In a few weeks, I’m putting the whole Dominions series into Kindle Unlimited, which means these books will only be available through Amazon. But until that happens, I’m knocking the price of the novels down to 99c (or your local equivalent), including the 3-book box-set. This means it’s possible to get the whole dark Dystopian series (about a million words) for under $7!
It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice—show what’s going on (both physically and in characters’ minds), don’t tell the reader what’s happening.
It’s good advice. Readers want to experience the story, through the characters actions and emotions, rather than being told the story by a third party. It’s similar to the difference between hearing the plot of a film and watching the film yourself.
But there are times when telling is fine. I wrote about James Patterson’s use of simple descriptions a few months ago (you can read that post here). It’s something of a trope in thrillers, especially with hard, calculating protagonists—we get short, simple descriptions that mirror the protagonist’s clinical outlook.
I recently read Mark Dawson’s seventh John Milton book, Headhunters. I prefer his Beatrix Rose series, but the Milton stories are always enjoyable—fast-paced, lots of action, and great escapism. Dawson knows what he’s doing as a writer, and gives his readers what they want and expect.
Headhunters was no exception—it kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. But there was one moment that tripped me up.
Fairly early in the book, we’re introduced to Matty. We get a brief description, through Milton’s eyes, and it includes a reference to her swearing like a trooper.
Swearing in fiction can be tricky. Some (many?) readers have no issue with swearing, but others will close a book at the first f-bomb. There are many one-star reviews where the reader praised the story, but complains about the language. Some readers will accept graphic violence, even graphic sexual content, before they accept ‘bad language’.
Yet people swear in real life. Even those normally careful with their language might let the occasional ‘bad word’ slip in times of stress. And characters in books, especially thrillers, are under stress. They fight for their lives, against powerful enemies. They race against time. In situations like this, to believe that nobody would swear seems incredibly unrealistic.
Dawson doesn’t shy away from using swearing in his books, but it’s rarely in the mouths of his ‘good’ characters. Some of the supporting characters use swearing as a colour, and there are occasional harsh words from the baddies. He doesn’t use cursing all over the place, though—like all words, especially strong ones, he uses them for effect, when they are most appropriate.
After reading the description of the female character, I anticipated some choice language from her. She’s in scenes where she’s joking with ‘the boys’ (tough sheep farmers in Australia, where I imagine swearing would usually be as common as punctuation.) She’s also, as the story progresses, in great danger.
Yet throughout the whole book, she only swore once. She fought for her life, and she got into arguments, both playful and deadly serious. We’d been told she swore a great deal. And yet, she only uttered one solitary curse-word over the whole book.
I’ll admit, this bothered me more than it should have done. It was the mismatch between expectations and reality that bugged me. As a reader, I’d been told one thing but shown something contradictory.
I’m sure the majority of readers would gloss over this, most likely not even notice. And I’ll repeat that I enjoyed the book. I have a great deal of respect for Dawson and his work.
It got me thinking—what would I have done to avoid this apparent contradiction?
I came up with a few solutions.
She could have used swear-words throughout her dialogue. But I can understand how this would have the potential to alienate the book’s target audience, including long-time readers of the series. When swearing has only been used on occasions, changing things up can cause problems. It’s not a smart commercial move.
Another possibility—the line about swearing could have been removed from the original description. However, it gives us an insight into her character—she’s grown up in a ‘man’s world’, and she faces her male colleagues on equal terms, does what she can to be their equal. She has found her place in an ‘un-feminine’ culture. Those few words tell us a great deal more than simply how she speaks.
I needed a third possible solution. And, after some thought, I think I have one, with the addition of a few words to that original description.
If the line had read something like ‘When the mood took her, she could swear like a trooper’, we have a get-out. Yes, she can turn the air blue, most likely be so crude that she makes the men blush. But only when she chooses. This line implies that she can control her language, so we’re not unsurprised when she doesn’t swear too often. And when she does curse, in a moment of high stress (when such language can heighten the tension), we can’t complain that we haven’t been forewarned. As far as promises to the readers go, being told that she can swear a lot becomes a warning rather than an expectation.
As I said before, it’s only a small thing. I still enjoyed Headhunters, and would recommend Dawson’s books to anyone who liked thrillers. But I’m still (constantly) learning. I’m constantly on the look-out for lessons that can improve my own writing. And Headhunters has taught me that I need to be careful not to tell the reader one thing only to have the characters show something contradictory.
Do I need to say that 2021 was another strange year?
My first thought, on looking back, is ‘where did the last twelve months go?’ My second is, ‘what did I do with the year?’ It’s felt very unproductive, and writing has been a struggle.
But I did get things done. I released the final three novels in my Dominions series, a short story, and a novella (which is currently only available to newsletter subscribers). True, most of the writing and editing happened in 2020, but putting five books out in 2021 isn’t too bad. And it’s an achievement to reach the end of the nine-novel arc.
I worked on a new series, too.
This had a number of false starts—ideas that didn’t feel right, even after completing first drafts of novels. But I eventually settled on a follow-on to my Shadows trilogy, and I currently have the first two books of this series nearing completion.
So this year (2022), I intend to release both those books. I also want to have the third book in that series (the working title is ShadowTech) written and in editing by the end of the year.
I also have ideas for another series (I’m not ready to give any details yet, but it’s a bit of a departure), and aim to have at least two books in this nearly finished. I’m not looking to publish this second series yet, though—that will be for 2023.
So I have quite a bit of writing (including planning and editing) scheduled for this year. I also need to work on marketing and business.
This is a constant struggle. Last year I explored Amazon ads (again), and while I did get an increase in sales, the profits didn’t justify the ad expense (although it came close for the Shadows trilogy). I did learn from it, and when I try again I’ll have a few different things in place. I also want to revisit some of the books and courses I have on marketing and advertising.
I also want to get back into writing short stories—not necessarily for publication, but as a way of developing my writing. Yes, spending an hour or so each week on short stories takes time away from novels and marketing, but it’s training. It’s important to constantly improve.
Short stories are fun. They provide an opportunity to play with different ideas, to try new things. As it takes less time to edit and polish a short story, there’s more satisfaction in having something ‘finished’. And, if the story’s any good, I can look for ways to get it into the world (website, anthologies, podcasts and so on).
Related to self-development, I intend to continue writing a post every two weeks, detailing something I’ve learnt through reading. Apart from adding fresh content to my website, this also forces me to think about what I’m reading, and encourages me to read a wider range of books.
So, a quick summary of my plans for 2022:
- Writing: I’ll have the first two books of the new ShadowTech series out, with a third close to completion. I’ll also have two books in another new series close to completion.
- Marketing/business: By the end of the year I’ll have a constant stream of money coming in from my books. I’ll have a better understanding of advertising.
- Training: I’ll write more short stories (ideally at least one a month) as a way of improving my writing. I’ll also continue to write a post every two weeks on what I’ve learnt through reading.
It’s not a particularly detailed plan, but one thing that’s been clear over the last couple of years is that plans can (and will) be disrupted. At least these few points give me something to aim for.