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The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)

The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.

However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.

I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:

April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.

The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.

So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:

1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3

I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.

The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)

Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though.

The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.

I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.

So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?

Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.

All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.

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The questions above

Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?

Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.

Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?

I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.

Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?

Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.

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This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

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Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

Suspending disbelief: how high can you go?

I watched the animated film Storks the other day. There are many silly things about this film, but the one that stuck in my throat was this.

Here is a stork.

stork

Here are the storks in Storks.

from storks

Those are seagulls. Look at the heads. Look at the beaks. Seagulls.

This was bugging me the next morning such that I was forced to tweet.

stork tweets

There’s an obvious answer to that which Chesterton sums up very well in one of the Father Brown stories:

“It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. 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.”

AKA: they’re bloody seagulls. Obviously.

Chesterton’s explanation is true as far as it goes: if a book presents us with something that we know to be wrong, without explanation, we don’t accept it. Obviously, if London is made of sentient jelly which has the power to suck down Tube stations and spit them out again in different places and that’s why Oxford Circus is now south of the river, that’s a perfectly good reason. I will happily suspend my disbelief, if you just give me a hook to hang it off.

But I think there’s more to dig out here for worldbuilding purposes, and it was brilliantly put by Twitter user @aprotim.
deviation

For an implausible thing to feel right and true in a story, it must have a reason. If there isn’t a reason, it’s unconvincing. But if every implausibility has a different reason, what you get is a mess.

In the alt history programme SS-GB we accept any amount of divergence from reality because it all flows from the same point of deviation: the Nazis won. (And therefore Churchill is dead, and therefore swastikas everywhere, etc.) We accept all that immediately from the basic premise. However, if SS-GB decreed that everyone in the UK was legally obliged to have a cat, we’d all be sitting up and saying, “What?” because that doesn’t arise from the premise. It requires us to be given and accept a second, unrelated explanation. (“In this reality Hitler was super fond of cats.”) It’s not just that it deviates from the real world in which I live; it also diverges from what I thought to be the case for the fictional world in which the Nazis won.

And this is the point about economy of deviation. Deviations that come back to a single premise (“there are ghosts”; “the city is made of jelly”; “people have superpowers”) can be the root of a massive branching and flowering tree of story, and lead to all kinds of weird and wonderful things, and we’ll happily go with them because they flow from the initial premise. But unrelated deviations requiring separate explanations—or, worse, which are unexplained–sap at the verisimilitude of the story because we like things to fit.

There’s a famous statistics puzzle that goes as follows:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1.  Linda is a bank teller.
  2.  Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is 1. It is more probable that one thing will happens than that two will. (Think of it this way: the odds of A happening are better than the odds of A happening and also B happening.)

But this is counter intuitive for humans. The majority of people will go for option 2, and this is why we say lies, damn lies and statistics. We have been given a story that leads us to feminist and not to bank teller, therefore bank teller alone is a less plausible outcome for humans than feminist bank teller because it doesn’t fit the story. It diverges from the facts we have; it requires a second explanation; it isn’t convincing. Option 1 may work for statisticians; it doesn’t work for novelists at all. (This is the principle of Occam’s Razor and Chekhov’s Gun: we don’t want dozens of different reasons for things.)

To return to Storks: I am not bothered by the base concept of “storks actually create and deliver babies” because that’s a given for the universe. I am also not bothered by the stork having teeth inside its beak

stork teeth

horrifying though that is, because anthropormorphism is part of the animated universe. Those are both givens of the story. But I am bothered by the storks looking like seagulls, because that is a divergence from my world which is unexplained by anything in the film. It’s not based on anything; it doesn’t lead from or flow to anything. It was done for the convenience of the animators (just as a pivotal row in a romance novel may arise because the author feels “we need a row here” rather than out of the characters and their situation). And as such, it feels troubling, annoying, and deeply implausible in a film which features a submarine made of wolves.

KJ magpie200

Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.

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Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.

 

KJ magpie200

How to Screw Up

A slightly misleading clickbait title there, because we can all screw up without assistance. We screw up by commission and omission. We forget, or erase; we don’t care, or do harm. We fail to listen, we fail to act. We say stupid things. Stupider than that. You know that thing you said twenty years ago that still comes into your mind at 3am and makes you sink your teeth into the pillow? Those. We write books or blog posts or emails or tweets that, in retrospect, make us wonder if we were high, or maybe possessed by whatever demon is wearing Donald Trump’s skin, or at least if we could use that as an excuse. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We say and do and write things that were meant to be funny or positive and turn out to be hurtful and stupid, stupid, why did I ever think that was a good idea? We fail.

The question is not whether we will screw up, but what we do about it.

The first step is usually to face the fact of screw-uppage, which is harder than it sounds. Denial is so much easier. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. You definitely said Thursday. I’m sure I didn’t get that email.

I like to see myself as a nice person. (Stop laughing at the back, I need my delusions.) To pluck an example out of a current situation in my genre: I believe in diversity and representation. I am working hard to turn my fictional landscape into one that’s home to a wide variety of people. But I have got that wrong before, in a number of ways, and I will doubtless get it wrong again, no matter how hard I work and how good my intentions. (I have an old manuscript in my drawer that I pulled out recently. It was written fifteen years ago with the absolute best of intentions, and I almost cringed myself to death reading it. Thank God fasting that everyone rejected the damn thing; how right they were to do so.) I don’t want to screw up, but the fact is, I’ve got a shedload of things wrong in my 42 years on the planet to date and I see no reason why that’s likely to change.

I don’t want to get things wrong, because to get it wrong likely means that I hurt someone, and I’m not here to hurt people (except fictional bad guys, who can expect to be eaten by eels). But it’s dangerously easy to let my desire not to hurt people morph into a refusal to admit I have done so. I am not the kind of person who hurts others, therefore I didn’t hurt others and you’re just oversensitive. You took it the wrong way, you misunderstood, you’re making a drama about nothing. Because if I did hurt you, there goes my cherished self-image as a nice person who’s good at stuff, to be replaced with the self-image of a crass, stupid screw-up blundering her way over other people’s feet.

And of course the problem there is that it’s all about me, about my feelings when I screw up, my desire not to be a hurtful person. Rather than about the fact that I hurt you.

Humans are ego monsters. My pinprick of shame at feeling like a bad person can very easily seem more real, more important to me than the punch in the gut I delivered to someone else. My rugby team has, as their operating principles, the four pillars of strength, work rate, discipline, and humility, which is something I often muse on while they’re resetting the scrum for the fifteenth time. Humility can sound weak, but it isn’t a weakness: it’s something we have to learn, and strive for, and it goes hand in hand with strength. Strength without humility is bullying, and overbearing, and ultimately not strength at all—because if I can’t say I was wrong or It’s not all about me, if I can’t look honestly at myself and take another person’s weight on my heart, how weak must I really be?

And humility doesn’t just mean saying sorry. I had a friend who screwed up a lot, and would always apologise freely and generously for doing so. It took me a long time to realise that her apologies demanded not just that her friends forgive her, but that we then had to reaffirm what a good person she was because she apologised so humbly for the things she’d done to us–rather, than, you know, not repeatedly screwing us over in the first place. She’s not my friend any more.

Offering an apology doesn’t entitle anyone to forgiveness, and a performative apology–the kind made in a spirit of “look how sorry I am, therefore you have to forgive me!”–is just another way for the apologiser to feel better. We all know it. One of the great romance moments is ‘the grovel’—where the alpha male hero (usually) is brought to acknowledge what he did wrong. Readers are scalpel-sharp at distinguishing a good grovel, which is about unconditionally expressing remorse, making amends, changing things, from one which is designed to win forgiveness, smooth over the unpleasantness and re-establish the status quo.

Apologies are important, acknowledgement is important, but to my mind, the fundamental question is whether, having screwed up, I do better next time. Even if that just means, in practice, finding different ways to make less bad mistakes.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

All of which is a great deal easier to say than do. But if I didn’t believe that people–I, we, all of us–can do just a tiny bit better by one another, I wouldn’t be writing romance.

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KJ Charles just signed a contract to write horror. She is a writer and freelance editor who lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her most recent release is A Gentleman’s Position, which by coincidence features a hero with a lot of apologising to do.

Find her on Twitter @kj_charles or on Facebook, join her Facebook group, or get the newsletter.