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How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?

The title of this blog post is © my grandad Spike Marlin, a remarkable man. (I should here add that since Spike, my family is made up of his descendants who adhere to this principle, and their life partners who helplessly splutter BUT FIVE MINUTES AGO YOU SAID.)

ANYWAY. I just went to lunch with my dad and am half a bottle in, so it feels like time for a free association blog post.

As it happens, I was at another boozy event the other day, a friend’s 50th birthday party. There I met up with my mate, the poet Natalie Shaw, and as frequently happens we took a deep dive into craft, specifically on the topic of finding what you’re trying to say.

Take a moment here. Natalie writes poems, often at sonnet length. She takes an idea and encapsulates it in maybe 14 lines of precise and scintillating language. I write historical romance novels. I spend eighty thousand words telling a love story while flailing around in historical facts, emotional conundrums, and any amount of knotty contradictory thoughts. You might think we are not the same.

Natalie takes a concept (idea, image), and refines her method of expressing it until it’s cut like a crystal. I start telling a love story, splurging out the words on a far bigger scale, and find the themes emerging from the murky depths of the first draft much like Godzilla. And yet, we agreed, we both find out what we think when we hear what we say. That may look like sharpening 14 lines, or like redrafting 80,000 words, but in both cases, we agreed, the meaning emerges from the process.

Interestingly, I received a question a while ago from reader Lindsay Hobbs that said:

Your books always touch on something deeper and/or bigger than the individuals. I’m thinking particularly about The Society of Gentlemen series, with its inclusion of class/wealth inequality, or the Sins of the Cities series, with its themes of neurodivergence, gender identity, and grey areas of morality. (I could go on listing things for all of your books, but I’m sure you get the gist!)

I love how this provides a way for your characters to get very deep with one another and reveal their moral codes and belief systems, and I also just love the representation of these larger issues and ideas in general.

I’m wondering how you work this into your stories, at what point the bigger/deeper ideas come to you when you are drafting, and any tips for writing related to this that you want to share!

I’ve been sitting on this for a while because I had no idea how to answer it. I don’t generally set out to write Big Issues. I tend to start with one character and a setting, think of the worst possible love interest they could have in the circumstances, and let fly, and the context kind of rises up around me. My mother has a saying that everyone’s career makes sense in retrospect. Certainly, my books make a lot more sense in retrospect than they do when I’m writing them.

Thus, I have just written, on request, a Gothic-type romance. Big scary house, dark family secrets, woman in white dress running away, you know the drill. Because me, I decided to mine the first wave of Gothic novels (1760s-1820s) as well as the 1970s style. That was the entire plan when I started.

And I wrote the first draft, and I brought in a Gothic novelist very like the real Gothic novelist William Beckford. Who was incredibly rich because he was a plantation owner. And that made me think about the very current struggle in British culture of coming to terms with how much of our cultural wealth is stolen from the labour of enslaved people. And that made me think about what it means for a people, a descent, a family to have tainted wealth and refuse to acknowledge it. Which in turn made me think about the fundamental Gothic trope of the cursed family rotten at the core. Which then made me think about themes of things that are said and unsaid, and about family secrets that are shameful vs the ones that are treated as shameful, and…

And anyway, now it’s a book about a guy with undiagnosed ADHD, among other things, and if you say “So why did you decide to write a character with ADHD?” I will gesture at the preceding paragraph and cry.

Look, you can take a single lump of rock and chip away everything that isn’t a diamond. Or you can take a meaty bone, and keep adding things to it until it’s a rich and flavourful stew. There is no right way to do this writing malarkey.

But if you want to know what you think?

I don’t know any better way than to hear what you say.

My Best Books of 2023

 It’s time for my annual round up! Other book lists are available.

This year I have stuck religiously to four books per category, but the categories have gone feral.

Romance

Show Girl by Alyson Greaves

A somewhat daft premise turns into a truly delightful fairytale trans romance full of warmth, love and uplift.

The Sign for Home by Blair Fell

A young DeafBlind guy and his interpreter set out to find his lost girlfriend. Fantastic, fascinating descriptions of the interpretation process and a huge heart.  

The Five-Day Reunion by Mona Shroff

Second chance romance with a consciously absurd premise but a great deal of heart, dealing with the real issues of a couple who married too young. Very enjoyable.

The Oak and the Ash by Annick Trent

Super late entry for this year’s best in that I read it yesterday, which just goes to show you shouldn’t do these posts too early. Georgian m/m with valet and doctor, with really well done social milieu, class, and politics, and a lovely romance. Heavy on the realism but with enough hope to lift it.

Fantasy/SF

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera

Enthralling, beautifully written story of a messiah’s not-the-chosen-one son. Staggering world-building, utterly immersive, properly magical.

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu

A wildly exuberant mash-up of top-class storytelling, gleeful mockery, and thoroughly human characters, and the most fun I have had with SF in ages. Delightful. Read it.

The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

Haunting fable-like fantasy set in alt-African country. Wonderfully written and deeply felt. This one will stay with you for a while.

The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan

Marvellous SF about our hamster-wheel society and divided society. A mosaic novel rather than one with a driving plotline, which didn’t impinge on my enjoyment in the slightest.

Romance AND fantasy AND horror

The Shabti by Megaera C Lorenz

Debut romance with an Egyptologist and a fake medium. Thoroughly enjoyable pulp fun with the best haunting motive of all time, plus a nice understated queer romance between middle aged leads. (This isn’t actually out till next year, I got an ARC. Sorry.)

If Found, Return to Hell by Em X Liu

A truly marvellous novella of demonic possession or found family or possibly both, along with modern work and queerness and what ‘society’ really means. Absolutely lovely.

The Helios Syndrome by Vivian Shaw

A necromancer who investigates airplane crashes. Gotta love it. A novella with terrific atmosphere, scares, and heart. The merest smidge of a romance, but it lightens the whole thing wonderfully.

Even Though I Knew The End by CL Polk

1930s Chicago noir with sapphic romance, deals with the devil, occult murder, and the endless battle for queer love and women’s personhood underpinning the struggle over souls. Great historical setting.

Angry Women

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Pitch-dark humour and satisfying revenge fantasy make this book about abused Indian village wives into a gleefully enjoyable ride.

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen

A darkly fun read about a Chinese-American woman who gets duped into becoming part of a counterfeit handbag operation…or does she. Twistily told and razor-sharp.

Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Filipino domestic workers in Singapore solving a murder. Powerful, humane, extremely angry, and massively entertaining too.

A Crime in the Land of 7,000 Islands by Zephaniah Sole

A police procedural set between the US and the Philippines with a ferocious FBI agent determined to nail a child abuser, told partly in a dreamlike folklore way. Marvellous, if hard to describe, and super compelling: really do not miss this one. If I had to pick one single book off this list as my book of the year, it might have to be this.

Fucked-Up People

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

A genuinely stunning novel about a Black lawyer in New York getting caught up in a survivalist group. Whip-smart satire and real feeling. Terrific.

Gigantic by Ashley Stokes

A look into the mind of a true believer. Kevin is a cryptid hunter as an escape from his many many failures, but also because there’s something in his soul that longs for wonder. Funny and tragic.

The Trees by Percival Everett

I read a lot of Everett this year but this is the best: a brutal and astonishing book about US racism and the corruption at the country’s heart. Gut-wrenching dark satire.

Grave Expectations by Alice Bell

A lovely female Randall and Hopkirk Deceased premise (live woman and murdered-in-her-teens ghost bestie investigate murder in bonkers country house), exuberantly told but not shying away from how extremely fucked up that is. Genuinely funny.

Non fiction

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

Tremendous overview of British colonialism: what it did, how it feeds into the current British character, and why we’re quite so deliberately amnesiac about it. A terrific read, with lively engaging style, very personal, and dealing with tough subjects in a considered way.

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams

An attempted history of some of the kingdoms that rose and fell in Britain between the Romans and the Vikings, some of which have been almost entirely erased, or possibly never existed. Bleakness, fear and yearning sweep the pages in true Old English poetic style.

Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken

Oh boy you will not want to eat ultra-processed food ever again after reading this. Ooooh boy. Could have listed it under horror, tbh.

The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter

A history of the run-up to WW1 themed around the monarchs of Britain, Russia and Germany, culminating in the cousin King, Tsar, and Kaiser who presided over the mess. Terrifically written with deadpan humour, and it conveys the family structures and shifting politics extremely well.

Why would you start here, you fool

Paladin’s Faith by T Kingfisher

Book 4 of the saga of the paladins of the Saint of Steel, aka Much-Decapitation-on-the-Marsh. Utterly charming. You could read this as a standalone if you absolutely insist, but why.

System Collapse by Martha Wells

Book 7 of the adventures of an incredibly relatable killer cyborg who just wants to watch media. You need to read Network Effect first as the bare minimum (honestly, glom the lot).

A Christmas to Remember by Beverly Jenkins

Book 11 of the ongoing soap opera of a tiny US town with romance, family, shenanigans, and giant hogs. Don’t even think about starting here. Go directly to book 1 and be consumed.

A Knife for the Juggler by Manning Coles

Book 16 of the Tommy Hambledon post WW2 spy series with which I am still weirdly obsessed. It doesn’t actually matter what order you read these in, or indeed if you read them at all.  

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Character In Action: A close reading exercise

So I did a class on character building for a writing conference recently, which was an interesting experience, especially since it forced me to think about what I do instead of just doing it. (Which, as regular readers will know, ends up being the root of all my advice anyway. Think harder, look deeper.)

As one exercise, I took the opening of a book I wrote and did a deep dive into analysing how it builds character. (I don’t use my own work for examples because I think I’m all that as a writer, by the way. I do it because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to type long passages out from scratch when I could just copy paste my MSS.)

Anyway, it was a really useful exercise (for me at least), so I’m going to reproduce it here.

Okay. So the thing is, people often think of character as a collection of traits. (“My hero is a recovering alcoholic who has tragically lost his wife. He’s half Swedish and collects Ottoman pottery.”) But that isn’t character. Character is how that person behaves, including how they speak because speech is an action, and how they think in a book where we have access to their thoughts. That behaviour/speech/thought is influenced by their past, their traits etc.

And therefore, when we’re trying to convey character, it has to influence, and thus seep into, every aspect of the book—dialogue and narrative. You can’t just reserve chapter 4 for character development. Every sentence in a character’s POV is an opportunity to show character, and so is every sentence about them.

To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to reproduce the opening of Slippery Creatures here. I’m then going to break it down line by line with what I think is pretty much every piece of character work in the passage.

And then, for your delectation, I will provide you with a version from which I have stripped out all the character work, so you can compare and contrast.

Note: this is very far from the only way to build character, and this example is specific to writing in deep 3rd person (that is, where we are inside the character’s head). This is incredibly far from a be-all and end-all. But it is a close work exercise that I found useful even though I’d written the damn thing in the first place, so I’m sharing it for what that’s worth.

OK. Here’s the passage. You might, if keen, want to write down any character notes you pick up as you go along. I found 16.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

It hadn’t always felt this way. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of them looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies. So much that, when Uncle William had died, Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees, and he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

He was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill such as it was, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him.

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

The place reeked of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, just stop noticing it, and then he’d be doomed.

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

He was damned lucky to be here, even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide. Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that felt like decades ago: all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

OK? Right. I shall insert a separator in case you need a moment to think and then give my breakdown.


Here we go.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

‘Outnumbered’ is an odd word choice for books. It’s adversarial: we gather Will is an ‘us and them’ kind of guy. But obviously he’s not at war with books, so there’s a suggestion of humour in his response.

looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies

This isn’t the response of a bibliophile. ‘Looming’ feels slightly threatening. We deduce Will isn’t an intellectual: he’s no Belle whizzing happily around on her rolly ladder. (We might also suspect foreshadowing in the books full of ‘secrets and lies’.)

Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees

Why does he know obscure folklore? It hints that he’s not a modern city type.  

he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

There’s a sense here of Will doing the ‘proper’ thing with the throat-clearing. Ceremony, a sense of doing the right thing, or superstition?

goodwill such as it was

A dryly amused thought: along with ‘outnumbered’ we’re building a picture of his sense of humour.

a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life

We get a sense of the uncle living in a hole among the books, and deduce that Will is not of his ilk.

he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him

Will has an imagination which tends to the sinister. ‘Loomed’ again, which might be a deliberate echo to amplify the sense of oppression, or might be an unconscious repetition the author failed to pick up before now, who can say. 

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

Will is a man very much out of his depth, aware of it, and perhaps slightly worried about the viability of his new business.

He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible

He’s practical, doing the necessary stuff.

then he’d be doomed.

Dark imagination again, and the same half-joking sense of ‘us and them’ as in the first line: Will in battle with life.  

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair

The casual action doesn’t match ‘doomed’ or ‘gloomy’. Despite the preceding paragraphs, Will isn’t letting the oppression of books get him down.

and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

Not a man of exacting standards as long as things work.

He was damned lucky to be here

He does in fact have a sense of proportion about his situation. He has also sworn twice in a short passage of thought, which may or may not be noteworthy.

even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide

His sardonic/gloomy sense of humour again, which we may now be seeing as characteristic

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience.

And here we see what his dark humour is characteristic of, as well as his adversarial cast of mind. He’s survived the First World War (quite possibly in the trenches because Flanders) and had his entire adult life shaped by it; he’s now adrift and disconcerted by his experiences, not quite fitting in with peacetime life or normality.

all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

An important piece of information about Will’s particular skill set, which you may suspect is likely to come up in the plot. Also another touch of his sense of humour in the sardonic word choice ‘discouraged’.


Now, obviously nobody reads the opening of a romantic suspense novel that closely. The reader isn’t scribbling down character notes. The vast majority of people, asked what they have learned from that passage, will say, “Well, he’s an ex soldier who owns a bookshop,” and a few more will add “and he’s not super happy about it”. Some people will be more like, “I don’t know, is he a beekeeper?”

But. But.

But readers do take this stuff in, even if they don’t realise they’re taking this stuff in. (That’s not a snark. Critical analysis is a learned skill: we can be affected by things without knowing how.) And it works by accumulation: you keep on drip feeding the information, infusing it through the book. When we see him stubbornly going toe to toe with a criminal gang and the War Office even though he’s completely outnumbered, we won’t find his attitude surprising.

We can show that people take this stuff in by seeing the response when we take it out.

I now present the opening of Slippery Creatures with exactly the same information and text but without the character notes. Read carefully. See what you think.

Will Darling had a lot of books.

He hadn’t always noticed. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of just how many there were.

Now his uncle was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back where his uncle had lived. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books.

He occupied some of the periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had left him, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory: he doubted his uncle had made one. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows.

The place smelled of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably just get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, and not notice it any more.

He put his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable.

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. He’d been an experienced soldier, but back in England he was starting again, with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that was a long time ago: all he knew how to do now was kill people, which was illegal.

I mean, that could have been written by AI. We learn that Will is a soldier turned bookseller and that he’s practical but inexperienced, and that’s your lot. There is very little in the writing to interest or detain us, no depth of personality. It has, in fact, no character.

(It is possible to write entire books like this on purpose, of course, giving the reader only surface facts and letting them infer the character from the actions. Don’t let me stop you. It’s not going to fly in romance, though.)

But if you’re actively trying to build character? Remember it’s there all the time, and let it percolate throughout the whole book—action, speech, infodumps, description, to build up to a whole.


Slippery Creatures is available from all the usual places. Note for romance readers that it’s the first in a trilogy and you don’t get the HEA till book 3.

A Nobeleman''s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel

It’s Book Release Day!

A Nobeleman''s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel

It’s finally here! A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, the second in my Doomsday Books duo, is out at last. Featuring a soldier-turned-earl with a temper, a smuggler-turned-secretary with a secret, a lot of sneaking around ancient manor houses and playing around with droit du seigneur, Gothic novels, probably too many references to the Angevin dynasty, and some serious angst.

“Masterfully crafted, deliciously adventurous and so, so horny”–BookPage

If you’ve read The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, you will recall Luke Doomsday (Goldie), a snotty adolescent with an abusive father. Luke goes through a lot in that book, and this one, set thirteen years later, is partly about exploring the aftereffects of that damage (aka ‘just how bad is it to be a secondary character in a KJ Charles romance novel? Oh, that bad.’).

Fortunately, Luke meets his match in Rufus, a nobleman in training with no tact, a tendency to shout, and the kindest heart on Romney Marsh. Have some Luke and Rufus.

“About the matter of you going to London. Is that your plan?”

“Of course not. Can’t stand it, stinking filthy pit. What the blazes would I do there?”

“I think you’re intended to court ladies at Almack’s.”

“No,” Rufus said firmly. “Damned if I’m going, even if they’d let me in.”

“Why would they not let you in? You’re an earl.”

“Wouldn’t do me any good. I’ve heard about that place. Fancy manners and no trousers.”

Doomsday spluttered. Rufus pointed a warning finger at him, grinning. “I meant, you have to wear black silk knee-breeches and dress up as though it was the last century. Drink ratafia and mind your language. Bugger that. And how am I supposed to take charge of the estate from London?”

“Well, you couldn’t, that’s the point. And it doesn’t have to be Almack’s; the purpose is very much the courting of ladies. You are the earl, and, well, heirs.”

“I couldn’t give two shits for that,” Rufus said, once again forgetting he was an earl, although in fairness, the most foul-mouthed of his fellow officers had been a marquess’s son. “And I’m not courting anyone. Wouldn’t know how to start.”

“You could court!” Doomsday said with a touch of indignation. “Perhaps not in the most conventional manner, but you’d have no trouble.”

“I would. I never learned to dance—would you believe that’s all but demanded of officers? Bloody ridiculous cavalry twiddle-poop.” As a proud member of the 54th Foot, Rufus had views on cavalry officers. “And I’ve no idea about fine words or wooing, and I’m cursed if I know what one’s meant to do. If you want me to continue the d’Aumesty line, Christ knows what for, you’ll need to give me a list of instructions, or find me an etiquette guide or some damn thing.”

“A nobleman’s guide to courting a countess? Step one, take the lady’s hand and praise the delicacy of her skin with a salute.” Doomsday adopted a decidedly effete upper-class voice for that, simultaneously turning his hand and arm in a wonderfully elegant manner, offering Rufus his palm just like a lady.

Rufus took it, bowed over it, and kissed it.

He hadn’t intended to do that. It was just a joke, spur-of-the-moment, continuing the banter, except that he’d kissed Doomsday’s hand, not just the hand but the sensitive palm, had pressed his lips against warm skin, and even as he stood bowed over it wondering at his own incredible stupidity, he still held that hand in his. “Uh—”

“That’s very good.” Doomsday’s fingers rested lightly in Rufus’s, so that all Rufus would need to do was close his own fingers on them and pull. His long eyelashes were lowered modestly, as part of the joke. His voice sounded a bit constricted. “Perhaps a little forceful, but flattering enthusiasm is very hard to resist.”

“I’m glad it meets your approval,” Rufus managed. Play along, he told himself. Banter. “What’s step two?”

“That would be a compliment on the radiance of her complexion, or perhaps the lustre of her eyes.”

“Madam, your eyes are as brown as, uh. I don’t know. Bread?”

Doomsday’s downswept eyes swept right back up. “Bread?

“I couldn’t think of anything else brown. Hot chocolate? A good beef stew?”

“Stop talking now,” Doomsday said, extracting his hand. “And by that I meant, Maybe I should send for an etiquette guide, my lord.”

Out now, have at it!

Goodreads

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A Decade of Lies

So I was looking it up the other day and my first book, The Magpie Lord, was published on 3 September 2013. It’s free right now, should you not have read it: help yourself.

I have been (in Lawrence Block’s immortal phrase) telling lies for fun and profit for ten years. Gosh.

I’m mildly stunned. In that time I’ve written thirty novels, which have been translated into eight languages. I’ve worked with seven publishers with an eighth coming. (Check out this gallery of Magpie Lord’s many incarnations, it’s really quite something.) I’ve gone from publishing to self publishing and back again. (I’ve also gone from having two adorable small children to having look let’s just say two teenagers and leave it there, lived through a pandemic, and watched my cat become too old and lazy to murder. Time is weird.)

And, mostly, I’ve had the immense good fortune that people have bought the damn books, thus allowing me to keep doing it.

I quit my job three years after my first publication with the intention of writing backed up by freelance editing. My uberboss at that time, head of a large chunk of a major publisher, laughed when she heard I wanted to make a living by writing and sarcastically said “Good luck with that.” I bring this up a lot because authors really ought to know that publishing does not expect or even intend you to make a living by writing.

But, for now, I am making a living, which means I get to keep on writing. I am well aware this makes me one of the luckiest people on earth and I am doing my best to earn it.

Ten years. Crikey.

So, I should clearly do something to celebrate. I did think about elaborate plans but let’s be real, I have deadlines queued into 2026/infinity and am going quietly hatstand over here, so I think it’s going to be a giveaway.

So! I have a new book coming out 19 September. It’s the second in my Doomsday Books duo.

Book 1 is about Joss Doomsday, smuggler, and Sir Gareth Inglis, baronet, getting mixed up in all sorts of shenanigans on remote Romney Marsh. Book 2 returns to the Marsh thirteen years later, where Joss’s little cousin Luke is now secretary to the new and chaotic Earl of Oxney. Both of them offer family feuds, dark deeds, cross-class, and other alliterative joys. Published by Sourcebooks; the gorgeous cover art is by Jyotirmayee Patra.

I’m going to give away three sets of print copies (ie both books) to three winners. I will sign both copies as you wish: personalised dedication, rude comment on the last page to startle your friend, marriage proposal (that would have to be on your behalf, I’m already married). Postage to anywhere in the world.

EDIT: the giveaway is now closed, winners notified, and books sent!

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The Grant of Rights: very boring, very important

This post is brought to you by seeing a series of posts on Facebook that demonstrated how many authors don’t understand rights. It’s long and boring and about contracts. Read it anyway.

Right. There’s been a rash of posts about the T&Cs of Apple’s new AI narration service whereby they offer to create a machine-narrated audiobook with no upfront cost to you.

I’m not here to talk about how, when you’re offered something for free, that usually means you’re the product. Or about how authors who throw voice artists under the bus will get zero sympathy from me when the flood of AI novels destroys Kindle Unlimited. Or how come so many people apparently haven’t seen Terminator 2. If you need my stance on AI, I’m insisting in anti-AI clauses in all my publisher contracts (human narrator for audiobooks, no AI on the cover, you may not feed my books into the maw for machine learning) and am prepared to walk away from a contract that doesn’t include them.

But we’re not talking about AI in this post. We’re talking about how to read a contract.

Here’s the text of one of the many posts I’ve seen on the subject of the Apple contract, all with a ton of shares with ‘Watch out!’ and angry face emojis. I picked this one out to quote solely because it was the first one I saw this morning. I’ve messed around with the text to prevent searching because I really don’t want to pick on an individual here: it’s just one example of a widespread misapprehension.

Apple are offering authors their new audiobook generator. It’s FREE! They’ll make and sell an audiobook for you! FREE AUDIOBOOK! They’ll even make you an AI cover if you don’t have one!

Here’s their contract:

“By using the service (Apple Books Digital Narration), I acknowledge that Apple owns all rights, title, and interest in and to the audiobooks created by Apple Audio AI, including all worldwide copyrights and other intellectual property rights therein.”

Did you pay attention to that, or were you just looking at MAKE A FREE AUDIOBOOK? Let’s look at it again.

“Put your ebook into our AI software for an audiobook that we will own all rights to. All rights.”

They don’t even have to pay you royalties. They probably will, for the first while, so you spread the word about their AI audiobook offer. But they don’t have to, and there’s no reason for them to. And when they stop paying–or pull back previously paid royalties–you have no legal grounds to protest, because you signed away all the rights. And if they choose to keep selling their audiobook, maybe after you decide you’d rather sell a version by a human narrator, I guess you should have thought of that before giving them all the rights.

This person is spot on about not trusting this offer (as well as their points about the ethical bankruptcy of how AI has been trained, which I didn’t include). They are entirely wrong about the meaning of the clause.

We’re now going to talk about Grant of Rights. First a story I have told before, several times:

At a conference contracts panel

Me: Hands up who isn’t clear what “Grant of Rights” means in a publishing contract.

[most hands go up]

Me: Keep your hand up if you’ve signed a publishing contract.

[most hands stay up. Embarrassed laughter.]

I’m side eyeing all of you.

The Grant of Rights in a standard contract might go:

The Author hereby grants and assigns to the Publisher, during the full term of copyright in each country comprising the Territory and any renewals, continuations, and extensions thereof, on the terms herein set forth, the exclusive right to publish, print, distribute, license and sell the Work in any and all formats licensed herein, in the Licensed Language(s), throughout the Territory. The foregoing grant of rights includes, without limitation, the exclusive right to exercise all rights in the Work referred to in Paragraphs 3B and 3C hereof. All rights not expressly granted to Publisher pursuant to this Agreement are reserved to the Author.

My God that’s boring. But if your eyes glaze over this in your own contract you’re making a very big mistake because this is where the crucial stuff lies.

First thing to note: your book is not called a book here, it’s called the Work. This is important because the process of publishing might sell your story as a paperback, an ebook, an audio book, a print and audio version in French, the basis for a movie, and the inspiration for a line of amusing mugs. The Work (your manuscript) is the basis of all those books and book-related things. We’ll come back to this at the end.

The grant of rights is the basis on which publishing is built. It defines what you let the publisher do with your Work, and it does so in the following areas:

  • Term (how long they have the rights for)
  • Territory (what countries they can sell it in—it’s not always the whole world)
  • Format (what formats they can sell it in eg print, e, audio)
  • Language (what language they can sell it in—just English or more?)
  • Subsidiary rights (using the Work in other ways beyond the main publication, eg the film and the mugs)

If you grant rights “during the full term of copyright in all languages and all formats throughout the world”, that means the publisher basically controls everything till after you’re dead (subject to any termination clauses). They can publish in all languages, formats and territories themselves, or they can license rights to other publishers. They can, for example, sell the paperback and ebook themselves, but license audiobook rights to Tantor, and hardback rights to a publisher that does those cute special editions with the sprayed edges (format rights). They can sell US English print and e publication rights to a US publisher, global French translation rights to a French publisher, and Spanish translation rights in two separate deals to Spain and to the US (language and territory rights). Those rights might be licensed for a limited period, eg five years, after which the agreement would need to be renewed or terminated (term of rights). If you’ve allowed it, they might also be able to license the Work to be published in comic book form, or turned into a radio serial or a blockbusting movie (subsidiary rights). For all of these, your contract will specify how the money is divided between you and the publisher.

You don’t have to agree to such a sweeping grant of rights. You might sell a publisher English language print and e rights for the UK and Commonwealth only, perhaps on a seven-year term. If that’s the case, you can make the USA publication, audiobook, and movie deals separately, and the first publisher gets none of that money because they have none of the relevant rights.

Remember: All rights not expressly granted to Publisher are reserved to the Author. (This phrase needs to be in there. Check for it.) You can reserve a variety of subsidiary rights even if you’ve granted full term rights for all languages/formats/territories–for example, you might insist on hanging on to TV and film rights. This can be very upsetting for the publisher if, to take a totally random example, they publish an insanely successful seven-book children’s series by a future TERF but the film and TV and merchandising rights are all reserved to the author so the publisher don’t get a penny for any of it.

Got that? Rights are everything in publishing, so a publishing contract is, basically, all about spelling out who has what rights. This is why they are so very long and dull.

Back to Apple!

OK, let’s look at that clause again. Bear in mind:

  • It is one clause in a contract that will be a lot longer.
  • You haven’t seen the rest and nor have I. I chose not to look at it before doing this post because I’m not here to defend Apple’s contracts: I’m here to tell you what to look for when you see a post like this.

Let’s repeat the claim in this post, which is roughly what all the other posts I’ve seen have said:

“Put your ebook into our AI software for an audiobook that we will own all rights to. All rights.”

They don’t even have to pay you royalties. They probably will, for the first while, so you spread the word about their AI audiobook offer. But they don’t have to, and there’s no reason for them to do it. And when they stop paying–or pull back previously paid royalties–you have no legal grounds to protest, because you signed away all the rights. And if they choose to keep selling their audiobook, maybe after you decide you’d rather sell a version by a human narrator, I guess you should have thought of that before giving them all the rights.

And here’s the clause again:

“By using the service (Apple Books Digital Narration), I acknowledge that Apple owns all rights, title, and interest in and to the audiobooks created by Apple Audio AI, including all worldwide copyrights and other intellectual property rights therein.”

What does this clause cover? Here’s a hint: it’s a format-rights clause. See the bold.

“By using the service (Apple Books Digital Narration), I acknowledge that Apple owns all rights, title, and interest in and to the audiobooks created by Apple Audio AI, including all worldwide copyrights and other intellectual property rights therein.”

This clause specifies rights to the machine-voice audiobooks Apple will create. It says that you, the author, do not own the machine-voice Apple-generated audiobook. Apple own that, so if your contract with them terminates, you can’t keep on using their HAL-voice monstrosity afterwards: it’s theirs, not yours.

And that, folks, is literally all it says.

This clause does not say:

  • Anything about audio rights in general. It does not specify that Apple take all audio book rights, or that you are unable to release a human-generated audiobook. I don’t know what the rest of the contract says, but this clause is solely about the machine-voice Apple-generated audiobook.
  • Anything about royalties. I don’t know what the royalty split is in the rest of the contract. But this clause doesn’t affect royalties in the slightest. If they agree to pay you elsewhere, this clause does not allow them to stop.
  • That they can “pull back previously paid royalties”. I…what?
  • That “you signed away all the rights”. I hope it’s now clear that you didn’t.
  • That “if they choose to keep selling their audiobook, maybe after you decide you’d rather sell a version by a human narrator, I guess you should have thought of that before giving them all the rights.” This is about term and exclusivity, neither of which are mentioned in this clause. How long can Apple sell their machine voice version for? Are you able to sell a competing version with a human narrator at the same time? How can this contract be terminated? These are all excellent questions you should ask, but you’re not going to find the answer to any of them in this clause.
  • That they can continue selling their version indefinitely. They can keep selling it only for the term of their licence. Of course, that licence might be a very long time, so you’d want to check that very carefully. But that should be spelled out at the beginning of the contract; this clause doesn’t alter it.

Again, I am not defending Apple in any way. For all I know, the rest of this contract is written in human blood and grants them your soul in perpetuity. All I am saying is, you the author need to be able to read a clause like this and work out what it means, and indeed what it does not mean.

Another post I saw on this clause suggested that it grants Apple the film rights “if someone listened to the audiobook and wanted to do a film based on that”. This is based on a misreading of “all worldwide copyrights and other intellectual property rights therein” in this clause which, again, applies only to Apple’s machine-voice audiobook.

Remember how we talked about the Work at the start of this? (Go back and reread if you’ve been stunned into amnesia: it’s important to understand this.) Subsidiary/other rights to the Work are not automatically included without being specifically agreed. If a right isn’t specifically granted in the contract, it’s reserved to the author. (This is why you don’t allow language like “in any format not yet created” because that’s literally the publisher trying to grab unspecified rights. No. Bad.) The publisher of a machine-generated audiobook can no more grab film rights to the entire Work in a sneaky unspecific licensing clause than can the people who license rights to cute sprayed edges hardbacks, French language editions, or mugs.

Term. Territory. Format. Language. Dig them out of the contract verbiage and you will understand what you’re selling, licensing, or giving away. And don’t sign a contract until you understand them. There are some really bad contracts out there, with wildly overreaching clauses, and if you can’t grasp the normal language, you won’t stand a chance of spotting the dodgy stuff.

A more general post on contracts here.


I am not a lawyer and if anyone sees anything I’ve got wrong I will gladly correct it. However, I worked as an editor for twenty years in various publishing houses and am now a full time author so I have read a lot of contracts (and signed a few terrible ones).

My next book is A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, out in September. You probably want to get book 1, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, while you wait.

If you comment here on the topic of AI or that terfy author I’m just going to delete it: this is about contracts and rights.

Book Recs for Summer (Book Recs Forever)

I’m reading a lot at the moment. If you are looking to stock your shelves for the summer, here are some recs for every mood. I say ‘every’: some of them are probably quite specific moods. Whatever.

All links go to Goodreads.

If You Read All Of Murderbot Twice But Still Need More

If Found, Return To Hell by Em X Liu is a deeply loving, comforting story of miserable bureaucracy and demonic possession. Absolutely lovely queer found family with marvellous magic and deep humanity. A delight. Written in the second person present tense, but you won’t care. Trust me on this, okay.

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu also falls into this category but isn’t out till October, sorry. Put it on your list.

romcom type cover for the Sign for Home with man in dark glasses walking dog, and woman running away.

If You Want a Deep Dive Into a Different Life

A Sign for Home by Blair Fell is about a DeafBlind guy, written by an interpreter for DeafBlind people, and it does a phenomenal job of conveying life for the DeafBlind and how communication works. It’s being marketed like a romcom for whatever reason (see cover), but it’s not; it’s a coming of age story for Arlo and a ‘find your spine’ story for his interpreter. It’s a little overlong in the backstory but keep going, you will not regret it.

If You Got Obsessed with the Whole Submarine Thing

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant does good deep sea horror. I had some niggles but it has the absolutely correct mixture of abyssal monsters and terrifying isolation with the vibes of a quality Jason Statham movie.

Honorary mention: The Helios Syndrome by Vivian Shaw, which does the ‘terrifying isolation and monsters’ but on a plane rather than in the sea, and is delightful with it.

If You Just Want Out From The World

The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indra Das is a delightful, strange, beautifully written novella about a boy whose family are…not from here. Dragons. Memories. Strangeness. It’s unclassifiable and lovely and queer and entirely absorbing.

If You Need an Outlet For Your Rage

Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal is a terrific mystery set among the immigrant domestic workers who serve Singapore’s elite. It’s a magnificently angry book about how people treat others, a cathartic howl of rage, but it’s also a really entertaining story with engaging characters and a very satisfying resolution, plus there’s a touch of queer romance. Highly enjoyable.

If You’re Profoundly Alienated By Our Modern Dystopia

Cover of The Ten Percent Thief. Cover shows a tree whose tope is flowering but whose roots are made of something crystalline and digitised. The cover is divided in half by colour, the top orange and the lower half purple. The impression is of profound division between top and bottom

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley is about a Black woman struggling to survive in her hideously competitive law firm, whose apparently perfect new boyfriend turns out to be a survivalist. It’s a marvellous look at this very weird group in a way that makes perfect if demented sense, and it’s also a very funny as well as deeply bleak satire of modern US life and its fears and disconnects. (Ignore the frankly bullshit Goodreads rating. You listen to me, not to Goodreads.)

The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan is a marvellous dystopian story set in future Bangalore where everyone is scrabbling to stay in the top 10% and out of the bottom. Hugely engaging, and wonderfully told.

There is also a sort of evil catharsis to be found in the neat short Everything’s Fine by Matthew Pridham, in which corporate workers desperately try to deflect noticing the Lovecraftian apocalypse by talking about reality shows.

If You Want a Romance That Doesn’t Hold Back

You Made A Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi goes head on into a lot of places most romances don’t go, and is all the better for it. If you like your characters flawless and making good decisions, sit this one out. Personally I rolled around in the mess like a dog off a lead. Lovely writing, genuinely moving, huge fun.

If You Want A Punch In The Face

The Trees by Percival Everett is a frankly astonishing book about US racism, corruption, and lynching. It’s brutal gut-wrenching stuff, with satire as dark and bitter as coffee, but an absolute must-read. (Then read Erasure by the same author. Oof.)

Give Me A Break KJ, Can I Just Have A Couple Of Unstressful Romances

Cover of the Five DayReunion with an Indian couple at a traditional wedding

The Five-Day Reunion by Mona Shroff is a hugely entertaining second-chance romance set around a divorced couple who have to pretend they aren’t divorced at a wedding. It entirely leans in to the silliness of the premise and we all have massive fun.

First Time for Everything by Mina V Esguerra is a forty-year-old virgin heroine and her chosen first partner, an old friend, carefully working out how they fit into one another’s lives. Quiet, heartfelt, mature, and angst-free.  

Hen Fever by Olivia Waite is a sapphic Victorian romance of healing, kindness, and chicken shows. Delightful.

Bisclavret by KL Noone is a soothing delight: a queer novella based on medieval legend, with loyalty, love, slow burn romance, and joy. And werewolves (but the medieval kind, no gore).


If you want gruff, unexpectedly ennobled earls, scarred scoundrels with issues, gloomy Gothic mansions, screwed-up families and/or a sequel to The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, my next book is A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, out in September.

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The Rise of the Machines: AI ‘story engines’

If you’re book-Twitter-adjacent you will doubtless have heard there’s an AI book generator out there created by a company called Sudowrite. (As in “Pseudowrite”, which is at least honest. I’m also thinking Sudocrem, which is stuff you put on a baby’s bottom when it’s got sore from sitting in its own excrement. Anyway.)

This purports to generate you a book. According to the promo video, you do a “brain dump” of a vague idea, and throw in a couple of characters if you can be bothered. That gets ‘expanded’ into a synopsis, which gets ‘expanded’ into a chapter by chapter breakdown, which gets ‘expanded’ into text, and lo and behold the AI has written you a book!

Let’s just remind ourself: artificial intelligence is not intelligent. It’s a prediction engine. It has scraped billions of words of text and it offers you what it judges to be the most likely one to come up next. If you spend your keyboard time thinking, “What’s the most predictable word or plot event I can use here, I really need this to be something the reader will totally expect”, this could be the tool for you.

So you feed the predictive text engine an idea (in the sample video it’s an idea which bears a strong resemblance to The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz, published 2022) and it suggests helpful things like, er, all the minor characters. In the video it generates a Wise Mentor, a Jealous Rival, a Supportive Friend, and a Villain. Amazing, what human could have thought of that. Then it “puts a lot of chains of language models together to figure out what are some compelling beats that would hit the plot points”, which is to say, it looks for the most predictable route the story could possible take.

Then it generates text. Jesus wept. I’ll just quote from my anguished Twitter howl:

The opening of the novel reads “It was a sterile space devoid of personal touches” and I shouted “Ha!” so loud the cat jumped. I mean, if I wrote that in a book about the soul-killing effects of AI generated literature, I’d think, “wow that symbolism is a bit too heavy handed.”

lol* the AI text introduces the man with a summary of his professional achievements and the woman with a description of her “simple form-fitting dress that accentuated her curves” and shimmery hair.

*by ‘lol’ I mean ‘vomit’.

Of course you don’t have to use the completely generated AI text! I mean, you will if you’re a Kindle Unlimited page farmer; KU is about to be rammed with this crap, probably unread by the people generating it, who will be cranking it out as fast as the cliché engine can run.

The website offers a sample of its romance writing:

Lady Catherine’s heart raced as she leaned in to meet the lips of the dashing Marquess of Eastwick. Their lips touched and the air between them seemed to ignite. She felt his strong arms wrap around her, pulling her closer as their kiss deepened. The thrill rushed through her veins and the worries of the world seemed to fade away as they clung to each other, their passionate embrace fueled by months of unspoken longing.

But as they reluctantly pulled away, Lady Catherine’s expression grew serious once more. Though her love for the Marquess was undeniable, she knew that she could not simply surrender her heart without knowing the depths of his conviction. She would not become a gambler’s widow.

“My lord,” she spoke, her voice filled with both tenderness and firmness. “My heart beats for you, but I cannot give it so easily. You must prove your love for me is true and everlasting.”

The Marquess of Eastwick’s heart sank at the thought of losing his love, but he knew that he must remain composed in this moment. “Tell me what I must do to earn your trust,” he implored, his voice filled with sincerity.

Lady Catherine met his gaze with a steady gaze of her own. “You must show your devotion to me until the end of the Season,” she replied. “You must avoid all wagers, cease all gambling, and abstain from any behavior that would cause a scandal. If you can prove your love for me in this way, and if your heart remains true, then perhaps we may consider a future together.”

I think what I find most depressing about this is that it’s just—just—plausible enough that page farmers will hoover it up. They won’t care about the repetition, the grammar errors, the POV switch, the grinding predictability, the way it feels like a very wordy synopsis, the soullessness. It looks sufficiently like writing that you can get away with it, but what’s there to enjoy?

Still, you don’t need to use the generated text! If you see yourself as a ‘real’ author rather than a page farmer, you can ‘collaborate’ with it, and just use it to ‘help’. Here are some of the things its website offers:

When the words just won’t come out – Write can do it for you

Write is like autocomplete on steroids. It analyzes your characters, tone, and plot arc and generates the next 300 words in your voice. It even gives you options!

If you don’t know what to write next, you need to work out why not. Maybe your characters are insufficiently developed, maybe you’re facing a plot hole, may be you haven’t developed your story enough, maybe you’re going down a wrong path. You need to stop and think hard about where you are and where you’re going. This process is literally how you make your book, because writing a book is not in fact a matter of typing till you have 70,000 words.

Pacing too fast? Presto expand-o

No matter how much time you spend planning, you’ll end up with some sections that feel rushed. Expand magically builds out your scenes so the pacing doesn’t take readers out of the story.

If a section feels rushed, that probably requires really close textual work. Why did you rush it—because of driving plot urgency, or because you were skating across a tricky part, or because you were having too much fun to slow down? You need to work this out, because all of those will need to be treated differently, and then you’ll have to think very hard about how to add whatever’s needed without clogging the scene or unbalancing the structure around it. Or you can just get a machine to plonk in some extra words. Whichever.


The process of writing a book is generally one long string of hitting problems. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. You write a book by solving the problems, one after another (what does this character want? where is this conversation going? what am I trying to say?). That’s literally the process. I have again and again discovered what I’m trying to do in a book precisely because I was trying to solve a problem.

I needed to tie up loose ends > I reshaped the entire plot and ending

I got hopelessly stuck > I realised I was telling the wrong story

If you ‘want to write a book’ but you don’t want to create your own characters, and come up with your own world, and weave your own plot, and make it heartfelt or moving or exciting or bewildering, and to spin your own sentences, and to take on this challenge you’ve chosen to the best of your ability…okay, but what part of ‘writing a book’ is it that you want to do? Where’s the satisfaction in looking at the elements of writing a book, and pressing a button that does them for you?

I press a button to make a machine wash my dishes because I want clean dishes and I’m not interested in the process. If you think the process of writing a book is a lot of annoying busy-work that’s obstructing you from your goal of being an Author, then I suppose you would indeed be delighted to automate it, but I can’t help feeling you might have missed the entire point of writing. (Unless you’re a KU page farmer, in which case it makes perfect sense.)

And don’t tell me that you’ll come up with the brilliant parts in the time you’ve saved letting Chat GPT generate your secondary characters and your plot; that you’ll take your predictive text pig’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. You know as well as I do that’s not how it works. If you want to raise wonderful flowers, you need to dig the damn ground.

I’m not being all Protestant work ethic here. I don’t see any moral good in crying over a MS. I’m just saying, art is created by putting in learning, practice, experience, hard graft, personal commitment. You put those in, you get art out. You put in a slurry of recycled text geared for the most predictable outcome…well, you get what you give.

A predictive text machine isn’t going to help you understand the deep reason you can’t get that bloody scene done. It’s not going to suggest that piece of imagery that brings your whole book into focus, or the twist that will make readers tweet incoherently gleeful outrage, or the magical line that makes them cry like it hurts, or the idea that makes them stare silently into the middle distance for a while. It’s not going to dig in to your pains and fears and rejections and dreams, and use them to pluck notes that resonate in other human beings’ souls. It’s not going to identify what’s going on when you can’t write at all. It’s not going to make you a better writer.

You are the one who needs to do those things, because that is what writing is. That’s what makes it writing, rather than typing; that’s what creates something memorable and moving and real. If you outsource the hard work to a text generator, you will indeed get a bunch of words in order. But you won’t have written a book. And you will have cheapened yourself and your work in the process.


Some practical notes:

  1. The Sudowrite AI has been trained on fanfiction (hilariously revealed because it ‘knows’ very specific sex tropes from omegaverse fanfic). The people who wrote the billions of words on AO3 weren’t asked permission to have their words used as a training dataset. Their own creative, lovingly composed, often deeply personal work has been scraped and used without consent or payment to create profit-generating software. That is morally wrong if not legally questionable. Moreover, fanfiction is derivative work and thus not for profit. You can play with my worlds with my goodwill but they’re not yours to sell. So if this AI has been trained on fanfic, it’s been trained on derivative works based on original copyrighted work. I confidently expect this whole mess to bite someone on the arse.
  2. Because AI text is produced by a plagiarism machine, it cannot be copyrighted. (I copied that large chunk of “romance” above without asking for permission, and I could have copied the entire ‘novel’.) Obviously you can still stick an AI McBook on KU and say it’s yours, I can’t stop you. But all traditional publishing contracts have a clause along the lines of this (taken from the Author’s Guild model contract):

Author represents and warrants that:

–Author owns and has the right to convey all of the rights conveyed herein to Publisher and has the unencumbered right to enter into this Agreement; Author is the sole owner of the copyright in the Work (or of Author’s contribution to the Work, as the case may be);

–the Work or Author’s contribution to the Work is original and has not previously been Published in any form

If you’ve used AI to generate your book you cannot warrant this to a publisher, and if you sign a contract knowing that your warranty is untrue, you may be in for a world of pain which you will entirely deserve.

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If you are stuck on a book, you can ask a human expert rather than a cliche generator to help you work out why!

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Loose Ends and Razor Cuts

I just finished a book (writing one, not reading one, that would be less impressive) and while on the scrounge for anything to do except start my new one, I asked for blog post ideas. This one is from Lis Paice, who always brings the good questions.

How do you approach tying up loose ends at the end of a book?

Let’s talk about loose ends!

Just to get it out of the way: Sometimes we leave things unresolved on purpose. In a romance series, a major secondary character’s problems may well just have to fester through two or three novels until it’s their turn to be the MC. I left a whacking great unsolved mystery at the end of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen because it’s a plot driver for the second book of the duology. However, I did so with a big neon signpost indicating FUTURE MYSTERY-INVESTIGATION HERE, giving the reader the clear nod that it isn’t forgotten about. And, crucially, the lack of resolution there doesn’t impact the MCs’ happy ending at all. Those things are dangling threads left for future works rather than loose ends.

What constitutes an actual loose end? I would say it’s a character whose fate the reader feels they have been set up to expect (someone we like left without resolution, someone we hate left unpunished), or a mystery that will be forever unexplained, or a problem that’s been set up with no solution offered. It is something that makes us say, ‘Hang on, what about…?’ It’s unsatisfactory because the author has brought something to our attention, and not dealt with it.

So what to do about loose ends?

First, identify them. I will here deploy one of the two big weapons in the editing arsenal: Chekhov’s Gun. Chekhov’s Gun is the law of loose ends, and it says, basically, if you dress your set with a gun hanging over the mantelpiece, someone had better bloody fire it.

But KJ, you say, some houses just have decorative firearms! Is every gun hanging over a fireplace fired in reality? Of course not. This is why fiction is more satisfying than life: it’s not full of unnecessary clutter. Of course, novels can afford more stage dressing than, er, stages, but even so, if you specifically draw the reader’s attention to a gun over the fireplace—well, you don’t actually have to fire it. You can hide the missing will in the muzzle, have a massive row over who’s going to inherit it, use it as the springboard for a really good joke / violent row, or stab someone with the dagger hanging below it that you slipped in to the description in a casual manner so the reader thinks, Ha, you totally got me there, I thought he’d be shot!

You can do any of those or much more. But if you’ve specifically drawn the reader’s attention to something (gun on wall, secondary character in need of help, stolen ring, heroine’s uncanny ability to memorise long strings of numbers, the hero’s father’s mysterious death) you need to use it in some way, or the reader will think Hang on, what about…?

Let’s talk about how!

***

Stop here. Go back three paragraphs to ‘First identify them.’ Reread. Tell me what I’m going to discuss next.

***

Seriously, imagine that I didn’t move on to the second big weapon in the editing arsenal. How annoying would that be? If you set it up, knock it down.

***

The second weapon is of course Occam’s Razor. This is the principle of parsimony: do not put in more elements than you can help. It can be phrased as, Find the simplest solution that works. If you require a minor character who does X thing, and later you need a character to dispense Y information, see if the same guy can do both X and Y. If Q is the solution to one problem, see if you can make it solve another problem as well. That saves the reader’s brain space and, if well executed, makes you look like a genius with your cunningly converging plotlines.

As I said in the first paragraph (did you really think it would be irrelevant?) I’ve just finished a novel. I struggled with this one because it’s a road-trip romance, which made my first draft feel very much like a sequence of stuff happening (because it, er, was). The hero, a duke travelling incognito because of a bet, meets the other hero, a disgraced layabout. They get in a fight. They meet a runaway and help them. They go somewhere else. The plot was a series of event, event, event, each of them satisfactory in itself and propelling the romance along, but not actually contributing to an overall story shape. Believe it or not, this was intentional (I did the synopsis while in Covid recovery, apparently I wasn’t entirely well yet), and I planned to tie it all up with one hero helping the other win his bet. Wooop. The romance actually developed very nicely in the first draft, but the plot…was not.

So I looked for my loose ends/Chekhov’s guns.

  • Minor characters for whom the reader would want resolution (people in need of help or love, villains in need of comeuppance)
  • Events that just happened and had no further significance

I specifically looked at the unresolved problems that had to be dealt with to get my MCs to a HEA.

  • They are a duke and a disgraced layabout and thus cannot associate
  • They need a way to be together safely in 1820ish

And I sharpened Occam’s razor.

  • I took an early plot event that just happened, and brought our heroes back to face the consequences of their actions then, provoking a key turning point in the relationship, and also dealing with a minor character who had previously got away with things.
  • I wove the story of the runaway and the disgraced layabout together so they had the same villain. Then I realised the villain could also be the motivator of the Duke’s plotline. Suddenly, instead of three separate storylines, I had three interweaving ones with a common external factor, which could then all work together to a single mutually satisfactory conclusion. And because they were interweaving, that led me to a far better climax, not just winning the bet, but also dealing with the villain–in a way that fixed one of the couple’s problems while they were at it. Motherlode.
  • I took a character who desperately needed an ending, and made him into the solution for the MCs’ other problem. I had originally envisaged him as a completely different person who would have his ending in his own book, so this change required some substantial rewriting. But once I saw the shape of the hole that had to be filled, I could see what shape the character should be. It meant jettisoning a future (theoretical) book for the sake of the current one, but sometimes Occam’s razor is cut-throat.

The process of identifying my loose ends and applying Occam’s razor to them allowed me to pull the book together to be a much tighter, cohesive whole. Check your draft for them, weave them in, and make them work for you.


As it happens, I have just tied up some other loose ends. In my The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (to be re-released by Orion next year!) the hero Robin mentions his long lost brother Toby. I doubt anybody was surprised by Toby getting his own book (A Thief in the Night, out in e and audio now). It was absolutely necessary, loose end-wise, that the brothers should be reunited, but there was nowhere to do that in either book.

Luckily, we have the internet. ‘A Rose By Any Name’ is the epilogue to both Robin and Toby’s stories with their reunion. It will be available in my newsletter and in my Facebook group tomorrow (that’s Wednesday 18th April if you’re reading this in the future). For people who are allergic to both newsletters and Facebook, I’ll put it in the Free Reads section in due course but not immediately because marketing, sorry.

Cover of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen

It’s release day!

I’m delighted to say that The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is out! It feels like it’s been a while….

Secret Lives is the first of my Doomsday Books duology. It stars Joss Doomsday, a professional smuggler on Romney Marsh, a remote part of Kent, and Sir Gareth Inglis, law clerk unexpectedly promoted to baronet. Gareth and Joss have a Past; the question is whether they can have a present, or indeed a future.

Features: multiple difficult relatives, smuggling shenanigans, dark secrets, a shepherd’s hut for two, beetles.

I’m really happy with how this book came out, both in terms of the text, and the gorgeous cover and print book. (Art by Jyotirmayee Patra, edited by Mary Altman, published by Sourcebooks.) It’s available in print, e and audio (performed by Martyn Swain).

AND as if that isn’t enough I also have the cover for book 2, so you can feast your eyes on the loveliness of this matched pair.

Book 2 is set some 13 years after book 1, starring another member of the Doomsday family who you will meet in Secret Lives. More on that later; it’s out 19th September this year!

Secret Lives is getting some pretty amazing reviews (including starred reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Book Page plus a Library Reads pick).

As always, Charles combines masterful prose, thrilling romance, fantastic wit, and gripping stakes. Her characters feel as real and relatable as a bruise. She is, in my opinion, a titan of her genre.”–Talia Hibbert

Smuggling! Blackmail! Secret rendezvous! Scoundrels! Sweethearts! Big feelings! KJ Charles is one of the best romance novelists writing today and The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is proof. Historical romance at its finest.” – Sarah MacLean

I hope you enjoy it!

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