Good Bad Language: a post about swearing

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

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

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

Poverty of imagination/language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You fucking knew that fucking cunt would fuck some cunt.

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

You can do without naughty words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not upsetting readers

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

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

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As ever, it comes down to do it well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Finishing Your Book: a handy completion checklist

You’ve written your book. You’ve slaved over the plotting, wept blood on the characterisation, drunk your way through the sex scenes, got yourself under GCHQ scrutiny thanks to the websites you’re visiting for research, squeezed out multiple thousand words through your finger ends, and typed The End. But are you really finished?

Here, in honour of sending off my sixth book to the publisher, is my cut-out-n-keep Book Completion Checklist. It won’t catch everything but it might save you a bit of humiliation as the editor finds a delicate and tactful way to tell you you’re an idiot.

Have you removed vestiges of previous drafts?

That character who used to play a plot role? That conversation that no longer leads anywhere? The dinner party introducing half a dozen people who never come back?[i] The reference to the giant octopus that wasn’t actually in the finished story at all?[ii]

Have you got the characters’ names right?

Does a character’s name randomly change in the course of the book?[iii] If you changed the character’s name, say from Tim to Felix, did you click ‘replace whole word only’, or is your MS now full of words like ‘felixing’ and ‘infelixate’[iv]?

Did you go back and do the things you meant to go back and do?

Notes to self are a very useful way to get over a passage you’re stuck on without breaking flow, but is your editor going to come across ‘DESCRIPTION’ or, even worse, ‘HOT SEX SCENE HERE’?[v]

Have you found your Word of the Book?

There’s always one. Maybe for some bizarre reason you’ve qualified everything as ‘a little’. Maybe your characters have all developed the same nervous tic of shrugging, sighing or eye-shutting. Maybe you’ve used the word ‘glee’ thirty-two times in 60,000 words, despite the book not in fact being about high school musical societies.[vi] That Word function where it highlights all occurrences of what you’re searching on can be enlightening. Not to say blinding.

Have you tied up all your plot lines?

Is it all neatly squared away, with nothing dangling and unresolved? If the book includes, say, a plot-crucial murder, have you remembered to tell the reader who did it?[vii] (It’s useful to write your synopsis when the book is finished; it can be a very quick way to find out if you’ve actually made any sense.)

Did you do a timeline?

Not ‘are you pretty damn sure you’ve got the sequence of events right in your head’, but did you do it. Have you checked that pregnancies last approx 9 months, hawthorn isn’t flowering in what turns out to be September, everyone isn’t busily heading to work on Sunday[viii], it’s physically possible for all the action to take place in the time allotted, and that you haven’t just had it become night right in the middle of daytime because drama[ix]?

Have you done that other thing?

You know, the one you meant to do? It was in that scene, and you didn’t write it down when you thought of it because there was no way you could forget something so pivotal to the book? That thing? No? Oh well, never mind. You’ll remember what it was right after you’ve clicked Send.

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 References

[i] Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate and Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, to name but two

[ii] The Goonies. Yes, I know that’s a film.

[iii] Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic, error still there after more than three decades

[iv] KJ Charles, editor, error caught before publication

[v] idem

[vi] KJ Charles, repeat offender. If these get through, it’s not my editor’s fault

[vii] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (not just uncaught but an eternal mystery because the author forgot. “They sent me a wire asking me [who killed the chauffeur], and dammit I didn’t know either.”)

[viii] Me again. Thank God for editors

[ix] X Men 3: The Last Stand

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…

 

Lower Your Standards: getting through the book’s babyhood

In honour of my son’s fifth birthday the other day, I present a Parenting Metaphor. (This really is a post about writing, not a kiddy blog. Bear with me.)

My son was born 17 months after my daughter, and as parents of ‘two under two’ will know, this is a bad time. I recall my husband coming home to find me sitting on the floor, crying, holding a crying baby and a crying toddler who had just wet herself copiously over her brother, me, and the floor. (Which is what we were all crying about.) It was not good. So I called my friend Natalie, who speaks wisdom.

KJ [wails about disastrous house, empty cupboards, nappies, failed breastfeeding, unsleeping children] I just don’t know how you’re supposed to DO everything! How do I do it?

Natalie [audible shrug]: Lower your standards.

This is, quite seriously, the best advice I have ever received.

‘Lower your standards’ doesn’t mean ‘leave the child in a dirty nappy while you go to the pub’, of course. It means that you turn ‘playing educationally with your spotless children in an impeccable house while a casserole cooks’ into ‘playing with your children’, and the hell with the rest. It means you get the important stuff right. The rest of it can always be done later, when you have time – and if you never have time, that’s probably because it wasn’t really important. Pick it up if it starts to smell.

‘Lower your standards’ got me through early parenthood. The house did not fall down, nobody got cholera, the kids survived and so did we. We lowered our standards, and cleared up later, and you know what, it’s worked out pretty well.

And ‘lower your standards’ is also excellent advice for your difficult first draft. (Subject to deciding that it’s worth writing at all.)

  • Forget that blasted descriptive passage. If you need it, it will come, later. If you don’t, aren’t you glad you stopped trying to write it now?
  • Conversation not working, but you know where it needs to go? Force it. Leave a space if you have to. Don’t get bogged down. If it’s really where the book is going, it’ll come to you, and you’ll probably find out what your characters wanted to get at in fifty pages’ time. It doesn’t have to be perfected now. It will probably change anyway.
  • Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.
  • Your Edwardian heroes are on a train to Berlin and you need to find out the name of a station they stop at on the way? If it’s not plot-shapingly crucial, just put [STATION] in the MS and do it later. Do not break your writing flow to mess about with 1904 Continental railway timetables. (I’m talking to you here, KJ.)
  • Your subconscious will work with you, but it needs something to work on. If you just get the full story nailed, I guarantee that the little character notes and pertinent descriptions and seemingly trivial vital details will sing out on second draft. Like careers, manuscripts make most sense with hindsight.

Of course, your standards need to shoot back up in the second draft, when you remove the awkward transitions, and see, in the glorious light of a completed story, why that scene didn’t work and this conversation doesn’t flow. That’s the point where you start to get it all right. And when it comes to editing stage, your standards should be those of the Tiger Mother from Hell. Your finished book should be as perfect as you hope your finished offspring will be. (Hahahaha.)

But in the baby-and-toddler period, sometimes you just need to concentrate on keeping the damn thing alive.

Do you agree? Disagree? Are your standards too low even to engage with this conversation? Let me know!

When Stories Go Bad: what to do with a flatlining MS.

In my last blog I mentioned the editorial definition of ‘tweak’.

Tweak: A change to a book. May be the alteration of a comma to a semi-colon. May involve identifying a huge timeline flaw and swapping scenes according, bringing a character back from the dead, and changing the ending.

However, sometimes tweaking isn’t enough.

  • When you decide, after 30,000 words, that you’ve used the wrong main character, and the plot is actually someone else’s story…
  • When your plot for book 3 of a series would, you realise, utterly torpedo everything you’ve achieved in books 1 and 2 and/or banjax any hope of a book 4…
  • When you realise, after 30,000 words, that you have no idea at all where you’re going with this / you dislike your characters intensely / you’ve used POV that now mean you cannot tell a crucial part of the story except in an extended two-chapter flashback narrated by a minor character…
  • When it turns out your carefully worked-out plot that means none of the above will happen is as inert as a fish on a slab…
  • When every writing session is like wading through cold treacle and you have so many other things you want to write instead…

If you’re hoping for advice on what to do in these circumstances, you’ve probably come to the wrong shop, because I have no idea what’s wrong with your MS and I have enough trouble with mine. But here’s a few thoughts.

Is it really that bad? ‘Just get on and write it’ is good advice in some circumstances. Sometimes pages carved out of granite by your teeth will end up reading exactly like the sparkling pages that flow effortlessly from your dancing fingers. But if you have a long-lasting sinking feeling that it’s not working, it probably isn’t, and ‘just write’ may mean ‘just waste more time on this dirge’. So you need a brutally honest beta reader or crit partner that you can trust to say, ‘Mate, this is just not that good.’ That way you can believe them in the unlikely event they tell you it’s great. (They won’t. It sucks. Sorry.) It is very hard to be that beta reader, and if you have one, take them out to dinner or something and assure them you still love them. You should.

Is some of the basic structure salvageable? Can you cut it back to chapter three and start again from there? Kill that subplot that’s slowing it down? Drop the whole plot strand that’s taking your characters to a really stupid place and take the book in a totally different direction, from early on? Is this like a badly pruned tree that needs cutting back to the trunk to make it grow properly, or like a child’s self-inflicted haircut that requires a shaved head?

Can you strip it down for spares? It may be that some of those lovely chunks of dialogue and scenes will fit seamlessly into a revised version. Junking 30K words is less painful if 10K of them can be salvaged. However, the key word is seamlessly, not ‘stitched together like a minor villain from Hellraiser’. Be ready to let go.

Is this coyote ugly? Which is to say, do you need to chew off a limb in order to escape? Do you need to jettison the whole damn thing and start again with new story, characters, setting, genre and possibly author name? If this is or may be the case, do not be tempted to fiddle. Don’t tweak, don’t tinker, don’t twerk; don’t strip it down for spare parts; don’t try retelling it from a different perspective with a completely different ya di ya; absolutely don’t be tempted to think that you have to keep writing this one book because you’ve put so much time into it. That’s a sunk cost. Future time is the only time that counts.

 KJ Charles has junked much and restructured more, but is finally past the 30K word mark and I swear to God it’s working now. Commiserate or argue in the comments!