, or things. I’ll just go home now. (In fairness, Leonard knew perfectly well that his rules were for himself, not for everyone. I’m just sick of seeing them repeated like they are a recipe for anything other than his prose style.)

I’m bored of reading text that feels like it’s been run through a set of rules. I’m bored of literary novels by authors that have been through the same Creative Writing MA course and learned to do the same things. I’m bored of genre fiction that knows how genre fiction should be written and does it just like that because it should, not because it wants to. I’m unbelievably bored of books that don’t play.

Of course authors need to learn how to write, which is mostly done by reading, and writing, and by being read, and by taking criticism and learning from it. A writer who doesn’t learn her craft is the child jamming stickers onto the page, and the wallpaper, and the cat.

But when ‘rules’ of writing (of what publishers say the market wants, of what the SFF establishment approves, of what gets a Booker prize nomination, of what this top author or that course dictates as the only good) kill the creativity and individuality and fun of the writer doing her own thing… well, that’s when the readers start to wail, Mummy, do I have to finish this?

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You’ll Never Believe This, But… Coincidence in life and fiction

I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.

This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.

In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*

* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)

The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance.  It’s not even like she has a big family. 

Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate

In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.

If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.

I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.

Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?

Teasers and backstory: Holmes vs Harry Potter

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Conan Doyle was the master of the teaser. The Holmes tales are packed with little throwaway references to past cases, hinting at a world of untold stories, and spawning a healthy publishing industry of pastiche writers who are only too happy to speculate about ‘Merridew of abominable memory’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’ or the madness of Isadora Persano, involving ‘a remarkable worm unknown to science’. (Although the one about ‘the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant’ is taking the mickey, if you ask me.)

These little references give us a hinterland. A confirmation that the character exists outside the page, a sketch of landscape to populate with our own imaginations. If there were no untold stories, some of the magic would be lost.

And then there’s Harry Potter. A massively realised, detailed world, where the author knows everything down to preferred brands of cereal and the parentage of characters who appear once on p.312 – and where the reader hears about it. If JK Rowling had come up with the giant rat of Sumatra, we’d know what part of Sumatra it came from, how giant it was, and that the captain of the Matilda Briggs was a Hufflepuff who once dated Ron Weasley’s aunt.

Remember the fuss when Rowling announced that a ‘major character’ in HP4 was going to die? It turned out to be – I had to look this up – Cedric Diggory, and a lot of people felt very cheated, because he was not a major character by any definition. But in Rowling’s head, he was a major character, because in this massively realised world in her head, everyone was major. There was no Basil Exposition or Jimmy Plotfunction, just there to do a job in the service of the story. Everyone had a fully developed existence. Which, when that information is in the author’s head, informs the text on the page, creating a huge richness and reality.

I tend to think some of it ought to stay in the author’s head.

Many will disagree. A large part of the pleasure in Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter / The Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the author puts every possible bit of worldbuilding on the page, and the reader can wallow for hours and know all there is to know.

Me, I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want the author to know it, sure, but I like the sense of a story existing in a larger world. I love China Miéville’s books because of the joyful wastage of invention: he’ll casually toss out a two-sentence mention of some brilliant abomination that anyone else would use as the basis for a trilogy, and then never use it again. (But now we know it’s out there…)

This isn’t an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’. HP/LoTR etc are vastly popular with good reason. The immersive experience of reading a mammothly detailed series is an incredible one. But the untold story has pleasures too.

I’m thinking about this because there’s a point in The Magpie Lord,  where our hero, Crane, is asked why he has seven magpie tattoos.

“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”

“…forced to have a tattoo?”

“It’s a long story.”

It’s a long story I didn’t tell the reader (Crane tells it off-page), and quite a few people have commented on this in reviews, wanting to know what happened. I’m delighted to the point of embarrassing public dancing that anyone cares enough to mention it. And yet…

For me, the throwaway line conveys that Crane’s life has been so extraordinary that he regards being forced to have a huge tattoo as, meh, just one of those things. By leaving it as an untold story, the reader can fill in the gap with her own speculations and ideas. As a told story it’s a little piece of his past nailed down, a little mystery revealed. And I wonder if a single truth (about the tattoos, the giant rat, or even that stupid trained cormorant) can be as pleasurable as the imaginative vistas opened up for the reader by not knowing. After all, seven is for a secret never to be told…

Then again, it’s a pretty good story.

 

Should authors tell all? What do you think?

The Art of the Blurb: How to write back cover copy

Many authors, both self pubbed and those with small publishers, find themselves writing their own back cover copy. Or, at least, staring at a blank screen thinking, ‘Do I have to?’

Yes, you do. The blurb is your biggest and best opportunity to sell your book. It’s what readers see. It’s their reason to click through or move on.

And this means, for each book, the blurb should be the most polished passage of writing you do – including the manuscript. Labouring over a MS and then knocking out a quick blurb is like spending hours creating a marvellous feast of molecular gastronomy, and then serving it on paper plates off which your toddler has eaten jelly.

So how to do it? Well, practice, mostly. I’ve been writing blurbs for fifteen years and it still makes my head hurt. But if you’re feeling stuck, some of this might help…

A blurb sells the book

The blurb is a selling tool.  Everything in your blurb should be directed at making readers want the book, preferably in exchange for money. The blurb is the sizzle that sells the sausage.

The blurb does not tell the story: it tells the potential buyer about the story. Major difference. If you find yourself telling the story, cut. Watch out for ‘And then’ connectives, which often signal that you’re giving a sequence of events. Turn them into ‘But’ connectives –  the ones that suggest obstacles, reversals, drama.

Telling the story makes boring blurbs. I used to work with a sales manager whose cry at sales conference rehearsals was, ‘Nobody cares.’

Editor, rehearsing presentation: ‘Polly Smith was sent to Lady Letitia’s Orphanage when her parents died in a hot-air balloon accident – ’

Sales manager: Nobody cares.

Editor: But it’s important for her reactions –

Sales manager: NOBODY. CARES.

Of course they’ll care when they read the book. But in the back cover copy, the expression you’re looking for to cover your three chapters of carefully crafted emotional dissection at balloon-related bereavement is, at most, ‘Orphan Polly Smith’ and quite possibly, just ‘Polly’.

What sells? A conflict, a romantic set-up, a mystery, a dramatic situation. Not a backstory, a description, or an explanation.

Answer the key questions

These should get you at least halfway to something usable.

Who are the main character/s?  Headline details only, and try putting the adjectives before the noun. ‘John is a photographer burned out after years covering conflicts in war zones’ is an infodump. ‘Burned-out war photographer John’ is the beginning of a sentence that might get interesting.

What’s the problem facing your hero/ine/s? A race against time, a family battle, the love interest being a zombie…

What’s at stake? The world? A child’s happiness? The love affair? The heroine’s braaaaains?

If you can tell the reader that [appealing person] in [interesting situation] has [thing going on] with [X at stake], you have 80% of a blurb right there.

Avoid the pitfall questions

There are some things it’s very tempting to tell the reader, but think twice.

Where/when are we? Unless the setting is really a major selling point, beware. If you start your blurb with ‘Devon, 1782. As the mist drifts through the chilly moorland…’, that clicking noise is the sound of a lot of readers going elsewhere.

Who else is in the book? The child/dog/sidekick might be one of the most effective things in the book, but are they part of what sells it? The cute dog may be the thing that readers will remember, but you’re not addressing existing readers here, you’re selling to potential buyers.

What’s important to the book is not necessarily what’s important to the blurb.

Keep it short

This is not an essay, it’s a selling tool. Go Edward Scissorhands. You won’t lose out by keeping it to three paragraphs; you may well lose readers if they have to plough through six.

A blurb sells the book that you wrote

Not the book that you suddenly feel you should have written, or the book that would probably have sold more copies. It might temporarily drive sales up to give the blurb a commercial spin (e.g. selling it as a romance when it’s that very different thing, a book about two people who occasionally shag). But it won’t endear the author to the misled readers.

Remember the classic Wizard of Oz TV guide listing?

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

You can pull in the Cormac McCarthy fans this way, but you won’t keep them once ‘Over the Rainbow’ starts.

Avoid:

Typos and errors. Spellcheck like mad. Get someone else to read it. Do not rush this. You wouldn’t use a picture of burned steak and soggy chips to advertise your restaurant; do not use sloppy writing to advertise your book.

Extract. No matter how good your writing is. Let people be stunned by the extract when they’re already hooked on the concept. Exception: a single fantastic line that sells the book, as a pull quote.

Spoilers. If your book’s impact depends on a massive unforeseen twist, for God’s sake don’t give it away on the back.

 

KJ Charles has five blurbs to write for work, which is why she’s blogging.

The First-Book Feeling (a view from both sides)

I’ve been a commissioning editor for fifteen years or so, and in that time I’ve taken on a lot of new authors, mostly out of the slush pile. That means I’ve made ‘The Call’ (the offer to publish someone’s first book) many times, and I can say with certainty that it’s far and away the best bit of the job. After all, to make someone else that happy normally takes a lot of money, several hours in the kitchen, or a level of sexual favours I’m just not prepared to offer authors. (Maybe the really good ones.)

The Call

Me: Hi, it’s KJ Charles from Publishers, I think you did a great job on the revisions, so I’d like to offer you a contract to publish the book.

Author, calmly: I see. Excuse me a moment.

[places phone on table]

Author [in distance]: AAAAAAIIIEIEIEIEIEIEEIEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!

[picks up phone]

Author, calmly: Right, yes, that’s great, thanks.

I once made The Call in person. I had an opportunity to meet the author, so what the hell, I thought I’d tell her face to face that I’d like to publish her book. It’s one of my lifetime favourite memories. I have never seen an adult cry so much, so hard, for so long. People were clustering around us asking if she’d just been bereaved. It was brilliant.

I even have a record of how I felt when I got the email offering to publish The Magpie Lord, because I was straight on to my online book group. Bearing in mind that I’m a highly experienced editor, have a degree in English Literature and am attempting to build a career as a writer, how did I make this announcement?

F*** me, I’m going to be published!

Master of her craft, right there.

So yeah, it’s great when someone offers to publish your book…

And then you wait.

And then there’s edits. Some complete git telling you to change stuff! In your book! Ack!

And then you wait.

And then there’s the terrifying prospect of the cover. Which if you’re lucky (like me) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re not is the subjImageect of this conversation.

And then you wait.

And you join Goodreads as an author, and get yourself an Amazon author page, and blog, and guest blog, and tweet, and join groups, and do all those things that everyone says you have to do, and in between those things, you wait more.

And you check Twitter maybe 400 times a day in case someone’s reviewed it, and it’s not clear which is worse, getting a bad review or not being reviewed at all, but either way you kind of feel like throwing up.

Also, more waiting.

And then publication day dawns, and with it the following realisations:

  • The rest of the world is basically indifferent to this life-exploding development. Just because people can now buy it does not mean they will.
  • I cannot prevent my boss or my friends or my mother from reading it. I hope you guys like sex and weird magic horror. Let’s not do a book group.
  • My book is published. Today is the birthday-and-Christmas I’ve been waiting for all my life. Tomorrow will be… Wednesday.
  • If I want this dizzy, heady, ‘oh sweet lord I’m going to be published’ feeling again, I’m going to have to write another book. Another one!

But all of that is for tomorrow. Today, I’m going to enjoy having my first book published. And, also, drink.

The Magpie Lord is out from Samhain. KJ Charles is in the pub.