We love the construction ‘not’! Not.

by Kate

About 20 years ago, (yes, that long ago) it came into fashion to verbally tag irony with one small little word: not. An incredibly useful construction for the obtuse, not could follow any statement to immediately contradict what had been said and indicate that the opposite was true. For example:

Luke Hemsworth is the hottest Hemsworth. Not.

In this sentence, the speaker is making a (very) false statement, but acknowledging and indicating its falsness by using not directly afterwards.

Clearly, Chris is the hottest Hemsworth.

I mean, clearly.


When using oral language, not has limited value. Expressing irony can be done in many other non-verbal ways, including tone, facial expression, and body language. However, in written language, much can be lost without the benefit of physical indicators. In this case, not became a god-send, allowing writers to access irony quickly (and on trend).

However, not then became a crutch that lasted in written language much, much longer than it did in oral. In a brief, very informal survey of editorial colleagues, no one had used – or, importantly, heard – the term not in more than a decade, though we had all seen it recently in manuscripts. It seems that having a convenient shortcut has eroded the many other, less-dated, different ways to convey irony in writing.

Luckily, I’m here in blog form to offer these suggestions for when you need some snark and sarcasm, but don’t want to date your manuscript (or your characters):

  • adverbs. There are so many adverbs here that can do your bidding (though, of course, we do advise you use them sparingly!): sarcastically, ironically, sardonically, sneeringly, acerbically, acrimoniously, contrarily
  • thought or dialogue tags: yes, they might not be as sexy, but a good thought or dialogue tag matched with the right adverb conveys everything you need in a timeless fashion. Consider, ‘she thought sarcastically’, ‘he said cynically’, ‘she snarked’.
  • using body language (a wonderful chance to show, don’t tell!). There are a number of ways we convey sarcasm or irony with our faces and bodies: he arched one eyebrow, she smirked, he sneered, she muttered. Try using descriptive body language in lieu of a dialogue tag.
  • Using the tone and/or context to suggest irony. Dialogue doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so create a situation wherein it’s obvious that your character is using irony: The rug was threadbare and worn through, the walls dull with dust and age. “Yes, we live as kings,” she said.

Using constructions that strengthen your writing will not only better serve your story, but it will make it readable and relatable for years to come.

Which is why you should definitely not use ‘not‘.

A Collection of Collective Nouns

by Kate

One of the best parts of the English language (for this word-nerd at least!) are collective nouns. Originally, they were used for hunting and sport, and it was a mark of true nobility if you knew the right collective noun for the prey of the day.

Collective nouns are also very democratic. There is no governing body who decides on the correct term (though some have been in fashion for so long as to be accepted as final). Instead usage determines the noun, and what doesn’t catch on falls away.

Collective nouns are, of course, most famous for animals, some more fanciful than others:

  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a clowder of cats
  • a herd of buffalo
  • a murder of crows
  • a wisdom of wombats

They’re also often wonderfully visual and can add a touch of whimsy and colour to a sentence without the weight of adjectival phrases. How delightful is a charm of finches? How poetic is a flight of butterflies? How evocative is a crash of rhinoceroses?

Recently, I found myself wondering if there were collective nouns for groups of people as well. And, luckily for all of us, other people have wondered too, and I found some fantastic examples that I’d like to share with you. Remember, they’re all democratic so if you like them, use them loudly and often. If you don’t, ignore them and hope they go away!

Collective nouns for people: a non-comprehensive list

  • A faculty of academics
  • A flood of plumbers
  • A team of athletes
  • A wiggery of barristers
  • A crew of sailors
  • A flash of paparazzi
  • A shuffle of bureaucrats
  • An exaggeration of fishermen
  • A flock of tourists
  • A talent of gamblers
  • A prudence of vicars
  • A gaggle of gossips
  • A damning of jurors
  • A panel of experts
  • An imposition of in-laws

and, perhaps most usefully,

  • a worship of writers

Introducing Kate James

While Kate Cuthbert is away on parental leave next year, we are delighted to welcome Kate James to the role of Interim Editor.

Kate has 22 years of editorial experience, has published two memoir/non-fiction titles of her own, and is a recent romance convert.

Which is all very good to know. But is that what’s really critical about an Escape editor? We asked her the important questions…

Name: Kate James
Porn Star name: Hosey Green. (Hosey. Really.)
Star sign: Aries
Your 2016 New Year’s Resolution: No resolutions, ever!

Why did you become an editor? I was a newspaper journalist, and I always envied the sub-editors (this is back in the day when newspapers actually employed sub-editors). I had to dress respectably and interact with the general public, but they got to hide away in the basement and wear ugg boots and just work with the words, which seemed a pretty sweet deal to me. Also, I love editing and I’m good at it.

First book you remember reading by yourself: OK this is going to out me as a perve, and I’m sure it wasn’t actually the first book I read by myself, but the first one I remember was some kind of illustrated “where do babies come from” book at the library. If you want to know where babies come from, I can still remember.

Three books that changed your life, and why:
Oh wow. Off the top of my head, and you’ll probably get three different books if you ask me tomorrow:

  1. Emily of New Moon (LM Montgomery) – I liked Anne, but I LOVED Emily. She made me want to be a writer and date slightly sketchy men.
  2. Princess Daisy (Judith Krantz) – this was the first piece of women’s genre fiction I ever read, and it was like crack. I was 12 years old and it was completely inappropriate for me, full of scandal and sex and melodrama and rich folk. I’ve been hooked ever since.
  3. The Family Golovlyov (Mikhail Saltykov) – this is an amazing and super-depressing Russian story about the most horrible people in the world. It definitely changed me by making me more of a misanthrope. Maybe don’t read this book.

Gun-to-your-head-you-have-to-chose-favourite-book: Right now, Shirley Jackson‘s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Once it might have been Jane Eyre.

Most underrated author: Have you heard of Kate James? Australian travel/memoir writer, deserves to sell much better.

Newly discovered author you love: Jennifer Crusie. Yes I’m behind the times, but at least now I have the joy of playing catch-up and reading all her books.

Favourite Fiction Genre: Psychological horror. Which is most horror.

Favourite Romance Novel Trope: From Pride & Prejudice on, I can’t go past the trope of the woman who is initially overlooked by the hero for being too plain/fat/poor/quiet/outspoken – until he falls madly for her, and then she really makes him work to earn her trust and love.

Favourite kind of hero: Large, dark, does housework.

Favourite kind of heroine: I love a sweary, damaged bad-ass – think Rebekah Turner’s Lora Blackgoat.

One thing you love to read in a book: I will automatically love any book that has a dog as a major character. Dogs in romance literature ALWAYS know the good guys from the bad.

One book-related pet peeve: Anything that’s badly edited or proofed, because try as I might to take off my editor’s glasses, I always see that shit!

What you’re most looking forward to while working with Escape: Being paid to read books … I mean, working with all the lovely Escape authors.

The thing that scares you the most about working with Escape: Not living up to the Kate Cuthbert standard.

Famous Last Words: I’m sure I can fit in another slice of cake.

Kate James will step into the Interim Editor role on 4 January, and can be reached via email kjames@eharlequin.com.au.


by Kate

Let’s talk about sentences, all the ways they can go wrong, and the ways that they can be fixed up to make your writing stronger, tighter, and more exciting.

Sentence structure can make or break a manuscript, and to tell a strong story, you need a good mix of long and short, simple and complex, descriptive and active. They also have to be correct…

Here are the most common errors, with examples, and the way they can be fixed:

  • Sentence Fragments – every sentence needs a subject and a verb to be complete. Most sentences need more than that to be interesting. You also want to make sure there’s an independent clause – a whole and complete thought or idea expressed.
    • Bad: Blue eyes, tanned skin, chestnut hair blowing in the wind.
      • No subject, no verb (blowing, in this case, is acting like an adjective)
      • Dependent clause – this sentence requires the sentence in front of it or behind it to give context and make sense.
    • Good: He stood there, blue eyes, tanned skin, chestnut hair blowing in the wind.
    • Good: There he was, blue eyes, tanned skin, chestnut hair blowing in the wind.
    • Good: Blue eyes, tanned skin, chestnut hair blowing in the wind – he was everything she’d ever wanted.
  • Run-Ons – The opposite of sentence fragments, a run-on sentence is a sentence with too many dependent clauses all strung together, normally using the word ‘and’, or sentences that are not linked appropriately with linking language. Run-on sentences are exhausting to read and can leave your reader confused as to what you’re trying to say.
    • Bad: They went first to a restaurant, dark and romantic, and shared a bottle of wine, which was delicious, bubbly, and sweet, and then they just walked the dark streets of the city, holding hands and talking, like they’d always been that way and they always would.
      • This sentence has way too much information, and the emotion the writer is trying to convey is lost in the details
    • Good: First, they went to a restaurant, dark and romantic, and shared a bottle of wine. The wine was delicious – bubbly and sweet – and it danced on her tongue and into her blood stream, leaving her fizzy and euphoric. Later, they walked the dark streets of the city, her hand naturally finding his, like they’d always been this way. Like they always would.
      • Yes, I ended that on a sentence fragment. This is your reminder that knowing the rules means you can break them effectively!
  • Comma-Splice – A comma splice error is a very specific example of a run-on sentence; it is a sentence where two independent clauses (or two complete thoughts/ideas) are joined together by a comma.
    • Bad: He smoothed one hand down her back, his other hand slipped under her shirt to rest on her waist.
      • Two complete actions, one little comma. That poor comma – the stress is too much. She wasn’t meant to carry this much responsibility!
    • Good: He smoothed one hand down her back, the other slipping under her shirt to rest on her waist.
      • This makes the second clause dependent on the first.
    • Good: He smoothed one hand down her back; the other hand slipped under her shirt to rest on her waist.
      • Bonus! Now you know how to use a semi-colon properly!
    • Good: He smoothed one hand down her back. The other hand slipped under her shirt to rest on her waist.
  • Subject-Verb Agreement Errors – To be correct, the sentence’s subject and verb need to agree with each other. This is a surprisingly easy error to make.
    • Bad: The book written by Author A and Author B exploit many common romance novel tropes, including Beauty and the Beast.
      • It’s hard sometimes to determine the subject, especially when there appear to be three. In this case, ‘the book’ is the subject. So the verb should be ‘exploits’.
    • Good: The book, written by Author A and Author B, exploits many common romance novel tropes, including Beauty and the Beast
    • Watch in particular tricky words like ‘Everyone’, ‘Each’, ‘Some’, ‘None of’, ‘Either of’, etc.
  • Parallel Structure Issues – One of the elusive talents of good writing – and one of the aspects that comes only with practice and can’t be taught – is something called ‘cadence’. This is the rhythm and beats of your writing, the music it can make. A great way of stuffing up cadence is getting parallel structure wrong. Parallel structure is using similar structure to build that cadence or rhythm. There are two kinds of parallel structure issues: structure errors and incorrect prepositions.
    • Bad: He loved dancing, singing, and long walks on the beach
      • There’s room for some lovely parallel rhythm here, but the structure is wrong.
    • Good: He loved dancing, singing, and taking long walks on the beach.
      • This structure uses the gerund participle to create parallel structure.
    • Bad: He was interested and excited about her accomplishments.
      • Interested and excited use two different prepositions. Both of these need to be present in the sentence in order for it to be grammatically correct.
    • Good: He was interested in and excited about her accomplishments.
      • The sentence needs to work,, even if either of the verbs is removed.

Go forth with great sentence structure, and bend your writing to your grammatically correct will.

Giving Thanks – and food!

by Kate 

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, which was one of my favourite holidays when I lived in Canada. Unlike our neighbours to the south, our thanksgiving holiday is a harvest festival, a day, according to the official proclamation, of “General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”

So, in short, our holiday is mostly about food.

Delicious, delicious, full roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce and potatoes and vegetables and gravy food.

However, the cream of the crop, the queen of the table, the piece de resistance is, of course, the pumpkin pie.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

One of my authors asked if I would share our secret family recipe for Pumpkin Pie, and in the spirit of thankfulness and generosity and recognising the many, many blessings in my life, I’m delighted to post it below.

Go forth and pie, my friends, and wherever you live, in these days of too little compassion and too much greed, give thanks for all the good in your lives.

Pumpkin pie

1 large cup mashed pumpkin
2 rounded tbsp flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ginger
1 cup milk
2 beaten eggs

2 pie shells of your choice, set aside (number of pies will depend on the size of the shells – this recipe can be used to make pumpkin tarts as well)

Preheat oven to 230C. Sift all the dry ingredients together except the nutmeg, and stir in the pumpkin. Beat the milk and egg together, and add slowly to the dry ingredients, stirring to blend. The combined result will be very wet. Pour into the pie shell, until just below the edge of the shell. Sprinkle nutmeg across the top. Cook at 230C for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 175C and cook for 40 minutes more, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Serve warm or cool with whipped cream. For a true Canadian experience, serve drizzled in maple syrup.

Freedom to Read

by Kate Cuthbert

September 27th marked the beginning of Banned Book Week in the US, a week that spotlights the many, many books that have been challenged over the years for being offensive, politically, racially, sexually, or just about any other -ally that you can think of.

This is an issue that’s close to many writers, readers, and publishing professionals’ hearts – censorship has long, insidious fingers that can affect minds, thoughts, careers, communities, and societies.

This year it’s especially close to home as we reel from the banning of Ted Dawe’s Into the River in New Zealand for highly offensive language and gratuitous sexual content.


The story follows a young Maori boy who leaves an isolated community to attend an elite Auckland boarding school. The main character,Te Arepa Santos, struggles as he deals with his peers, his own journey into adulthood, intimacy, sex, drugs, racism, and death.

The leader of the  conservative group Family First NZ, the group who called for the ban state,

“I’ve sat with a group of fathers, none of them want their children to be reading it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it.” (link)

The author, Dawe, says his teaching career brought awareness of the difficulties of getting boys to read.

“Part of the challenge was to find books that ‘spoke’ to them. This meant books about issues that were relevant to them and written in a style that was authentic.” (link)

More important, perhaps, though is the role that YA plays in a reader’s life:

“There comes a stage in the life of a child where they make the transition to adulthood, they have to walk free of their family, have to walk into spaces which may be dangerous. This is what young adult fiction prepares them for. I understand adults who get upset (with some of the topics) but often their children are the ones who can’t discuss these things with their parents. In the safety of a novel they can learn about this.” (link)

This safe space is also something that romance readers talk about, when they talk about their love for the genre. Romance novels, where women are the heroes of the story, where they are allowed to be flawed, strong, whole, broken, silly, smart, sheltered, worldly, domestic, career-driven, brave, timid, or any combination of the above and still win, provide women with a safe space to explore their own emotions, their own situation, their own choices. Further, romance novels reflect the positive ramifications of taking control of one’s own life, of standing up for one’s own self, for making decisions based on one’s self, rather than others, of owning one’s mistakes, but learning from them – not being punished for them. Finally, romance novels allow women a safe space to explore their own sexuality – a sexuality that has been repressed, vilified, fetishised, but never respected.

In this vein, it is also curious to note that the Family First representative doesn’t want his daughter hanging out with people who have read the book (where, in the sentence before, he refers to his children reading it). Even in this regard, women are marginalised to the peripheries of men’s business – not only protected from reading censored material, but protected from reading altogether.

The world is a very big, very confronting space, and with 7 billion people on the planet, with 7 billion unique ways of approaching that space, a safe place to go and learn and think and analyse and critique, but ultimately to explore and experiment without consequences is not a privilege, it is a necessity. The best that we can do for the children (and indeed the women!) in our lives is give them that opportunity, and be there when they have questions in an open, positive environment that lets them make their own decisions, and see the world as the diverse, fascinating territory that it is.

And support diverse books.

The Dark Art of the Blurb

Kate Cuthbert and Ainslie Paton gave a workshop on blurb and synopsis writing at the Romance Writers of Australia conference in late August. The synopsis run-down is available here

First, and foremost, blurb writing is very different from story writing, and in order to write an effective blurb, you will need to switch hats.

change hats

The cover is designed to catch the reader’s eye: all gloss and very little substance. The blurb is where you hint at the emotional punch.

The blurb is sales copy and a very different beast from writing your manuscript. So where do you start?

All you need (as in pretty much any situation) is a little Game of Thrones…

Imagine the landscape is your manuscript. In order to write your blurb, you need to hop into a helicopter and rise above, outside. You need to be able to see your manuscript as a whole, and not all the pieces. Now, imagine which parts of your manuscript rise up to meet you? Which parts will your helicopter crash into? These aren’t necessarily the rises of your emotional or narrative arc, but the elements that really stand out about your manuscript.

Is it snappy dialogue? Is it a unique setting? Is it a dark, brooding alpha hero? Is it a devastating black moment? Is it a timely issue?

Ignore the working parts - look only at the towering spires

Ignore the working parts – look only at the towering spires

Once you have a good idea of the ‘peaks’ of your manuscript, have a bit of a brainstorm – a few different peaks mean a few different angles you can take. How can you best exploit those angles? What are some key words or fantastic phrases?

This is your thinking phase – don’t write anything yet, just mull it over in your mind. Maybe take a shower. Go for a run. Something meaningless that will let your mind wander.

When you’re ready, it’s time to write.

flight plan

You’ll want to write more than one blurb – write a couple using the different angles you’ve been considering.

Blurb overview

Consider your opening and closing very carefully:


cliff hanger

Use each word judiciously, consider which words will end up before the ‘jump’ in e-tailers like Amazon.

first words

Avoid clichés, in both words and structure. For example, ending your blurb with something akin to ‘Will they overcome their struggles and live happily ever after?’ is very over-used in romance (and also a silly question – if you’re reading a romance, of course they’re going to over come and live happily ever after!)

Finally, you’ll want to test your blurb. Ask people you know (who will be honest with you) if they’d read the book based on the text. Is it exciting? Is it enticing? Does it give away too much? Does it not share enough?

Work and re-work until everyone – your friends, your neighbours, those people at the bus stop – can’t wait to get their hands on your masterpiece.

Once you’ve gone over every element in your mind, know your direction, understand your peaks, and mastered a good ending, you will have conquered the dark art of the blurb!

blurb breakdown

(all slides care of Ainslie Paton, and used with her generous permission)

Synopses, Decoded

by Kate Cuthbert

At this year’s RWAus Conference, Ainslie Paton and I did a workshop on blurb and synopsis writing. We thought we’d share some of the slides and wisdom here, for those who weren’t able to make the session. dark art

The workshop will be split over two blogs. Without further ado: the synopsis!

A good synopsis will include the following:

  • A comprehensive overview of your plot, characters, and development
  • No point-by-point, just the highlights
  • Follows the narrative of your story
  • Not a time for coyness
  • Keep it lean, clean, and powerful – a synopsis is also an example of your writing
  • Provides a snapshot to editors of your story:
    • Genre conventions – does it meet the parameters of the genre?
    • Originality – what is new and fresh?
    • Any major plot conflicts – what is driving the story?

In every synopsis, there are must-haves to add punch to your synopsis:

  • Must HavesCore conflict
  • Characters – who we’ll love, who we’ll hate
  • The stakes (physical, but also emotional)
  • The resolution

There are also things to avoid:


  • All the characters!
  • All the plot!
  • All the details! – keep it to the highlights, and keep it lean
  • Writing blurb instead of synopsis – “all of a sudden!”, “but if she’d only known what would happen next!”, etc. This goes back to being coy – you need to share the whole story.

What makes your story a crowd-pleaser?


  • Original concepts or premise
  • What makes your main character interesting
  • Topical or intriguing subject matter or themes – anything cultural or political that makes your story timely and relevant

A basic example of a synopsis:


(SETTING)2015, a romance writers convention – a stunning and brilliant young editor (PROTAGONIST) gathers a group of writers together in a room, ostensibly to discuss blurbs, but really to recruit them into a super-secret spy agency that aims to bring great books to every woman in Australia. (PROTAGONIST GOAL)

But before she is able to complete the recruitment process, the narcissistic and underhanded Self-Doubt (ANTAGONIST) enters the room, and provides a compelling counter-argument: that the writing isn’t good enough, that the genre is clichéd, that great sex is not only unrealistic, but damaging to female readers. Self-Doubt leaves the room, but her words echo in the minds of all the writers, undermining the editor’s recruitment and slowing the writing process. (CONFLICT)

depth of conflict

 The Editor knows that the only way she can rebuild the writers’ confidence and get her plan for good-book domination back on track is by hunting down the evil Self-Doubt and stopping her forever. (QUEST)

Along the way, she is helped by her companions: writers groups, motivation, self-belief, and good friends. Together they face a number of challenges and go on all sorts of adventures*(SECONDARY CHARACTERS, *CHRONILOGICAL SEQUENCE OF EVENTS PROVIDED IN DETAIL)

Self-Doubt is stronger than any of them expect, and each character will face their own battle with her. The Editor will struggle hardest as all, as Self-Doubt attacks her from all angles, turning her army of writers into cowards, weakening their defences by scattering them, denying them group strength and support. The Editor will face her own loss of self-belief and crisis of confidence when she comes face to face with her own failures. (STRENGTH & DEPTH OF CONFLICT)

 Finally, the Editor is able to use the magic power of the internet to band the writers together, even when they are physically apart. With each writer hooked into their own support network and able to connect with each other whenever they need shared strength, they are finally able to group together and defeat Self-Doubt forever. They move forward together, ready to paper the Australian landscape with great books. (RESOLUTION, PRIZE)

Go forth and conquer the synopsis!

Kate’s Travels Continue: Estonia

The Estonian flag has flown there for decades - even during the Soviet occupation

The Estonian flag has flown there for decades – even during the Soviet occupation

Tallinn's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Tallinn’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Estonia only has 1.5 million people - and it enforces internet as a human right.

Estonia only has 1.5 million people – and it enforces internet as a human right.

It's also very pretty

It’s also very pretty

Tallinn's Old Town Square with Russian Orthodox Church

Tallinn’s Old Town Square with Russian Orthodox Church

We were treated to some traditional music...

We were treated to some traditional music…

...and some traditional dance!

…and some traditional dance!

Aprons = married. No aprons = single, and ready to mingle!

Aprons = married. No aprons = single, and ready to mingle!

Tallinn used to be a walled city. This is part of the ancient wall, helpfully called 'the wall that leads to the monastery'

Tallinn used to be a walled city. This is part of the ancient wall, helpfully called ‘the wall that leads to the monastery’


Kate’s Travels Continue: The Final Days

Stockholm – we only had a few hours in Stockholm, so we stuck to the palace and old town.

Stockholm was a bit grey the day we were there

Stockholm was a bit grey the day we were there

The Palace in Stockholm, unlike all the others we visited, is still in use by the royal family and the Swedish parliament

Inside the chapel, where all Swedish royalty is baptised

The Palace in Stockholm, unlike all the others we visited, is still in use by the royal family and the Swedish parliament

The Palace in Stockholm, unlike all the others we visited, is still in use by the royal family and the Swedish parliament

The Throne Room

The Throne Room 

This is where parliament meets (it used to be a dining room)

This is where parliament meets (it used to be a dining room)

Functional doesn't mean it can't still be pretty - paintings and sculpture in the ceilings

Functional doesn’t mean it can’t still be pretty – paintings and sculpture in the ceilings

The Hall of Light - lots of windows, lots of mirrors, lots of chandeliers...lots of light! Even on the cloudy day we were there.

The Hall of Light – lots of windows, lots of mirrors, lots of chandeliers…lots of light! Even on the cloudy day we were there.

The Swedish Changing of the Guard

The Swedish Changing of the Guard

Helpful cherubs...

Helpful cherubs…

That concludes Kate’s travel journal – I hope you’ve all found some inspiration, or just enjoyed the photo spread 🙂