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Yes and No: Consent in sex scenes

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

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

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

The solution? The Condom Crinkle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slippery Creatures and character through consent

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

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

“Er, yes? Oh. You mean all the way?”

“Absolutely all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Spit it out. As it were.”

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

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

“I didn’t want to be rude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Band Sinister and explicit verbal ongoing consent

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

Cover of Band Sinister

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

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

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

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

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

“If I—?”

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

“What do I say?”

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

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

“You can,” Philip said. “Come here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What should I say?”

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

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

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

“Is that good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot is character in action. So is consent.

An Unnatural Vice and Being a Mess

Unnatural Vice cover

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

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

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

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

“Bloody liar,” Nathaniel told him hoarsely.

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

Nathaniel grabbed his hair. “Just admit it.”

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

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

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

“Of course they don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel blinked. “What—“

“Check your pockets,” Justin suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want it.”

“How much?”

“Badly. Harder, you prick.”

Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”

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

“Nicely.”

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

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

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

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

“Shan’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

(*the ones with sex scenes, at least)

Twentieth Novel Bonanza

I’m in the throes of prepping for the release of Slippery Creatures, book 1 of my new 1920s pulp adventure/romance series, and I realised something startling.

Cover of Slippery Creatures. Two men, one in evening dress with a book, one in casual clothes with a knife. 1920s style

This will be my twentieth novel. Twentieth. (26th book if you count novellas/novelettes, but then you have to think about short stories and look I’m trying to homeschool my son and he’s doing algebra, take the numbers away.)

The Magpie Lord published on 3rd September 2013, so not quite seven years ago, since when I’ve become a full time writer, and published about 3.5 books a year. I didn’t see this coming when Samhain accepted my ‘didn’t entirely mean to write this whatever-it-is paranormal historical Gothic Victorian m/m romance’.

(BTW if that sounds good, The Magpie Lord is free in e on all platforms as a pandemic bonus giveaway. Grab it at your preferred store or in epub/mobi for Kindle at Gumroad.)

I quit my publishing job in summer 2014 to try writing full time. This is generally not recommended, but in fairness I hated the job. At my leaving do, the uberboss asked me what I was going to do, and when I said be a full time writer, she laughed and said “Good luck with that.” Let us take a moment to note that the senior exec of a major publisher laughed at the idea of someone making a living off writing. This is a valuable lesson for an authorial career.

Notwithstanding, it seems to have worked out because it’s somehow 2020 (not so much ‘the year of our Lord’ as ‘the year of oh my God’) and my 20th novel. Gosh. Even more satisfyingly, my twentieth novel is…a Twenties novel. I swear I didn’t plan that.

(Slippery Creatures btw is the story of Will Darling, a Great War veteran turned bookseller, and Kim Secretan, a disgraced aristocrat, dubious character, and one-man game of Fuck Marry Kill. There are conspiracies, cocktails, flappers, plots, and all the fun of the Roaring Twenties. Out 13th May. Check it out.)

So! I’m going to do a Twentieth Novel Bonanza giveaway. In an ideal world that would be any of my books but I want it to be available on all platforms and all countries, so that means it’s my self-published books only. Which is 14 plus the aforesaid novellas/novelettes, so still not too shabby.

Rules

Twenty winners will be picked at random, and each winner can pick two books from my self pubs, in epub or mob format. (Important: Your email will be used only for this giveaway and I will not contact you unless you win. I will not sign you up to my newsletter or any such annoyance. However, if you actively want to sign up to my newsletter, feel free.)

legal bumph: The competition offers 20 winners each two free ebooks from my self-published books. No alternative prizes. Over 18s only. No purchase necessary. Just fill in your email to enter. One entry per person, duplicates will be discarded.

EDIT: competition is closed

If you want to check out the books available, here you go:

Charm of Magpies world

Lilywhite Boys

Green Men world

England world

Standalone

Will Darling Adventures

NB, if you are new to my work, a) hello and b) you may wish to check out the content warnings here for both general and specific warnings.

Happy entering and good luck!


IMPORTANT MESSAGE

All my blog posts, seven years worth, disappeared yesterday due to ?weasels? idk. I didn’t have a back-up because, although I had paid GoDaddy for a back-up package, they had not, in fact, backed anything up. Another useful lesson there. Alexis Hall, who is a tech genius as well as a quite amazing author, stepped in to save me and retrieve my work, preventing me from having a quite spectacular meltdown. Thank you. <3

If you too would like Alexis to make you feel better, I strongly suggest hitting preorder on Boyfriend Material, his forthcoming romcom, which is just gorgeous. It made me cry laughing, proper-cry, swoon, and stay up til 2am reading just one more chapter because it was too feelgood and engaging to stop. It might not fix your borked website, but it’s otherwise perfect.

Italics, Other Languages, and You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might be happy. I’m not.”

Or to mark out words as eg a title:

I watched Stand By Me last night

He sailed on the HMS Surprise.

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

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

And, yes, to mark foreign words in English.

The Latin name for magpie is Pica pica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

My Best Books of 2019

I have read a lot of books this year. In fact I have read 275 books that I reviewed on Goodreads, plus however many more that I DNFd without reviewing or which were second reads. That’s a lot of books.

You could just trawl through my reading (here and feel free to follow or friend), so I’m not going to list everything or this will be the world’s longest post. I’m going to do this by eccentric classifications of my own choosing, not just genre, because I can.  

Ready? Sharpen your credit card, here we go.

Most Read Authors

I read nine of Therese Beharrie’s romance novels this year. Nine. She does lovely South-Africa-set romances—low heat, some angst, but overall with a deeply comforting feel. Go on, get A Wedding One Christmas, you know you want to.

In second place, I read six by Jackie Lau—modern diverse Canada-set romcoms, mostly, with lots of family. Try Grumpy Fake Boyfriend, which is one of the great titles of our times.

And I read five of the magnificent Beverly Jenkins who needs no introduction from me. Rebel, the start of her new series, was a marvel.

I also glommed the first five of Mick Herron’s terrific Slough House series, with a group of failed spies doing boring admin led by the appalling evil-Falstaff Jackson Lamb. Not comfort reads *at all* and I’m still building up the moral fortitude to read the latest one, but terrific.

Feel-good

Talia Hibbert’s terrific Get a Life Chloe Brown has met with much-deserved praise for its diverse rep, feelgood plot, and blend of serious issues with a proper romcom. I can’t wait for the next book.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin is a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice, with a really lovely fundamentalist religious hero. That is not something you get a lot. Bright, breezy, immense fun.

AJ Demas is one of my favourite historical romancers for her delightful alt-ancient Mediterranean queer stories. Sword Dance has a house party, a sinister plot, a spy, a soldier, a lovely romance and a mickey-take of Greek philosophers. A pleasure.

For something completely different, Wilding by Isabella Tree is non-fiction (and you don’t get much of that under feelgood) about turning land back to the wild and seeing how nature recovers left to itself. It’s a fascinating, hopeful read.

Plaintive (Is that what I mean? Books with sadness as well as joy)

Not for Use in Navigation by Iona Datt Sharma is a really excellent SFFR collection of stories—haunting, beautifully written, deeply imagined. Don’t miss this one, it’s very, very much worth your time.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow is a triumphant historical fantasy using Mayan myth. Compelling story, fantastic characters. One of my favourite SFF of the year with a bittersweet, wonderful ending.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson is a spectacular debut with densely beautiful writing, a gnarly mystery in a fantasy world, and a wonderful m/nb romance. A sad feel, with the characters weighted by loss and pain, but the light shines through and takes us to a triumphant happy ending.

Another romance that gets us to the HEA via heavy lifting is You Me U.S. by Brigitte Bautista, a really excellent, realistic f/f set in seedy Manila. The heroines drink too much, have sex with other people, and one of them is trying to get a green card marriage. It’s brutally real, which makes the way they finally forge themselves an ending all the more joyous. I loved it.

Weird-ass

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill is…okay, it’s a set of lit-crit biographies of various famous Australian writers. Except they’re fictional ones, and actually this is a magnificent meta sarcastic takedown of literary twerpery, with some bonkers running jokes, lots of extremely clever interlacing, and a hidden plot which…all I can say is, don’t skip the index. Which is not a sentence I’d often write. Extremely clever and very very funny.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall is an absolutely glorious Holmes/Watson riff where Holmes is a drug-addled pansexual sorceress in a Lovecraftian-fantasy world, Watson is a gay trans man refugee from a puritan nation, and the whole thing is just a mad, delightful romp. Intensely enjoyable.

Every book by Saad Hossain is a gem, if you like your gems violent, unpredictable, disturbing, and plotted by a maniac. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday puts djinn, nanotech, and a detective story through a blender to tremendous effect.

And for a wild card, the forgotten classic Fowlers End by Gerald Kersch set in 1930s London. I described this as Dickens on meth in my review and I stick to that; I also highlighted so many hilarious bits that my ereader crashed. Absurd, scabrous, sweary, awful, laugh-out-loud.

Rereads

I reread the entire Johannes Cabal series by Jonathan L Howard for the nth time. This is a fabulous 5-book urban fantasy about a sarcastic necromancer with no social skills. It riffs gleefully off Lovecraft, is immensely readable, and has a surprising amount of heart under the violence. Deeply enjoyable.

I also reread the wonderful Astreiant books by Melissa Scott. A pure pleasure, tracing an m/m couple (policeman and blade for hire) in the matriarchal fantasy city of Astreiant. Understated romance, great mysteries.

And I glommed the entire oeuvre of T Kingfisher all over again, for the comfort of their marvellous imagination, kindness, sharp-edged morality and terrific wit.

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I currently have two books on sale. Get Band Sinister (feelgood Regency fluff) or The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp adventure) for 99c/p everywhere till 20 December!

Cover of Gilded Cage

Writer’s Block And Why You Shouldn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have the spoons

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

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

The well is dry

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

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

Lack of confidence

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of structure / skills

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

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

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

Lack of commitment / patience

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

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

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

Are you reading?

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

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

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

Need for feedback

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

It’s the wrong book

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

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

***

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

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

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

Cover of Gilded Cage

Gilded Cage cover reveal

You want Victorian jewel thieves? I got Victorian jewel thieves!

I am extremely pleased to say I have two new books coming in the Lilywhite Boys series that started with Any Old Diamonds. This is late Victorian (1890s) and covers the romantic and criminal shenanigans of thieves Jerry Crozier and Templeton Lane, and their fence Stan Kamarzyn.

The first release is a novelette with Stan’s story. It’s set two years before Any Old Diamonds.

The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter

Music-hall singer Miss Christiana is in serious debt, and serious trouble. She owes more than she can pay to a notorious criminal, and now he plans to make an example of her. There’s no way out.

But Christiana has an admirer. Stan Kamarzyn has watched her sing for a year and he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. Stan’s nobody special–just a dodgy bloke from Bethnal Green–but he’s got useful friends. Friends who can get a girl out of trouble, for a price. Christiana’s not sure what it will cost her…

The two slowly reach an understanding. But Christiana is no criminal, and she can’t risk getting mixed up with the law. What will happen when Stan’s life as the fence for the notorious Lilywhite Boys brings trouble to his doorstep?

A trans f/m asexual romance novelette (17,000 words) publishing 25th September.

Goodreads
Buy links here


The second book is Gilded Cage, a full novel, and it’s the story of Templeton Lane and lady detective Susan Lazarus (who regular readers will recognise as Sukey, the snotty 12-year-old from An Unnatural Vice). And here is the absolutely glorious cover–art by Vic Grey, design by Lexiconic Design.

Gilded Cage

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Publishing 23rd October.

Goodreads
All buy links except, at the time of writing, Amazon. God give me strength.


I am very excited to actually get a series finished (I have been having issues with writing series for a couple of years, and I can assure you nobody finds that more exasperating than I do). I’m also excited about these stories. I haven’t written an asexual romance before, and Gilded Cage is my first m/f historical. Plus, I loved writing my shameless, violent, thieving, and unrepentant Lilywhite Boys and I hope you enjoy them too.

BTW Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys 1, m/m) is going on sale at 99c/99p later this month, so if you want to glom the whole lot, watch out to grab a bargain.

I’m going to finish with this tweet because it’s a pun so spectacularly bad the court should take it into consideration for sentencing. I thank you.

Tweet with the following text: 

Planning promo for my new Lilywhite Boys novel & novelette.

-Contains NO British politics!
- Not about Brexit at all!
-Features a gang of Victorian professional jewel thieves...or you might say, pro rogues...
- oh no

The Doctor is In

One of the trickiest bits of writing a book is the part when you realise you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.

The problem is, when the author is in the weeds, it can be extremely difficult to see what shape the story ought/wants to be, and this can make or break a book. This is a bit hard to talk about as it always ends up sounding mystical, but here goes.

A lot of problems come down to not really understanding what shape the story should be, or trying to push it the wrong way. A plotline goes on too long, an emphasis is off, the peaks and troughs don’t come at the right times, the narratives don’t balance, something needed a different amount of weight. You’ve read a lot of books like that, many of them published by Big Six houses because development editing costs money and takes time. It really does not go without saying that every author can find their book’s shape, or that every editor can help them. A lot of the time they can’t and don’t, and what you get is an unsatisfactory read.

This is incredibly hard to give useful advice about, because so much of it is a matter of the individual story. Plus, of course, it’s easy to see something’s wrong but a lot harder to work out how to put it right. It’s a bit like the apocryphal story of Michelangelo’s explanation of his work: “I get a block of stone and chip away everything that isn’t David.” Yeah, thanks for that.

Digging out the shape a story wants to be is a serious editorial gift. NB: this doesn’t mean the editor imposing their vision on the author’s MS. It’s the editor seeing what the author is striving for, when very frequently the author doesn’t have a clue.

Because yes, authors are frequently oblivious to what their books are about. When you’ve been face down in a pile of words for months, it’s hard to step back and take a view of the whole thing. Example: I wrote my historical fantasy romance Flight of Magpies about a mystical plot in which our heroes are entrapped and threatened by various murderous baddies, characters walk on air, and someone gets cut in half on page. My husband’s response to it was, “I can’t believe you wrote a book about my job.” He was a) a marketing manager, and b) absolutely right (thematically). I had not meant to do that.

So. I’ve been writing Gilded Cage, a companion book to Any Old Diamonds, in which jewel thief Templeton Lane and private detective Susan Lazarus have a lot of unfinished business plus a murder to solve. I whizzed to about 35K on this feeling really good about it. I got to about 50K, slowing down, with an increasing feeling of plodding through mud. Then I wrote another chapter and realised a number of things:

  1. I’d gone wrong.  
  2. I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong.
  3. I had two important plotlines going on (both flagged from the start) which were diverging instead of converging, and there was no way to reconcile them to create a single cohesive climax. It was the wrong shape, and getting wronger with every word.

Point 3 was as far as I got. I am a pretty good development editor, and not a bad hand at seeing the shape of my own books, but…I was stuck. Screwed. No idea where to go from here, or even how to retrace my steps.

So I did two things. I accepted a freelance writing job that would last for two months to get away from the bloody MS, and I hired a book doctor.

This is sort of like a development editor but in some ways a harder job. With a development edit, you’re working off a finished MS. It’s got a shape even if it’s wrong, and the editor knows where the author wanted to end up, which makes it easier to see alternative ways of getting there.

Whereas a book doctor may well be faced with an unfinished “oh my God this is a mess, I went wrong somewhere between 20,000 and 55,000 words ago, i don’t know the ending and this may never work at all” project. One for which there could be multiple options, multiple places to strip it back to, a dozen different ways to finish it, or maybe none and the only useful advice is “kill it with fire”. The book doctor’s job is to pinpoint the important parts (themes, character arcs, plot points) that suggest what shape the MS should be, and find ways to reshape existing text towards that. A brilliant book doctor will guide the author to a new vision of the book that both resonates with the plan they didn’t know they had and helps them forget the grimpen mire they’ve been stuck in for months.

This is not the same thing as telling the author what to do, or providing a completed outline to follow. Don’t expect that from a book doctor, and if you get one, be very prepared for it not to work. It’s not their book. Their job is to help you see your book with fresh eyes, and with a conscious awareness of the things you were trying to do–which will lead towards the things you should do now.

So I called upon an excellent editor for book doctoring. She sent me a massive critical analysis that pulled out the key themes, the individual character arcs, the romance arc, the antagonist roles, the way plot and character intersected, the undeveloped McGuffin, and the big honking massive great elephant in the room that I had completely not thought about across 55,000 words because it’s not like I’ve done this before or anything. She asked a bunch of relevant questions: what does this character want, what does this character need? And by the time I had finished reading her email, I could see what shape the bloody book should be. At last.

(Since you ask: I cut a huge plotline down to a character theme, ditched three chapters, rebalanced the central romance, and understood where I’d let a character fool me into thinking she was absolutely fine when she wasn’t. And it was a doddle to do, because once I understood what I’d been trying to do–once I could feel the shape of the book–it all clicked into place.)

A good book doctor won’t give you the answers: they will ask the questions that help you find the answers. Because once you understand what you were doing all along, it’s a lot easier to work out where you go from here.

_________________

I worked with May Peterson, who is fantastic.

There are many good book doctors available, and also many, many people who offer this service based on, apparently, having read some books. Seek personal recs (anyone who’s had a good experience will be dying to recommend) and look at references.

This is a time-intensive specialist editing service that requires professional experience and nous. Expect to pay accordingly. I realise professional editing is not within everyone’s budget, but that doesn’t make it overpriced: editors need to eat too.

Gilded Cage publishes 23 October.

With A Guest Appearance From…

Romance has a phenomenon that doesn’t occur to anything like the same degree in other genres: the linked books with different MCs. You don’t get murder mystery series with constantly changing sleuths, and it’s pretty rare for epic fantasy trilogies to pick out a new humble farm boy or feisty vizier’s daughter in every book. Whereas we in romance love our changing MCs from the motorcycle club, university friends, group of Regency gentlemen who go to the same club, or small town where everyone knows and boinks everyone else.

There are a lot of good reasons to do this. For the writer, it allows worldbuilding on a larger scale, showing many different aspects. For the publisher, who may also be the writer, it allows for easy marketing—you liked that book? Here’s this one! And for the reader, there’s the pleasure of familiarity along with a new story, and the chance of seeing more of the people we loved before, even if their time in the spotlight is over. We want to see how our old friends are getting on!

That’s the tricky bit.

The temptation in writing mixed MC series is that the fans may well be clamouring to see their faves again, and even if they aren’t, the author is. It is almost irresistible to populate the character list with previous MCs and drop in little references to previous books, or indeed huge ones.

Sara sauntered down Blue Blossom Valley’s main street. To her left was Joanie’s knitwear shop. They’d had a wild time when the terrorists had taken Joanie hostage, but now she was safely married to Sara’s brother. On the right was the library, now being rebuilt after the earthquake that had tested them all last year, but brought the pastor and Miss Ellie together at last. She was thinking happily of their forthcoming wedding when she saw Marco—the town’s bad boy turned millionaire and father of two adorable babies with Flora, who had come to Blue Blossom Valley a young widow and tamed Marco’s free spirit with her gentle nature—pull up on his motorbike.

I barely exaggerate. We’ve all read book 17 of the Blue Blossom Valley series, and no matter how much the publisher assures us “this book can be read as a standalone”, it has that irritating feel of turning on the TV and watching episode 2049 of a soap opera you’ve never seen before.

There are three main ways authors use what I am going to call NPCs (non player characters, i.e. the MCs of another book as minor characters). Let’s go over these.

Past MCs explained

This is probably the commonest and most obtrusive method of bringing in NPCs.

Kelsey waved hello to Jane, whose cupcake business had nearly gone under last year until she met bad boy turned billionaire Mike, and was now glowing with expectant motherhood, and ordered coffee.

If we care about Jane we’ll remember the cupcake thing anyway. If we’ve forgotten who she is, or never read her book in the first place, it’s a pointless infodump.

The key here is relevance. If Jane is just there to nod at the reader, this is padding. The regular reader may think, “Oh, it’s Jane and she’s up the spout, how nice for her!” but that’s all you achieve. Meanwhile, the new reader feels irritated by a complete stranger’s cupcakes intruding on the story.

If Jane is going to play a meaningful part in Kelsey’s book, by all means introduce her, but think about what information you need to include. Does Mike play a role, and if so, can we wait to introduce him till he’s on page? Is the prior economic instability of the cupcake business relevant to Kelsey at this point, or at all?

I am very fond of closely linked mixed MC series, and the MCs of my Society of Gentlemen series are all over one another’s books like a rash. I am also well aware of the difficulty of trying to introduce NPCs with vast amount of backstory, and of the numerous times I’ve got it wrong myself. The conclusion I have now reached is this:

Pretend they’re new.

Forget you wrote 80,000 words of pining, arguing, hot sex, and murder-solving starring these people, and treat returning NPCs as brand new characters—whether secondaries who need explanations, or minor characters who pass like ships in the night. That will show you how important any individual detail is. Would you mention Jane’s past business travails, or let her giggle about her amazing sex life and announce her pregnancy, if she was a new character just there for Kelsey to talk to? Maybe you would, in order to cast light on Kelsey’s character or plot, and that’s fine–if you’re doing it for the sake of Kelsey’s book.

My Sins of the Cities, Society of Gentlemen and Lilywhite Boys series are all set in the same world. Here’s Any Old Diamonds as the MC reflects on the jumped-up Duchess of Ilvar:

The Duke could buy his wife a private railway line for her convenience, and jewels as other husbands bought flowers, but he’d never been able to purchase public approval or liking. Even time hadn’t managed that. There were music-hall brides who had claimed their places in the aristocracy more effectively than Her Grace—not, perhaps, the appalling Lady Euston, but certainly the Countess of Moreton, who had been a trapeze artist and killed a man, yet was universally popular. Then again, Lady Moreton had charm, humility, and a delightful sense of humour. The Duchess had none of those.

My aim here was primarily to put the Duchess’s unpopularity into a social context, and secondarily to slide Lady Moreton into the reader’s awareness as primer for when she turns up in person as an important minor character later on. The fact that I am bringing Greta Starling / Lady Moreton back from An Unsuitable Heir may be satisfying to me and to some readers, but it’s very much not the main intention of the passage. Decide for yourself if it works.

Handling NPCs becomes a lot harder when you have a plot arc linking books, because previous events and characters will have to be explained as part of cluing the new reader in. (When I am Supreme Dictator of the Universe, there will be Words about starting closely linked trilogies at book 3.) I am right now writing book 2 of the Lilywhite Boys duo where the plot requires me to go over events and introduce characters from book 1, and one character is heavily motivated by childhood events that relate to a different book altogether. This could very easily slide into plot summaries of previous books.

So pretend they’re new. Ask yourself what’s relevant to the plot/MCs now, what’s valid texturing detail now, and mainly, what’s the absolute maximum re past books you can leave out. If you focus ruthlessly on the current MCs and plot, you are less likely to get bogged down in callbacks to previous glories–and readers will be less afflicted by the sensation of coming into a soap opera too late.

This is hard to do and one person’s idea of texturing detail will inevitable feel like another’s unnecessary callback. It’s worth remembering that, because you the author know the NPCs, they will almost certainly come across as vivid, real, and important even if you’re not making a conscious effort to present them that way. Less may well be more.

Past characters not explained

It is incredibly tempting (for me anyway) to fill books with Easter eggs—passing mentions of NPCs in a way that won’t stand out to new readers but will spark joy for those who know the books. I absolutely love this in my reading as well as writing, but it can be self-indulgent and irritating if done poorly.

I’m now going to embarrass myself for your sake. Here is a deleted sequence from An Unnatural Vice. As you read it, bear in mind that Justin has been nearly murdered and he and Nathaniel are hiding with Nathaniel’s posh titled friends to avoid being killed.

Justin looked around the drawing room, since he had nothing to add to the reminiscences of Binky and Bledsoe and old Potty. It was a very comfortable room, not in the modern style but bright, with yellow walls rather than the fashionable green, and a profusion of pictures. One in particular caught his eye, and he rose to examine it. It was a large portrait, in oils, of an elderly man bearing some resemblance to his host: a big, deep-chested bulky fellow. It would have been much like every other painting of unknown rich people Justin had ever seen, except that in place of the usual spaniel or hunting hound, he had a fox at his feet, its russet coat also frosted white by age. Man and fox looked out of the portrait with disturbingly similar expressions of calm determination. 

“Sir David Wilkie,” Rodmarton said behind him.

“The gentleman?”

“The painter. The subject is my great-uncle.”

“It’s a superb piece,” Justin said, basing that on the fact it was hanging in here, rather than the artistic judgement he didn’t have. “Is the fox a symbol of his rank, or arms, or was it a pet?”

“My dear chap, one couldn’t have a pet fox. Vermin. Gnaw your vitals out like the Spartan boy.” That was the kind of gibberish Justin’s wealthier clients often came out with. He gave a smiling nod, as though he knew what the man was on about. “No, it was an odd whim of his. No meaning at all.”

“Oh, Roddy, really, of course it means something.” That was a female voice from behind them. Justin turned to see a short, smiling, plump woman. “Good evening. You must be Nathaniel’s friend?”

Her husband beamed. “This is Lady Rodmarton. Justin Lazarus, Tommy.”

Justin took her hand with the best bow he could manage. She looked startlingly ordinary for the wife of a marquess-to-be.

“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Lazarus. Is that a French name?”

“Not to my knowledge. Thank you for your hospitality.” As if it was her rushing around to make all ready.

“Not at all. Nathaniel always brings us excitement, one way or another. I desperately want to hear about it when you’ve both eaten. You were admiring the portrait?”

“Tommy has a theory,” Rodmarton said with a fond smile. “Great-Uncle never married, you see, and Tommy will have it he had himself painted with the fox as some sort of secret message to the particular woman he didn’t marry, if you follow me.”

“That’s a touching story,” Justin said.

If you have read my book A Gentleman’s Position you may well be squeaking with excited glee at this passage. My FB chat group loved it as a snippet; it meant a lot to me to write it. But if you are in the (inexplicably much larger) group who has not read that book, you will be sitting there thinking “Weren’t they on the run from murderers? Why the bobbins are we talking about paintings of dead people with random animals?” and you will be absolutely right to. This passage gives us a sense of Justin’s personality, and the class divide between him and Nathaniel, so it’s not entirely self-indulgence, but call it 90%. Maybe 95%. I cut the entire plotline.

Future characters

Also known as sequel bait: the NPC waiting their turn for stardom. This is a bit harder because the author may need to lay groundwork for a future book, and will want to get readers interested in a later MC—but you must not do it at the expense of the current book. If the ultra-glamorous Lord Flashheart of book 3 steals the show of book 2, you’ve weakened book 2’s MCs, plot, and the reader’s experience.

The trick is to remember whose point of view you’re in—which is one or both of the MCs who are falling in love. They should be the centres of each other’s attentions, thoughts, even worlds. We do not want to find a third party far more interesting, attractive, and striking than their lover through their eyes–and we really don’t want the sense that the author would rather be writing Lord Flashheart’s book. (Nor, may I add, do we want to read an advert for another book in the middle of this one.)

And here I will add that the same goes for returning NPCs—if they steal the show, you’ve weakened your book. You do not want your reader to walk away from book 4 thinking, “Wow, that reminded me how much better book 1 was, and how much more I liked that other character.”

***

Every in-book appearance of NPCs, whether as passing mentions or major secondaries, has to serve a purpose in this book, not be fan service for the last. Make them work. If they are genuinely relevant to the MCs’ characters and their plot, they won’t feel shoehorned or irrelevant. If their only/main purpose is to remind the reader of past stories and glories, you have not done yourself or the reader a favour.

I’m not downplaying loyal readers’ urge to know how past MCs are getting on. That’s a wonderful thing–but it must never overwhelm the current story. If you want to host a dinner party where seven previous heroines show off their accumulated children and pregnancies, or whatever equivalent for your MCs, there’s a lot to be said for making it a free story for your newsletter, rather than a chapter in book 8. That gives readers a good wallow without unbalancing the new book, and drives your newsletter subs.

Because it’s great that readers loved your previous book—but don’t let that stand in the way of making them love this one too.  

___________

My most recent book is Any Old Diamonds, which ties into my Society of Gentlemen and Sins of the Cities series. Why not buy it and see if I can put my money where my mouth is? /marketing face/  

Inheritance FAQs (or, how to disinherit a duke)

I have just read a review of a British-set histrom. The hero is a duke, but he has a problem: the conditions of the title stipulate that if he isn’t married by the age of thirty, he will be stripped of the dukedom and it will pass to the next heir. Great romance set-up, right?

No. Oh God, no.

There are historical realities you can muck about with, tons of them. Have a zillion dukes by all means. Let them marry governesses and plucky flower girls, fine. These things are wildly implausible, but this is historical romance, and we’re here to play.

And then there are things that you cannot mess with, because they don’t play with the world, they break it. Chief amongst these in British aristocracy romance would be, er, destroying the entire system of British aristocracy. Which is what this plot does.

The point of a system of primogeniture—the whole, sole, single, solitary purpose of it—is to establish that nobility is bestowed by birth. The monarch can bestow a title on a commoner because of their merit on the battlefield/skill in the sack, but once it is granted, it operates under the rules. Nobody ever gets to decide who will inherit their title—not the monarch, nobody. It goes to the first in line: end of story. And once a peerage is bestowed it cannot be removed by anything less than an Act of Parliament or Royal prerogative. Certainly not by a previous holder’s whim.

If inherited titles can be given or withheld on any other basis, if you start asking “Does the holder meet basic standards?” or “But is this really the best person for the job?”, the whole system falls apart. It is infinitely better for the aristocratic system that a chinless idiot should make an absolute mess of his earldom than that the right of firstborn nobility should ever be questioned.

Hence this isn’t a matter of suspending disbelief / plot implausibility: it destroys the entire house of cards. Allow me to quote GK Chesterton:

Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

A duke marrying a lowly chimney-sweep’s daughter is merely implausible. But a duke whose title can be removed if he doesn’t meet a certain standard of behaviour, or a nobleman who can disinherit his older son and bestow the title on his second? That violates the laws of the aristocratic primogeniture-based world you’re writing in.

Some readers won’t notice of course. But many, even those who aren’t versed in the specifics of those laws, will pick up that you neither know nor care to know about the world you’re writing. And that does rather raise the question, why bother?

***

Herewith some Inheritance FAQs for UK historical romance authors.  See this other incredibly long post for more on getting titles right.

Can my bastard hero (the illegitimate kind of bastard) inherit his father’s title?

Not in England, possibly in Scotland.

A bastard (born outside wedlock) cannot inherit his father’s title or any property entailed to it. He could be raised to the peerage, i.e. given his own title, by the monarch, but he can’t inherit one because that would break the system of primogeniture. A title could fall into abeyance (stand vacant while waiting for someone to claim it) and potentially then be awarded to the bastard son by the monarch, but it would not be in his father’s power to leave it in his will.

In England a bastard cannot be legitimised by the marriage of his parents unless your book is set after 1926, when the law was changed to retroactively legitimise children if their parents married (as long as neither parent was married to someone else at the time of the birth). The legitimised son of a peer is not entitled to inherit the peerage, though he would be able to use a courtesy title if one was available.

However, if a Scottish bastard hero’s parents married as above, he would be legitimised and able to inherit the title, as that has been Scottish law for ages.

Can my hero renounce his title? Can he nobly give it to his cousin instead?

Not before 1963 but see below, and he can’t ‘give’ it to anyone.

When a peer dies, his heir claims the title by making a petition to the Crown, giving his claim in detail. The heir can use the title while waiting for the formal approval to be granted (start calling himself Earl of Bingley) but it’s not actually his until it’s granted. Hence you could have two rival claimants walking around London both calling themselves Lord Bingley, to everyone’s embarrassment.

The petition is reviewed and, if straightforward, presented to the monarch for rubber-stamping. However, if there are complications, the petition goes to the Committee for Privileges. While this is happening, anyone else who believes they have a claim can petition the House of Lords to have it heard.

Let us say the time and place of Lord Bingley’s marriage to his housemaid are shrouded in mystery, but they lived as a married couple and have an acknowledged son, John. When Lord Bingley dies John petitions the Crown for the title. He can’t give details of his parents’ marriage, so the petition is referred to the Committee for Privileges. Meanwhile his cousin Peter comes forward to claim that Lord Bingley wasn’t legally married and that the title should instead come to him. The whole thing then gets thrashed out in the Lords, whose decision is final.

If John doubts his own claim to the title but has no proof either way, he can decline to make a petition to the Crown, and then the title would simply lie in abeyance until his death, at which point Peter could petition for it. Or if the title has been granted to John already, he can refuse to use it and call himself Mr. But while John lives, the only way for Peter or anyone else to be Lord Bingley would be for John to be conclusively proven illegitimate before the title was granted.

The only way you can mess around with renouncing a title is with an heir who isn’t generally known to exist. Let’s say Lord March was a bigamist, has a son Terence by his first marriage who lives quietly in a village, but as far as the world is concerned, his son James by the second, bigamous marriage is his heir. While this remains secret, James and Terence can decide between themselves if Terence is going to lie low or if James is going to nobly declare himself illegitimate–or indeed knowingly lie to the House of Lords to claim the title. But this entirely depends on Terence’s identity remaining a secret. If it becomes known to the Committee of Privileges, only Terence will be awarded the title, and John is out whatever happens.

NB: It was not possible for a peer to disclaim his title until 1963 when the law was changed. A disclaimed title lies unused until the former holder dies and then inheritance operates as normal.

Can my heroine inherit a title of her own?

Depends.

English titles usually descend down the direct male line. For many titles it is specified that the title passes to “the heirs male of [the holder’s] body”, i.e. legitimate sons only. If you run out of legitimate sons, the title goes into abeyance.

However, some titles are deliberately created with a special remainder allowing it to pass to women/down the female line. Many more Scottish titles than English are created this way. And lots of the older English titles descend in fee simple, meaning the title can go to a female heir, or to other relatives if the line of descent has died out, without going into abeyance. These are almost all baronies or earldoms. Where an English title is in fee simple, sons have precedence over daughters.

Take the earldom of Polkington. The earl is called Alan, and has children Lady Bertha, Charles and David, in that order. Alan’s younger brother is Eric.

In the heirs male system, Charles is heir, with David next in line. If both of them die the title falls into abeyance. Eric can then petition to inherit as the only surviving son of the last-but-one Earl; Bertha is out.

However, if the earldom is held in fee simple, the order of inheritance would be: Charles, David, Bertha, Eric. So if you want a heroine to have a title in her own right, there you go.

NB that if Bertha becomes Countess of Polkington in her own right, her husband John Smith does not become Earl of Polkington or get any courtesy title. He remains Mr Smith unless given a title of his own. (He might well take her surname under these circumstances so their children would have the earldom’s family name.) If Bertha’s husband was Sir John Smith, he keeps his title of Sir. If Bertha, Countess of Polkington marries the Marquess of Mandrake, she will probably style herself Marchioness of Mandrake because it’s higher status.

My hero’s mother was playing away and he isn’t the duke’s biological son—can the villain threaten to disinherit him with this knowledge?

No.  

It is not easy to disinherit the heir to a peerage (because primogeniture). If Lord and Lady Welford are married, Lady Welford’s eldest son is the legitimate heir to the marquessate and entailed property, even if he bears a striking resemblance to Lady Welford’s lover. Lord Welford’s heir could potentially be disinherited if it could be proved beyond doubt that Lord Welford could not have had sex with his wife for a goodly period around the time of conception—but that would be “could not” as in “she was in England, he was in China”, not just a claim that they weren’t sharing a bed at the time. (For once, the man’s word on the matter doesn’t carry all the weight! Woop!)

Moreover, Lord Welford would need to repudiate the child from the first and stick to that decision. He can’t come back from China, forgive his erring wife, bring up the boy with his name, then change his mind in five years’ time. And even then the case would have to be thrashed out in the Committee of Privileges.

Can my hero be stripped of his peerage if he fails to fulfil the terms of a will, or removed from the line of succession by his irate father because of his rakish ways?

Literally, and I cannot state this clearly enough, no.

The irate father can leave unentailed property/money elsewhere, but titles are not in anyone’s gift. The legitimate firstborn son will inherit the title. Peerages can only be granted along the line of succession and, once granted, can only be removed by an act of Parliament. This virtually never happens, and only for things like treason, which tend to come with other (terminal) consequences. Once the title is formally granted, that’s it.

This is the case even if there is an obvious error. Suppose Lord Manders has an eldest son Roger who died abroad, and a second son James. James will need to provide proof that Roger is dead in order to inherit the title, and if he can’t, it will not be granted. If it is granted, and then Roger turns up a few years later explaining it was all an amusing misunderstanding, James can’t just renounce the title of Lord Manders and let Roger have it.

But I really want my elderly duke to force his handsome son, nephew, and bastard to compete over who will inherit the dukedom!

Tough shit. They’ll just have to fight over money like everyone else.


Talking of bastard dukes, my latest release is Any Old Diamonds, in which Victorian jewel thieves collide with degenerate aristocracy.

Any Old Diamonds release day

It’s release day for Any Old Diamonds! This is the first of my Lilywhite Boys duo, about two Victorian jewel thieves in the 1890s. This one’s m/m, and stars ex-Army professional thief Jerry Crozier and illustrator Alec Pyne.

The thing is, Alec is actually Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes (yes, ff). Alec is the estranged second son of the Duke of Ilvar, and when he hires Jerry to steal a priceless diamond necklace from his father’s remote castle, things quickly get complicated.

There’s secrets! Lies! Betrayal and murder! Impersonation! Family trauma! Lady detectives! Ill-judged sexual encounters!  I think this one definitely qualifies as angsty. Also, Jerry is just a tad on the sociopathic side.

“You’re not inclined to repentance?” Alec repeated. “What, ever?”

“Never.” Crozier’s eyes glimmered dark in the electric light and the glitter of glass and silverware and mirrors. “I’m not sorry.”

“For what?”

“Anything.” Crozier tilted his head, eyes hooding slightly, gaze roaming over Alec’s face. “Except missed opportunities. I regret those, but that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

“Mmm.” Alec didn’t want to think about his own missed opportunities now, the what-ifs and if-onlies. “I don’t suppose you have many of those, do you?”

Crozier’s smile widened a fraction. It looked a little bit dangerous, and it made Alec’s toes curl delightfully. “Not many. They’re such a waste. And so often what one wants is there for the taking, if one only makes the effort to reach for it.”

Spoiler: the effort is made. Eventually. *evil face*

I had a lot of fun with this book, which I hope is shown in the cover (art by Vic Grey, design by Lennan Adams). I hope you enjoy it!

Any Old Diamonds features incredible plot twists, amazing characters, shameless flirting, sex at some pretty inopportune moments, and some f***ing horrible peers of the realm. So what I’m saying is, why haven’t you ordered the book yet?”–The Book Corps

“Super fun, yummy romance, twisty plot, more-ish characters, excellent revenge, lots of banging. Get it now for all of your comfort read needs.”–Malka Older

Buy links to your favourite e-store right here; print edition will be coming in about two weeks (there was a delay on the file, sorry). Audio TBC.