Character Dynamics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that new writers have lots of really good ideas for new characters. Wait. That came out wrong. New writers put far to many characters in their books. I actually mine my first two books for characters to reuse.

The rule that many characters is wrong is one that I would encourage you to break. But before you do, practise and understand character dynamics.

Unless characters are joined at the hip (Merry and Pippin), each character has his own story. So if you settle on nine main characters, you will have nine stories to write (or eight in the case of LOTR). When the characters are together they will share the same story — so this makes it a little easier. When they are separated, there are TWO things to keep track of. The first — that most people get right — is spacetime. You have to keep track of where they are in space and how long it has taken them to get there. Fantasy writers are really good at space but hopeless at time. Chicklit writers seem to be the reverse. The second — that less people get right — is character dynamics.

Character dynamics manifest in two key ways, continuity and discontinuity. (The former seems to be harder for new writers.)

When characters who form part of a protagonist group or the protagonist's frequent entourage are established, their emotional relationship with the other characters should also be established. The development, evolution or steady condition of this emotional relationship should continue consistently. Example: brothers whose relationship is established as one of uneasy and unequal competition should continue in that competition until something occurs to alter the dynamic. Let's imagine they survive a dangerous encounter: subsequently, both attaches more value to his brother than to his own superiority, so rivalry diminishes, however we still expect to see occasional echoes of their former relationship.

The Lord of the RingsNow the more characters you have, the more stories you have to write, and the more character dynamics you have to manage. Lets add a bit stat math to the question. Combination (nCr) determines how many different character relationships there are in any group. Taking Merry and Pippin as one character you get:

{Frodo, Sam} {Frodo, Gandalf} {Frodo, Aragorn} {Frodo, Merry & Pippin} {Frodo, Boromir} {Frodo, Legolas} {Frodo, Gimli} { Sam, Gandalf} { Sam, Aragorn} { Sam, Merry & Pippin} { Sam, Boromir} { Sam, Legolas} { Sam, Gimli} { Gandalf, Aragorn} { Gandalf, Merry & Pippin} { Gandalf, Boromir} { Gandalf, Legolas} { Gandalf, Gimli} { Aragorn, Merry & Pippin} { Aragorn, Boromir} { Aragorn, Legolas} { Aragorn, Gimli} { Merry & Pippin, Boromir} { Merry & Pippin, Legolas} { Merry & Pippin, Gimli} { Boromir, Legolas} { Boromir, Gimli} { Legolas, Gimli} 

In all, 28 character dynamics. That's 28 stories for the character relationships alone. If, heaven forfend, you start to think about three way dynamics, you get 56 combinations. Tolkien wisely avoids some of the combinations above, and others he only touches on very lightly. Those that he does develop, he develops thoroughly. Those that he does not, he leaves well alone.

Dynasty - Seasons 1 & 2I find a helpful way to think about character dynamics is as a soap opera. Soap operas (and teen drama series) focus on character dynamics to the exclusion of plot - the whole key to continuity is the established relationship between characters, to such an extent that a moment of drama can be created by nothing more than having two characters whose history we know well meet in the street. Imagine Alexis and Crystal bumping into eachother in Starbucks.

Character discontinuity occurs when characters are separated, and undergo change, development or evolution while separated. When they meet again, their dynamic is altered. While this is more difficult to write convincingly, it is a ball that few writers drop, largely because it is a case where character dynamics influence plot dynamics. It's also, however, something that happens a lot more often in Real Life — but in real life its effects are generally subtler.

Character proliferation often arises from the naturalistic fallacy that I discussed a few days ago. RL is full of people that we know well. It is reasonable therefore that in a story that takes place in the protagonists' home town, we will encounter an awful lot of characters, and many of them will influence the plot. To avoid proliferation, one of the storyteller's friends is recombination. This is taking several real people whose influence on the protagonist is similar and combining them to make one character. The other is using characters as emblems of their group – so make only one jock, one cop, one storekeeper – but let them voice the opinions and deliver the influence of the crowd they represent.

Finally I would advise every storyteller to be very clear on who is an agonist and who is just a character. A character is anyone who is established (described and depicted) for present or future use.  An agonist is any character whose words or actions influence the plot, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes an agonist is a character we never meet, such as the hero's father who we get to know through the hero's reminiscences or reflections. Sometimes they are obvious, like an antagonist.


A footnote about Points of View. I'm sure I will talk about this more. Strong POV is when the author consciously chooses to narrate only what a specific character sees, experiences and knows. When the author uses strong POV he will typically point it out explicitly. There is a bit of a fashion at the moment to use strong POV, but where each chapter uses the POV of a different character. When this is done, the character's name is usually used in the first sentence of the chapter. Or the chapter title is the character name — a device that I think belittles the reader's intelligence.

Using this strong POV technique when there are many characters can work well, as long as the writer restricts himself to using only principal characters who are going to develop through the course of the story. When there is a chapter devoted to the POV of one random agonist, I guess it's okay, but it starts to get both difficult and (sometimes) annoying when every agonist has to have his own chapter, or worse, a random character gets a whole chapter to his POV because the author knew there was something the reader had to know, and none of the main characters were present to witness it. If the latter happens, then the plot is not compatible with the narrative technique, and one of them needs to be altered.


Weird Words #2 - Exquisite

Wonderful word, this one. Common usage is as an alternative to "great" that sounds more expressive.

1. Executed with exquisite skill. 

Coupling 'executed' with 'exquisite' and the further x of 'skill', and the whole phrase is redolent of finesse, precision and expertise.

2. The exquisite pain of romance.

Here the usage is possibly just the same - 'exquisite' is being used as an emphasizing word that has neutral connotations. Compare it with the following;

3. The wonderful pain of romance.
4. The terrible pain of romance. 

'Wonderful' and 'terrible' are both providing emphasis, but the former with a positive slant, the latter with a negative. It is conceivable that the writer of 2 was aware of the precise denotation - even the derivation - of the word, but you can see how it may be used as an alternative to 'consummate' (adj.) which just means "complete" or "full" - or as a truss-word - it strengthens the structure of meaning without adding details.

One of the consequences of the use of exquisite purely for emphasis is that the adverb exquisitely often ends up as a fancy alternative to very. This, in my opinion, is a pity. 

Consider the "standard" definition of exquisite which is "fine, precise, detailed, delicate", the which arises from the etymology, which means "sought-after". Here's why I think it's a wonderful word. If you didn't know the etymology, you are probably still using the word correctly. Consider 1 in the light of this; 'exquisite skill' would likely increase the value of whatever is being done so skilfully, hence make it more sought-after. Consider 2, and romance is certainly something that continues to be sought, even once we know that it can be painful. 

The reader who appreciates the meaning of exquisite will feel that it has added meaning in these cases, whereas the reader who does not will not be further enlightened by your usage, but will nonetheless get a sense of what you seek to say.

This sense of rarity gives exquisite its connotation of desirability, and explains why the bad guy often uses it to describe unpleasant things. It's because he's educated, probably British, and he knows what it really means, but he's messing with the hero's head because he knows that the hero is blue-collar and thinks that exquisite means expensive.

5. You will be tortured exquisitely until you talk.


Amazon Tagging on the Moon

A couple of days ago I was involved in a brief exchange of view on the meaning of the word "erotica" - used to tag novels on Amazon. Tagging is when readers select a category for a book, so other readers interested in the category will be able to find the same book.

During the exchange, which took place on Kindle Boards, I was caught out being knee-jerk defensive over the meaning of a word - and I was a little impolite to boot.

This rather brought me up short. I am somewhat inclined to pontificate (that's what this blog is for, after all), so I need to be called on it from time to time. After all, I am all for definition by consensus and I support rather than resist changes in meaning.

In UK English, hopefully, is used idiomatically to mean 'I hope', as in "hopefully it won't rain tomorrow". People of my parents' generation (including one or both of my parents) are sometimes offended by this, and almost always take a dim view of it. Decimate means to reduce in number by a factor of ten. It is usually used in modern English to mean "destroy", "obliterate" or just "defeat". As far as I'm concerned, that's just fine.

Nonetheless, I did get uppity about "erotica" being used to mean "anything that can cause sexual arousal in some people". I'm well aware that most of the time in English, erotic is used as a fancy synonym for "sexy". And most of the time, I suspect, that usage does no harm to the general (if rather vague) denotation of erotica.

If I got uppity, it was not, at the time, justified. But it set me wondering whether there were situations where defending the nuance between two very similar and highly subjective terms is justifiable. I think it may be that in tagging on Amazon, a case can be made for some sort of moderation of meaning. I suggest that in tagging a book I'm not just saying what I think of it - as I would if I used the same term in a review. The act of tagging is one of communicating - of suggesting, proposing, offering - the content of a novel to other potential readers.
If I tag Judy Blume's Forever as "erotica" because it contains a positively portrayed sex scene, then I am doing a disservice to Ms Blume, all her readers all her potential readers. Because her book is not about sex. Nor is it any kind of exploration of the psychological, emotional, physical or sentimental content of sex, even though each of those does feature. I am also doing a disservice to all those readers who are looking for "sex presented in a literary context as opposed to explicit pulp titillation" - the former I would describe as erotica, the latter I would describe as porn.

Thinking about this post, I began to realize just how difficult it would be, even dealing with tags that are not already muddied with the coyness derived from taboo. If you tag a book "horror" because you find it horrifying, someone else tags it "violence" because although they were not horrified, they were aware of a level of violence that they felt needed signaling. I for one don't find "Lady Chatterley's Lover" either erotic or sexy. I believe it is classed as the former because it was written by an established writer of literary fiction, but contains sexual words. Which would show that the traditional means of classification is itself corrupted with prejudice and favour.

Erotic Stories by Women, The Penguin Book ofOn the whole, in the end, I come down in favour of consensus definition. At least on the Amazon page you can see how many times it has been tagged with a given word. I do worry that most of what is tagged as "erotica" is actually porn - Amazon.com has 2500 titles tagged as "porn", but over 24000 tagged as "erotica". Those numbers aren't enough to convince me that my understanding of the meaning of erotica is wrong (or even that its meaning is changing). They tell me that the American public is more comfortable buying something labeled "erotica" than something labeled "porn". Valuable information in my opinion.

For your consideration, I have linked to a collection of stories that is resolutely "erotica" in the Old Skool sense.


Writer's Pitfalls, #2: The Naturalistic Fallacy

It occurs to me that this is more of a storyteller's pitfall, since it is all about the business of what stories are. (What they are for is for another time).

IN the theatre, Naturalism is a style of performance and of representation, and a style of writing, that seeks to represent Real Life (RL) - and distance itself from the stylistic, symbolic or mythological. It is accompanied by a style of acting which seeks to represent characters as if they were real, ordinary people. Movement is limited to what is necessary for practical purposes and speech patterns are those used in everyday life. 

Plays written in a naturalistic style deal with small, local issues - both action, location and consequences are restricted to a small group - such as a family. The sources of drama are to be found in the everyday lives of the people; their choices, and the consequences of their choices. 

The same principle, applied to literature, has far reaching consequences, because outside of the artificial environment of the theatre, there is nothing that obliges a literary treatment to be dramatic. It can describe real, everyday existence as it really is.

Here is the fallacy. In RL, shit happens for no reason. People can go through a whole series of episodes of misfortune or good fortune in RL without explanation, justification or lasting consequences. Bad stuff can happen for no reason at all and ruin your life. Good stuff can happen for no reason at all and change your life forever. That's the way RL is.

When naturalism is used intentionally in literature, this is either because the author has a literary or political agenda, or because the story is a true life (TL) story. It can work, and often does.

A typical TL story is the Sporting Hero or, as I usually think of it, Douglas Bader. The main character is a boy wonder who becomes and ace sportsman. Then he has some terrible injury. He has to struggle against a physical disability and his own self-esteem. By the end, he has once again become an ace sportsman.

Because there really are TL examples of exactly this story, we tend to think of this as an example of RL, but it isn't. Think of how many ace sportsmen there are who have a terrible debilitating injury and never play again. Most of them, probably. RL isn't about stories. The Sporting Hero archetype works because it is life conveniently fitting the pattern of a story.

Naturalism recognizes that life doesn't always follow the pattern of a story. RL is usually patternless. But. And it is a very big but, which is why it gets a whole sentence to itself. But readers expect patterns. We turn almost everything we see into a story if we possibly can. We see connections where there aren't any, we coerce unrelated events into relationships by telling ourselves that so-and-so is just naturally lucky while so-and-other is having a run of bad luck. We expect there to be unknown connections underlying coincidences.

And we read stories because we need them. They make sense of our lives, our language, our culture. Naturalism is not always fallacious, but it is when it is used where a story is expected.

Such as in the modern fairytale setting of heroic fantasy. You could write a heroic fantasy where the main protagonist is a peasant housewife whose son is murdered by bandits, whose daughter is eaten by a dragon and whose village laid waste by a goblin horde, and who herself eventually dies of starvation and exposure. But this wouldn't be a story, it would be real life in a fantasy setting.

It isn't enough to write real characters and put them in a fantasy or imagined setting, and then see what they do. An author needs to put those realistic characters into a story, and then see what happens.

The Naturalistic Fallacy then, is this: since real life is not composed of stories, then a novel need not have a story, just convincing characters, locations and events.

The very best naturalistic writers can convince you that there isn't a story when there is. In a story, all the events are related. There are connections between all the characters. Every action has a butterfly effect, and every item is Chekhov's Gun.

I will talk about the Butterfly Effect and Chekhov's Gun in the next installment of "Writer's Pitfalls".

Remember, there are no rules if you can break them skillfully.


Editing Mike Dennis' The Ghosts of Havana

Setup On Front StreetI just completed editing book two of Mike Dennis' series The Key West Nocturnes. It came to me already well polished - needing very little input from me - all I needed to do was check the story, and make sure there were no errors. I spotted one or two, in accordance with rule 4*.

What you get is noir, firmly in the tradition of the Maltese Falcon or Key Largo - the first person style has Chandler's flair and Hammett's grit. Even so, Dennis manages to deliver something that is in the present, something that is colourful, surprising and in places, new - all the while preserving the elements that make the 'hard boiled detective mystery': the slang, the violence, the drama.

I don't want to reveal anything about the story - it has so much in it, in terms of mystery and surprise; the tension drives you to read more - and I advise sitting down with a big glass of whiskey and reading aloud. In the end I had to stop editing and read through to the end, because I kept finding myself reading three or four pages without looking for faults.

Three words: read this book.

* - rule four states that whenever you are looking for something of which there may be many, but hard to find, such as coins down the back of the sofa, a particular type of Lego brick or a shard from the glass you just broke, there will always be one more that you missed. 


Controlling your Web-Rep

KalaThe indie e-book market is about web promotion. Keeping your visibility high, by blogging, tweeting, getting blogged about, getting tweeted about, blogging about tweets, tweeting about blogs, FB-ing blogs about tweets about tweets about ... you get it. I get you get it.

Authors, and those, like me, providing services to authors, need to keep a hand on their web-rep. Anyone who is interested in you is going to Google you. As an author, they want to know more about you, because they're curious ...  or ... creepy. As an editor, authors want some bona fides - they want to know you aren't a scam.

I added a new page to my commercial website. I call the page Harry Dewulf on the web, and I've put links on it to sites that you might find if you Google me. This is partly because I think it is a good idea. It's partly because I found out this morning that way back in march I got another letter published in my favourite periodical, New Scientist. You can go read it here.

p.s. I really love M.I.A. right now.


Who do you write for?

Reading this thread in the Kindle Boards brought me back to the question.

I have never sought publication as a fiction writer, and I haven't written with any reader in mind other than myself. So I do wonder whether other writers are conscious of writing for someone in particular.

I wrote a lot of love poetry from the ages of 14 through 25-ish (most of which is mercifully lost), much of which was written for three real women. But some of it was written for an imaginary woman - and I developed a very strong sense not only of who she was, but of her existence as a real person, much as one does of a strongly developed character in a novel.

I realise that some writers have an audience in mind. A writer who is not a graphomaniac is typically a storyteller of some sort - and since a story is told, so the reader listens. One can easily imagine that much as a writer for children might tell her stories to a real child, so a writer for children might tell a story to an imaginary child. The writer might imagine herself as a child, and tell the story that she would have liked to have been told. This ties in to the issue of what stories are for; more on that another time.

Forever . . .I think that the novelist should - insofar as anyone can suggest what a novelist should - write with the act of telling in mind, and with the act of telling in mind, have in mind a strong sense of the listener or listeners. I would even go so far as to suggest that the listener should be as well developed a character as any of the characters in the novel itself - if not even more so.

I am well aware of the current (and in my opinion slavish, obsessive and infantile) fashion, especially in fiction for YA and non-adults, for the protagonist as reader avatar. I think this arises from a failure, perhaps largely on the part of Hollywood, to understand the process of identification.

While the protagonist ought to be someone that the reader can identify with, he ought not be someone that the reader identifies himself as. (Unless the aim of the author is to help teenagers through a difficult time, like the incomparable Judy Blume.) 

The e-Book market is showing that readers like being kept waiting for the next part, and enjoy downloading it, and even paying for it. This is what the profession of storytelling was all about, before the advent of Big Publishing. Coming full circle: the Kindle Boards topic is about motivation to write. I think that a strong motivation can be knowing that your listener is there, waiting to hear the next part of the story. If he has wandered off to read comics, probably the story wasn't all that good in the first place. But if he's waiting impatiently to know what happens next, then not only do you have a good story, but you also have a business model.


Semiotics - the language of signs

Coined by French author and critic Roland Barthes, semiotics is the study of the language of signs - and by signs, he means nonverbal clues.

In all nonverbal media (the graphic arts, theatre, film and television), semiotics is restricted to the use of visual clues that give you essential information, typically about character, setting or location. Barthes gives the example from professional wrestling, of how to recognise the good guy and the bad guy:

The good guy wears a mask that covers his upper face and (sometimes) his hair. The bad guy wears a mask that covers his whole face and head. Colour clues are also given - greens, blues, yellows, gold and white are used by good guys, combinations including black and red are used by the bad guys. (I don't watch professional wrestling but I'd be interested to learn if these signs still exist).

In film, he gives the example of how to recognise an ancient Roman (and distinguish him from and ancient Greek). Both Romans and Greeks in film wear togas, but Romans Have Fringes. This sign is so strong that even in recent years, film-makers have a hard time breaking free of it.

In verbal media, signs go under another name: symbolism.

Symbolism in literature is the use of visual clues, in the same way as in other media, however in literature it can go much further. From using an animal emblem for a character, through using repeated allusions to rotation, circles and wheels throughout your text to fix the idea of the Wheel of Fortune, semiotics in literature is rich and almost infinite in potential.

Arguably, the use of poetic imagery in literature is a subtle form of semiotics, as are analogy, simile and metaphor.

The author should therefore have a heightened awareness of words that have visual connotations. I just came across a borderline usage of "thundrous*" for a sound. Thundrous is normally a rolling, rumbling sound, but is often (carelessly IMO) used to mean "very loud".

'The thundrous beating of the rain on the tin roof' is one of those weird ones where while it isn't wrong, by associating it with rain, you activate the visual component - thunder makes you think of the sky when it thunders, of the sudden arrival of darkness, and clouds, dark with rain, heavy and pendulous... easy tiger. This might be what the author intended but in this case I didn't think so.


* I prefer the often supposed incorrect alternative spelling "thundrous". I think it should be encouraged. Your spell checker will tell you it is thunderous. Along with murdrous and wondrous.


Language Traps

According to both neuroscientists and illusionists, we see what we expect to see, and with the right stimulus, we can be deceived into seeing things that aren't there, and to missing things that are. Philosophers are quick to latch on to this. Also, fortunately, there is serious research into perceptual phenomena, though it is not always taken seriously.

Writers who are aware of this kind of thing can achieve extraordinary effects on their readers - some of the time. Attention and perception are tricky, and your subtly misleading paragraph that will be understood quite differently the second time it is read may fail completely if the reader is distracted halfway through. Poetry, of course, relies on this kind of thing, and the writer would be well advised to spend some time with the masters. Donne, Marvell, Coleridge and Pope all display some skill at this (the links are to my favourites, but not necessarily the best examples of what I'm talking about). The absolute master in English is Shakespeare, who in both poetry and plays constantly peppers the text with both vocabulary and imagery that foreshadows later events without signposting them. Just count how many times blood is mentioned in Macbeth before so much as a drop is spilled - and once the first drop is spilled, how many more...

Mel Comley pointed out that I had made an error when posting about her work a few days ago which I think reveals a very simple but compelling example of perceptual effects. The first two DI Lorne Simpkins novels are called Impeding Justice and Final Justice.

Impeding Justice (A Lorne Simpkins thriller) (A DI Lorne Simpkins thriller)Final Justice (A Lorne Simpkins thriller)

TRICKS OF THE MINDNow go back and read the title of the first one again. I, along with a whole lot of other people, read that as impending until the error was pointed out. I suspect that this is because the second book is called Final. Impending and Final are a natural sequence, so knowing that final is coming, I bet a lot of people will see impending even though impeding is written in big impact caps.

Tangentially - though not off topic - I cannot recommend enough Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind. Not only does it reveal an awful lot about the author, it serves to teach a basic vocabulary of perception, and alert you to the way that you deceive yourself.


Context is everything

English is not one of the easy languages. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is our spelling, which makes our language (or languages, if you prefer), not only troublesome for foreigners, but tricky for us, too.

In contrast to the romance languages that I translate from, English words frequently select their denotations not only from syntactic modifiers but also from context. Um... in plain English please.

In English, the meaning of a word can be changed not only by the words next to it in a sentence, but also by the situation being described. Examples:

The verb to get is one of my favourite words in any language*. On its own, to get is to obtain or acquire. Consider what happens when you add the preposition on to it:

The cat got on the table.

In this example, to get on is to change physical position, to a position where you are on top of something.

I'm getting on in plastics.

In this example, to get on is to advance your career. In plastics? A little outmoded isn't it?

I'm getting on with my homework.

In this example, you're doing what you are meant to do, rather than procrastinating.

Each time you change the context (cat, plastics, homework), you change the meaning of to get on.

This feature of English - present in other languages but by no means as common** -  can make English both very tricky but also very rewarding. When you studied English at school, it is a pretty safe bet that your teacher encouraged you to avoid get, and employ something more explicit or more interesting instead (see my previous post on "said"). They may even have tried to encourage you to vary your vocabulary for variation's sake. In writing, this is not a good thing. English reads better if you take advantage of the metamorphic nature of words like get, and only use something more specific when you really need it.

In their defence, I don't think your teachers were wrong to tell you to do it, but they should have told you that the purpose of the exercise was to expand your vocabulary, but that slavishly trolling the thesaurus is not how to write good prose.

* my absolute favourite word is causa in Latin. That is how much of a geek I am.
** feel free to cite examples of languages that I don't know where this is as common as in English; I'd love to know. 


What to expect from an Editor, Part 2.

This is the second part of my thoughts about editing. In the first part I talked a little at random about the qualities of a good book and a good story, and also the qualities of a good editor. Today I am focusing on what an editor should actually do.

Part 2: What to Expect from an Editor

All editors are not alike. Each will have his preferred methodology. Each will have strengths and weaknesses, just like a writer. I am aware that there are editors whose principle is that there are a few "standard" ways of writing a good (or saleable) book, and they will coerce your text into meeting the standard. This may well suit you. One might be tempted to divide editors into those who edit to create a commercial success and those who edit to help the writer improve his work. This would be wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly, commercial success is too much of a chimera for an editor to be able to suggest a few changes to get. Secondly, editors are trying to make a living too. Thirdly, the landscape of the marketplace is changing due to e-publishing, and I hope ... expect that the change will favour authors' individuality. (More about this another time.)

As I intimated in Part 1, what a writer ought to get by working with an editor is a better book.

I'm going into opinion here - so don't hesitate to disagree, especially if you are an editor. An editor needs to be a rigorous, skilled critic, and an ally. Here are the things I think an editor must provide:
  1. Detailed analysis of the flaws in your text, and some suggestions as to how to correct the flaws
  2. Analysis of opportunities for improvement of your text. Opportunities are not missing elements (those come under flaws). Your editor must be able to show you where and how you can make additions to your narrative that will make it stronger.
There are also a couple of things that an editor should be able to provide:
  1.  A view of the possibility of favourable or unfavourable comparison with other books or writers, and suggestions of how to deal with this. This is especially important for new writers, but becoming less important for writers with a well established style in the indie market.
  2. Mentoring.  While a master gives instruction, a mentor shows you how to improve yourself. The best editors do this for their writers. And all writers can improve. I think an editor should be able to give advice and make suggestions that will help the author to write better next time.
So what in concrete terms should you get for your money? At the very least, you should get your text back from the editor with lots of notes in the margin. Much as I am loath to say so, MSWord is very good for this purpose. Some editors will not touch spelling, grammar and punctuation until you deliver a final draft. Others will do it as they go. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Any other changes that the editor makes should come with some explanation. I don't usually apply literary corrections directly to the text. I prefer to flag the problem, explain it, and let the author make the correction, as I think this helps the author to assert his personal style, and to learn.

I think the editor's job is to help the author to improve his book, not to correct the author's book for him.

I also like to provide a summary of my editorial notes. This includes a short literary analysis, and details of any general issues that I think the author needs to address. This is valuable because it is hard for the author to get a view of any global issues when reading notes in the margin. I also like to chat with authors (via Skype call) - though I understand entirely why this is not possible for other editors. 


    What to Expect from an Editor, Part 1.

    Now that I am offering editing to independent authors, here are some thoughts about what I think you should expect from a literary editor. Part 1 is about editing and editors. Part 2 will be about what services I think an editor should provide, and what you should expect your editor to do with your text.

    Part 1: What makes an Editor

    What is a Good Book? I'm sure the reply is pretty much unanimous: a good book is subjective, personal. But just as I can tell a good violinist from a bad one, although I know nothing about playing the violin, so most people can recognize a bad book. So can most people be editors? I don't think so. Most people can be proofreaders*, however.

    Who is a good editor? Derek Prior and I both studied drama theory, and in the course of our studies learned the craft of textual analysis. Textual analysis arises on the one hand from the kind of literary criticism developed by F. R. Leavis and his contemporaries, and on the other hand from the desire to apply scientific rigour to the study of literature. I have applied textual analysis in every type of work and writing that I have done**. A good editor needs to be able to combine his analytic skill with a deep understanding of what makes a story work.

    What makes a story work? This is not as hard to pin down as what makes a good book, because what makes a story work is contextual rather than subjective. I have read manuscripts that contain no story - just a series of related events. Sometimes this results from the naturalistic fallacy (that I will discuss another time), sometimes just from narrative incompetence. Narrative incompetence is the inability to tell a story. As long as your manuscript features a story, your story can be made to work. How to make it work means getting down to the nuts and bolts of narrative mechanics, and putting right what is obviously wrong. Sometimes an editor's work is limited to this, but this alone does not make a good editor.

    So what makes a good editor? A good editor needs to know what makes a good writer. After all, an editor needs clients, and a client who is a good writer will be good publicity for an editor. So a good editor will be able to show a writer not only how to improve his book, but how to become a better writer.

    * The techie culture surrounding indie publishing has made "beta-reader" the favoured term. Literally, 'proof read' means 'test read'. A proofreader is someone who reads as if they are the intended reader, whether for pleasure, information, study, who is able so state, thereafter, whether the book met their need.
    ** In French academia, there is a vast, rich, and mostly redundant vocabulary of technical terms that can be applied in textual analysis. I try to steer clear of this kind of thing, though some of the terms are indispensable.



    The field of non-literal language is vast - it's one of those areas where the more you look for, the more you find. I have to use a negative nametag for it just because it is so big. Nonliterals applied to lit crit refers to the entire pantechnicon of description through analogy or imagery.

    Broadly speaking, nonliterals can be divided into two categories, which, whatever you call them, are either local or general. Local nonliterals are those confined to single phrase or sentence, and the most familiar of these are simile and metaphor.
    This includes everything from the mildly metaphorical - 'we're having mild weather' -  through improbable simile - 'as obvious as a lead brick in a bowl of rice pudding' - to extreme mixed metaphor - 'his whole body was a sword which sang like a ribbon in the wind'.
    General nonliterals are those that spread through a whole paragraph or engulf an entire novel. Symbolism is the most frequently named of these, and - though it's forms can be as myriad as your imagination - is one of the easiest to describe. Symbolism is the repeated use of symbols to evoke or enhance a particular theme or characteristic. Symbols are generally images but sometimes gestures or sounds, which carry a specific meaning. Imagery can be used symbolically, through repetition, such as associating a particular symbol with a particular character or type of event.

    I have so much material on this stuff that I will be posting examples of the above, and more, in future posts. I had meant to devote this post to the following:

    Unwitting metaphor

    Those who know their Latin will know that classical Latin is a vocab-poor language. There are very few actual words in it, compared with modern languages. This is because the authors of the Classical Roman period deliberately restricted themselves to words of known Latin origin when writing and orating. So, when they had to describe a concept for which there was no single word, rather than neologising, they would prefer to use metaphor. A familiar example might be campus martius - a battlefield (also a fairly ubiquitous place name). Campus is a field, martius "of Mars" (the Romans' god of war). Indeed Caesar uses the this and that of Mars to describe all sorts of military matters, and I remember an example (those more learned than me can perhaps confirm whether it is Caesar or someone else) describing 'Mars moving among the armies on the field' as a way to convey the currents of activity on the battlefield.

    I gave the example mild above because the expression mild weather, and its much less used counterpart inclement weather are fine examples of unwitting metaphor. This usage of mild in modern English is so familiar that it doesn't occur to most of us, meteorological anthropomorphism notwithstanding, that it is a metaphor. But mild means gentle, kind or merciful.

    We generally describe as cliché*, any simile or metaphor that is so familiar that we tend to use it automatically ('rooted to the spot'), however it isn't general used for those single word examples like mild that have become so familiar (Doug Harper  says that the earliest usage for weather is 14th century).

    The writer ought to be aware of when he is using them. The editor has to be sensitive to every single one.

    *I will be coming back to this
    Yes, I am really pleased with 'meteorological anthropomorphism notwithstanding' !


    Expostulated Janet!

    In Praise of "Said"

    Dialogue is pretty easy to invent. Most people spend plenty of time imagining future conversations and recalling past ones. It's a short step to imagining conversations between characters. It's when it comes to writing them down that difficulties arise.

    Various style guides will give you invaluable aid in laying out your dialogue* on the page, and there are all sorts of conventions about acceptable proportions when combining speech and non-speech in the same paragraph and what-have-you.

    The most common difficulty seems to lie in maintaining the pace and flow of a natural conversation when reading, while at the same time giving indications of tone, gesture and other nonverbal communication, not to mention ensuring that the reader doesn't get confused as to who is speaking.

    In French, there is a convention which while it is somewhat vertigo-inducing the first time, does away very nicely with all these problems at once:

    Armand and Philippe were sitting outside their favorite café on the Champs-Elysées as usual when their attention was caught by the appearance of an elderly lady with a small dog, followed closely by a leggy blonde with a huge alsatian.

    - they are together, those two, do you think ?
    Philippe, laconic
    - I do not think, Armand my friend, I only observe ?
    Armand, gently teasing
    - but what do you observe, Philippe my old chum ? 
    Philippe, smug
    - Sultan and César are taking their ladies to the park.

    Unfortunately this convention, present in French for at least a century, is not available in the English speaking world - though I'll get behind anyone who wants to use it.

    Writing in English, you have to say who said what and how they said it.

    Now a whole lot of you will have been enjoined by your English teachers to avoid "said", and use something "more interesting" or "more descriptive". Others will have told you to "use adverbs".

    "They are together, those two, do you think?" Asked Armand.
    "I do not think, Armand my friend, I only observe," Philippe replied.
    "But," Armand continued in a gently teasing tone, "what do you observe, Philippe my old chum?"
    "Sultan and César are taking their ladies to the park," Philippe smugly concluded. 

    How much do those complements really add? We know the first line is a question, even without the questionmark. What Philippe says can only be a reply, Armand then continues his earlier thought and Philippe concludes the dialog with a rather weak joke. These words are almost completely redundant - they are there only to hang something else onto. The first one tells us who speaks first, and the third and fourth enable us to attach some color.
    Billy Bunter's BanknoteThose aforementioned English teachers would probable have been disappointed that we didn't say inquired, reposted, insisted and declared, but these would have been no less redundant, and more than a little distracting. Indeed, the more you search for alternatives to "said", the more distracting it becomes, and the more your characters sound like schoolgirls in something by Elinor Brent-Dyer or Frank Richards. And not for nothing, since Frank Richards often used this for comic effect, though he was equally capable when using plain old said with adverbs. Notice especially the use of "repeated" in the second example, and why it isn't redundant.

    So here at last are Philippe and Armand as I originally wrote them:

    Jo of the Chalet SchoolArmand and Philippe were sitting as usual outside their favorite café on the Champs-Elysées when their attention was caught by the appearance of an elderly lady with a small dog, followed closely by a leggy blonde with a huge alsatian.

    "They are together, those two, do you think?" said Armand.
    "I do not think, Armand my friend, I only observe,"
    "But," Armand leaned forward, with the beginning of a smile, "what do you observe, Philippe my old chum?"
    "Sultan and César are taking their ladies to the park."

    In conclusion, if conclusion there be, I think there is a place where Janet can justifiably expostulate, but much of the time nametagging isn't even necessary, and when it is, said will generally do.

    * I use the UK spelling to differentiate between: dialogue - discussion or conversation and a dialog: an educational roleplaying exercise or political/diplomatic exchange. This may be a little fussy of me but it acts as a landmark.


    New Writers' pitfalls #1 - assumption

    Talking about this recently with another editor, we concluded that if you asked 30 editors for the ten worst new writer pitfalls, you'd get 30 different lists. I have enough material to post a new pitfall every month for the foreseeable.


    First time writers who know their story and characters well, and want to get to grips with the story, and want to get to the end of the book, are making a strong start. However the same writers can and will make a whole range of errors because of this strong start.

    To assume is to take something to be so without evidence. Assumption (in spite of what your management training textbook might have told you) is not always bad. Indeed for a creative writer it is often essential. However there are certain assumptions that are almost indistinguishable from hope.

    The author who wants to get to grips with his story as fast as possible will often assume that the reader will recognize the world of the book, and consequently he will forego description. Knowing his characters and locations well, he will omit to portray them to the reader - especially since he may find this a tedious distraction from moving the plot along.

    If the characters are well developed in the author's mind, then by the end of the story the reader will have got to know them quite well - though not without a little frustration. If they are not well developed ...

    Of course, exactly the same effect can arise when the author has done no preparation at all in conceiving characters and locations.


    Literary commentary that purports to tell you how to write well is always open to debate, disagreement and controversy. A good storyteller can make almost anything work, and anything described as a pitfall might, in the hands of a skillful writer, be viewed as a strength. This disclaimer notwithstanding, the new writer would do well to seek to develop his skill by understanding his weakness.


    I'm now offering editing to indie authors!

    After I edited Derek Prior's books, I have started offering Literary Editing services to indie writers. Check out my thread on kindle boards and my website for more details.
    I got interested in the indie stuff largely thanks to Derek, who asked me to review some books for his Kindle boards review site (see the lynx on the right), and then started forwarding some editing work to me when he was overloaded with requests for editing himself.
    It is more fun than traditional editing - basically you have to work fast and cheap.

    Wierd Words

    I'm hearing more and more about "internet blogs". I suppose this pleonasm isn't too horrific if it is intended for the increasingly few people who can't even guess that a blog might be on the internet. Don't even get me started on "the Internet". Readers who know me from another place will know that I'm something of an Old Skool web geek.

    Mainly this post lets me use the word "pleonasm".