It’s been a twat of a year. How much of a twat I don’t need to tell you, but I have been through a dizzying switchback of reader’s block followed by compulsive reading, followed by total inability to read fiction followed by compulsive glomming of bizarrely specific subgenres. I have no mysteries to recommend because apparently literally all of the dozens I read were 1920s and 30s pulp. I need help.
Let’s have some book recs. I have limited myself to one book per author because we have to put a lid on this somehow.
Links go to my Goodreads reviews. Feel free to friend me or check out my entire list here, avoiding the vast swathes of terrible golden age pulp and frankly weird obsession with early 20th-century occultism. Just pretend you didn’t see that, it’s only going to get worse.
The Blessings series by Beverly Jenkins
This literally gets its own category. There are ten novels in this contemporary series set in a tiny US town, and I read them pretty much consecutively to survive lockdown. I mean, ‘shoving them into my face like a baby with its first slice of birthday cake’ compulsively. A no-holds-barred soap opera which I am delighted to hear is being made into your actual TV show as it deserves. If you need comfort and escape and kindness and drama turned up to 11 and a gloriously absurd giant-hog plotline, here you go. Ten books’ worth!
So Forward by Mina V Esguerra
Very low angst romance with a high-flying no-mincing-of-words woman and a people-pleasing guy. No confected Bad Moment, thoroughly soothing to the soul.
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall
Absolutely glorious fake-dating/opposites-attract romcom. Very British, very romantic, very very funny indeed.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Possibly Talia’s best book yet. Gruff cinnamon roll hero and stroppy workaholic heroine who loves romance novels, rolling around in tropes and having a huge amount of fun. Fabulous dialogue. An unalloyed joy.
The Hidden Moon by Jeannie Lin
I have wanted this forever and it lived up to my hopes. Wonderful romance of a posh family’s fiercely intelligent daughter and a street thug, set in the Tang dynasty. Exactly what historical romance should be.
The Immortal City by May Peterson
Proper fantasy romance on an epic scale, with a wonderfully drawn, extremely assured setting and a marvellous, involving mythology, plus a romance spiked with mystery.
Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma
A delightful minor-key political romance of a rather amateur spad and a policy wonk. Sweetly melancholy, lovely romance, utterly gorgeous writing.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite
A mega-slow burn romance with a printer and a beekeeper, set in the Regency—the actual one of terrifying repressive crackdowns on any form of radical thought, not the one with a thousand dukes. The historical grounding lifts the whole story wonderfully and the slow-burn makes the eventual HEA spectacular. Loved it.
Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu
Near-future Delhi dystopia. Brilliantly written, structurally inventive, completely immersive and horrifically plausible.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Deserves all the plaudits. Wonderfully thought-provoking, conveyed via fabulous assured story-telling.
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
A girl genius breaks reality; she and her completely ordinary best friend struggle to put it back together. Weird, fast-paced, deeply involving and very human.
The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull
This should have had far more noise made about it. Extraordinary allegory of colonialism played out when aliens land on one of the Virgin Islands. Really shitty aliens. Compulsive reading and a premise that lodges itself inextricably in your brain.
Network Effect by Martha Wells
Murderbot, enough said. I’ve read the whole series twice this year.
What a treat. Found family, applied violence, gang of thieves, super queer, effortless worldbuilding, and all in gorgeous clear prose.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher
A young witch with a minor magical talent for baking finds herself obliged to defend a city. Absolutely fantastic. Reminded me of how magical it was to discover fantasy for the first time. I’m saving my reread for emergencies.
Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri
Exceptionally good fantasy—fantastic adventure, great character piece, thought-provoking subjects, and lovely romance. Set in a Mughal Empire analogue and sent me down a Mughal rabbit hole. Cannot praise this highly enough.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Fabulous novella which has a lot to say about feminism and politics, hauntingly written. A beautiful example of what can be done with short form.
The Plague Stones by James Brogden
Ahaha I read a book about the plague just before…the plague. Idyllic English village with a dark secret dating back to the Black Death. Really very scary indeed, but with a lot of hope and humanity in it. Go on, lean in to your pandemic fears. Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree by the same author are also excellent.
The Hollow Places by T Kingfisher
Narrowly edging out her excellent The Twisted Ones. A genius premise: a weird museum in Nowhere, USA has a hole in the wall that leads to a kind of Wood Between the Worlds but from hell. Super creepy with a final sequence that had me on the edge of my seat.
(YES FINE I CHEATED SUE ME.)
Compelling and enlightening examination of race, class and colonialism in Britain and in the countries afflicted by us over the reader. Really excellent, required reading.
Koh-i-Noor: the history of the world’s most infamous diamond, by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple
Hugely readable history of the diamond that does a terrific job of contextualising with Indian history, the British colonial (theft) operation, the story of Duleep Singh and much more. Excellent informative and well-written narrative non fiction.
The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk by Ghee Bowman
A tremendous feat of social history, tracing an Indian regiment who were brought over to fight in France in 1940. Fascinating stories, some of them deeply moving, others frankly hilarious. And a really important read in these times where British nationalists explicitly lie to whitewash the past. Read it.
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Brilliant. The utterly insane story of a tiny libertarian town in the US. I was cry-laughing. Very funny, but also very revealing about a lot of frankly weird depths of the US psyche.
Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley
A fascinating attempt to reconstruct the life of an ordinary Japanese woman living at the end of the shogunate. Brilliant history in which grand politics are shown, not as central to the story, but as unseen forces buffeting people trying to exist. A powerful feminist statement too: ordinary women matter.
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik.
A very British Muslim living in a country village is told by his dying mother to build a mosque—which doesn’t go down so well with the oh-so-nice community he thought he was part of. Reads like a light comedy while tackling some heavy issues, but still focusing on humanity and hope.
Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola
TBH this could be in the romance section but I need to weight my numbers here. A lovely collection of retold myths, a good half of them African, all about love in its various forms (most m/f, one fantastic f/f). Almost all given happy endings, and really joyous, uplifting ones at that. Don’t miss.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
As good as everyone says. Tremendous novel about two Black sisters, one of whom decides to pass as white, and the way their lives unspool accordingly. Hugely readable and humane.
There’s a common theme to my last four romance DNFs: the overuse of inner monologue.
Now, I like a good inner monologue as much as anyone. They can be superb ways of conveying character issues and emotional development, so nobody should take this blog post to mean “inner monologues are bad”.
But there are two things I see inner monologues doing that cause big problems: breaking up dialogue to the extent that we don’t get any sense of conversation, or replacing it altogether.
First off, let’s look at how to do it right. Here’s a terrific example from Jeannie Lin’s fantastic The Hidden Moon combining inner monologue and dialogue:
Gao looked exactly as she remembered, exactly as she’d imagined him whenever she’d closed her eyes. He was spare of build, whipcord-lean, and dressed in a dark tunic. In the dimness of the morning, he could have disappeared into the shadows. Barely there, yet ever so present.
“It’s been seven days,” she ventured, then bit her lip. That made it sound like she’d been keeping count. Which she had.
His dark gaze held hers for a long moment. “It has been.”
Gao wasn’t smiling, but the corner of his mouth twisted upward as if curiously pleased. For her part, Wei-wei couldn’t say what she was feeling. She’d considered that she might never see Gao again. Someone like Gao and someone like her. A desert and a stream — their paths were never meant to cross.
“My brother’s wife is having her baby.”
“Is that so?”
“Everyone else at home was occupied,” she explained, for lack of other things to say.
She searched for her next words. He seemed to be doing the same, brow furrowed. The last time they’d seen one another, there was tragedy and scandal involved. Gao had intervened in a potentially dangerous situation to help her and her brother. It seemed inadequate now to pleasantly inquire about his health.
We get a lot of information about the heroine’s feelings, backstory, attraction to hero etc conveyed in the monologue; the dialogue itself is unemotional and fist-chewingly stilted. And this is perfect, because the MCs are in a horrendously awkward situation. They ought not be talking; they aren’t supposed to know each other; they have no business being attracted. Gao is a street thug to Wei-wei’s lady, and the class difference isn’t just a theoretical obstacle: he doesn’t have her verbal fluency or social training, and boy does it show.
The verbal exchange is just a few lines but it reveals Wei-wei’s desire to connect, Gao’s inability to respond in kind to her conversational offer, and the effect that his terseness has in shutting down Wei-wei’s efforts to reach him, even though they both want this to go better. Dialogue and inner monologue—showing and telling—interact to outline the attraction, key points about both personalities, and a goodly chunk of the conflict in a very short stretch of text. It’s a huge amount of work done by and around a conversation you might have with a colleague while making office tea.
Got it? Excellent. Go buy The Hidden Moon. Once you’ve done that, compare this, which I just made up but which is not far off a book I DNFd the hell out of.
“Hello,” Peter said.
He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its USP of delivering Christmas presents to underprivileged children?
“Hello,” Jane replied.
She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting opening, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, big boy. She wouldn’t mind saying that.
“Would you like coffee?” Peter asked.
Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny Christmas stocking manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not coffee, since she’d given up caffeine six weeks ago due to her ongoing sleeping problems. Would it be too demanding to order her favourite decaf soy latte?
Oh no! The words had come out far more brusquely than she’d meant. Had Peter’s caramel brown eyes hardened? She couldn’t tell as he flipped open his top of the range laptop…
As before, the narrative is delivering lots of backstory and detail. But here (and obviously this is an exaggerated example) it’s doing it at the expense of two things: Peter’s character, and the MCs’ interaction.
Those go together. Dialogue tells us about both parties individually, and about the way they bounce off each other—how they mesh, or clash, understand each other or don’t. It shows us what both parties are prepared to reveal, what they hide, how they react to one another.
The dialogue in this scene is excruciatingly dull, but that doesn’t have to matter—see again The Hidden Moon extract’s far from scintillating surface conversation. The problem is that this scene is purely Jane, Jane, Jane, and the lines of dialogue are props for that. It might as well be unbroken monologue, because we haven’t learned anything meaningful about Peter, only about what Jane thinks of Peter, and we also haven’t learned how Jane and Peter work together as a pair. That’s the nature of inner monologue, the self, and that might well be fine in a chick-lit type novel that’s all about the narrator. In a romance—a book about people connecting with each other—it can be a kiss of death.
It’s also a kiss of death to anything interesting that might be happening in the dialogue. Try it again:
“I just recreated brontosaurus meat in my lab,” Peter said. “It’s delicious.”
He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its slogan of ‘Jurassic Park on your plate’?
“Well done!” Jane replied.
She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting response, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, you T-rex of a man. She wouldn’t mind saying that.
“Would you like some triceratops steak?” Peter asked.
Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny prehistoric ready-meal manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not triceratops, since she’d given up meat six weeks ago due to her newfound commitment to veganism…
Nope, still awful, and in fact more awful because I don’t know about you but if he’s a dinosaur meat ready-meals merchant, that’s what I want to hear about. Subordinating the dialogue to the monologue in this way diminishes its impact, gives us no sense of a back and forth, makes it extremely hard to keep track of what the conversation is about, and takes a hell of a lot longer to convey useful information.
A dialogue passage doesn’t have to have sparkling conversation to work brilliantly. But if a conversation would interest the reader on its own terms, why not let it do so, rather than making it all about something else? And if it wouldn’t, consider why you’re making us read it at all. There may be an excellent reason, of course. Great things can be done with apparently boring conversations. But if what’s being said is purely a frame to hang an inner monologue on, that rarely makes for a satisfying scene.
This is not to say that an unbroken inner monologue is preferable. It is not unknown in romance for the conflict to be resolved by one or more MCs going over and over their problems in their head, until they come to a new opinion or understanding. That can do a lot of work, but, again, a romance is about both the people in the relationship. The conflict isn’t fixed by the hero realising after seven pages of hard thinking that his dead wife would have wanted him to love again. It gets fixed when he talks to the new love interest, listens to them, and offers a proper meaningful grovel for his previous 200 pages of jerkery. When, in fact, they interact successfully.
If one MC is doing the heavy lifting alone in their head, whether on the conflict or the resolution, that by itself will struggle to make for a satisfying read in a genre that’s about human interaction. The internal stuff needs to support and enhance the external (the behaviour, the dialogue).
Ask yourself: What happens if I cut all the interior monologue bits? If I chop this MS down to just the dialogue and interactions, do I still have the bones of a romance: the attraction, the enjoyment of each other’s company, the conflict, the desire, the bits that make readers swoon or cry or tweet that you’ve ruined their life? Am I building the characters (in action and dialogue) or just talking about them? Is there enough actually happening between the characters, on page, to support what the inner monologues say is happening between them?
There’s no perfect percentage of dialogue to inner monologue—if a book works, it works. But if inner monologue gets in the way of the reader seeing how the MCs work together…that’s not what they picked up a romance for.
Slippery Creatures (Will Darling Adventures 1) is at 99p/99c everywhere in September.
The Sugared Game (Will Darling Adventures 2) is out now.
Or download files (including mobi for Kindle) directly from Gumroad.
If the title didn’t give you an earworm already, you can get it here.
Here is is: The Sugared Game, book 2 of the Will Darling Adventures, my 1920s pulp adventure series. Meet some of the cast!
- Will Darling: soldier turned bookseller
- The Messer: Will’s emotional support knife
- Kim Secretan: disgraced aristocrat and secret agent, apparently?
- Phoebe Stephens-Prince: Kim’s emotional support flapper
- Maisie Jones: it would save a lot of trouble if someone just put her in charge
There are also dodgy nightclub people, Bright Young Things (I use the word ‘bright’ EXTREMELY loosely), unlikeable aristos, couturiers, cocktails, champagne, dog-rough whisky, and some really yummy chocolates. Enjoy!
All buy links for The Sugared Game
Gumroad (direct files, epub or mobi)
For the avoidance of doubt: this is book 2 of a three-book arc. The series won’t have a full HEA till #3 (Subtle Blood, working on it) and it will make a lot more sense if you start at #1, Slippery Creatures.
As it goes, Slippery Creatures will be a $0.99 Kindle Deal in September, which I will price match at other stores, so if you’re not sure whether you want WILD 1920s PULP ADVENTURE ROMANCE WITH SINISTER GANGS AND CARS AND BOOKS AND FLAPPERS, for whatever reason, maybe take a punt then.
I’ve really loved writing this series despite the, er, hiccups of 2020, and I’m rolling around in Subtle Blood right now. I hope you enjoy it!
I was heating up the oven this morning to put on a sourdough loaf (yes, yes, I know, but I’d run out of yeast by April) when I got embroiled in the current Twitter conversation about the ‘black moment’ in romance. This term, which could be retired any time, refers to the very common practice of having a serious (break-up level) obstacle in the third act of the book, which has to be overcome before the happy ending.
A lot of romance-writing advice comes down to ‘beats’—you need X and Y to happen in Act 1, you need to adhere to this particular rising and falling plot shape, and there has to be a calamity in Act 3. Why? Because that happens in romances, that’s why. This all too often leads to a manufactured crisis, where the author sticks in a newly created problem in order to have something happen in the third act. Often this is a Big Misunderstanding that, as readers frequently note, could be solved by basic communication—classically “he sees her with another man who is actually her brother and dumps her without asking who that guy was”.
This upsets readers, rightly, because it feels manipulative and unnecessary to be put through an obviously manufactured conflict after 200 pages of watching the MCs learn to get along. (If it could be removed without affecting the actual progress of the romance, it’s manufactured.) The shoehorned-in third-act conflict is the thing I see readers complain about most, next to instalove. (We’ll come back to this.) But we still see it an awful lot, and I think that’s because writers are hanging on to a deep-down conviction that it’s a necessary part of the romance structure.
I don’t think that’s a helpful way to look at things, and I’d like to offer my alternative Bread Theory of romance development, with apologies to the gluten-intolerant.
Act 1: The Ingredients
The first act is the getting-going stage. You need your ingredients in a bowl, whether that’s just water, flour, and starter, or all sorts of elaborate stuff. And you need to mix it up thoroughly, so that the ingredients can start to work on each other and it begins to look like a thing in itself, not a mass of separate ingredients. This means your MCs interacting with each other, the key secondaries, the background, the external plot. This might be quick or slow, simple or complex. The only rule here, and it is I think a rule, is that you do need to get your ingredients lined up. A third-act conflict is a completely different beast if it’s been seeded in character and situation from early on, as opposed to springing out of nowhere.
Act 2: The Development
This is what gives life to bread, and also romance. It’s when the dough develops its gluten structures, which is to say internal strength and shape and connections that can be stretched without breaking.
You can develop gluten by working it: kneading the dough, pummelling it, stretching, thumping, pulling, letting it rise and knocking it back, and otherwise putting it under the kind of stress that makes the internal strength develop. Or you can use time. Sourdough bread develops by quietly, organically growing at a natural pace. It operates on a completely different schedule to yeasted bread, one that can’t be rushed.
Either of these works for romance, or any combination thereof. You can put your characters under hard pressure (whether that’s good, e.g. frantic desire, or bad, e.g. an enemies-to-lovers setup), or handle things far more slowly and gently, or add no stress at all and show us the relationship developing over time.
What doesn’t work well is factory bread, where you tip in a ton of instant yeast and pig’s-toenails type catalysts in order to get it up as quickly as possible. That’s a recipe for flavourless pap with no nutritional value, and it’s what readers mean when they talk of ‘instalove’ as opposed to a well-done ‘love at first sight’.
Act 3: The Proof
In bread terms, ‘proving’ means the final stage, where the dough is allowed to rise into its final shape before baking. ‘Proof’ here is used in the sense of ‘test’ (as in the phrase ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’).
If you don’t prove your dough enough the final product will be dense or misshapen. If you’ve messed up in stage 2, your bread may not rise at all. And if you mishandle your proving dough, it’ll collapse.
The third act is the proof stage of a romance. The MCs should have got to a point where their relationship is a living, working thing; Act 3 tests them to see if it has developed the internal strength and structure to stand up and emerge triumphant.
This does not have to mean a third-act manufactured conflict/trauma, and indeed it shouldn’t. Of course the proof stage can be a big conflict that leads to a break-up, and that can be terrific if it arises organically from the characters and plot—but it doesn’t have to be that way. The proof might be our MCs working together to fight something, or to build something. It might be a dramatic declaration or a small gesture that demonstrates that a big change has taken place. Maybe it’s an external stressor that opens up internal stuff, like when you slash the top of your loaf and watch it stretch out as if by magic. Maybe it’s a matter of putting the MCs in a difficult situation and watching them sail through it, in contrast to how things went earlier. Maybe showing that growth doesn’t require any sort of antagonist, internal or external. It depends on your book.
A third act with absolutely no conflict or drama can feel a bit flaccid, hence the temptation to jam something in. But drama doesn’t have to be negative. It can be realisations, gestures, problem-solving, triumphs, and they can be as big or small as the scale of your book.
Proofing is a delicate stage. It undermines everything that’s gone before if by 85% of the way through the jealous hero still has his head up his arse, or the lovers are prepared to dump each other because of a trivial argument. (If, in fact, the relationship wasn’t properly developed before you set it to proof.) That knocks the air out of your creation, and might well ruin it for good if there isn’t space for the relationship to rise again.
Whereas if you introduce, develop, and proof your MCs’ relationship on a structure and schedule that works for your characters and your book, you’ll get a living, working, delicious result.
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.
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?”
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.
“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.”
“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
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.”
“Badly. Harder, you prick.”
Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”
“Fucker.” Justin thrust up fruitlessly. “Harder.”
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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’.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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?
- We went to a karaoke bar and Jim sang ‘As Time Goes By’ because he fancies himself as Sam out of Casablanca.
- “What?! He can do a sudoku puzzle in twelve seconds?!”
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My latest release is Gilded Cage. Get your lady detective/Victorian jewel thief romance here!
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.
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.
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.
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.