Do you tell your story using past tenses? If so, don’t think you can’t also use the present tense. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the job.
Be Your Own Copy Editor #11
When copyediting novels narrated using past tenses, I frequently find that an author hasn’t got to grips with how to use the present tense within their past-tense pages. Either it’s used tentatively or it’s not employed at all when it could be, perhaps because the author thinks using the present tense would be a mistake. I’m not talking here about using the present tense – specifically, the present simple – in dialogue, where of course it’s natural to see it, or in direct-thought inner monologue (if you don’t know what that is, read this blog), but in narration. The passage below makes clear what I mean. Imagine it’s a chapter opening.
The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases. If, as seemed likely, jihadis coming back from Syria had smuggled this and other weapons back into the UK, the consequences could be horrific. He tried to push visions of a Mumbai-style massacre on the concourse of Victoria Station out of his mind.
Notice how the present simple is used (‘has’) in the first sentence, and then there’s a switch to past tenses (‘was thinking’, ‘drove’, ‘had been found’). There’s nothing wrong with using the present tense side by side with the past like this. A feature of English is that we use the present simple to talk about general truths, such as the rate of fire of an AK-47, and we can do it in a past-tense novel if we wish. Here are a few more examples of the kind of general truths we use the present simple for:
The moon orbits the earth.
One in every four climbers who attempt to reach the summit of K2 dies trying.
Brighton has a lot of seagulls.
Let’s return to that chapter opening and now write the first line in the past simple, since that’s what a lot of authors do, perhaps because they think they’d be making an error if they strayed from using past tenses in narration.
The AK-47 had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases.
That opening line reads okay to me. It’s unlikely readers are going to think that, because the past simple is used (‘had’), AK-47s once had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute, but something has changed and they don’t any more. However, this opening sentence is not as powerful as the original. The original line, written in the present simple, makes a bigger and bolder statement. Here it is again:
The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
That statement is reaching out to you, the reader. It’s more involving and in-your-face. This line is saying AK-47s have a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute in the world you live in as you read the book, and they always have done and always will.
So, not only is there nothing wrong with using the present simple in this way, but also there can be a lot right with it. However, there’s a ‘but’ coming, which is this: when you use the present simple to talk about general truths, the statements made can come across as strong interventions by the narrator, and that might not be an effect you want. If, as a novelist, you’re trying to maintain narrative intimacy with a viewpoint character (the character from whose viewpoint a scene is written), you need to handle lines like the one above with care.
I had the issue of maintaining narrative intimacy with my viewpoint character in mind when I composed the example chapter opening. You’ll notice that though it’s the narrator who tells the reader the rate of fire of an AK-47, the information is quickly owned by the protagonist, DC Josh Kavanagh, who we learn is thinking about the damage that could be done with the weapon. If you use the present simple to give a general truth in narration, you might want to find a way to quickly re-establish narrative intimacy with your viewpoint character too.
1. See if you’ve used the present simple in the way outlined above in your novel, since you may well have done without realising. If you have, don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using it per se, and check that you’ve consistently used the present tense. (I often see novels in which an author sometimes uses the present simple to give a general truth, but at other times switches to the past simple to do the same thing, without apparently noticing they are being inconsistent.)
2. If you discover that you’ve made statements giving general truths using the past simple, try converting the sentences to the present simple. Are the statements made more powerful and resonant as a result?
3. But be careful with using the present simple in this way. You might not like having the narrator speak so directly to the reader.
How much thought have you given to the verbs you’re using to carry dialogue in your novel? Elmore Leonard believes said is the only verb you should use, yet there are accomplished writers out there ignoring his recommendation. Who’s right?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #8
It’s impossible to talk about choosing verbs to use for speaker attributions in the context of writing genre fiction without taking into consideration what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject. You may have read Leonard’s highly influential essay ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’, first published in the New York Times in 2001 and later published as a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In case you haven’t, though, and you’re also unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard and his novels, let me explain that he’s about as ‘show, don’t tell’ as it’s possible for a writer to be without completely disappearing in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Leonard’s characters receive his book royalties, not Leonard. Anyway, in the New YorkTimes essay, Leonard talks about how he makes himself invisible in his work. One of his invisibility cloaks is rule three: ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ He says, ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’
Most of the writers of the novels I edit more or less follow Leonard’s injunction. Said is definitely the verb du jour. Some writers who have a strong preference for said also use an occasional asked or replied, but that’s usually about it. However, there are authors out there doing good work with a bigger verb palette than Leonard recommends you use. Ian Rankin, whom I talked about two blogs ago, is one of them. A few percent of the way into Standing in Another Man’s Grave (I read the book on my Kindle), Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, we’ve racked up intoned, repeated, asked, replied and muttered, as well as said. Like Leonard, Rankin is both a great stylist and writes cracking dialogue. He’s also at the ‘show, don’t tell’ end of the storytelling spectrum, and no one’s going to get far accusing him of making schoolboy errors in terms of craft. So who’s right? Leonard or Rankin?
Of course, really there is no right or wrong. Leonard writes like Leonard, Rankin writes like Rankin, and their choice of language works for them and the type of characters and worlds they are trying to portray. Using said alone is entirely in keeping with the macho dynamics of Leonard’s novels, whose characters keep their cards close to their chests and are more likely to pull a gun than gasp or grumble. But if, say, you were writing a novel set in the world of haute couture and writing scenes in which make-up artists, fashion designers, hairstylists and models flap about and have hissy fits backstage during a runway show, you might not want to use said after said after said.
That’s not to say, however, there aren’t both good verb choices and choices of the not-so-great variety.
Let’s take a good look at Leonard’s position. He’s certainly right that said is the most transparent, most discreet verb available. It sits unobtrusively in a sentence containing direct speech, usually nestling after the most important bit, the dialogue itself. Part of the reason said has such a discreet presence in dialogue-giving sentences is it’s also the main verb we use in informal conversation when we report direct speech. When was the last time you had a coffee with someone and he or she relayed gossip by saying things like ‘Then I commented . . . Then she stated . . . Then he probed . . . Then I countered . . .’? Doesn’t happen, does it? Usually said is used. Said is so bedded in, in both fiction and speech, that it is hardly noticeable. It performs the function of linking speaker to spoken in as mechanical a way as is possible with a verb. So said is definitely a good choice if invisibility is what you’re after.
However, like people often do when they’re trying to make a point, Leonard skews the debate somewhat. He backs up his argument for only using said by rattling off a few highly undesirable verbs when he gives examples demonstrating the perils of veering from said, and he ignores verbs for which sounder arguments can be found.
First, let’s look at a couple of those bad verbs Leonard cites and pin down why they aren’t good. If you look up to gasp at Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), you will find it says it can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech – in other words, it’s acceptable in grammar terms to use to gasp to carry dialogue. Of course to gasp can also be used as an intransitive verb – one which doesn’t take an object – that means, quoting ODO, to ‘catch one’s breath with an open mouth’.
Before we continue, let me run through that grammar, since it underpins the discussion a little. When you write a line of dialogue and couple it with a speaker attribution, the dialogue is the grammatical object. Look at this:
‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever,’ Ian said.
In that sentence, Ian is the subject, said is the verb, and ‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever’ is the object. The verb to say is transitive; it needs an object. Someone has to say something. In this case, the something someone – Ian – says is the line bigging up Timothy Dalton. Now look at this:
‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,’ Rita gasped.
That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence in terms of grammar, since, as ODO says, to gasp can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech. You can say someone gasps a line of dialogue, in other words. However, though it may be acceptable grammatically, try catching your breath with an open mouth and speaking at the same time and you quickly realise it’s not actually possible to do both those things at once. (Even if it were, you’d need to use to gasp in conjunction with a verb like to say to reflect two actions are being performed simultaneously.) In which case, when an author writes that a character gasped a line of dialogue, what does he or she mean to say happened?
I have no idea, and I suspect the writer of a line like that hasn’t thought through what he or she is saying either. A sentence like the one above has no connection with the real world. It exists in a category of artificiality marked ‘literature’; it doesn’t represent an attempt to accurately evoke the world out there on the page.
But in my imagination I can see and hear a character gasping in horror or astonishment, then saying something, a sequence of actions to gasp can help convey in its guise as a no-object verb.
Rita gasped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
Other verbs writers sometimes try to use in the same way as to gasp include to chuckle, to sigh and to laugh (I say ‘try to’, since we copy editors are likely to cull them). None of these three verbs bear the fig leaf of respectability conferred by a listing in ODO as an object-taking verb used in conjunction with direct speech. All three are no-object verbs, which means they don’t have the grammar credentials to carry dialogue, though I have to say it seems somewhat arbitrary to me that we green-light gasped in grammar terms but not chuckled and sighed. So, chuckled, sighed and laughed should be rejected as dialogue carriers before you’ve even thought about whether it’s possible to chuckle, sigh or laugh a sentence, which of course it’s not, and so should other verbs of their kind. On the other hand, if you do think someone can, say, both laugh and speak simultaneously – and I advise you to try whatever combination of action and speech you wish to portray – you might want to add a present participle after the dialogue-carrying verb, like this:
‘I can’t believe you think Timothy Dalton was a better Bond than Sean Connery,’ Rita said, laughing.
Now let’s take a look at lied, another verb Leonard cites in his essay as a bad choice. First, let’s imagine our Timothy Dalton fan, Ian, later has a conversation with a woman he fancies who’s got a crush on Daniel Craig. Our imaginary author writes this:
‘I think Timothy Dalton was a crap Bond,’ Ian lied. ‘Daniel Craig represents the very pinnacle of 007-ness.’
In this case, the lied is redundant; we know Ian is lying, because he told Rita earlier he thinks Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever. Here we have a bad case of show and tell. The dialogue shows the reader Ian is lying, then the verb reiterates he’s lying. The author is over-managing the story and not letting it unfold by itself, perhaps because he or she isn’t confident the reader is really following what’s going on. Lied could also be used to tell the reader for the first time a character is lying, in which case the author using it would be guilty of the lesser offence of telling alone.
A lot of the other verbs used by authors also tell the reader something the dialogue shows. Imagine Ian and two friends have just seen Skyfall, last year’s Bond film, and afterwards they’re sitting in a bar, discussing the movie.
‘That opening fight scene on the train was ridiculous,’ Ian said. ‘Totally unrealistic. Though I’m sure Tim Dalton could’ve pulled it off.’
‘It was a James Bond film, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary,’ Blake countered. ‘The whole point of Bond films is they’re not realistic.’
Sean shook his head slowly and stared into the distance. ‘I’m never going to pay to see a Bond film again,’ he avowed.
Both countered and avowed tell us things we already know from having read the dialogue. Let’s look at the sentence containing avowed. Since to avow means to declare frankly and openly, we get that Sean is declaring something openly and frankly because – yes – the opinion he’s giving can be characterised as both frank and the utterance of someone who’s being open. We’re back to show and tell.
But not all verbs other than said should necessarily be treated with suspicion. Here comes a line from Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Inspector Rebus is listening to music in the car and realises he’s misheard a song lyric. He’s on his own.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus muttered to himself.
By using the verb to mutter, Rankin tells the reader exactly how Rebus says the line – in a low voice with a note of irritation in it. I don’t know what a Leonard disciple would do here.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus said to himself.
Actually, in this case, a Leonard disciple might conclude the line of dialogue can be given without a speaker attribution, since Rebus is alone in the car and there can be no confusion over who’s speaking. But either way, the reader wouldn’t get that Rebus speaks in a low voice with a note of irritation in it – two qualities conveyed by the verb to mutter. In this case, said is too blunt an instrument; the author needs a more precise verb to tell readers how he or she wants them to imagine the line is spoken. Here are three more verbs that fall into the same category as muttered: whispered, shouted and intoned. These kinds of verbs give information about the volume at which a character says a line or the way he or she says it, or both.
Another verb you can make a good argument for using is asked. On the one hand, a question in direct speech is self-evidently a question – the question mark is one big giveaway – so adding an asked does come across as another case of show, then tell. On the other hand, I suspect some authors feel said isn’t appropriate for questions, because they think it only works with statements. I notice, for instance, that Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective novels, is a said purist in his novel The Drop until he has to attribute a question, in which case he rolls out an asked.
Asked is actually a fairly invisible verb. I suspect that if Leonard did go stir-crazy as a reaction to the claustrophobia of using said all the time and treated himself to a new verb, it would be asked. Again, asked is a verb that is bedded in because it’s used a lot in conversation as well as fiction. Also, asked doesn’t do anywhere near as much telling as verbs like avowed and countered, because it doesn’t give an interpretation or summary of what a character is asking. Similarly, replied, responded and answered also mechanically state the relationship between one unit of discourse and another, but no more. They don’t say anything about the content of the response they are tagged to. It’s more difficult to justify using these three verbs than it is to justify using asked, however, since they are only ever attached to statements, and said would work in their places.
Incidentally, said actually falls into the same category as verbs like asked and replied in that it, too, states the obvious. Just as the question mark at the end of a line of dialogue indicates someone’s asking a question, quotation marks enclosing dialogue tell the reader someone is saying something. So said, too, tells the reader something he or she is also being shown, but the verb is so bedded in that it’s almost transparent.
Another category of verbs authors sometimes use consists of ones that are more or less synonyms for said. I’m thinking here of verbs like commented and stated, and I say ‘more or less synonyms’ because when a writer uses commented, for example, I tend to hear the line of dialogue it’s attached to in a comment-giving type of way. But maybe that’s just me – I don’t know. We’re entering highly subjective territory here.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
So, I’ve established some categories we can use when classifying dialogue-carrying verbs and thinking about their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll summarise what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the verbs or verb in each category, starting with what I consider the good and working my way towards the bad and the ugly.
1. The workhorse, said. The advantage of said is that it’s almost invisible. A disadvantage is it’s something of a blunt instrument. You may also feel said pulls against the question mark at the end of a direct question and wish to use asked instead.
2. Verbs such as muttered, whispered, intoned and shouted. These serve a legitimate function in that they fine-tune the reader’s understanding of how a character says a line. They are more precise than said, but not as discreet and invisible.
3. Asked. This verbis pretty invisible, though perhaps not quite as discreet as said. Some writers might feel the fact asked states the obvious – that a character asks a question, something indicated by the question mark – is outweighed by the drawback of using said in its place, which they may maintain only works with statements.
4. Replied, responded and answered. Again, these state the obvious – in this case, that a character is answering a question – but, like asked, they are not that noticeable (I would say replied and answered are the least visible of the three, and responded is both the most visible and most formal). But said can be used in the place of these verbs and is less visible.
5. Synonyms or near synonyms for said, such as stated and commented. These are not as discreet as said, but writers who aren’t said purists might use them for the sake of variety, and perhaps they provoke readers into hearing a character say a line in a slightly different way from how they would were said used. (You tell me.)
6. Verbs like avowed and countered that summarise and interpret a line of dialogue. It’s very hard to justify the use of these. They usually tell the reader something he or she has just been shown, and they are therefore redundant. They are also intrusive.
7. Verbs like gasped, chuckled and laughed. These may be sanctioned as verbs you can use to carry dialogue (gasped, for example), or may not (laughed), but whatever the case, they’re to be avoided, since they don’t convey how people in the real world speak.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR VERBS
1. Does a particular verb help deliver a line to the reader in a way that reflects how people actually speak?
2. Does the verb tell the reader something he or she is shown by the line of dialogue it’s attached to?
3. How discreet is the verb?
4. How precise is the verb?
5. Does the verb pass the grammar test of being an object-taking verb?
6. Are the verbs you’re using a good match for the fictional world you’re trying to portray?
My next blog will carry on from here. I’ll assume you’ve made your decisions about which verbs you’re going to use to carry dialogue and turn my attention to speaker attributions as a whole (‘Rita said’, ‘Ian asked’, etc.). As always, I’ll focus on issues I commonly see in manuscripts.
Incidentally, Leonard’s New York Times article was one of a series called ‘Writers on Writing’ that the paper ran. It included contributions by Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, and the pieces are a real gold mine. You can find the articles here. Also, inspired by Leonard’s ten rules, the Guardian asked a number of well-known authors, among them Neil Gaiman, PD James and Jonathan Franzen, to share their own ten rules for writers, and you can find those here.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll copyedit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get the material back to you within 48 hours.
Roberto Calas, author of The Scourge, talks about what it was like trying to produce between 8,000 and 10,000 words of perfect storytelling every two weeks, without the option of editing the whole work at the end. ‘Hell’ is one word that comes to mind, he says, but he also maintains that the discipline imposed by stark deadlines made him a better writer.
The idea of publishing a novel in instalments isn’t new, but it certainly got a big shot in the arm when Amazon launched Kindle Serials in September last year. Roberto (right) has got in on the ground floor of this development in publishing – as have I in my own small way, since I copyedited his serial and have been working on other Kindle Serials, too. The jury has given its verdict on the quality of Roberto’s book – it’s received nearly 90 reviews on Amazon.com so far, over 70 of which give The Scourge a four-star or five-star rating. But writing a book in chunks against the clock is hard work. Here, Roberto discusses what it was like and offers advice to other writers who would like to emulate him.
MT: Thanks for agreeing to talk about writing a Kindle Serial, Roberto. The obvious first question is how did you come to do it?
RC: Thanks for hosting me on your site, Marcus. I never set out to write a serial. I set out to write a short story for an anthology project. But as I wrote the story, I realised that it was turning out to be a really special piece. The characters were coming to life and the story took control, and I realised that this could be much more than a short story. I put it aside to think about it and, while researching some marketing techniques for my first novel, The Beast of Maug Maurai, I stumbled on the Kindle Serials page. So, on a whim, at 3 a.m. after a full night of writing I wrote a query (with typos in it), a synopsis and a short bio. I sent all of it off with three sample chapters from the unfinished short story and forgot about it. Two weeks later, I had an email from one of the acquisitions editors at 47North telling me they loved it and asking if I could make it into a 90,000-word novel.
MT: Please tell us a little about both you and The Scourge.
RC: I’ve rumbled from one thing to another all my life, but the one constant has been writing – and reading. I graduated from the University of Connecticut’s journalism programme with a concentration in creative writing and worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years. But there is nothing creative about newspapers. So I turned to magazines, which were marginally better. I left writing for a while and returned to school for graphic design. I’d been working as a graphic designer for about ten years before writing my first novel. The Scourge came after I was laid off from my job. It helps me remember that saying which states that sometimes when things seem to be falling apart, they are actually just falling into place.
The Scourge is a novel about a man’s attempts to rescue his woman. It takes place at the end of the fourteenth century, forty years after the Black Death. A new plague has swept across England, and this one turns its victims into mindless, flesh-eating demons. Edward and two of his knights, Tristan and Morgan, must travel from Bodiam, in the south of England, to St Edmund’s Bury, in East Anglia, where his wife was when the plague broke out. The knights have to cut their way through the demonic hordes, but it is their fellow humans that cause the greatest misery for them.
MT: The way Kindle Serials work is readers pay up front for the entire book, then each episode is delivered to them when it’s ready. In your case, the final episode winged its way to readers at the beginning of February. Is that correct?
RC: That’s right. Readers paid $1.99 up front for all eight episodes. After that, the episodes were beamed into their Kindles every two weeks without any other payments.
MT: Now, I know that you wrote the story during the period the episodes were published. In other words, this wasn’t a case of your having a finished book ready and releasing it in chunks. You actually wrote it during the period in which the instalments were sent to readers, and you had to write between 8,000 and 10,000 words every two weeks. A word springs to mind here: ‘pressure’.
RC: Yes, ‘pressure’ is a good word. I had other words for it: ‘hell’ is one that comes to mind; ‘career change’ are two others. Yes, there was definitely pressure on me. But there was also excitement. It was dynamic. I knew that readers would see what I had written only a few weeks after I wrote it. We talk about pressure and hell and truck-driving school, but the word that best summarises it is ‘motivation’. There was no ‘I can fix it later.’ There was no ‘I’ll think about this for a week and get back to it.’ It was simply ‘The readers are waiting for this. I have to make it the best I possibly can.’ It really helped that the readers were giving me constant feedback in the discussion forums and my blog. It made the pressure less about the time frame and more about not wanting to disappoint them.
MT: That’s interesting you say that. One of the problems inherent in being an author is the loneliness of it. What you did was a more collaborative type of writing in that you were more connected with readers than you might otherwise have been. Maybe it’s healthier for fiction writers to be closely involved with readers, like you were, and not so isolated.
RC: God, yes. Writing can be like a marathon that you run by yourself. There’s no one watching, so no one will see you if you give up and take a cab home. No one will care if you sit down and take a two-hour break. Sometimes you wonder why you are running at all. But this was different. It was like having a cheering crowd waving me on, encouraging me, challenging me to go faster. I finished the marathon in record time and ran my best race ever with The Scourge.
MT: You started from the point of having written some material and having planned out the rest. Could you talk about what the mix was there at the outset – how much you’d written and how much you’d planned.
RC: When I started writing The Scourge, it was going to be a short story. I wrote most of the story and ended up with a word count of about 12,000. For comparison, that is just a little more than one episode of the book. I knew the story was something special when I wrote it. All the elements came together in such a fun way. So I submitted it to 47North, and when they expressed interest it was equal parts ‘Yay’ and ‘Shit’. I had to turn a 12k short story into a 90k book in just a few months. There’s pressure for you. I took about two days to think about what else could happen to our knights on their quest. And once I had the ideas for each scene, the story really wrote itself. I had the map in front of me; Edward, Morgan and Tristan just followed it in their own peculiar way. And, as in any trip, they misread the map a few times and made some side excursions before finding their way back.
MT: You’ve already mentioned that you interacted with your readers all through the writing of the instalments. Did you adjust the story’s trajectory on the basis of what readers had to say? How did that interaction affect your writing?
RC: The readers had a big impact on me. More so on my motivation, but I definitely adjusted parts of the book based on reader comments. I learned fairly quickly that the readers couldn’t get enough of Tristan. He and I struggled a lot during the writing of the novel. He would try to take over and I would try to stifle him. So when the readers kept telling me they wanted more from him, he turned to me smugly and became insufferable for two months. I had to loosen his yoke and let him have more fun, and I think the readers enjoyed that. Readers also pointed out details that I hadn’t thought about. One reader wanted to know more about Morgan’s daughter, and I realised I had neglected that aspect of the story so made a few more mentions of the girl. Other readers pointed out minor mistakes that I went back and fixed before the print edition came out. Probably the most fascinating thing as a writer was seeing reader reaction to controversial scenes. The feedback came very soon after I wrote those scenes, and it really helped me understand the readers’ mindsets as they read the novel – something that is invaluable as a writer.
MT: Could you tell us about one of those scenes, how readers reacted to it, and how you reacted to their reactions.
RC: Sure. Let me preface this by giving readers a big ***SPOILER ALERT*** sign. If you haven’t read The Scourge, skip to the next question. One of the episodes ended with both of Edward’s knights, Tristan and Morgan, seemingly getting afflicted. It was a cruel thing to do to the readers, because I ended the episode just as I revealed the probability of it. So the readers had to wait for the next instalment. I had a lot of people telling me how horrible it was, how they weren’t sure they liked the story any more, how their hearts were breaking. It was really awful as a writer to see it, to know I had made them so unhappy. But it was also a very positive sign. As a writer, your main goal is to elicit emotion in the reader. And when you get such intense evidence of reader emotions, you know you have done your job.
Even if you feel like shit for a couple weeks.
MT: Each instalment has a cliffhanger ending. Did you feel more compelled to end each episode with a cliffhanger than you might have done if you hadn’t been writing a serial?
RC: Yes. My editor at 47North and I spoke about the cliffhangers before I started writing. The cliffhanger keeps the audience wanting more, as TV producers have known for years. It wasn’t that hard to do, because in recent years I have really focused on ending my chapters with mini-cliffhangers to goad the reader on just a little more even though it’s 1 a.m. and they have to get up for work in six hours. So I added mini-cliffhangers to the chapters and major cliffhangers to the ends of all the episodes. I worked very hard to make them natural cliffhangers, though. I think it is easy for these things to feel contrived if they are done quickly.
MT: Presumably you had to think in a different way creatively from how you might be used to thinking when writing a novel conventionally. Obviously you didn’t have the option of reaching the end, then revising and reshaping your story. Could you talk about the advantages and disadvantage of that, and how you handled the fact that you had to get it right first time.
RC: You’ve hit upon what was both the greatest challenge and the most liberating aspect of writing a novel in this way. When I have written books in the past, I could stumble on a technique or a theme that really worked and go back to weave it through the entire story. Not so with a serial. This was, at first, really frustrating and scary. But I became more efficient because of it. I don’t know if you like ice hockey, but the players didn’t use to wear helmets, and there weren’t a ton of injuries. Sticks, shots and elbows were usually kept low. As soon as helmets came in, shots, sticks and elbows began rising. Players became a little careless.
It’s the same with this sort of writing. If you know that you can go back and fix things, you let yourself get a little careless. You know that there will be time later, so you don’t worry so much. You accept a bit of procrastination. I was terrified for much of the time when I was writing The Scourge, absolutely panic stricken that I would screw something up. And because of that I thought about every scene carefully as I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. But once a scene was completed, I knew it was done. There was nothing else I could do to it. I had no say in the matter. And that was really liberating. It took me three years to write all three books of The Beast of Maug Maurai, and I am still tinkering with the second and third books in that series. I finished The Scourge in three months. And I think The Scourge is probably the better book. Read into that what you will.
MT: Once you embarked on writing the serial, the deadlines you were given were as concrete as it’s possible for them to be. Your readers were expecting that next instalment on a specified date, and 47North had to have it in advance of that, of course. You couldn’t let either your readers or your publisher down without it being a really big deal. It’s one thing to set your own deadline or have an editor at a publishing house set you one for delivering a manuscript – both of which are deadlines that can be broken – but quite another to have a deadline pretty much set in stone. I know you’re an ex-journalist, as am I, and journalism is about having to meet strict deadlines, too. A fair few commentators who’ve talked about the emergence of serials in the e-book age have pointed out that we’re revisiting the way Charles Dickens produced works such as The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, which were published in instalments. Dickens was also a journalist. Do you think the experience of working as a journalist helped prepare you for writing a serial, and that maybe journalists and ex-journalists are going to find writing serials a little easier than other writers might?
RC: Absolutely. I hated being a newspaper journalist. Hated it. It ruined my writing style for years, and I just wasn’t cut out for it. Magazines were better, but still not what I wanted. That said, journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, gave me a type of writing and mental discipline that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. There is no writer’s block. There is no procrastination. There is an editor screaming at you to hit the Send button now and a guy on the phone telling you that you missed a crucial part of the meeting and don’t have all the facts, and a fellow reporter putting syringes in your Coke can as a joke, and a half-dozen reporters screaming at each other and laughing, and you can’t hear anything the guy on the phone is saying any more, and your poor brain feels like withering and sobbing, and somehow, through it all, you have to write a lucid, well thought out piece of journalism – with your name at the top – that will be read by thousands in eight hours. It is Lucifer’s Boot Camp for writers and I promise you, nothing will stiffen your literary backbone more than that.
MT: Now that you’ve written a book in instalments like this, how do you feel about the idea of going back to writing one the conventional way, all in one go?
RC: I think there are many benefits in writing a novel in the conventional way, and I would be fine writing another one that way. But the lessons I have learned from serials will follow me. I will continue to write quickly and use cliffhangers and keep up a fast pace. The only difference is that I will be able to go back and add a few things here and there when I have finished. Although, surprisingly, when I look at The Scourge, there are few things I would go back and add. I think of all those old-school writers hacking away at typewriters. I imagine they didn’t go back and change too much. Maybe serials are taking us back to that sort of technique for writing.
MT: What advice would you give other authors thinking about writing a serial?
RC: Writing serials is like writing any other type of novel but more so. Keep the pacing brisk. Keep the tension high. Make sure the storyline isn’t too complicated. Polish your dialogue until it shines. And, like Elmore Leonard says, take out the parts that readers skip.
MT: We’ve spoken about the creative aspects of writing a Kindle Serial; let’s now talk about the business side a little. You confirmed at the outset that the entire serial sold for $1.99. Does pricing the serial so low still allow you to get compensated adequately for all your hard work?
RC: At $1.99 you aren’t making a ton on each book, but 47North has decent royalty rates, so you aren’t too far from what you would normally make per book at traditional publishers, who give you lower royalty rates. The price of the book has jumped up to $3.99 now that it is a complete e-book novel, and the paperback is $8.97, so I can make a little more money now. But really the exposure I received with 47North and the Kindle Serials programme was unbelievable. My book was in the top 500 rankings overall on Amazon at one point. There weren’t a lot of serials when the first episode of The Scourge went up, so I had a really broad range of readers exposed to my writing. This was good and bad. Good because a lot of people who normally would never have picked up my novel did and found that they loved it. And bad because a few people who would never have picked up my novel did and hated it and left nasty reviews.
MT: You’re one of the first authors to produce a Kindle Serial. Do you feel that’s paying off for you in terms of building your profile as an author?
RC: Yes, without a doubt. The Kindle Serials were a novelty and a huge cross section of readers decided to try them. Since there weren’t many choices at first, they bought whatever was available, as mentioned above. I think once people got into the story they realised that the book was about three good friends facing adversity more than it was about zombies. I had a lot of readers start their comments on the discussions and reviews by saying ‘I never thought I would read a book with zombies in it, but I loved this!’ or something similar. And really, the zombies could have been anything: Nazis or Frenchmen or vampires or Stay Puft Marshmallow Men. The writing is what’s important. The story, the humour, the love, the dialogue, the passion. Fans of The Walking Dead will tell you the same thing.
Amazon are looking for work to publish. Their full submissions guidelines are here. Basically, you need to send them two episodes, a synopsis, a bio and a pitch saying why you think your story will work well as a serial. Good luck!
It’s important that you find a copy editor who’s right for you and your novel and with whom you have good rapport. Not all copy editors are the same, and not all offer the same service, so it’s a good idea to shop around and find someone who meets your requirements and with whom you can develop a good relationship.
I’ve been copyediting since 1990, and I’m highly skilled and experienced. I only copyedit fiction, and I edit between 20 and 25 full-length manuscripts a year. I work with debut novelists, bestselling writers and everyone in between. As well as working with independent authors, I copyedit for publishers.
If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll edit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get them back to you within 48 hours.