Weird Words #6: Tell

We writers tell stories. Some of us tell tales. All told, some tell tall tales.

There seems to be an association throughout European languages between the consonants T and L in that order, and notions of both counting and recounting.

Total is a classical Latin word meaning, perhaps unsurprisingly, a total.

Tell means to count, told and tale both come from early English, and are parts of the same verb.

Tally comes from the Latin word for a yardstick.

Till (meaning cashbox) shares its origin with Toll (meaning fare or tax)

This t-l association is found in proto-indo-european; Old French, Old High German, Old English, Classical Latin, Classical Greek.

It seems to be telling that what novellists do is recount. I think it well worthy of the note of editors that our language equates the communication of a story to the communication of an account or inventory. There might be a cognitive sense of completeness in the delivery of a good story, and the editor might well see himself as an auditor.

Curiously, those two words have very different histories.

Editor is one who issues, puts forth, publishes
Auditor is one who listens (the intended sense of listening to check for completeness was used in this sense even in Roman times.)



Content editing comes at a range of intensities. The intensity of a content edit shouldn't depend on the editor, but on the needs of the author, his book, and its writing history.

I've edited a couple of books that were a long time in the writing. In one case, all told from the creation of the first chapter to the completing of the final chapter, 15 years of on-off writing. These are the ones that require the most work from the editor, because even when the author's concept of the original story hasn't much changed, the author himself will have changed over the time of writing, and the reader just isn't going to take 15 years to read it. The editor has to try to find a way to make it all into a single, cogent work. My advice to the author is to get an editor to read it and give some general advice on how to prepare it for editing. I call this kind of read-through a pre-edit sanity-check. Why a sanity-check? Because you if you go to a full literary edit too soon, it will cost you a fortune.

I have a couple of authors who produce short fiction that sells reasonably well. When the author has enough experience a given style/genre, and when he has enough experience of producing coherent stories, very little beyond a copy edit may be needed. At this point, he might still want a sanity-check. Why a sanity-check? Because you might still have a story-breaking plot-hole, or one or two minor issues that a second pair of professional eyes will see.

This post is called 'sanity', not 'sanity-check', for a reason, though.

Whereas a good copy editor can take your manuscript and send it back to you near as dammit CMS compliant, beyond copy editing, it can be very hard to judge when editing is finished.

When a writer sends me an extract for a sample edit, I generally edit quite intensively regardless (or indeed ignorant) of the overall quality of the manuscript. I want the writer to have a strong idea of the kind of editing that I will do. But my approach may be different once I have the whole manuscript in front of me; and may evolve further once I have discussed in depth with the writer.

I like to think that after working with me, a writer will have a better sense of his own style and own writing process, and that he will also have a story that is more coherent, clearer, tidier, but which remains resolutely his own story. I always repeat that my aim is to help you make your book as good as you can make it. Along the way we will of course deal with linguistic necessity; I aim to sensitize a writer to his writing habits and techniques, by drawing his attention to what, for want of a better word, we normally call errors.

So far so typical. But there is a reason why I am always going on about how important it is to find the right editor for you: editors don't all work the same way. We don't all have the same education, the same reading and editing history, not even the same ideology - even though most of us refer to the same selection of texts when arbitration is need.

When I read non-fiction, I can positively identify when a professional edit has been done. This is much harder with fiction, because while content editing for non-fiction is all about structure and clarity, content editing for fiction is much more creative. In non-fiction the editor can also make much bigger changes, because changes are justified on the grounds of communication, not of art. Fiction is much more personal. Most of the authors I know are happy with my saying: "this paragraph needs work," happier still if I say "this paragraph needs to be reworked so that the attitude of the character is clearer", but very unhappy if I rework the paragraph for them. How far I chuse to go is much a matter of my feeling for what the author will accept.

Other editors may choose (other editors generally choose, and I only chuse when I'm blogging) to go further or not so far.

So suppose you get your manuscript back from your literary editor; you rework it in accordance with the editor's recommendations, but you still aren't happy with it. This might mean your editor wasn't a good match for you - though there may be all sorts of other reasons. In any case, should you get a sample from another editor? Go for another full content edit by someone else? A literary editor is more like a collaborator than a quality control technician. With each editor you will get a different book. So if you've already tried more than one editor and you still aren't happy with the results, how do you decide when to stop? Go to another editor? In my opinion, that way, madness lies.

Go to another writer, or go to an editor, and ask for a sanity-check. In this case, tell them the whole history of the manuscript before they read it. Make sure they know which version they are reading! Ask them to help you to decide whether you should invest any more time and money in it; whether you should get it copy-edited and publish it, or whether you should go for another full edit.

There are two questions an author should ask himself before hitting the publish button. Number one is: "should I pay for a professional copy-edit?". The answer to this is always yes. Number two is: "should I pay for a professional literary edit?". The answer might well be no.


Sword and Phallus: What every fantasy writer needs to know about symbolism

:: Edit 2012-06-20 ::

A reader has indicated to me that the opening paragraph of the post below might easily be interpreted as an attack on feminism, especially to anyone not aware of my antecedence in this matter. Please be assured that my aim is the contrary.

:: end of edit::

It has been said that in order to accept feminist theory, you first have to reject it. It's also been suggested that feminism is like whiskey: the first taste you have is repulsive, but for some reason you keep coming back until you grow to love it. I think the latter is frankly daft.

Sigmund Freud introduced the masses to the idea of 'penis envy': that one of the root causes of women's difficulties dealing with men comes from the fundamental desire for, and lack of, a penis. During the rise of feminism in the twentieth century, that idea probably made a certain amount of sense. Certainly more than it does now. Feminist men tend (if they see it in these kinds of terms at all) tend to see the penis as a sort of consolation prize for all the cool bits women have that we don't. In all honesty, I'm none too sure where I stand on the matter. The feminist antidote to the idea of penis envy is penis extension.

Penis extension is the symbolic representation of rivalry among males and of sexual display to females, through display of exaggerated male sexual characteristics, especially when represented through objects whose shape is analogous to the penis. It is an easy accusation to make, since so many tools, devices and structures are basically cylindrical. It is also, therefore, relatively easy to refute by looking at the design specification of (for instance) a skyscraper and discovering that there is no reference in the specification to the size of nearby buildings. If, on the other hand, the client has specified that it must be the tallest one on the skyline, then clearly some sort of mine's-bigger-than-yours is going on. And since money and power are necessary to achieve tall skyscrapers, and also are strong indicators of reproductive attractiveness, showing off your money and power is de facto a sexual display. Even if what you build ends up not resembling a giant penis at all.

This sort of excessive display probably deserves mockery, and mockery seems to be one of the aims of the accusation of penis extension.

Now let's talk a little about fantasy worlds, where there's magic and swords. And let's look at two very specific examples:

This is Prince Adam, holding aloft his magic sword, on the point of saying something rather specific. With He-Man one hardly knows where to begin, so I'm going to limit this to a few obvious details. Adam is wearing a pink wraparound gilet, which vanishes along with his shirt once he is "transformed" into the rather less dressed and even more muscled He-Man. The gilet is clearly a prepuce or foreskin.

Notice also that Adam is accompanied by the weak, trembling and cowardly Cringer. Cringer often hides behind, or even between Adam's powerful legs. When Adam transforms into He-Man, Cringer becomes  Battlecat; swells to a much larger size, acquires a bulbous red helmet (with a white beard poking out underneath), and He-Man rides on him.

In short, He-Man is a giant penis who rides on a giant penis.

You're looking at the Deluxe Model Sword of Omens made by toy giants Bandai. This is from the animated series "ThunderCats". This sword starts out small, but when it is needed it grows longer. The toy has a telescopic blade. The real thing is, of course, magical. It is wielded by muscular (and imaginatively named) hero Lion-O.

What I was going to try to argue is that throughout most of human history, men have needed and used tools, and most tools have been sticks of some kind. Objects which are basically phallic. Whenever such tools have also been used as weapons, the man capable of usefully wielding the biggest one was obviously making a show of his breeding fitness, and hence sexual prowess. Big tools = big penis. This is so fundamentally unavoidable that any hand-held device, no matter how innocuous, can be interpreted as phallic if you really want to.

Consequently the writer should be extremely cautious and wary around cases like Lion-O's sword or the whole He-Man thing (shudder). If you find you've written an epic battle where the combatants keep pulling out bigger swords, then, well, I guess you already know what you're doing. I sure hope so.


The Big Dogs of Plot Devices #2: The Butterfly Effect

Coined when Chaos Theory was the height of fashion, and scientists everywhere wore t-shirts (and even lab-coats) with Mandelbrot Set patterns on them, and affectionately parodied by Pterry in Interesting Times, the Butterfly Effect was originally an analogy for the interconnectedness of complex systems, expressed as innumerable variations on:

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?+

It is generally acknowledged by weather scientists that a hurricane doesn't need the butterfly's intervention in order to happen; but the minute turbulence caused by the butterfly's wings might start a chain of events that, for instance, change the course of a hurricane by a few hundred meters. Once you accept that possibility, however, considering that complex weather systems might be thought of as a whole series of hurricanes just waiting to happen, you might be prepared to accept that the triggering factor might be the butterfly.

It isn't meant to be an actual butterfly.

As a plot device, the Butterfly Effect is a technique whereby a small, seemingly feeble, powerless, trivial or insignificant element early on, results in a chain of events whose final consequences are very large. It differs from the Domino Effect*, Acorn Effect** and the Molehill Effect*** in that what happens is largely due to chance connections between events all of which serve to amplify the initiating event. Furthermore, many of the connections in the chain are difficult to detect or pass unnoticed.

Advantages of the Butterfly Effect for writers are that no detailed explanation is required at the end since much of it is down to chance and the protagonist may even remain unaware of the root cause. For added dramatic irony, the writer can make it something he did. In fairytales this happens more often than not, through the "predisposed butterfly effect", also known as Good Karma – the hero does some minor kindness to a stranger who later turns out to have been a God/Wizard/Witch/King/Inspector of Taxes in disguise.

The disadvantage is that the reader must buy into the idea. I leave that to your skills as a writer.


DI Wallis (see previous post) absent-mindedly leaves his ID on the counter of Mr Patel's cornershop while investigating a robbery. The story moves on, and he sets out to catch a notorious elephant smuggler. At a vital moment, the entire machinery of justice is brought to a halt with the discovery that the Mr Patel has been impersonating DI Wallis for several months, and the Crown Prosecution Service is even in the process of opening a case against several people arrested by Mr Patel. In an added twist, several of them relate to unsolved crimes, including the elephant smuggler. The plot now takes an entirely new direction as DI Wallis and the CPS have to unravel all the cases.

Captain Virgo Monsoon of the spaceship Wallis is called away from her holiday on the lagoon resort planet Mangrovia IV to deal with an urgent piracy problem in the unstable Joe Lagrange system. Upon landing on tepid humid Lagrange II, she has a difficult runaround to find her contact. Eventually they team up and start dealing with the problem, which is just getting under control when there is mysterious breakdown in communications, due to the relay on Lagrange II going off line as a direct result of a swarm of Mutant Mudskippers, multiplying like crazy, hatched originally from dozen eggs transported from Mangrovia IV on Virgo's boot.

Ideally, Butterfly Effects should be more complex than either of these two, and leave even less explained. I suspect that quite a lot of time and careful tweaking is needed to form a sound butterfly effect plot. I suppose it allows the author to throw the plot in a new direction with something out of left field, which the author can show was part of the plan all along, and not lazy or bored plot opportunism ++ .

In conclusion, the author who is prepared to put in the time, care and thoroughness to get the reader to buy into the idea and make the idea work well, will reward both himself and the reader richly. I would be very cautious about using more than one Butterfly Effect in the same book, or even the same series, however, since it is such a convenient device (once you get good at it) that readers will soon start expecting it. I suppose if you are feeling playful, failed butterflies, false butterflies and subverted butterflies would all enrich a story that uses them in a way that the reader is expecting.

+ It is often associated with Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, and this is very unlikely to be coincidental since the SF writers of the 1950s and 1960s were the main reading matter of future scientists of the 1970s and 1980s. However the term "Butterfly Effect" was coined specifically in relation to Chaos Theory and the example of weather systems, AND NOT to time travel!
* a familiar one I hope; a conscious agent primes or sets up a sequence of events that, once the first is triggered, each will trigger the next, like a fall of dominos.
** Vegetable and inevitable, do mighty Oaks from tiny Acorns grow. The Acorn Effect is generally natural, always slow, visible and quite passive.
*** To "make mountains of molehills" is to treat something as much more significant than it really is. The Molehill Effect is when a person or group of people through their attitude to something trivial, end up turning it into something momentous (and usually unpleasant; such is the nature of irony).
++ I will deal with this another time.


The Big Dogs of Plot Devices #1: Chekhov's Gun

Part 1: Chekhov's Gun

The celebrated Russian playwright Anton Chekhov explained this principle of drama on a number of occasions, so you can, if you trawl the literature, find several quotations on the subject, and indeed several variations as it is all translated from the Russian. So I'm going to paraphrase Chekhov, rather than quote him:

If a rifle is seen hanging on the wall in act one of a play, then by the end of act 3 it must have been fired.

In The Seagull, (someone will correct me if I'm wrong), this is literally what happens. It is intended as an explanation of how the playwright (and by extension, the Director) communicates with the audience, but more especially, an explanation of audience expectation.

When at the theatre, the audience is in a state of heightened awareness, in particular, heightened awareness of the shape and characteristics of a story. Spectators will see meaning in the smallest detail; the angle at which chairs are placed; whether an actor takes his left or right hand to smoke, the color of the drapes, the visibility beyond a doorway; you name it.

Vsevolod Meyerhold made a particular study of the actors' movement and gestures, in an attempt to make the actor as hyperaware as the spectator; to ensure that the actor would make no movement, no gesture, without a  control and an awareness of the effect on the audience.

These ideas are especially true in literature, and they impinge not only on reader awareness, the communication of plot, and on reader satisfaction, but also on theme and symbolism.

Chekhov's gun is often used in thrillers and mysteries as a means both of direct foreshadowing (giving vague indications of future events) and of thematic foreshadowing (using visual images to represent future themes). Indeed for the latter use it is used in all genres. As a technique it enables you to raise reader awareness without providing too much information. It also gives you opportunities for justifiable misdirection. 

Justifiable misdirection is when you allow the reader to form a wrong conclusion. If you do this directly, either by giving the reader an untruth or by bluntly concealing something, then the reader will be annoyed, and accuse you of trickery, but if you show the reader images that strongly imply a foreshadowed event that later fails to materialize, the reader's satisfaction can be increased. This kind of thing can be tricky, but for thriller writers it is worth a try.


Detective Inspector Wallis is investigating a murder that seems at this stage to have been motivated by the desire to silence a witness. In accordance with procedure, Wallis looks up previous similar cases and finds four cases that resemble it closely, all unsolved, all originally assigned to the Chief Inspector.

In my editing notes I call this a C&O - clumsy and obvious. Supposing instead that:

Detective Inspector Wallis is investigating a murder that seems at this stage to have been motivated by the desire to silence a witness. He needs extra resources for the investigation, but has trouble getting to talk to the Chief Inspector. When he does get to talk to him, the CI is diffident, and unwilling to provide the resources needed. A couple of times his responses seem incomplete or inexact.

This creates a doubt in the mind of the reader, but initially just a doubt as to the relationship between Wallis and the CI. This can be later reinforced by the CI doing something confusingly obstructive at a key moment.

The thing is that in real life people behave this way all the time. What it does to the reader is tune his sensitivity to that of DI Wallis, who will tend to be suspicious of everyone. The more characters behave in ways that are not directly easy to explain, the more suspicious both Wallis and the reader will become. You then drop in symbolic visual details to enhance the effect - the light in the corridor outside the CI's office flickers annoyingly; he shuffles papers of an unusual color on his desk; his filing cabinet draw jams and makes a queer grating sound.

All this is, to some extent, Chekhov's gun. What the skillful author does is to give many details that the reader might reasonably interpret as significant even though most of them are not. If those apparently significant details can tie into the theme then so much the better. In this imaginary book, the main theme is the apparent inefficiency of Police procedures, symbolized through the faulty fixtures, fittings and furniture in Police buildings and vehicles. Associate just a few too many of these symbols with the CI and the reader's attention will be fixed on him.

In conclusion, Chekhov's Gun can be a very blunt instrument if applied in the way that Chekhov describes it. But it can also be applied subtly and gradually. It is essential to be aware of it, however, because the reader will be annoyed if you tell him that the main character has a black belt in Karate, but never gets into a fight. This is a failed Chekhov. Chekhov's gun can also be subverted, but this should be done with care; if it is too obvious, the reader will be annoyed.