Yes and No: Consent in sex scenes

This post is about writing consent in sex scenes so there will be quotes from sex scenes accordingly. It’s about active consent: I’m not going into noncon or dubcon here.

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I was an editor at Mills & Boon at the beginning of the millennium, during the Great Condom Crinkle Crisis.

The what? Well, this was when safe sex was generally known to be a Good Thing, but a significant and vocal minority of readers just didn’t want to hear about it. We got letters of complaint. Mentioning condoms in a sex scene was gross, offputting, and ruined the mood. Unfortunately, failing to mention condoms, and thus raising the spectre of pregnancy or STDs, was unrealistic, irresponsible, and ruined the mood. (You might feel at this point that authors just can’t win, and I wouldn’t argue.)

The solution? The Condom Crinkle.

Devon looked passionately into her eyes. There was a crinkle of foil, and his stiff length entered her.

This seems ludicrous now. (It seemed fairly ludicrous then.) Condom use/sexy putting-on/comic misadventures have become part of the repertoire. But back then, the crinkle of foil covered more than just the hero’s silken manhood: it stood in for the whole conversation around safe sex and contraception that readers knew about, but didn’t want to hear about.

Similarly, these days there’s a lot of people who’d agree that consent is a Good Thing, but they don’t want to hear about it. Consent in romance sex scenes is frequently covered with a single “do you want this?” or variations thereon. (Or even “If you want me to stop, tell me now because I won’t be able to control myself much longer.” That was in a book published two years ago. Wow.)

The argument goes, roughly, that we know we have to tick the consent box, but:

  • it’s unsexy to ask permission
  • a properly sexy alpha hero can intuit that the virgin hero/ine really wants flagellation followed by anal on their first time
  • consent is wishy-washy PC nonsense that gets in the way of the good stuff
  • consent is boring because it’s just endless repetition of ‘may I kiss you’/do you like this?’  and people don’t really do that.

(Yes, we know people don’t often obtain consent in reality. That isn’t a good thing. I’m going to assume you don’t need me to explain the moral imperatives behind consent in reality, and I’m going to address consent here as a technical writing issue, not a moral one.)

People are allowed to enjoy or dislike whatever in their reading. But IMO consent is one of the most versatile and interesting things in the author’s sex-scene toolkit, and treating it as a Condom Crinkle–a box to be ticked that then permits all future sexual activity without discussion–is missing a huge opportunity to develop character.

The standard line about sex scenes is they have to advance the plot or character–if they don’t do that, if they’re skippable, you’re getting it wrong. I see a lot of novices asking how to go about that. One excellent way is by talking. Consent isn’t simply an administrative preliminary to sex: it’s a discussion of what people want. The way consent is portrayed in sex scenes gives a massive amount of info about the parties involved. We can tell a lot about a MC and a relationship from how and whether they actively ask for consent, or seek it non-verbally, and when they do this.

When a character is repeatedly checking in with their partner, that might tell us what they feel about themselves, or their attitude to their partner, or their confidence, or their insecurities, or their past bad experience, or the fact that they really like talking about sex while their partner hates it. There might be past trauma or power imbalance to be negotiated, or just personal tastes. There is a vast amount for the MCs to learn about each other—not just their sexual preferences, but how they approach negotiation, how much care they give their partner, whether they ask or assume or fear. Think for a moment about the huge difference between these:

  • “I want to do [X sex act]. Tell me you want it.”
  • “I want to do X. Do you want that?”
  • “What do you think about X? Because I’d love to, if you wanted.”

Those are not three ways of saying the same thing. That’s three extremely different things, and bundling them all under ‘consent’ is simply silly.

I should say here, sometimes the condom crinkle is all you need. A clear question that receives a verbal yes is not a compulsory part of a consensual sex scene. With a long-established couple in a series, it might go without saying (but with body language/enthusiasm). Or it might not go without saying, if one partner is dealing with trauma, or if they’re trying something new. It depends.

But the vast majority of romances treat couples getting to know one another better, and a talk about what they both want is a terrific way to do that.

I am going to break down a few of my scenes as examples. Lots of text incoming. Please note that sex scenes always look mildly painful out of context. *advance cringe*

Slippery Creatures and character through consent

Kim Secretan is aristocratic, nervy, untrustworthy. Will Darling is a tough ex-soldier, back from the Front, bisexual with limited experience with men. They’ve already had a couple of encounters (with very little discussion beyond whether to have a cup of tea afterwards) but Kim has screwed everything up by being a lying twisty git. Here they are having a rapprochement.

Kim gave him a long, glinting look, under lowered eyelids. It was the sort of look a seducer might give a girl in the pictures. Will was no girl, didn’t need seducing, and still felt a pulse of something a little bit like nerves. “Do you like to fuck?”

“Er, yes? Oh. You mean all the way?”

“Absolutely all.”

Will had to lick his lips. “Me doing you?”

“Ideally with a better verb but yes. If you’d like. Is that appealing?”

In theory, absolutely. Practice might be different. “Thing is I’ve only done that once and it wasn’t marvellous for anyone. You know. Flanders.”

Kim paused. “Do you mean Flanders as in ‘it was wartime’, or is there a Belgian buggery problem I should know of?”

Will almost spilt his drink with the force of his bark of laughter. Kim was obviously amused by his own joke, eyes warm, face light and lit. “Arse. Wartime. Everything in a hurry, military police, no privacy all that. The point is, I wouldn’t know what I was doing, and I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

Kim’s eyes flicked to his, then away. “You didn’t have a good first experience, then?”

“The other bloke didn’t seem to, and that’s not my idea of fun.”

“It can be good. But it’s entirely up to you.”

Will examined his face. “Do you want that? I mean, is it something you like to do?”

Kim didn’t answer for a few seconds. When he spoke it was deliberately, but not with his earlier defiance. “I like getting fucked, yes. I realise one isn’t supposed to, but there we are. Does that matter?”

Will’s previous partner had initiated the experience as well, for all that was worth. “Of course it does. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want. That’s no way to go about things.”

“You said something along those lines before. That it made you, ah, horny to think I liked sucking you off.” Kim sounded as though he’d never used the word before in his upper-class life. It was oddly endearing.

“It does.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Because you like it, that’s all. I want you to want it, and to tell me so.” He saw the velvet darkness growing in Kim’s eyes and went on, deliberately. “I like knowing that you want me to fuck you, even if you aren’t supposed to want it. Especially that, maybe.”

“One really oughtn’t, of course.” Kim spoke softly, almost purring. “And yet I just can’t help myself. The sheer pleasure of getting fucked—the feel of a man in my mouth, or bending me over a bed—”

“Oh God.” He couldn’t believe Kim was admitting this; it was killing him, tightening his gut and constricting his ribcage with desire. He wanted to give him what he asked for, make him gasp and beg and spend. “Do you—uh—”

“Spit it out. As it were.”

“The first time, when I was standing up. I wondered if you wanted me to move. To fuck your mouth for you.”

“Interesting you should say that,” Kim said. “It’s suggestion five. I rather thought at the time that you might like to.”

“I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Manners maketh man.” He ran a finger along Will’s cheek. “How do you want me, Will? Would you like to find out just how hard it would make me to take your cock?”

“Jesus. Yes. You’ll have to talk me through it, though.”

Kim plucked the whisky glass out of his hand and put both tumblers on the bedside table. “My pleasure.”

Let’s break this one down in exhaustive detail. From the top:

  1. Kim asks if Will is interested in penetrative sex, which tells us he isn’t making easy assumptions based on Will’s class/physicality. Point to Kim.
  2. We learn Will had a bad experience that he feels guilty about. We’ve seen in the book to date that he’s extremely ready for a fight, but now we also see he isn’t casual about causing pain. Will is not someone who pursues his own pleasure at other people’s expense. And he’s very reasonably pissed off with Kim, but he isn’t going to take that out on him here. Point to Will.
  3. We learn by inference (including a reference to an earlier scene) that Kim has had bad experiences being held in contempt for his preferences. Kim is covering up a lot of wounds and is more vulnerable than he seems.
  4. Kim probes further, confirming that Will actively enjoys his partner’s pleasure. He’s obviously better at talking about sex than Will; nevertheless Will takes the ball and runs with it (as it were). They confirm they read each other correctly in an earlier encounter. Now they’re both clear on what the other wants, and they’ve established that it works for them both.
  5. Because of all this, Will’s initial reservation shifts from “I wouldn’t know what I was doing” to “You’ll have to talk me through it.”

Exploring mutual consent has built sufficient trust to let Will ask openly for help, and Kim not to feel fearful or embarrassed about his pleasures. It’s turned sex into a collaborative effort, which is what it should be. It also indicates to the reader that these two men are extremely capable of communication and cooperation when (if) they’re being honest with each other. This is crucial, because oh boy has it not been apparent in all their dealings to date.

Obviously that breakdown is painfully turgid, which is why I didn’t write it like that. But that’s information about character plus a step forward in the relationship, all conveyed by a discussion on consent.

Band Sinister and explicit verbal ongoing consent

One of the arguments I often see from Condom Crinklers is that consent is too often written as a tedious series of “Can I kiss you? Can I touch your leg? Can I kiss you again?” It is of course possible to do this badly, as it is possible to do anything badly. But ‘badly’ here would mean “without considering why MC1 is asking and how MC2 is answering.”

Cover of Band Sinister

Maybe MC1 is aware that MC2 has past trauma. Maybe MC1 is profoundly uncertain about taking the initiative in sex, and MC2 is patiently confirming it’s all right, you’re doing fine. Maybe they’ve got a running joke going. Maybe it’s their first time and MC1 just takes consent really seriously. All of those situations would play out completely differently—as long as the author knows why the characters are going to this level of granularity about consent.

Example time. In Band Sinister, Philip is an experienced rake (older, titled, reasonably wealthy) whereas Guy is a virgin, a poor country innocent who has never been kissed and whose incredibly limited information about sex comes from reading the classics. He’s somewhere between embarrassed and terrified by Philip’s interest. The power disparity is huge, even if we disregard that Guy is being forced to stay in Philip’s house for plot reasons (what, it’s a classic trope, shut up).

And therefore the consent in their first scenes is explicit and ongoing. Philip asks Guy about everything. This is not to get the box ticked. Its purpose is to make Guy understand he has both the power to say no, and the power to say yes–to accept this is happening with him, not to him. As follows:

He turned. Philip was standing, waiting, watching him. Guy made himself meet those grey-blue eyes. “I’m, uh, not sure what I should do.”

“Well, let’s see. You might ask if you can kiss me.”

“If I—?”

“You’re doing this too, my dear. And you need my permission as much as I need yours.”

“What do I say?”

“I think ‘Can I kiss you?’ would do very well.”

Guy swallowed. “Can—can I kiss you?” It came out as a whisper.

“You can,” Philip said. “Come here.”

Guy closed the two paces between them, and found himself staring at a cravat, which was somewhat dishevelled after the walk and the tree. A gentle finger nudged his chin up.

“You’ve my permission,” Philip said softly.

He’d assumed Philip would take the lead. Guy stood on the balls of his feet to make up the extra height, awkwardly tried to move his mouth to the right place and angle, and wobbled. Philip’s hands came up, one steadying Guy’s arm, one applying the gentlest possible pressure to the back of his head, and their lips met.

Philip specifically encourages Guy to talk to him, not just to agree with Philip’s suggestions, but to voice his pleasures in order to own them. This isn’t a matter of getting a ‘Yes’ for the record, but one of Guy learning himself, along with helping Philip do the same.  

“You may touch, if you like, or you can lie back and let me touch you. Do you think you could speak?”

“What should I say?”

“What pleases you. What you think you might like. What you’re hoping I’ll do, if you care to say it: you won’t shock me, and I’ll let you know if it’s impractical. You could start with how this feels.” He leaned forward, and licked Guy’s nipple.

“God!” Guy yelped, the blasphemy coming to his tongue without volition.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

And this leads us by the end of the scene (which is a long one) to Guy actually taking control for the first time, not just nodding along to Philip, even though they both want the same thing:

“Is that good?”

“Very. Up and down. A little harder. Christ, yes.”

“But mightn’t you spend on me?” Guy blurted. There would be nowhere else for Philip’s seed to go but between them, on his skin. His chest tingled at the thought.

“I might indeed, my sweet, and joyfully too. Or would you rather I didn’t?”

Guy had no idea at all. Furtive nocturnal stickiness had always been a regrettable necessity, to be hastily concealed. To have Philip do that, deliberately— “I don’t know. Um, do you want to?”

“Oh, I want to, very much indeed. I don’t have to if you’d rather not.”

“It’s all right.” Guy had no idea if it was anything of the kind, but he could hear the urgent desire in Philip’s voice and the thought of pleasing him outweighed all else. “If you want, then do. Please do. I’d like it.”

“Jesus Christ.” Philip’s voice was rather high. “Say that again. Ask me.”

Guy couldn’t previously have imagined himself asking that of anyone, but then, he hadn’t imagined this business would involve nearly so much talking. He’d always heard coupling described as men having their way with their partners. The idea that one sought permission to do things, that one asked other people to do things to one…

It meant this was up to him, in his control. It meant that he could give pleasure to Philip, rather than Philip taking pleasure from him. He could say the words and let, make this thing happen. 

“Spend on me,” Guy whispered, moving his hand faster. “Please spend on me. I want you to.”

This is a shedload of asking, but it’s absolutely crucial to the development of the characters and their relationship. Giving Guy the space, kindness, and respect he needs forces Philip to think about the relationship more seriously than is his wont, and allows Guy to rebuild the self-respect and strength of personality that have been crushed out of him by life to date. They are able to reach their HEA because Philip has learned to be more considerate and Guy more assertive, and this grows organically out of the consent scenes.

None of that would work if Philip had said “Can I kiss you?”, got a timid yes, and then gone on to do the rest without discussion. We wouldn’t see Guy’s journey or Philip’s capacity for care in action, so they wouldn’t be as convincing. I could have written a few lines about “Guy felt like a new man, having lost his virginity. He felt strong and confident now,” but it really wouldn’t have fooled anyone.

Plot is character in action. So is consent.

An Unnatural Vice and Being a Mess

Unnatural Vice cover

Consent is, broadly, not complicated: you check if someone wants to do stuff. However, people are complicated, and don’t always behave as per the handbook. (I’m not discussing dubcon/noncon here, but about handling consent in non-straightforward ways.)

Here Nathaniel is a rather self-righteous journalist (well-born, well-off, physically imposing) and Justin Lazarus is a professional medium and all-round shitbag who has crawled out of poverty, and who Nathaniel intends to expose. They loathe each other on sight but the sexual tension is twanging. Here’s the first scene: full-on hate sex.

Nathaniel moved. He didn’t plan it, he just moved, driven by an urgency he didn’t know how to control, and then his mouth was on Lazarus’s, biting, greedy, forceful. Lazarus’s hands were in his hair and gripping his coat, pulling him in, and the savage movement had them tumbling back onto the floor, grabbing and groping each other, blind and deaf to anything but the surge of desire.

Lazarus was on his back with Nathaniel over him, wrenching at his coat, wild-eyed. Nathaniel sat back to pull off coat and shirt, letting Lazarus sit up to do the same, shoving him back down as soon as he was bare-chested, plunging his tongue into the man’s mouth. Lazarus snarled around it, sucking and biting, nails clawing down Nathaniel’s back, hips pushing against his. There were a few frantic seconds of thrusting, and something the same shape as kissing but nothing like it, then Lazarus pushed violently up and rolled them both over together so he was on top.

“Bloody liar,” Nathaniel told him hoarsely.

Lazarus bent, biting at his ear and neck, making Nathaniel writhe. “You self-righteous piece of shit.”

Nathaniel grabbed his hair. “Just admit it.”

“I will if you will.” Lazarus’s hips ground against his. “Prick.” He plunged his tongue between Nathaniel’s lips again, making rasping, incoherent noises as Nathaniel clawed at his back, not caring if he left scratches, wrapping his legs around Lazarus’s hips. They were rutting like animals, still half clothed, every bit as much fight as fuck.

Nathaniel pushed unavailingly at Lazarus’s waistband. “Get these off.”

“So you know,” Lazarus panted in his ear. “I fuck other people. Nobody fucks me.”

“Of course they don’t.”

Lazarus bucked and writhed, the sharp edges of his teeth setting into Nathaniel’s shoulder. He pulled back, stared down. “What do you want?”

“A jar of something slippery, and you bent over your desk.”

Is this a sensible and healthy discussion of consent? No. But does it cover everything they need? Also no. This is clearly a terrible idea. Notwithstanding, the mutual enthusiasm is as clear as the mutual dislike.

Two things to note here: first, Justin (Lazarus) does not seek Nathaniel’s consent, or negotiate. But he does set a clear boundary of what he won’t do. Nathaniel (physically and socially far more powerful, deeply moral) is able to respect that, and even to make the concession of asking what Justin actually wants; Justin doesn’t offer any sort of compromise or question back.

Stick a pin in that. Because as things progress, we learn that Justin has been through a lot. He’s been abused; he lives a life of staggering selfishness because he’s never had kindness extended to him; his self-respect is beyond threadbare. Justin has no experience whatsoever of being asked for consent.

As Nathaniel realises this, he sets a boundary: he won’t approach Justin sexually unless Justin asks him to–nicely. It’s originally intended as a reassurance (if a rather snarky one). Justin turns it into a battle of wills.

“You made it quite clear that you didn’t want advances.”

“No. I asked you to name your price for your help, and you said, none,” Justin said. “Or perhaps what I asked for was reassurance, and you gave it to me unstintingly. I don’t know. I am well aware that you didn’t need my instructions to be decent.”

“As am I that you’re in a damned vulnerable position.”

“I’m never in a vulnerable position,” Justin said. “Never.”

Nathaniel put his fork down. “Yes, well, for all your bravado, I made you a promise. I told you I wouldn’t come near you unless asked, and I meant it.”

Justin took a piece of paper and propelling pencil out of his pocket. He scribbled a few words on the paper, folded it up, blew on it, and made a quick throwing motion, palming it as he did so.

Nathaniel blinked. “What—“

“Check your pockets,” Justin suggested.

Nathaniel gave him a long look. Then he put his fork down, put his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and extracted a piece of folded paper with a satisfying look of incredulity. “What the—“ He opened it and read.

I’m asking nicely, Justin had written there before dropping the paper in his pocket a good half hour ago.

Even now Justin isn’t capable of vocalising this as a request, and when Nathaniel subsequently tells him in so many words to ask for what he wants, he turns it into a roleplay game where he can pretend it’s not really him asking. This eventually brings us to a clash where Nathaniel is specifically trying to show Justin he cares by asking for his consent, and Justin still isn’t capable of letting go control and revealing his feelings.

Making love. That was what it felt like in its slow care. Justin lay back into it, letting Nathaniel do as he wished, muttering his assent to the questions. May I undo your shirt? May I lick you? May I touch you here?

“You really don’t have to ask,” he said, with difficulty. “Assume yes.”

“No.” Nathaniel had a thumb and finger round his cock, working it so gently Justin could only just feel it. “I want to know that every time I touch you, you want it.”

“I want it.”

“How much?”

“Badly. Harder, you prick.”

Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”

“Fucker.” Justin thrust up fruitlessly. “Harder.”

“Nicely.”

Justin wanted to laugh, and swear, and come, all together. He whined and bucked instead. “Go to hell. Harder.”

“No. Ask nicely or—“ Nathaniel’s grip became so light it was barely a touch.

Justin gave a cry of protest. “You piece of shit son of a whore bitch fucker!”

“You’ll have to ask me very nicely now.”

“Shan’t.”

Nathaniel looked as though he was feeling much the same baffling combination of emotions. “God, you look good when you’re stubborn.” He drew a finger sideways across Justin’s mouth, pushing it softly between his parted lips. “You can’t stop fighting, can you?”

What Justin needs, says, does, and thinks makes up a cat’s cradle of contradictory and tangled emotions, which Nathaniel can’t push through with a simple yes/no consent question. It may seem profoundly perverse for Justin to assert control by refusing to give clear consent, but that’s what I mean about complicated. It’s a huge act of trust for Justin to admit his feelings and ask for what he wants, and in asking for affirmative consent, Nathaniel is actually and unknowingly requesting a great deal more than a simple agreement to a specific act.

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I could give a lot more examples, but hopefully that selection shows what I’m getting at. Don’t treat consent as a simple box to be ticked. Maybe you just need a Condom Crinkle, but check in on that. Ask yourself if you’re missing out on an opportunity for a discussion, and if that would be productive, emotional, awkward, row-causing. How about showing us what happens in a ‘goes-without-saying’ set-up if one of the MCs changes their mind?

And when you show consent in action, don’t just affirm it, use it. Is it an act of care, or love, or basic decency, or back-covering? Is the asker more concerned about making sure they’re getting it right, or getting it right for the other person (not quite the same thing)? How would they react to a no? Is their past coming into play? What stage do they ask at? Is the question asked in a serious way that puts other things on hold, or is the conversation funny, or super-sexy? Are they on the same page before the question is asked? Do they reach the same page afterwards?

“Ongoing affirmative consent” sounds desperately buzzwordy. But what we’re actually talking about here is the ebb and flow of a relationship, the development of trust and honesty, deep knowledge and mutual understanding, shared pleasures and fantastic sex. Which is, really, what romance novels* are meant to do.

(*the ones with sex scenes, at least)

Italics, Other Languages, and You

There is an ongoing debate on whether and how to use italics for non-English words in English text. This used to be convention, most often in speech, and sometimes for words in the narrative.

Bonjour, Madame, I am Inspector Blanc of the Sureté .”

I piled my plate high with tamales, frijoles refritos, and chile con carne.

This convention is now changing, and it’s worth having a serious think about what you’re doing and why.

First, watch this video by Daniel José Older (who I believe started the current drive to reconsider italicisation) right now. Go on, watch it, it’s less than two minutes long and funny.  

Older’s point is that speakers who drop non-English words into their speech aren’t suddenly talking differently. If you say you’re having tamales for dinner, even if you pronounce it with a Spanish accent, it’s still just part of your connected flow of speech. This is inarguable when it comes to a character speaking (or their point of view narration) if the words are familiar to them.

Let’s do a quick test to clarify this point. What if any words would you italicise in the following?

  1. We went to a karaoke bar and Jim sang ‘As Time Goes By’ because he fancies himself as Sam out of Casablanca.
  2. “What?! He can do a sudoku puzzle in twelve seconds?!”
  3. Breakfast is a croissant, lunch is a cheese baguette, dinner is steak with mange-tout, cavolo nero, and chips, with creme caramel for pudding.

I am prepared to bet that in no. 1 you italicised Casablanca because it’s the title of a film, but not karaoke. I’d further guess that in no. 2 you considered italicising  ‘what’ and/or ‘twelve seconds’ because of (or to replace) the punctuation, but not sudoku. And I will put cash money that you didn’t hit up anything at all in no.3. (If you did and are English, please rethink.)

Let’s just try that last one styled for foreign words:

Breakfast is a croissant, lunch is a cheese baguette, dinner is steak with mange-tout, cavolo nero, and chips, with creme caramel for pudding.

That looks utterly laughable to me because those words are part of my vocabulary, absorbed into English. (I mean, really absorbed. I know several people who say mange-tout with the first part to rhyme with ‘flange’ and the second to rhyme with ‘out’.) Karate, sushi, ninja, tsunami: would you italicise any of them? Of course you wouldn’t. And if you did, you’d be actively impeding the average reader, who simply would not expect to see these common words set apart like that.

Italicising marks text as different. If you’re writing a Roman gladiator’s POV and you have him talking about his gladius, that makes me think the weapon is unfamiliar to him as well as me.

As a retiarius—a fighter styled on a fisherman—I carried a tridens, a three-pronged spear, a rete or weighted net in which to trap my opponents, and a puglio, a small dagger.

This style of historical writing makes people lose the will to live. Let’s try it in a more familiar context, shall we?  

As an author, or writer of books, I work at a keyboard, a device on which I type words, while drinking a lot of tea (the characteristic hot beverage of my people, imported from faraway lands), and futzing about on Twitter, an internet site from hell, or place of eternal damnation.

Do I sound like a demented anthropologist? So does your gladiator. I don’t believe in a professional fighter who holds his weapon at mental arm’s length like it’s a foreign object. Find a more elegant way to drop in the explanations, and make your reader feel like they’re in the world, not sitting outside it. You want your reader to be absorbed in your story; italicising shoves them out.

As with absolutely everything about the presentation of words on a page (grammar, punctuation, spelling), the purpose of setting text is to help convey the writer’s intention to the reader as clearly as possible. This trumps everything, particularly house style. The purpose of italics is to set text off—to indicate emphasis in speech:

You might be happy. I’m not.”

Or to mark out words as eg a title:

I watched Stand By Me last night

He sailed on the HMS Surprise.

Or to pick something out (as an alternative to quote marks)

In print publishing, pages are called folios and may be recto or verso, right or left.

And, yes, to mark foreign words in English.

The Latin name for magpie is Pica pica.

But as we have demonstrated above, just because a word is from another language, that doesn’t make it ‘foreign’ to the speaker/narrator/reader.

Italicising serves as a nudge to the reader that they’re not expected to recognise or understand a word. That act very much assumes who the reader is. If you italicise all your Spanish in a book written about Mexicans, that rather suggests you don’t expect your book to be read by Mexicans. It is othering—and in many cases that can look like saying, “Those people are different from me and you, the writer and the reader.”

Of course, that might be what you want. If you’re writing a character who has been shipwrecked in 18th-century Japan, you might well go for italics as deliberate distancing to show how strange the new world is to your protagonist.

The people here wear a loose garb which they call kimono.

You might want to mark up as ‘foreign’ for other reasons too. I have a scene in my book Band Sinister where the heroes discuss Latin poetry and vocabulary while getting hot and heavy. (This is one of the sex scenes I am proudest of, thank you.) I went back and forth on it, and eventually put the Latin in italics because, frankly, it’s a sex scene and I wanted readers to be able to skim over the Latin words with a mental [sexy classical stuff here] if need be, so as not to hold things up.

But Latin is a dead language. Spanish is not. If you mark up your Spanish text with italics, are you saying the reader can just fill in [foreign chatter here]?

Obviously it’s not always straightforward in practice. The Filipino romance collective #romanceclass has developed a policy of not italicising Tagalog words. However, there’s a recurring issue with the word ‘ate’, which means ‘big sister’ and is one of those kinship words used widely. If you read #romanceclass books (and you really should) you might come across a sentence like

Has your ate eaten? / Have you eaten, Ate Mina?

That could trip up an English reader, severely if it’s their first meeting with the word, and for about 1.4 seconds if they are a #romanceclass aficionado. It’s enough of an issue that authors consciously look out for workarounds and change their phrasing. Does that mean it might be better to italicise after all?

As a (white English) reader, I don’t want that. I read Filipino romance because, along with fantastic love stories, a great range of characters and topics, and the best ever Evil Ex Girlfriend getting her own book, I additionally get the privilege to swim in a world not my own for a while. I can sit in the grey concrete drizzle that is London and be absorbed into Manila. I don’t want the process of reading the book to constantly remind me ‘Hey, you aren’t a part of this, it’s foreign to you’—even when I don’t know specific words. I want it to be not foreign to me. That’s why I read.

And of course that’s a perspective of English privilege. It surely means a great deal more to Filipino readers to see their words and language belonging on the page like any others, not marked out as different or special or foreign.

None of this is intended to get at people who have books full of non-English in italics. My early books all do; it’s been convention for ever. The point is to think about it now and, as we go forward, to open up our horizons and consider our impact, and judge cases on their individual qualities, not as a blanket house style issue. Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass says,

Sometimes it’s like each new book comes with a new choice regarding this, and as authors and editors we make the call and then evaluate later if it was the right one. We’re aware that each Tagalog word we don’t translate and italicize becomes part of the vocabulary our readers will learn, and we take that seriously.

And there’s the heart of it. If we (and I especially mean here white people from English-speaking countries) italicise words solely because they’re ‘foreign’ we make a subconscious decision to set them apart, to keep them out rather than taking them in to ourselves. Let’s think hard before we do that, to words or to people.  

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Big thanks to Mina V. Esguerra for her help with this piece!

Cover of Gilded Cage

Writer’s Block And Why You Shouldn’t

I read an interview with Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo that got me thinking. (Evaristo is one of the UK’s most exciting writers, and if you haven’t discovered her yet, RUN DO NOT WALK. Mr Loverman is an absolutely cracking story of an elderly British Caribbean gentleman—married but with a long-term male lover—finally facing up to his sexuality in public as well as private, and the family chaos that ensues. The Emperor’s Babe is a verse novel set in Roman London. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read, and honestly fantastic. I haven’t read her Booker winner yet but I’m looking forward.)

ANYWAY. In this piece, Evaristo says this pure brilliance:

I don’t believe in writer’s block. If there’s a problem with getting words on the page, it needs to be investigated. I think that the act of naming it as this thing called ‘writer’s block’ actually exacerbates the problem and makes the writer feel powerless and the issue insurmountable. What’s really going on? Lack of confidence? (Most likely). Lack of skills and understanding of the importance of structure when it comes to writing a novel or of form when it comes to poetry? Lack of informed constructive feedback? Lack of commitment or patience? Does the writer read books in their chosen genre, which is creative writing 101? And so on.

Ooooh boy, let’s talk about writer’s block.

First things first: I don’t believe in writer’s block either. That doesn’t mean the experience doesn’t exist. I have absolutely stared at a blank page without a thing to say, or found myself unable to turn the ideas in my head into remotely satisfactory words, or sat there wondering how the hell you write a book while 20-odd copies of my novels sit on a shelf two feet away. It happens, and it sucks tremendously. I feel slightly nauseous thinking about it.

But Evaristo is spot on about naming. When we call it ‘writer’s block’ we frame it as an external obstacle, a boulder in the road, a curse that has been laid on us. Authors talk about it like it’s some sort of malign mystical affliction, something to be spoken of with dread in case of tempting Fate. We have persuaded the whole world it exists, as is entirely to be expected from people who tell elaborate lies for a living.

It’s deeply unhelpful. In part because we’ve conjured up a sinister spectre looming over us, which is a bad thing for people with overactive imaginations to do, and mostly because as Evaristo makes clear, ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a single thing with a single cause. In fact, it isn’t a thing at all, any more than virginity is a thing. Virginity is an absence, not a possession: it means you have not done a particular act. ‘Writer’s block’ is an absence, not a set of chains: it’s you not currently feeling able to do a particular act. (Notice that Evaristo frames the problems not as obstacles but as a series of lacks, of absences. There’s a reason for that.)

So first off, let’s change the framing, because words matter. Absence of doing requires a verb, not a noun, and ‘block’ has a horribly final sound. We’re now talking about struggling to write.

So why do people who want to write, love to write (for a given value of love that involves a lot of time complaining about it on Twitter) and quite possibly depend on writing for a living find themselves struggling to write? After all, as my dad pointed out when I was being self-important about it, there is no such thing as plumber’s block. Electricians don’t turn up at your house and mumble about how they just can’t seem to wire a fusebox any more.

Well, there are a million reasons. Let’s start with two linked ones that really should go without saying before going back to Evaristo’s list.

You don’t have the spoons

You’re physically or mentally unwell, debilitated, run down. You don’t have bodily health and energy; all your mental energy is taken up with trying to cope. Your work, in or out of the home or both, is demanding. You’re in despair at the state of the world. You’re grieving. You’re tired.

Look, writing is hard work. It requires a massive time commitment, a lot of mental effort and absorption, a lot of self belief. It’s even physically tiring, because sitting at a keyboard for however many hours it takes to write and edit a 70K novel is crappy for your back and wrists and eyes. If you aren’t in a mental and physical place to write, for heaven’s sake don’t beat yourself up for it, and really don’t call it writer’s block. Maybe you need to take a total rest, or to dramatically change your expectations of how fast you can write, or to dedicate a fortnight’s writing time to self-care instead. Give yourself some kindness and acknowledge you’d have to be in a better place to write a book, just like you’d have to be in a better place to run a 10km race.

The well is dry

You just wrote a book, yet it seems completely impossible that you could ever write a book again.

I’m currently here (which is why I’m blogging). I wrote a book in less than two months, finished it last week. That was 70K in about six weeks; the thought of putting fingers to keyboard seems totally implausible right now. This means nothing more than that I used all the hot water and I have to wait for the boiler to refill. Yes, there are people who can write ten romances a year: there is no shame in not being one of them.

Lack of confidence

We all feel it, and if I could fix this in a blog post I’d make it a book instead and retire in luxury. I can tell you this: every writer who ever lived has sat there wondering how the hell to write a book, or why anyone would read this crap when there are so many better writers out there, or what possibly qualifies them to do it, or whether they’ll get eviscerated in reviews, or if they only ever had one book in them, or or or.

I can tell you this too, and sorry in advance: Nobody else, no reassurance or rave review or success, is going to fix this for you. I once escorted a multi-award winning household-name kids’ author to an event. There was one single big award he hadn’t won in his massively successful multi-decade career: he told me with trembling-voiced sincerity that he was fundamentally a failure because he’d never won it. And have you noticed how often the author going into a traumatised meltdown about a bad review is one with a huge following of adoring fans?

Every working author has a bag of tricks to get over self-doubt. Not reading reviews; telling themselves they won’t publish this one and it’s just for fun; compartmentalising the insecure self and the writing self in a psychologically dubious manner; being a mediocre white man; repeating “Don’t get it right, get it written!” until words lose all meaning; remembering that everything really can be fixed in editing; printing out the beginning of The Da Vinci Code and sticking it to the wall as a reminder that people like terrible books; just goddamn writing it with set teeth, word by painful word. Whatever does it for you.

NB: If you follow a lot of authors on social media, you’ll see a lot of posts that are barely disguised pleas for confidence boosts. (“I feel like such an untalented hack today, maybe I should just give up!”) Don’t do it. The dopamine high of a compliment is not going to fix the underlying issue for more than about twelve seconds.  

NB also: A lot of authors feel insecure because they read advice that tells them they’re doing it all wrong. However, a lot of writing advice is pig-ignorant, garbage, or pig-ignorant garbage.  Read this post please.

Lack of structure / skills

This one is fixable. Read some craft books. I am a big fan of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit because he talks about his process in a way that makes you feel like writing is a doable job. I am not a fan of prescriptive books myself but they work for some people. Romance writers might find something like Romancing the Beat helps you develop an outline if that’s what you’re scrabbling for.

You can develop these skills. I’d suggest taking your three favourite books of your genre and deconstructing them. Read slowly, looking at what each exchange, each scene, each plot turn is doing. How are the main characters introduced? How is the conflict developed? Where are the nodes as storylines interact, or the change points in the relationship, both positive and negative? What does this scene add to the characters, the story, the world, or all three? Why is the author withholding this information and giving that? If something doesn’t work, why not?

You can learn to start thinking structurally, and once you can do that for someone else’s book, your own may become clear.

Lack of commitment / patience

Ouch. But the truth is, while we all know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it’s quite possible to get daunted by the million steps you have to do after that one. And when you work all day in a white hot blaze and then the word count at the end of it is 4,043 and you have another 90,000 words to write, it does feel like a very long haul indeed.

Here’s a thought. If you write 500 words 6 days a week, you’ll have a 70K novel in less than six months. 500 words is not so much. You can do 500 words.

Here’s another thought: if word counts aren’t psychologically useful to you, don’t look at them. The book will be the length it needs to be.

Are you reading?

If you don’t know where your romance is going, reading other romances may help. This doesn’t mean ‘steal the ideas’. It means look at other books, what other writers have done with the genre and the tropes, what you want to avoid, different paths their stories could have taken, different ones your story could take.

If I’m not in a mood to read romance, that frequently means I’m not in a place to write it. Sometimes you need a break from a genre. Switch your reading, try writing something else. Or go explore authors from a demographic or subgenre you don’t normally read. You’ll probably discover a ton of amazing authors and a whole lot of new ways of telling stories.

Mindfully reading books in your genre is research, and counts as valid use of writing time. Do it instead of staring at a screen.

Need for feedback

I wrote about using a book doctor here. If you’re stuck, it may be because you’ve taken a wrong turn and your subconscious is digging its heels in. Paying someone to work through it could be the answer. I say pay because a) it is expert work and you want a professional and b) we tend not to appreciate advice that we’re given free. If you can’t afford a book doctor, and you’re lucky enough to know a really good critical reader who will do it for free or as a skills exchange, make sure you appreciate the effort.

It’s the wrong book

Sometimes we get stuck on a book because it’s not the story we should be writing, or it just doesn’t work. That happens: here is a post on when it happened to me. I could easily have believed I had writer’s block: actually I was telling the wrong story so it didn’t work. Be prepared to take a break, even to write something else, and come back to the first MS at a better time. (Sometimes the better time is ‘never’.)

I have more than once written a book to distract myself from the book I was supposed to be writing but couldn’t. I know ‘go with the flow’ doesn’t sound helpful when the words aren’t flowing, but at least stop banging your head against a rock.

***

When you’re struggling to write, that’s you sending yourself a message. The message may be “I’m too tired”, or “I’m scared” or “This isn’t any good” or “This secondary plotline is going to torpedo the entire book in the final third and you haven’t realised you dumbass, abort, abort.” The message may or may not be correct, which is irritating, but you need to listen to it in order to work out what your problem is, because only then can you fix it.

Ditch “I have writer’s block”: it never did anyone any good. Say “I’m struggling to write right now because…” and you might get somewhere.

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My latest release is Gilded Cage. Get your lady detective/Victorian jewel thief romance 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/  

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

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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.

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.

How Books Start: the intersection of research and inspiration in historical romance

Think of England coverI’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.

I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.

At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.

So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that

…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.

Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).

This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).

Let’s find out more about shooting parties!

There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.

These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:

In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.

WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?

You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).

And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?

Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…

Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.

And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.

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If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it. 

Cover of Unfit to Print

Stuck in the Middle: the story of a stalled project

This is a post about the genesis, exodus, and resurrection of a book. It’s for anyone who’s ever got 20K words into a project and thought, “…oh shit”, aka most writers. Gather round.

Some time ago, I came up with an idea for a romance trilogy. It would be Victorian London and it would focus on the people who don’t normally get romance novels—not just in terms of sexuality, gender and race but also class and occupation. My working name was “The Other Victorians”, based on Steven Marcus’s landmark study of Victorian pornography. Here’s the publisher pitch.

Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé, and the dishonest, The Other Victorians is a romance trilogy about high birth, low life, inheritance, family secrets, blackmail, betrayal, deception, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name very clearly indeed from inside plain brown wrappers.

A pornographer ­­­­­and a left-wing lawyer join forces to investigate murder in London’s gay underworld…

A fraudulent psychic and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret…

And a music-hall trapeze artist becomes the unwilling heir to an earldom–if a private enquiry agent can keep him alive long enough to claim it…

The premise of book 1 was that one hero is an earl’s bastard, who works as a pornographic bookseller. The brother dies leaving a collection of dirty photos, a suspiciously large number of which depict rent boys who have been murdered. Our hero goes to a crusading lawyer he used to know, hoping to dump the problem on his lap. This sets off the romance whereby the self-righteous firebrand needs to loosen up while the self-centred bookseller has to rediscover his moral centre. Shenanigans ensue including two intertwined crime plots, and a lot of bonking. Sounds pretty good, yes?

No. Oh God no.

I hated every word I wrote including ‘and’ and ‘the’ (as Dorothy Parker nearly said). I gouged out twenty thousand miserable words by sheer bloody-mindedness, and by the point I stalled for good I was considering faking my own death.

As it happens we were at my parents’ house for half term, and my mum has a sideline as a careers coach. She sat me down for a session to talk through whatever the issue was. We made pros and cons lists for writing it. (Pro: I’ve signed a contract so I have to. Con: I hate the book, the story, the concept, and the characters.) It culminated in her telling me to visualise the book sitting on a chair opposite me and asking me to describe my relationship to it, and me saying, “I don’t have one.”

At which point, because she’s rather good at her job, my mum said, “Well, what do you want to write?” She listened patiently while I yattered about how I hated my characters because they were basically not nice people and I didn’t want to write three books about these harsh, unkind people at war, I just wanted to write someone kind, and interesting, and I’d been looking into Victorian taxidermy recently and I really fancied writing a taxidermist because, like, if you actually look into Victorian taxidermy it’s not all weirdos killing sacks of kittens to pose them like Sylvanian Families, it was a real applied art that could be done with incredible sensitivity almost as a branch of natural history. Then she looked at me in the way mums do until I said, “…so maybe I could talk to my editor about changing the synopsis?” and she said, yes, why don’t you do that. Dear.

I worked out a new story, in which our heroes were a quiet, reserved taxidermist and a gentle, kind lodging-house keeper, and I went back to the publisher and said, “You know that erotic enemies-to-lovers full of sex and violence? You’re getting a sweet story about taxidermy instead,” and to their credit the publisher blinked a bit and said, “Fine.”

I learned a bunch of stuff from this. Most importantly, I realised when I started writing version 2 that actually the trilogy wasn’t about dodgy geezers as the pitch had said, it just featured them. What it was actually about was kindness to others: that was the deep theme of all three romantic conflicts and the overarching plot, and ended up becoming the series title. (It’s now called Sins of the Cities, which refers to the sin of Sodom: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”) That was an important realisation for me on a lot of levels. I have tended not to know what my books are about until they’re published, but it turns out that it’s pretty helpful if you work out what your subconscious is trying to write during rather than after the part where you type words.

So. There I was, finished the series, wrote some other stuff, left 20K of abandoned book throbbing in a file called USELESS. 20K is a lot of work and this 20k had been more than most. A year or so later, I opened it, wondering if I’d still hate it as much, and…

It was almost embarrassingly obvious. The characters weren’t bad: the problem was that I’d told them wrong. I’d focused on the angry clashing swords and shields, not the vulnerable bits they protected. But—and possibly because?—the actual big block was the whole ‘murdered rent boys’ plot. That was not a story I wanted to tell. There’s already infinitely too many stories about queer people being murdered for their sexuality or identity, and it’s not my job to add to piles of pain. I couldn’t write that story because I had no goddamn business writing that story, on a number of levels, and my subconscious knew it even if I didn’t. Thank you, lizard brain.

However. If that wasn’t the story…if I removed the macho posturing from the characters and the stuff I didn’t want to write from the plot…if I focused in on love, not hate or fear, and let the story flow from there…

Ding ding ding. I rewrote the existing 20K in two days, had the second half down in a week flat, and it’s coming out tomorrow (10 July) as Unfit to Print. There’s still the Holywell Street setting, the illegitimate earl’s son turned bookseller, the crusading lawyer, even a murder to solve–but the entire feel of the book is so different from the first draft it’s startling to me. It’s now a story about love lost and found, about rebuilding trust and letting yourself be vulnerable, about opening up rather than closing down. Turns out I work better if I’m lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Who knew.

What can you learn from this? Don’t ask me; do I sound like I know what I’m doing? But here are my takeaways for getting stuck on a book:

  • Take a step back and ask yourself if something’s making you uncomfortable. When I find I really don’t want to write something, there’s usually a reason.
  • Take a longer step back and ask yourself what your story is about. Not the elevator pitch (“It’s about Victorian jewel thieves”) but the deep heart (“It’s about being true to yourself and when that clashes with love”). If you can’t dig out what the deep heart of the story is, that may be your problem.
  • Play with what would happen if you flipped something. If your hero’s strength was kindness instead of kicking arse, if you gave your vulnerable heroine power…
  • Remember where it started to go wrong? You may be able to cut it back to there and take it off in another direction. If it sucked to write from the start, learn from that.
  • Sometimes you need a year to see why it’s not working. Give yourself time and space.
  • If you’re really buggered, call my mum.

This is not to say that every project that isn’t working should be dropped, or that every dropped project can be salvaged. But if you look at the twin questions of “what am I actually writing here?” and “do I actually want to be writing it?” you may find a lot becomes clear.

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Unfit to Print is a 40k novella, out 10th July.

Cover of Unfit to PrintWhen crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing boy. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

All buy links here!

More on the Sins of the Cities series (aka the one with the taxidermist).