Subcribe to my newsletter here.

 

The Doctor is In

One of the trickiest bits of writing a book is the part when you realise you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.

The problem is, when the author is in the weeds, it can be extremely difficult to see what shape the story ought/wants to be, and this can make or break a book. This is a bit hard to talk about as it always ends up sounding mystical, but here goes.

A lot of problems come down to not really understanding what shape the story should be, or trying to push it the wrong way. A plotline goes on too long, an emphasis is off, the peaks and troughs don’t come at the right times, the narratives don’t balance, something needed a different amount of weight. You’ve read a lot of books like that, many of them published by Big Six houses because development editing costs money and takes time. It really does not go without saying that every author can find their book’s shape, or that every editor can help them. A lot of the time they can’t and don’t, and what you get is an unsatisfactory read.

This is incredibly hard to give useful advice about, because so much of it is a matter of the individual story. Plus, of course, it’s easy to see something’s wrong but a lot harder to work out how to put it right. It’s a bit like the apocryphal story of Michelangelo’s explanation of his work: “I get a block of stone and chip away everything that isn’t David.” Yeah, thanks for that.

Digging out the shape a story wants to be is a serious editorial gift. NB: this doesn’t mean the editor imposing their vision on the author’s MS. It’s the editor seeing what the author is striving for, when very frequently the author doesn’t have a clue.

Because yes, authors are frequently oblivious to what their books are about. When you’ve been face down in a pile of words for months, it’s hard to step back and take a view of the whole thing. Example: I wrote my historical fantasy romance Flight of Magpies about a mystical plot in which our heroes are entrapped and threatened by various murderous baddies, characters walk on air, and someone gets cut in half on page. My husband’s response to it was, “I can’t believe you wrote a book about my job.” He was a) a marketing manager, and b) absolutely right (thematically). I had not meant to do that.

So. I’ve been writing Gilded Cage, a companion book to Any Old Diamonds, in which jewel thief Templeton Lane and private detective Susan Lazarus have a lot of unfinished business plus a murder to solve. I whizzed to about 35K on this feeling really good about it. I got to about 50K, slowing down, with an increasing feeling of plodding through mud. Then I wrote another chapter and realised a number of things:

  1. I’d gone wrong.  
  2. I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong.
  3. I had two important plotlines going on (both flagged from the start) which were diverging instead of converging, and there was no way to reconcile them to create a single cohesive climax. It was the wrong shape, and getting wronger with every word.

Point 3 was as far as I got. I am a pretty good development editor, and not a bad hand at seeing the shape of my own books, but…I was stuck. Screwed. No idea where to go from here, or even how to retrace my steps.

So I did two things. I accepted a freelance writing job that would last for two months to get away from the bloody MS, and I hired a book doctor.

This is sort of like a development editor but in some ways a harder job. With a development edit, you’re working off a finished MS. It’s got a shape even if it’s wrong, and the editor knows where the author wanted to end up, which makes it easier to see alternative ways of getting there.

Whereas a book doctor may well be faced with an unfinished “oh my God this is a mess, I went wrong somewhere between 20,000 and 55,000 words ago, i don’t know the ending and this may never work at all” project. One for which there could be multiple options, multiple places to strip it back to, a dozen different ways to finish it, or maybe none and the only useful advice is “kill it with fire”. The book doctor’s job is to pinpoint the important parts (themes, character arcs, plot points) that suggest what shape the MS should be, and find ways to reshape existing text towards that. A brilliant book doctor will guide the author to a new vision of the book that both resonates with the plan they didn’t know they had and helps them forget the grimpen mire they’ve been stuck in for months.

This is not the same thing as telling the author what to do, or providing a completed outline to follow. Don’t expect that from a book doctor, and if you get one, be very prepared for it not to work. It’s not their book. Their job is to help you see your book with fresh eyes, and with a conscious awareness of the things you were trying to do–which will lead towards the things you should do now.

So I called upon an excellent editor for book doctoring. She sent me a massive critical analysis that pulled out the key themes, the individual character arcs, the romance arc, the antagonist roles, the way plot and character intersected, the undeveloped McGuffin, and the big honking massive great elephant in the room that I had completely not thought about across 55,000 words because it’s not like I’ve done this before or anything. She asked a bunch of relevant questions: what does this character want, what does this character need? And by the time I had finished reading her email, I could see what shape the bloody book should be. At last.

(Since you ask: I cut a huge plotline down to a character theme, ditched three chapters, rebalanced the central romance, and understood where I’d let a character fool me into thinking she was absolutely fine when she wasn’t. And it was a doddle to do, because once I understood what I’d been trying to do–once I could feel the shape of the book–it all clicked into place.)

A good book doctor won’t give you the answers: they will ask the questions that help you find the answers. Because once you understand what you were doing all along, it’s a lot easier to work out where you go from here.

_________________

I worked with May Peterson, who is fantastic.

There are many good book doctors available, and also many, many people who offer this service based on, apparently, having read some books. Seek personal recs (anyone who’s had a good experience will be dying to recommend) and look at references.

This is a time-intensive specialist editing service that requires professional experience and nous. Expect to pay accordingly. I realise professional editing is not within everyone’s budget, but that doesn’t make it overpriced: editors need to eat too.

Gilded Cage publishes 23 October.

With A Guest Appearance From…

Romance has a phenomenon that doesn’t occur to anything like the same degree in other genres: the linked books with different MCs. You don’t get murder mystery series with constantly changing sleuths, and it’s pretty rare for epic fantasy trilogies to pick out a new humble farm boy or feisty vizier’s daughter in every book. Whereas we in romance love our changing MCs from the motorcycle club, university friends, group of Regency gentlemen who go to the same club, or small town where everyone knows and boinks everyone else.

There are a lot of good reasons to do this. For the writer, it allows worldbuilding on a larger scale, showing many different aspects. For the publisher, who may also be the writer, it allows for easy marketing—you liked that book? Here’s this one! And for the reader, there’s the pleasure of familiarity along with a new story, and the chance of seeing more of the people we loved before, even if their time in the spotlight is over. We want to see how our old friends are getting on!

That’s the tricky bit.

The temptation in writing mixed MC series is that the fans may well be clamouring to see their faves again, and even if they aren’t, the author is. It is almost irresistible to populate the character list with previous MCs and drop in little references to previous books, or indeed huge ones.

Sara sauntered down Blue Blossom Valley’s main street. To her left was Joanie’s knitwear shop. They’d had a wild time when the terrorists had taken Joanie hostage, but now she was safely married to Sara’s brother. On the right was the library, now being rebuilt after the earthquake that had tested them all last year, but brought the pastor and Miss Ellie together at last. She was thinking happily of their forthcoming wedding when she saw Marco—the town’s bad boy turned millionaire and father of two adorable babies with Flora, who had come to Blue Blossom Valley a young widow and tamed Marco’s free spirit with her gentle nature—pull up on his motorbike.

I barely exaggerate. We’ve all read book 17 of the Blue Blossom Valley series, and no matter how much the publisher assures us “this book can be read as a standalone”, it has that irritating feel of turning on the TV and watching episode 2049 of a soap opera you’ve never seen before.

There are three main ways authors use what I am going to call NPCs (non player characters, i.e. the MCs of another book as minor characters). Let’s go over these.

Past MCs explained

This is probably the commonest and most obtrusive method of bringing in NPCs.

Kelsey waved hello to Jane, whose cupcake business had nearly gone under last year until she met bad boy turned billionaire Mike, and was now glowing with expectant motherhood, and ordered coffee.

If we care about Jane we’ll remember the cupcake thing anyway. If we’ve forgotten who she is, or never read her book in the first place, it’s a pointless infodump.

The key here is relevance. If Jane is just there to nod at the reader, this is padding. The regular reader may think, “Oh, it’s Jane and she’s up the spout, how nice for her!” but that’s all you achieve. Meanwhile, the new reader feels irritated by a complete stranger’s cupcakes intruding on the story.

If Jane is going to play a meaningful part in Kelsey’s book, by all means introduce her, but think about what information you need to include. Does Mike play a role, and if so, can we wait to introduce him till he’s on page? Is the prior economic instability of the cupcake business relevant to Kelsey at this point, or at all?

I am very fond of closely linked mixed MC series, and the MCs of my Society of Gentlemen series are all over one another’s books like a rash. I am also well aware of the difficulty of trying to introduce NPCs with vast amount of backstory, and of the numerous times I’ve got it wrong myself. The conclusion I have now reached is this:

Pretend they’re new.

Forget you wrote 80,000 words of pining, arguing, hot sex, and murder-solving starring these people, and treat returning NPCs as brand new characters—whether secondaries who need explanations, or minor characters who pass like ships in the night. That will show you how important any individual detail is. Would you mention Jane’s past business travails, or let her giggle about her amazing sex life and announce her pregnancy, if she was a new character just there for Kelsey to talk to? Maybe you would, in order to cast light on Kelsey’s character or plot, and that’s fine–if you’re doing it for the sake of Kelsey’s book.

My Sins of the Cities, Society of Gentlemen and Lilywhite Boys series are all set in the same world. Here’s Any Old Diamonds as the MC reflects on the jumped-up Duchess of Ilvar:

The Duke could buy his wife a private railway line for her convenience, and jewels as other husbands bought flowers, but he’d never been able to purchase public approval or liking. Even time hadn’t managed that. There were music-hall brides who had claimed their places in the aristocracy more effectively than Her Grace—not, perhaps, the appalling Lady Euston, but certainly the Countess of Moreton, who had been a trapeze artist and killed a man, yet was universally popular. Then again, Lady Moreton had charm, humility, and a delightful sense of humour. The Duchess had none of those.

My aim here was primarily to put the Duchess’s unpopularity into a social context, and secondarily to slide Lady Moreton into the reader’s awareness as primer for when she turns up in person as an important minor character later on. The fact that I am bringing Greta Starling / Lady Moreton back from An Unsuitable Heir may be satisfying to me and to some readers, but it’s very much not the main intention of the passage. Decide for yourself if it works.

Handling NPCs becomes a lot harder when you have a plot arc linking books, because previous events and characters will have to be explained as part of cluing the new reader in. (When I am Supreme Dictator of the Universe, there will be Words about starting closely linked trilogies at book 3.) I am right now writing book 2 of the Lilywhite Boys duo where the plot requires me to go over events and introduce characters from book 1, and one character is heavily motivated by childhood events that relate to a different book altogether. This could very easily slide into plot summaries of previous books.

So pretend they’re new. Ask yourself what’s relevant to the plot/MCs now, what’s valid texturing detail now, and mainly, what’s the absolute maximum re past books you can leave out. If you focus ruthlessly on the current MCs and plot, you are less likely to get bogged down in callbacks to previous glories–and readers will be less afflicted by the sensation of coming into a soap opera too late.

This is hard to do and one person’s idea of texturing detail will inevitable feel like another’s unnecessary callback. It’s worth remembering that, because you the author know the NPCs, they will almost certainly come across as vivid, real, and important even if you’re not making a conscious effort to present them that way. Less may well be more.

Past characters not explained

It is incredibly tempting (for me anyway) to fill books with Easter eggs—passing mentions of NPCs in a way that won’t stand out to new readers but will spark joy for those who know the books. I absolutely love this in my reading as well as writing, but it can be self-indulgent and irritating if done poorly.

I’m now going to embarrass myself for your sake. Here is a deleted sequence from An Unnatural Vice. As you read it, bear in mind that Justin has been nearly murdered and he and Nathaniel are hiding with Nathaniel’s posh titled friends to avoid being killed.

Justin looked around the drawing room, since he had nothing to add to the reminiscences of Binky and Bledsoe and old Potty. It was a very comfortable room, not in the modern style but bright, with yellow walls rather than the fashionable green, and a profusion of pictures. One in particular caught his eye, and he rose to examine it. It was a large portrait, in oils, of an elderly man bearing some resemblance to his host: a big, deep-chested bulky fellow. It would have been much like every other painting of unknown rich people Justin had ever seen, except that in place of the usual spaniel or hunting hound, he had a fox at his feet, its russet coat also frosted white by age. Man and fox looked out of the portrait with disturbingly similar expressions of calm determination. 

“Sir David Wilkie,” Rodmarton said behind him.

“The gentleman?”

“The painter. The subject is my great-uncle.”

“It’s a superb piece,” Justin said, basing that on the fact it was hanging in here, rather than the artistic judgement he didn’t have. “Is the fox a symbol of his rank, or arms, or was it a pet?”

“My dear chap, one couldn’t have a pet fox. Vermin. Gnaw your vitals out like the Spartan boy.” That was the kind of gibberish Justin’s wealthier clients often came out with. He gave a smiling nod, as though he knew what the man was on about. “No, it was an odd whim of his. No meaning at all.”

“Oh, Roddy, really, of course it means something.” That was a female voice from behind them. Justin turned to see a short, smiling, plump woman. “Good evening. You must be Nathaniel’s friend?”

Her husband beamed. “This is Lady Rodmarton. Justin Lazarus, Tommy.”

Justin took her hand with the best bow he could manage. She looked startlingly ordinary for the wife of a marquess-to-be.

“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Lazarus. Is that a French name?”

“Not to my knowledge. Thank you for your hospitality.” As if it was her rushing around to make all ready.

“Not at all. Nathaniel always brings us excitement, one way or another. I desperately want to hear about it when you’ve both eaten. You were admiring the portrait?”

“Tommy has a theory,” Rodmarton said with a fond smile. “Great-Uncle never married, you see, and Tommy will have it he had himself painted with the fox as some sort of secret message to the particular woman he didn’t marry, if you follow me.”

“That’s a touching story,” Justin said.

If you have read my book A Gentleman’s Position you may well be squeaking with excited glee at this passage. My FB chat group loved it as a snippet; it meant a lot to me to write it. But if you are in the (inexplicably much larger) group who has not read that book, you will be sitting there thinking “Weren’t they on the run from murderers? Why the bobbins are we talking about paintings of dead people with random animals?” and you will be absolutely right to. This passage gives us a sense of Justin’s personality, and the class divide between him and Nathaniel, so it’s not entirely self-indulgence, but call it 90%. Maybe 95%. I cut the entire plotline.

Future characters

Also known as sequel bait: the NPC waiting their turn for stardom. This is a bit harder because the author may need to lay groundwork for a future book, and will want to get readers interested in a later MC—but you must not do it at the expense of the current book. If the ultra-glamorous Lord Flashheart of book 3 steals the show of book 2, you’ve weakened book 2’s MCs, plot, and the reader’s experience.

The trick is to remember whose point of view you’re in—which is one or both of the MCs who are falling in love. They should be the centres of each other’s attentions, thoughts, even worlds. We do not want to find a third party far more interesting, attractive, and striking than their lover through their eyes–and we really don’t want the sense that the author would rather be writing Lord Flashheart’s book. (Nor, may I add, do we want to read an advert for another book in the middle of this one.)

And here I will add that the same goes for returning NPCs—if they steal the show, you’ve weakened your book. You do not want your reader to walk away from book 4 thinking, “Wow, that reminded me how much better book 1 was, and how much more I liked that other character.”

***

Every in-book appearance of NPCs, whether as passing mentions or major secondaries, has to serve a purpose in this book, not be fan service for the last. Make them work. If they are genuinely relevant to the MCs’ characters and their plot, they won’t feel shoehorned or irrelevant. If their only/main purpose is to remind the reader of past stories and glories, you have not done yourself or the reader a favour.

I’m not downplaying loyal readers’ urge to know how past MCs are getting on. That’s a wonderful thing–but it must never overwhelm the current story. If you want to host a dinner party where seven previous heroines show off their accumulated children and pregnancies, or whatever equivalent for your MCs, there’s a lot to be said for making it a free story for your newsletter, rather than a chapter in book 8. That gives readers a good wallow without unbalancing the new book, and drives your newsletter subs.

Because it’s great that readers loved your previous book—but don’t let that stand in the way of making them love this one too.  

___________

My most recent book is Any Old Diamonds, which ties into my Society of Gentlemen and Sins of the Cities series. Why not buy it and see if I can put my money where my mouth is? /marketing face/  

Inheritance FAQs (or, how to disinherit a duke)

I have just read a review of a British-set histrom. The hero is a duke, but he has a problem: the conditions of the title stipulate that if he isn’t married by the age of thirty, he will be stripped of the dukedom and it will pass to the next heir. Great romance set-up, right?

No. Oh God, no.

There are historical realities you can muck about with, tons of them. Have a zillion dukes by all means. Let them marry governesses and plucky flower girls, fine. These things are wildly implausible, but this is historical romance, and we’re here to play.

And then there are things that you cannot mess with, because they don’t play with the world, they break it. Chief amongst these in British aristocracy romance would be, er, destroying the entire system of British aristocracy. Which is what this plot does.

The point of a system of primogeniture—the whole, sole, single, solitary purpose of it—is to establish that nobility is bestowed by birth. The monarch can bestow a title on a commoner because of their merit on the battlefield/skill in the sack, but once it is granted, it operates under the rules. Nobody ever gets to decide who will inherit their title—not the monarch, nobody. It goes to the first in line: end of story. And once a peerage is bestowed it cannot be removed by anything less than an Act of Parliament or Royal prerogative. Certainly not by a previous holder’s whim.

If inherited titles can be given or withheld on any other basis, if you start asking “Does the holder meet basic standards?” or “But is this really the best person for the job?”, the whole system falls apart. It is infinitely better for the aristocratic system that a chinless idiot should make an absolute mess of his earldom than that the right of firstborn nobility should ever be questioned.

Hence this isn’t a matter of suspending disbelief / plot implausibility: it destroys the entire house of cards. Allow me to quote GK Chesterton:

Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

A duke marrying a lowly chimney-sweep’s daughter is merely implausible. But a duke whose title can be removed if he doesn’t meet a certain standard of behaviour, or a nobleman who can disinherit his older son and bestow the title on his second? That violates the laws of the aristocratic primogeniture-based world you’re writing in.

Some readers won’t notice of course. But many, even those who aren’t versed in the specifics of those laws, will pick up that you neither know nor care to know about the world you’re writing. And that does rather raise the question, why bother?

***

Herewith some Inheritance FAQs for UK historical romance authors.  See this other incredibly long post for more on getting titles right.

Can my bastard hero (the illegitimate kind of bastard) inherit his father’s title?

Not in England, possibly in Scotland.

A bastard (born outside wedlock) cannot inherit his father’s title or any property entailed to it. He could be raised to the peerage, i.e. given his own title, by the monarch, but he can’t inherit one because that would break the system of primogeniture. A title could fall into abeyance (stand vacant while waiting for someone to claim it) and potentially then be awarded to the bastard son by the monarch, but it would not be in his father’s power to leave it in his will.

In England a bastard cannot be legitimised by the marriage of his parents unless your book is set after 1926, when the law was changed to retroactively legitimise children if their parents married (as long as neither parent was married to someone else at the time of the birth). The legitimised son of a peer is not entitled to inherit the peerage, though he would be able to use a courtesy title if one was available.

However, if a Scottish bastard hero’s parents married as above, he would be legitimised and able to inherit the title, as that has been Scottish law for ages.

Can my hero renounce his title? Can he nobly give it to his cousin instead?

Not before 1963 but see below, and he can’t ‘give’ it to anyone.

When a peer dies, his heir claims the title by making a petition to the Crown, giving his claim in detail. The heir can use the title while waiting for the formal approval to be granted (start calling himself Earl of Bingley) but it’s not actually his until it’s granted. Hence you could have two rival claimants walking around London both calling themselves Lord Bingley, to everyone’s embarrassment.

The petition is reviewed and, if straightforward, presented to the monarch for rubber-stamping. However, if there are complications, the petition goes to the Committee for Privileges. While this is happening, anyone else who believes they have a claim can petition the House of Lords to have it heard.

Let us say the time and place of Lord Bingley’s marriage to his housemaid are shrouded in mystery, but they lived as a married couple and have an acknowledged son, John. When Lord Bingley dies John petitions the Crown for the title. He can’t give details of his parents’ marriage, so the petition is referred to the Committee for Privileges. Meanwhile his cousin Peter comes forward to claim that Lord Bingley wasn’t legally married and that the title should instead come to him. The whole thing then gets thrashed out in the Lords, whose decision is final.

If John doubts his own claim to the title but has no proof either way, he can decline to make a petition to the Crown, and then the title would simply lie in abeyance until his death, at which point Peter could petition for it. Or if the title has been granted to John already, he can refuse to use it and call himself Mr. But while John lives, the only way for Peter or anyone else to be Lord Bingley would be for John to be conclusively proven illegitimate before the title was granted.

The only way you can mess around with renouncing a title is with an heir who isn’t generally known to exist. Let’s say Lord March was a bigamist, has a son Terence by his first marriage who lives quietly in a village, but as far as the world is concerned, his son James by the second, bigamous marriage is his heir. While this remains secret, James and Terence can decide between themselves if Terence is going to lie low or if James is going to nobly declare himself illegitimate–or indeed knowingly lie to the House of Lords to claim the title. But this entirely depends on Terence’s identity remaining a secret. If it becomes known to the Committee of Privileges, only Terence will be awarded the title, and John is out whatever happens.

NB: It was not possible for a peer to disclaim his title until 1963 when the law was changed. A disclaimed title lies unused until the former holder dies and then inheritance operates as normal.

Can my heroine inherit a title of her own?

Depends.

English titles usually descend down the direct male line. For many titles it is specified that the title passes to “the heirs male of [the holder’s] body”, i.e. legitimate sons only. If you run out of legitimate sons, the title goes into abeyance.

However, some titles are deliberately created with a special remainder allowing it to pass to women/down the female line. Many more Scottish titles than English are created this way. And lots of the older English titles descend in fee simple, meaning the title can go to a female heir, or to other relatives if the line of descent has died out, without going into abeyance. These are almost all baronies or earldoms. Where an English title is in fee simple, sons have precedence over daughters.

Take the earldom of Polkington. The earl is called Alan, and has children Lady Bertha, Charles and David, in that order. Alan’s younger brother is Eric.

In the heirs male system, Charles is heir, with David next in line. If both of them die the title falls into abeyance. Eric can then petition to inherit as the only surviving son of the last-but-one Earl; Bertha is out.

However, if the earldom is held in fee simple, the order of inheritance would be: Charles, David, Bertha, Eric. So if you want a heroine to have a title in her own right, there you go.

NB that if Bertha becomes Countess of Polkington in her own right, her husband John Smith does not become Earl of Polkington or get any courtesy title. He remains Mr Smith unless given a title of his own. (He might well take her surname under these circumstances so their children would have the earldom’s family name.) If Bertha’s husband was Sir John Smith, he keeps his title of Sir. If Bertha, Countess of Polkington marries the Marquess of Mandrake, she will probably style herself Marchioness of Mandrake because it’s higher status.

My hero’s mother was playing away and he isn’t the duke’s biological son—can the villain threaten to disinherit him with this knowledge?

No.  

It is not easy to disinherit the heir to a peerage (because primogeniture). If Lord and Lady Welford are married, Lady Welford’s eldest son is the legitimate heir to the marquessate and entailed property, even if he bears a striking resemblance to Lady Welford’s lover. Lord Welford’s heir could potentially be disinherited if it could be proved beyond doubt that Lord Welford could not have had sex with his wife for a goodly period around the time of conception—but that would be “could not” as in “she was in England, he was in China”, not just a claim that they weren’t sharing a bed at the time. (For once, the man’s word on the matter doesn’t carry all the weight! Woop!)

Moreover, Lord Welford would need to repudiate the child from the first and stick to that decision. He can’t come back from China, forgive his erring wife, bring up the boy with his name, then change his mind in five years’ time. And even then the case would have to be thrashed out in the Committee of Privileges.

Can my hero be stripped of his peerage if he fails to fulfil the terms of a will, or removed from the line of succession by his irate father because of his rakish ways?

Literally, and I cannot state this clearly enough, no.

The irate father can leave unentailed property/money elsewhere, but titles are not in anyone’s gift. The legitimate firstborn son will inherit the title. Peerages can only be granted along the line of succession and, once granted, can only be removed by an act of Parliament. This virtually never happens, and only for things like treason, which tend to come with other (terminal) consequences. Once the title is formally granted, that’s it.

This is the case even if there is an obvious error. Suppose Lord Manders has an eldest son Roger who died abroad, and a second son James. James will need to provide proof that Roger is dead in order to inherit the title, and if he can’t, it will not be granted. If it is granted, and then Roger turns up a few years later explaining it was all an amusing misunderstanding, James can’t just renounce the title of Lord Manders and let Roger have it.

But I really want my elderly duke to force his handsome son, nephew, and bastard to compete over who will inherit the dukedom!

Tough shit. They’ll just have to fight over money like everyone else.


Talking of bastard dukes, my latest release is Any Old Diamonds, in which Victorian jewel thieves collide with degenerate aristocracy.

Any Old Diamonds release day

It’s release day for Any Old Diamonds! This is the first of my Lilywhite Boys duo, about two Victorian jewel thieves in the 1890s. This one’s m/m, and stars ex-Army professional thief Jerry Crozier and illustrator Alec Pyne.

The thing is, Alec is actually Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes (yes, ff). Alec is the estranged second son of the Duke of Ilvar, and when he hires Jerry to steal a priceless diamond necklace from his father’s remote castle, things quickly get complicated.

There’s secrets! Lies! Betrayal and murder! Impersonation! Family trauma! Lady detectives! Ill-judged sexual encounters!  I think this one definitely qualifies as angsty. Also, Jerry is just a tad on the sociopathic side.

“You’re not inclined to repentance?” Alec repeated. “What, ever?”

“Never.” Crozier’s eyes glimmered dark in the electric light and the glitter of glass and silverware and mirrors. “I’m not sorry.”

“For what?”

“Anything.” Crozier tilted his head, eyes hooding slightly, gaze roaming over Alec’s face. “Except missed opportunities. I regret those, but that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

“Mmm.” Alec didn’t want to think about his own missed opportunities now, the what-ifs and if-onlies. “I don’t suppose you have many of those, do you?”

Crozier’s smile widened a fraction. It looked a little bit dangerous, and it made Alec’s toes curl delightfully. “Not many. They’re such a waste. And so often what one wants is there for the taking, if one only makes the effort to reach for it.”

Spoiler: the effort is made. Eventually. *evil face*

I had a lot of fun with this book, which I hope is shown in the cover (art by Vic Grey, design by Lennan Adams). I hope you enjoy it!

Any Old Diamonds features incredible plot twists, amazing characters, shameless flirting, sex at some pretty inopportune moments, and some f***ing horrible peers of the realm. So what I’m saying is, why haven’t you ordered the book yet?”–The Book Corps

“Super fun, yummy romance, twisty plot, more-ish characters, excellent revenge, lots of banging. Get it now for all of your comfort read needs.”–Malka Older

Buy links to your favourite e-store right here; print edition will be coming in about two weeks (there was a delay on the file, sorry). Audio TBC.

2018 Books of the Year Megapost

I read a lot this year. A lot. In fact, according to my read shelf on Goodreads I have read 200 books this year as of 7th December, and that doesn’t include the DNFs that I didn’t bother to track. It is probably worth noting that I read when I feel stressed about current events.

Moreover, I read some damn good stuff. The following list is thirty books and could be significantly longer. I decided not to add more than one book per author as a matter of self control, but just for the record, I have read multiple books by Talia Hibbert, Mina V. Esguerra, T. Kingfisher, and Melissa Scott this year, and I heartily recommend glomming their complete backlists.

This list is romance, fantasy, general fiction and a couple of non-fic, and these are the books I read this year, not necessarily recent publications. I am also including the absolute goddamn worst thing I read this year just for the sake of venting.

Top Ten SF/Fantasy

The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

A weird and haunting novella set in an alt-Britain with an Edwardian feel. The narrator is one of the only survivors of his regiment after his commanding officer’s calamitous incompetence got the rest killed; he is now living with the disgraced man’s family and haunted by his ghost. A wonderful story about wounds, kindness, cruelty, and how to go on living.

In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard

This novella will make a lot of lists. Set in a post-colonial fantasy alt-Viet world, where everything has been wrecked and twisted, with a slow burning romance between a young woman and the shapeshifting lady dragon who abducts her as a sacrifice. Packed with imagination and strangeness and thoughts about trying to live in an unhealthy world.

The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar

This blew me away. A weird and ghastly fable about a disgraced doctor attempting to run a clinic in rural India when a dead family arrive one night. They’ve been promised they’ll live again at dawn—but they need their wounds repaired first. Subsequent events mix clinical ghastliness with the mundane horror of a deeply corrupt system, and just enough hope to make it unbearable. Thought-provoking topics along with a compelling plot and superb writing. This is the Indian title: it’s getting a UK release as Night Theatre presumably for the usual inexplicable publisher reasons.

Blackfish City by Sam Miller

An intensely plausible post-climate-change dystopia set on a floating city in the Arctic waters. Another SFF, magic/technology combo, with people bonded to animals via both shamanism and nanobots, and a sexually transmitted disease that leads to people sharing each others’ memories. Absorbing, thought-provoking, haunting, and a rattling adventure plot with lots of drama and violence and queer romance.

Temper by Nicky Drayden

Indescribable. Absolutely extraordinary set up of magic, tech, religion, and fable that plays with some really wild ideas in a totally committed way without ever losing sight of the people at the centre of the story. There is no weird-ass plot turn that this author will not take, which makes for a spectacular ride if you’re happy to hang on. I can see how it would not be to everyone’s taste because bananapants; I absolutely loved it.

Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott

I adore the Astreiant series–it’s stunningly immersive, so fully realised and well drawn that it’s actually disorienting when you stop reading. Nico and Philip are terrific leads with their low key romance, the mystery in this has some spectacularly creepy horror elements, and there’s a real sense of doom. Fabulous, beautifully written fantasy mystery romance. This is #5; start at book 1 and prepare to glom. (I also read Scott’s The Order of the Air series written with Jo Graham and loved those too.).

Not So Stories by Cassandra Khaw et al

A fantastic collection of stories riffing off Kipling. Some are new stories in the Just So style like the brilliant Cassandra Khaw opener, or retellings of actual Just Sos; others are more loosely related. Pretty much all of them are about power and its abuse–male power, white supremacy, colonialism, slavery. Thought-provoking in multiple directions, blood-boiling, often hilarious, great writing, diverse casts, and there’s not a dud in the collection. Highly recommended.

The Devil’s Standoff by VS McGrath

This series deserves far more attention than it seems to get. A tremendous read: a brutal fantasy Western with complex magic, twisty plotting, flawed characters, impossible problems, and some spectacularly nasty meanies. Also doesn’t shy away from really gritty unpleasantness in the racism and colonialism on display. Hettie is a wonderful character and I am dying for book 3 (out soon!). Read in order.

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

An enormously enjoyable urban fantasy heavily based in period pulp (any book where Varney the Vampyre is back and has anxiety is all right with me). Greta is a lovely moral heroine, her gang of vampires are great fun, there’s a delightful slow burn romance, pacey adventure, and a gleefully crap modern edgelord vampire villain in body glitter. Humour, adventure, kindness, and fierce morality. Can’t wait for the next. Book 1 wasn’t as good and I’d basically forgotten the plot but had no trouble picking the story up, so jump in here by all means.

Swordheart by T Kingfisher

This could have gone in romance, it’s so lovely. A warrior’s soul was magically bound to a sword; now he’s a living immortal weapon bound to obey his wielder. Unfortunately, she’s a put-upon widow in a provincial village who just wants to avoid being forced to marry a cousin. Their subsequent adventures and romance save her self-respect and his humanity. Curvy mid-30s heroine, important nonbinary character whose identity and pronouns are never an issue, queerness unquestionably accepted. Glorious funny dialogue, intense but clearsighted compassion and humanity, a fair bit of highly enjoyable murder, and lovely well-developed world-bulding brimming with ingenuity. An absolute joy. I also read and adored the two-part Clockwork Boys story, set in the same world.

Top Ten Romance

A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert

Honestly I could have filled my top ten with Talia. A hero who is kind, considerate, consensual, reasonable. A heroine who’s prickly and angry and allowed to be. A joyously life-enhancing plot, a bad guy who is bad without overshadowing the book, a love that heals people in the way happiness does. Written with exuberant confidence and humour so it whips along gorgeously. Might be my best of the year, although if you want a howl-with-laughter romance try her Mating the Huntress. Or anything else of hers, come to that.

Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder

An exuberant novella featuring a desi woman dragged back to her miserable US small town by family obligation, and the bad-boy-made-worse in a motorcycle gang (not actually a racist thug). This is breezily done, with the concentration very much on the thoroughly enjoyable romance which manages to be low angst despite the set up thanks to the hero’s cinnamon-rolldom and the heroine’s tremendous self-possession and common sense. Sex positive, full of funny lines, and with a gorgeously warm heart.

House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston

Regency. Marie-Anne is a marvellous heroine: French immigrant, super sex positive, loves her food. She lives fully and enthusiastically, and with her own personalised, clearsighted morality. Her romance with Mason, an eight-years-younger American con artist, is lovely, sexy, and very much led by her. Very funny and extremely lighthearted, with a strongly Heyeresque feel to the subplots–the heroine must sort out the inappropriate romances of three sisters–and despite the house party setting, has the sense of a diverse larger world so often lacking in Regencies. A gleefully feelgood read.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch

A terrific paranormal historical. The opening is terrifically creepy and compelling, the magic system is really unusual and intriguing–John’s magic is gloriously inventive in particular–the romance is emotional and hot, the setting is Gothically vivid, and the author manages, extraordinarily, to make me absolutely desperate for a sequel starring a character that we haven’t even seen on page. Highly recommended. (Disclaimer: I edited this just so you know.)

Something Human by AJ Demas

Set in an alt-Mediterranean sort of world, with a Germanicish tribe at war with Greekish colonisers. Two enemy soldiers save one another post battle then hole up in a temple to recuperate, falling in love on the way. Beautifully written, with fascinating worldbuilding that supports the characters, a lovely romance that manages to be both moving and unsentimental, and lots of chewy and intriguing thoughts. Plus, it pulls off the rare trick of making you feel better about people. I read it in a sitting and enjoyed every minute.

Snapdragon by Kilby Blades

An absolute stormer of a sexy romance. Doctor daughter of a Republican scumbag politician meets supersexy high flying architect and they agree on a no-strings no-stress sexual relationship. Yeah right. It’s well written, at points very funny, hot, lot of dark undercurrents without plunging into excessive angst. NB this is book 1 of a two-parter so you don’t get your HEA yet; Chrysalis, the second half, is also fab.

Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins

I read a lot of Ms Bev’s backlist this year but this was my favourite. Teresa July, outlaw bank robber, is fresh out of jail on parole, and forced to live with a do-gooder to reform. She must learn manners and ladylike ways to avoid going back to prison. Ahahaha no, she remains 100% hard-drinking leather-wearing and gun-toting, just acquires more wardrobe options and a hot city banker with a past. Bliss.

Fail Seven Times by Kris Ripper

Justin, a prickly, self-loathing jerk, is in love not just with his bi best friend Alex but with Alex’s girlfriend Jamie. He loves them; they love him and want him to join them in bedwith hope of a proper relationship. The entire conflict lies in Justin’s horrifically aggressive-defensive personality and terror of vulnerability, which causes him to deflect, push away, walk away, and screw up. It’s very hard to pull off a totally convincing romance where all the conflict is internal and based on such a frustrating person, but we see Justin starting to open his mind and heart in multiple directions to get the HEA and it works magnificently. A glorious, affirming book of happiness achieved in the teeth of a lot of stuff. I cried several times.

What Kind of Day by Mina V. Esguerra

I have glommed this author’s entire backlist. Esguerra’s writing is always terrific–vividly realised characters, well drawn settings–and this one works particularly well. Slightly older characters with very relatable career and family and life issues. More steam than usual for her. Mostly a really convincing romance because it shows marvellously how the right person can turn a bad day good, but never falls into the trap of suggesting that love can fix things. Ben and Naya can help one another, but they don’t turn their connection into a HEA till they’ve both got a grip on their own lives. A marvellous romance.

I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Rich jetsetting Palestinian Tala, on her fourth engagement, meets middle class British Indian Leyla who works in her dad’s insurance company but wants to be a writer. They fall hard; now both have to come to terms with their sexuality and also with the different cultural pressures. It’s hugely readable, fantastic storytelling, with a lovely soap-opera compulsive-reading quality and a lovely glow of hope. Also absolutely hilarious at points, I laughed out loud. Shoddy editing but I enjoyed it too much not to rec.

Top Ten Other

Mystery

The Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas

I’m cheating, sue me. But the three books are very tightly linked and I’m glad I read them back to back. A wonderful riff on Holmes, with sharp writing and plotting and enormously engaging characters. Also a real Victorian London feel. Glom them all.

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

This mystery series gets better with every book. Brilliant at evoking the feel of the last years of the Raj and the 1920s Indian atmosphere;  mystery plots deeply rooted in the history, which makes them work terrifically. Sam Wyndham is a great character, a decent and progressive Englishman of his time, yet so much unconscious racism and assumed cultural superiority is revealed in his narrative. A really superior read.

General Fiction

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

 Yes I am late to this party. A gigantic epic sweep over India since Partition as told through a Hindu gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a Sikh policeman present at his suicide, Sartaj Singh, plus side stories of a huge cast of minor characters. It’s brutal, tender, funny, hopeful, despairing, filthy, religious, political, violent, divided, diverse and pretty much everything else you can get into 800 pages. Which is a lot. I am glad I read it on holiday so was able to glom it over three days, as the stories interweave over a very long stretch and it would be easy to get lost. A hell of a ride.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A Japanese combini worker loves her job because the strict rules tell her exactly how to behave in a bewilderingly incomprehensible world. But the pressures of society force her to attempt a stab at being ‘normal’ by letting a dreadful misogynist parasite of a man into her life. This book is a paean to being yourself, whoever you are, and watching our heroine regain her balance and reclaim her niche in life is wonderful. Immensely enjoyable, funny, and surprisingly uplifting.

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

The story of a Bolton boy growing up gay in the 1980s, and his parallel journeys through uni and work; through internalised homophobia and self-destructive hedonism to self-acceptance; and through Madonna’s discography. It’s really lovely. Charlie’s main struggle is learning to accept and love himself, and the overall arc of the book is triumphantly upward, full of promise, hope, and joy. There’s plenty of snarky humour, mostly at his own expense, but also of his various milieus (Cambridge, crap TV, life in Bolton), and one of the joys is how the many minor characters move from entertaining stereotypes to rounded deeper personalities as Charlie’s own understanding and self-obsession change. I was happy-crying like a baby reading this, in public. A glorious, warm, funny, lovely read.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Staggeringly good collection of short stories. Beautifully written, moving, thought provoking, every one with as much meaning and insight into human relations and thought and emotional heft as you might hope to find in a novel. I haven’t read anything this good in a while. Honestly exceptional, not surprised it won prizes, and even if you don’t like short stories or read literary fiction, you want to make an exception for this. Stunningly good.

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

A really engrossing family saga. It’s split into four stories of a Kenyan Asian family come to the Midlands in the 80s and coping with hostility in the immigrant community as well as racism from outside. The synopsis sounds really depressing (racism, cancer, failure and death) but it isn’t depressing because it’s so real and human. The little connections, the moments of happiness, the real love among flawed people all come through strongly and make this a story of hope and endurance and survival, and making the most of the life you’ve got. A hugely engaging read and very well written.

Non fiction

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife

A marvellous book about a bizarre job. Skaife is a Yeoman Warder and in charge of the Tower ravens because if they ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. (He actually shows that to be a relatively recent myth, but that doesn’t make it any less true IMO: every story has to start somewhere.) This is very much a book of stories, one of those reads that feels like you’re in the pub with a really interesting bloke. Chatty, discursive, a lot about the life that brought him to this point, and loads about the ravens he adores.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury

I did not expect a book about wildlife gardening to make me cry. This is extraordinary: the tale of a woman, a decked, concreted, crappy patch of worthless city garden, and her mission to bring it back to life by attracting bees, birds, insects and wild plants. It’s not the usual gardening writing when everyone plans stuff and has magic perfect soil and twenty acres and an unlimited budget. This is the kind of gardening you do when you’re drunk, or you decide to randomly scatter seed like a rebel and then have no idea what you grew, with plants that die and mistakes and looking like a scratty mess. No spoilers but when a particular kind of bee finally arrived I broke down into sobs. A polemic and a lament and a song of praise in one.

The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Absolutely astonishing history of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and the search for causes. It’s extremely well written and intensely, compellingly readable, with some pretty terrifying details, and completely clear even for this scientific illiterate. Mukherjee never loses sight of the humanity of researchers or patients, which helps us understand decisions, responses and deductions that look pretty shonky from the outside. Seriously informative; a real tour de force of popular science.

And One Bloody Awful Book

The Way of a Man with a Maid by Anonymous

I write sexy historical romance, which requires reading period erotica. The goddamn things I do for this job, because this Edwardian “erotic classic” (says the hell who?) is perhaps the single worst book ever perpetrated, combining a spectacularly gross rape/torture/humiliation/forcedincest/male gaze lesbian voyeur fantasy with a bizarre, cloying tweeness that makes you wonder if AA Milne had a weird secret life. I mean, the narrator calls his rape/torture chamber “the Snuggery” and I think we should all pretend this never happened.

__________________

Feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like a lot of recs. I got ‘em.

My own new books this year were:

The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp with swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder, skulduggery, and bonking in shiny boots)

Unfit to Print (upright lawyer and downright rascal rekindle a romance in the murk of the Victorian porn trade)

Band Sinister (Regency with a hellfire club, a bastard baronet, and an innocent country gentleman)

The Reluctant Author: Telling the Wrong Story

I’m warning you now, this is going to be the most niche post ever on this blog. However, I need to get it off my chest, at least three people want to hear it, and I think it has some wider resonances for writing as well.

Today, my friends, I am discussing Georgette Heyer’s 1946 romance The Reluctant Widow. Bear with me. Extensive spoilers will follow; wider conclusions will be drawn at the end.

The Reluctant Secret Agent: or, why Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow is generally agreed to be one of Heyer’s less successful romances. It has a great premise—a woman married at midnight to a dying man she’s never met, a mouldering house, French spies—plus a great cast including the ingenuous teen Nicky, his comedy dog, and one of Heyer’s best effete-yet-deadly fops, the purring and catlike Francis Cheviot. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine don’t live up to their book. Eleanor, the heroine, is sadly disinclined to throw herself into the mystery—she is meant to be a sensible heroine like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring but she lacks Sarah’s gumption and has no enjoyment at all ofher situation. Ned, the hero, mostly stands around giving orders, and telling people to keep calm. Basically, Ned and Eleanor are boring, sensible people plunged into a completely bananas situation to which they react in a boring, sensible manner.

However, I think we can see why the central romance is such a dud if we look at what the plot of the book actually is.

Synopsis follows. I am going to put Eleanor and Ned’s plotline in bold for easy identification.

Backstory: Eustace is a wastrel drinking himself to death. His sensible cousin Ned (Lord Carlyon) is his heir. Eustace and Ned’s uncle Lord Bedlington has always accused Ned of hating Eustace and wanting his mostly ruined estate, Highnoons, even though Ned is rich. Ned intends to pay a random woman to marry Eustace so she will inherit the estate instead, just so he doesn’t have to deal with spiteful rumours. Lord Bedlington is selling secrets to a French spy, Louis de Castres, using Eustace as go between. Bedlington’s son Francis suspects him. Bedlington gives Eustace a vital memorandum that could alter the course of the war. However, before Eustace can pass it on, he is mortally wounded in a fight. The book starts here.

Ned pressures Eleanor, a passing governess, into marrying Eustace on his deathbed in order to avoid the unwanted inheritance. Eleanor goes to live in Highnoons.

Louis de Castres tries twice to search Highnoons for the memorandum, once as a break-in.

Ned and Eleanor search unsuccessfully for the thing that the intruder was looking for.

Bedlington invites himself to stay with Ned, and insists he will stay the night at Highnoons after Eustace’s funeral, in order to search for the memo. Francis realises he has to put a stop to this. He kills Louis de Castres, then comes down to the house, ostensibly for the funeral. He ruthlessly threatens his father with exposure and forces him to retire from his position in the Prince Regent’s court, putting an end to his access to information. He guesses where Eustace hid the memo and does his best to retrieve it despite interference from Eleanor and Nicky.

Ned finds the memorandum in a clock (but only because Francis knocks Eleanor out to stop her finding it, which gives Ned the clue). He gives it to Francis to put back in the War Office and leaves him to deal with any remaining issues.

I think you can see the problem. Once the brilliant setup of “married by midnight—widowed by morning!” is established, Ned and Eleanor don’t do anything. No, worse: they get in the way. Eleanor prevents Louis from getting the memo once, and purely by accident, after which her every intervention is an active nuisance to Francis—who, let us recall, knows where the memo is, and just needs them to stop impeding him. She achieves absolutely nothing herself.

And Ned? Well, Ned eventually works out that Francis is the hero. That’s it. That is Ned’s big I Am The Man moment: he realises that Francis has single-handedly foiled a French plot that could have damaged Britain, and decides not to be unhelpful any more. Go Ned.

They don’t even solve their own romantic conflict. Heyer sets up the rather flimsy premise that Ned cannot inherit Eustace’s estate because malicious tongues will wag. But the second Eleanor says “I do” to Ned, he gets Eustace’s estate via marriage. What’s happened to the wagging tongues which Ned is now ready to dismiss so casually? Well, Heyer doesn’t spell it out at the end, but the rumours were all set on by Bedlington. And who has drawn Bedlington’s fangs for good? Francis.

Let me now tell you the actual plot of The Reluctant Widow. It’s a story about a man who comes to realise his father and cousin are traitors. Who befriends a French emigre who he knows to be a daring spy in order to gather evidence; who needs to save his country, but is trying to save his family too. A man who plays a Scarlet Pimpernel-like role, maintaining his public image as an effete dandy despite the sneers, killing an enemy agent without compunction, and ruthlessly eliminating his treacherous father as a danger. (“I was obliged to point out to him that the state of his health demands that he should retire from public life. I really could not answer for his life if he were to continue in office.”) He finally retrieves the memo despite endless interference; he will put it back, prevent catastrophe, and save the family honour. He even stops his father from impeding his cousin’s marriage. He receives no credit and no thanks and doesn’t ask for them: he simply saves the day, without so much as disarranging his cravat.

Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow, and Heyer knows it. That’s why Ned’s big moment is when he acknowledges Francis is the hero. That’s why Ned and Eleanor are ciphers: they only exist in the plot to be obstacles to Francis. That’s why most of the crucial plot-resolving Chapter 19 is a barely-interrupted Francis monologue; that’s why the ending falls so flat, because Ned and Eleanor haven’t lifted a finger to solve their own external conflict. And that’s why, despite him first appearing in chapter 13 (of 20), Francis is far and away the most memorable character. Because he’s the hero, and the narrative eye of the book spends most of its time focused in entirely the wrong place.

***

This may sound pretty obvious as I’ve spelled it out. It isn’t obvious on the page because, as noted, we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Francis arrives to save us, and because his machinations only become clear in chapter 19. The main body of The Reluctant Widow is about Ned and Eleanor and their valiant supporting cast, including the wonderful dilapidated house which is conveyed with extraordinary vividness. Heyer wasn’t phoning this one in: she was throwing everything she could at the story to zizz it up. But she failed–because she was telling the wrong story.

And she knew it, I think. Francis lights the book up when he appears, and gets all the best dialogue and all the best description. Heyer plunges gleefully into portraying him as a villain with repeated scenes of Ned’s boring bumpkin brothers being appalled at Francis’s effeminacy, almost as if trying to show how stupid and judgemental they are. Francis is the point; Eleanor and Ned’s romance is merely the stage on which he performs.

Georgette Heyer knew how to structure a book. The plotting of Cotillion and the final scene of An Unknown Ajax are absolute masterpieces of craft, and I don’t say that lightly: Ajax leaves me slack-jawed every time. It’s staggering to see how well she can work a plot. But not this one: because she was trying to tell the wrong story, because she needed to write a Regency romance, and–possibly, maybe?–because there was no way in 1946 for Francis to have a mass market romance novel of his own.

So what can we learn? Well, for a start, if your characters are being pushed to the sides of the plot, notice and ask yourself why. Are they just reactive, like Ned and Eleanor, not taking a role in driving the plot? If you’re writing a romance with an important subplot, could the two story strands be taken apart without destroying either–and can you actually intertwine them? Are you more interested in writing a secondary character than your MCs? Any of that might indicate that your main characters, the ones taking up the page time, aren’t actually the centre of your story–and that is likely to be a serious problem.

Don’t feel bad, though. As Heyer shows, it happens to the best.

_________________

Yes, I am a Heyer fiend. My new book Band Sinister has been described as “Heyer but gayer,” which is something I’ll happily have on my gravestone.

Cover of Band Sinister

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

 

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today

“I loved that this couple was completely honest with each other about their feelings for each other, and their feelings for other characters who held important places in their lives. It made their HEA all the more delightful and believable. … this book is really, really good. Go one-click, you won’t be disappointed.”–Smexy Books

“A wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights. It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.”–Caz’s Reading Room

All buy links

Watch Your Dangly Bits

Dangling participles. Sounds like an embarrassing medical condition; is actually an embarrassing editorial condition. Here I shall tell you how to identify and avoid them.

A quick refresher first of all (aka Stop! Grammar time!). This won’t take long, promise.

A participle is just a form of a verb. English uses present and past participles. Present ends in -ing; past can take various forms but -ed is the most common.

  • To go has the present participle going and the past participle gone.
  • To walk has the present participle walking, and the past participle walked. Confusingly, walked is the same for the perfect tense of the verb (I walked down the road). It’s a participle when it’s used with auxiliary verbs to form a different tense: I have walked, you might have walked, she should have walked).

You see participles all over the place but what we’re looking out for in this post is a very common construction when the subordinate clause comes before the main clause. Herewith a couple of examples of perfectly acceptable sentences. (Wrongness will be marked with an X.)

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

NB: a subordinate clause is one that has to be attached to a main verb because it doesn’t stand on its own. “The two men walked down the street” is a full sentence. “Talking animatedly” is not a sentence, and nor is “Having written one successful vampire book.” They don’t stand alone: they are there to tell us more about the main clause.

Let’s just flip those two examples around so we can see what’s going on here.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

She launched a vampire series, having written one successful book already.

You’ll notice I messed with the word order in the second sentence and have added words in order to make these proper-sounding sentences, but the participle is doing exactly the same work.

And what work is it doing? Well, it’s telling us about the subject of the sentence, and that applies whether the subordinate clause comes first or not.

The two men walked down the street talking animatedly.

Who is talking? The two men.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

Who wrote the vampire book? She did.

Got that? Right. Now look at this.

X Today I am interviewing Mary Jones, author of the Fangs for the Memory series. Having written one successful vampire book, I asked her more about turning it into a series.

Who wrote the vampire book here?

Well, according to the structure of this sentence, the interviewer (the I of the sentence) did. Flip it around:

I, having written one successful vampire book, asked her more about turning it into a series.

And that is a dangling participle—one that has come adrift from the subject and verb it is meant to modify, and thus changes the meaning of the sentence.

A few more examples.

X Vikram had thirty seconds to catch his train. Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

Who was running? The keys, apparently.  Flipped: “The keys fell to the pavement while running to the railway station.” This obviously isn’t the intended meaning, but it is what the words say because the subordinate clause doesn’t have a “Vikram” or “he” to attach itself to. The only subject in the main clause is “keys”.

It’s very easy to see something’s wrong with this sentence if we flip it. Compare the following pairs:

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

and

X Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

X The keys fell unnoticed to the pavement while running to the railway station.

This way round, it’s glaringly obvious that we’re missing Vikram was from the second sentence.

A few more examples:

X After writing the book, the editor will read it and send the author feedback.

Who’s written the book? The editor, apparently. (I wish.)

X Having abandoned his family for so long, the children no longer wished to meet their father.

Who’s the deadbeat? According to the grammar, it’s the children, even though they’re plural.

X Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.

I’m hoping it wore legwarmers, 80s style.

This isn’t trivial. The effect of dangling participles is awkward, confusing, often unintentionally comic. And that is bad writing.

The good news is, participles aren’t the only dangly bits! (I lied about that being good news, sorry.) Other modifiers can dangle as well.

Aged 5, Mozart wrote “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

X Aged 5, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was Mozart’s first composition.

Or

Dark-eyed and curvy, she was still beautiful at 60.

X Dark-eyed and curvy, any man would find her beautiful,

These examples are just clunky. But this error can get really nasty in some circumstances. Take a look at this:

Now a consultant physician, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

This sentence is grammatically correct…if the man is the consultant physician. If however that’s his ex-wife’s new job, this sentence has just sent every reader down an entirely wrong path.

Let’s unpack this. The grammar gives us this meaning:

He was now a consultant physician, and was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

But the way it’s worded suggests that the more likely meaning is:

He was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time: she was now a consultant physician.

It is not always obvious to the reader which is correct when meaning conflicts with grammar. Try these:

X Having surrendered, the Germans occupied the Channel Islands.

Even worse is when we involve passives:

X Having invaded without serious opposition, the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces.

For the record, the Germans invaded, the Channel Islands surrendered, and the Germans occupied them. Is that what the above sentences say? (No.)

Watch out for danglers. They aren’t hard to spot: just keep an eye out when you have a subordinate clause before the main clause, and make sure that it’s attaching to the thing it’s supposed to attach to. Ask yourself who’s doing it. (Who wrote the vampire book? Who’s aged 5? Who’s the consultant physician?) Flip the sentence around if you need to check.

This construction is, frankly, avoidable. It’s very journalistic, and can often lead to top-heavy sentences which are hard to parse. Plus, present participles in subordinate clauses often lead to what editors call Simultaneous Action issues, which is another kettle of fish altogether. (“Walking into the room, he sat on the sofa.”) Isn’t writing fun?

________________________

While there are quite a few dangly bits in my new book Band Sinister, none of them are modifiers.

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today on Band Sinister

All buy links here.

Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA

Discussions of historical romance frequently break into two factions: those who want their histrom to align with modern values about things like consent, equality, and bigotry, and those who don’t because those weren’t the attitudes of the time and that’s part of historical accuracy.

I am of the former group, even though I bang on about historical accuracy when it comes to stuff like modes of address. I need to be able to see a romance hero as a good person by my standards. The fact that a slave-owner or a homophobe might have been considered a good person (by people he wasn’t maltreating) in 1810 is a matter of profound indifference to me: I’m reading it in 2018, and this guy sucks. I’ll take gritty depictions of the past in other genres, but if you want me to buy into a romance and a Happy-Ever-After, don’t give me heroes that I’d happily set on fire.

This doesn’t mean that I want the past erased. It doesn’t do to forget the vileness of which humans are so readily capable. People’s pain ought not to be lightly handwaved away. And the truths of history are not incompatible with romance, when approached from the right angle. There are histrom authors taking on America’s filthy history to magnificent effect—Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series with black heroes and heroines during the Civil War is brutal; Piper Huguley and Beverly Jenkins don’t shy away from the corrosive effects of racism; Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series keeps the homophobia of Georgian Scotland front and centre. All of these are wonderful. It can be done.

But. Also.

You can’t throw a bun on Romance Twitter without hitting someone defending romance as the genre of hope, of the world as it should be, of escape and happiness and love. Romance creates a fantasy, and historical romance is pretty much always a fantasy no matter how much research we do into the top speed of a phaeton or the exact materials used for a ball dress, or what the hell a peignoir might be. The dukes with abs, the governess marrying a nobleman, the earls with a sideline in espionage: it’s all a fantasy, and that’s absolutely fine because, as I wrote last time, you will take my fluff from my cold dead hands.

And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution, that any romance starring a POC must be about racism and injustice, that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings, let alone fluffy stories along the way, because history was too cruel.

I’ve been sustained for years by Georgette Heyer’s glorious fantasies of women finding love and respect in a glittering Regency that never was, and my knowledge of the actual period’s brutal politics, deep misogyny, and general nastiness doesn’t undermine that pleasure. That sort of fictional escape should not be denied to readers of colour and/or queer readers–and particularly not on grounds of accuracy or historical realism that are not applied elsewhere.

We know that m/f histrom heroes and heroines are immune to lice, syphilis, terrible dentistry, death in childbirth. We know that the heroine will be safe when the book ends: that her husband won’t use her total financial dependence against her or rape her at will as he could because he now owns her body and all her property. In the right kind of modern histrom, we know from the start that the hero won’t be infected by misogyny or toxic masculinity, and will understand the concept of enthusiastic consent without needing a Basic Human Decency 101 class. All that is part of the histrom fantasy—because wow, was none of that guaranteed to actual women in actual history.

So if someone insists historical romance featuring marginalised people must come with the full complement of historical misery–that nobody could possibly have had a happy life with loving family, friends like themselves, good allies, non-bigoted acquaintances, and avoided running foul of unjust law–I need to know that they are applying the same standards to white m/f.

Of course, many people do exactly that. Most histrom readers expect books to show the oppression of the time to some degree, whether light touch, partial engagement, or full-on harsh reality; some people simply don’t read the genre because the happy gloss doesn’t work for them. Some people find it impossible to let go of the exploitation and colonialism that probably underpin a rich aristocrat’s wealth and privilege (which is a real bummer if you just wanted to enjoy a relaxing escapist duke book). Those are all entirely valid stances and down to the individual.

What is not valid is to be on board with duke/governess stories and all the rest of the glittering balls and yet simultaneously to assert that Regency fluff with POCs is unrealistic, or that m/m love stories must be played out under the shadow of the pillory and the gallows. That is to gatekeep who gets the fantasy and who gets the (worst of) reality. And it’s not only unjust: it’s also as historically inaccurate as it gets.

We can state as a matter of cold hard statistical fact that there were far more happy real-life queer people and people of colour in Regency England than there were handsome eligible dukes. This is simple mathematics, because queer people and people of colour actually existed, whereas the number of desirable dukes can be counted on the fingers of one foot. You want historical realism? Check out this babe.

That’s the fifth duke of Devonshire, a repeat adulterer who blamed his wife for having miscarriages, installed his mistress in the family home and made them both pregnant at the same time, and condemned his wife for having an affair while he was fathering numerous illegitimate children with multiple women. She was a writer, supporter of science, and early activist for women’s rights; he was a no-account hypocritical dullard who regarded her with utter indifference and made her life miserable. I don’t think a punny title is going to save this one. Also, those are not romance abs. And this portrait is probably flattering. Wow.

It is of course absolutely fine not to like stuff: modern values in historical romance, or fluff, or the basic concept of setting a romance in terrible unjust times, or anything else. But it’s not okay to support escapist fantasy for some people while denying it to others. And it is particuarly questionable to exclude anyone from a fantasy on grounds of realism. That just isn’t how fantasy works.

___________________

 

Cover of Band SinisterMy new book, Band Sinister, comes out 11th October and is pure Regency m/m fluff with a bastard baronet, an innocent country gentleman, a hellfire club, and a 100% happy ever after.

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out tomorrow at the time of writing, from the usual stores.

You Will Take My Fluff From My Cold Dead Hands

In these times when UK/US politics are best represented by a gif of fifteen killer clowns in a burning wheelie bin plummeting off a cliff, we need to hang on to our small joys. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news, the fire-hose of human awfulness, bigotry, hate, cruelty and callousness. And it’s also easy to feel like we’re somehow cheating by turning away or taking time to enjoy anything. Something terrible happens, and Twitter will not only inform us in horrifying detail but also bring a chorus of people shouting HOW DARE YOU TALK ABOUT A TV PROGRAMME NOW? HOW DARE YOU PROMOTE A BOOK WITH THIS GOING ON? WHY AREN’T YOU SCREAMING?

The thing is, asking people to feel nothing but rage and misery is counterproductive. Let’s face it, we’re all screaming, and some kind of appalling ‘this’ is always going on somewhere. I strongly believe in being aware, and in acting meaningfully on that awareness. (PROTEST. CALL YOUR REPS. REGISTER TO VOTE. ACTUALLY VOTE.) But I also believe that we don’t help anyone by staring at the news till we’re driven to despair. We’re only human; we are not emotionally or mentally built to carry the pain of the world. Everyone needs time out to recharge, to catch the small joys as they fly, to take a break and remember why people are worth fighting for. Time with loved ones, time outside in the fresh air, knitting, jigsaws, cooking, clubbing, making soap: anything that centres you is great. Personally, I read romance novels, and so do a hell of a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

I want happiness and joy. I want and need to read about a world where a woman can get emotional support from a man who respects her, or a queer couple can have a happy ever after, and I know everything will work out absolutely fine. More than that: Sometimes I want stories where those things go without saying. I want books where a woman’s problems in the workplace don’t include misogyny or sexual harassment. Where the big obstacle to the gay romance isn’t homophobic relatives but the need to find the stolen diamonds. Where the trans spaceship captain’s gender is an aspect of the character, not the plot. Where black women wear the best floofy dresses to Regency balls; where the bad guy’s aim is to steal the family estate rather than rape; where women and POC and LGBT+ people and all the intersections thereof can exist without being harassed, bullied or hurt for their identity just like white cishet male characters can all the goddamned time.

/deep breath, count to ten/

I am in no way against romances that confront hard issues. I adore stories that show triumph over adversity, and love winning in a hostile world, and I entirely understand the concerns about erasing marginalised people’s real suffering by writing historical fluff. (This is a huge, complex, and valid argument that I’m not getting into here but my own feeling is, if historical fluff exists for white cishets, it can exist for everyone else, and if it can’t exist for everyone else, we need to ban all dukes, syphilis-free rakes etc right now.)

I sometimes want a fictional world where misogyny, homophobia, and racism aren’t an ever-present poisonous cloud. I certainly want that to be an option on the shelves. And I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.

It is a radical act of imagination to make stories as friendly to women and marginalised people as they are to white cishet men. It is re-envisioning the entire world. It is staking a claim for our equal humanity: our right to drink at parties, our right to walk at night or hold hands with a lover, our right to fly dragons or spaceships. Our right to be carelessly happy, or at least to have problems that aren’t grounded in our identity (have you found those missing diamonds yet?). Our right to be loved and respected as equals.

Fluff may seem as sweet and light and insubstantial as candyfloss, but it is also a weapon, because it shows us a world that’s worth fighting for. (Think of that as the sharp stick running through the candyfloss. Poke it into someone’s eye.) If you want to rest in a fluffy world while gathering your strength for the next round out there, go for it. Take care of yourself exactly as you need to, and don’t let anyone shame you for doing so.

And then make sure you vote.

***

Here is a Twitter thread I did to recommend comfort reading. I strongly recommend the #romanceclass books in particular as an antidote to toxic masculinity.

My new book, Band Sinister, is the fluffiest thing I have yet written. I hope it helps.

Cover of Band SinisterSir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out 11 October, from the usual stores.

 

Step 2 ???, Step 3 Profit

I was drifting through Twitter, as so often, when I came across this series of tweets by @quartzen. Text copied below for ease of reading.

 

I feel like modern writing advice is like…

  1. Just get a complete first draft down on paper, it’s okay if it’s awful, terrible, and the worst!
  2. ???
  3. Once you have a polished draft that’s as good as you can make it, look to beta readers, editing, and eventual publication!

***

It’s exactly like those “how to draw” things for kids where the first step is a couple of circles, maybe with a crosshair for facial features, the next step is “add some detail” (ie actually draw the thing perfectly), now you’ve got a great example of what you were trying to draw

Word.

Part of the reason Step 2 is usually missing is that it’s hard to give advice that applies to everyone. Some authors throw down a skeleton plot in their first draft that needs fleshing out; some people create well-developed worlds and characters first off, but have to go back and insert a skeleton to give their wobbling mass some story-bones. Some people go through multiple completed drafts; others find out what they’re doing while writing a much-revised first half of a first draft. (I’m that person. Generally speaking I loop over and over my first half to get everything in place, and then once I have that sorted it’s a straight trot to the end and I very rarely have to make significant changes to the second half.)

Also, each author changes with each book–you may find that Project X starts with a plot but Y is entirely character driven. Step 2 will be different not only for every author but for every author’s every MS.

All that said there’s a few broader points that we can apply: not to give specifics but to give a bit more shape to what Step 2 looks like.

2.i Work out what’s missing from your draft

Look at what you’ve got. Is it a well developed plot, populated with two-dimensional characters just doing what the story needs? Is it a lot of enjoyable interactions between well developed characters, but which wanders from place to place without a driving story? Have you gone big on the descriptions and low on the action, or vice versa? Are all the pieces there on the page, but it hasn’t come to life? Or is it a mass of inconsistent ideas glued together with willpower and fast typing?

Working out what’s missing from your story is not entirely easy because if you knew you’d have put it in already. It takes practice to identify these things. Unfortunately you really can’t assume a crit partner will do this bit for you–they’d have to be very good, omnipatient, and possessed of unlimited time. You really need to learn this yourself, which means being analytical, not too enamoured of your own work, and ready to kill your darlings.

So how to find your lacunae? Here are a bunch of general questions to consider:

Are my characters consistent?

It’s very common in a first draft for the heroine to start out motivated to avenge her brother’s death/terrified of public speaking/passionate about establishing her cupcake business, and then the author basically forgets about that, or switches that bit of motivation on and off depending on the requirements of the scene. It’s fine if your plot/character diverges from initial ideas, that’s what drafts are for, but you need to notice, go back, and tidy those up so your characters are consistent within their own messy humanity. If your characters’ behaviour is based on the exigencies of the plot from moment to moment, they won’t work as people.

And yes, this goes for minor characters too, especially villains. If your villain’s sole motivation is wanting to make the hero/ine unhappy, you need a damn good reason why, unless they are to be Darth Plotfunction.

Do I have a functioning skeleton for my book?

Writing a synopsis can be quite a useful way to work this out. If, for example, you discover that you didn’t mention the entire third of the book that they spend on a tropical island, that’s a sign to cut or rewrite. If you can’t unpick your own story to write a clear synopsis, are you sure the reader will be able to? Did you have to change anything about the story (eg massively expanding a plot element you gloss over in the MS) to make it work as a synopsis? Does that tell you something?

Does the plot carry through? Where does the drama peak? Do we reach a resolution, rather than just an ending? Has something changed in the world, characters, or reader’s ideas? Does ‘The End’ feel natural and inevitable? (If it’s in a series, have you made the reader feel satisfied with this book while still giving her a reason to grab the next?)

Where are my big emotional/story pivots?

The moment one or both MCs realises they’re in lust or love, the moment of betrayal, the moment of despair. Have I fleshed these out enough? If my hero has been a jerk, is there payback? Is the mystery resolved, the villain caught, the lie exposed? Have I given those sufficient space for impact? (Or, if I’m doing some smartarse playing about with off-page-resolution, does it work?)

Can I remove any scaffolding?

Those bits that were a trudge to write but we had to get the characters from A to B while informing the reader of Z: do I need them? Can I cut them/replace with a single, ‘Three weeks later…’ line? My editor at Samhain once flagged up a lengthy bit of dialogue with the comment “This feels like you’re explaining the plot to yourself”, which still stings because hoo boy was she right. Write that scene/conversation by all means, if it helps. Then cut it.

Are all the plot elements relevant and resolved?

Don’t leave loaded Chekov’s guns lying around. If you put in eg the hateful stepfather’s threat to take over the family business, use it or lose it. Do not be in love with your amusing sassy neighbour if he has no actual plot role. Same with sequel-bait siblings/friends in romance. Make them earn their place.

How much worldbuilding have you done vs how much you need?

Historical novels and SFF might need a lot more than contemporaries, but that isn’t a licence either for 500 pages of plotless scene setting, or for an assumption that everyone is deeply familiar with your small American town as detailed over the previous 18 books.

***

Then, if writing genre especially, ask yourself what kind of book it is. I am not being simplistic here. I edited for years at Mills & Boon, I read slush pile by the metre, and I can’t tell you how many romance novels forgot to include the romance. No, really.

Sample questions for a romance writer. Adapt for your genre.

How prominent is the romance in my story?

Is that as prominent as it needs to be given the setting/secondary plot? If it’s a romantic suspense, you can’t do 10% romance and 90% suspense, but 10% suspense and 90% romance isn’t really going to fly either. Have I concentrated too much on other non-vital stuff, eg, the house renovation plotline, and thus ignored the romance between the hero and his two gay dolphin shifter lovers for chapters at a time?*

*a real book, I swear to you

Are there enough love scenes of appropriate heat for your story?

May be UST for 80% of the book and then a kiss, may be non stop fisting, but either way is it right for what you’re trying to do?

If it’s a sexy romance (not erotica), does each sex scene advance the plot/characterisation in some way?

Can you cut any of the sex scenes without losing something important? If yes, either do so or make them work for their inclusion.

Is there internal conflict (problems within the relationship)? Is there external conflict (problems not to do with the relationship)? Do both have enough time to develop and be resolved?

You don’t need both internal and external conflict, but if you lack one, the other needs to be bloody good. If you can’t identify any conflict, what is driving your story, and what will give the reader any inducement to carry on reading? (If your answer is ‘they’ll just want to hang out with my characters being happy’, you’re either a spectacularly talented writer or, er, wrong.)

How have you paced the story?

It might be that you want a whirlwind romance focused entirely on the couple in bed, it might be you’re doing a slow-burn with a big cast where they don’t even meet till half way through, but either way we need to see the story develop steadily, enough to give us a plausible development of love, overcoming of conflict, and satisfying resolution, without longueurs or rushing.

***

If you’ve asked yourself all that you should have at least a pretty good idea of your story’s weaknesses, inadequacies, self-indulgences, and cheats that will allow you to move to step 2.ii.

2.ii Fill in the holes, shore up the structure, prune the growths.

Your second draft should be focusing on fixing the problems you’ve identified and marshalling your story elements into better shape. This might be small shifts of focus, or cutting the secondary plot with the amusingly camp neighbour’s dog, or giving the hero a new background and motivation, or replacing the MCs with two totally different characters (yep, been there). It might be a brief tidy of an existing MS, or a total rewrite from the ground up.

This is the part nobody can advise you on or, rather, the part for which there is infinite advice out there but you’ll need to go looking for what you specifically need–whether that’s advice on worldbuilding, pacing, characterisation, suspense plotting, or using sex scenes to build character.

In the end, you can only fix something when you have an idea of what’s wrong with it. So that’s Step 2, as best as I can advise you, except for:

2.iii Go to 2.i

Yup, sorry. Do it again. Reread your second draft for bits where the plot falls apart, bits where the characterisation isn’t singing, bits you want to skip because boring, bits you did a Note to Self on and then forgot about. Don’t stop looking at the structure until you feel that you know what you’re trying to do, and feel reasonably certain that you’ve done it.

***

This may all seem massive and daunting. It shouldn’t be. If you regularly read books and think about them, you already know what it looks like when a book is badly paced, has too much description, lacks conflict, has inconsistent characterisation etc. The hard bit is taking off your Proud Creator blinkers and/or the filter of knowing what you were trying to do, as opposed to what you actually achieved, and applying that critical insight to your own work. But that’s also a vital step in your evolution as a writer. Go to it, and good luck.

____________________

KJ Charles was an editor and book fixer for long enough to get a handle on Step 2 and is now a romance writer and 2018 RITA nominee. Her most recent release is Unfit to Print.