4 End of Year (ish) Releases. Yay!

A year of sporadic berating, bemoaning, chivvying and chiving (is that a word?) has made, as usual, no difference to my authors' publication schedules. However, the last quarter of the year, no less than four of them have pulled their fingers out in order to bite the bull in hand. Two in December.

First to the big red button was Damon J Courtney, finally giving us the last instalment in the Dragon
Bond trilogy. The trilogy is an object lesson in how to become a fantasy writer. I'll be gushing a whole lot more about it next year, but suffice to say that this book is a lot subtler, and more sophisticated, that what came before, even if it seems like the plot is simpler... The Fate of Champions explores what it really means to be chosen by the gods to fulfil your destiny.

In November, Colin Taber released the sequel to United States of Vinland: The Landing. In Red Winter we see the Viking settlers face a new crisis. In The Landing, they survived shipwreck and the harsh Markland winter. In Red Winter the seeds of mistrust, mistreatment and brutality sown by the Lakeland Wolves finally yield the requisite whirlwind. (Didn't really mix enough metaphors there. Must try harder.) Meanwhile, back in Iceland, manoevres are afoot that could challenge the very ownership of the Lakeland vales.

First in December is Survivor. This is old school space adventure. Saff manages to combine some serious and hard imagining with a whole sackful of nods to everything in and a few things out of the genre, old and new. A hugely satisfying read, this is a sort of Lara Croft in space only written by a woman, so I guess what Lara Croft would be like if she was being scripted by, I dunno, Rhianna Pratchett?

Finally, and finally is the word, Jack Shilkaitis has at long last released the sequel to 2012's Apostasy on Christmas Day. Is he trying to tell us something? Atonement picks up more or less where Apostasy left off, but begins to deal with the consequences. The main character, Tokara, has killed one of the gods of his people. How will the other gods react, and if they can be killed, are they really gods at all? And how will his people react? Is he a heretic or a messiah? Or is he something else...?

Honestly, the blurb to Jack's books write themselves.

I'm looking forward to some exciting releases in 2015, including one on which I have an author credit (shock horror!) and some innovations here at densewords. Enjoy your Holidays, and keep writing.

Happy new year!



Early Diagnosis - save time and save money by getting a professional analysis of your work before you write it.

Early Diagnosis - $147

Once you have started writing your first draft, 
Send me: 
  • The first 5000 words of your book
  • A one page outline of the story
I will send you:
  • An intense edit of your first 5000 words
  • Pointers, suggestions and pitfalls
You will write the rest of your manuscript knowing that you have already addressed and eliminated a variety of issues of style, technique and process that would otherwise have cost you a lot more in editing and redrafting.

I have set aside time to do one of these every week. Book yourself in now, and write your first 5k.

_ _ _ 

Two things come up over and over again when I talk to new writers about the process of self publishing.

1. The biggest delays in the writer's anticipated publication schedule come from the second draft
2. The biggest costs come from content and copy editing

I think both arise from a hangover from pre-self-pub days, which is:

before anyone else sees a manuscript, it should be complete

So whether your work is a 40k novella or a 300k epic, you have to write all 40k or all 300k before you show it to anyone.

In fact, a lot of editors (myself included) insist that your manuscript should be finished, and be at a "best draft" stage before they will even look at it. It should at least have had one round of beta-readers and a couple of self-edits.

If you've already been through that process, pause and think how much time all that takes you.

And how much a content editor charges for a full edit of 100k words. And how much a copy editor charges for 100k words.

If the last 5 years, the last seven million words, have taught me anything, it's that mistakes that you make in the first couple of chapters, you will continue to make throughout the rest of the book.Whatever is worst about your writing, whatever you (and, let's face it, I) will most want to eliminate, will be in those first couple of chapters.

It seems to me that writing an entire manuscript before you let anyone else see your work is rather like setting out on a journey and not checking to see if you have the right map until you reach what you think might be your destination.


India Pale Ale - Kev & Steve's Indie Publishing Adventure

A couple of weeks ago I got a follow on my twitter @densewords (a rare event) from @kevandsteve. Curious as to what their "Indie Publishing Adventure" might be, I checked out their various podcasts via their website.

Kev and Steve are new to fiction and are entering the self-pub world with a spirit of adventure and experimentation. Their magnificent octopus is officially released today.

This is Episode 1 of their serialized zombie apocalypse experiment, Left Behind, which sees a couple of very ordinary blokes coming to realize that all is not well with the world around them.

Left Behind is light-hearted and humourous and distinctively British though apparently this does not mean that it in any way resembles Benny Hill.

Anyway, they let me take a look at the first episode, so I did a sample edit on the first couple of chapters. Issues with POV, character consistency, setting, some vocabulary oddities notwithstanding (of which the best was thermidor as a place to keep cigars), the characters are strong and likeable - remind me in no small way of the work of Ray Kingfisher - and the story is simple and obvious. It's the combination of these factors that makes the story both likeable and readable. As in all Zombie Apocalypses, as a reader you want to watch the characters discovering the changes in the world, trying to understand, come to terms with, and survive them, and the characters are made strongly enough in the first couple of chapters that you can get a pretty shrewd idea of how well (or, more likely, badly) they're going to handle it.

Usually when I do an edit, I like to go through it with the author over Skype, so last night, that's what I did, and Kev and Steve recorded it for the next edition of the IPA Podcast, and you will be able to listen to me trying (and failing) to make them cry by telling them everything that's wrong with their writing, and one or two things that they're getting dead right.

You can listen via iTunes, Spreaker or here! I'll be on episode 006 which airs tomorrow morning.

Find out more about Kev & Steve:


The Head: why the first paragraph of a chapter deserves a name.

Chapters are a convention that we have inherited. I don't know when they first became formalized. We find episodes where distinct events take place and specific objectives are achieved in some of the earliest stories. The first example out of my head is the Iliad of Homer, which is divided into 24 books, whose distinguishing features are much the same as what we use to define chapters: differences in time and place, characters, and completed events, each of which contributes to a larger story.

Whether it is simply the practical convenience of having a point where you can put down the book and turn out the light, to pick up again easily the following evening, or whether there is something cognitive, or rhythmic, or otherwise mysterious about the nature of this structure, it is one that is used in most modern novels.

Indeed, many modern writers subdivide their chapters into scenes. Usually this subdivision allows the author to avoid wasting time with narrative taxis*. Sometimes this subdivision shows that the author can't write long scenes.

A new chapter, therefore, begins something new in the story. A chapter has to have a goal or objective; something has to be achieved, so that the chapter can come to an end, and a new chapter begin.

The first paragraph of the chapter, therefore, has a very specific job of work to do. This is why I don't call it a paragraph at all. I call it a chapter head.

My reasons for not calling it a paragraph are partly because of objectives, partly because of conventions, and partly because it is a place where normal narrative rules are broken good and hard for solid practical reasons.

Consider this as the first line of a chapter:

It seemed to Inspector Bodkin that the carriage door was not properly shut.

In any other paragraph, you would be rebuked by saying that something seemed. Using "seem" is a crime I call 'touching the mask' which I will probably have to explain in a lot more detail in another post, but which is, in brief: calling attention to the process of narration within the narration.

But in a chapter head, the fragment 'It seemed to Inspector Bodkin that...' gives the reader vital practical information; it tells the reader that this chapter will be, either broadly or narrowly, from the point-of-view of Inspector Bodkin.

It also gives us "carriage door". The broader context of the book will tell you whether this is a train or a coach, and whether the Inspector is on it, in it or beside it you would expect to know from the next line:

Despite his badge, or perhaps because of it, the inspector had had a hard time getting a ticket, but now that he was on the train he was having a hard time finding the conductor.

In modern novels it's very common to place the character mid action in the first couple of lines (in medias res), and then use the next couple of paragraphs, in the pluperfect, to explain how he got there. I like things to be a little more efficient, so I'm limiting my pluperfect to hinting at the inspector's possible state of mind - someone was being difficult at the ticket office, and now he can't find the conductor, so he may be feeling impatient or frustrated.

As he bumped through the crowded carriage, he wondered where the hell sergeant Baxter had got to.

'Where the hell' (rather than just 'where') signposts the fact that the POV is narrow enough that Bodkin's thoughts can be heard in the narration. This line achieves three more objectives: the train is crowded; it's probably moving (though at this stage, bumped might just be referring to people in his way); there is another character who is expected to be present in this chapter. The reader will probably expect some clarification about the nature of Baxter's absence in the next line or two.

The chapter head, then, is doing a number of jobs, other than just setting the scene. Whether or not it uses the in medias res>>flashback convention that is so popular right now, or some other narrative device, the purpose is not only to place the reader in the location and with the characters, but also to remind the reader of the type of story, the type and style of narration. It's purpose is of orientation. The very best chapter heads also hint at a story objective. Sometimes through foreshadowing or irony. Sometimes they state them explicitly:

Wherever Baxter had got to, Inspector Bodkin couldn't hang about. He had to locate Forstner before the train reached the next station.

That is a really bold statement of narrative intent, of a kind that (again) would usually earn a scolding. It's almost as bad as little did he know. But in a chapter head, a statement like that reads like a sort of challenge. It's like the writer has said the the reader "I'm daring myself to resolve this plot point by the end of this chapter."

Chapter heads, then, are special places. Time, and tense need not follow their usual rules; rules of subtlety can be ignored, boundaries between narrator, character and reader can be weakened. Often, the chapter head is the best candidate of all for the trick of moving the sentence you wrote last to the beginning. Unconventional order of narrative is the convention.

A chapter head has to say: a new chapter has begun. It has to say: this is who and what it is about, and: this is how I will be telling it.

When editing, I spend about ten times as long on the chapter head as I do on every other paragraph in the chapter, including the last. As a writer, you should spend at least as long.

* A narrative taxi is a passage, often no more than a short paragraph, that moves a story from one scene to another. The name comes from the analogy that I usually give to explain it, where characters have some meaningful event in the restaurant, and then go on to a nightclub, where something else meaningful occurs. Nothing meaningful occurs between the two locations. So a narrative taxi is when the whole process of calling a cab (or hailing a taxi), the trip, the arrival, and so on, are narrated. Most modern writers will skip all of this, by beginning the nightclub scene with the characters getting out of the taxi. This provides a bridge for those readers that need it, with out taxing, boring or insulting those that don't need it.


Weird Words: Recovery

Having taken some time off for ill health...

Actually, that common turn of phrase is itself rather daft. It sounds like I took some time off in order to be unwell.
 Be that as it may, I was wondering about a small group of words whose meanings and derivations overlap, but which are not all that close, after all. Usually, on a post like this, I would start with the research into derivation and past usage, but I want to be clear first on what I think are the usual modern meanings of this small group of words, to whit:

  • recover
  • regain
  • recuperate
  • recoup
Recover - the most commonly used, with the widest variety of meanings, all of which orbit around notions of getting back something lost, to which you have title or ownership or otherwise deserve. In my case, recovery from ill health is the recovery of good health. But you can also recover your investment, your stolen goods and your long lost sister.

Regain - seems to be more specific and more abstract than recover at the same time, since you can regain both the shore having been blown adrift, and also regain consciousness having been knocked out. Soldiers can regain ground that was lost, and also regain their former glory after being dishonoured. Some of these things can also be recovered, but unlike recover, regain has not yet made the leap to intransitivity. You always have to regain something.

Recuperate - almost exclusively used in the expression R&R - rest and recuperation. It seems to mean something very similar to recovery - to restore a depleted state - but suggests a more active, concerted and/or directed approach.Whereas I have been languishing in my bed, passively awaiting recovery, soldiers on leave seem to have a whole host of things they do in order to recuperate their physical and mental good condition. Some of those things seem quite strenuous and even risky.

Recoup - used almost exclusively in the expression recoup your losses, it seems to imply in most modern usage some sort of damage limitation, often after a risky investment.

NOW I'm going to visit my lexicography shelf. Back in a mo.


Recover - I have not been surprised to discover that this is etymologically the same word as recuperate - with the latter coming direct from Latin and recover coming via medieval Latin and French, which explains the small vowel shift and transformation of 'p' to 'v' (transformations between p, b, v, l and r are commonplace). Has a acquired a wide range of uses across the ESW but in all cases about getting back something lost - generally quite recently, and often figurative or abstract.

Regain - same root as again - which is 'gain' - being profit, or more specifically (in ancient usage) yield of crops. Regain is complicated, though. The modern (if ancient) French word regain refers to hay collected a second or third time from the same field - the sense of yield being very strong, but illustrates well the sense of profiting more than once from the same endeavour, which was the sense of regain for a long time. However in English the sense of getting back something lost has almost completely eclipsed this sense. We seem to prefer regain over recover in certain situations, and many writers prefer if for the spurious virtue of being "less Latin".

Recuperate - Etymologically, this means to recapture. Usage seems to be largely interchangeable with "recover" though the Latin haters hate this even more. Most usage centres around physical condition or loss of assets or investments. A telling distinction is that you can recover a lost cargo, but you can't recuperate a lost cargo. However freight can be recuperated. Heh...

Recoup - by far the most interesting of the bunch, the "coup" is to cut. It was a legal term, meaning to recover or redress a loss, such as by deducting expenses. As such the most common usage is to indemnify or otherwise make up losses, typically in investments.


Fixed Price Content Edit AND Royalty Split

From July 2014, my minimum price for a full content edit has crept up just a little, from 0.0115 EUR per word to 0.0121, or approx. 660 USD for 40k words (~0.0165 USD per word).

In addition, I am formally adding a new service and a new payment arrangement:

One Shot Read and Comment

This is a content edit, where I read and analyse your manuscript and focus my analysis on a few critical factors. More details on my website. This is offered at a fixed rate of 0.005 USD per word.

Payment by Royalty Split

Subject to my accepting your manuscript, I am offering four of these per year, and the next one available will be Q4 2014. The split is an "earn out + bonus" arrangement. On seeing your manuscript, I will set a fee for my edit. Once your book is launched, royalties are split 50/50 until my fee is paid, then 10% (the 'bonus') until the first anniversary of the book launch. If my fee is not paid by the first anniversary, then I will write it off. In other words, you have nothing further to pay. To be absolutely explicit: if the book sells zero copies in the first year, you don't pay me anything, ever for that book.

This arrangement is intended both to encourage new writers to take a more businesslike approach to selling their books, and to defray the costs of free edits, which I want to be able to continue to give. As such it isn't really suitable for authors who are already making a steady income - you will probably lose out.


How to keep your gun in hand

Consider the following:

Flint stood, gun in hand, at the door.

What you get from this is that Flint is in a state of readiness. What's going on syntactically is that he is performing the action of "standing, gun in hand".

Now this:

Flint stood at the door with his gun in his hand.

Somehow this suggests a hint of trepidation on the part of Flint. As if he's about to defend, rather than attack. Syntactically, 'his gun in his hand' is an ablative complement introduced by 'with'.


Flint had his gun in hand when he stood at the door.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with this, but I suspect this is a failed attempt to reproduce the syntax of 'gun in hand' of the first example. Because it doesn't mean what the author wanted it to mean. "To have something in hand" is an expression meaning that it is taken care of, under control, or in the course of being done:

Preparations for Flint's surprise birthday party were well in hand when I arrived. We were concerned that the children would give away the surprise but Molly kept them in hand. Needless to say, Flint got the wrong idea, and as his surprise turned to alarm, the situation rapidly got out of hand.

"Out of hand" is the opposite of "in hand".

Misuse of "in hand" is getting out of hand. Rather like the whole "look at/look to" confusion, this isn't the grey area you might think it is. We often need to differentiate between "in hand" and "in his hand"; we often need to differentiate between "look at" and "look to".  Useful differentiations like this are what tend to armour usage against evolution.


No Name Key - Jessica Argyle

Jessica Argyle has just hit the big red button on her new book, No Name Key.

No Name Key is a sort of crossover between a retro/historical murder mystery and a story of emancipation that occasionally (and according to the author, unintentionally) borders on feminism, without being preachy or moralistic. Morality is satisfyingly blurry.

Its atmosphere is humid, heavy and sensual, like the landscape.

Jessica Argyle is a member of the same writing group as the excellent Mike Dennis, and although her treatment of the Florida Keys environment is very different from his, it shares a distinctive sense of place, a place that has its own personality, that permeates, as if inevitably, the story and characters.

I'm looking forward to seeing what she produces next.


Avoiding failed metaphors and missed similes

I was going to call this "when metaphors attack" but the reality is that I'm the one attacking the metaphors, and shaking them like a terrier until they fall apart.

I have already mentioned in other posts how there is a lot more metaphor in people's language than they realize. That the babble of a babbling brook is a metaphor, and the play of a play of light. But it is fairly rare that these clichés fail - we are so used to seeing them describe what they describe, that we don't really call them into question.

Simile and metaphor work by resemblance, which can be strikingly vague, but there is a case where both can fail, and fail quite jarringly.

Consider first the use of a simile to describe an abstract idea:

"His job fit him like a glove."

In this case, we mean that his job is perfectly suited to him, or he to it. Being suited to your job is abstract. "Fit like a glove" provides us with an image of suitability - the glove is the precise shape it needs to be to fit a hand. So we take an image of physical suitability, and use it as a symbol for abstract suitability.

Consider next:

"His car fit him like a glove."

At first, this might not strike you as strange; it is still all about suitability; the author is using the simile to show that the car suits its owner in every possible way. It's meaning is therefore still abstract. But I'll come back to this example.

"The hilt fit his hand like a glove."

This ought to be immediately jarring. But I see examples of this often enough that I suppose there must be some common reasoning behind it, and I suspect that reasoning has to do with the way that we can use simile to describe abstracts, which therefore bear no physical or visual resemblance to the image chosen, because an abstract has no physical or visual characteristics. The author still wants to describe a perfect fit, but has chosen to compare one concrete image — the hand gripping the hilt — with another — the glove fitting the hand — and these two fits are NOT analogous. The glove fits the hand because it is hand shaped. The hilt fits into the hand because it has been designed to be gripped by a hand using it for a specific purpose. Conceptually, both are about fitness for purpose, but the image of a grip and a glove-fit are not similar.

In effect, it is easier to choose a simile for an abstract idea, because it isn't confused by the possibility of provoking dissonant imagery.

Going back, therefore, to the car fitting like a glove. This is an example of the most common problem that I find with figurative language, and it is a form of indiscipline that arises from a lack of awareness both of the way in which figurative language functions and the way that the writer should be consciously choosing his imagery.

The car fits both in the abstract sense - that is perfectly suited to its owner - but also in a concrete sense, in that the owner fits inside the car. But like the hand/hilt relationship, the car/driver relationship is not the same as a glove/hand relationship. The exterior of the car is not driver shaped. The author who has selected this image has got the abstract part right but failed to notice that the simile fails as a physical comparison.

I selected "like a glove" for this post because it is so heavily used that most readers will not notice if it doesn't fit the intended description, ahem, like a glove. Cliché makes simile and metaphor rather more adaptable. But if (as I hope you do) you prefer to make up your own similes, then you don't have the cosy flexibility of the cliché to protect you.

* * *

I'm not sure that this post is completely clear. I'll probably have to revisit this idea at some point.


Why self-pub e-books are not like digital photography

I again found myself faced with the "Parable of the Professional Photographer" in the context of a discussion of the impact/future/durability of e-books and self-pub.

The Parable recounts the story of the appearance of digital cameras and its impact on professional photographers, and, in accordance with the prejudice or intended conclusion of the teller, shows how digital photography:

1. Is here to stay

and either:

2a. Will eventually be used by all professional photographers
2b. Will eventually be used by all except the best professional photographers
2c. Will be an important tool to professional photographers but never completely replace film
2d. Will differentiate between "art" photographers and mere "snapper for hire"
2e. Makes all forms of photography available to everyone, thereby putting all professional photographers out of business
2f. and so on.

People draw whatever conclusions they want from the Parable. But the main reason for trotting it out when discussing the new self-pub landscape is in order to say that e-Book self pub is not vanity pub as is here to stay.

But they are not analogous.

What we do is important. No matter how little you may think of your work, we are creators, teachers, curators, communicators and perpetuators* of culture.

Wedding photographers do not create culture, but they do perpetuate it.
Photojournalists often create culture, but also do a great deal to perpetuate it.
Art photographers are often trying to force culture to change, to give us new eyes, so that we think differently.
Photopornographers might be a special case...

We writers, do much the same thing. There are plenty of (excellent) writers who do exactly what wedding photographers do; they provide a demanded service within an established cultural framework that their customers do not want changed. Those who write non-fiction (whether factual books or journalism) are writing within an existing cultural context (which they therefore perpetuate) into which they want to introduce new information (and therefore drive the evolution of the culture). Those who write fiction with provocative content are trying to challenge culture, in the hope of bringing about change - even if only in very small ways.

Hang on? Wasn't I going to say why writers and photographers were not analogous? No, I wasn't going to say that at all. Writers and photographers are both artists. Always have been, always will be.

What has changed for photographers is that they have new tools with which to create their art. Some artists actively seek new tools. Some embrace new tools as best they can. Some (like my friend Gérard Larguier) have a feeling at the discovery of a new technology that their creative process had been waiting for it all along.

(Gérard combines collage, paints, papier-mâché with "photocopier abuse").

The arrival of digital photography means new processes for photographers, and possibly, therefore, entirely new types of image. And new ways of creating older types of image. It also means (for the professional) a very dramatic drop in the overhead. That might be where the confusion arises. It so happens, by chance, that the new technologies in photography add BOTH a change in the artists tools AND a change in the production costs. But in thinking about what this means to the artists, those two points should be kept apart. Because acceptance of the new technology is confused by the issue. Many artists are reluctant to change their tools. Very few artists are reluctant to decrease their costs. In photography, the technology can reduce the costs AND produce better results. A wedding photographer could take several thousand photos on the Big Day, and then select the best ones. Imagine the cost of doing that with film!

The arrival of digital distribution (for that is what e-book self pub is) DOES NOT AFFECT THE ART IN ANY WAY. These are not new tools for producing stories. You still produce stories the same way you always did, by narrating them. Even your keyboard, dictaphone, shorthand-typist, typewriter, biro, quil, wax-tablet, makes no difference whatsoever to what story you can produce.

This is where the analogy is broken. There is no "technology acceptance" issue for the writers, because the technology doesn't change the art. It is true that many readers have yet to accept this fact. The print and paper fetishists fear that the stories will be less good because the binding is plastic. This is obviously nonsense, so much so that it will fade away. It's been obvious to SF writers for over a century that eventually print and paper would be replaced. It's never been a sticking point for their readers.

The major "technology acceptance" issue is for the same people that we all know it has always been for: the middle men, who are now eliminated, unless (like some agents) they can find new value to add to the process of production and distribution. We may regret the effect that it has on some of the distributors. I feel a nostalgia for the bookshops where I spent so many hours of my youth. I had a particular affection for a little shop in the Oxford Covered Market, and another in Falmouth, Cornwall. But if high-street distribution is going to continue, then it has to evolve. (In-store POD is where I think they should all be going.)

Digital Distribution is not an established market. It's a new market, still in its very early stages. It has plenty more bubbles and crashes to go through, plenty more delusions and peaks, before it can even be said to have arrived.

Whenever something new comes a long we want to reassure ourselves, and others, that it is analogous to something that has gone before. If you want a good analogy, then look at the railways, and their effect on the distribution of farmed produce and (in particular) locally manufactured luxury or artisan goods. There was nothing digital in it. But there was a revolution in distribution that completely changed the economic landscape for producers. It also created new opportunities for unscrupulous middle men. So far, very few of those have found their way into what we do. But they will.

* I'm not sure if this is a word


Top Mutually Exclusive Advice for New Writers March 2014

Almost everyone asks me: "what's your top advice for new writers?"

They're usually hoping for something snappy. Thinking about over the last few days — especially in the light of a book I just finished reading (I have my notes to write up now) by a new writer — I find that the two pieces of advice that I would most like to give are, or at the very least seem to be, in fundamental conflict.

The first is:

If there is a simpler way, use it.

It is painfully common for new writers, either revelling in the sheer joy of language or determined to impress, to use curious extended metaphors, nominal phrases of 6 words or more for the subject and object of single verb sentences, strings of adjectives, "clever" and "cute" turns of phrase, obscure or erudite vocabulary, synonyms*, alliteration, addressing the reader, swapping typefaces, using any POV except 1st-person-with-hindsight (e.g. Sherlock Homes) or 3rd-person-omniscient (e.g. Dickens), flashbacks (and any other anti-chronology), addressing the reader directly, and of course, words and phrases of whose meaning they are not CERTAIN.

All this and more is classed as "running before you can walk". I have been at pains to point out that as a writer you have to make conscious choices about the devices and conceits employed in the pursuit of your craft. And it is all to easy for the novice to respond: but I chose to do all those things.

The problem is that caught up in the maelstrom of all those bells and whistles, the new writer loses his grip on a story that soon becomes like a watersnake: incredibly hard to grasp; once grasped easily fumbled, and once fumbled it'll either bite you or swim way out of reach. You have to know you can nail the story FIRST. Once you do, you have to start chusing with reasons. This means making conscious choices, but able to state your objective for those choices. Messing about with chronology? You want the reader to discover things in improbable orders. Why? Rest assured I will challenge you.

The second is:

Be ambitious.

If you are one day going to become known for your distinctive, personal style; if you are going to keep your creativity open and unfettered, then you need to experiment and keep experimenting. So you need to try out all the stuff that you want to try out. Noone ever got better by sticking to what they know. Don't be yourself. Try to become what you want to be.

It is very easy for the zealous tutor to stifle creativity. A good tutor will provide you with a framework in which to improvise, and introduce you to techniques that you weren't aware of — and then let you use them when you feel like it, for better or worse.

This advice is conflicting. But that's normal. Learning, Creativity and Discipline form a three way love triangle whose conflict can never be resolved and whose conflict might be the key to great writing. You want to be a better writer tomorrow, or you wouldn't be reading my blog. Not that reading my blog will make you a better writer. It might help. If you want to be a better writer then you have to have the ambition, to want to try new stuff even if you don't quite understand it; you have to but the various techniques of the craft into practice before you can grok in fullness their potential. But like any grasshopper, to become a master, you must first accept that you know nothing (or, in fairness, very little. If you knew nothing about writing... I'm sure you get the point).

Yes, sifu.

* <micro_rant> The purpose of Roget's Thesaurus, and the purpose of synonym dictionaries is NOT to help you find an alternative word, but to help you to find exactly the right word. Do you know who uses Roget the most? Translators is who: it is a very effective way of finding the best match for a meaning originally expressed in a foreign language. </micro_rant>


There's no such thing as literature

My missus, who is French, is very proud of the fact that, along with temperature and secretary, she can pronounce literature correctly. All three words are pretty difficult for most foreigners and more horrifying than Cube Zero to French people.

But literature is a pet hate of mine.

"Do you," people ask me, "edit literary fiction as well as genre fiction?"

"How," authors complain, "can I cross over from pulp to literature?"

"It's not literature," readers excuse themselves, "but it's what I like to read."

Definition #4 from Wiktionary knows what I'm talking about:

4. Written fiction of a high standard.
However, even "literary" science fiction rarely qualifies as literature, because it treats characters as sets of traits rather than as fully realized human beings with unique life stories. - Adam Cadre, 2008

I'm very lucky in that I grew up in exactly the kind of household which would traditionally have differentiated fiction between "literature" and "entertainment or light reading", but my mother was an instinctive iconoclast with a deep suspicion of categories of any kind; racism and sexism are forms of prejudice that are communicated and reinforced by lazy and thoughtless categorization. I don't actually remember what her opinion on the question of what literature is might have been. Perhaps I'll ask her.

In any case, the idea that fiction could be sorted into what is, and what is not, literature is a familiar one, but neither instinctive nor natural for me, and with my borderline Marxist anarchist social politics, one which reeks of prejudice and discrimination. Specifically, intellectual snobbery.

Intellectual snobbery is a form of status rivalry. It is perpetrated by people who feel that they have no real power, but have enough education, and are widely enough read, to use that as a means of saying that they are better than others. The label of literature is one of the pillars of intellectual snobbery. It is a way of saying: you haven't read the right books.

My missus, correctly, challenged my assertion that there is no such thing as literature saying that some books are clearly better than others. And some books are absolutely dreadful. This is true. But there is no way of defining a dividing line above which all the books are literature and below which all of them are "light reading". Rather like a Monk of Cool selecting his outfit, what makes a book literature is that it is on the list of books read by, or books to read by, whichever intellectual snob you are unfortunate enough to be talking to.

I'm not accusing you of being an intellectual snob.If you think you know which books are literature and which books aren't, that's because all forms of snobbery are endemic and unconscious in our culture. You're only actually a snob if you think that people who haven't read the literature that you've read are inferior to you.

Mostly, of course, I'm speaking to struggling writers here. Among struggling writers there are various attitudes towards literature:

"I'll never be able to write literature."

"I hope some day to be able to write literature."

"I don't want to write literature."  - often followed by quite sensible reasons.

"People don't think I'm writing literature."

"People don't realize I'm writing literature."

"You don't like my work because you aren't used to reading literature."

No prizes for guessing what I think of the last one. What I'd like writers to think is that it doesn't matter. It matters that you write what you love and love what you are currently writing. (I don't expect you to love what you wrote ten years ago. It's probably awful. Everything I wrote ten years ago is awful.)

It matters that you want to write a satisfying book. It matters that you want to understand and improve your craft. It matters that you want to understand how to give your readers the book that they want to read.

These are far higher goals than getting yourself placed in a category that gives you a spurious, divisive status.

There's no such thing as literature.


Imagination and Description

My theatrical training, in particular studying the theory of theatre, is I think what gives me a particular view of the relationship between the writer's imagination and the reader's imagination.

In the theatre, regardless of where the play is performed, the action takes place in an imaginary space. At first, in workshop and rehearsal, the actors develop a shared imagination of the space, so that by the time they get to the first performance, where one character sees a living oak tree, so the actor sees it, and all the other actors on the stage also see it. Each actor might see a slightly different shade of green, but the experience works for them because they all agree that it is the same tree.

If the actors achieve this, then the audience will join in. They will all also "see" a living oak tree, and will all also agree that it is the same tree - even though the actors and the audience all know that it is imaginary*.

Dramaturgists describe this as "complicity". Most audiences attend the theatre in the expectation of trusting the actors enough to go along with whatever they are told to imagine. This is sometimes called "willing suspension of disbelief". I have already discussed why this is not a useful term. But whatever you call it, what is happening in the theatre is clearly some sort of effort of imagination, where the audience are guided into imagining the right thing by the actors.

But a play is not about imagining things. A play is about enjoyment, about entertainment. So there have to be characters we sympathize, there has to be a story so that we are curious, inspired, thrilled. Consequently, the actors cannot stand about on the stage describing trees to eachother, otherwise they would never get to the story itself.

The theatre has been dealing with this issue for at least two thousand years.

So noone bats an eyelid if the first mention of the old oak tree is when one character says to another:

Go hide behind yonder old oak tree whose leafy boughs cast dappled shade upon the mossy ground.

Suddenly, to the audience, a tree that was absent a moment ago has been there all along. This is partly because of the way we experience the present through memory, and partly because of the aforementioned complicity. Shakespeare (who did everything on  TV Tropes before any of the tropes were named) lampshades this process in the prologue to Henry V.

What has been understood in the theatre since the dawn of time, and which is understood by the masters of the much younger craft of literature**, is that:

The audience can imagine far better than the actors can describe.

The author should make exactly the same assumption about his readers. One of the most predictable weaknesses of new writers is the nagging doubt that the reader isn't quite seeing the picture as the author is imagining it. This doubt leads to careful, detailed descriptions, which for interiors describe the placement of each item of furniture, where the windows are, the color of the drapes, and for exteriors use compass points, and carefully compare the heights of buildings, sometimes giving measured distances. For characters the descriptions become slavish word-portraits that try to convey the precise cut of clothing and the exact line of the nose and jaw.

My most visited article, and not for nothing, attempts to set out some guidelines on how to depict characters in a way that will make them vivid and alive for readers without detailed descriptions. I would go so far as to say that only without detailed descriptions can characters become vivid and alive. I thought  of saying something trite about the way physical description chains the reader's imagination and that liberating a character from physical description frees the reader to imagine them as a real person, but I couldn't come up with a snappy way to say it. I hope you get the general idea.

The reader can imagine far better than you can describe.

It is true that there are times when the precise layout of a room, or the precise disposition of a landscape, is needed, for some feature of the plot to function. One thinks of a whodunnit or a novelized military history. But at all other times, describe the general character of the room (the master's study in an English country house / the grand atrium of the modern head offices of an international bank) and the reader will fill in the rest. Sometimes you can do everything with just the construction materials (the building was all glass and steel / crumbling adobe / modest red-brick). Landscapes are much the same. And so are characters.

The great novelists of the last two centuries have, in most cases, a thorough understanding of this. Take almost any classic of the shelf next to you and look at the way the author sets scenes and describes people. Here's just one example that springs to mind:


No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll—"

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

Who, upon reading this, does not have enough to go on to get a feel for the character of the old lady? But all MT has described visually is her spectacles (at some length). He adds (with the "punching under the bed") that she is reasonably active but no longer as young as she used to be ("she needed breath"). He doesn't need to say any more.

This isn't a matter of laziness, of getting the reader to do the hard work. It is a matter of getting you to do the hard work; the job of deciding exactly how little the reader needs to know in order to get a clear sense of the person or the place that you are describing.

* This is also how money gets its value. But don't tell anyone or the world's economy will collapse. Again.
** According to some of those who have studied the origins of theatre, it is the oldest form of culture, pre-dating narrated storytelling. There is no realistic way of telling if this is really true.


What's wrong with "thoughts in italics."

Although I'm starting out with some (I hope) helpful guidelines to avoid the common pitfalls of direct speech, this is a post about the problems of direct thought.

DST is a  note that almost all my authors get, though some more often than others. It is short for:

Direct Speech / Tagging

and indicates that there is one of a range of problems relating to direct speech, of which the most common is a lack of paragraph breaks and the second most common is a false tag.

The remedy for a lack of paragraph breaks is fairly simple. There is a rule, and a guideline.

The rule is that direct speech said by different people must be separated by a paragraph break.

"You're always so mysterious Poirot!"

"Patience, my dear Hastings."

The guideline is that a paragraph that includes both direct speech and narration should be mostly direct speech.

"Do, please, take a seat." Poirot fussed with the ornaments on his desk, aligning them carefully with the edges. "Now you must tell me everything you know. It is of the utmost importance. You can be honest with Papa Poirot."

I used this example because it includes a false tag. A true speech tag states who spoke. It can also provide a modifier to the speech - provided the modifier alters the effect of the statement.

"Won't you come in?" said Doily-Carte with a flourish.

"Won't you come in?" asked Rabbit politely, hoping that he wouldn't.

Redundant tags come in two flavours: tags where they are not needed ...

"You're always so mysterious Poirot!" said Hastings.

"Patience, my dear Hastings," said Poirot.

... and where they describe what is obvious from the speech itself:

"But . . . it can't be true!" she exclaimed in disbelief.

"I assure you it is," he countered.

False tags imply, rather than state, who spoke, by their association with the speech in the same paragraph. They are a good device UNLESS you are using them to avoid hesaidshesaid. If you use false tags constantly they soon become wearing, obvious and distracting. "Said" will never do this to you.

Thoughts are more difficult.

There is a current and painfully lazy convention that you can convey what a character is feeling by giving his thoughts as if they are speech. The most common way to do this is to write the thoughts using the syntax of speech, but put them in italics. Personally I can't believe anyone gets away with it. But I have to do this post as if I'm providing some sort of convincing argument.

The problem with direct thought is that it's nothing like thought.

Thought is not just words going through your head as if you were speaking to yourself. Thought often doesn't have words at all. Thought includes motivation, desire, anxiety; state of mind. The intimacy of thought is broken by presenting thoughts as if they were speech. Instead of giving the reader a unique insight into the mind of a character, direct thoughts give the reader the impression that the character is talking to them.

Here's what my "Editorial Notes for All" document (that I give to all my writers) has to say about indirect thought:

Jim and Barbara followed on behind. As Greg stomped on in front he briefly considered telling them how he felt. But he couldn't help thinking that it would only cause complications. Complications that they could well do without right now.
Indirect thought is a lot more intimate than direct. Even though you may sometimes feel that giving direct thoughts is a direct means of communicating, there is a limit to how much you can communicate. In the above example, 'briefly considered' indicates not only that thinking is going on, but the type of thinking. And it has the benefit that it could be verbal or non-verbal. 'He couldn't help thinking' telegraphs the fact that this is indirect thought, but also shows that there is more to thought than just assembling words; the purpose of thought is NOT communication, but consideration.
Indirect thought both reflects and reveals a character's internal workings in a way that direct thought cannot.
The key phrase in here is this: the purpose of thought is not communication but consideration. When you present thoughts as if they were just another sort of speech, you are selling your character (and your own imagination) short. You are impoverishing the experience for the reader by depriving them of a whole dimension of the character.



I turned this up while looking for an old manuscript (more about that another time).

I was given this at prep school, so some time in the 1980s, and I've kept it preciously. I think it's pretty good (where it's legible).