My Best Books of 2023

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

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

Romance

Show Girl by Alyson Greaves

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

The Sign for Home by Blair Fell

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

The Five-Day Reunion by Mona Shroff

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

The Oak and the Ash by Annick Trent

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

Fantasy/SF

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera

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

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu

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

The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

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

The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan

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

Romance AND fantasy AND horror

The Shabti by Megaera C Lorenz

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

If Found, Return to Hell by Em X Liu

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

The Helios Syndrome by Vivian Shaw

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

Even Though I Knew The End by CL Polk

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

Angry Women

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

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

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen

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

Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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

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

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

Fucked-Up People

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

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

Gigantic by Ashley Stokes

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

The Trees by Percival Everett

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

Grave Expectations by Alice Bell

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

Non fiction

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

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

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams

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

Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken

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

The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter

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

Why would you start here, you fool

Paladin’s Faith by T Kingfisher

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

System Collapse by Martha Wells

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

A Christmas to Remember by Beverly Jenkins

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

A Knife for the Juggler by Manning Coles

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

A Decade of Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten years. Crikey.

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Recs for Summer (Book Recs Forever)

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

All links go to Goodreads.

If You Read All Of Murderbot Twice But Still Need More

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

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

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

If You Want a Deep Dive Into a Different Life

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

If You Got Obsessed with the Whole Submarine Thing

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

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

If You Just Want Out From The World

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

If You Need an Outlet For Your Rage

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

If You’re Profoundly Alienated By Our Modern Dystopia

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

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

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

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

If You Want a Romance That Doesn’t Hold Back

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

If You Want A Punch In The Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

magpie logo

The Rise of the Machines: AI ‘story engines’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*by ‘lol’ I mean ‘vomit’.

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

The website offers a sample of its romance writing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacing too fast? Presto expand-o

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some practical notes:

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

Author represents and warrants that:

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

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

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

_____________________________________

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

KJ Charles logo

Loose Ends and Razor Cuts

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

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

Let’s talk about loose ends!

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

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

So what to do about loose ends?

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

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

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

Let’s talk about how!

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I sharpened Occam’s razor.

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

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


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

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

Cover of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen

It’s release day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it!

Publisher link

Goodreads

Twelve Random Books (a trip report)

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

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

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

The results

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox

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

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado de Assis

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

The Devourers Indra Das

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

How to Hide an Empire Daniel Immerwarh

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

***

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

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

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

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


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

Subtle Blood is out!

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

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

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

Reading order:

#1 Slippery Creatures

Soldier/bookseller Will meets lowlife aristocrat Kim Secretan.

#2 The Sugared Game

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

#2.5 To Trust Man On His Oath

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

#3) Subtle Blood

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

The reviews are in…

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

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

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

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

Subtle Blood buy links

Gumroad (mobi/epub downloads)

Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

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

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

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

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

Planning stage: Make decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see the problem here?

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

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

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

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

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

Writing stage: Don’t go back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

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

Cover of Subtle Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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


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

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

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

Where Do you Get Your Ideas: a snapshot

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

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

(Sorry.)

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

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

My mental process then went approximately like this:

–That’s a stupid name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Told you so.

–Don’t get cocky, sunshine.

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

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

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

What the heck.

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

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


The Doomsday Books will be coming next year from Sourcebooks.

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

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