Turning words into worlds

A question I often see from new authors is “How can I make sure the reader has enough information about the world my characters live in?” It’s a good question. World-building can be really hard. Even if your world is, or is based on, this real one, you have to firmly establish that in the minds of your readers, and you have to make sure they know exactly which bit of our world it is.

The mistake authors often make is to try to tell the reader everything they need to know at the very beginning of their story. This makes sense in a way – you want to establish your setting so your reader can settle into the story. But, especially when the world is not the real one, this can sometimes lead to long, clunky bouts of exposition, where the narrator intrudes on the action to explain the situation, or where characters tell other characters things that all involved already know.

It’s a tricky balancing act – you need to induct your reader into the world you’ve created for them, but you also need to get them and keep them invested in the action of your story. Luckily, world-building can be done extremely subtly, using very few words, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Readers are good at waiting for answers, as long as they understand that something has purposely raised a question. If they come across something unfamiliar very early on, they’re going to understand that no, they haven’t missed something – this is something that exists in this world that presumably will be made clear in the course of time. Obviously you can’t leave them hanging for too long, but it does mean you give yourself some space to stretch your exposition out a bit.

For example, this is the first paragraph of The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

We learn some important things in those 52 words. The main character has a sister named Prim. There’s a hint, in the rough canvas cover, of poverty and discomfort. And there is the “reaping”. The reaping is not explained for another 12 pages, but from just these few sentences, we know that there’s something different going on here, something ominous, and it gives us a clue that we might not be in the world we know. So we’ll read on until we find out where we are.

Here’s another example, the first paragraph of The Other Boleyn Girl:

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this.

The lacing on the bodice, the scaffold – those little details take us straight back in time. This chapter actually has a date marker, but we don’t need that to know immediately that we’re in a historical novel.

I’m not claiming these openings are revolutionary; many stories start by going directly into a scene without explanation. But paying attention to how much information can be conveyed about a world through seemingly minor details can be really eye-opening. Worlds build themselves, almost without the reader realising, freeing you, the author, to focus on the story rather than on throwing information at them. There will be times you need to explain things, of course there will, but by keeping longer chunks of exposition to the necessary minimum, you can tighten up your writing and keep the action moving.

I recently tried a little exercise with my writers’ group to show how simple this kind of subtle world-building can be.

She opened the BLANK. They’d run out of BLANK. She’d have to go and ask BLANK for more.

We used these sentences as a prompt – people filled in the blanks and used those sentences to start a story. The results were wonderfully diverse:

Jeff looked in the canal. They had run out of pellets. He would have to go and ask Mike for more, but it was five miles to the lockhouse and he had no way of knowing if Mike would even be there.

She looked in the larder. They’d run out of eggs. She’d have to go and ask Ivy for more. She felt a chill as she remembered how well-stocked the shelves once were.

Helen looked in the empty box on the shelf of the stationery cupboard. They had run out of pens. She’d have to go and ask bloody Moira for some more. That battle-axe of an office manager would undoubtedly treat her to an extended lecture about wastefulness and dwindling budgets.

Carter looked in the robot’s sensor pods. They had run out of diffusion filters. Now he would have to grovel to Morgan for more. She was not going to be happy.

Other stories included some post-nuclear dystopia, and a comedy scene involving counterfeit money and a horse. With just a few nouns, we managed to start creating very different settings and situations. Why not try a similar exercise and see where you end up?

(Oh and Morgan, if you were wondering, was actually perfectly happy, because her evil plan was working. She killed Carter and released the black mist…)

With love and endless thanks to my writing buddies at South Shields Fiction Writers x

Across the fucking pond

One of my favourite pastimes is going on Facebook and asking one of my editors’ groups about how they use a particular swear word or phrase. (Look, I don’t get out much.) The group is very international, and I often need that perspective, particularly when I’m editing in a variety of English that isn’t my own. I admit, it’s not the most scientific way of finding out about language use, but it is the most fun.

And it’s a lot easier to mess it up than you’d think. An f-bomb’s an f-bomb, right? Ha ha ha no. Swearing is like any other kind of language – it varies across eras, places, and social groups. And an editor’s job is to make sure the language being used is appropriate for the readership and, in fiction, for the characters. Swearing is used for emphasis, often to highlight a moment of significant emotion. That means that authenticity is important. The reader needs to believe in that moment, and inaccurate word usage can pull them right out of it.

Here are some things I have learned about transatlantic swearing differences from my lovely colleagues. (A disclaimer: I’m no linguist, and as I’ve mentioned this is not a very rigorous method of research. All the below are just what the general consensus seems to be on questions I’ve asked or read, not definitive statements. I’ve learned that whenever anyone asserts that people in the UK/US always/never say a thing, they’re almost certainly wrong.)

  • You can be “fucked” in a variety of ways in the US – you can be in trouble, injured or broken, or engaging in sexual intercourse – but you cannot usually be drunk, as you can over here. If you want alcohol to fuck you in some way, you’ll have to get “fucked up”, which is used less for drunk in the UK, probably because we have so many other words for it.
  • “Pissed” is one of those – but if you get pissed in the US, you get angry, not drunk.
  • You can, however, get “shitfaced” on both sides of the pond.
  • “Shitholes” are universal, but “shit-tips” are British. Some terribly dirty-minded US people would have a quite different definition of a shit-tip.
  • “Shite” looks like a spelling error to many in the US, but it’s a real word, and a good one.
  • Placement of the word “fucking” as an intensifier in a sentence seems to depend more on context and personal preference than location. Although Bostonians are perhaps more inclined to put “fucking” at the start of an imperative sentence than others in the US, and they might well put one in the middle and one near the end too.
  • “Fuck all” is listed in some dictionaries as British, but it’s not unheard of in the US.
  • In the UK we use “shit” and “crap” as adjectives, whereas in the US it’s more likely to be “shitty” and “crappy”. Editors might want to change a flat-adverb “shitty” to “shittily”, but a good one won’t, because who really says “shittily”?

If I’m wrong about any of those, then do tell me! And tell me of any other differences you know of, either in the comments or on Twitter, @kiathomasedits. If you’re interested in reading posts by people who do this kind of research properly rather than by titting about on Facebook, check out separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com, stronglang.wordpress.com and notoneoffbritishisms.com.

 

The sound of silence

Happy new year! I know, I know, we’re fourteen days in now and everyone’s already broken their resolutions and is counting down the days until summer. But today marks the real start of the new year for me, because it’s the first day I’m alone. My kids were off school until the 8th, and my husband had a whole load of leave to use up so he has been off work until today. Which means that the last few weeks have been a merry-go-round of family visits and fun things, followed by a good bout of tidying and cleaning and generally trying to organise a house that now has ten extra tons of toys in it.

Normally, a good January clearout makes me very happy. I like the feeling that I’m starting the year with at least a little bit of my shit in order. But last week, I was really fed up, and it took me a while to figure out why. Part of it was that I’ve had a bit of a low-level annoying cold, because January. But I think another big part of it was just too much company.

I’m not an introvert by any stretch of the imagination. Ask anyone who’s met me ever. And I’ve spent the last three weeks in the company of the people I love best in all the world, so it’s not like that’s a massive hardship. But I really have struggled lately. My life as a freelance editor is largely a very solitary one. Once my daughters are at school, I usually have six whole hours before I have to speak a word to another human being. (I shout at my computer a lot, but that doesn’t count.) I’m a pretty sociable person, but in the last three years I’ve become very accustomed to being on my own. Christmas, with all its lovely family togetherness, is now something of a shock to the system, even more so when the togetherness keeps going for a couple of weeks after the tree comes down.

This year, although I imagine I will have forgotten this by the time Christmas comes back around, I must make sure to carve out more time to be alone. Due to some shifts in my schedule, I ended up having no paid work to do, so I didn’t have that to take me back into my office. It felt like a great opportunity at the time – woo hoo, lots of lovely time off with nothing to worry about! – but I didn’t anticipate how much I would miss my little bubble of isolation.

But I’m back in it now, and so 2019 can truly begin. Here’s to the silence!

It’s Chriiiiiiiiiistmas!

Forgive me, content marketing gurus, for I have sinned. It’s been 23 days since my last blog post. And I can’t promise that this one’s going to be any good, because I’ve just returned my last piece of paid work of the year, and I suspect that my brain has raced ahead and is already hitting the mulled wine despite the admin and blogging I still have to do.

What a year it’s been, eh? Things that happened at the start of the year seem so long ago, yet the whole year seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. So, in traditional end-of-year style, let’s have a look back over 2018.

Here are some of the things I did:

Obtained a reputation for swearing, thanks to my very sweary dictionary.

Spoke about swearing at a conference.

Edited over million words. Some of them weren’t even swear words.

Was voluntarily filmed as part of ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice conferences.

Became an actual author!

Spent too much time on Twitter

And was allowed to witter about that on a blog that wasn’t even my own.

Thought less, did more.

A pretty successful year, all told. There were ups and downs, but there always will be in this freelance life. And there were far more ups than downs this year, business-wise, so that was pretty nice.

Oh, and I forgot the best thing! I have finally uncovered the source of the flickering lights in my house. They’d been driving me mad for months, and my prone-to-catastrophising brain was convinced I was either going to have to rewire the whole house or it was going to blow up. Turns out there was a dodgy USB socket on my desk lamp.

I’m sure there are more wise and insightful things I could say about my year, about things that are much more exciting than a desk lamp. But my brain has now finished the wine and is breaking open the tin of Celebrations, so I think I’m going to down tools and follow it.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

All in the name of research…

My husband made the mistake of walking into my office the other day when I was trying to figure out a delicate author query. So along with my usual request for a cup of tea (he makes the best tea in the entire world), he also got asked a very strange and personal question about a sex thing (no, I’m not telling you what it was).  It is a measure of how very weird my job is sometimes that he did not even bat an eyelid, just answered the question and went off to make the tea. But it reminded me, as if I needed reminding, that there is so much more to editing than fiddling about with commas.

Here are some of the other things I have done in the name of research:

Watched a video of someone trying to shoot down a tree with a shotgun. (Takes quite a long time, apparently.)

Googled cruise ship itineraries and put up with the resulting Facebook ads for cruises for several months afterwards. (Made me jealous.)

Made use of my dad’s degree in Swedish by asking him to check a translation (thereby proving it is not quite the most useless degree for a retired computer network engineer to have).

Started a large discussion in a Facebook group about whether there are regional differences in the placement of the word “fucking”. (Not really, it seems.)

Put on a very thin t-shirt and made my husband cuddle me to see if I could discern the texture of his shirt through it (nope).

Asked my husband to pretend to punch me in the face while holding one of my arms behind my back. (This man is an angel for putting up with me.)

Drawn on all my (not that extensive) knowledge of classical music programming to explain why the concert an author had written needed to be changed (mainly because it would be about five hours long).

Looked through the entire episode list of California Dreams to see if there was ever a comedy Swiss character. (There wasn’t.)

Attempted many, many odd actions, facial expressions, and combinations of the two. (It feels surprisingly weird to roll your eyes and shrug at the same time.)

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of editorial research?

The second-least technical Microsoft Word Styles tip you will probably ever see

Here is the second of my posts on styles. See, I promised I wouldn’t leave you with funkily formatted headings forever. (If you missed the first one, it’s here.)

You’ll need to pay a bit more attention and click on more things for this one, but only a little bit. Don’t run away! It’s easy! Honest.

OK, so thanks to my last post, your chapter headings now allow you to zip around your document with the greatest of ease. But chances are they don’t look how they used to (my default Heading 1 settings make them Calibri Light, 16 point, and in blue), and the weirdness is making you itchy. It’s fine – we’re going to fix that right now.

Go to your Heading 1 style in the Styles Pane, and right-click on it.

ModifyStyles1

See where it says “Modify”? Click on that.

You’ll get this dialogue box:

ModifyStyles2

From here, you can change the font, size, colour, etc. If you can’t see what you want to change (for example, if you want to remove or add an indent), click on the Format box on the bottom left for more options.

IMPORTANT BIT YOU NEED TO LOOK AT BEFORE YOU SAVE YOUR DOCUMENT: If the “Only in this document” button is checked, the changes you make will apply, funnily enough, only in the document you’re currently working on. If you select the other option, it will change the template (which is probably your Normal template), which means that all the new documents you create from that template (which, if it’s the Normal one, is likely to be all of them) will have these new settings for the Heading 1 style. If you select that second option, when you exit Microsoft Word, it will ask you if you want to make changes to the Normal template. This message looks scarier than it is – if you want your newly customised Heading 1 style to apply in all your new documents, click Yes. If not, click No.

If all the stuff I just said about templates scares the bejeezus out of you, ignore it all and just keep “Only in this document” checked. It’ll mean that if, say, you like your headings in Times New Roman but your default setting is Calibri, you’ll have to change it for every new document individually, but at least you won’t have to understand anything about templates.

Once you’re happy with your style, click OK. Now go and look at your first heading. Ta daaa! It should have reformatted itself. Now, and here is the good bit, go and look at your second chapter heading. Ta double daaa! That should have reformatted itself too. Even if you have seven hundred chapters, if you’ve applied the Heading 1 style to them, they should all now be formatted with your preferred settings with just one click. (Although if you really do have seven hundred chapters, there’s a chance you might need an editor to help you address that. I know a good one.)

This is why styles are brilliant. They are bundles of formatting that can save you tons of time and effort if you need to make multiple changes to multiple bits of text. If you’re starting to come around to the idea of styles and would like to understand a little more about how they work and what you can do with them, then check out the posts below. If not, here is a picture of a baby hedgehog.

hedgehog-468228_640

 

https://support.office.com/en-us/article/customize-or-create-new-styles-in-word-d38d6e47-f6fc-48eb-a607-1eb120dec563 (Some software user guides are extremely unhelpful, but Microsoft Office’s are generally much easier to follow than you might think.)

https://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-to-manage-word-styles-like-a-pro/

https://www.bookworks.com/2018/02/ms-word-styles-manuscript-formatting/

The least technical Microsoft Word Styles tip you will probably ever see

For many years, I had no idea what Word styles were. All I knew was that if you happened to move your mouse over those funny little boxes at the top of the screen, your text went weird until you moved your mouse back to the page. But that was fine – all I was really using Word for was to type up minutes for meetings, and considering hardly anyone ever read them and even fewer people ever actually completed any of their actions (I will never stop being bitter about this), my skills didn’t need to be very fancy.

But then I became an editor, and I finally discovered what those little boxes were for and how bloody awesome they were. And now I’m going to tell you.

They’re bloody awesome.

I could, if I were so inclined, explain what styles are, how they work, and some of the different things you can do with them. But some people get a bit overwhelmed by styles, and it’s evening here and I’m too tired, so instead I’m going to show you how Word styles can change your ENTIRE LIFE (or at least make any bits of it you spend writing/editing a book a little more pleasant) even if you don’t understand what you’re doing in the actual slightest. Honest.

I’m using the example of a book with chapters here, but this tip applies to any document that’s split up into titled sections. I’m also assuming you’re working on something that’s just for your own use for now, so it doesn’t need to look perfect. (Styles are actually brilliant for making things look perfect, but that stuff doesn’t fall under the “very quick tip” scope, so I’m ignoring that for now. I’ll tell you how you can make it all pretty again another day, because that’s slightly more involved, but only slightly.)

So, you’ve got your book manuscript. It has a lot of chapters. You might need to move around this document a lot, working on one chapter, checking something against another chapter. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to scroll through hundreds of pages to find where you need to be? Well, there is a way, my friends! Just do this:

Find your first chapter heading. It’s probably at the beginning, called something like Chapter 1.

Right, here come the very technical instructions. Pay attention.

Click on “Chapter 1”. You don’t have to highlight it; just click somewhere on that line.

Find the mysterious boxes. This is called the Styles gallery, and in Word 2016 it’s on the Home tab and looks like this:

StylesGallery

See where it says “Heading 1”? Click on that.

Argh! Your chapter heading has probably gone blue, if your default settings are anything like mine. Don’t worry about that for now (like I said, I promise I will explain how to fix it later), because as well as it being blue, something cool has happened to it.

Look in the Navigation Pane to the left of your window. If you don’t have the Navigation pane open, click “Find” on the Home tab.

You should now have something like this:

NavigationPane

 

Now find Chapter 2 and do the same thing, and you’ll get something like this:

NavigationPane2

Now click on Chapter 1 in the Navigation Pane. Like magic, you’ve gone back to the beginning! That’s pretty cool, right?

You can now do that with all your chapter headings, and it will let you zip around your document to your heart’s content.

And you can do something even more fun. Let’s say you’ve realised you’ve put all your events in the wrong order. Jeremy gets killed in Chapter 7 and married in Chapter 8, and that should probably be the other way round. You could cut and paste all the text from Chapter 7 to after Chapter 8. Or, now you have your fancy-pants chapter headings, just go to the Navigation Pane, and drag and drop the heading into its new position. Voila! That whole chapter has now moved. The only way that could be more fun is if you could do it with your hands like in Minority Report.

Even if you never learn anything else about Word styles, this is a thing worth learning, if for no other reason than to save your poor scrolling finger. If you ever need to restructure a document, this will save you untold amounts of heartache. And maybe now you’ve realised that styles aren’t so scary after all, you can join me on the path to becoming a fully fledged convert. Happy styling!