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!

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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.

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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?

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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)

***

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).

01Magic_London

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.