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Let’s talk about sex (scenes)

Sex scenes tend to loom large in romance. So let me first note that they don’t have to. Romances can be closed-door (sex happens off page) or entirely sex-free (asexual romances, books that lead up to a marriage with no shenanigans in advance) and work brilliantly.

Don’t believe anyone who says you have to have on-page sex. Don’t believe anyone who says it has to happen at certain “beats” in the story, or by a certain percentage of the MS. Don’t believe anyone who says that sex has to follow a progression of escalating acts in a particular order. Ignore everyone. Listen to me, and only me. Send your credit card details to—

Sorry, got carried away there.

Okay. Let’s assume you want sex scenes. So, how to go about it?

The received wisdom is that in romance (not erotica or erotic romance, which are separate beasts to which this blog post does not apply), every sex scene needs to advance the plot on some level. A sex scene should not be skippable.  Remember here that plot is character in action. A sex scene might have any of the following effects:

  • MCs who don’t know each other well create a tentative connection, so MC 1 feels able to flee to MC 2’s home when disaster strikes
  • MCs who click/laugh/otherwise develop their emotional relationship in a way they have not before now
  • MCs reveal insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities, or past trauma
  • MCs reveal a quality that hasn’t been apparent before, whether unexpected kindness and consideration, humour, passion, or a more alarming side
  • MC says something stupid in the aftermath and borks everything
  • MCs are seen shagging, setting off plot repercussions
  • MC1 develops trust and feelings that will be catastrophically let down when they learn that MC2 is a lying liar
  • MC lets something slip in the throes of passion that alters their partner’s opinion of things, whether “I love you” or “[ex girlfriend’s name]” or “okay, the double agent is…”
  • Bonking sets off magical effects eg moving tattoos, prophecy, visions, portals to other universe
  • The desk on which they’re shagging breaks, and MCs discover the long lost will in the wreckage.

I have written most of those, if not the last one, though I am keeping it in my back pocket.

You will note I’m not including “MCs fall deeper in love”, although that is perhaps the most popular sex-scene outcome. That’s because it’s not enough to say “they bonked and the rush of endorphins did its thing.” I want to see them falling more in love, not because the sex was good, but because of exactly why it was good, and how that springs from and affects character.  

A few questions to ask yourself:

Are they going to end the sex scene in a different place to where they started?

Not physically (unless you’re doing the portal thing), but mentally/emotionally. Who’s going to regret it? Feel stupid? Wish they’d clarified relationship terms beforehand? Blurt out I love you? Fail to say I love you when it’s called for? Has this moved their relationship forward, or sent it off in a different direction? Have they had a useful conversation? If they are in exactly the same mental/emotional place at the end except sweatier, what have you added to the romance or the plot? Possibly they broke the desk and found the will, and that’s fine. But make it something.

What are we learning about the MCs by what they do in bed?

In some books, an MC’s sexual urges are plot drivers. A Seditious Affair has an upstanding Conservative government official who is secretly a gay submissive with a pretty extreme humiliation kink, and has been fairly badly traumatised by a previous lover’s inability to understand his desires. The sex scenes in this book are numerous because that’s initially the lovers’ only means of connection, and because we the reader have to understand quite how poorly matched his desires are to the rest of his life, and how wretched and ashamed he feels about it, and the extremity of those desires, and the kindness and consideration shown by his lover, and their growing mutual understanding/trust, and the fact that their idea of post-coital pillow talk is arguing about books. The conflict, internal and external, of this book boils down to sex and politics, so there’s a lot of sex on page (and also a lot of politics, sorry).

In other books, the MCs’ conflicts have nothing to do with sex, and all of the plot and relationship progression happens elsewhere. That’s absolutely fine: it’s not all about bonking. But in that case, you’ll want to consider writing fewer/less detailed/no sex scenes. Or if you feel you need explicit scenes on page, identify why that is, and see if you can, eg, shift some of the emotional progression to within a sex scene. Don’t just stick one in because romances have to have sex: a) they do not and b) it will be skippable.

Let me here beg you not to have the MCs do super-sexy things just because it’s a sex scene. The kind of sex they have and things they say will still be rooted in character. Some people don’t like to talk, are perfectly happy with affectionate vanilla sex, don’t enjoy penetration, have no idea what they’re doing, or are otherwise not classic Romance Sex Gods in any of a million ways. They are entitled to that, and those scenes can be just as hot and satisfying as any other.

What happens if it’s lousy sex?

Most romance sex is orgasms all the way, as it should be, but why not try negotiating failures, not liking stuff, when someone asks to stop, or the need for improvement? If a hero who comes in thirty seconds and rolls over to go to sleep is good enough for the great Beverly Jenkins, it’s good enough for you. (A Chance at Love, and obviously he gets better, but this scene is magnificent.)

One of my most important sex scenes comes in Subtle Blood, a m/m romance and book 3 of a trilogy. So far Will has always been on top in penetrative sex. He asks his lover Kim to switch things around. It goes super badly and Will hates it, so they stop. This triggers a conversation where he’s forced to explain himself (a thing he is also incredibly bad at) and thus leads to the big love declaration.

Will took a deep breath. “I wanted to give it up to you, the way you do to me. The way you make me feel when I have you, the things you say when I do it. I wanted to do that for you. I thought I could show you that way.”

Kim’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“I wanted to,” Will said, wretchedly. “Only, it didn’t feel—”

“Hold on a moment. I would also like to have you give yourself to me. I would like that more than anything. I’m not sure why you think it needs to be physical.”

Physical would be easier, or at least he’d assumed it would be. “Doesn’t it?” he said, knowing he was stalling.

Kim brushed a thumb over his eyebrow, down the side of his face. “I love you, Will. I’ve told you that, knowing you weren’t ready or able to answer. But it isn’t the easiest thing to repeat I love you and I want you to a man whose idea of the future is ‘we’ll see where we go’.”

“Kim—”

“You were always welcome to my body,” Kim went on steadily. “Making you free of my soul was a great deal harder. I am unsure of your intentions, and unsure I have any right to ask for them, and I told you how I felt anyway because I promised not to lie any more. That’s giving it up to you, and it’s really not the same thing as a spot of recreational sodomy.” He gave Will a half-smile that wasn’t happy. “You’re confusing truth with acts, my love. If you’re offering, I’d rather have truth.”

I wrote it this way because we already know they’re terrific in bed, so another great shag wouldn’t actually move the dial on their relationship at all. Whereas the awkward failure to launch forces Will to confront and vocalise the feelings he was trying to avoid talking about.

How much detail and at what point?

You don’t need to make every scene blow-by-blow-job. It may be that you concentrate on the dancing around, heated glances, slow undressing, discussion of what they both want, and then pretty much skim over the actual Insert Tab A Into Slot B. Or perhaps you want to make it super physical which means getting down quick to the nitty-gritty of thrusting. You might need just a few lines of lovemaking to establish that they’re clinging to one another, or an extended X-rated sequence, or an entire chapter that’s mostly negotiation and discussion. You can play it any way you like, as long as you consider what you’re trying to convey. But don’t feel compelled to write any more detail than the scene actually needs.

***

I was considering writing about the mechanics of writing sex scenes here but this is already too long plus I have reached a conclusion on my way, which is: once you work out what a sex scene is for, in the plot, you’ll know what sort of sex should be on the page. If it’s an intense exploration of kink, then there’s going to be issues of power and vulnerability and trust and a lot of physicality. If it’s hatesex in an enemies to lovers, you’ll need to make it wild. If it’s about making an emotional connection, you’ll need to focus on dialogue and feelings–the warm fuzzy kind as well as the knickers kind. If the sex is just underpinning how great everything is, there may not be a lot more to say than that it happened.

A few mechanics

  • Do think about your characters’ actual bodies, relative heights, number of limbs (unlikely to be more than four each except in certain subgenres), etc, and make sure whatever’s happening is physically possible. You don’t want the reader breaking off to find a couple of Barbie and/or Ken dolls in order to check if something works.
  • Use the level of language suitable for the people and their experience (and, in a historical, the time period. Here I highly recommend the work of Jonathon Green whose Dictionary of Slang gives dates of first use.)
  • Silken sheaths, quivering cores, pebbled nubbins etc are so last century. “His manhood” and “her feminine core” are uncomfortably gender essentialist as terms for body parts and also somewhat ew. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘cock’.

The interesting part isn’t what MCs do with their genitals: it’s how the people involved feel about it. Smells, shudders, sensations, touch and taste. Emotional needs and responses along with (or at odds to) physical ones. Something in the world shifting, a little or a lot, because of what they do. That’s what makes an impact on the reader, which is what it’s all about.  

Thanks to Iona for the inspiration for this one!

Know Your Place

I have taken to soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas, and today’s is an excellent one from @kilerkki.

Your books often have a really strong sense of place—how do you build the setting? (How do you keep yourself from getting lost in blueprints while your characters are wandering London’s back alleys/some fancy manor’s corridors?)

First things first: if you want the reader to feel a sense of place, you have to have it yourself. Seems obvious, but it’s very easy to plonk your characters into Generic Village or Generic Stately Home without really thinking about it beyond “there were some houses” or “there were some rooms”.

The easiest way to get your own sense of place is of course to visit a real location, so you actually understand what the landscape looks like, how much sky there is, how it feels. I like to steal stately homes from reality because it means I have mental and actual pictures, a ready-made floor plan to adapt, and a general sense of “this is the right age, right sort of place for this area”, plus there’s usually some delightful quirk that triggers a plot idea. Peakholme in Think of England is based on Cragside, an incredibly technologically advanced house for its time, and its special phone system and electric wiring were plot crucial. Crowmarsh in An Unsuitable Heir is based on Baddesley Clinton because it has a moat, dammit.

Of course, it’s not always feasible to make a trip. If you’re an American writing Tudor England, that’s a long way to travel in time as well as place. So use maps and, importantly pictures. There are a quite staggering number of resources online with searchable collections of watercolours and engravings, and loads of old maps available online/as reproductions.

These things are important because they will give you a sense of place which you can then convey to the reader. This does not mean you should write paragraphs of detailed setting: nobody cares about your research. You need to know because that means you’ll write with confidence, and also there won’t be snafus of the kind that readers inevitably pick up. But accuracy is worthless if it’s not conveyed in good, effective writing, and nobody’s romance-reading experience was ever enhanced by a paraphrase of the Wiki entry on Chatsworth House.

Obviously you can make up a fictional town, or house, or battleship. But you do need to make it up in enough detail that your characters aren’t just walking through a vague indeterminate fog.

So how to create a sense of place without fly-tipping your notes onto the page?

Practical details: what do you need?

Consider what the reader actually needs to know about the place on a practical level, and think very hard before supplying much in excess of that. Take stately homes. In Proper English, the layout of the house is crucial to the murder mystery and the reader’s understanding. In Any Old Diamonds, the actual layout is almost completely irrelevant. I’d hazard that a reader could sketch much of the floorplan from Proper English accurately because of the level of detail I put in, whereas for Any Old Diamonds the most you could say is “there’s a dining room, a drawing room, a billiard room, and several bedrooms.” I knew what the house layout was, at least enough to ensure that the billiard room doesn’t migrate around the building, but I couldn’t find a reason to trouble the reader with those specifics. (We do however know a lot about how the Any Old Diamonds house is decorated, and also about the exterior, because those were important.)

Descriptive detail: where the devil is

I mentioned needing a reason to tell the reader stuff. Practical information is one reason to put information in. Atmosphere—the sense of place—is another. So let’s look at that.

In my 1920s Will Darling Adventures, Will owns an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop in an easily ignored side street off Charing Cross Road called May’s Buildings. Here’s more or less everything we learn about May’s Buildings across three books:

  • It’s only accessible to cars at one end and it’s not yet lit with electric (important practical details for plot)
  • There’s a pub at the Charing Cross end (practical detail for plot) called the Black Horse (actual historical fact, which matters to literally nobody but me)
  • The next-door shop sells umbrellas and walking sticks.

This last point is not plot relevant (though I am now kind of wishing I’d done a fight in a walking stick shop). We learn it in the following sentence:

Will went next door, demanding, “Can I use your telephone?” His neighbour, Norris, purveyor of umbrellas and walking sticks, waved an uninterested hand.

I could have said “the shop next door” to the same practical effect (it’s just there to give Will access to a phone). What do walking sticks and umbrellas add? Why put that in?

Well, a walking-stick-and-brolly shop is very niche. It’s not going to have high footfall or attract customers from miles around: people buy them, but they don’t buy many, or often. It’s exceedingly British, with a rather musty and dusty feel and there’s a delightful class marker in ‘purveyor’ rather than ‘seller’.

“A little alley with an antiquarian bookshop next to a purveyor of walking sticks and umbrellas” gives you a vibe. You know what it feels like, if not exactly what it looks like. If asked what the shop on the other side might be, you might speculate a very old-fashioned toyshop, or a place that sells clocks, or a specialist in cake pans. You would not say a fishmonger, or a trendy dress shop buzzing with Bright Young Things.

That’s a fair bit of atmosphere, dropped in not as part of a descriptive paragraph (face it, people skip descriptive paragraphs unless you make them read), but on the fly. It keeps the reader conscious of Will’s surroundings without labouring the point. We don’t get an actual description of Norris’s shop; we don’t need one. But its existence adds to the sense of place.

Because sense of place is more than physical description of geographical features. You can build it up with references to much more—smells, how crowded/empty it is, what people wear or do, how they look, the food you can buy.

Here’s another from Slippery Creatures, since I’m on a shop roll.

Maisie worked at a milliner’s on Lexington Street, which had a fancy French name and served women who, she said, needed to look at exciting hats while they bought boring ones.

I could have gone into detail about what sort of street Lexington Street is, what’s the nearest Tube, what the shop looks like—the rows of hats, how the exciting and boring ones are displayed, the way the staff dress, the level of snootiness. I didn’t, for three reasons:

  • The reader doesn’t need to know. (Crucial)
  • Will, our viewpoint, doesn’t know anything about hats. (Important for character)
  • I don’t know anything about hats. (And am too lazy to learn)

But you can tell the kind of shop it is—expensive, fancy but not with cutting edge clientele. You don’t have to know where Lexington Street is to guess that it’s in the right area, but not on the really fashionable circuit. It’s a little detail that lightly sketches in a bit of Will Darling’s London. But frankly, what we really learn here is that Maisie is a shrewd woman who has more to offer than her current employer is using. I’m just slipping a bit of place in with that.

This is important. Because remember how I said that readers skim description? Well, they really do, unless you make them need to read it. And a great way to do that is to couple your descriptive parts with other things–character-building, or plot-establishment, or building atmosphere in a way that snags the attention.

God, That’s Pathetic

The pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attribution of human feeling to things found in nature. Mountains are cruelly indifferent, summer rain is kindly, an old house frowns. (Pathetic here means ‘having to do with feelings’ as in sympathy or empathy, not ‘pitiful and ridiculous’, btw.)

Here’s Piper, the house in The Magpie Lord.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls like deep-set eyes. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods encroached too closely on what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was pierced by weeds. Magpies screeched and cawed in the trees, and a trio of the birds strutted in front of the three men.

Practically speaking, it’s an old house in poor repair. But emotionally speaking, what do we get?

  • The scary house is looking at us in a sinister fashion
  • The scary plants are surrounding us and pushing in (‘encroaching’, ‘pierced’)
  • The scary birds are pushy, even aggressive (‘screeched’, ‘strutted’).

The description gives us a strong sense something is wrong with the house, and it’s wrong in a menacing way.

The sense of place here comes as much from the pathetic fallacy as from the practical description. Let’s try it without.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods were growing up around what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was full of weeds. Magpies called in the trees, and a trio of the birds hopped in front of the three men.

That’s a perfectly adequate description, but it doesn’t have what I’d call the sense of place. You could skim that without missing anything.

(For a laugh, let’s run it again with a different set of feelz.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls, catching the sunlight in friendly winks. The front was lush with ivy, and the vibrant sprawl of the woods was reclaiming what had once been strict formal gardens. The gravelled drive sang with wild flowers. Magpies called greetings from the trees, and a trio of the birds danced in front of the three men.

Aw. Let’s hire it for a holiday home!)

The pathetic fallacy—loading your description with your character’s feelings—can do a ton of work in character development, and is more engaging to read as description than purely factual. It can however be overdone very easily so watch yourself.

Figures in a Landscape

As noted, it’s ideal if your writing is trying to do two for the price of one. If your description both conveys the surroundings/place and reflects the viewpoint character’s mood, you’ve got a better chance of keeping the description-skippers engaged while saying what you need to convey.

Here’s a longish bit from The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (the first of my Doomsday Books duo, coming from Sourcebooks in 2023). It’s the opening chapter after a somewhat turbulent prologue that’s established Gareth is both highly strung and very wound up.

Gareth arrived on Romney Marsh four days after that. It was bleak beyond words.

The stage stopped at a coaching inn, the Walnut Tree, high on a ridge. The land stretched out before them, grey-green, blotched with black scrubby trees, and cut with silvery lines that looked for all the world like streams except that many were unnervingly straight. He couldn’t see much in the way of houses on the flat land below, or of anything except the sea beyond. An icy wind whipped up the ridge. He shivered.

The road from the ridge took a steep descent to the unfathomably flat land of the Marsh. There were a lot of sheep, Gareth noticed. And there was a lot of water, because the straight lines were indeed streams, except they had to be man-made. Canals? The channels looked steel grey as he passed, like blades cutting through scrubby grass, and scrubby trees, and scrub.

Why had his father wanted to live here? Why would anyone?

The coach traversed a wearisome six miles through nothing, emptiness dotted with sheep and the occasional flurry of cottages huddled against the wind. At last it came to a halt at Dymchurch, his destination. This was a town, though only just, with a squat Norman church and a long high street. The stage passed an alehouse called the Ship and then stopped at a public house halfway down, one that was adorned with a ship’s figurehead on its wall but was called the City of London. Someone should have thought harder about that, in Gareth’s opinion.

He got out, stretched his aching legs, and looked around. It didn’t take long: there wasn’t much to see. He was used to bustling crowds, dotted with bright bonnets and smart coats. Here there was just a handful of drably-clad people who looked like they had hunched up against the weather at birth and never quite uncurled again. Farmers and shopkeepers, he vaguely supposed. An elderly gentleman wearing an old-fashioned periwig was speaking to a pretty young woman in a brown skirt and mannish black coat.

What have we got here?

Well, we’ve got factual description of Romney Marsh including your actual pubs and town, and the important fact that this isn’t wild or waste land: it’s a man-made working environment. We establish that it’s very flat and not highly populated, and the people it does have are provincial, a bit old-fashioned, not rich or visibly exciting.

But it all comes with feelings. Everything is dismally low: flat, hunched, squat, huddled, scrubby (for trees). It’s featureless: bleak, drab, nothing, emptiness, scrub again. It’s miserable.

Or is it? Because we’ve also established that Gareth is uncertain, even fearful (unnervingly, shivered, unfathomably). He’s tired (wearisome, aching). He’s snarky, too, with very much a city-boy-comes-to-the-country vibe. All of this description of Romney Marsh is coming through the eyes of a nervous exhausted man with a tendency to snipe. We’ve learned about the place, but we’ve learned a fair bit about Gareth from how he views the place.

Which (I hope) means that later in the book, when Gareth finds his feet and indeed his love interest in the Marsh, the change in tenor of the descriptions will give the reader an entirely new view, both of who he is and of where he is. We learn about Gareth by seeing him as a figure interacting with his landscape.


Don’t think about sense of place as requiring detailed on-page description for its own sake. Think about a place’s vibe, and about how your characters interact with their world. Because if you can convey that, your settings will be, not background, but a living part of the book.

Characters, Politics, Fish, and You

Let’s talk about politics. Specifically, your characters’ politics, how you position them, and how they/you express them.

If your immediate thought was “My characters don’t have politics”, you’re wrong. Your character, if in a contemporary, votes, and if they don’t vote, they’re making a decision not to participate. They will have a view on how much tax they want to pay and what it should go to. They will have an opinion on gun control or Brexit or parking restrictions on their street or how much they pay for health care. As for historicals…well, the Regency was one of the most turbulent political periods of Britain’s history, a prime minister got assassinated, there was ongoing popular revolt and incredibly severe laws against sedition, and absolutely everyone had Views about the Prince Regent. No politics? Don’t kid yourself.

 And I haven’t even touched on issues of race, class, gender, religious freedom, disability, and sexuality. Name me a human society in which those aren’t relevant.  

All of that is politics. Everyone has politics. If you think you “don’t have politics” that probably means the politics happening around you are the sort that suit you, in which case you’re a fish not noticing water.

“Okay, my characters probably have politics, but I don’t want to get into that,” you might say. Fine, but politics are a facet of character just like everything else. They might not be at the forefront of your plot, or a topic of conversation. But you’d struggle to write an entire novel about fish in which water played no part at all in informing the plot, character, or setting.

Politics can affect character implicitly or explicitly. You can show us what the MCs think and how their histories inform their attitudes which inform their personalities. You can show us how they interact, especially from positions of difference: how ready they are to challenge themselves or hear new views.

This can be explicit. My Society of Gentlemen Regency series is exceedingly and overtly political, in settings and dialogue and plot. But the reason it worked as a romance series rather than a lecture tour is that the politics made for some hellacious conflicts.

In A Seditious Affair, Silas Mason is a working class seditionist while Dominic Frey is a committed Tory who works for the Home Office, and their book is set around a (real) conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet, because let’s not muck about. Dominic and Silas in particular are about as impossible a pair to get to the HEA as I have written. Because of the huge political gulf between them, I had to dive deep into their personalities to show what did work between them, what brought and held them together. I used the politics to drive the love story and the external plot together: you could not take out the political bits because the political bits are all about the romance.

But that’s far from the only approach. Compare, say, this from Band Sinister. Guy, a fearful and sheltered country gentleman, has just been introduced the Murder, a hellfire club.

Raven opened his mouth. Penn said, mildly, “Every man is entitled to his beliefs.”

“Yes, any man has a right to his beliefs, and a duty to question them too,” Raven retorted. “If you don’t take out your beliefs for washing now and again, they’re just bad habits.”

That started a discussion among the company in general, greatly to Guy’s relief. He ate and drank and watched his tablemates as the conversation swerved like a drunkard in the road. They went from the need to abolish the offence of blasphemous libel and separate church from State into a discussion on the system of elections. Martelo and Salcombe argued that every man over the age of twenty-one should be entitled to a vote and representation in the House; Raven and Street suggested women’s opinions should be canvassed equally; and Corvin spoke, with languid wit that might even have been seriously meant, about the desirability of abolishing the House of Lords. “After all,” he said, “I have a seat and a voice there, and you wouldn’t put me in charge of the country, would you?”

It was beyond argument, for Guy: he couldn’t begin to formulate answers to questions he’d never even considered asking. He just listened, in a slightly wine-flown haze, to a debate that felt like some sort of lengthy hallucination, each proposition more destructive and extreme and simply not done than the last.

This, then, was a hellfire club: a debating society for alarming ideas. Guy could well understand why one would need a private room; a zealous magistrate could prosecute some of these opinions if aired at a public meeting. But this was Rookwood’s home and thus, since he was an Englishman, his castle. The Murder could say what they wanted in their own company, and Guy, who hardly ever said what he wanted, had nothing at all to offer this meeting of lively, informed, well-travelled people saying unimaginably bizarre things. He simply watched and listened, with the sense of being caught in one of those fiery upheavals that Salcombe said had made the world.

The point here isn’t what Guy or indeed his love interest Philip Rookwood think about any of these specific propositions: we don’t find out. The point is that he’s being submerged in a tsunami of new information and thought and also ways of thinking that he finds at first terrifying and them world-expanding. Which is a foreshadowing of the sexual awakening he’s about to have (albeit in rather more detail because romance, ahaha). The political discussion here serves to tell us the kind of person Guy is at the start of the book, and hint to us that he’s yearning for more; it also indicates the deep divide between him and Philip in terms of attitude to life, experience, willingness to conform. Guy is unthinkingly conservative; Philip is consciously (self-consciously) radical. Their romance is among other things a process by which Guy opens his mind, and Philip comes to understand and respect the values Guy does hold on to.  

Politics, like everything else, is character. But it’s also potentially a wonderful source of worldbuilding. I set my Will Darling Adventures in the early 1920s. You can populate that world with flappers and nightclubs and Bright Young People, and indeed I put in a lot of that. But it gets a lot chewier if you put in the context too. (The Bright Young People were unquestionably a bunch of privileged twats who should have been first against the wall at the revolution, but they were also a specific reaction to a political situation: an entire generation of young people with heroically dead older siblings they couldn’t live up to, facing a world their elders had made a bloody mess of and opting out.)

The politics of the time inform the world and the characters, main and minor. The upper classes have been hit by death duties, often several times in a few years, and their power is slipping, which drives a lot of the plot. The country is full of resentfully jobless demobbed soldiers like Will, who would probably be quite small-c conservative if people didn’t keep pushing him into extreme situations (whistles innocently). Women are holding on to the opportunities they had in the war and looking for new ones: Maisie, a black working class Welshwoman, is doggedly claiming a place in a white privileged men’s world, while Phoebe, a Bright Young Person, is solidly upper class but probably the most radical character in the book as she skips gaily over boundaries of class and gender that Will smacks into face first. And the extreme politics of the time leave real scars: Kim, an aristocrat, had a catastrophic flirtation with Bolshevism followed by a ghastly disillusionment post Revolution, all of which is character and plot crucial.


A delve into politics—which we could also call ‘what’s going on and what the characters think about it’—provides huge opportunity for building character and world alike. It doesn’t mean MCs delivering lectures or undigested infodumps. It just means thinking about how your characters exist in the context of their place and time, and showing that.

Consider the water your fish swim in. Then you can decide how clear or turbulent you want it to be.

No, *You’re* Wrong: writing arguments

I wrote a while ago about conflict in romance. My main point was that ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean ‘argument’. The MCs can be in deep conflict with a situation or third party, or even profound disagreement with each other, without ever raising their voices or even having an angry feeling. This set-up can produce some of the most heart-wrenching romances precisely because the conflict isn’t about argument or clashing.

Which is great. But today, we’re forgetting about lovers who are star-crossed, and concentrating on ones who are just plain cross. Let’s talk about blazing rows!

I love a good blazing row in a romance. People in a temper blurt out truths or, even worse, real subjective feelings and resentments that Calm Them would never have voiced. They say things that are grossly unfair and just accurate enough to get under the skin and stick there; things that hurt, and have to be apologised for and discussed. This can be a fantastic way to raise the stakes of a story, put a whacking obstacle in our lovers’ path, and dig right into the heart of the problems.

That’s argument done right. Done wrong, it’s one of the quickest ways to get readers to hurl the book across the room. You can torpedo your entire book with a badly done argument, for reasons we’ll cover.

Before we start, it’s as well to note that a well-written blazing row is liable to be raw, stressful, and even potentially painful for many readers. Some people may consider that a MC who raises their voice in anger is abusive. There is certainly no compulsory requirement for a romance to contain an argument, and if your story doesn’t need one, don’t have one. A lot of people will actively seek that out.

With that said, and assuming you’re going for Full Metal Racket, let’s start with the obvious ways to do this badly.

Insert Row Here: the third act break-up

We’ve all seen this one. The synopsis or “beat list” or whatever demands that there should be a row, so the author writes a row. All too often, this is done to provoke the dreaded Third Act Break-Up. Eyeroll emoji.

Two problems with that. First, a good blazing row needs to come from somewhere. Hurt; fear; a sense that the other person is treating you badly; a deep-seated resentment. These are very real emotions, but they are not positive ones, and if your couple feel like that about one another even temporarily, you’ll need to put in the work to show us how they fix it. Do it in the third act of a romance, and you’ve got a mountain to climb for a plausible HEA. You will have to persuade the reader that these difficult issues—very often coming down to lack of trust—can be resolved, and you’ve only got a couple of chapters to do it.

(Here I observe that Adriana Herrera’s American Love Story has two characters who have a lot of very big, serious arguments which are deeply rooted in their characters and situations, and the book ends with them together in couples therapy. It’s absolutely spot on: they clearly have a shedload more work to do on their relationship, and we’re left believing they’re both profoundly committed to making it happen. It’s a lot more convincing than a glib declaration of love would have been.)

This brings us to the alternative problem, when the author doesn’t dig into deep-rooted issues, but instead goes for that old favourite, the completely manufactured nonsense row. Extra points if it could have been resolved in two lines with basic communication.

“I saw you kissing a man on the street! I will never speak to you again and have blocked you on all channels to prevent you explaining yourself!”

[three chapters later]

“Oh, it was your brother, my bad.”

Toxic Avenger

The thing about blazing rows is, they are not the pinnacle of good human behaviour. When we argue, we are all liable to display anger, resentment, defensiveness, lashing out, irrationality, spite. I am bang alongside realistic characters who behave badly on occasion and say things they regret—up to a point. The tricky part is judging that point.

For me, a blazing row has an in vino veritas quality: people lose their inhibitions temporarily and speak their truth (which is not the same as the truth, or indeed their only truth). It’s a moment for the character to be their authentically worst self. But think carefully how bad that worst self should be. There are countless m/f romances where the hero is provoked by rage into misogynist slurs, for example, and as far as I’m concerned, that hero can get in the bin immediately because he’s shown his true colours.

It’s not necessary. You can work up a fantastic row based on someone’s actions, and what those actions reveal/imply about their character. Specificity is what you want, not some generic insult, and especially not a personal one, still less a slur. I love swearing as much as the next foul-mouthed Brit, but if ever there’s a time to watch your swearing, it’s in a blazing row.

Let’s say the heroine’s father owns a dinosaur-meat company that’s planning a takeover of the hero’s cupcake factory. She doesn’t tell the hero because she knows he’ll want nothing to do with her. When he finds out, well into their love affair, he incorrectly concludes that she was manipulating him to fish for information about cupcake production methods. (What, I could totally write this.)

If the enraged hero calls the heroine a bitch, the reader’s misogyny klaxon may well go off. If he uses sexual insults (slut, etc), that’s a level of intended insult and misogynist attitude that many readers will find repugnant. And on a technical level it will completely muddy the waters, because I’m now siding with the heroine even if she behaved appallingly, plus I hope his cupcake factory gets bulldozed.

Whereas suppose he calls her a conniving shit? Well, the reader will have to admit he’s got a point. If his angry language is accurate and specific, the reader can sympathise with his sense of betrayal as well as the heroine’s hurt at his misjudgement. The focus of the argument stays where it should be, on what someone actually did wrong. It remains an argument, not a tirade of abuse. And if you want to keep the reader on side with the eventual HEA, that makes a difference.

To put it another way: if you call me a bitch, that merely tells me something about you. If you call me a conniving shit, there’s a chance you’ve nailed something about me.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

So what does a good blazing row look like?

It’s based at the root in character. A useful tip is to consider a character’s deep fears or hurts, and attack them there, because that’s what triggers the defensive reaction and the uncontrolled emotion. If an MC is used to being overlooked or ignored by their family, it will hurt disproportionately from their lover.

Specific and accurate language is by far the most effective. I’m not a fan of manufactured conflict and especially not the type where one person doesn’t say what they’re angry about (at least on the surface).  

That said, remember the surface reason for the row may well not be what (or all) the row is actually about. In my Will Darling Adventures, there are multiple rows based on Kim Secretan telling lies to his lover Will. Actually (and this is what I mean about rows being based in character), the problem is that Will is in unacknowledged love with Kim but feels on the back foot with Kim’s poise and superior class status, none of which he’d admit at gunpoint. “Why are you lying to me?” is a proxy for “Why can’t I be an equal and a partner?” which is not a conversation Will is ready to have. With that as the hidden emotional motor, the surface arguments about Kim being a conniving shit speed along nicely.

See both sides. It’s entirely possible that both participants in the row have a point, or a sincerely held belief (character again). Even if one has flagrantly wronged the other, they surely have a justification of why they needed to do it. The author needs to hold both those conflicting realities in mind in order to make the reader believe in the argument. AKA: the character needs to believe what they’re saying, even if only at the second they say it.

And, here’s the big one for me: Don’t lose sight of the other emotions. If you’re well into the relationship, a blazing row isn’t just angry. It’s hurtful (I love this person, why did she say that?) and scary (Christ, are we breaking up?) and there might be a frightening sense of things running out of control. Convey those and the reader will very much feel the argument.

Example time! I am going to include a long quote from one of my books, and I expect many of my readers will already have guessed which scene this is going to be. It’s from Flight of Magpies, the third of a same-couple trilogy, and it’s in chapter 5 of 13 because it needed a lot of dealing with.  There are various stressors on the lovers which I won’t bother to detail, but, looking at the points above:

  • Character. Stephen is torn between his love life and his duties, and terrified of failing at either. Crane is very much in love with him and finding it increasingly hurtful that he might come second in Stephen’s mind. Stephen feels his life is running out of his control; Crane verges on controlling. Stephen has very definitely let Crane down. All of this comes together as we kick off.
  • Specific language. Two whole pages before we degenerate into vulgar abuse! Go me. Note that many of the flying accusations aren’t entirely accurate or fair, but all have a grain of truth to make them hurt.  
  • Surface reasons: The passage is stuffed with ‘em, several of them pointed up as such. But this is actually about the fact that Stephen’s life is out of control and he’s terrified. He’s failing and flailing. Crane spells that out to him, and Stephen’s defensive response is to lash out, and that’s what’s really happening here.
  • Both sides: Stephen really is letting people down. Crane really is excessively demanding of someone who’s at breaking point. They both need the other to do better.
  • Other emotions: This is a big old row, one to which we’ve been building for a couple of chapters and indeed three books, but it’s rooted in love and fear for one another, even if those emotions aren’t coming out in a very therapist-approved manner.

Have a look and see what you’d do better:


“God damn you, Stephen.” Crane pushed himself to his feet so hard the chair toppled backwards. “When are you going to stop lying to me?”

“That was months ago,” Stephen protested. “I thought I’d get her. I put the word out among the justiciary—”

“Which has done precisely how much good?”

“Well, what should I have done?” Stephen demanded, jumping up in turn. “You know blasted well I can’t let the Council know you’re a source. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust practitioners, and nor should you.”

“Not on the evidence of this conversation, certainly.”

Stephen’s cheeks flamed. “That’s not fair. I was trying to protect you.”

“By lying to me. Again.”

“What good would it have done to tell you?” Stephen’s voice was rising. “Make you sick with worry, for what? I was going to go after her—”

“But you didn’t,” Crane said icily. “Because you were busy. With your job.”

Stephen apparently couldn’t find anything to say to that. Crane felt the anger pulsing savagely through him and made no effort at all to hold it back. He had been so fucking patient, he had put up with so much, let the twisting little bastard rule him in every way imaginable, but this was one more kick in the teeth than any man could stand. “I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”

“Well, what would you have done if I’d said anything?” Stephen demanded. “What do you imagine you can do? Do you really think your money, or your personal killer, would be any use against a practitioner who wanted you dead?”

“We’ll never know. Because I haven’t had the chance. Is this what being short is like?”

“What?”

“Having your loved ones treat you like a fucking child.”

“Don’t give me that,” Stephen said savagely. “I am trying my best to do everything I have to do—”

“And it’s not good enough. You’re not doing all these things, and nor is anyone else.”

“That’s not—”

“You haven’t got the ring back,” Crane said over him. “You’ve done nothing to help Miss Saint. There’s this murderer you’re supposed to be catching, Lady Bruton to deal with, let alone fitting me into your demanding schedule—”

“Stop it!”

“No, you stop it. Stop lying to me, and stop clutching on to every job that comes your way as if you’re the only man in the bloody world who can do anything.”

“Well, I’m quite sure you can find someone else to suck you off,” Stephen snarled. His face was patched red and white with angry misery. “You seemed to be doing a damned good job of that earlier.”

“What? Oh, go to the devil. I turned him down.”

“Your restraint is amazing. Congratulations. What a pity Mr. Merrick doesn’t have the same self-control.”

That transparent effort to change the subject made Crane angrier than anything yet, far too angry to prevent himself rising to the bait. “Don’t even start. We talked about that.”

“No, you talked about it. You told me that it was perfectly reasonable for your manservant to prey on my student, and I listened to you—”

Prey?” Crane repeated furiously.

“Oh, whatever you choose to call it. The fact is, she’s miserable, inexperienced and lonely. It’s amazingly easy to be seduced when you feel that way.”

“What did that mean?” Crane demanded, startled by how much it hurt. “Are you talking about us? What the fuck did that mean?”

Stephen looked slightly shocked by his own words. He hesitated for a second, then shook his head violently, taking refuge in anger. “I don’t have time for this.”

“You don’t have time for us?”

“I don’t have time to argue about what Mr. Merrick could possibly do that you wouldn’t defend, or who I’m supposed to let down out of the wide range of people who want something from me. I’m going.” He marched to the door, pushing past Crane. “Going to do some of those things that I haven’t done yet because I don’t work hard enough.”

“Oh, for— That is the precise opposite of what I was trying to point out to you.”

“Thank you for the insight.” Stephen stalked out of the room, into the hallway.

Crane thumped a furious fist against the wall. He had rarely wanted to hit anyone so much, the bloody stupid obstinate lying little shit, and the unhappiness boiling off Stephen’s set shoulders made everything ten times worse.

Stephen was shoving his feet into his boots. Crane stalked into the hall after him. “Stop this, for Christ’s sake. Have some sense.”

“Stop telling me what to do, blast you!” Stephen wrenched the front door open.

“Fine!” Crane shouted, exasperated beyond bearing. “Fine. Fuck off, then, fuck you, and fuck your ancestors.”

“And yours!” Stephen shouted back, and slammed the door behind him.


I have only one more thing to add, which is: If you make the mess, clean it up. A big argument needs a resolution. Not just an apology, or even a grovel, but the MCs realising where they went wrong, looking at what the problem was, and unpicking it so that we can believe it won’t fester. Even, that next time it comes up, they’ll behave differently because they’ve learned something.

It is very tempting to resolve a row by adding a dramatic event, where the MCs have to set aside their anger in order to cooperate on something bigger. I do this a lot because, frankly, it’s fun.

Hart stared into Robin’s face. “Why are you staying? Why haven’t you gone?”

“That was an argument. This is a crisis. When we’ve dealt with the crisis, we’ll go back to the argument.”

(The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, on sale through March!)

But if you use this, don’t handwave the argument away with “When I saw you in the hospital, I realised none of that mattered.” If it mattered enough to have a blazing row about, it needs resolving. Otherwise both characters and readers will remain unsatisfied, and in a romance novel, that just won’t do.

Thanks to Kathleen Jennings for the spur to write this!

The Art of Fudge: when the devil’s in the detail

Follow 100 historical novelists on Twitter. Set a timer. Wait for one of them to post along the lines of “I spent an entire morning in a research rabbit hole that ended up giving me one lousy sentence in the MS, and I just cut it.” Check the timer. Less than 12 hours? Thought so.

A friend who’s writing a historical was wailing to me the other day:

My characters have gone to a new location and now I have to stop everything and research it, and I don’t even know how long they’ll stay there until I write it, but I can’t write it till I do the research! How do I know what I need?!

As it happens, I have just hit The End on the first in my forthcoming Doomsday Books duo (working title, books to come 2022) and I was going through my piles of research books, checking all those post-its and scribbled notes, and remarking sourly just how many of them I didn’t use. It’s a thing.

Say you decide your MCs are going on a long journey. You have two basic options.

  1. Research it. Spend days digging into means of transport, travel times, and the relevant ports or stations, squinting at bad PDFs of timetables, googling “how fast does a horse and carriage go”, and otherwise plotting the exact route.
  2. Fudge it. “Two days later they were in Berlin.” [XX check time later]

(Note: XX is a great way to annotate your unchecked details for future search as you write, so you don’t break your flow. It also has the great advantage of leaving all the boring hours with an etymology dictionary and an atlas to Future You. The disadvantage is that eventually Future You becomes you.)

You may need option 1. My book Subtle Blood has a long sequence set on a 1920s steam yacht. I spent hours finding a diagram of an appropriate yacht, pictures, looking up accounts of trips, badgering my endlessly patient sailor brother-in-law to make it make sense to me (sorry again, JP), and generally making the steam yacht a real solid moving thing in my head. In the finished book there’s not very much of this on page at all: enough for the reader to understand the action, but far, far less detail (like, 90% less) than I ended up knowing.

This was not wasted research because it didn’t end up on the top of the page. I say top because it was there, just not visible. Research informs your writing, and it shows through the text like a backlight. Readers can tell when you have a good sense of what you’re talking about. They don’t want the full facts about a steam yacht or rail routes from London to Berlin in 1920 themselves, but they need to feel like the book’s not winging it.

Or you may need option 2. If you need your MCs to be in (rather than get to) Berlin, put them in Berlin. Paragraphs of detail about how they get there are not going to grab anyone at all: the only reason we care is if something interesting happens on the journey.

Research it or fudge it. So far, so obvious. However, because writing books is always more complicated than that, we need to throw something else into the mix. Follow some more authors on Twitter and set a timer for this one:

I dropped in a casual reference to an obscure fact for no reason in book 1 and it’s become the cornerstone of the whole trilogy! Thank you subconscious! #WritingGods #Blessed

Then unfollow that #Person immediately, but you get my gist.

Every author has a ‘random detail changes everything’ story. I’ve just had one myself. My hero in Doomsday Book 1 has just moved to Romney Marsh, an isolated and sparsely populated area. I had an entire job for him in the synopsis that I had to jettison because let’s not talk about my inability to stick to a synopsis, so I was casting around for something for him to do all day. I decided he was an amateur naturalist because I’d read something that reminded me that was something gentlemen did in 1810, and frankly, I’ve already done heroes who are artists and classicists and merchants and I couldn’t think of anything else.

The naturalist thing is now not just a detail. It’s a key element in developing his character and his relationships with two other people, it’s specifically plot-crucial in three separate ways, and it will be a nifty moment in book 2. I cannot overstate how much this decision unlocked for me.

I didn’t plan any of that ahead of time. I used it because it was there. It was there because I put it there. Why did I put it there? No idea.

And this is where starting with “Two days later they were in Berlin” falls down. Because maybe if you actually looked into getting there, it might turn out there was a night train perfect for sex, espionage, murder, or all of the above. Maybe there’s an amazing place they go through with an old town square or church or mountain range begging for an action sequence, or a secret meeting, or a bandit attack. Maybe there was absolutely no way to get to Berlin in two days, it’s a minimum of five, and now you’ve borked the timetable of another plot strand, you idiot. You’ll never know if you don’t look.

Which sounds great. But let us just refer back to the first tweet, and the hours of research that went absolutely nowhere or led to irrelevant detail that got binned in the second draft…

I was going through the MS the other day, and I came across a single line that needed filling in. Let’s say it was identifying a minor character.

John Bloggs was the Earl of Blankshire’s brother. XX CHECK LATER

When I wrote this I didn’t know or care how he fits into the Bloggs family. For book 1 it doesn’t matter.

However, book 2 is all about the sprawling, weird, Gothic, and possibly homicidal Bloggs family. I know this much, but have I done the family tree and synopsis? Have I hell. I am not ready to identify John, with his particular knowledge, presence at a certain crucial book 1 scene, age, and personal characteristics, as the old Earl’s brother and thus uncle to the new Earl, our hero. I might very well need him to have a very different position in the family–married in, say, or not in the line of inheritance at all.

And the stakes are high with linked books. If you’ve written a trilogy, you know the pain of that one damn line in the published book 1 that’s completely screwing the thing you now want to do in book 3. Because a detail might open the whole book up for you (my naturalist) or it might close it down (NOO I said he was the Earl’s brother, I’ve ruined everything!) This is why they say the devil is in the detail.

In this case, I can leave him as the brother, and have that as a fixed point, which might well act as a spur for me to develop the plot. I can sit down and work out the family tree and the synopsis of book 2 now (but see above for me and synopses). Or I can fudge it:

John Bloggs was one of the more eccentric members of the Earl’s highly eccentric family. (Two days later, he was in Berlin…)

Going for the fudge is the right thing in this instance, probably. I’ve chewed it over and I can’t see any book-enhancing reason to specify the relationship at this point. And the fudge will cover, I think, more or less any choice I make. I think. We’ll come back to this post when this bites me in the arse.

There’s an old saying that 90% of advertising spending is wasted, but nobody knows which 90%. You could say much the same of research. I wish I could tell you how to distinguish between the throwaway detail that will become the solution to all your plot woes, the throwaway detail that helps anchor the book in reality, and the throwaway detail you throw away. Sadly, I can’t. You’ll find out when you write it.

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.

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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.

Yes and No: Consent in sex scenes

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

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

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

The solution? The Condom Crinkle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slippery Creatures and character through consent

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

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

“Er, yes? Oh. You mean all the way?”

“Absolutely all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It does.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Spit it out. As it were.”

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

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

“I didn’t want to be rude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Band Sinister and explicit verbal ongoing consent

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

Cover of Band Sinister

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

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

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

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

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

“If I—?”

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

“What do I say?”

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

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

“You can,” Philip said. “Come here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What should I say?”

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

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

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

“Is that good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot is character in action. So is consent.

An Unnatural Vice and Being a Mess

Unnatural Vice cover

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

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

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

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

“Bloody liar,” Nathaniel told him hoarsely.

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

Nathaniel grabbed his hair. “Just admit it.”

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

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

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

“Of course they don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel blinked. “What—“

“Check your pockets,” Justin suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want it.”

“How much?”

“Badly. Harder, you prick.”

Nathaniel grinned down at him. “Ask nicely.”

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

“Nicely.”

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

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

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

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

“Shan’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

(*the ones with sex scenes, at least)

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.  

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

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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.  

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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/  

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Watch Your Dangly Bits

Dangling participles. Sounds like an embarrassing medical condition; is actually an embarrassing editorial condition. Here I shall tell you how to identify and avoid them.

A quick refresher first of all (aka Stop! Grammar time!). This won’t take long, promise.

A participle is just a form of a verb. English uses present and past participles. Present ends in -ing; past can take various forms but -ed is the most common.

  • To go has the present participle going and the past participle gone.
  • To walk has the present participle walking, and the past participle walked. Confusingly, walked is the same for the perfect tense of the verb (I walked down the road). It’s a participle when it’s used with auxiliary verbs to form a different tense: I have walked, you might have walked, she should have walked).

You see participles all over the place but what we’re looking out for in this post is a very common construction when the subordinate clause comes before the main clause. Herewith a couple of examples of perfectly acceptable sentences. (Wrongness will be marked with an X.)

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

NB: a subordinate clause is one that has to be attached to a main verb because it doesn’t stand on its own. “The two men walked down the street” is a full sentence. “Talking animatedly” is not a sentence, and nor is “Having written one successful vampire book.” They don’t stand alone: they are there to tell us more about the main clause.

Let’s just flip those two examples around so we can see what’s going on here.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

She launched a vampire series, having written one successful book already.

You’ll notice I messed with the word order in the second sentence and have added words in order to make these proper-sounding sentences, but the participle is doing exactly the same work.

And what work is it doing? Well, it’s telling us about the subject of the sentence, and that applies whether the subordinate clause comes first or not.

The two men walked down the street talking animatedly.

Who is talking? The two men.

Having written one successful vampire book, she launched a series.

Who wrote the vampire book? She did.

Got that? Right. Now look at this.

X Today I am interviewing Mary Jones, author of the Fangs for the Memory series. Having written one successful vampire book, I asked her more about turning it into a series.

Who wrote the vampire book here?

Well, according to the structure of this sentence, the interviewer (the I of the sentence) did. Flip it around:

I, having written one successful vampire book, asked her more about turning it into a series.

And that is a dangling participle—one that has come adrift from the subject and verb it is meant to modify, and thus changes the meaning of the sentence.

A few more examples.

X Vikram had thirty seconds to catch his train. Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

Who was running? The keys, apparently.  Flipped: “The keys fell to the pavement while running to the railway station.” This obviously isn’t the intended meaning, but it is what the words say because the subordinate clause doesn’t have a “Vikram” or “he” to attach itself to. The only subject in the main clause is “keys”.

It’s very easy to see something’s wrong with this sentence if we flip it. Compare the following pairs:

Talking animatedly, the two men walked down the street.

The two men walked down the street while talking animatedly.

and

X Running to the railway station, the keys fell unnoticed to the pavement.

X The keys fell unnoticed to the pavement while running to the railway station.

This way round, it’s glaringly obvious that we’re missing Vikram was from the second sentence.

A few more examples:

X After writing the book, the editor will read it and send the author feedback.

Who’s written the book? The editor, apparently. (I wish.)

X Having abandoned his family for so long, the children no longer wished to meet their father.

Who’s the deadbeat? According to the grammar, it’s the children, even though they’re plural.

X Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.

I’m hoping it wore legwarmers, 80s style.

This isn’t trivial. The effect of dangling participles is awkward, confusing, often unintentionally comic. And that is bad writing.

The good news is, participles aren’t the only dangly bits! (I lied about that being good news, sorry.) Other modifiers can dangle as well.

Aged 5, Mozart wrote “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

X Aged 5, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was Mozart’s first composition.

Or

Dark-eyed and curvy, she was still beautiful at 60.

X Dark-eyed and curvy, any man would find her beautiful,

These examples are just clunky. But this error can get really nasty in some circumstances. Take a look at this:

Now a consultant physician, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

This sentence is grammatically correct…if the man is the consultant physician. If however that’s his ex-wife’s new job, this sentence has just sent every reader down an entirely wrong path.

Let’s unpack this. The grammar gives us this meaning:

He was now a consultant physician, and was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time.

But the way it’s worded suggests that the more likely meaning is:

He was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed in a short time: she was now a consultant physician.

It is not always obvious to the reader which is correct when meaning conflicts with grammar. Try these:

X Having surrendered, the Germans occupied the Channel Islands.

Even worse is when we involve passives:

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

For the record, the Germans invaded, the Channel Islands surrendered, and the Germans occupied them. Is that what the above sentences say? (No.)

Watch out for danglers. They aren’t hard to spot: just keep an eye out when you have a subordinate clause before the main clause, and make sure that it’s attaching to the thing it’s supposed to attach to. Ask yourself who’s doing it. (Who wrote the vampire book? Who’s aged 5? Who’s the consultant physician?) Flip the sentence around if you need to check.

This construction is, frankly, avoidable. It’s very journalistic, and can often lead to top-heavy sentences which are hard to parse. Plus, present participles in subordinate clauses often lead to what editors call Simultaneous Action issues, which is another kettle of fish altogether. (“Walking into the room, he sat on the sofa.”) Isn’t writing fun?

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While there are quite a few dangly bits in my new book Band Sinister, none of them are modifiers.

“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 on Band Sinister

All buy links here.