At the beginning of the month, people on my social media feeds started announcing their word of the year. I’ve never done that lovely practice, but it got me thinking: “If I were to pick one word that embodied my hopes for 2020, what would it be?”
Ever so softly, the vast ether whispered back, “Discipline.”
And I laughed. Hahahahahahaha!
If there’s one thing I have lacked throughout my life, it’s discipline. In large part, my body has been a convenient vehicle to get my brain from one place to another. And since my brain’s favorite “location” is its daydream-du-jour…
Yeah. Exercise, sleep, and meals all take a back burner to whatever thought pattern I’m engaged in. I mean, I get to them eventually, but they’re not scheduled or anything.
Still, as much as I lack discipline, I idealize the concept as well.
Discipline: An Etymological Dichotomy
Discipline sounds austere, like a schoolmarm with a critical eye and a ready ruler. However, it also exudes wisdom, like an ancient sage who has mastered body and soul.
The word shares its root with “disciple,” both of them coming from the Latin discipulus, “pupil/student.” Earliest English usage had to do with the “punishment” sense of discipline, but as an outward sign of seeking self-control. People would discipline in order to invoke obedience to a certain discipline.
Thus the word speaks to a broadening of the mind through strict adherence to a study or process.
One who has discipline is learning and growing. They understand and honor boundaries, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional.
And ultimately, when I considered making it my 2020 theme, it begged the question, of what disciplines am I a student, and how well does my self-discipline reflect that?
Ideal Versus Reality
In my ideal, I’m a disciple of writing. In reality, I’m more accurately a disciple of YouTube. Much as I love daydreaming about scenes and characters and plots, the process of connecting the dots and developing all of those in a believable (or at least passable) manner is HARD WORK. It’s so much easier to pull up social media and see what their algorithm has to feed me.
So, in my quest to find self-discipline, I took a hiatus from the internet.
Last week, I had about four approved websites I was allowed to visit. Two of them were dictionaries. It was lovely and, yes, oddly liberating to say, “No, I can’t go there. I’m not doing that today.”
And what was the effect?
First and foremost, I got to bed roughly 2 hours earlier most nights. I had nothing to do in the evenings, so why not sleep?
Second, I found time to exercise (four days and a total of 150 minutes, up from zero the preceding week).
Work-wise, I re-typeset Goldmayne for its transfer over to Eulalia Skye. There’s a few tweaks left, but the book is basically ready for its cover. (And it’s going to be a fat book. 474 pages. Yikes. But the original typeset was in 10-point Garamond, and I’m not playing that space-saving game anymore.)
I also wrote about 1K words on Eidolon. Still wading through the weeds on how to connect all my plot-points there, but I ain’t gonna sneeze at what little progress I can make.
Long story short: internet bad, discipline good. So, for now, I’ll be keeping my online time to a minimum.
(But we loves it, precious, we does!)
For Discipline We Strive
In each of us exists both creator and consumer. We work, and we play, and we thrive when we strike a balance between the two. Right now, I need that balance.
So that is my word for 2020: discipline.
Wish me luck. And for those who have also chosen a 2020 word, good luck to you!
If you read between the lines of my last post, this one will come as no surprise. I’m pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Book 3 of the Annals of Altair: Oliver Invictus arrives on September 18, 2019.
You can pre-order the ebook HERE. Hooray!
Summary: Oliver Invictus
Dead at Fifteen
Oliver Dunn’s life is officially over. Pulled from his bed in the black of night, he’s headed for the Prometheus Institute’s mysterious shadow campus, where anomalies like him vanish forever.
But no sooner does he leave Prom-F than the school descends into chaos. The student body revolts, classmates make a break for freedom, and one silent, powerful projector among them corrals the adults into a hive-minded collective of slaves.
Yanked back from his impending doom, Oliver’s mere presence restores order. The Prometheus heads demand that he ferret out the rogue projector, but he’d rather die than cooperate.
His life is already over. They can’t threaten him with any fate worse than his own. But they can threaten the one person in the world he actually cares about: his former handler, Emily Brent.
If you haven’t read the first two books of this series, that summary might raise a lot of questions. If it’s been a while since you read them, ditto. Because I’m a giver, I’ll go ahead and post links for those two books as well:
That’s it for the announcement part of this post. A new book! Go forth and pre-order!
Or, if you’re game, stick around and read on.
I always considered the Annals of Altair complete at 2 books. This is apparent in their structure, which is pinned to the US Constitution. A Boy Called Hawk uses the main body for its chapter numbering (Preamble, Articles, and Sections) and A Rumor of Real Irish Tea uses the amendments (27 in all).
My younger self thought it was funny to have the Constitution as a meaningless frame for a hypothetical future in which that document itself had become meaningless. Actually, my current self thinks it’s funny too.
A third book was not on my radar. What was I supposed to pin it to, the tax code?
The Plot Thickens
Still, I had family members that asked for more, and I knew that more happened beyond the scope of those first two books. Besides, if the original structure was meaningless, and meaninglessness was the point, then abandoning it for a meaningless chapter-numbering system would be fine.
Confident in that reassurance and the knowledge that I don’t have to publish everything I write, I tackled a third book for NaNoWriMo.
Back in 2015. (Seriously did not realize it was that long ago, but the timeline checks out. Tsk tsk, Kate.)
The story stalled at the third act, as my stories chronically do. I played with it a bit over the years, but it was definitely a back-burner project.
Well, I’ll tell you.
This series gets the least amount of traffic among my literary canon. Not a surprise. It’s dystopia lite instead of the gossamer fantasy that is my usual fare, so it’s easily skipped. It was also more like a personal art project than a commercial endeavor. Hence, for a while, I saw it as my weakest link.
We don’t draw attention to the weakest link.
But I truly love the story and its cast of characters—on both sides of the conflict. My initial vision to spin a yarn about four kids escaping an oppressive government morphed into a tale about the rotten little antihero tasked with bringing them back. By the end of the second book it was clear that Oliver and Emily were more the main characters than Hawk, Hummer, Honey, and Happy. I’ve always known what became of them afterward, and part of me always wanted to write it.
However, it seemed self-indulgent to work on a book that strayed so far from my perceived fantasy brand, and that few people—if any—actually wanted to read.
So what changed?
For my birthday last year, I sat down and conducted an inventory of my writing: unpublished projects, planned-but-unwritten projects, and works-in-progress. The list was kind of a slap in the head: I had 20 books in some form of development, not including my notebook of story kernels, and not including the six published books I still needed to switch over to my imprint.
The creative pile-up weighed me down. When you have too much debt, you get rid of the smallest one first. Thus, Oliver Invictus, 75% complete, moved up in the work queue.
(As a side note, the idea for Soot and Slipper hadn’t even occurred yet. I’m not great at managing my plot bunnies.)
The final impetus to complete the draft came from a comment on my blog last April. It’s one thing for people you know to ask for more of your work—there’s always a voice at the back of the head saying they’re only being polite, or that it’s their way of expressing a compliment. It’s quite another for a stranger to speak up. That’s a call to action.
And, as it happens, answering that particular call was within my ability. So.
Long story short (too late)
I estimate that roughly twenty people outside my own family might actively want this book. I hope more than that will read and enjoy it, but if its total market saturation is only those twenty, I still consider it time and effort well invested.
Mostly because I want this book.
Whether Oliver Invictus has a large audience or a small one, I’m excited for its readers to experience the next leg of this upside-down world.
And why September 18th?
It’s Oliver’s birthday. It seemed a fitting day to bring his story to light.
Greetings, my friends! It’s time for a few project updates. Some bad news, some good news, maybe…? Idk. So, as Li Shang says, let’s get down to business.
First of all, I want to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who has read Soot and Slipper, double-thanks to those who have recommended it to others, and triple-thanks if you took the time to rate and/or review it on the venue of your choice.
Full disclosure: as a general rule, I don’t read reviews. My mother does, though, and she thinks it’s fun to pull them up and read them aloud to me as I hastily vacate her presence. You, my lovely readers, have been SO NICE.
Thank you. I am overwhelmed and humbled and grateful that you have found value in my work. You are awesome and amazing.
And speaking of value…
(Terrible segue, I know.)
Around the time I released S&S, I had multiple people tell me I need to up my ebook prices (including a couple of commenters on my own blog, haha). I’ve kept my prices low as a courtesy, but those discussions have left me with a lot to ruminate on. After several weeks of wishy-washy contemplation, I’m ready to capitulate. Sort of.
Over the next few months, my ebooks that are 50K words and above will all get a price update to $2.99. For Tournament of Ruses, The Legendary Inge, and Namesake, this is no increase at all. The Annals of Altair series, Kingdom of Ruses, and Goldmayne will each go up $2.
I did look into upping the price on the longer books (90K+ words) to $3.99, but price increases statistically lower sales. Basically, I’d be charging more for fewer people to buy, to the benefit of no one. So that’s been shuffled to the side for now.
For the time being, my two fairytale novellas will remain at $0.99. I know I could probably raise their prices as well, but I like them as introductions to my writing, so the low courtesy pricing makes sense to me.
It’s not that big of a difference on most of these, but hopefully the new prices will better signal that yes, I do value my work and I want readers who value it as well. I don’t have an exact timetable for when each price increase will happen (see below for why), so this is your courtesy notice that if you want any of my books at their lower price, grab them sooner rather than later.
And that brings us to…
When I created my imprint (Eulalia Skye Press) a couple years ago, I intended to transfer my earlier titles over. It hasn’t happened for a number of reasons.
Or, well, mostly because of all the paperwork involved. I’m using a different trim size under ESP than with my earlier titles, so transferring over means re-typesetting six books, which also means new covers. And that in turn means updated ebooks, which would ideally correspond with the aforementioned price hikes. In short, it’s a lot of dominoes that have to be lined up and tumbled, and since I’ve already been through the process with these books, I’ve dragged my feet on doing it again.
But I finally learned InDesign (as the print version of Soot and Slipper will attest, yeehaw), and I really ought to use that subscription to its fullest. So.
Annals of Altair Books 1 – 3
The print versions for A Boy Called Hawk and A Rumor of Real Irish Tea are no longer available. They will return shortly. This series gets the least amount of traction in my collected works, so no great loss.
For the ebooks, the price increase is effective immediately. I’ve uploaded new covers and reformatted book files for a nicer reading experience. Because these were my first books published, I’ve also done a medium-light edit (cleared out excess verbiage, cleaned up the writing style, etc.).
The stories are the same. They’re just not quite as wordy.
For those who want a hard copy (Hi, Mom!), the typesetting for the print versions is complete. I just have to upload files, order proofs, and make sure everything is pretty. My self-imposed deadline is the middle of September, for Reasons.
Ruses, Goldmayne, and Inge
I’m not messing with the wordiness of these books. Goldmayne is meant to have a folksy fairytale voice, so my older style of writing still works. The same goes for Inge and the Ruses books, to a lesser degree.
Kingdom of Ruses, however, will get the addition of a bonus short story, “The Prince among Men.” It’s roughly 4K; I wrote it a few years ago to answer that burning question, “But where did Will go?” And then I had nowhere to publish it, because it was too long for a blog post and too short for a standalone novella.
L O L
Since I’m adding a short story to the end of Kingdom, I think I have to dis-enroll it from Kindle Unlimited so that it doesn’t look like I’m trying to game the system for more page-reads. There were shenanigans to that effect a couple years back, as I recall, and I’d rather not chance having a book flagged because previous readers are skipping to the end for some added content. So whenever that update happens, no KU for a few months. (Sorry, my lovely KU readers. It will return eventually.)
These four books will update in the following order (theoretically): Goldmayne, Inge, Kingdom, Tournament.
And now we arrive at the elephant in the room. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a sequel to Namesake, like, a year ago?” Why, yes. Yes there was. And then it turned into two sequels and I threw a creative tantrum.
I have a hard-and-fast rule of not publishing a book that needs a sequel written. Namesake can stand on its own, so I waffled over whether even to write the follow-up. When it split into two, that waffling doubled. I am still working on them, but there’s no timetable for completion.
Just, when you see Goddess (Book 2) finally make its appearance, you can rest assured that Eidolon (Book 3) will be close on its heels. I won’t leave you hanging from that cliff for long. Pinky promise.
A disproportionate amount of my writerly life has been me feeling like I fall short of other people’s expectations. I lack follow-through, I disappear for weeks or months on end, I hoard creative control, and I happily nest down in my comfortable corner of obscurity. The truth is, I only ever wanted to write. It was never my dream to publish a book.
So here I am, ten titles down the road and wondering how the heck this all happened. It has been a long, meandering path, and there is still so much meandering yet to come.
Long story short, thanks for joining me on this journey. Life is full of surprises, y’know?
For all you book purists out there, the paperback of Soot and Slipper is now live! (Click HERE) In honor of this momentous occasion, I’m going to explore a fun little element of writing: the background music.
Some writers need total silence. Others need speakers blaring. I fall closer to the second category, where listening to music can help me focus on my writing, but with a caveat: I can’t usually handle new lyrics. If I don’t know a song, my brain will turn more toward discerning its content than unraveling the scene I’m supposed to be creating.
Hence, my playlists often feature instrumental arrangements or foreign-language singers. But one other element comes into play when I pick my writing songs: the atmosphere. Every book is different.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t have any connection with the artists I’m discussing in this post. I’m not an affiliate for any of the sites I link. I just really like their music.
The Music of Soot and Slipper
As a Cinderella retelling, Soot and Slipper has a light and fluffy atmosphere, with some maybe darker undertones at play. (No spoilers, haha.) The playlists I gravitated toward definitely reflected that.
Music Backdrop #1: Eurielle
Around the time I started toying with the plot idea, I came across Eurielle on YouTube. At times epic and other times floating, her music has echoes of Enya if Enya were orchestrating a feature film about ghosts and medieval yearning for salvation.
Her album, Arcadia, provided backdrop #1 for this novella. She sings in English, Latin, and French. Probably the most influential song was “Je t’Adore,” which came to represent Eugenie’s first masquerade. It starts with gravitas (“Liberate me from the fire” is the Latin phrase, which works nicely with my recurring theme of embers and ashes) and then transitions into an airy refrain.
Music Backdrop #2: Boggie
This artist has been on my radar since the video for her song “Parfüm” went viral a few years back. A Hungarian jazz singer, she has songs in Hungarian (of course), English, and French. I have two of her albums, the eponymous Boggie and All Is One Is All.
Her playful song “Camouflage” became Pip’s anthem. And really, it suits him to a tee.
Music Backdrop #3: Erutan
Sometimes I got too lazy to sign into my digital music account. (This is true first-world laziness, I fully admit.) Both of the above artists have YouTube channels, though, and after a few video plays the algorithm kicked in to find me similar songs.
And Erutan appeared in my suggestions.
Kate Covington AKA Erutan (“Nature” spelled backward) combines medieval instrumentation with etherial vocals to create an otherworldly musical experience. She sings both original music and covers arranged to her celtic-influenced style, with intertwining melodies and harmonies that stoke the imagination. I suppose, in many ways, she might represent the fairy of my tale.
From what I can tell, Erutan is an independent artist in every sense. She’s ridiculously talented, too. You can support her by watching her videos on YouTube or buying her tracks on [iTunes] or [Amazon].
Honorable Mention: Cœur de Pirate
So this artist didn’t show up in my algorithm until a couple days after I finished the Soot and Slipper draft. Since I was on a French kick, though, I gave her a listen. When I encountered her song “Combustible,” it embodied Marielle so well that I had to include it here.
I will definitely be listening to more of her in the future. (Especially since I’ve bought two of her albums so far.)
A Musical Trend
On looking back at the playlists I listened to while writing this book, a lot of them had Halloween and/or phantasmic overtones. Although Soot and Slipper was the very soul of creative escapism for me, that secondary atmosphere is oddly fitting.
If you enjoyed the songs above, please consider supporting the artists. Music, like books, can’t happen without a lot of work.
Through real-life patterns of deception, we can identify weaknesses in our writing and shift those weaknesses into strengths. With that in mind, I offer the following summary of this series.
The Poor Liar
- Fakes emotions in the moment
- Provides excess details to prevent the listener from questioning their authority
- Dumps information
- Forgets or contradicts essential points in their narrative
- Uses language defensively, as a barrier to keep their listener at bay
In short, the poor liar spoon-feeds their audience because they don’t trust them. They either control every aspect of their narrative so tightly that it loses all authenticity, or they treat it with such vagueness that it never had any to begin with.
The Skillful Liar
- Mimics authentic emotional patterns
- Keeps details to a minimum so as not to draw unnecessary attention
- Strategically withholds information
- Maintains continuity in their narrative
- Uses language as the tool it is, as a mechanism to draw their listener close
Skillful liars exploits their audience’s truth bias. They use cooperation defaults to further their deception instead of allowing those defaults to constrain them within the boundaries of truth.
As fiction writers, we need to be skillful liars, not poor ones. Our ability to engage our readers and to keep them engaged depends largely on how well our stories resonate with their perception of truth. Immersive reading only occurs when the reader forgets they have a book in their hands and starts living within those pages instead.
In her first chapter of Liespotting, Pamela Meyer shines light on an incredible truth.
“The liar and the recipient participate in a fabric of mythmaking together. A lie does not have power by its utterance—its power lies in someone agreeing to believe the lie.”
Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 22
This hold true for fiction as well as real life. The author and the audience are partners in creation. Thus, when you engage in Cooperative Deception, your words have power.
So, with that in mind,
- Trust your audience. They are with you for this ride.
- Lie to them with every pattern of truth you can mimic.
And that is the end of this series. Now get out there, my lovelies, and let your stories take over the world.
Previous Post: The Misdirection of Agatha Christie
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The mystery genre requires careful threading of information from character to character, between narrator and reader, and from author to audience. And Agatha Christie, as the queen of mystery, has mastered the subtle art of misdirection.
Hence, she’s the perfect author to study for breaks in the Cooperative Principle on multiple levels of dialogue.
SPOILER ALERT: This post includes some serious spoilers. On the one hand, Christie’s work has been out for decades, and this is a discussion on craft. On the other, spoiling a Christie novel is almost a capital offense. If you’ve not yet read the following titles and you want to read them without external cues, kindly skip this post and come back when you’re ready.
Misdirection #1: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an icon of the whodunit genre. Our 1st Person narrator, Dr. Sheppard, records events surrounding the death of the eponymous Ackroyd, along with the exploits of the famous Hercule Poirot in uncovering the murderer.
And oh, is the misdirection strong.
Early in the narrative we have the following exchange, in which Ackroyd and Sheppard discuss a letter just received by the soon-to-be-murdered man. The letter contains the name of a blackmailer, and its writer, a friend of Ackroyd’s, has already killed herself because of the wicked soul.
Ackroyd, his finger on the sheet to turn it over, paused. “Sheppard, forgive me, but I must read this alone,” he said unsteadily. “It was meant for my eyes, and my eyes only.” He put the letter in the envelope and laid it on the table. “Later, when I am alone.”
“No,” I cried impulsively, “read it now.”
Ackroyd stared at me in some surprise.
“I beg your pardon,” I said, reddening. “I do not mean read it aloud to me. But read it through whilst I am still here.”
Ackroyd shook his head. “No, I’d rather wait.”
But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him. “At least, read the name of the man,” I said.
Now Ackroyd is essentially pigheaded. The more you urge him to do a thing, the more determined he is not to do it. All my arguments were in vain.
The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Chapter 4
So here we have the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Not just the book, but this particular passage. The narrator is the murderer, and he kills Ackroyd in that ten minute interval between when the letter arrives and when he leaves. (I told you there were spoilers.)
But he’s masterfully breaking the Cooperative Principle on both the character-to-character and the narrator-to-reader layers of dialogue.
Maxim of Quantity
Sheppard withholds information by being vague (“if there was anything I had left undone”). He also gives too much information about Ackroyd’s stubborn character and his own concern for the man.
Maxim of Quality
Sheppard lies: “But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him.” He knows Ackroyd is pigheaded. He doesn’t want him to read the letter because it has his own name in it, so he urges him to read it, knowing that will make him refuse.
Manipulation at its finest, in other words.
Maxim of Manner
His false sincerity toward Ackroyd (making excuses for Ackroyd’s behavior) belies his true intents; his insistence for Ackroyd to reveal the blackmailer’s name implies his own innocence to the reader, too. Why would a guilty man urge his own unmasking?
Maxim of Relevance
By focusing so keenly on the letter (“It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.”), Sheppard indicates that it’s the most important element of this scene. This misdirection is especially brass because Ackroyd is already dead.
But sure, tell us about the letter. That seems relevant.
This is the scene that first-time readers inevitably flip back to when they reach the grand reveal. Sheppard, the unreliable narrator, presents a picture of honesty and forthrightness, but his perfidy was between the lines all along.
Misdirection #2: The Secret of Chimneys
One of Christie’s lesser-known tales, The Secret of Chimneys is actually my favorite of her novels. Some of its characters reappear in her other work, but the book itself is a stand-alone rather than part of any of her serials. It has a light-heartedness despite being a murder mystery, and some fairytale elements render it a delightful read.
Best of all, it begins with a deceptive wink toward the reader.
Chapter 1: Anthony Cade Signs On
“Why, if it isn’t old Jimmy McGrath.”
Castle’s Select Tour, represented by seven depressed-looking females and three perspiring males, looked on with considerable interest. Evidently their Mr. Cade had met an old friend.
This is misdirection from line 1. We know from the chapter title that our hero’s name is Anthony Cade. We know from the third paragraph on that he is the person referred to as “Gentleman Joe.” After his conversation with McGrath ends, the nickname leads to the following exchange between him and one of his Castle’s Select tourists.
“Is your name Joe?”
“I thought you knew it was Anthony, Miss Taylor.”
“Why does he call you Joe, then?”
“Oh, just because it isn’t my name.”
“And why Gentleman Joe?”
“The same kind of reason.”
“Oh, Mr. Cade,” protested Miss Taylor, much distressed, “I’m sure you shouldn’t say that. Papa was saying only last night what gentlemanly manners you had.”
Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys, Chapter 1
Within the opening scene of this novel, Ms. Christie calls into question her hero’s identity and then immediately reestablishes it. Of course he’s Mr. Cade. Who else would he be?
As the story unravels, the reader takes it for granted that the hero knows things beyond the scope of what a mere Anthony Cade might know. He’s clever and quick-witted and affable. He’s lived abroad and encountered lots of people and cultures. When characters’ identities start getting called into question, we can count on him to be who he says he is.
…Or can we?
Other characters begin to speculate on Mr. Cade’s true identity, and the reader has this scene playing in the back of their mind. He answered to a different name. Does anyone really know who this person is?
Christie both foreshadows and disarms that foreshadowing, so that the truth emerges in a delightful plot twist.
Maxim of Quantity
The abundance of attention paid to Anthony Cade’s name in the first chapter seems to point to his authenticity instead of away from it. But this is a case of TMI. Instead of reassuring us, it should spike our suspicions.
Maxim of Quality
Our hero never actually tells Miss Taylor his name. He hedges around it by saying he “thought [she] knew it was Anthony.” While what he says is technically true, it also leads her—and the reader—to believe something false.
Maxim of Manner
Mr. Cade’s vague manner of speaking allows those around him to assume they know who he is. So, too, does the narrator’s ambiguity allow the reader to make assumptions about his identity.
Maxim of Relevance
The nickname itself, Gentleman Joe, gets played off as a bit of playful sarcasm. In fact, it’s an insight to Anthony’s character, that he comes from different origins than he pretends.
So who is he really? The infamous jewel thief, King Victor? The missing-and-presumed-dead monarch of Herzoslovakia? Or simply an old Oxford boy drawn into an adventure of murder and mayhem?
This one I won’t spoil, except to say that he’s not Anthony Cade.
Misdirection #3: Her Real Freaking Life
In December 1926, at the age of 36, Agatha Christie disappeared. Her car with her coat in it lay abandoned on a hillside above a chalk quarry.
Was it a publicity stunt? An abduction? A suicide attempt?
No one knows. Eleven days later, she turned up in a hotel in Harrogate, where she’d checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. While a massive manhunt searched the countryside for her, she’d been attending evening parties and other such events.
She claimed amnesia and never spoke of it again.
Speculation has abounded, that she crashed her car and lost her memory, that she tried to commit suicide but had a change of heart, that she faked her disappearance to make her philandering husband the center of a murder investigation. Personal events in her life at the time pointed toward emotional upheaval: her mother had recently died, her husband wanted a divorce.
But the episode remained shrouded in mystery.
When, decades later, she dictated an autobiography, audiences expected some revelation about this period to emerge.
Christie opted out. She didn’t even mention it.
But really, what better badge of honor can the most successful mystery writer of all time have than an unsolved mystery in her own life?
Christie is a master of misdirection because she uses her audience’s truth bias and cooperative defaults against them. She drops subtle clues and then plays them off as nothing important, and we believe her.
And thus, she fulfills her Author-Audience contract to a tee. She tells us a gripping yarn, and twists a knife in our backs when we least expect it.
Up next: Final Thoughts
Previous: Breaking the CP on 3 Layers
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Some breaks are good and can drive the plot, while others should be avoided at all costs. We’ll examine these by type of break and layer of dialogue.
Layer 1: Character to Character
As discussed in our case study of Miss Bates, unintentional violations on this layer can have many forms. Characters who unintentionally violate the CP may do the following:
- Talk too much or too little
- Give false information by accident
- Accidentally skip necessary information
- Use pronouns without referents, causing confusion
- Speak too quickly
- Fail to allow their conversational partner to respond
- Wander off on tangents they assume have relevance
The only item on this list that is possibly undesirable is the fourth bullet point, particularly when missing pronoun referents lead to conflict. (Not to point fingers, but this happens an awful lot in the romance genre…)
In the real world, we are keyed to tie pronouns to their referents. When the referent is missing, there’s usually a double-check, “Sorry, who are we talking about?” or something similar. Pronouns only have meaning in their context, so this is one area that we instinctively clarify when there’s any ambiguity.
Long story short, if you’re using a “vague pronoun causes misunderstanding” trope, make ABSOLUTE CERTAIN there is a reasonably assumed referent. Otherwise, this trope becomes contrived.
Layer 2: Narrator to Reader
In a perfect world, we would never see a narrator breaking the CP in this manner. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Unintentional violations from the narrator include the following:
- Dumping information and/or backstory (wall o’text exposition)
- Leaving out information by accident
- Contradicting earlier information later in the book
- Repeating or recapping events the reader already knows
- Using barrier objects
- Taking long tangents on non-plot-essential details (or, why an abridged version of Les Misérables exists)
These types of breaks frustrate a reader at best. At worst, they drive the reader away from the book entirely and can generate ill will and scathing reviews.
The narrator should not commit unintentional violations of the Cooperative Principle.
Layer 3: Author to Audience
If the narrator should not commit these types of violations, it’s doubly so for the author. Breaking the CP in this way on the Author to Audience layer of dialogue includes the following:
- Plot holes and/or contradictions
- Inconsistent characterization (usually caused by sticking to a plot outline even if it requires out-of-character antics to maintain)
- Inconsistent world-building
- Accidental failure to meet genre expectations
- Blatant anachronisms
Unintentional violations on this layer break verisimilitude with the audience because they are mistakes in the very mechanics of a story.
Layer 1: Character to Character
Intentional violations on this layer of dialogue can drive a conflict. Characters breaking the CP in this manner might
- Lie and get away with it (for the moment)
- Omit important information on purpose
- Use ambiguity to keep their listener out of the loop
- Hurl veiled insults
The reader might or might not recognize that a violation occurs, but at some point, it should come out. It can be a strong reveal or a satisfying payoff. Or, it can be a detail that lies dormant, waiting for the canny reader to ferret it out from the other clues around it.
Layer 2: Narrator to Reader
This type of break signals an unreliable narrator, easier done in 1st Person, but a possibility for 3rd as well. Narrators intentionally violate the CP when they
- Strategically withhold information
- Misdirect the reader to a red herring
- Give unreliable or biased accounts of events
Because the narrator knows they’re violating the CP, the reader shouldn’t realize in the moment. Otherwise, the violation becomes a clumsy attempt at storytelling rather than an authentic, immersive tool.
Layer 3: Author to Audience
The author SHOULD NOT intentionally violate the Cooperative Principle. Violations on this layer of dialogue include
- Subtly trolling their audience
What do I mean by “subtly trolling”? This happens when the author sees their audience not as partners in creation, or even as fellow humans, but merely as a means to a paycheck. The recent book-stuffing epidemic on KDP, for example, violated cooperation because readers often didn’t know they were helping those authors commit fraud.
Author-to-audience violations happen outside the narrative of the book. When discovered, they are a rude awakening to those who were duped.
Layer 1: Character to Character
We’re back in “desirable” territory in breaking the CP. Characters who flout are the pride and joy of readers everywhere. They
- Hurl blatant insults (often with a smile)
- Use sarcasm as a conversational tool
- Talk around a subject instead of addressing it (circumlocution)
- Mutter audible asides
- Code-switch and/or gate-keep
Flouting on this layer amounts to wonderful exchanges, where alternate meanings create multifaceted conversation. It’s the antagonistic flirtation between reluctant lovers and the battle of wits between rivals.
Everyone loves a good character-to-character flout.
Layer 2: Narrator to Reader
On this layer, breaking the CP in the manner takes a more literary turn. Narrators who flout the Cooperative Principle
- Invoke dramatic irony
- Foreshadow events yet to come
- Leave open endings
- Adopt an experimental point of view instead of telling the story straight
The reader knows there’s more than what they’re receiving, but the narrator doesn’t elaborate at that time (or ever, in some cases).
Layer 3: Author to Audience
The author who flouts on this layer of dialogue shows contempt for their audience. This is an author who
- Insults readers on social media or elsewhere
- Intentionally fails to meet genre expectations (overt trolling)
This is the author who lists their book with keywords that don’t apply, or who claims a genre they’re not remotely writing. It’s the erotica listed as a clean read, or vice versa. The audience comes to the table expecting one thing and gets slapped in the face with another.
Don’t flout your audience. It’s not nice.
For funsies, I’m including how to opt out on the three layers, but breaking the CP in this manner is pretty basic.
Layer 1: Character to Character
When characters snub, give the silent treatment, or avoid encounters with other characters, they are opting out. This can add a fun dynamic to a scene (or to the novel as a whole), but beware falling into the trope of “a single conversation could have prevented disaster.”
If your characters are opting out, they should have solid reasons for so doing, none of this namby-pamby “can’t talk to that person because [contrived excuse].”
Layer 2: Narrator to Reader
The narrator opts out when they stop telling the story. (Surprise!) Don’t like a cliffhanger ending? Too bad.
L O L
Layer 3: Author to Audience
The author opts out when they stop writing, and the audience opts out when they stop reading an author.
DO NOT WANT, for either of these.
Up next: The Misdirection of Agatha Christie
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Continuing in the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention to a literary example of rampant unintentional violations: Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma.
Character Profile: Miss Bates
So she’s a middle-aged spinster, plain in appearance and impoverished in purse.
(Basically, she’s my patronus. But I digress.)
Miss Bates is a fundamentally good woman. She would never hurt a fly. And yet, conversationally, she violates the Cooperative Principle on every level.
Unintentionally, of course.
The Many Unintentional Violations of Miss Bates
- Quantity: She regularly gives more information than anyone wants.
“Mr. Knightley I declare!—I must speak to him if possible, just to thank him. I will not open the window here; it would give you all cold; but I can go into my mother’s room you know.” (Vol II, Ch 10)
- Quality: She speaks her assumptions, whether they’re true or not.
“Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one.” (Vol III, Ch 2)
- Manner: She rattles off her information without letting others get in a word edgewise.
All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath. (Vol II, Ch 1)
- Relevance: She routinely goes off-topic.
“My mother’s deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying any thing two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice. But it is very remarkable that she should always hear Jane better than she does me. Jane speaks so distinct!” (Vol II Ch 1)
In short, she drives Emma crazy. When Harriet compares the unmarried status of both women, Emma declares,
If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Vol I Ch 10)
Non-Cooperation as a Narrative Force
Miss Bates’s character arc reaches its climax in the Box Hill episode (Vol III, Ch 7), in an exchange with our heroine:
“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”
In this unkind response, Emma flouts the maxims of Manner and Quantity:
- Manner: She insults Miss Bates in the form of a jest.
- Quantity: She shouldn’t have said an insult at all (and she knows it).
Miss Bates doesn’t immediately catch the slight, but when she does, she becomes so flustered and embarrassed that she leaves the group as soon as she can afterward.
As for Emma, she retreats into a “violation” defense when Mr. Knightley calls out her poor behavior:
Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”
The event serves as a wake-up call. Emma realizes that she has a responsibility to treat her friends and neighbors with kindness. Her higher wealth and privilege comes not because of any merit on her part, but because of her good fortune to be born to it.
Multiple Layers of Deception
The whole scene at Box Hill has some awesome deceptive dynamics at play:
- Mr. & Mrs. Elton’s poorly hidden contempt for Emma and Harriet
- Mr. Weston trying to keep everyone happy and also matchmake between Frank and Emma
- Mr. Knightly concealing his jealousy of Frank and his ardor for Emma
- Frank and Jane having a secret argument and Frank flirting with Emma to twist the knife
- Emma plotting to matchmake between Frank and Harriet and also concealing her dislike of the Eltons, Jane, and Miss Bates
In short, everyone except Miss Bates is hiding something. The crux of the scene, the insult, leads to the breakup of the party and our heroine’s greater enlightenment.
Miss Bates unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle, but so also do Emma and her sympathetic narrator. They have both portrayed this honest, well-meaning woman as a contemptible nuisance when no one else in the neighborhood judges her that harshly.
And that’s the grand surprise: Miss Bates is a silly foil for a silly girl whose worldview is so often wrong, and so often mistaken as correct. Any reader who allows Emma and the narrator to guide their opinion has a rude awakening alongside them both.
The Moral of the Case Study
Miss Bates, good and well-meaning as she is, provides a perfect example of a character who unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle. She also provides a standard for this type of break on our other layers of dialogue.
Consider your current Work in Progress. Now, imagine that Miss Bates is your narrator.
Did you wince? You should have.
Up next: Breaking the CP on 3 Layers
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Although H. P. Grice’s Cooperative Principle provides lovely guidelines for how to accomplish good communication, for writers, its real value lies in breaking it. We all inherently know how to be non-cooperative, but we might not recognize the dynamics at play.
Breaking the Cooperative Principle comes in three distinct flavors:
- Opting out
Violating and flouting maintain a veneer of cooperation even though they involve breaking one or more of Grice’s maxims (quantity, quality, manner, and relevance). Opting out is blatantly non-cooperative.
Break Type #1: Violating
This type of break occurs when one conversational participant doesn’t recognize the non-cooperation in action. Thus, there are two types of violations a speaker can commit:
- Unintentional Violation: accidentally breaking a maxim without realizing what you’ve done. For example,
- Rambling on a topic after your listener has lost interest
- Giving misinformation by mistake
- Speaking too softly without knowing it
- Intentional Violation: surreptitiously breaking a maxim so that your listener doesn’t catch the break. For example,
- Telling a little white lie
- Withholding a detail that your listener might need
- Smiling and nodding when you didn’t hear what the other person said
We violate the Cooperative Principle on a daily basis, in one form or another. It can be malicious or benign. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable.
Break Type #2: Flouting
This type of break occurs when a speaker openly defies a maxim so that the hearer understands there’s an alternate meaning. Sarcasm, jest, double-entendres, language play, and gatekeeping can all fall into the category of flouting.
We generally associate abrasive personalities with this type of non-cooperation. These are speakers who don’t tell us what we want to hear, who spout bald-faced lies to test our gullibility, who use obscure language as a barrier.
They are also the jesters and the sages, two archetypes that circle one another. Flouting often requires wit and a healthy dose of hubris. It’s a great way to alienate others by making them feel stupid, foolish, or out of the loop.
It is a defensive language pattern as well. We flout when we want people to back off, to leave us alone, or to shut up. Flouting can be aggressive—a warning for its recipient to seek conversation elsewhere—or it can be playful, a challenge to engage in deeper meanings.
But, it can also miss its mark if the recipient refuses to recognize the flout and treats the conversation as bona fide. (Which can be a type of retaliatory flout, haha.)
Break Type #3: Opting Out
This type of break manifests when someone outright refuses cooperation so that no conversation can happen. For example,
- Giving someone the silent treatment
- Turning away when your speaking partner is mid-sentence
- Taking a different route through a room to avoid someone
- Ghosting an acquaintance
Even though there’s no exchange of words, communication still occurs. Opting out can convey displeasure, disdain, contempt, and/or rejection. It is the last refuge of someone who is overwhelmed by another person’s communicative style. It can be passive-aggressive, or an amazing power play.
My favorite example of opting out comes from the life of Jesus Christ, in Luke 23:8-9 (KJV). When under condemnation and brought before Herod for questioning, the Savior says nothing. Ultimately Herod sends him away mocked and belittled, but with his own desires left unfulfilled.
This example shows that breaking the CP in this manner doesn’t have to be derisive or mean-spirited. Sometimes, the most effective conversation is no conversation at all.
Breaking and Observing the CP: A Conversational Contradiction
Cooperation is a malleable principle. Thanks to the many layers of communication, it is possible to keep and break it at the same time.
Example A: Inside Jokes
Inside jokes can be both cooperative and non-cooperative if the conversation has multiple participants. In one fell swoop, an inside joke can accomplish the following:
- Cooperation to those who understand the reference.
- A intentional violation to those who don’t catch the joke.
- A gatekeeping flout to those who know they’re missing out, if the speaker is aware it’s an inside joke and uses it to exclude.
- An unintentional violation if the speaker thinks everyone’s in on the joke when they’re not.
Insides jokes are a form of code-switching, and codes are inherently cooperative and non-cooperative, depending on whether the listener is meant to understand or to be excluded.
In this same category, Easter eggs and other hidden messages create a type of layered cooperation that unfolds with increased familiarity. The new or casual fan doesn’t know they’re missing out, but as they delve deeper into the source material, they discover these extra gems.
Example B: Metaphors
Metaphors, too, might fall under this cooperative/non-cooperative dichotomy. They carry surface meaning that can be apparent or obscure. If the listener doesn’t recognize there’s a metaphor at all, it becomes a violation. If they know they’re missing the true meaning and the speaker refuses to explain, the metaphor becomes a flout.
For extended metaphors like allegories, the surface story holds one layer of meaning easily accessed (cooperative), but the listener must delve into symbolism to arrive at the deeper, intended message. In this, the listener chooses their level of cooperation, whether to accept the overt message as-is or to explore other avenues of meaning.
A listener who closes their mind to metaphorical interpretations, then, becomes non-cooperative in their own right.
A Powerful Tool
Ultimately, we’re always communicating something. Non-cooperative conversation is a powerful tool to influence and manipulate. From outright lies to subtle details to silence, it can shape how people perceive others and the world around them.
Where writing is concerned, non-cooperation is a driving narrative force. We’ll explore one such example in the next post.
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