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.

You Keep It All In: The Inner Monologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that so?”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Peter said.

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

“Hello,” Jane replied.

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

“Would you like coffee?” Peter asked.

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

“No, thanks.”

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

Et cetera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well done!” Jane replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

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.

A delicious loaf of bread that I made

Bread and Roses: Developing romance and the Third Act Test

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.

A delicious loaf of bread that I made

________________________

Slippery Creatures (The Will Darling Adventures 1) is out now. Book 2, The Sugared Game, releases 26 August. Preorder available now!

Yes and No: Consent in sex scenes

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

__________________

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

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

The solution? The Condom Crinkle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slippery Creatures and character through consent

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

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

“Er, yes? Oh. You mean all the way?”

“Absolutely all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Spit it out. As it were.”

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

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

“I didn’t want to be rude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Band Sinister and explicit verbal ongoing consent

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

Cover of Band Sinister

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

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

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

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

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

“If I—?”

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

“What do I say?”

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

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

“You can,” Philip said. “Come here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What should I say?”

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

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

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

“Is that good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot is character in action. So is consent.

An Unnatural Vice and Being a Mess

Unnatural Vice cover

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

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

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

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

“Bloody liar,” Nathaniel told him hoarsely.

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

Nathaniel grabbed his hair. “Just admit it.”

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

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

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

“Of course they don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel blinked. “What—“

“Check your pockets,” Justin suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want it.”

“How much?”

“Badly. Harder, you prick.”

Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”

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

“Nicely.”

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

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

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

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

“Shan’t.”

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

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

___________________

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)

Italics, Other Languages, and You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might be happy. I’m not.”

Or to mark out words as eg a title:

I watched Stand By Me last night

He sailed on the HMS Surprise.

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

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

And, yes, to mark foreign words in English.

The Latin name for magpie is Pica pica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

Cover of Gilded Cage

Writer’s Block And Why You Shouldn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have the spoons

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

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

The well is dry

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

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

Lack of confidence

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of structure / skills

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

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

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

Lack of commitment / patience

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

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

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

Are you reading?

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

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

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

Need for feedback

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

It’s the wrong book

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

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

***

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

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

______________________

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

The Doctor is In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

I worked with May Peterson, who is fantastic.

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

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

Gilded Cage publishes 23 October.

KJ Charles logo

With A Guest Appearance From…

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

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

That’s the tricky bit.

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

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

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

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

Past MCs explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretend they’re new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past characters not explained

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

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

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

“Sir David Wilkie,” Rodmarton said behind him.

“The gentleman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future characters

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

___________

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

The Reluctant Author: Telling the Wrong Story

I’m warning you now, this is going to be the most niche post ever on this blog. However, I need to get it off my chest, at least three people want to hear it, and I think it has some wider resonances for writing as well.

Today, my friends, I am discussing Georgette Heyer’s 1946 romance The Reluctant Widow. Bear with me. Extensive spoilers will follow; wider conclusions will be drawn at the end.

The Reluctant Secret Agent: or, why Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow is generally agreed to be one of Heyer’s less successful romances. It has a great premise—a woman married at midnight to a dying man she’s never met, a mouldering house, French spies—plus a great cast including the ingenuous teen Nicky, his comedy dog, and one of Heyer’s best effete-yet-deadly fops, the purring and catlike Francis Cheviot. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine don’t live up to their book. Eleanor, the heroine, is sadly disinclined to throw herself into the mystery—she is meant to be a sensible heroine like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring but she lacks Sarah’s gumption and has no enjoyment at all ofher situation. Ned, the hero, mostly stands around giving orders, and telling people to keep calm. Basically, Ned and Eleanor are boring, sensible people plunged into a completely bananas situation to which they react in a boring, sensible manner.

However, I think we can see why the central romance is such a dud if we look at what the plot of the book actually is.

Synopsis follows. I am going to put Eleanor and Ned’s plotline in bold for easy identification.

Backstory: Eustace is a wastrel drinking himself to death. His sensible cousin Ned (Lord Carlyon) is his heir. Eustace and Ned’s uncle Lord Bedlington has always accused Ned of hating Eustace and wanting his mostly ruined estate, Highnoons, even though Ned is rich. Ned intends to pay a random woman to marry Eustace so she will inherit the estate instead, just so he doesn’t have to deal with spiteful rumours. Lord Bedlington is selling secrets to a French spy, Louis de Castres, using Eustace as go between. Bedlington’s son Francis suspects him. Bedlington gives Eustace a vital memorandum that could alter the course of the war. However, before Eustace can pass it on, he is mortally wounded in a fight. The book starts here.

Ned pressures Eleanor, a passing governess, into marrying Eustace on his deathbed in order to avoid the unwanted inheritance. Eleanor goes to live in Highnoons.

Louis de Castres tries twice to search Highnoons for the memorandum, once as a break-in.

Ned and Eleanor search unsuccessfully for the thing that the intruder was looking for.

Bedlington invites himself to stay with Ned, and insists he will stay the night at Highnoons after Eustace’s funeral, in order to search for the memo. Francis realises he has to put a stop to this. He kills Louis de Castres, then comes down to the house, ostensibly for the funeral. He ruthlessly threatens his father with exposure and forces him to retire from his position in the Prince Regent’s court, putting an end to his access to information. He guesses where Eustace hid the memo and does his best to retrieve it despite interference from Eleanor and Nicky.

Ned finds the memorandum in a clock (but only because Francis knocks Eleanor out to stop her finding it, which gives Ned the clue). He gives it to Francis to put back in the War Office and leaves him to deal with any remaining issues.

I think you can see the problem. Once the brilliant setup of “married by midnight—widowed by morning!” is established, Ned and Eleanor don’t do anything. No, worse: they get in the way. Eleanor prevents Louis from getting the memo once, and purely by accident, after which her every intervention is an active nuisance to Francis—who, let us recall, knows where the memo is, and just needs them to stop impeding him. She achieves absolutely nothing herself.

And Ned? Well, Ned eventually works out that Francis is the hero. That’s it. That is Ned’s big I Am The Man moment: he realises that Francis has single-handedly foiled a French plot that could have damaged Britain, and decides not to be unhelpful any more. Go Ned.

They don’t even solve their own romantic conflict. Heyer sets up the rather flimsy premise that Ned cannot inherit Eustace’s estate because malicious tongues will wag. But the second Eleanor says “I do” to Ned, he gets Eustace’s estate via marriage. What’s happened to the wagging tongues which Ned is now ready to dismiss so casually? Well, Heyer doesn’t spell it out at the end, but the rumours were all set on by Bedlington. And who has drawn Bedlington’s fangs for good? Francis.

Let me now tell you the actual plot of The Reluctant Widow. It’s a story about a man who comes to realise his father and cousin are traitors. Who befriends a French emigre who he knows to be a daring spy in order to gather evidence; who needs to save his country, but is trying to save his family too. A man who plays a Scarlet Pimpernel-like role, maintaining his public image as an effete dandy despite the sneers, killing an enemy agent without compunction, and ruthlessly eliminating his treacherous father as a danger. (“I was obliged to point out to him that the state of his health demands that he should retire from public life. I really could not answer for his life if he were to continue in office.”) He finally retrieves the memo despite endless interference; he will put it back, prevent catastrophe, and save the family honour. He even stops his father from impeding his cousin’s marriage. He receives no credit and no thanks and doesn’t ask for them: he simply saves the day, without so much as disarranging his cravat.

Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow, and Heyer knows it. That’s why Ned’s big moment is when he acknowledges Francis is the hero. That’s why Ned and Eleanor are ciphers: they only exist in the plot to be obstacles to Francis. That’s why most of the crucial plot-resolving Chapter 19 is a barely-interrupted Francis monologue; that’s why the ending falls so flat, because Ned and Eleanor haven’t lifted a finger to solve their own external conflict. And that’s why, despite him first appearing in chapter 13 (of 20), Francis is far and away the most memorable character. Because he’s the hero, and the narrative eye of the book spends most of its time focused in entirely the wrong place.

***

This may sound pretty obvious as I’ve spelled it out. It isn’t obvious on the page because, as noted, we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Francis arrives to save us, and because his machinations only become clear in chapter 19. The main body of The Reluctant Widow is about Ned and Eleanor and their valiant supporting cast, including the wonderful dilapidated house which is conveyed with extraordinary vividness. Heyer wasn’t phoning this one in: she was throwing everything she could at the story to zizz it up. But she failed–because she was telling the wrong story.

And she knew it, I think. Francis lights the book up when he appears, and gets all the best dialogue and all the best description. Heyer plunges gleefully into portraying him as a villain with repeated scenes of Ned’s boring bumpkin brothers being appalled at Francis’s effeminacy, almost as if trying to show how stupid and judgemental they are. Francis is the point; Eleanor and Ned’s romance is merely the stage on which he performs.

Georgette Heyer knew how to structure a book. The plotting of Cotillion and the final scene of An Unknown Ajax are absolute masterpieces of craft, and I don’t say that lightly: Ajax leaves me slack-jawed every time. It’s staggering to see how well she can work a plot. But not this one: because she was trying to tell the wrong story, because she needed to write a Regency romance, and–possibly, maybe?–because there was no way in 1946 for Francis to have a mass market romance novel of his own.

So what can we learn? Well, for a start, if your characters are being pushed to the sides of the plot, notice and ask yourself why. Are they just reactive, like Ned and Eleanor, not taking a role in driving the plot? If you’re writing a romance with an important subplot, could the two story strands be taken apart without destroying either–and can you actually intertwine them? Are you more interested in writing a secondary character than your MCs? Any of that might indicate that your main characters, the ones taking up the page time, aren’t actually the centre of your story–and that is likely to be a serious problem.

Don’t feel bad, though. As Heyer shows, it happens to the best.

_________________

Yes, I am a Heyer fiend. My new book Band Sinister has been described as “Heyer but gayer,” which is something I’ll happily have on my gravestone.

Cover of Band Sinister

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

 

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today

“I loved that this couple was completely honest with each other about their feelings for each other, and their feelings for other characters who held important places in their lives. It made their HEA all the more delightful and believable. … this book is really, really good. Go one-click, you won’t be disappointed.”–Smexy Books

“A wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights. It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.”–Caz’s Reading Room

All buy links