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The Rise of the Machines: AI ‘story engines’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*by ‘lol’ I mean ‘vomit’.

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

The website offers a sample of its romance writing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacing too fast? Presto expand-o

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some practical notes:

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

Author represents and warrants that:

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

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

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

_____________________________________

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

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Loose Ends and Razor Cuts

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

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

Let’s talk about loose ends!

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

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

So what to do about loose ends?

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

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

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

Let’s talk about how!

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I sharpened Occam’s razor.

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

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


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

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

Cover of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen

It’s release day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it!

Publisher link

Goodreads

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The Ebb Tide Beach: a meditation

This is a post about…something. Not sure what yet. But in my grandfather’s wise words, “How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”

Let’s start with a haiku.

Years ago—I mean years, more than two decades now, I was reading a book of haiku from a British Museum exhibition, just trying to, I don’t know, see how they worked and what the form did. I read quite a few. They passed through my brain. And then I read this one:

On the ebb tide beach / everything I pick up / is alive.

I typed that from memory btw. I don’t need to look it up. Those lines…

I was talking with a poet friend the other day (the wonderful Natalie Shaw whose collection Dirty Martini was just published) about how sometimes you read a book or see a play and it hits you like a truck with a sense of something big, ungraspably big, right there but also just outside your reach. Jerusalem on stage with Mark Rylance, that was one. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth we both agreed was another.

That haiku. That, for me. It’s huge. I don’t even know if I could articulate why it hit me so hard. Possibly you’re looking at it thinking, ‘…and?’ But those lines have been my talisman for a very long time, through the funerals of loved ones and in times of grief or bleakness, and at moments of wonder too. Because to me it says everything about time and timelessness and life and loss and solitude and presence, all wrapped up in a handful of syllables. (Yes it’s a translation, I can’t know the impact of the original. It’s by Fukuda Chiyo-ni, a Japanese woman of the Edo period who is considered one of the supreme masters of the haiku form.)

Park that a moment.

So I’m doing quite a lot of talky stuff at the moment because of my ~*~NEW BOOK COMING OUT~*~.  (The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, 7th March, since you ask.) I just did a panel discussion run by the wonderful Portal Bookshop in York for Queer History Month, with AL Lester and Lex Croucher, and two questions happened.

One was, Have you got any favourite research nuggets?

I can talk about this stuff for hours, and I probably did. I love the little details. Pretty much every book I write has something or other that I picked up as I read around the subject. (Russian jewels were smuggled out of the country post-Revolution hidden in chocolate, as a means by which the Bolsheviks avoided embargoes. The Victorians often kept hedgehogs in their kitchens to eat blackbeetles. Caddis fly larvae make themselves cases out of sand, shells, small rocks, etc, and will make them out of gold and jewels if that’s what you give them. Napoleon pushed for the domestic development of sugar beet to break the British stranglehold on sugar supply from plantations. The paint colour mummy brown was made from actual Egyptian mummies.) You might call it deeply plot relevant and fascinating social history, you might call it trivia, but I accrete it like, er, a caddis fly larva making a case, because God and the devil both dwell in the details. In the little bits and pieces that make history pop into the present, or briefly shift our perspective, or show a snapshot of a different life. In the atomic-sized parts that make a whole.

Another question, this time from an audience member: How do you create chemistry between characters?

That’s a large question with a million answers. Mine was specificity. For me, the chemistry comes when one person really sees another. Noticing how they look when they concentrate or when they’re miles away, the snag tooth or the scars on a hand, a turn of phrase, a coping strategy, an expertise in action, a moment of kindness or courage or vulnerability. (My husband does a kind of sideways-jawed yawn. When our daughter was a baby, she yawned exactly like that, such that 15 years on, I still see my baby yawn every time my husband does, and I love them both. Specificity.)

So I did the panel, and then I headed off to the theatre, running over the discussion in my head as I walked because I’m always convinced I said something unforgivably terrible or blurted out my credit card details. And I was thinking about those two questions and my closely related answers. Details. Specificity. How, if you’re looking, properly looking, like Howard Carter, you see wonderful things.

Terry Pratchett’s marvellous Carpe Jugulum, which has everything to say about religion and belief and living morally in a mostly amoral world, has a set of vampires who train themselves to be immune to the usual vampire-slaying devices, including becoming contemptuously familiar with a wide range of religious symbols. A slight shift of perspective means the vampires reach a horrified realisation:

“Everywhere I look, I see something holy!”

(and thus they’re doomed, because Pratchett knew what was what.)

We see holiness—wonderful things—everywhere, if we only look. Because life is everywhere, although time passes, and babies age, and people and things and ways go and are forgotten. No, not ‘though’. Because the tide is always going out. If we were vampires, if we had all the time in the world, it wouldn’t matter, but in the fleeting, floating world, we need to appreciate the moments, the details, as they fly. That was what Edo period haiku was about: catching the moment in transient, tiny, specific observations that nevertheless resonate through time like bells. Carpe Jugulum means ‘go for the throat’ but it’s also a riff on carpe diem for a good reason. Its confused priest doesn’t find his answers in theology, but by doing the right thing, right now. By seeing holiness everywhere, because God (for your personal and quite possibly non-religious value of god) is in the details.

I don’t know if all this means anything to you who are reading this. I’m still working on it myself. But I do know this much, and I know it matters in daily life as much as when I’m writing history or chemistry:

On the ebb tide beach / everything I pick up / is alive.

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What do you do when your book is too long? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?)

Oh God I’ve earwormed myself for a week, and probably you too. Sorry about that.

I was spurred to write this by a) my MS starting to runneth over, and b) a thread on Twitter where someone commented on the need to cut her 140K romance novel (gaaak). The advice given included:

  • Don’t cut it! Every word is precious!
  • Divide it into two books.
  • Cut ‘really’ and ‘very’ and the odd speech tag, that’ll definitely take out 60K.

(Let me just say, if you’re going to take writing advice off the internet, and you probably are because you’re reading this, in the name of God don’t take it off Twitter.)

So what do we do with an over-long book? Well, the first question is:

Does my book need to be this long?

I haven’t read it, but I’m happy to say no anyway. Very, very few long books need to be that long. OK, A Suitable Boy or Middlemarch or Sacred Games or London Belongs to Me, but what you need to ask yourself is, am I in fact a Dickensian level genius depicting entire inner and outer worlds with the sweep of my pen, or did I just go on a bit?

If you can maintain your vibrant narrative drive and pacing, plot interest, characterisation and energy levels, doubtless the reader will be carried along. If, however, you have sufficient plot for an average romance novel, but you feel like you need twice as many words to tell it, ask yourself why.

But KJ, it’s necessary character development and the careful delineation of their growing relationship!

OK but 140K of ‘twenty-eight times they went to the coffee shop and talked’ belongs at AO3 or Wattpad. (That isn’t a criticism: I think it is glorious that there are people who want to write 140K character studies, and people who want to read them, and a place where both sets of people can meet.) If you want to try for romance trad publication, you need your book to fall within the pretty wide parameters of the genre. A modern category romance is maybe 50-60K, a contemporary tradpub is more like 70-90K. Historicals tend to run a bit longer. The publisher will have guidelines.

If you’re planning to self pub you can of course do what you want. But if you’re charging people money, you still need to be honest with yourself as to whether you have a big book or just a bloated book.

So how do we deal with an oversized book? Well, the best advice I have is:

Don’t write one.

The best point to prevent yourself being stuck with a wildly overlong book is before you’ve typed out all those words. As you write, check in on where you are in the wordcount vs where you are in the story. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and you’re at 70K but only a quarter into your plot, you’ve messed up.

We have all found ourselves trapped in a Scene That Never Ends. (Yes it goes on and on, my friend. Some people started writing it not knowing what it was, but people keep writing it just because…) I recall a writer friend screaming, “Help, I’m trapped in a sequence of Two Men Having a Curry and I can’t get out!” The trick is to realise you aren’t going anywhere before you’ve spent a month in there.

(It would doubtless be possible to write an entire romance novel of Two Men Having a Curry as a single scene in which they fall in love over the meal. Actually that sounds brilliant, someone do it. But if it’s a scene in a book, it needs to be scene length, not book length.)

***

OK. Suppose you didn’t listen to me and you’ve accidentally written a 140K romance. What to do?

Divide it

Sometimes you do indeed need more than one standard book’s worth of words. My Will Darling Adventures is a trilogy because I could never have got Will and Kim to a HEA in a single 80K book. That said, it was planned as a trilogy from the start and each part has a clearly defined romance arc that comes to a satisfactory-for-now conclusion plus a separate external plot with an ending. It’s three books. That’s not the same as one book in three parts.

If your story is genuinely tightly constructed, and every scene contributes, and the relationship is moving forward all the time, dividing it into two may be a sensible choice. But each should have a real break point, and a real ending. Nobody likes a two-part story where the first part simply stops, rather than actually finishing. Moreover, if part 1 stops at a cliffhanger or a breakup, you are liable to annoy romance readers something chronic. The promise of romance is a satisfactory ending and if you don’t deliver without warning, some readers will happily click ‘next book’, but many others will click ‘one star’. So think very hard about how you’re going to work this. And if you do decide to sell a single story in two halves, make it clear in your marketing. Readers are open to all sorts of things as long as they are given fair warning.

Cut it!

Right. /cracks knuckles/

For a start, you are not going to lose 60K of bloat by trimming adverbs and speech tags. You are going to need garden shears, not thinning scissors. Here’s what to look for.

Losable characters

Do you have three sassy best friends where one could fulfil all the necessary plot function? Do we need to meet the heroine’s whole extended family? What is the cute kid or the guest appearance by the last book’s hero actually for?

In an ideal world, every aspect of your novel serves multiple functions. It keeps a story tight and makes it feel woven together and satisfying. If a character in your novel serves only one plot function, that sounds to me like a character whose job could be given to someone else.  (That is, if you have a neighbourly auntie who gives wise advice and an office lady who helps cover for the heroine’s boardroom sex sessions, give the office lady the advice role and lose the auntie.) Make every character earn their place.

If you have sequel bait characters for the next book who aren’t earning their keep as secondary characters in this book, rethink. I recently read a romance novel (first of a different-MCs trilogy) where all four MCs from the next two books hung around the plot like leather-jacketed extras in Grease, offering comic banter and moral support from the sidelines. They could all have been cut without affecting the story in the slightest, losing an easy 15K and allowing us to actually get into the romance without the constant interruption slowing it to a glacial pace. Sequel bait characters should make you want the next book. Do I sound like I want the next book?

Ask yourself: Would this character’s removal materially affect the development of the plot or character arcs? What role does this person play? (If the answer is “comic relief”, do us all a solid and get the axe.) (Yes, I’m grumpy.)

Losable scenes

If you cut this scene, would the book still work? If not, just how much of this scene would you have to keep? If it’s five lines, cut the scene and find another place for those five lines to go.

Every scene needs to earn its keep, and as above, ideally it needs to do multiple jobs. If you have a scene in which the MCs are discussing the break-in at the cupcake factory, and a scene where they trade sexy banter over cupcakes, how about amping up the discussion scene with sexual tension instead, thus doing both at once?

Beware multiple endings. If you’ve seen the final Lord of the Rings film with its SIX ENDINGS ACROSS FORTY-FIVE MINUTES MOTHER OF GOD you will know what I mean, but books do this too. Granted it can be hard to say goodbye to your characters, but believe me, you find it a lot harder than the reader will. Do you actually need an epilogue where they’ve got a baby? How about saving it for a newsletter bonus scene?

Stuckness

One characteristic of very long romance novels is often a sense of, for want of a better word, stuckness. The MCs spend chapter after chapter circling over the same thoughts about how they can’t imagine the other one would ever fancy them/can’t possibly fancy their best friend’s little sister, or repeating the same pattern of interaction (they go out, they get on, one of them says something snarky, they go off in a huff…). If your MCs are in a loop of that kind, break it. Each scene needs to advance the relationship, not just tell us more about the same thing.

I will here, once again, quote the best editorial comment I have ever received: “This passage feels like you are explaining the plot to yourself.” Watch out for this, it’s an incredibly common cause of bloat (especially in my first drafts). Here ‘plot’ also applies to conflict. If the heroine is repeatedly explaining to herself or others how she Can Never Trust Again because of her ex, make sure you’ve established that properly in the first place and then demonstrate how it works and changes, rather than filling the page with perseverating thoughts.

Repeated elements

I recently read a SF novel which is over 900 pages long, and of which the last half is, basically, the same two scenes played out in different forms over and over and over again. Could we not.

Want to show one MC standing up for the other? Do it—once. If you feel the need to do it more often, why? How do you differentiate the scenes—not just superficially, but what they achieve and the effects on the other MC/the relationship/the antagonists? Does the second time have a meaningfully different outcome? Could you get the same effect by writing the one scene a bit better?

See above for losable characters, watching out for multiple best friends, multiple antagonists, multiple amusing customers or relatives. Also, please have an entire post on various forms of repetition to look out for.

***

It is of course hard to let go words you’ve laboured over. If it makes you feel better to put them into a folder with a promise you’ll use them later, by all means do (and then forget about it). But it is worth considering which you’d rather read in a review:

I wish this book had been twice as long!

I wish this book had been half as long.

Just saying.


The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen comes out 7th March and is definitely exactly as long as it needs to be. Probably. Argh.

KJ Charles logo

What Is He Thinking? (or, how to make non POV characters show themselves)

On one of my regular forays onto Twitter begging for blog post ideas, Sarah Drew asked “How do you subtly suggest what a non POV character is thinking?”

That is an excellent question, and one that looms large in the minds of anyone writing single POV romance: how do we ensure we know what the other MC thinks and feels? I think the difficulties with that are an excellent reason for the popularity of dual POV romance.

Here I will note that it’s not unknown to do scenes from one POV and then repeat them from the second person’s point of view to give the reader full information. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a terrible idea. I can imagine good reasons to do it and when it might work. But I cannot currently think of a romance where it is anything other than a terrible idea in practice, so, you know, there’s a rec challenge.

Right. So, how do you get into the feelz of a non-viewpoint (NVP) character?

Well, the first question is: do you want to? Presumably you picked your POV character for a reason, if it’s single POV, or if you’re alternating, you decided that this scene had to be played from A’s perspective. So it’s worth considering how much of B’s feelings you actually want to give away, either to A or to the reader.

This can vary dramatically. My book Any Old Diamonds is narrated entirely from the POV of Alec, who hires jewel thief Jerry to rob his father. Jerry is presented as very hard for Alec to read, and because he is very deliberately excluding Alec from his feelings, we the reader are excluded too. They have sex, and Jerry teases out Alec’s wants and also listens to him, but we’re in chapter six (of 14) before they kiss. This is very much a book where, like the hapless viewpoint character, the reader can only look at the moments of consideration or tenderness on Jerry’s part and hope they add up to something. And thus, this is very much a book where you can’t skip the sex scenes.

Are you hard now?” Alec grunted affirmatively. “Good. Don’t touch yourself. Christ, you’re beautiful.”

Alec looked up sharply. Jerry’s eyes were wide and startled, as if he was shocked by his own words, then his lips curled deliberately. “With a cock in your mouth, I meant to say.”

I did it this way for three reasons.

  • Alec is carrying a huge amount of damage and insecurity. We go deep into that. If I’d also dug directly into what the hell is wrong with Jerry (a lot) it would have been 500 pages and glacially paced.  
  • This book is very much about how hard it is to know the truth of people. So it’s important thematically that the only head we’re in is Alec’s, and all we see of Jerry is what Alec sees (from which we can draw our own conclusions).
  • Let’s be real, Jerry the enigmatic, sexually dominating jewel thief is just more fun than “Jerry Gets In Touch with His Feelings”.

Of course, you have to make up for this sort of thing. Jerry eventually comes up with a multi-page grovel/declaration of feelings, plus a massive Grand Gesture. It felt the least I could do.

So: you might not want to clue the reader in with more than direct visuals of how the NVP character looks. Or, you may. Let’s now look at how we might do that.

My latest book Masters In This Hall is a single viewpoint. John (VP) is a hotel detective who lost his job when Barnaby seduced him to distract him from a jewel theft. (I do actually write books that aren’t about jewel thieves occasionally but this one is in the same series as Any Old Diamonds.) Masters is single viewpoint because the main plotline is John starting off devastated by Barnaby’s betrayal (they were just starting a relationship), and the mystery / gradual reveal of why Barnaby did it. If I’d done Barnaby POV I’d have had to spend a lot of the time in Barnaby’s head while deliberately holding back that information from the reader and it’s possible for that to get annoying.

So I went for single POV. But honestly, it’s a Christmas romance novel, we all know Barnaby must have had a good reason, so let’s see how we know what he’s feeling. Deep dive ahoy!

(They are both in Abel Garland’s country house where Barnaby Littimer is master of ceremonies for the medieval-style Christmas celebrations and John Garland is the uninvited poor relation.)

Littimer leapt lightly onto a chair like the hero in a pantomime, tossing his over-long hair back. The arrant ponce. … Littimer’s grin glittered in the candlelight. “A programme of festivities with roles for all who wish them, and enjoyment for everyone. As your Lord of Misrule, I shall direct the house, and I must implore the fullest obedience. All will be revealed, lords, ladies—”

His gaze swept the room, and snagged on John at the back. Their eyes locked. The smile died on Littimer’s face for a full half second.

Then it returned in full force as though he’d never stopped. “And gentlemen!” he concluded, and swept a dramatic bow.

Here we see John”s mere existence shake Barnaby’s confidence and polished persona. This guy is no Jerry, able to control his emotional display, but he’s very good at performing and John nevertheless puts him off his stride.

That sets the tone. We have a couple of exchanges where Barnaby is being irritatingly mysterious and trying to get John to leave. Is he trying to clear the decks for a robbery, or something else?

Littimer made a strangled noise. “If I swear to you that I don’t want to rob your uncle, or your cousin, if I promise on my life not to do anything that will harm you or your family—”

“As if I’d believe you.”

“—is there any chance you’d go away?”

John struggled to form words. Finally he managed, “You actually think I’m that gullible?”

“I’m not trying to gull you. But I really do promise it would be better if you just go home and let events take their course.”

“Why?”

Littimer gave a mirthless smile. “Because I’m trying to keep several balls in the air at the moment, most of them made of nitro-glycerine, and I’d prefer you to be somewhere else when I drop them.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m facing the immediate and unpleasant consequences of my own stupidity. If you think you fell into a trap and brought trouble on yourself, I can only say you are speaking to a master of that art. I’ve bollocksed things up so badly that all I can hope to do now is limit the damage. I think I owe you that.”

That had come out in a raw-voiced rush. John had no idea what to make of it. “Are you in trouble?”

Littimer swallowed, hard; John saw his throat move, and remembered how he’d kissed it, how it had convulsed when Barnaby spent. “A quite remarkable amount.”

His words say he’s sorry and cares about John still. He could be lying. But we’ve also got some clear physical indications of Barnaby’s distress (strangled noise, mirthless smile, rushed speech, swallow) along with the dialogue to support the idea that he’s telling the truth. Also, that he’s actually not very good at this stuff and not coping very well. He’s visibly frustrated and unhappy, which allows us to believe that he’s telling the truth with his indiscreet confession. The final para gives us a physical movement that emphasises the desire between them, but also gently nudges the reader to believe Barnaby is telling the truth: we’re being specifically shown it was an involuntary reaction that betrays his feelings.

Small touches, but they set John, and us, up to believe that Barnaby is yearning to tell John the truth, that he’s every bit as unhappy as John, that they are on their way back together. And thus, when he does confess all, we’re primed for belief and reunion.

The physical underpins the dialogue. Even showing an absence of reaction does something. Here’s Jerry again, looking through Alec’s sketchbook when they’ve had a massive break-up because of a terrible thing Alec did.

Jerry leafed through the book, page after page, unspeaking. There were the face studies, various sketches of eyes and eyebrows, and then he turned the page to reveal that accursed full-face drawing, and Alec decided he really did now want to die. He’d tried to catch Jerry’s expression in that long moment after they’d made love kissing—that intent look, the tenderness—and he’d put so much of his own yearning on the page that he didn’t believe any viewer could miss it.

Jerry looked at that picture for what seemed hours, face unreadable. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move, and Alec watched him, throat as constricted as though Jerry’s hand was gripping it tight.

At last he closed the sketchbook, though he still didn’t look up. “You’ll have to take a few of those out.”

The absence of reaction is a reaction, and the reader can draw their own conclusions onto that blankness. Here it’s crucial to show not tell (a maxim for which I have little time otherwise) because this passage would really not be improved by a detailed explanation of his probable feelings. Jerry is hanging on to his emotional coolth by his fingernails, as we see from the fact that he doesn’t look up: we may well conclude he can’t control his features.

Which leads to an important point: if you want the reader to know what the NVP character is thinking, you have to know what they’re thinking. I knew what was going on in Jerry and Barnaby’s heads throughout, and one of the things I looked for in editing was making sure their (offpage) motivations and thoughts were as sharply defined and consistent as any onpage ones. If you have a NVP character come in being offensive because the plot requires it, rather than because you know what put them in that place, it won’t convince.

That’s MCs. What about showing other, minor characters’ feelings? I’m going to cherrypick a few more examples from Masters In This Hall. Here’s Lord Sidney Box talking about his host (Abel Garland who is an industrial millionaire), whose daughter is to marry Lord Dombey, Lord Sidney’s best friend.

“Garland’s a fool as well as a vulgarian. But, a rich fool. And to be just, he is lavish to his daughter. One cannot fault Miss Garland’s dress, whatever one might think of her breeding, or looks.” They both chuckled again. “Well, Dombey’s not much of a judge of horseflesh, so it scarcely matters, and I trust her to forget her origins once she has her coronet. The ironmonger will have to celebrate his pagan festivities alone next year, and one can only hope he ceases to make a mockery of a house that deserves to be treated with a little more dignity.”

The bite in his voice was startling. The other man said, “Yes, this was your place, wasn’t it? I say, Box—”

“I really don’t care,” Lord Sidney drawled. “I regret seeing it in such ludicrous hands, or course—like witnessing a lady of whom one was once fond plying her trade on the street with a painted face. But it was always inconvenient and really, we barely used it. My father was lucky to get it off his hands, and Garland paid through the nose for it. I won’t deny that it stings to see part of our family history lost in such a way and to such a vulgarian, but it’s all of a piece.”

What do we know now about Lord Sidney from these two paragraphs? He will sneer at a man while living off his lavish hospitality. He’s got a pretty grim attitude to women, and a strong belief in the superiority of the upper classes. And he is trying to sound sophisticated and blasé with all his drawling, but we see the flash of uncontrolled temper when he reflects that his old family home has been sold to an industrialist. You are unlikely to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain.

Or how about Abel’s daughter Ivy? She is a formidable woman making an exceedingly calculated marriage to an earl:

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

She manages her father ruthlessly, and she will clearly manage Dombey ruthlessly. He is without question an inbred idiot and she’s marrying him to become a Countess. But she’s on John’s side (ish) and it’s a Christmas book. So I put in this tiny sequence at the Christmas table:

“That footman’s got a nerve.”

It was Barnaby Littimer. John ought to have told him to find another seat, clear off, go to the devil. Since all his energies were being spent on digestion, leaving very little for thought, and his general mood was of befuddled benevolence, he said, “Which?”

“The one who just offered Lady Jarndyce gin-punch. I bet she’s never touched gin in her life. No, you fool, don’t offer it to Box. Argh.”

At the far end of the table, Lord Sidney Box recoiled from the steaming jug with a pantomime of dismay. “He could just say no,” John remarked. “You’d think they were giving him horse piss.”

“If only,” Barnaby said. “Look, Dombey’s having some. I didn’t expect that.”

John watched the peer take a glass of gin-punch and raise it to Abel. “Good for him. Though he’d probably drink horse piss if you gave it to him. Jolly good vintage, eh what?”

Ostensibly this is showing us John and Barnaby ganging up to mock the toffs, enjoying one another’s company, the start of a reconciliation. But we also see that Lord Sidney deliberately make a point of his contempt for the working-class gin punch favoured by their host, whereas Lord Dombey shows fellowship and courtesy.

And then at the end, when Lord Sidney is exposed as the villain, we see Dombey’s reaction.

Dombey nodded slowly. “Yes. I beg your pardon, Garland: I believed him. My friend, you see.”

Ivy squeezed his arm. “I’m so very sorry, my dear. This is dreadful for you.”

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

He may be thick as mince, but he’s decent, and he recognises that Ivy is the brains of their outfit, and that plus the moment of mutual linking fingers—comfort, allegiance, relying on one another—tells the reader that in fact there’s more to this marriage than exchanging money for title.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it; it’s not their story. I absolutely did not want to hammer the point home because urgh.

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

John sighed with relief. It looked as though his cousin might even be making a love match in her own way after all.

There’s no need to explain everything. As with any lie, fiction becomes less plausible if you overdo the supporting details. Just drop the hint and let the reader pick it up.

And that, I think, is the key to clueing us in to NVP characters’ thoughts. Don’t over-egg it. Trust the reader, show us words and reactions, and let us draw our conclusions even if we’re not in their heads. After all, that’s how we understand people every day.


Any Old Diamonds and Masters In This Hall are both in the Lilywhite Boys series. Get your Victorian jewel thieves here.

My Best Books of 2022

Inexplicably, we’re once again trundling towards the end of the year so it’s time for my annual books post. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 248 books, although that omits the rereads: the Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers that were all I could manage during the worst weeks of Covid, the Murderbot and Kate Griffin reread in Covid recovery, and the huge Terry Pratchett glom after reading the bio.

My romance list is very sparse. This is because, with deep regret, I am excluding all HarperCollins books (which includes Mills & Boon and Avon) since the union, currently on strike with incredibly reasonable demands that the company is ignoring, have asked that people don’t review/promo HarperCollins titles for the duration of the strike. HarperCollins: start negotiating and pay your staff properly because this sucks for staff and authors alike. (I think I caught all the imprints but if I’ve messed up let me know in the comments.)

(It is absolutely fine to buy HC books, the union has just asked for a hold on reviews and promo, btw. Do not boycott.)

Romance

Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake. Wonderfully real contemporary f/f, messy characters, super queer, with glorious female friendships as well as the central romance. And very well written, too. A fabulous and hugely enjoyable story of people finding their place and each other. Enormously recommended.

Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin. M/f romance with a melancholy feel–a magistrate and a courtesan, both of them haunted by their pasts. Low-key a lot of the time but no less passionate and intense for that. The historical detail rings wonderfully true while never overwhelming the story, and it’s a gorgeous understated romance between two hurt people who can stand for themselves but still need each other. The Pingkang li series has got better with every book, and this one is a triumph.

What a Match by Mimi Grace. Absolutely delightful contemporary m/f romance. The tropes are deployed cleverly and enjoyably, the characters are real and terrifically likeable, and the romance feels really well developed. Most of all, the writing is funny, assured, with a light touch and a great line in dialogue, and the editing is top notch (rare and precious). And the cover is gorgeous.

Honey and Pepper by AJ Demas. A new AJ Demas book is always a delight. I adore the alt-ancient Mediterranean world with its cats-in-a-sack politics, sexual fluidity, very dark elements, and wonderfully realised setting. This is the very sweet and tender m/m love story of a cinnamon roll cook and a twisty lawyer-type finding one another, while both coping with their recent freedom from enslavement (very sensitively handled).

A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Lovely m/f Regency with a trans woman lead. Starts with a certain amount of angst, none of it centred on the heroine’s transness but rather on the hero’s war trauma and bereavement, then morphs into a delightfully fluffy romp with a delicious secondary cast.

SF / Fantasy

She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I actually read this last December but after my books of the year post, and it’s too good to miss out. Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother’s name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Terrific sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast.

Kundo Wakes Up by Saad Z. Hossain. A wonderful, strange addition to Hossain’s climate-collapsed world of djinn and nanotech. A strikingly moving story of loss, love, friendship, and building something real in a broken world. Can be read as a standalone, but read the whole lot anyway (start with Djinn City, thank me later).

The Devourers by Indra Das. Proper werewolves. Very intense writing, lush and horrific and physical, about love and exploitation, colonialism and queerness, myth and culture. Magical, compelling, tremendous stuff. I loved it. CWs for on page rape, violence, and body horror.

Dust-Up At The Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Think the Chalet School on Mars, with schoolgirl hijinks aplenty, including here a couple of pupils quietly but determinedly pursuing their own genders. Also, Russian spies, dust storms, midnight feasts, and aliens. Huge fun.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. SFF f/f (say that after a drink) with a gaslamp Holmes and Watson on a planet spanned by rails. A magnificently imaginative setting, a nicely developed and satisfyingly resolved mystery, a beautifully understated central romance, and a lot of thought-provoking ideas make this an immensely satisfying read. Does more at novella length than many books manage in three times as much.  

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Absurdly, gloriously entertaining. A story that hits all the beats and tropes you might think, and that’s not a criticism: you read this book with a knowing expectation of what will happen, plus gleeful anticipation for how you’re going to get there. Diverse cast, entertaining banter, lots of good swearing, cathartic dealing with 2020, and just massive enormous-monster-based fun.

The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. A wonderful read. Intense, slightly dreamlike story structure with marvellous characters, telling a fable about toxic masculinity and how it could just not. It’s a classic fantasy plotwise, and the anti/hero becoming a decent person through his magically enforced cowardice is a profound pleasure to watch. Hugely readable, excellent translation.

Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings. A crappy and chaotic set of space bums and criminals on a junk ship in the middle of a terrible war find themselves 150 years in the future … where they are the sanctified heroes who ended the war. Beautiful world-building and terrific construction of the time travel plot plus a wonderfully human story. This is very much a book about allowing people nuance and failings and redemption: lovely.

Nettle & Bone by T Kingfisher. Classic T Kingfisher – a fairy tale that delves deep into the darkness and horror that underlies those stories, both in sinister magic and in human cruelty. But there is also kindness, and friendship, and love, and hope. A magical tale with high stakes and a lot of humour.

Literature, basically

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. A glorious translation that hits a perfect balance between modern language (“bro!”) and archaisms. Brings gender to the forefront, including the less and more toxic varieties of masculinity, making it feel very much in the vein of the cowboy poet or pub storyteller. Triumphant.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I enjoyed this enormously. A disparate group of deserters, criminals and people escaping violence stick together to survive homelessness in unfamiliar, desperate Lagos. It’s a scary world where terrible things happen, but also a place where people can be kind, and loyal, and loving. A hugely engaging read with characters about whom we care intensely, and a really satisfying plot.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Brilliant in the full meaning of the word. Structurally clever and adventurous–two chapters composed entirely of ellipses, which works perfectly. Staggeringly good characterisation of the self-centred, self-regarding, worthless Brás Cubas. Really funny observations. Massive moral heft in the casual asides regarding poverty, slavery, inhumanity. Intensely readable and just so good.

The Movement by Ayisha Malik. Woman inadvertently starts the #ShutTheFuckUp movement, and Non-Verbalism sweeps the globe. In the olden days this would have been called a Novel of Ideas: it’s an intriguing concept, brilliantly explored from multiple angles, with a gloriously sour view of people underpinned by a profound need for improvement and justice. Also highly entertaining on book-publishing bullshit. Funny, absorbing, and thought-provoking.

Vetaal and Vikram by Gayathri Prabhu. Retelling/reframing of a set of Indian stories that have been retold and reframed for centuries by Indian writers, and were then retold and reframed by Richard Burton. The stories are excellently told, with a strong queer sensibility (including trans and queer protagonists, most of them misbehaving because most people in these stories are misbehaving, but with a couple of achingly lovely moments of hope and yearning too) and a powerful feminist feel.

Non Fiction

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Excellent reportage account of the Theranos startup, aka massive scam. Reads like a thriller, and genuinely shocking.

Vagabonds by Oskar Jensen. Fascinating look at London street life and how the poor survived in the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Social history as it should be: fascinating, inclusive, well-written, passionate, revelatory, and deeply humane. A necessary read if you’re at all into London history.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Truly horrifying account of the nuclear disaster. There’s a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context, and the details of the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, but the book never loses sight of the individual human stories, of people, mostly trying to do their jobs well, who did not deserve this.

The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak. Extremely interesting book on two Merovingian queens. If you don’t have a clue what a Merovingian might be, don’t worry about it, nor did I. Nasty and brutish story of two powerful women scrabbling for supremacy, and very well told with loads of atmosphere and world-building. Fascinating stuff.

The Devil is a Gentleman by Phil Baker. Excellent bio of a hack writer. Dennis Wheatley was a towering figure of popular writing, and pretty much invented the British occult. This is a fascinating deep dive into his life, British publishing, the wine trade, implausible true crime, wartime shenanigans including being part of the deception teams that helped D-Day happen, and the business of being a mega-author. Wheatley himself kind of sucked but this is great.

Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin. Very well written set of essays covering different aspects of Africa and its relationship with the West. Evocative, vivid, often extremely funny, with biting sarcasm but also immense generosity of spirit, which really makes you read with a sense of hope as well as fury. Compelling reading, highly informative, and highly recommended.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. A great biography and discussion of the books, but also a dreadful account of what dementia did to a wonderful brain. Intensely moving and deeply upsetting. A great tribute to a marvellous author and very kind/grumpy man.

Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan. A much-more-interesting-than-you’d-think history of the index. Fascinating book stuff, and hands down the best title ever.

Glomming of Obscure Authors

I read a somewhat bonkers ten books by DE Stevenson this year, all of them feelgood, gentle-but-with-an-edge stories set in the 30s to 50s. If you need a place of safety, these are great. Start with the utterly delightful Miss Buncle’s Book, in which a woman of no importance writes a roman a clef about her English village, causing total mayhem but also significant improvements. One of those books you just hide in for a while.

I also read, and I am struggling to believe this myself, eighteen Tommy Hambledon thrillers by Manning Coles, including three I had to order second hand in print (and I have three more in my TBR pile right now). I have no excuses. Spyish stories starting in WW1 and going on till the 1960s with a bit of sleight-of-hand on the main character’s age. If you too have lost your marbles, try the delightful Without Lawful Authority, the story of a disgraced Army officer who meets a burglar (officer class but down on his luck), as they form a dynamic duo who go after Nazi spies in the run up to war. A bit of regrettable period-typical bigotry, sadly, but 97% fun.  

I would also commend Now or Never, a bonkers post-war one which is not such a good book overall but which does have the spectacular recurring secondary characters Campbell and Forgan, a heftily coded gay couple who make model trains for a living and annoy Nazis/bad guys/the police for a hobby. They’re introduced in the fantastic A Brother for Hugh/An Intent to Deceive but that hasn’t been digitised, inexplicably. I’m going to stop talking about this now.

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If that isn’t enough books for you, try Masters In this Hall, by me, out now!

Masters In This Hall: New book out now!

So I wrote a surprise book, as you do. (I didn’t announce it because I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do it. Then I realised I absolutely didn’t have time to do it. So I did it. Huge thanks to Kanaxa, who created the lovely cover in an afternoon to make this possible!)

Cover has a sepia look and Victorian-medievalist text, plus flower and greenery garlands in deep reds, greens, gold. two newspaper-sketch style Victorian gentlemen with somewhat shifty expressions in the foreground, an old house in the background. General look of a Victorian illustrated paper or possibly Christmas card.

Masters In This Hall is a 30K story set in England, December 1899. John Garland is a disgraced hotel detective, sacked from his job because of the callous actions of stage designer/jewel thief Barnaby Littimer. Now Barnaby has a job managing the Christmas celebrations at John’s millionaire uncle’s home. And John intends to stop whatever he’s up to…

This is set in the world of the Lilywhite Boys, some four years after the end of Gilded Cage. It’s a standalone story so you don’t need to have read that series, but if you have, you may see cameos.

I’m not religious, but I like carols (not the ‘sweet baby Jesus’ ones, the ‘It’s very cold outside and we’re going medieval on your arse’ ones). Masters In This Hall is named after my favourite carol and I made a Spotify playlist with all the carols mentioned in the book, for your enhanced reading experience.

There are many Dickens references, and I am waiting with anticipation for the first person to complain about the particularly inexcusable pun.  

It’s out now on all the usual e-stores (some are taking a bit longer to come through). Enjoy!

Seven for a secret: a covers gallery

I was overjoyed this week when I got the Japanese cover of The Magpie Lord. This is my most-translated book and one of my chat group commented it would be a good idea to do a gallery. Which, clearly, it is. Herewith the various incarnations of the Charm of Magpies series: six full versions plus the first in the Japanese series.

The first are my Samhain covers from the original edition; the second are by Lexiconic Design for my self pubbed edition. We then have the wonderfully moody Hebrew (compare to the self pubs: super ingenious), the even moodier French, the Thai set for which I would quite literally die, and the abstract and swoony Taiwanese. At the bottom you can see the first of the Japanese ones, and it is worth waiting for. [Edit: I have now added the other two and nnngh.]

And finally the Japanese covers. Good lord.

Amazing. I have always felt blessed in my covers for this series, but seeing them together is…yeah, I’m a jammy cow.

Law: what is it good for?

So, as is now my habit, I was soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas and the following question was raised by @podcastled:

Do you have to learn the rules (“rules”) to break them? I think a post about resisting being super rule-bound would be interesting.

This is extremely interesting, especially to me because I was an editor before I was a writer. Let’s talk about ‘rules’!

When someone says, “I’m tearing up the rulebook” they may mean “I am coming from a tradition with a different set of rules entirely,” which can be hugely exciting, or “I have examined these rules and concluded they would benefit from change,” which is a vital process to keep any way of thinking healthy, or “I don’t care about your stupid rules, nobody tells me what to do, and by the way my daddy has a lot of money,” which tends to indicate a massive jerk who thinks health and safety is just red tape.

Some rules are good (don’t stick a fork in the light socket). Some rules are bad (don’t use split infinitives in English, as if ‘boldly to go where no man has gone before’ sounds like anything a human would say). Some rules are fossils. (When Gerald Durrell got his first job in a zoo, one of his tasks was heating up the giraffe’s drinking water. Several times a day, buckets of hot water for the giraffe had to be lugged out. Eventually he asked why. Turns out the giraffe had had a cold when it arrived several years earlier so the vet had recommended heating the water, and nobody had ever rescinded the order.)

In my view, and this is my blog so suck it up, if you’re going to intentionally screw with How Things Are Done, you are well advised to first consider Why They Are Done Like That. I am bang alongside messing about with form, or punctuation, or narrative voice, or structure, or most things, as long as you know why you are doing it and consider what effect it has.

Let’s take three oft-repeated Rules of Writing on which I have already written, to make my life easier. (Here I will point out that most Rules of Writing are not, in fact, actual rules.)

Image of the pirate Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean. Text over image reads, "They're more what you'd call guidelines"

Dangling participles

Or when a subordinate clause that precedes the main clause has come adrift from its referent, as in:

Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.

(If you don’t see a problem with that or need a refresher, read the blog post I did on the subject and I’ll see you back here in a minute.)

The rule is, don’t leave your participles dangling. But why are dangling participles bad? If your answer is “because they’re grammatically incorrect”, go to the back of the class. That’s the very definition of begging the question: bad grammar is bad because it is bad, which is bad.

The actual reason they are bad is that the words/grammar used don’t convey what the author means, and risk jarring or confusing the reader. Look at this:

Now the first woman president of the US, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed.

Who is the president in this sentence, grammatically? Who do you think the author actually means it to be?

Having invaded without serious opposition, the Channel Islands were then occupied by the German forces.

Who invaded who?

If you’re thinking, “oh come on, you know what the writer means”, join the other guy at the back of the class. The actual meaning of the sentence diverges from the intended meaning of the author, and making the reader stop and go back and pick through the wreckage of your grammar to dig out your meaning is poor writing.

I have tried for some time to think of an example of anyone using a dangling participle to good literary effect. (As in, an adrift one, not a correctly used subordinate clause. Do not reply to this with correctly used subordinate clauses or I will tut irritably at you, and that’s not an idle threat: I’m British.) The only cases I can think of are when it’s being used as a joke about the comic effects of bad grammar. Absent a good reason to deliberately break the rule, you should follow it.

Does that apply to all grammar issues? You tell me. What’s the rule you want to break, and why, and what will you achieve by breaking it, and would the upsides outweigh the downsides? An obvious reason to break grammatical rules in dialogue or deep narrative voice is character. Or you might be making an excellent joke in the narrative. Have at it.

Or you might simply think it sounds better that way, in which case, you will have to take the consequences, including criticism that you did it wrong. I don’t usually split infinitives in my novels even though that rule is bullshit because I don’t want to deal with the legion of self-appointed copy editors who will tweet me, email me, or report me to Amazon. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.

Wandering point of view, aka head hopping.

I wrote an entire blog post on why this is a bad thing and I stand by it. I once read a m/m romance that switched heads without warning midway during a penetrative sex scene and I swear I felt my neck crick. It’s bad style. Right?

The excellent political SF Infomocracy by Malka Older switches point of view literally from paragraph to paragraph. Why? Because the book is based in a world where everyone has in-head access to The Information, a global feed. This has turned the world into a constantly scrolling present, with people switching non stop between vids, newsfeeds, actual conversations, data, so the manner of telling the story as if flipping from tab to tab is exactly right. It gives us a disconcerting feeling of the nonstop barrage of information with which the characters cope. (This is also one of exactly two books I can think of where the use of present tense narration makes a positive stylistic contribution, and it wouldn‘t work just as well in perfect tense.) The style supports the meaning of the book. An editor who told Older not to head hop here would deserve to have his red pen ritually broken.

Does that mean you can gaily switch POV in your sex scene which is not set in an information-overload tech future? Sure. Just put in a line break or row of asterisks to clue the reader in, so it is a transferred POV not ‘head hopping’. Do you think that looks weird and clunky or jarring? Then ask yourself why doing it without flagging it is better. While you’re at it, consider a flashback, or using the other person’s POV in a different scene instead.

Or maybe you’ve reinvented the sex scene, I’m not ruling that out.* But, given the reader issues that head-hopping causes, the onus is on the writer to mediate those problems and make it work.

*This sentence breaches the ‘rule’ against comma splices, and it does so with intent. I’m writing in a colloquial voice and this punctuation deliberately expresses the way I’d say it: a semi colon would be excessively formal.   

Simultaneous action

Ah, my favourite editorial fad, we meet again. I wrote extensively on it here. The premise of this ‘rule’ is that non-simultaneous actions cannot be presented as simultaneous.

He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.

Fair enough. That’s very awkward writing. Unfortunately, this concept is then over-applied by editors who should know better, and we end up with the red-penning of totally reasonable action flows such as

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.

The actual reason for this rule is that action flows can create an absurd effect when badly done. Unfortunately, some idiot decided to extend this into saying that you can’t do them at all, which is nonsense. This fossilised rule is a coprolite.

The question is not, “Can I break the rule?” or indeed, “Must I obey the rule?” The question is, “Is this a meaningful rule, and will the book be better for breaking it or obeying it?”

This applies just as much on the macro level. One of my least favourite romance tropes is the third-act break-up. There’s a pretty common idea that it’s required to keep the drama levels up and test the relationship. Can you break that rule?

Hell yes, because it’s not a goddamn rule, it’s just a thing a lot of people do, often because they’re told it’s a required ‘beat’ by other people, thus creating a vicious cycle of unnecessary third-act break ups. (Do not start me on the concept of ‘beats’, which has been inexplicably elevated from a basic structural analysis of one type of plot arc into some kind of bible.)

Please, I implore you, burn it down. Put your emotional climax elsewhere. Never have a break up at all. Locate all the conflict externally and let the MCs stand against it, or don’t even have them get together till the last chapter. Do whatever you like–as long as it works.

As author and editor, I have always felt that “Is it correct?” is a less important question than “Does it work?” I am still irritated by an editorial note on a line of mine about someone’s “breath dragoning in the frosty air”. The editor noted the word ‘dragoning’ wasn’t in Merriam Webster but said they were going to let it pass because the meaning was clear. Yes, I know the meaning is clear, thank you. It’s clear because I chose the word very specifically to create a mental picture, and I felt free to do so because English was not actually formed by copies of Merriam Webster being dropped by God from the sky.

All that said, “Do what thou wilt” is very much not the whole of the Law. There are always consequences. If the rule is “a romance novel must have some form of happy romantic resolution for the characters”, and you decide you want your MCs to die, then breaking the rule means you will either need to market your book as something other than a romance novel, or take the consequences of enraged readers to whom you’ve sold a pup.

Knowledge, mindfulness, and accountability are the watchwords here. Use those as your rules and you’re unlikely to go wrong.

(If you want a reasonably comprehensive list of damn fool ‘writing rules’ you can absolutely ignore, such as “don’t use was, don’t use passives, don’t use said”, here you are. Don’t say I never do anything for you.)


Many thanks to @podcastled for the inspiration!

Newest release: A Thief in the Night, an Audible Original.

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