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Best Books of 2021

Another year, another book post. (I know we still have most of December to get through but you might be looking for Christmas presents/holiday reads, and I’m procrastinating.)

Goodreads informs me I have read 283 books this year, not counting the DNFs I didn’t trouble to list or the rereads (Murderbot and T. Kingfisher, mostly). Hilariously, if you’d asked me, I would have said I found it very difficult to read this year: certainly there’s several highly regarded books on my TBR on which I am still inexplicably and depressingly blocked. Still, I read some crackers, so without further ado, my faves. This year I am confining myself to four per category.

Romance

Fine, I lied about four per category.

Strong Wine by AJ Demas. Third in the lovely alt-ancient Mediterranean trilogy with a retired soldier and a genderfluid eunuch sword dancer/part time spy. This is set around a murder but it’s really a domestic piece in a lovingly detailed world. Read the whole series.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall. Very funny ensemble romcom that still tackles some hard stuff about biphobia, with a bi single mum on an alt-Bake-Off finding love, trust, and confidence. Some really excellent swearing.  

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron. Gorgeous contemporary with real, flawed, likeable characters, a lovely supporting cast, and a joyous romance. Heron’s greatest strength is her compulsive readability: I gulp her books.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. Deep kindness (especially about human flaws and quirks) without sentimentality, terrific snark, great one-liners, swoony and hot romance, assured writing, and two neurodivergent leads.

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins. Tough heroine, cinnamon roll hero, fantastically realised historical setting, Beverly Jenkins, enough said.

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir. Delightful slow burn f/f romance with strongly realistic and likeably flawed leads and a beautifully depicted Delhi setting. Terrific writing.

Sweethand by Natalie Peltier. Zizzy, charming modern romance with a lovely slow burn and genuinely hilarious banter in a well-drawn Trinidad setting. (Talking of well drawn: the best illustrated cover of the year to my mind.)

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. Excellent contemporary romance with two Black writers with troubled pasts finding one another again. A lot of heavy stuff but a lot of joy, and a hilarious look at the US literary scene to boot.

Fantasy

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. Gorgeously written novella in a Vietnam-influenced world with a princess being used as a pawn, who finds a tiger spirit on her side. It’s about reclaiming yourself in the face of abuse, and hugely uplifting with it.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Urban fantasy set in modern Malaysia, with a young woman haunted by her grandmother and meddling in the affairs of gods. Funny, scary, angry, vivid, and brilliantly played out.

Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. Could have been in the romance section tbh. Second in this delightful series dealing with the paladins of a dead god, the oppression of gnoles, and in this case an order of shapeshifting bear-nuns. As ever the worldbuilding is effortlessly immersive, the mood sharp-edged but ultimately kind, and the characters a delight. Paladin’s Hope is also wonderful but this one had the edge for me.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Tremendous fantasy set in alt-America (pre and sans Columbus). Complex plot, characters, and worldbuilding, all effortlessly conveyed to make a marvellously readable story. Dying for the sequel.

SF

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Literally an old-fashioned girls’ school story set on Mars. Is everything you hope it will be from that description. Played absolutely straight and note perfect.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. This one is entirely a character piece. A group of people are stranded at an intergalactic truck stop and almost nothing happens. It’s compulsive reading and made me cry so hard (in a good way) that I could barely breathe. Vitally hopeful.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Just stunningly good. Cannot possibly sum up how good this and the first book are as a pair. I’d say it was a novel of ideas if it wasn’t a wonderful character exploration except it’s also a terrifically tense adventure as we race to stop a war. For heaven’s sake, read these.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I mean, this book is literally about giant spiders, but I nevertheless loved it, rooted for the spiders, and even read the sequel, which is also about giant spiders. Which should tell you how well plotted, clever, engaging, and thought-provoking it is, but I do not wish to think about spiders any longer so let’s move on.

Crime/thriller

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino. Epic scale thriller covering twenty years and a lot of changes in Japan. Violent, disturbing, compelling. I glommed this author’s backlist but I think this is his best. Hard-hitting stuff.

Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone. Gleefully evil revenge fantasy as sociopath Jane takes an abusive man apart by underhand means, which include not caring about his goddamn man-feelings. Good Lord, I needed that.

Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q Sutanto. A truly glorious caper comedy about a young Indonesian/Chinese American woman, her overbearing aunties/mum, and the disposal of a body. Of a guy they kind of accidentally killed. Whoops. Absurd and at points very dark farce plotting, but written with a light touch and a warm heart.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. Cracking superhero thriller from the perspective of a woman who temps as a villain’s henchperson. Funny, violent, dark, thought-provoking, and a hugely absorbing story. 

Litfic

Mostly a bit Shania Twain for me this year, but two cracking reads.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. Astonishing novel covering a detransitioned man, a cis woman, and a trans woman, negotiating a very messy set of relationships. Sharply observed, nuanced, very intelligent, and deeply connecting. A must-read.

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu. Enthralling story of a blue-skinned boy touted by his father as the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. About family and faith and why people are so desperate to believe. Plus a really tender and human look at friendships and sexuality and gender.

Non Fiction

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask. Takes what seems to be a small topic and makes you see how big it is. Addresses are about state control, and society, and memory, and hope, and racism, and the wealth divide, and a shedload more. Genuinely fascinating, well written, and immensely readable.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Horrifying, compelling, rage-aneurysm-inducing account of the greed-monster Sackler family and how they pushed OxyContin. You need to read it, then you need to take some very deep breaths to calm down, then you need to overthrow capitalism and guillotine the bastards.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear by Lev Parikian. Memoir of an amateur birdwatcher’s efforts to spot 200 species in a year. Very British, very funny, really charming, with some lovely nature writing, and enormously absorbing. Also, genius earworm title.

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. An entire book about semicolons. Terrific on the history and the extremely weird and frankly scary ways people interact with semicolons; really interesting on the concept of punctuation in general.

History

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge. I went on a wild Angevin/Plantagenet binge this year, such that I briefly considered having a whole Angevin section in this list (I regained my senses). This is a terrific bio of a really impressive man at the heart of the period, which gives us a feel for the person as well as the culture, society, and turbulent politics of the time.

The Burgundians by Bart van Loo. Phenomenal history that reads like a saga novel and keeps you hooked. I didn’t know why I should care about the Burgundians, or indeed exactly who they were, and now I’m desperate to go to the Low Countries and see art galleries. Hugely engaging, exactly how history should be written.

The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris. Terrific in-depth look at the various little kingdoms that got merged into England. Morris is always highly readable, with a gift for description and a good sense of story. Highly informative, and does not leave you thinking that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was a descriptor to be proud of.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon. The story of Daniel Mendoza, and his life as a boxer, a Jew, and a sporting superstar in Georgian London. Deserves reading alongside Richmond Unchained to get a picture of life for marginalised Georgians who literally fought their way to wealth and fame.

_______________________

I would be promotionally remiss not to mention a couple of things:

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is one of the New York Public Library Best Books of 2021 (“A surprising, satisfying, and steamy Regency charmer”).

Subtle Blood is one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2021 (“wit, sexiness, humor, and heart”).

When Not to Write

There are many blog posts, tweets, memes etc out there telling you to get writing. Far fewer will tell you to stop. What can I say, I’m a rebel.

The other day I saw a couple of tweets from the marvellous EE Ottoman (whose delightful post-WW2 cottagecore historical romance The Companion you should read now, or at least once you’ve finished this post). EE said:

I meant to start working on a new project a few weeks ago but I just didn’t … and I felt really bad about that until yesterday morning when I realized I’d been thinking about the book from the wrong POV this entire time.

and if I had started when I’d meant to I probably would have ended up writing words I probably would have ended up scrapping anyway.

This really struck a chord with me. I have a delightful Protestant work ethic/Catholic guilt combo so I basically feel terrible about myself whenever I’m not actively writing. But hurling yourself into a book before you’re ready can be at best a waste of time, probably disheartening, and sometimes a project killer. I have an elephant’s graveyard of partials that foundered because I started writing them without XXX.

You: Sorry? What do you mean, XXX?

Me: Yes, well, that’s the tricky bit.

XXX is whatever the hell you need to get going on the book. It might be obvious and fixable. (You haven’t done enough research. You don’t actually have any idea what’s going to happen after the first meeting. You’ve created a situation where it’s impossible for them to be together, but you haven’t thought of the brilliant solution.)

Or it may be less obvious, more complicated. (You’ve got a great secondary plot worked out, but the main storyline is perhaps underpowered. Maybe you’re wrong about which one ought to be the main storyline? Maybe you thought it was one genre but it’s another. You want the plot to go this way but something is tugging it that way.)

Or it may even be that evil thing, the unknown unknown. The thing you can’t pin down or, even worse, aren’t aware of. When it just isn’t quite…you know, there, and you don’t know why. When you have no idea where to go next and the blank page is an unsubtle metaphor for your brain.

I just finished book 1 of my Doomsday Books (working title) duo. I had a couple of things in book 2 I absolutely needed to sort out before I started, primarily a plot issue that needed pinning down because it might require tweaking #1. I worked them out triumphantly in my head, which meant I had it nailed and could get going, right?

Ha. I wrote 5000 words of #2, and now I’m right here writing a blog post about not writing a book too soon because guess what: I wasn’t ready.

The warning signs I’ve picked up and, for once, paid attention to:

  • I wrote the opening chapter and it was just scene setting. I thought, fine, I’ll jump to the interesting bit and go back later. WARNING KLAXON: if you the author aren’t interested, I assure you no reader will be. This might be an easy fix, just me starting in the wrong place, or it might signal that my entire set-up is boring and I don’t want to write it. I’d better work on that one.
  • Point of view. (Looking at EE’s tweet, I swear this might be the greatest unacknowledged stumbling block for writers.) I assumed it was going to be dual third person like book 1, but now it’s pulling to single person, only I’m not entirely happy about that because it feels like a cop-out. I need to work through what that’s going to do to my narrative either way before I make my mind up.  
  • I literally only just finished the last book. Maybe I need a bit more time for the well to refill. (No, really, KJ? /rolleyes/)

I don’t have any major doubts about this book. I wrote the MCs’ first meeting yesterday and it went great. But there’s something not-ready-to-go here, and I’d be a fool to force the words down when I know it’s not working.

[dramatic music] Or would I?

I was definitely not ready to write Subtle Blood, the final part of the Will Darling Adventures. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t felt morally obliged to (it’s book three of a same-couple series with no HEA till the end so I would have been abandoning my readers). It took me ten agonising months to bang the bastard out. I wrote an entire blog post on how I managed to wrench the damn thing out of my head and onto the page, if you want the gory details. And, not to brag, but it’s got a 4.52 on Goodreads over more than 2100 ratings and some stunning reviews. It honestly came out good.

So does that mean I should just push on through with Doomsday #2?

I don’t think so. First, I never again want to write a book like I wrote Subtle Blood because wow, that experience sucked. I think I could do it only because I’d already written two books about Will and Kim, so I had a massive head start on the world and their relationship and loads of material to work with. Second, forcing it ends up, as EE’s tweets suggest, with huge word wastage. (I binned in the region of 50K on Subtle Blood false starts. That’s a short novel.) Third and most important, as I have discovered on several projects, if you spend too much time writing fragments that turn into dead ends, you won’t just run out of spoons for the idea, you’ll also exhaust the knives, forks, and weird twiddly thing in the miscellaneous section that might be a fish scaler.

I’ve killed too many ideas by trying to force them. I’m not killing this one.

So when should you be writing, and when deliberately Not Writing? This is a hard one to judge because the default state of being a writer is not wanting to write and doing almost anything to avoid it, hence why we’re always on Twitter. 90% of the time, “bum in chair [or feet on treadmill], hands on keyboard” is the best writing advice.

But sometimes the bit of your brain telling you nope, nope, no writey is correct. Sometimes you need to give yourself space not to write because you’re doing that even more valuable and useful thing, thinking.

To quote EE again:

learning when a book is ready to be written is so tough. Particularly for me because it’s more about a feeling and not a certain number of hours spent researching, notes taken, etc.

My best advice is, when you find you’re not writing, find out why. Ask yourself why you’re reluctant, why it doesn’t feel right. Find the XXX. Pin down the problem, think round the options, step away from the keyboard while your mind works, and you might save yourself a lot of blood, toil, tears, sweat, and typing.

The Art of Fudge: when the devil’s in the detail

Follow 100 historical novelists on Twitter. Set a timer. Wait for one of them to post along the lines of “I spent an entire morning in a research rabbit hole that ended up giving me one lousy sentence in the MS, and I just cut it.” Check the timer. Less than 12 hours? Thought so.

A friend who’s writing a historical was wailing to me the other day:

My characters have gone to a new location and now I have to stop everything and research it, and I don’t even know how long they’ll stay there until I write it, but I can’t write it till I do the research! How do I know what I need?!

As it happens, I have just hit The End on the first in my forthcoming Doomsday Books duo (working title, books to come 2022) and I was going through my piles of research books, checking all those post-its and scribbled notes, and remarking sourly just how many of them I didn’t use. It’s a thing.

Say you decide your MCs are going on a long journey. You have two basic options.

  1. Research it. Spend days digging into means of transport, travel times, and the relevant ports or stations, squinting at bad PDFs of timetables, googling “how fast does a horse and carriage go”, and otherwise plotting the exact route.
  2. Fudge it. “Two days later they were in Berlin.” [XX check time later]

(Note: XX is a great way to annotate your unchecked details for future search as you write, so you don’t break your flow. It also has the great advantage of leaving all the boring hours with an etymology dictionary and an atlas to Future You. The disadvantage is that eventually Future You becomes you.)

You may need option 1. My book Subtle Blood has a long sequence set on a 1920s steam yacht. I spent hours finding a diagram of an appropriate yacht, pictures, looking up accounts of trips, badgering my endlessly patient sailor brother-in-law to make it make sense to me (sorry again, JP), and generally making the steam yacht a real solid moving thing in my head. In the finished book there’s not very much of this on page at all: enough for the reader to understand the action, but far, far less detail (like, 90% less) than I ended up knowing.

This was not wasted research because it didn’t end up on the top of the page. I say top because it was there, just not visible. Research informs your writing, and it shows through the text like a backlight. Readers can tell when you have a good sense of what you’re talking about. They don’t want the full facts about a steam yacht or rail routes from London to Berlin in 1920 themselves, but they need to feel like the book’s not winging it.

Or you may need option 2. If you need your MCs to be in (rather than get to) Berlin, put them in Berlin. Paragraphs of detail about how they get there are not going to grab anyone at all: the only reason we care is if something interesting happens on the journey.

Research it or fudge it. So far, so obvious. However, because writing books is always more complicated than that, we need to throw something else into the mix. Follow some more authors on Twitter and set a timer for this one:

I dropped in a casual reference to an obscure fact for no reason in book 1 and it’s become the cornerstone of the whole trilogy! Thank you subconscious! #WritingGods #Blessed

Then unfollow that #Person immediately, but you get my gist.

Every author has a ‘random detail changes everything’ story. I’ve just had one myself. My hero in Doomsday Book 1 has just moved to Romney Marsh, an isolated and sparsely populated area. I had an entire job for him in the synopsis that I had to jettison because let’s not talk about my inability to stick to a synopsis, so I was casting around for something for him to do all day. I decided he was an amateur naturalist because I’d read something that reminded me that was something gentlemen did in 1810, and frankly, I’ve already done heroes who are artists and classicists and merchants and I couldn’t think of anything else.

The naturalist thing is now not just a detail. It’s a key element in developing his character and his relationships with two other people, it’s specifically plot-crucial in three separate ways, and it will be a nifty moment in book 2. I cannot overstate how much this decision unlocked for me.

I didn’t plan any of that ahead of time. I used it because it was there. It was there because I put it there. Why did I put it there? No idea.

And this is where starting with “Two days later they were in Berlin” falls down. Because maybe if you actually looked into getting there, it might turn out there was a night train perfect for sex, espionage, murder, or all of the above. Maybe there’s an amazing place they go through with an old town square or church or mountain range begging for an action sequence, or a secret meeting, or a bandit attack. Maybe there was absolutely no way to get to Berlin in two days, it’s a minimum of five, and now you’ve borked the timetable of another plot strand, you idiot. You’ll never know if you don’t look.

Which sounds great. But let us just refer back to the first tweet, and the hours of research that went absolutely nowhere or led to irrelevant detail that got binned in the second draft…

I was going through the MS the other day, and I came across a single line that needed filling in. Let’s say it was identifying a minor character.

John Bloggs was the Earl of Blankshire’s brother. XX CHECK LATER

When I wrote this I didn’t know or care how he fits into the Bloggs family. For book 1 it doesn’t matter.

However, book 2 is all about the sprawling, weird, Gothic, and possibly homicidal Bloggs family. I know this much, but have I done the family tree and synopsis? Have I hell. I am not ready to identify John, with his particular knowledge, presence at a certain crucial book 1 scene, age, and personal characteristics, as the old Earl’s brother and thus uncle to the new Earl, our hero. I might very well need him to have a very different position in the family–married in, say, or not in the line of inheritance at all.

And the stakes are high with linked books. If you’ve written a trilogy, you know the pain of that one damn line in the published book 1 that’s completely screwing the thing you now want to do in book 3. Because a detail might open the whole book up for you (my naturalist) or it might close it down (NOO I said he was the Earl’s brother, I’ve ruined everything!) This is why they say the devil is in the detail.

In this case, I can leave him as the brother, and have that as a fixed point, which might well act as a spur for me to develop the plot. I can sit down and work out the family tree and the synopsis of book 2 now (but see above for me and synopses). Or I can fudge it:

John Bloggs was one of the more eccentric members of the Earl’s highly eccentric family. (Two days later, he was in Berlin…)

Going for the fudge is the right thing in this instance, probably. I’ve chewed it over and I can’t see any book-enhancing reason to specify the relationship at this point. And the fudge will cover, I think, more or less any choice I make. I think. We’ll come back to this post when this bites me in the arse.

There’s an old saying that 90% of advertising spending is wasted, but nobody knows which 90%. You could say much the same of research. I wish I could tell you how to distinguish between the throwaway detail that will become the solution to all your plot woes, the throwaway detail that helps anchor the book in reality, and the throwaway detail you throw away. Sadly, I can’t. You’ll find out when you write it.

Let’s Agree about Conflict

HEA=Happy Ever After, MC=main character, MS=manuscript

If you ask a reader what they need to get out of a romance, you’ll probably hear “A Happy Ever After, duh,” accompanied by a menacing look in case you were even thinking about screwing with that. They might also offer variations on ‘love’, ‘kindness’, ‘communication’, ‘consent’, and other good things.

Ask a romance writer what they need to put into a romance, and they’ll probably say, “Conflict.”

Back in the day when I edited for Mills & Boon, we had to do a form for each book we put forward at the editorial meeting. Basic details, synopsis, tropes/themes, and conflict. The ‘Conflict’ section came at the top of the text section, in bold. And if you couldn’t identify what the conflict was, or it looked lacklustre on page, woe betide you.

However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what conflict is and means. Let’s do a spot of digging.

For a start, ‘conflict’ can be a misleading term for what we’re discussing. The word evokes big rows, enemies to lovers, prickling hostility. I have a sneaking suspicion that this limited interpretation of ‘conflict’ is why the third-act argument is such an overused (and unloved) device: the author thinks Oh God, they’re getting on so well, but I need conflict, and often shoehorns it in against the grain of the story.  

Prickling hostility can be great. I adore a good ‘enemies to lovers’ story where the MCs are justifiably spitting furious. I don’t adore a story where they are put in opposition for no particular reason other than the supposed necessity of conflict.

I think we’d often be better off using ‘obstacle’. Because what we’re talking about here is, fundamentally, the things that keep our MCs from their HEA. Those obstacles may be internal (“I was hurt before and don’t want to love again”), external (“the criminal gang is trying to kill me so this isn’t a good time for a bonk”) or both (“I have been offered a great job 1000 miles away, how do I balance love and career?”). They can be hostile (“This bastard is trying to tear down my cupcake café to build a mall!”) or the opposite (“I have to give up the love of my life because I am a sparkly vampire and may cause them harm.”).

It is perfectly possible to write a terrific romance where the MCs never clash with one another, even in a small way. But even the lowest-angst, most comfort-blanket read has obstacles, things that get in the MCs’ way individually or as a couple. Where they struggle and how they deal with it is the engine that drives the plot, shows character in action, and lets the relationship develop.

So the question for the romance writer is:

What are the obstacles, internal and external, that complicate, slow, or threaten the relationship?

I can’t tell you how many slush MSS I slung in the reject heap because of the lack of obstacles. Again, this doesn’t mean ‘they didn’t have rows’. It means that the author didn’t dig into the difficulties, the problems, the insecurities, the practical or emotional issues getting in our lovers’ way. If we don’t feel those things exist or matter, we don’t get the payoff when they’re overcome.

Don’t forget the overcoming bit. We do need to come out at the end with a feeling that they’ve worked their way through or around the obstacles, and that they’ll be able to do so in the future. Overloading a book with conflict, or not dealing with it once raised, can make that hard to believe.

What sort of things may be obstacles?

We often think of conflict at plot level. MC1 doesn’t want children and MC2 has four. MC1 didn’t tell MC2 about their secret baby. MC1 is a policeman and 2 is an assassin, or a thief, or an activist who believes that the justice system is fascist and corrupt. MC1 is a princess, a werewolf, the boss, or all three (which would be cool). MC1 wants to shut down 2’s family mall to build a cupcake empire. MC1 is 2’s best friend’s little sister. You know the score.

But there’s a lot more obstacles than the obvious headliners.

Power imbalance is a big one. Where there’s any sort of difference between the characters there’s probably some sort of power imbalance, which can lead to uncertainty, insecurity, misunderstanding, resentment. Obvious areas for power imbalance are gender-related (including in queer relationships), and disparities in wealth, health, professional status, class, sexual experience, age, perceived attractiveness, perceived value as a person. It’s always worth thinking about these.

(For an entire book about power imbalance–across age, wealth, education, status, sexual experience, and class–Alexis Hall’s For Real traces a relationship between an older, authoritative, wealthy sub and a young, less secure, broke dom. It’s a masterclass in power imbalances going both ways, and the complexities of how they shift and seesaw.)

Differing moral standards can be a massive obstacle. Is it OK to lie/hide the truth from someone? For how long? About what issues? How far does family matter? If duties clash—family, career, partner—which do you prioritise? Did one MC do things which the other considers objectively bad? Which is more important, personal fulfilment or personal responsibility?

Obstacles don’t have to be huge or dramatic. We all know the relatively trivial issues on which relationships stub their toes occasionally. If MC1 comes home from work after a bad day and MC2 doesn’t offer sympathy, that can feel like the end of the world. If it matters to the character, it should matter to the reader.

Important: Characters can have serious issues without them being obstacles to the relationship. There’s very little more powerfully romantic than a MC who meets, e.g., their lover’s health issues or personal insecurities with kindness, help, and understanding. What could be an obstacle but isn’t matters just as much as what is. Both those things help define the relationship.

(I just read this excellent review of the wonderful Take a Hint Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert. The last two paras perfectly encapsulate how this book, and indeed the entire glorious Brown Sisters series, actively choose what things won’t be treated as obstacles in the story/relationship, and why that’s so important.)

Obstacles in action

Let’s take Will and Kim from my Will Darling Adventures: a couple who have so many obstacles, it takes them three books to get to their HEA. A few of those, and how they react:

  • Kim is rich, Will is not. A prickly topic for Will, but something he can accept, since Kim handles it with care.
  • Kim is upper class, Will is working class. For Will, veers back and forth from discomfort to resentment to catastrophe. For Kim, something he wishes Will would get over (until said catastrophe).
  • Kim is engaged. Explained quickly and then disregarded.
  • Kim is a rotten weasel liar. Massive relationship-breaking issue.
  • Will kills people. Mostly handwaved.
  • Will isn’t very good at talking about his feelings. Oh boy.

All these issues and more come up across the series, some as ongoing across the three books, some once, some intermittently. The progress of the relationship is shown in the way they handle, listen, accept, put down boundaries, change. (They also have to deal with an entire criminal conspiracy, but that’s not important right now.)

Note: I could have done all this differently. I could have had the wealth disparity be a running sore between them. I could have made Will unconcerned by class, or Kim far more concerned by it. I could have Will take a much more laissez-faire approach to the fact that a rotten weasel liar told him lies: well, he’s a secret agent so he would, right? But perhaps Kim’s engagement might have been a dealbreaker to Will’s conventional principles. What if Kim was horrified by Will’s penchant for violence? And so on.

All of those decisions could have worked. All of them would have led to the characters developing and reacting differently. And since plot is character in action, we’d have ended up with completely different books.

Let me add: I struggled with book 3, Subtle Blood (as chronicled here). The point at which I finally got a grip on it was when I realised that I’d missed a huge obstacle. Specifically, I had let Will get away with his insistence that he was basically fine, that he was coping with his experiences in the war, that he didn’t really need to talk about it. Wrong. Once I delved into that, and realised it was standing in the way of the deep emotional commitment we needed, the book came together. If I’d let that obstacle go unaddressed, the final relationship wouldn’t have anything like the same heft.

The art of fiction is, in many respects, finding where it hurts and then prodding at it.

Obstacles mean options!

If you aren’t sure about your story, focusing on the obstacles can be a great tactic to lever your way in.

Right now I’m planning my Doomsday Books duo. I know book 1 is going to star Joss Doomsday (smuggler) and Gareth Inglis (gentleman). Joss is clear in my mind and I’m waiting impatiently to get him on page. But I don’t quite know Gareth yet, and I’m still havering on the plot.

So here’s a simple ‘obstacles’ question: Joss is a smuggler. Is Gareth OK with that? Yes/No

If yes, is it simply not a big deal for him, in which case we’ll be looking for something else to drive the plot? Does he actively want to be involved—say, he needs Joss to smuggle something for him, and that’s what brings them together? Is he a gentleman villain scheming to take over the Romney Marsh smuggling racket himself, in which case it’s Georgian gang warfare and a cracking enemies to lovers set-up?

If no, is this a moral difference, to be discussed as part of a growing mutual understanding between two people of different backgrounds? Or is it adversarial? Is Gareth is a magistrate on a personal crusade to stamp out smuggling, who fully intends to see Joss hang?

You can probably think of half a dozen different ways this book might go, based on that single potential obstacle. We could be looking at anything from a frothy caper comedy to a raging angst-fest here, depending on how I answer the question. (I don’t know yet. We’ll find out in due course.)

***

Character creates obstacles; obstacles drive the plot. Obstacles—what they are, how the characters react to them separately and together, what matters and what doesn’t—are the heart of romance, just as grit is the heart of the pearl. Find them, and you’ve probably found your book.


Get your bucketloads of obstacles in the Will Darling Adventures, all out now!

#1 Slippery Creatures

#2 The Sugared Game

#3) Subtle Blood

Subtle Blood is out!

After much agonising, indecision, rewriting, and, frankly, fannying around (see last post) I am pleased to report that Subtle Blood is out. At last.

This is the final part of the Will Darling Adventures trilogy, which really does need to be read in order as otherwise it won’t make nearly so much sense. (Words are often like that. 😛 ) It’s a historical romance/Golden Age pulp mashup, with cocktails, conspiracies, flappers, and fast cars, plus a pair of men trying to make head or tail of the plots, the world, and themselves.

The three Will Darling adventures covers
(Gorgeous covers by Tiferet Design)

Reading order:

#1 Slippery Creatures

Soldier/bookseller Will meets lowlife aristocrat Kim Secretan.

#2 The Sugared Game

You thought Kim was a disaster area in the last book? Oh boy.

#2.5 To Trust Man On His Oath

Short story showing a turning point, available through my newsletter.

#3) Subtle Blood

Crunch time for Will and Kim as a lot of chickens come home to roost, some of them homicidal.

The reviews are in…

Subtle Blood is one of the best books that KJ Charles has ever written. Every word, every twisting twist of the plot, every interaction between its characters, it has been magnificent. (Book Me Up!)

A sexy, elegant and romantic murder mystery. … The romance between the two men shows that there are always new layers of love and understanding to uncover in one’s partner — and that happy ever after can be a work in progress. (Maya Rodale, NPR)

This was the perfect way to end this series. Lots of lovely declarations, a wonderful mystery, Will reaching his bullshit limit and letting it be known HE HAS HAD ENOUGH, Kim interrogating people with intensity, MORE DECLARATIONS OF DEVOTION, the bad guys getting their comeuppance, and then a wonderful ending. Okay, okay, also some super hot, ‘I’ve got to have you right now’ sex scenes. (Smexy Books)

KJ’s storytelling is like if you took your favorite pulpy detective stuff and gave it much more class consciousness, hot sex scenes, and also made it about queers, so A+++. (May Peterson, author of The Sacred Dark trilogy)

Subtle Blood buy links

Gumroad (mobi/epub downloads)

Goodreads

How to Write A Book When You Can’t Write A Book

This one’s about getting very, very stuck on a book and how I got it written. I can’t promise it’ll help anyone else, but it’s what I did. Warning: epic length. If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, look away now.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

So. Back in the Before Times, I decided to write a trilogy: the Will Darling Adventures. 1920s pulp adventure romance, with a ‘difficult’ love interest who was in fact so difficult that the romance arc would take place over three books and there wouldn’t be a full Happy Ever After (HEA) till book 3. I wrote book 1, set the self publishing in motion, started work on book 2, and–oops! Covid!

I got book 1 out. I even managed to finish book 2, though I had to delay publication by two months. And then I went into book 3, Subtle Blood, like a LandRover driving into a tar pit, and like that LandRover, I stuck.

I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was full of writers screaming that their average writing speed had dropped to twelve words an hour, that their characters had become plastic mannequins, plots withered on the vine, inspiration turned to dust. The only creative boom was in people writing articles about how the pandemic was destroying creativity. Apparently when the world is going to shit and people are dying and you’re scared for yourself and your loved ones, your brain diverts resources away from inventing stories and towards survival.

Note to brain: That doesn’t help when you make your living inventing stories.

I created the Subtle Blood Scrivener folder in July 2020. By January 2021 I had four folders of false starts for the damn thing, none of which were going anywhere.

Image of four folders labelled: Subtle Blood, Subtle Blood v2, Subtle Blood 3 the Resubtlening, and Subtle Blood 4 JFC

I also had an entirely separate book that I’d written in the hope of loosening up my writing muscles. That book was a doddle. I still couldn’t write this one.

I’d plot it out, sit down, dig in, write a chapter, and feel myself thinking, No, wait, this isn’t it, start again. Over, and over, and over. None of my multiple versions got past chapter 7. Every word I wrote, every path I took, immediately seemed worse than all the other possible ones, like the supermarket trolley queue choice from hell. I wrote and rewrote and flailed.

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

Well, first I sat down and tried to work out what my problems actually were.

  • Global pandemic: pervasive terror, existential threat to way of life, homeschooling. Not much to be done about that.
  • Sequel panic: the incapacitating fear that if the third book isn’t good enough I’ll ruin everything and disappoint everyone like a terrible person. Solution: to have started therapy years ago. Also on the Not Much To Be Done About That pile.
  • Indecision.

That was the big one. I knew what the romance arc would be, that was easy. I had an inciting incident for the suspense plot: a murder in a gentleman’s club. But I could not work out how the suspense plot should develop. Every time I tried to write it, it fell apart in my hands like too-short pastry. To convey how bad this got: I wrote the first five chapters three times over with the same character as, respectively, the murderer, the victim, and the key witness. I’m only astonished he was never the detective. I tried, I really did. I just couldn’t make it work.

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

Clearly I needed to sit down and plan the bastard. I had tried to do this once or twice already (*Herbert Lom eye twitch*) but what I did now was to take a different visual approach.

You may be familiar with the advice to proofread your work in a different format–print out the text or proofread on your ereader, or even just change the font dramatically (people often say to Comic Sans, but let’s not go overboard). The idea is that the visual change makes your brain see the text as new and therefore pick up errors you previously skimmed over. This is why you get your finished print copy, open it at random, and instantly see a typo.

To achieve my different format, I bought a piece of mind mapping software called Scapple. This is in effect an infinitely scrolling piece of paper so you can keep on going as long as you like, in as much detail as you need, as well as off at tangents in all directions. (The lack of infinity, I now realise, is why mind mapping on paper has never worked for me.) It has bells and whistles I didn’t explore, but what it gave me was that open space, on–let me stress the importance of this–a different coloured background.

I feel quite embarrassed typing that. But the fact is, it looked proper different, and that helped.

Planning stage: Make decisions

I had to make a couple of big decisions even to start putting the mind map thing down. Part of this, not going to lie, was saying “Just pick one” to myself and sticking to it. This is because there is not one single Platonic ideal shape for a book to be. Every decision you make takes you off at a different tangent and makes the plot a different shape. Some of those decisions would be actually wrong (“Kim drinks an oddly coloured cocktail and turns into a velociraptor”) and others not great, but there will always be several paths that could lead to perfectly satisfactory outcomes.

Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.

So I opened Scapple. I picked the suspense plot path that I hoped would take me to the best place, and stuck to it, resisting every temptation (there were many) to jack it in and go back to the start with a different one. I bunged it down in note form, with all my questions and plot holes and options. I mucked about with that till I had a rough shape, adding and pruning as seemed good, exploring options if I felt compelled to, and dumping them if they didn’t work. If I didn’t have a specific event in mind, I put in what plot effects it needed to have (VILLAIN DISCOVERS PLAN SOMEHOW, BAD THING RESULTS) and came back later to work out how.

Once I had a rough outline most of the way (up to the climatic drama point of the third act, as I wasn’t sure how to play the ending), I put another set of notes above the main plot in red, giving the events from the villain’s perspective, i.e. what was happening behind the scenes at the same time. That let me make sure events made sense, and start to shape the ending. It meant going back to the main plot, answering questions, fiddling events to make them fit, getting things in logical order. By this point I was beginning to believe in the plot course I’d chosen. That helped a lot.

Next, I added in the romance arc as a set of notes below the suspense plot, this time in blue, again lined up with the timescheme.

Can you see the problem here?

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control.

Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

Specifically, what was missing was the conflict I had been building up to in the first two books but had somehow not followed through here. And, in fact, this conflict was starting to emerge organically now I’d nailed the suspense plot, because the events of the one set off emotional bombs in the other. Which is pretty much exactly what you want to happen.

And–you will be way ahead of me–once I started digging into the issues and interweaving the romance and the suspense plots properly, the damn thing really began to come together.

Looking at a different picture on the screen, laying it out a different way, helped me identify problems and see the job anew, as well as letting me regain a sense that I controlled it.

Writing stage: Don’t go back

So I made my mind map thing, worked out my plot strands, made decisions as I went, and I ended up with an outline.

Unfortunately, I don’t work well with outlines. I have form for coming up with a detailed synopsis, selling it to a publisher, and then delivering something completely different. (For example: an enemies to lovers romance with a pornographer and a crusading lawyer became a fluff-fest with a taxidermist and a gentle lodging house keeper. Whoops.)

I knew I was going to change things as I went along. And here we were going to hit the rocks, because I’m a looper.

What’s that? Well, some authors are plotters (get it all planned first) and some are what people insist on calling pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. deciding what happens next as you go). I define myself as a looper because my writing process basically goes:

  • Have a loose idea of the opening, the main plot, and the ending
  • Write the first two chapters. Realise the main plot isn’t quite what I thought. Loop back through the first two chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Write the next two chapters. Discover that actually the character needs to do X earlier for it to work. Loop back through the first four chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Get to chapter six. Decide that a lot of what I’ve done is unnecessary scaffolding. Loop back to chapter one and start cutting…

And so on. What this usually means is I get to 70% pretty slowly, but with an MS in excellent shape and a clear path to the end, which I then write at white heat. It works for me.

Until it didn’t. Because the looping had broken with Subtle Blood. I’d got trapped: going over the same five chapters again and again and again, like someone in a bad time-travel movie. Possibly one called Looper.

I didn’t want to start that again. So I vowed: no fixing, no checking. If I tweaked the plot as I went along, I would write XX FIX THIS at the point it diverged from the previous text, and carry on in the new direction. I would not go back and change anything until I’d reached the end. I would fill the MS with XX CHECK and XX REPETITION?? and any amount of work for Future Me, but I would have a finished draft before I tried to tidy up anything in it.

(XX is simply an easy way to pick these things up in search. You need to make them searchable or you end up with SEX SCENE HERE going off to your editor and then you’ll feel stupid.)

I decided this, and I wrote. I wrote plot scaffolding, and left it there. I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

We used to do a challenge at school where you had to eat a jam doughnut with sugar on the outside without licking your lips. This felt like that. It goes against everything that I stand for as an editor, writer, and human to knowingly ignore errors and plot holes and crap writing. But I had to get out of the loop, and that meant pointing my face to The End and not changing direction till I got there.

And, very slowly, I started to feel like the book was becoming mine. The plot clicked into place. There were ‘oh, of course it’s like this!’ moments. The characters stirred into life; the words started to flow; I woke up in the morning with new exciting ideas. I whipped through the last two chapters like…well, like a writer who was enjoying her book. And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional, and not some illiterate Phantom of the Opera hammering at the keyboard.

Cover of Subtle Blood

Then I sent it to my first trusted reader. She promptly identified several gigantic structural flaws I had been hoping were my imagination. I hate that.

I did some large-scale rewriting. Then I sent it to my second trusted reader. She identified more flaws, but at a more zoomed-in level, which was promising. Same for the third. (I sent these in succession, fixing the identified problems before passing the Death Spot to the next person.)

I spent weeks of eight-hour days doing nothing but edit. I switched fonts twice to refresh my vision. (Courier to Times New Roman to Calibri, since you ask. I was never quite desperate enough for Comic Sans.)

Now, over-editing is a thing. It is entirely possible to go through a MS so much that you kill whatever zizz it had, and create something that’s well-formed but lifeless. I suspect that’s a thing that happens with MSS that start off with loads of vigour but lack polish–whereas what I had here was a MS with the bare bones in place but lacking the animating spark. (If you’re thinking about Frankenstein’s monster at this point, you aren’t the only one.)

Because as I went through and tidied up and pulled it together and rewrote, rewrote, rewrote…

…it came to life. I had dug deep enough into the characters and motivations and done enough of the scut work that I could actually get into the fun parts, and it finally goddamn well came to life under my hands. Kim and Will sparked in my imagination, ideas bubbled out to refine and improve it, the hidden motivations and links and feelings revealed themselves, and the whole thing began to sing. It was glorious. And when I sent it to the last trusted reader, she told me it worked, and I very nearly cried.

So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

***

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

Because the first draft doesn’t have to be good, or even okay: it just has to exist. Once it exists you can make it better. Granted, writing like this isn’t fun, and editing it is chew-your-hand-off stuff, and you need good people who will tell you what’s wrong with it when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

But it’s still a lot easier than editing a blank page.


I didn’t spend ten months writing this bloody thing for people not to buy it, okay?

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

Goodreads reviews so you don’t have to take my word for it

Where Do you Get Your Ideas: a snapshot

This is almost certainly completely useless to aspiring writers and how-do-you-get-your-ideas questioners out there, but I find it fascinating how books emerge from seeds, so here you go.

For much of the last year I have been trying to write Subtle Blood (Will Darling 3). This has been gnarly because pandemic brain, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of displacement activity when I got stuck. For example, I wrote and published a completely different novel. That’s what I call Pro Crastination.

(Sorry.)

I have another idea that’s been bubbling away in a slow-cooker sort of way for a while (add ingredients, simmer for two years). In pursuance of this, among much else, I’ve been collecting good names when I come across them and adding them to my name file. I was planning in a vague sort of way to write this book next, but then it as happened, I found myself with an opportunity to pitch a two-book Regency romance project to a publisher. Which was great, except I didn’t have a two-book Regency romance project. Whoops.

I chewed a pencil, went for a walk, and stared into the middle distance a bit. Eventually a name popped into my head. Doomsday. (That’s not an epithet like ‘bingo!’ but gloomier. I mean that Doomsday was the name.)

My mental process then went approximately like this:

–That’s a stupid name.

–No it’s not. He could be John Doomsday. No, more biblical. Ezekiel Doomsday? No, too biblical. Ooh, I’ve got it: Josiah Doomsday, Joss for short.

–Joss Doomsday, right. Not posh, then. And who’s he?

–Well, I don’t know but he’s got to be Gothic, right? Or at least in a Gothicish setting. Something Poldarky. Highwayman. Pirate. Smuggler. Smuggler?

–Smuggler. ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by’ and lurking in the dark. Okay, maybe, but Doomsday is still a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?

–If we’re going Gothic we’re doing it properly. Oooh, no, I know what it is! It’s a Tess of the d’Urbervilles thing!

–Toxic masculinity and everyone dies? Sounds really romantic. I’m sure the publisher will bite our hand off.

–No, you div. Remember the inciting event of Tess, when her common-as-muck father Mr. Durbeyfield learns that his name is a corruption of d’Urberville?

–Yes, because I am you and therefore also did that English degree.

–So Joss Doomsday is a distant cousin many times removed from the noble family d’Aumesty. Which sounds like Doomsday if you squint, see? That’s what links the books. Both set in smuggling country—Romney Marsh in Kent would do nicely, lots of Norman history down there—during the Napoleonic wars so there’s good smugglers and bad smugglers. One book about Someone d’Aumesty, the noble inheritor of a decaying house full of Gothic loons probably mixed up in bad things, and one about Joss Doomsday the Robin Hoody smuggler, with overlapping cast and setting. Hmm?

–Mmm. Okay. Fair enough. Yes, we can do something with this.

–Told you so.

–Don’t get cocky, sunshine.

So my agent pitched The Doomsday Books (two gay romances featuring aristocrats, smugglers, and spies on the Kent coast) and I’m delighted to say they’ll be coming from Sourcebooks starting 2022.

So far so good. With that done, I went off and wrestled Subtle Blood into a complete first draft, which took another two very long months. It’s settling in my head as I write, and I didn’t want to start The Doomsday Books till I’m finished with Will and Kim, so I thought while I was killing time (which brings us up to half an hour ago) I’d have a shufti at my back burner project.

And who did I see in my list of names but Sophia Doomsday.

What the heck.

I stared at it, then realised it rang a vague bell. I went and searched on Twitter, and realised that back in January I’d read Charles Dickens’ own list of good names—including Rosetta Dust, Miriam Denial, and Sophia Doomsday sitting together like the world’s greatest firm of solicitors. I’d read it, tweeted it, added a few to my name list, and promptly forgotten the whole thing. Until my subconscious kicked it back up, and a single surname became the kernel for a two-book deal.

So here’s the question: If the name that had popped into my head at that random moment was one of the others from that Dickens list—say, William Why or Walter Ashes or Ambrosina Events—would I have that book deal now? And what, I wonder, would the books be about?


The Doomsday Books will be coming next year from Sourcebooks.

Subtle Blood publishes 23rd June. Preorder links will be coming soon.

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (displacement book) is out now.

Five Years on the Treadmill: a walking while working update

Five years ago (five and a half, really) I bought myself a treadmill desk. I wrote a blog post about it at the time: find it here. I wrote it partly because I couldn’t find any personal accounts from people who’d spent their own money on one, rather than journalists trying out a freebie.

Recently I was extolling the virtues of the treadmill on Twitter and a friend who’s just bought one commented that she hadn’t been able to find any accounts from long-term users. Which is a problem: these things aren’t cheap and of course you want to know if it will end up gathering dust like the bread machine and the spiralizer.  

So, here we go: Treadmill 2, Electric Boogaloo, aka my five-year trip report.

Does it help?

Oh God, yes.

I bought the treadmill, which cost a serious chunk of change, because I was in constant pain from my back. Sitting had become a flaring agony and since my job is basically typing, which is generally done sitting in a chair, this was not fun. I was standing up to eat meals because I couldn’t bear to sit more; having to lie on the office floor for relief or stand up in meetings because of the pain. It hurt so much, all the time. Plus I had two trapped nerves in quick succession, and those are nasty, not to mention hundreds of quid in physio bills and lost work. This had been going on for years. Spending four figures on a treadmill desk was very much an act of desperation.

And it worked. My back pain melted away. The problem was that I was sitting all the time (I can’t stand up for more than about 20mins without dizziness and stuff so a standing desk wouldn’t work); when I stopped sitting, it stopped hurting. I have had no back pain since, over five and a half years. No trapped nerves. No joint problems. Nada.

I don’t know what’s causing your back pain, obviously. I just know that being upright and mobile instead of sitting in a chair was all it took to fix mine and keep it fixed, even as I slide inexorably through my late 40s.

Do you really use it?

LOL yes. I haven’t sat at my desk in five years.  I only keep it because the books have to go somewhere.

Desk absolutely covered in books and crap
I’m not saying this is good, but it is my desk

I walk on the treadmill my entire working day, which was a solid eight hours a day till lockdown/kids at home. In fact, I wore out my first treadmill. (I bought the model meant for max six hours a day, and then ran it for eight hours a day for five and a half years, wearing out several pairs of shoes in the process. I couldn’t replace the motor, which was the worn out bit, because the model has been discontinued.) I have just upgraded to a heavy duty model because frankly, when I realised the old one was on its way out, I panicked at the thought of having to sit again.

Are your legs buff or what?

Thighs of steel, mate. My PT, a semi pro boxer, got me doing hamstring curls once, kept increasing the weight ‘till you find it hard’, gave up before my legs did, and was forced to admit I have stronger thighs than him. Ha.

What’s the downsides?

They’re expensive. And big, although the new models are significantly more compact. Other than that: none, honestly. It suits me down to the ground.

Shot of treadmill plus desk in my study
Treadmill and desk. I’d just like to point out my actual work surface is respectable. Ish

Maintenance?

Very occasional lubrication (a squirt of goop under the belt) and also, you ought to take off the motor hood and hoover inside occasionally because the amount of weird furry black crap that accumulates due to electrostatic is amazing. It looked like there was a cat in there. However, we’re talking once a year, minimal effort.

Is it hard to type while walking?

Nope, and I’m malcoordinated and a crap typist. I’ve written I don’t know how many novels on this thing, but it’s hundreds of thousands of words.

Noisy?

The motor and belt. White noise really, plus the sound of your feet. I find it quite soothing.

Don’t you get tired?

Physically, a bit. I mean, it depends how fit you are and how fast you walk—I like it quite brisk, at 1.8 to 2mph—and whether you alternate between chair and desk, and how many hours you do. And of course you get used to it as you increase your activity levels. Mentally, I find I’m much more alert moving than I am slumped in a chair.

Is it really exercise, walking that slowly?

It’s NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis. You expend more energy and build more muscle over the course of a day by walking, even slowly, than you do sitting.

What model do you have and where do I get one?

I’ve got a Lifespan TR5000 (the heavy duty one for the obsessive walker or office). I got mine from the Treadmill Desk Store, and if you’re in the UK I recommend them highly: super nice people and really helpful, from ordering to delivery to aftercare.

Are you a shill for them or what?

Nope. I’m a full time author whose back doesn’t hurt, and I’m spreading the word because this thing has genuinely changed my life.

All right, but the real question is, what’s your m.p.n. (miles per novel)?

I have also become obsessed with knowing this, so I’m going to track how many miles I walk for my next book. Once I finish the third book of the Will Darling Adventures, which is what I should be doing now, gotta go.


Cover for The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting. Two Regency gentlemen silhouetted in frame surrounded by cards

Next book, 100% written while walking, is The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, coming 24th February.

“A perfect quarantine read. This felt like KJ’s very own sexy and skullduggerous take on the romcom trend, and I loved it.”—Talia Hibbert

Reading Round-Up 2020

It’s been a twat of a year. How much of a twat I don’t need to tell you, but I have been through a dizzying switchback of reader’s block followed by compulsive reading, followed by total inability to read fiction followed by compulsive glomming of bizarrely specific subgenres. I have no mysteries to recommend because apparently literally all of the dozens I read were 1920s and 30s pulp. I need help.

Let’s have some book recs. I have limited myself to one book per author because we have to put a lid on this somehow.

Links go to my Goodreads reviews. Feel free to friend me or check out my entire list here, avoiding the vast swathes of terrible golden age pulp and frankly weird obsession with early 20th-century occultism. Just pretend you didn’t see that, it’s only going to get worse.

Blessings

The Blessings series by Beverly Jenkins

This literally gets its own category. There are ten novels in this contemporary series set in a tiny US town, and I read them pretty much consecutively to survive lockdown. I mean, ‘shoving them into my face like a baby with its first slice of birthday cake’ compulsively. A no-holds-barred soap opera which I am delighted to hear is being made into your actual TV show as it deserves. If you need comfort and escape and kindness and drama turned up to 11 and a gloriously absurd giant-hog plotline, here you go. Ten books’ worth!

Romance

So Forward by Mina V Esguerra

Very low angst romance with a high-flying no-mincing-of-words woman and a people-pleasing guy. No confected Bad Moment, thoroughly soothing to the soul.

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Absolutely glorious fake-dating/opposites-attract romcom. Very British, very romantic, very very funny indeed.  

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Possibly Talia’s best book yet. Gruff cinnamon roll hero and stroppy workaholic heroine who loves romance novels, rolling around in tropes and having a huge amount of fun. Fabulous dialogue. An unalloyed joy.

The Hidden Moon by Jeannie Lin

I have wanted this forever and it lived up to my hopes. Wonderful romance of a posh family’s fiercely intelligent daughter and a street thug, set in the Tang dynasty. Exactly what historical romance should be.

The Immortal City by May Peterson

Proper fantasy romance on an epic scale, with a wonderfully drawn, extremely assured setting and a marvellous, involving mythology, plus a romance spiked with mystery.

Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma

A delightful minor-key political romance of a rather amateur spad and a policy wonk. Sweetly melancholy, lovely romance, utterly gorgeous writing.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

A mega-slow burn romance with a printer and a beekeeper, set in the Regency—the actual one of terrifying repressive crackdowns on any form of radical thought, not the one with a thousand dukes. The historical grounding lifts the whole story wonderfully and the slow-burn makes the eventual HEA spectacular. Loved it.

SF

Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu

Near-future Delhi dystopia. Brilliantly written, structurally inventive, completely immersive and horrifically plausible.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Deserves all the plaudits. Wonderfully thought-provoking, conveyed via fabulous assured story-telling.

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

A girl genius breaks reality; she and her completely ordinary best friend struggle to put it back together. Weird, fast-paced, deeply involving and very human.

The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull

This should have had far more noise made about it. Extraordinary allegory of colonialism played out when aliens land on one of the Virgin Islands. Really shitty aliens. Compulsive reading and a premise that lodges itself inextricably in your brain.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Murderbot, enough said. I’ve read the whole series twice this year.

Fantasy

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

What a treat. Found family, applied violence, gang of thieves, super queer, effortless worldbuilding, and all in gorgeous clear prose.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher

A young witch with a minor magical talent for baking finds herself obliged to defend a city. Absolutely fantastic. Reminded me of how magical it was to discover fantasy for the first time. I’m saving my reread for emergencies.  

Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Exceptionally good fantasy—fantastic adventure, great character piece, thought-provoking subjects, and lovely romance. Set in a Mughal Empire analogue and sent me down a Mughal rabbit hole. Cannot praise this highly enough.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Fabulous novella which has a lot to say about feminism and politics, hauntingly written. A beautiful example of what can be done with short form.

Horror

The Plague Stones by James Brogden

Ahaha I read a book about the plague just before…the plague. Idyllic English village with a dark secret dating back to the Black Death. Really very scary indeed, but with a lot of hope and humanity in it. Go on, lean in to your pandemic fears. Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree by the same author are also excellent.

The Hollow Places by T Kingfisher

Narrowly edging out her excellent The Twisted Ones. A genius premise: a weird museum in Nowhere, USA has a hole in the wall that leads to a kind of Wood Between the Worlds but from hell. Super creepy with a final sequence that had me on the edge of my seat.

(YES FINE I CHEATED SUE ME.)

Non fiction

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Compelling and enlightening examination of race, class and colonialism in Britain and in the countries afflicted by us over the reader. Really excellent, required reading.

Koh-i-Noor: the history of the world’s most infamous diamond, by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple

Hugely readable history of the diamond that does a terrific job of contextualising with Indian history, the British colonial (theft) operation, the story of Duleep Singh and much more. Excellent informative and well-written narrative non fiction.

The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk by Ghee Bowman

A tremendous feat of social history, tracing an Indian regiment who were brought over to fight in France in 1940. Fascinating stories, some of them deeply moving, others frankly hilarious. And a really important read in these times where British nationalists explicitly lie to whitewash the past. Read it.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Brilliant. The utterly insane story of a tiny libertarian town in the US. I was cry-laughing. Very funny, but also very revealing about a lot of frankly weird depths of the US psyche.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley

A fascinating attempt to reconstruct the life of an ordinary Japanese woman living at the end of the shogunate. Brilliant history in which grand politics are shown, not as central to the story, but as unseen forces buffeting people trying to exist. A powerful feminist statement too: ordinary women matter.

Litfic

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik.

A very British Muslim living in a country village is told by his dying mother to build a mosque—which doesn’t go down so well with the oh-so-nice community he thought he was part of. Reads like a light comedy while tackling some heavy issues, but still focusing on humanity and hope.

Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola

TBH this could be in the romance section but I need to weight my numbers here. A lovely collection of retold myths, a good half of them African, all about love in its various forms (most m/f, one fantastic f/f). Almost all given happy endings, and really joyous, uplifting ones at that. Don’t miss.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

As good as everyone says. Tremendous novel about two Black sisters, one of whom decides to pass as white, and the way their lives unspool accordingly. Hugely readable and humane.

You Keep It All In: The Inner Monologue

There’s a common theme to my last four romance DNFs: the overuse of inner monologue.

Now, I like a good inner monologue as much as anyone. They can be superb ways of conveying character issues and emotional development, so nobody should take this blog post to mean “inner monologues are bad”.

But there are two things I see inner monologues doing that cause big problems: breaking up dialogue to the extent that we don’t get any sense of conversation, or replacing it altogether.

First off, let’s look at how to do it right. Here’s a terrific example from Jeannie Lin’s fantastic The Hidden Moon combining inner monologue and dialogue:

Gao looked exactly as she remembered, exactly as she’d imagined him whenever she’d closed her eyes. He was spare of build, whipcord-lean, and dressed in a dark tunic. In the dimness of the morning, he could have disappeared into the shadows. Barely there, yet ever so present.

“It’s been seven days,” she ventured, then bit her lip. That made it sound like she’d been keeping count. Which she had.

His dark gaze held hers for a long moment. “It has been.”

Gao wasn’t smiling, but the corner of his mouth twisted upward as if curiously pleased. For her part, Wei-wei couldn’t say what she was feeling. She’d considered that she might never see Gao again. Someone like Gao and someone like her. A desert and a stream — their paths were never meant to cross.

“My brother’s wife is having her baby.”

“Is that so?”

“Everyone else at home was occupied,” she explained, for lack of other things to say.

“Right.”

She searched for her next words. He seemed to be doing the same, brow furrowed. The last time they’d seen one another, there was tragedy and scandal involved. Gao had intervened in a potentially dangerous situation to help her and her brother. It seemed inadequate now to pleasantly inquire about his health.

We get a lot of information about the heroine’s feelings, backstory, attraction to hero etc conveyed in the monologue; the dialogue itself is unemotional and fist-chewingly stilted. And this is perfect, because the MCs are in a horrendously awkward situation. They ought not be talking; they aren’t supposed to know each other; they have no business being attracted. Gao is a street thug to Wei-wei’s lady, and the class difference isn’t just a theoretical obstacle: he doesn’t have her verbal fluency or social training, and boy does it show.

The verbal exchange is just a few lines but it reveals Wei-wei’s desire to connect, Gao’s inability to respond in kind to her conversational offer, and the effect that his terseness has in shutting down Wei-wei’s efforts to reach him, even though they both want this to go better. Dialogue and inner monologue—showing and telling—interact to outline the attraction, key points about both personalities, and a goodly chunk of the conflict in a very short stretch of text. It’s a huge amount of work done by and around a conversation you might have with a colleague while making office tea.  

Got it? Excellent. Go buy The Hidden Moon. Once you’ve done that, compare this, which I just made up but which is not far off a book I DNFd the hell out of.

“Hello,” Peter said.

He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its USP of delivering Christmas presents to underprivileged children?

“Hello,” Jane replied.

She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting opening, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, big boy. She wouldn’t mind saying that.

“Would you like coffee?” Peter asked.

Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny Christmas stocking manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not coffee, since she’d given up caffeine six weeks ago due to her ongoing sleeping problems. Would it be too demanding to order her favourite decaf soy latte?

“No, thanks.”

Oh no! The words had come out far more brusquely than she’d meant. Had Peter’s caramel brown eyes hardened? She couldn’t tell as he flipped open his top of the range laptop…

Et cetera.

As before, the narrative is delivering lots of backstory and detail. But here (and obviously this is an exaggerated example) it’s doing it at the expense of two things: Peter’s character, and the MCs’ interaction.

Those go together. Dialogue tells us about both parties individually, and about the way they bounce off each other—how they mesh, or clash, understand each other or don’t. It shows us what both parties are prepared to reveal, what they hide, how they react to one another.

The dialogue in this scene is excruciatingly dull, but that doesn’t have to matter—see again The Hidden Moon extract’s far from scintillating surface conversation. The problem is that this scene is purely Jane, Jane, Jane, and the lines of dialogue are props for that. It might as well be unbroken monologue, because we haven’t learned anything meaningful about Peter, only about what Jane thinks of Peter, and we also haven’t learned how Jane and Peter work together as a pair. That’s the nature of inner monologue, the self, and that might well be fine in a chick-lit type novel that’s all about the narrator. In a romance—a book about people connecting with each other—it can be a kiss of death.

It’s also a kiss of death to anything interesting that might be happening in the dialogue. Try it again:

“I just recreated brontosaurus meat in my lab,” Peter said. “It’s delicious.”

He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its slogan of ‘Jurassic Park on your plate’?

“Well done!” Jane replied.

She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting response, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, you T-rex of a man. She wouldn’t mind saying that.

“Would you like some triceratops steak?” Peter asked.

Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny prehistoric ready-meal manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not triceratops, since she’d given up meat six weeks ago due to her newfound commitment to veganism…

Nope, still awful, and in fact more awful because I don’t know about you but if he’s a dinosaur meat ready-meals merchant, that’s what I want to hear about. Subordinating the dialogue to the monologue in this way diminishes its impact, gives us no sense of a back and forth, makes it extremely hard to keep track of what the conversation is about, and takes a hell of a lot longer to convey useful information.

A dialogue passage doesn’t have to have sparkling conversation to work brilliantly. But if a conversation would interest the reader on its own terms, why not let it do so, rather than making it all about something else? And if it wouldn’t, consider why you’re making us read it at all. There may be an excellent reason, of course. Great things can be done with apparently boring conversations. But if what’s being said is purely a frame to hang an inner monologue on, that rarely makes for a satisfying scene.

This is not to say that an unbroken inner monologue is preferable. It is not unknown in romance for the conflict to be resolved by one or more MCs going over and over their problems in their head, until they come to a new opinion or understanding. That can do a lot of work, but, again, a romance is about both the people in the relationship. The conflict isn’t fixed by the hero realising after seven pages of hard thinking that his dead wife would have wanted him to love again. It gets fixed when he talks to the new love interest, listens to them, and offers a proper meaningful grovel for his previous 200 pages of jerkery. When, in fact, they interact successfully.

If one MC is doing the heavy lifting alone in their head, whether on the conflict or the resolution, that by itself will struggle to make for a satisfying read in a genre that’s about human interaction. The internal stuff needs to support and enhance the external (the behaviour, the dialogue).

Ask yourself: What happens if I cut all the interior monologue bits? If I chop this MS down to just the dialogue and interactions, do I still have the bones of a romance: the attraction, the enjoyment of each other’s company, the conflict, the desire, the bits that make readers swoon or cry or tweet that you’ve ruined their life? Am I building the characters (in action and dialogue) or just talking about them? Is there enough actually happening between the characters, on page, to support what the inner monologues say is happening between them?

There’s no perfect percentage of dialogue to inner monologue—if a book works, it works. But if inner monologue gets in the way of the reader seeing how the MCs work together…that’s not what they picked up a romance for.

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Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures 1) is at 99p/99c everywhere in September.

The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures 2) is out now.

Or download files (including mobi for Kindle) directly from Gumroad.

If the title didn’t give you an earworm already, you can get it here.