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Characters, Politics, Fish, and You

Let’s talk about politics. Specifically, your characters’ politics, how you position them, and how they/you express them.

If your immediate thought was “My characters don’t have politics”, you’re wrong. Your character, if in a contemporary, votes, and if they don’t vote, they’re making a decision not to participate. They will have a view on how much tax they want to pay and what it should go to. They will have an opinion on gun control or Brexit or parking restrictions on their street or how much they pay for health care. As for historicals…well, the Regency was one of the most turbulent political periods of Britain’s history, a prime minister got assassinated, there was ongoing popular revolt and incredibly severe laws against sedition, and absolutely everyone had Views about the Prince Regent. No politics? Don’t kid yourself.

 And I haven’t even touched on issues of race, class, gender, religious freedom, disability, and sexuality. Name me a human society in which those aren’t relevant.  

All of that is politics. Everyone has politics. If you think you “don’t have politics” that probably means the politics happening around you are the sort that suit you, in which case you’re a fish not noticing water.

“Okay, my characters probably have politics, but I don’t want to get into that,” you might say. Fine, but politics are a facet of character just like everything else. They might not be at the forefront of your plot, or a topic of conversation. But you’d struggle to write an entire novel about fish in which water played no part at all in informing the plot, character, or setting.

Politics can affect character implicitly or explicitly. You can show us what the MCs think and how their histories inform their attitudes which inform their personalities. You can show us how they interact, especially from positions of difference: how ready they are to challenge themselves or hear new views.

This can be explicit. My Society of Gentlemen Regency series is exceedingly and overtly political, in settings and dialogue and plot. But the reason it worked as a romance series rather than a lecture tour is that the politics made for some hellacious conflicts.

In A Seditious Affair, Silas Mason is a working class seditionist while Dominic Frey is a committed Tory who works for the Home Office, and their book is set around a (real) conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet, because let’s not muck about. Dominic and Silas in particular are about as impossible a pair to get to the HEA as I have written. Because of the huge political gulf between them, I had to dive deep into their personalities to show what did work between them, what brought and held them together. I used the politics to drive the love story and the external plot together: you could not take out the political bits because the political bits are all about the romance.

But that’s far from the only approach. Compare, say, this from Band Sinister. Guy, a fearful and sheltered country gentleman, has just been introduced the Murder, a hellfire club.

Raven opened his mouth. Penn said, mildly, “Every man is entitled to his beliefs.”

“Yes, any man has a right to his beliefs, and a duty to question them too,” Raven retorted. “If you don’t take out your beliefs for washing now and again, they’re just bad habits.”

That started a discussion among the company in general, greatly to Guy’s relief. He ate and drank and watched his tablemates as the conversation swerved like a drunkard in the road. They went from the need to abolish the offence of blasphemous libel and separate church from State into a discussion on the system of elections. Martelo and Salcombe argued that every man over the age of twenty-one should be entitled to a vote and representation in the House; Raven and Street suggested women’s opinions should be canvassed equally; and Corvin spoke, with languid wit that might even have been seriously meant, about the desirability of abolishing the House of Lords. “After all,” he said, “I have a seat and a voice there, and you wouldn’t put me in charge of the country, would you?”

It was beyond argument, for Guy: he couldn’t begin to formulate answers to questions he’d never even considered asking. He just listened, in a slightly wine-flown haze, to a debate that felt like some sort of lengthy hallucination, each proposition more destructive and extreme and simply not done than the last.

This, then, was a hellfire club: a debating society for alarming ideas. Guy could well understand why one would need a private room; a zealous magistrate could prosecute some of these opinions if aired at a public meeting. But this was Rookwood’s home and thus, since he was an Englishman, his castle. The Murder could say what they wanted in their own company, and Guy, who hardly ever said what he wanted, had nothing at all to offer this meeting of lively, informed, well-travelled people saying unimaginably bizarre things. He simply watched and listened, with the sense of being caught in one of those fiery upheavals that Salcombe said had made the world.

The point here isn’t what Guy or indeed his love interest Philip Rookwood think about any of these specific propositions: we don’t find out. The point is that he’s being submerged in a tsunami of new information and thought and also ways of thinking that he finds at first terrifying and them world-expanding. Which is a foreshadowing of the sexual awakening he’s about to have (albeit in rather more detail because romance, ahaha). The political discussion here serves to tell us the kind of person Guy is at the start of the book, and hint to us that he’s yearning for more; it also indicates the deep divide between him and Philip in terms of attitude to life, experience, willingness to conform. Guy is unthinkingly conservative; Philip is consciously (self-consciously) radical. Their romance is among other things a process by which Guy opens his mind, and Philip comes to understand and respect the values Guy does hold on to.  

Politics, like everything else, is character. But it’s also potentially a wonderful source of worldbuilding. I set my Will Darling Adventures in the early 1920s. You can populate that world with flappers and nightclubs and Bright Young People, and indeed I put in a lot of that. But it gets a lot chewier if you put in the context too. (The Bright Young People were unquestionably a bunch of privileged twats who should have been first against the wall at the revolution, but they were also a specific reaction to a political situation: an entire generation of young people with heroically dead older siblings they couldn’t live up to, facing a world their elders had made a bloody mess of and opting out.)

The politics of the time inform the world and the characters, main and minor. The upper classes have been hit by death duties, often several times in a few years, and their power is slipping, which drives a lot of the plot. The country is full of resentfully jobless demobbed soldiers like Will, who would probably be quite small-c conservative if people didn’t keep pushing him into extreme situations (whistles innocently). Women are holding on to the opportunities they had in the war and looking for new ones: Maisie, a black working class Welshwoman, is doggedly claiming a place in a white privileged men’s world, while Phoebe, a Bright Young Person, is solidly upper class but probably the most radical character in the book as she skips gaily over boundaries of class and gender that Will smacks into face first. And the extreme politics of the time leave real scars: Kim, an aristocrat, had a catastrophic flirtation with Bolshevism followed by a ghastly disillusionment post Revolution, all of which is character and plot crucial.


A delve into politics—which we could also call ‘what’s going on and what the characters think about it’—provides huge opportunity for building character and world alike. It doesn’t mean MCs delivering lectures or undigested infodumps. It just means thinking about how your characters exist in the context of their place and time, and showing that.

Consider the water your fish swim in. Then you can decide how clear or turbulent you want it to be.

No, *You’re* Wrong: writing arguments

I wrote a while ago about conflict in romance. My main point was that ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean ‘argument’. The MCs can be in deep conflict with a situation or third party, or even profound disagreement with each other, without ever raising their voices or even having an angry feeling. This set-up can produce some of the most heart-wrenching romances precisely because the conflict isn’t about argument or clashing.

Which is great. But today, we’re forgetting about lovers who are star-crossed, and concentrating on ones who are just plain cross. Let’s talk about blazing rows!

I love a good blazing row in a romance. People in a temper blurt out truths or, even worse, real subjective feelings and resentments that Calm Them would never have voiced. They say things that are grossly unfair and just accurate enough to get under the skin and stick there; things that hurt, and have to be apologised for and discussed. This can be a fantastic way to raise the stakes of a story, put a whacking obstacle in our lovers’ path, and dig right into the heart of the problems.

That’s argument done right. Done wrong, it’s one of the quickest ways to get readers to hurl the book across the room. You can torpedo your entire book with a badly done argument, for reasons we’ll cover.

Before we start, it’s as well to note that a well-written blazing row is liable to be raw, stressful, and even potentially painful for many readers. Some people may consider that a MC who raises their voice in anger is abusive. There is certainly no compulsory requirement for a romance to contain an argument, and if your story doesn’t need one, don’t have one. A lot of people will actively seek that out.

With that said, and assuming you’re going for Full Metal Racket, let’s start with the obvious ways to do this badly.

Insert Row Here: the third act break-up

We’ve all seen this one. The synopsis or “beat list” or whatever demands that there should be a row, so the author writes a row. All too often, this is done to provoke the dreaded Third Act Break-Up. Eyeroll emoji.

Two problems with that. First, a good blazing row needs to come from somewhere. Hurt; fear; a sense that the other person is treating you badly; a deep-seated resentment. These are very real emotions, but they are not positive ones, and if your couple feel like that about one another even temporarily, you’ll need to put in the work to show us how they fix it. Do it in the third act of a romance, and you’ve got a mountain to climb for a plausible HEA. You will have to persuade the reader that these difficult issues—very often coming down to lack of trust—can be resolved, and you’ve only got a couple of chapters to do it.

(Here I observe that Adriana Herrera’s American Love Story has two characters who have a lot of very big, serious arguments which are deeply rooted in their characters and situations, and the book ends with them together in couples therapy. It’s absolutely spot on: they clearly have a shedload more work to do on their relationship, and we’re left believing they’re both profoundly committed to making it happen. It’s a lot more convincing than a glib declaration of love would have been.)

This brings us to the alternative problem, when the author doesn’t dig into deep-rooted issues, but instead goes for that old favourite, the completely manufactured nonsense row. Extra points if it could have been resolved in two lines with basic communication.

“I saw you kissing a man on the street! I will never speak to you again and have blocked you on all channels to prevent you explaining yourself!”

[three chapters later]

“Oh, it was your brother, my bad.”

Toxic Avenger

The thing about blazing rows is, they are not the pinnacle of good human behaviour. When we argue, we are all liable to display anger, resentment, defensiveness, lashing out, irrationality, spite. I am bang alongside realistic characters who behave badly on occasion and say things they regret—up to a point. The tricky part is judging that point.

For me, a blazing row has an in vino veritas quality: people lose their inhibitions temporarily and speak their truth (which is not the same as the truth, or indeed their only truth). It’s a moment for the character to be their authentically worst self. But think carefully how bad that worst self should be. There are countless m/f romances where the hero is provoked by rage into misogynist slurs, for example, and as far as I’m concerned, that hero can get in the bin immediately because he’s shown his true colours.

It’s not necessary. You can work up a fantastic row based on someone’s actions, and what those actions reveal/imply about their character. Specificity is what you want, not some generic insult, and especially not a personal one, still less a slur. I love swearing as much as the next foul-mouthed Brit, but if ever there’s a time to watch your swearing, it’s in a blazing row.

Let’s say the heroine’s father owns a dinosaur-meat company that’s planning a takeover of the hero’s cupcake factory. She doesn’t tell the hero because she knows he’ll want nothing to do with her. When he finds out, well into their love affair, he incorrectly concludes that she was manipulating him to fish for information about cupcake production methods. (What, I could totally write this.)

If the enraged hero calls the heroine a bitch, the reader’s misogyny klaxon may well go off. If he uses sexual insults (slut, etc), that’s a level of intended insult and misogynist attitude that many readers will find repugnant. And on a technical level it will completely muddy the waters, because I’m now siding with the heroine even if she behaved appallingly, plus I hope his cupcake factory gets bulldozed.

Whereas suppose he calls her a conniving shit? Well, the reader will have to admit he’s got a point. If his angry language is accurate and specific, the reader can sympathise with his sense of betrayal as well as the heroine’s hurt at his misjudgement. The focus of the argument stays where it should be, on what someone actually did wrong. It remains an argument, not a tirade of abuse. And if you want to keep the reader on side with the eventual HEA, that makes a difference.

To put it another way: if you call me a bitch, that merely tells me something about you. If you call me a conniving shit, there’s a chance you’ve nailed something about me.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

So what does a good blazing row look like?

It’s based at the root in character. A useful tip is to consider a character’s deep fears or hurts, and attack them there, because that’s what triggers the defensive reaction and the uncontrolled emotion. If an MC is used to being overlooked or ignored by their family, it will hurt disproportionately from their lover.

Specific and accurate language is by far the most effective. I’m not a fan of manufactured conflict and especially not the type where one person doesn’t say what they’re angry about (at least on the surface).  

That said, remember the surface reason for the row may well not be what (or all) the row is actually about. In my Will Darling Adventures, there are multiple rows based on Kim Secretan telling lies to his lover Will. Actually (and this is what I mean about rows being based in character), the problem is that Will is in unacknowledged love with Kim but feels on the back foot with Kim’s poise and superior class status, none of which he’d admit at gunpoint. “Why are you lying to me?” is a proxy for “Why can’t I be an equal and a partner?” which is not a conversation Will is ready to have. With that as the hidden emotional motor, the surface arguments about Kim being a conniving shit speed along nicely.

See both sides. It’s entirely possible that both participants in the row have a point, or a sincerely held belief (character again). Even if one has flagrantly wronged the other, they surely have a justification of why they needed to do it. The author needs to hold both those conflicting realities in mind in order to make the reader believe in the argument. AKA: the character needs to believe what they’re saying, even if only at the second they say it.

And, here’s the big one for me: Don’t lose sight of the other emotions. If you’re well into the relationship, a blazing row isn’t just angry. It’s hurtful (I love this person, why did she say that?) and scary (Christ, are we breaking up?) and there might be a frightening sense of things running out of control. Convey those and the reader will very much feel the argument.

Example time! I am going to include a long quote from one of my books, and I expect many of my readers will already have guessed which scene this is going to be. It’s from Flight of Magpies, the third of a same-couple trilogy, and it’s in chapter 5 of 13 because it needed a lot of dealing with.  There are various stressors on the lovers which I won’t bother to detail, but, looking at the points above:

  • Character. Stephen is torn between his love life and his duties, and terrified of failing at either. Crane is very much in love with him and finding it increasingly hurtful that he might come second in Stephen’s mind. Stephen feels his life is running out of his control; Crane verges on controlling. Stephen has very definitely let Crane down. All of this comes together as we kick off.
  • Specific language. Two whole pages before we degenerate into vulgar abuse! Go me. Note that many of the flying accusations aren’t entirely accurate or fair, but all have a grain of truth to make them hurt.  
  • Surface reasons: The passage is stuffed with ‘em, several of them pointed up as such. But this is actually about the fact that Stephen’s life is out of control and he’s terrified. He’s failing and flailing. Crane spells that out to him, and Stephen’s defensive response is to lash out, and that’s what’s really happening here.
  • Both sides: Stephen really is letting people down. Crane really is excessively demanding of someone who’s at breaking point. They both need the other to do better.
  • Other emotions: This is a big old row, one to which we’ve been building for a couple of chapters and indeed three books, but it’s rooted in love and fear for one another, even if those emotions aren’t coming out in a very therapist-approved manner.

Have a look and see what you’d do better:


“God damn you, Stephen.” Crane pushed himself to his feet so hard the chair toppled backwards. “When are you going to stop lying to me?”

“That was months ago,” Stephen protested. “I thought I’d get her. I put the word out among the justiciary—”

“Which has done precisely how much good?”

“Well, what should I have done?” Stephen demanded, jumping up in turn. “You know blasted well I can’t let the Council know you’re a source. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust practitioners, and nor should you.”

“Not on the evidence of this conversation, certainly.”

Stephen’s cheeks flamed. “That’s not fair. I was trying to protect you.”

“By lying to me. Again.”

“What good would it have done to tell you?” Stephen’s voice was rising. “Make you sick with worry, for what? I was going to go after her—”

“But you didn’t,” Crane said icily. “Because you were busy. With your job.”

Stephen apparently couldn’t find anything to say to that. Crane felt the anger pulsing savagely through him and made no effort at all to hold it back. He had been so fucking patient, he had put up with so much, let the twisting little bastard rule him in every way imaginable, but this was one more kick in the teeth than any man could stand. “I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”

“Well, what would you have done if I’d said anything?” Stephen demanded. “What do you imagine you can do? Do you really think your money, or your personal killer, would be any use against a practitioner who wanted you dead?”

“We’ll never know. Because I haven’t had the chance. Is this what being short is like?”

“What?”

“Having your loved ones treat you like a fucking child.”

“Don’t give me that,” Stephen said savagely. “I am trying my best to do everything I have to do—”

“And it’s not good enough. You’re not doing all these things, and nor is anyone else.”

“That’s not—”

“You haven’t got the ring back,” Crane said over him. “You’ve done nothing to help Miss Saint. There’s this murderer you’re supposed to be catching, Lady Bruton to deal with, let alone fitting me into your demanding schedule—”

“Stop it!”

“No, you stop it. Stop lying to me, and stop clutching on to every job that comes your way as if you’re the only man in the bloody world who can do anything.”

“Well, I’m quite sure you can find someone else to suck you off,” Stephen snarled. His face was patched red and white with angry misery. “You seemed to be doing a damned good job of that earlier.”

“What? Oh, go to the devil. I turned him down.”

“Your restraint is amazing. Congratulations. What a pity Mr. Merrick doesn’t have the same self-control.”

That transparent effort to change the subject made Crane angrier than anything yet, far too angry to prevent himself rising to the bait. “Don’t even start. We talked about that.”

“No, you talked about it. You told me that it was perfectly reasonable for your manservant to prey on my student, and I listened to you—”

Prey?” Crane repeated furiously.

“Oh, whatever you choose to call it. The fact is, she’s miserable, inexperienced and lonely. It’s amazingly easy to be seduced when you feel that way.”

“What did that mean?” Crane demanded, startled by how much it hurt. “Are you talking about us? What the fuck did that mean?”

Stephen looked slightly shocked by his own words. He hesitated for a second, then shook his head violently, taking refuge in anger. “I don’t have time for this.”

“You don’t have time for us?”

“I don’t have time to argue about what Mr. Merrick could possibly do that you wouldn’t defend, or who I’m supposed to let down out of the wide range of people who want something from me. I’m going.” He marched to the door, pushing past Crane. “Going to do some of those things that I haven’t done yet because I don’t work hard enough.”

“Oh, for— That is the precise opposite of what I was trying to point out to you.”

“Thank you for the insight.” Stephen stalked out of the room, into the hallway.

Crane thumped a furious fist against the wall. He had rarely wanted to hit anyone so much, the bloody stupid obstinate lying little shit, and the unhappiness boiling off Stephen’s set shoulders made everything ten times worse.

Stephen was shoving his feet into his boots. Crane stalked into the hall after him. “Stop this, for Christ’s sake. Have some sense.”

“Stop telling me what to do, blast you!” Stephen wrenched the front door open.

“Fine!” Crane shouted, exasperated beyond bearing. “Fine. Fuck off, then, fuck you, and fuck your ancestors.”

“And yours!” Stephen shouted back, and slammed the door behind him.


I have only one more thing to add, which is: If you make the mess, clean it up. A big argument needs a resolution. Not just an apology, or even a grovel, but the MCs realising where they went wrong, looking at what the problem was, and unpicking it so that we can believe it won’t fester. Even, that next time it comes up, they’ll behave differently because they’ve learned something.

It is very tempting to resolve a row by adding a dramatic event, where the MCs have to set aside their anger in order to cooperate on something bigger. I do this a lot because, frankly, it’s fun.

Hart stared into Robin’s face. “Why are you staying? Why haven’t you gone?”

“That was an argument. This is a crisis. When we’ve dealt with the crisis, we’ll go back to the argument.”

(The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, on sale through March!)

But if you use this, don’t handwave the argument away with “When I saw you in the hospital, I realised none of that mattered.” If it mattered enough to have a blazing row about, it needs resolving. Otherwise both characters and readers will remain unsatisfied, and in a romance novel, that just won’t do.

Thanks to Kathleen Jennings for the spur to write this!

Twelve Random Books (a trip report)

There was a Twitter challenge going round at the end of 2021: get random scrollers-by to recommend books, pick 12, read them in 2022. The idea was to read something you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, whether because it hadn’t crossed your path or because it didn’t sound like your thing, or even just because your TBR is 900 books and you hadn’t got round to it.

Well, I have never knowingly turned down an opportunity to add to Mount TBR. I put in some basic specifications of stuff I absolutely would not read, e.g. vampires, YA/NA, or anything blurbed as ‘heartbreaking’, and let the recs flood in. I sifted them to remove the vast numbers of recs for vampires, YA/NA, and books blurbed as ‘heartbreaking’ (as night follows day, honestly). From the remainder, I picked out the ones that struck me as interesting. And here we are.

Out of the 12 books, I had already meant to read four. Possibly this was cheating, but when you have a TBR like mine it’s “by any means necessary”. The others were unfamiliar to me. I picked six SFF (I was clearly in a mood), one romance, two litfic, three non fiction. I wasn’t trying to push my comfort zone here: I just wanted to see what happened.

The results

Three of the books were overwhelmingly not for me. I finished two in a grudging way and DNF’d the third because I did not even slightly click. Not bad books, but not books that I was ever going to like. Bearing in mind I hand-picked these from recs and looking at the blurbs, that’s quite a high nope rate. Good work by Marketing, or do I lie to myself about what I want to read? (I suspect both.)

I DNFed two more books–interestingly, both of them books that I had been meaning to read. Regrettably, they just weren’t very well executed to my mind. Rambling plotting, too many characters, inconsistent characterisation, writing that really needed a firm editorial hand.

Three more were that deeply frustrating thing: books that I almost loved but not quite. One had a random misogynistic stereotype that borked the end of the book, one had a nonsensical plot point that borked the end of the book, and one had a total plot collapse that, wait for it, borked the end of the book. I realise everyone works hardest on the first chapters because they sell the book, but it’s worth remembering that the last chapters sell the next book.

So of the eight books I didn’t feel impressed by, five really needed better editing, and in every case it was developmental editing that was most lacking. All these were from trad publishers, let it be noted.

Developmental editing is hard, and it’s particularly hard to freelance out because it’s such a crapshoot in what needs doing and how long it can take. What looks like a small problem of inconsistent characterisation can reveal itself to be dry rot, weakening the entire structure. The thing the author bodged? They might have bodged it because fixing it means replotting and rewriting the entire second half, whoops. The development editor needs to have the skill to identify problems, the authority to ask for them to be changed, and the time to work through as many revisions as it takes. An awful lot of publishers no longer want to pay for that. It shows.

***

Okay, let’s get on to the happy bit: The remaining four books were absolute blinders. I had been meaning to read The Devourers but had been putting it off because it looked too scary and might have gone on doing so indefinitely; the other three I had never even heard of. Please take these recommendations:

The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox

A terrific example of narrative history, exploring the deciphering of Linear B with tremendous character, humanity, social context, and the bravura of a detective story.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado de Assis

Only went and introduced me to the author generally regarded as Brazil’s greatest. Where has he been all my life? I went off and read two more novels and a collection of short stories without loss of time. This was worth the entire challenge on its own. Honestly, read it.

The Devourers Indra Das

Dark, queer, bloody, horribly physical story of werewolves and love in the Moghul era. Greed and colonialism and toxic masculinity all over. Wonderfully intense. Granted, not for the fainthearted and not a feelgood read, but my goodness it’s a cracker.

How to Hide an Empire Daniel Immerwarh

A fantastic deep dive into the greater United States, and the mainland’s history of invasion, colonialism, and empire building, plus denial of being an empire. A huge amount of history I didn’t know and should have, plus really interesting looks at other means of imperialism (language, standardisation). One of those revelatory books that makes you see the world that bit more clearly.

***

So. I had 12 books recommended to me. I DNF’d three, didn’t click with two, was not wholly on board with three, and adored four. (I came very close to doing a pie chart at this point, and hope you admire my restraint.) I’d say six of the twelve counted as ‘books I’m glad I read’, even if I didn’t love two of them.

Is 50% a good strike rate, given it was my Twitter followers (in many cases people I often talk about books with) offering heartfelt recommendations?

I think so. Because, thinking about the six books I didn’t like, I have no trouble at all identifying what made someone else love and recommend them. The representation, or the exuberance, or the philosophy, or the kindness, or any of a dozen things. Nobody recommended me a bad book: in four of the six cases, better editing could well have turned them into books I’d have loved. And the thing about ‘better’ in that sentence is, I was an editor for two decades. Of course I think my editorial standards are the boss. But other people read through different lenses with different priorities. They found and loved things in those books that weren’t so important to me, just as they might well find problems that I disregard in my favourite books.

The four winners made the whole exercise worthwhile on their own. But the experience of reading books that other people loved even when I didn’t? Being reminded how very differently we all see things, how no two readers ever read the same book, how easy it is to assume other people are wrong in what they like rather than simply different to me? In these divided days, that’s priceless.


If you’re looking for a new book, The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is on sale throughout March 22. Just saying.

Echo (echo echo echo)

This morning I actually typed the following sentence, although I have all my faculties and was not drunk at the time.

He gave a disgruntled grunt.

Be right back, just going to exorcise my word processor.

This got me thinking about echoes, if not the worst problem faced by writers then perhaps one of the most annoyingly niggly ones.

The problem is, the rules about conservation of energy really do apply to writer brains. Grunt good? More grunt better! Spend five minutes coming up with ‘malevolent’ as the perfect word for the hero’s boss? It will now be the most accessible word for your brain, which will duly give the hero a malevolent cat, a malevolent hangover, and a love interest who shoots him malevolent looks. Probably within six paragraphs of each other. Poor guy.

Of course ‘malevolent’ leaps out at you on read-through. Less obtrusive words tuck themselves away in the text, although they build up over time.

He had an odd effect on other people. He couldn’t miss it. He’d speak to people and they’d smile, then look puzzled, then drift away. People who didn’t drift away tended to be worrying. Perhaps he just wasn’t a people person, but then, the world was peopled with those.

I have spent some time looking for a genius bit of software that will pick this stuff up for me while ignoring words like ‘and’, ‘said’, and ‘while’ except when I want it to pick up ‘while’, and that doesn’t take half an hour to churn through the MS and then crash Word. Yes, I feel strongly about this. No, I am not aware of such software existing, but if anyone wants to recommend some in the comments I will love you forever.

However, the really hard one, which I don’t even think is machine-spottable, is the structural repetition. You phrase a sentence in a particular way, your brain latches on to the cadence, and whoops, I did it again.

Peering at his hand, he decided he could win this round. Selecting the ace, he decided to take a chance. Spinning the card across the green baize, he said, “Twist.” Frowning, his opponent dealt another card.

I’d love to say I was exaggerating but I’ve just come across an example of exactly this in a trad pub book. Which just goes to show that you can’t rely on an editor to pick this stuff up for you: the structural repetition is the wood, and thus invisible to an editor who’s reading for the trees (have you spelled all the words right, is this how to play pontoon anyway?)

Even harder to see is the structural habit. Speech adverbs is a common one. (“Really, a dinosaur?” she said doubtfully. “Yes,” he replied assertively. “I thought they were extinct,” she commented wryly.) Or try this for size:

Page 4: He was tall, broad, yet oddly youthful in his looks.

Page 76: The cake was delicious, chocolatey, yet with an odd hint of olive oil.

Page 105: She spoke clearly, loudly, yet with an odd reserve.

Ironically, this sort of thing is glaring to a reader tearing through the pages at speed, yet (GOD DAMMIT SEE WHAT I DID THERE) much less obtrusive to the much slower-moving editor, still less to the snail-like author.

Do I have a solution? Lol no. Well, the usuals:

  • Be aware of your habits. ‘Rather’ and ‘quite’ are two of my chronic ones (can you tell I’m British?), but I am also horribly prone to ‘grimace’ and also “He didn’t reply for a moment, and then…” Keep a list if you have to. This is painful to the self-esteem but hey, life is struggle.
  • Stick the MS into another font—try Comic Sans, seriously—and print it out, or format it as a book if you’re au fait with self publishing and read it on your ereader/tablet/phone. The change to your normal working layout helps enormously.
  • Text to speech it. Or read it out loud yourself if you can bear that.  
  • Choose violence and publish the book. You’ll see all of your echoes along with all your other mistakes, every single one of them, right there.

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