Category Archives: on writing

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

on Having It All

I never wanted the accidental housewife to turn into an internet wasteland – who ever wants that for their little corner of the internet? But even though I firmly believe what’s online is real life, it turns out the bits of real life that are offline have a way of asserting themselves. My real life offline is demanding everything I’ve got, right now.

For those of you who feel like I just announced the birth of my daughter, let me update you to the sixteen-month-old spark that fills my hours, my senses, my mushy mum-brain:

And let me also announce the expected birth of my son, in March. The body is truly a terrifying and miraculous thing! Didn’t that womb, like, only just finish building a whole person???

Before I began my second baby, I spent the first half of last year writing the beginnings of a new book. The hero, Merryweather St Acre, turns up at the heroine’s door in one scene and she sees him thus: She had thought perhaps she’d invented or exaggerated his beauty. That the circumstances of their meeting had made her imagine that extra quality to him – the something naïve and ardent and easily broken. But there he stood, too close and without speaking, and he may as well have been the virginal unicorn in human form.

The virginal unicorn in human form. It also has the heroine murdering a man in cold blood, the hero ruining some cheap pornography in the throes of pleasure and lots about the tender horror of motherhood. It’s kind of a hot mess, and I think my agent might have cried a bit when she read it because I will obviously never write anything marketable.

But. Then motherhood visited a second time.

So this isn’t a mum-blog post, this is a writer-blog post. But it’s about being a mum, because the two have collided in my life, and I made the decision that being a mum wins this round. I decided this because being a writer really, really wanted to win, and all that did was make me feel bad about everything. 

A friend said to me recently, “In the scheme of things it’s not really that many years out of our lives.” She’s right. What’s 5, 6, 7 years in a whole lifetime? But it’s not just 5, 6, 7 years. It’s the difference between being 30 and having my first novel published, and being 38 with almost no work experience, and qualifications in a shrinking industry.

Before becoming a mum I had the vague impression that huge strides had been made into supporting women to be mothers and also have careers. Being a mum, I now know that to even begin to keep up you have to be motivated and organised. Two inadequate words to describe what it takes.

I also don’t think you can really know, until you’ve experienced it, how even though you are taking on half the work of your family life, somehow it’s the invisible half. And no matter how you tell yourself that what you do is important there is a subtle shift in the way your family relationships work.

This is the contradiction that bothers me. There’s an assumption that our babies are the best of us, our greatest achievements; and yet we are somehow diminished when we embrace motherhood fully. This is the risk I take in choosing motherhood: that it diminishes me. How sad that it’s not an easy, obvious choice to make. How especially stupid when it’s the hardest thing I have ever done, the steepest learning curve, forging something true and tough from whatever wibbly stuff I brought into my thirties with me.

I’ve spent a long time trying to write this post, and it’s this contradiction I keep bashing my head against. If I describe the deep sense of completeness and contentment that comes from holding my daughter while she curls an arm around my neck and pulls my hair in a short, gentle rhythm – I feel like I’m reinforcing the idea that she’s my greatest achievement. If I describe my frustration that being a mother necessitates me also becoming a dependant – I feel like I’m misrepresenting my situation as awful.

And at the heart of it is this inescapable biological difference. I don’t know how exactly motherhood would look in a truly equal society, but this isn’t it. When being a woman and wanting a child throws you into playing a certain role, this isn’t it.

I’m not removing myself from that inequality, either. Much as I dream of being a working, autonomous adult, when it comes down to it I’m not prepared to give up being the primary care-giver. I covet being the safe harbour in my daughter’s life. I covet the comfort only I can give, the intimacy we share that only hours upon hours upon years can create. I wouldn’t give up being the final word.


It’s an intense experience of living with compromise, making a good life out of unequal parts. There’s something about the physical nature of motherhood – the body used as an incubator, the labour of birth, the bovine lactation – that cannot be easily sorted into an equal or even a common experience between men and women. It’s the first truly immovable experience I’ve had – more complete than heartbreak.

It’s not really just one or the other, though: writer or mum. My decision has had a slow, positive, exciting effect. I’m not one of those mums who can suddenly do a day’s work in an hour, haha, no. But I never did get that second book out within a year of my first, so now it’s like – the pressure’s off. Now I have time to think again about the kinds of books I want to write and the kind of career I want to have. Now I have the experience to understand that overnight success in the American market doesn’t necessarily equal a fulfilling career. Things take time. I like being able to – having to – let things take time.

So really, all of this is to say, to any wonderful readers out there waiting for my next book: I’m so sorry. It’s going to be a long wait. And also, hopefully, it’s going to be worth it.



what I learnt about writing from judging the VPA

I had the great fortune of winning the Valerie Parv Award in 2010, and this year I was finally able to give a bit back by judging contest entries.

I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about writing in a short period of time, just by reading three very different synopses and excerpts. It’s always easier to see other people’s writing clearly, and I’m grateful for what this has taught me about my own writing. I’m going to share very general insights, which don’t apply specifically to any one entry.


Synopses are notoriously difficult to write. How do you condense a whole story down to a couple of pages, all the while ensuring you don’t leave anything important out?

I read the contest synopses not to critique them, but simply as a reader wanting to understand the story as clearly as possible. I think because of this I picked up on one problem in all of the synopses – and I’m absolutely certain this has been my own problem as well: lack of specific detail.

In trying to condense the story down – or sometimes in an attempt to build suspense – we write about plot points in general terms. E.g. “She makes a plan to find out more about him.”

We feel like it’s saving space to be general and brief, but in fact what it does is muddy the sense of story. Whenever I came across a statement like this I found myself feeling frustrated at being somehow locked out of the story. It can also create confusion later in the synopsis. E.g. if the heroine’s plan to find out more about the hero is to break into his apartment and go through his things, there might be a statement later in the synopsis that’s something like, “After he finds out she broke into his house…”, which will make no sense to me as a reader. Even general statements later on such as “When her plan fails” simply add to the confusion, as I still don’t even know what her plan is.

Instead of “She makes a plan to find out more about him,” I could write, “She decides to find out more about him by breaking into his flat.” It takes up slightly more space on the page, but the reader will remain clearly in the story – and I suspect it will save words later in the synopsis when the writer has something concrete to refer back to.

Observations on writing

In every excerpt I read, the author had created two interesting characters from very different worlds and a premise that set up believable conflict that I wanted to see play out between them. All I wanted was to watch the characters interacting with each other in a scene, while their personal differences and opposing goals played out. For me, that is where chemistry sparks between characters – chemistry that doesn’t immediately have to be lust, but will more believably become lust.

In every excerpt, the author began with their excellent premise and characters and then added conflict. It mostly took that classic romance form of “I hate you, I want to bone you, you annoy me, but look at your biceps”.

There’s a very good reason the authors did this – and I know I relied on this form of conflict in my YA romance more than I should have. It’s easier to keep two characters from falling in love if they spend most of their time telling themselves they can’t stand each other. It also creates emotional chemistry between them that can be transformed into love later on. It gives you something to root for: you want them to overcome their aversion; you want to watch them change their minds.

The problem is that I’m not invested in two characters finding each other attractive but annoying. What I’m invested in is seeing these two very different people collide. What’s the point of creating interesting characters, otherwise?

It became so clear to me that the authors had built these characters and premise as a kind of canvas to write the story on. I wanted the characters and premise to be the story. I wanted to watch interest spark reluctantly inside an awful conversation. Or spark immediately and irrationally – and then run into the wall of reality.

I think it’s scary to put that much belief in our characters and premise, that we’ll simply put them in a scene together, let them be wholly themselves (even in the ways they act out) and let the story unfold. It’s less scary to add emotion and conflict, on top of what’s already there.

Which brings me to the biggest, scariest realisation I had while reading the excerpts. I know this is in large part formed by my own experience writing Untamed, but I’ve seen many writers I admire go through the same process, and witnessed the results.

The excerpts felt like they were at the stage my MS was at when I submitted it to the Award, i.e. a first draft that’s had a lot of work put into it. I was convinced, when I entered the Award, that my MS was almost complete. I just had a bit more work to do – another couple of read-throughs, some more edits. But I felt close.

I wasn’t.

What I had was an excellent place to start. I had the concept of a book, and the beginning of characters. I spent the whole year of my mentorship pulling the first draft apart, turning everything inside out – finding the heart of the story I really wanted to tell. And then at the end of the year I threw it all out and started again.

Everyone’s process is different, so hopefully you’ll never throw out as many words as I did. But I’ve seen meticulous writers go through this same process at 30,000 words, or in the world-building, planning process.

I wanted to say to the authors whose excerpts I read: Be proud of this wonderful story you’ve produced. Now break it apart, turn it inside out, dig around until your characters feel almost unrecognisable to you. Dare to turn this massive plot point completely on its head, simply because when you do it makes you go all zingy.

And I knew how it would feel to hear that feedback, because I knew each of those authors must feel so close to finishing, like I once did.


I keep wanting to talk to you guys about id-related writing stuff, but it’s such a pseudo-concept Cat and I half-invented to discuss a certain kind of writing, that I’m going to have to explain it first.

Leave all actual psychological understanding of the term at the door.

Cat, who has a degree in psychology, was going to write me a post about it. Then she decided that to do the actual psychological concept of id justice she would need to write a PHD thesis on it. Which hopefully she is actually going to do.

So here’s the made-up version:

I’ve been using the word “id” a lot recently – mostly to describe the quality in writing that I most enjoy. My over-eager use of the word has led to quite a few of those awkward moments where someone more honest than I looks at me a little confused and says, “What exactly is id writing?”


Good question.

My loose understanding of the concept is this: You know when you come across a scene in a book, or a premise for a story, and the emotion of it grabs you by the guts? It doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an emotion or moral you would agree with. But something about it is primal and captivating, and there’s no question that the idea of it grabbed the writer and wouldn’t let go until it was written down.

For me, that is id writing. The thing that appeals to you on your most basic level – often in ways that are confronting, or that you wouldn’t expect, or that contradict what you rationally look to for fulfilment. It is the satisfaction of a childish emotional urge that cannot be reasoned with.

I decided, after a few too many of those awkward looks, to do a wee bit of id research (i.e. look it up on wikipedia). It’s fascinating reading. It all begins, of course, with Freud.

According to Freud (and now I feel like I’m back at uni) the id is the instinctual part of the human mind, whose only master is the pleasure principle. It’s a powerful drive for self-gratification that’s free of moral conscience. Contradictory impulses exist without negating each other; it is “the great reservoir of libido”, and it houses the “death instinct”.

We’re born id-ridden. We are all animal, all instinct. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Then, as reality starts making itself felt, we develop ego. Ego is the realist. It takes the desires and drives of the id and manages them in relation to reality. It compromises and goes into damage control. It lies to the id about reality, to make it more palatable.

The ego is where we develop defence mechanisms. The id runs into disaster – the ego makes a plan for how to stop that from happening next time.

The last of the trifecta is super-ego, the idealist and perfectionist. The super-ego has all the conscience, and it deals out punishment in the form of guilt when the ego hasn’t managed the mediate the contradictory goals of id and super-ego. The super-ego is what makes our behaviour socially acceptable.

So when I describe writing as coming from the id, you can start to get a picture of what that means. It’s writing that strips away the layers of sociable behaviour, then strips away the acceptable reality of the ego, and taps into the pure instinctive drive towards pleasure and destruction.

A good sign that you’ve tapped into an id-idea – you feel extremely confronted by it. And that doesn’t even mean it’s a full-on idea, objectively. Just that, to you, there’s something taboo about expressing it.

It’s fascinating, actually, discussing someone else’s id-idea with them. You can see it in their face, hear it in their voice, how difficult it is to even bring themselves to speak it – even though the idea itself is more often than not something completely innocuous to the listener.

One friend had to almost whisper the idea that her two characters might cook each other dinner and take care of each other.

Sounds like nothing, right? But when someone feels it that deeply – when it’s such a subversive, breathless idea to them – you can be sure that scene is going to be breathless and subversive to read.

This is where you risk something, when you write.

It’s why I went so deep into fan fiction. Fan fiction is all id. The only reason you would take characters from a world and explore them deeper is because something about them or the world-premise grabbed you right where your most instinctive desires and pleasures are, and wouldn’t let go. And because you’re not writing to a market, you can express every single one of those ideas without censorship.

Censorship is pretty much the antidote to id. Which is why those self-published novels that are badly written and unedited are doing so well. I’d bet good money on them being chockers full of id.

Once you start paying attention, you can spot id. Sometimes it’s overt – the Japanese have id coming out their ears, so almost any anime will be full of id. The character premise and relationships – and especially the way you can be sure whatever the premise, they’ll explore it to its most extreme end. The first book I read where there was no moving for id was Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood. Her anti-hero is Daemon Sadi, the fallen son of Satan, who has spent centuries as a pleasure slave. He’s controlled by a magical cock-ring that hasn’t always been strong enough to contain his rage. But often it’s less crazy-obvious.

If our id is the animal part of us, then reading id writing is something like a hand brushed rough and good through our fur.

Cat and I have discussed id so often, and gotten so good at spotting it in each other, that now when one of us is confronted by an idea our first reaction is: “You have to write that.”

So next time you get a glimmer of an idea that terrifies you, or you think up a line of dialogue that makes you blush and go, “No way could I ever write that! Writing that would crack the world open!” – write. Explore. Be brave. It’ll be worth it.

the genesis of an idea

Just in case any of you don’t know of him, Heston Blumenthal is a mad-scientist chef. Or a gastrochemist. Or something. He’s amazing and inventive and there’s nothing he won’t try. (My favourite Heston moment was when he slow-cooked a whole pig in a hot-tub, because it was the only body of water large enough that could hold a consistent heat. He sort of looks up and realises what he’s doing and says, “I like to think of myself as a relatively normal bloke, by the way.”)

He filmed a series called Heston’s Feasts in which he cooks feasts that encapsulate a whole historical period. As part of his Victorian feast he wanted to serve Turtle Soup, which was a delicacy of the era.

The first step he takes is to go to America, to a turtle farm. He catches and kills a turtle then sticks it whole into a tub of water and boils it. That’s how the Victorians made Turtle Soup. He tries some of the meat, decides it’s a weird stringy texture, and cans the whole idea.

Next, he looks into Mock Turtle Soup, which was made from cow head and thus much cheaper and available to the aspirational classes. He follows a genuine Victorian recipe that gives him a rich broth. Much better.

He doesn’t stop there, though.

Because he’s trying to distill the whole Victorian age, he looks to Lewis Carroll for more inspiration. Mock Turtle Soup was so ubiquitous there was even a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Mock Turtle (a turtle with a cow’s head). He distils the soup down, freezes it, clarifies it, freezes it even colder or something, and creates a fob watch from the stock. He covers it in gold leaf and attaches it to a string and a “Mad Hatter’s Tea” paper tab.

His guests brew this in a cup with hot water until it dissolves into a gorgeous golden broth, emulating the Mad Hatter dunking his fob watch in his tea.

He creates a fantasy wonderland in the bowl based around the idea of the mock turtle egg, which he makes from turnip mousse and swede jelly – two staple Victorian vegetables.

You know when you read those books that just feel thin? Watching Heston create something magical, it occurred to me: Those books are turtle boiled in water. “Thin” is what you get when an author has an idea – even a brilliant idea – and writes the first iteration of that idea.

I know there have always been certain books that are produced at a high rate, and certain authors who work fast – that in itself isn’t unique to the present publishing climate. But I do think current conditions encourage fast production. On the one hand there’s self-publishing, which for some authors means a far shorter production process, and on the other there’s the expectation for traditionally published authors to keep up with the demands of a media-consuming generation.

The thing is – ideas take time. Most authors, when pushed to it, can produce words fast. Ideas generate by building on each other and stewing in the subconscious and making new connections with other ideas.

Heston didn’t even use his first idea, even though he went all the way to America to investigate it. But the end product wouldn’t exist without it – it’s even referenced in the the layers of pressed fat in the tureen. That end product is so rich because every thought he passed through influenced his process, and can be seen in layers and obscure references. It is a rich, nuanced, thoughtful, delightful soup.

For me, it isn’t viable to spend three years on every book. That’s not the kind of career I want to have. But I also want to write excellent books, and it’s worth reminding myself that quality is worth standing up for.

The next romance series in my head is becoming an absolute epic. The working title for the series is Kings of Industry. I want it to be full of interesting side plots and characters that influence and tie in to the main story. I want the relationships in the main story to be complex and shocking and unexpected. I want the industry to reach through every aspect of English life and all the way out to newly opened Japan. I want the series arc to be gut-wrenching and intricate.

I can see just a glimmer of what I want it to be, and I know I’m not even close to ready to start the first chapter. If I tried to write it now, it would be a turtle boiled in water.

So what I’m playing with is the idea of finishing my young adult sci-fi series next – which I have put a year of ideas work into. A book every three years might not be viable, but there may be something in staggering books so that one is written while another gestates, until it’s ready to be written and I start working on the next new idea.

Thanks to Yahny in London for permission to use her gorgeous pics. You can read an account of her culinary experience at Heston’s restaurant here. And you can watch Heston put the final touches on the soup here.

woman hero

My favourite piece of dialogue from Avatar: the Last Airbender goes like this:

Sokka: I’m sorry. I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.

Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.

The only female Avenger in the Avengers movie is the Black Widow – a tough assassin who can more than take care of herself. She’s deadly and clever. Her emotions are the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. In the movie we see her, twice, use her “feminine” weakness as a weapon against men who underrate and discount her for it. It allows her past barriers the more physically powerful superheroes couldn’t have crossed.

There’s the suggestion in the movie (and, I think, overt confirmation in the comics) that she lets her enemies rape her, because it brings them close enough to be killed. She lets people trespass on her – lets them all the way past her defences – and they die for it. Her martial arts skills are extraordinary, but her greatest threat lies in being a weak, defenceless woman.

In the movie, Loki, the master of getting inside other people’s heads, attacks her with the truth about her blood-drenched past. She allows him to think he’s gotten to her, and as he pushes the point venomously home, he inadvertently gives part of his plan away. All emotion drops away from the Widow and she calls through to the team to let them know what she’s found out.

The scene is excellent, because we’re viewing her as Loki does, so the moment when she drops the pretence comes as a shock and makes her seem entirely kick-ass. What I love more, though, is that later we see how her emotions were disturbed by everything Loki said. Her emotions aren’t just an act. She lets her enemies in close enough to actually hurt her, to get what she wants from them.

I like it because it’s great characterisation – but also because it means her “feminine” emotions aren’t just a weapon in her arsenal, they’re still an integral part of who she is. She is a kick-ass heroine – and she’s a woman.

Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is another mix of “feminine” and kick-ass. The first time we see her she’s playing a downtrodden waitress to get access to Wayne Manor – a guise she throws off when Bruce catches her. Like the Widow, something falls from her and her whole physicality shifts into that of a confident, competent woman. She plays the victim, the seductress, the confidante. Any female face that will get her what she wants.

In this version of the character, Catwoman’s “feminine” qualities felt less cultivated than the Widow’s. Who she is as a woman and who she is as a fighter feed organically into each other. Her emotional relationship to the world hasn’t quite been warped into a weapon yet.

The only problem is: it puts her at risk of becoming Batman’s girlfriend.

Part of the problem, actually, is that she wasn’t Catwoman. The movie played her as a clever, tough woman making her way in the world and taking what she wants. Who occasionally dons slinky clothes while she’s working. In her article applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance Kessock writes: “Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.”

There is no level between them, though, because Batman gets the armor of an alter-ego and a costume – but Catwoman doesn’t. She remains Selena, the woman, and vulnerable to him. She wears her hair out, not hidden inside the black caul that makes her impenetrable.

Cat put it like this: “Masculine” is a clearly defined space. Everything outside of it is “feminine”, and undefined. Catwoman inhabits that space. Her strength comes from being undefined. Batman will never be able to grasp her.

I find these two instances so interesting, because romance is concerned with strong women. Women we can look up to. Women who fight for their right to love and be powerful at the same time.

I mostly find myself writing the woman I would be if I had the guts. The kind of woman who shows affection by being bossy and high-handed. Who becomes vicious when the people she loves are threatened and whose strength other people know they can rely on.

I tend to write women who have in some way already triumphed over the things that stop women from acting out power. Women like the Black Widow and Catwoman who create their own path. Women who represent a goal, not a daily experience.

Feminist readings of the movie Brave have made me rethink the kinds of women I want to write.

The main article these thought are in reference to is ‘Just another princess movie’ – which is pretty long, and makes an obtuse point or two, but is mostly interesting reading. Loofbourow writes of the central mother-daughter relationship:

I wonder…whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.

And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.

…If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically.

This idea struck me so hard because it pointed out a lack in my own expectations that I hadn’t even noticed. It is new and difficult to imagine a warrior woman within a loving family. The Widow’s family were slaughtered, and she had to be brainwashed and genetically altered, to become what she is. Catwoman, whatever version of her back story you take, has left a life so awful behind her that she wants to wipe her slate clean and start again, alone.

Women who can come through that much adversity are heroic, tough, strong. It makes sense. But is that kind of adversity necessary to a woman being kick-ass?

Loofbourow goes on to describe the moment in the film when the three hopeless suitors stand up to compete for Merida’s hand – and all our expectations tell us a fourth man will arrive, who is unsuitable yet perfect. She writes:

Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.

That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

love this reading. It’s a revelation. In the real world, which allows a certain space for women to inhabit, stepping outside that space is an uncomfortable act. It’s brave, it’s gutsy, it’s necessary. It’s rarely purely triumphant. As Marcotte writes:

In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur.

I’ve been thinking recently about those bluestocking heroines we love so much in historical romance – inquisitive, probably socially awkward, less consumed with what’s in fashion than what’s in the latest Edinburgh Review.

Our heroes come to love them for their minds, their independence and their courage of conviction. To the modern mind they stand out from the crowd as the girl to root for. But I’ve been thinking more about how difficult it would be to love someone who refuses to fit nicely into The Way Things Are. Even the most broadminded, smitten hero would be confronted when his beloved’s behaviour proved not to be an eccentricity but the truth of who she is, in all situations.

The series I have in mind to write next is going to take place some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’m still narrowing it down as I do my research – but one element I’m sure of is that I want my women to each have a relationship to the suffragette movement. And I want their greatest difficulty in coming to terms with their personal beliefs to be each other. As well as their greatest strength, eventually.

Describing just how subversive the central mother-daughter relationship in Brave is, Marcotte writes:

Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion.

how Skyrim stole your people

About six months ago, all I heard about was Skyrim. Everyone was playing it. People were being made widows by it. No one could adequately explain what was so cracktastic about it – or even what it was.

About two months ago I bought it for special k. He started playing, full of high expectation – but two hours later his reaction was, “Meh.” Three hours later his reaction was, “I could play this game forever.”

For those of you who haven’t heard of it – or haven’t had the pleasure of trying to speak to your husband while he’s playing it – it’s a computer game set in a fantasy landscape. Think Lord of the Rings, with some other races thrown in, and a Hogwarts-type school for adults.

There are lots of reasons to enjoy playing it. The landscape is vast and spectacular and you can interact with every part of it. Seasons change. Days pass. Every village has its drama and you can follow characters about and get involved in their story lines. There is a surfeit of story lines. One day special k’s moving up the ranks of the thieves guild, the next he’s walking around inside a mad god’s head, trying to wake him up. It leaves you to make morally ambiguous choices without one outcome ever being prized over the other.

But this is why I think it’s so successful:

Special k was making his way down a huge river, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find his way out of a valley. He came to the river’s end, beneath outcrops of stone so huge you couldn’t even see the sky any more.

There were only rocks – and the huge, hairy corpse of a troll hitting against the rocks with the river’s movement. Beside it was a chest, still full.

There was no explanation attached – it had nothing to do with his mission, and didn’t send him on a new mission. It was just three small details that between them evoke a whole drama that had already played out, and was done.

It’s tip-of-the-iceberg storytelling at its best. It makes you feel like you’re in a complete world that doesn’t need you inside it to function. Other things are happening and have happened.

So next time your protagonist finds themselves in a river – remember to add a dead troll who hasn’t been robbed.

be bold, be uncompromising

I’ve just finished the second book in Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, which means – and I should be getting used to this by now – my heart is broken. Actually, the sensation’s a little bit more like having someone slam the heel of their hand into your sternum hard enough to shatter it.

This quality of Dunnett that is heartbreak but feels less of the heart and more like shock comes from the fact that she’s 100% uncompromising. She’s such a hardass she doesn’t even give the pain anywhere to land.

Last weekend the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild was lucky enough to have Anne Gracie give us a workshop on how to get your book noticed in the slush pile. She talked about really books. You know, really funny, really dark, really passionate. It’s the only way to describe what makes an editor read a well-written manuscript with a plot and competent characterisation and go, “Meh.” Probably wasn’t really anything.

This is something Cat and I talk about a lot. Going fully into an idea and pushing it to its furthest, deepest end. Not being scared of the places your id wants to go. Actually, we’ve refined that one to the point where if one of us is blushing and reluctant and freaked out in response to an idea, we know we have to go there.

As Anne Gracie put it: Don’t flinch away. Be bold.

Then there’s Dunnett.

We’re told to put our characters in a tree then throw rocks at them, but while Dunnett’s characters are busy fending off the rocks she’s razing the land underneath them, so that they have no home to come back to when they find their way down.

She simply does not flinch away. And she pulls it off by having these uncompromising moments happen within a gripping, breathless, joyful, gambolling narrative. It’s not all bleak doom. But when those moments come – she gives no quarter.

I can’t give any specific examples, because they’d all be massive spoilers, but try on something like this:

Think of the one person who gives meaning to why your character does what they do. Who is the sun in your character’s universe? Now kill that person. Now take away every outlet for grief your character might have. Now surround them with people who will take them apart if they are vulnerable for a second. Now make your character clearly, deeply aware of the impact of this death. Now make every one of their best qualities useless in the face of it.

The woman has nerves of steel. There’s no way I can do, yet, what she does.

I met my husband like this:

I’m a massive fan of birthdays. I believe in broadcasting it to everyone for a good two weeks beforehand, and spoiling myself silly on the day. That doesn’t mean spending lots of money – it means on this one day I do whatever the hell I feel like. Mostly I feel like pancakes.

When I turned twenty-three I had a nuclear group of friends who were like family to me. They also liked drinking beer at the park in the afternoon. Twas a golden era.

The boy I’d been breaking up with for about nine months threw me a birthday party – and by party I mean small, intimate dinner with my ten closest friends. There were homemade pizzas. I didn’t find out until I was there, that one of my friends was bringing her boyfriend’s friend who’d come over from Glasgow, Scotland. (I’ll give you a second to get that one straight.)

This did not make me happy.

I remember very particularly thinking: At least if he’s big and ginger with a thick Scottish accent there’ll be some novelty value.

Special k looks like this:

(Heh. He’s so cute.)

And like this:

And also this:

Big and ginger, he is not. Also, his accent could pass for American. Or Irish. Or maybe Danish, on a bad day.

I think all I said to him the whole night was “Hello”, and I don’t think I said it in a nice, welcoming sort of way.

The next time we met the first thing I saw were his boxing boots, which were just like mine. Then I heard him beatbox. And then I tackled him to the ground in a game of footy and cut him open with my fingernail.

The first time he hugged me, I felt this shock of surprise, like, “Huh. He’s so human.”

I was reading a review on Dear Author the other day that got me thinking about the way love interests tend to “hate” each other when they first meet. The first two thirds-or-so of a romance is taken up with bickering and insults and arguments. And kissing, of course.

In the context of a whole life together, my period of conflict with special k is pretty tiny. But it goes to show there’s something to the idea that dislike can be the earliest incarnation of really-like.

It’s the way we express attraction as kids, isn’t it? Hair-pulling. Seaweed throwing. I once called a very pretty boy a dickhead, for not logical reason. Why do we express attraction through insult? WHY???

(That’s a serious question, by the way. I’m stumped.)

The review made me think of it, because the bickering of the hero and heroine just sounded pretty odious. The hero won’t leave the heroine’s restaurant until she agrees to hook up with him, even though she’s asked him to leave many times. He spouts clunky innuendo at her while she’s serving cake to some old women. Ugh.

A couple in a romance have to challenge each other. They have to expect unreasonable things, and unsettle and push each other. Romance and love couldn’t happen without it.

But I can’t help feeling we get so used to reading “bickering” as “attraction” that we lose track of what’s beneath it – what it actually means. What drives a person to be awful when they most want to be lovely?

(Again – no answers here.)

I was cold to special k because I was immature, and I thought I knew all there was to know about him sixty seconds after I met him. Falling in love was a bit like following lanterns down a dark path. Piece by piece he surprised and delighted me as my expectations were overturned.

I watched him eat ice cream. (There’s an ice cream cone engraved on the inside of my wedding ring.) I watched the sun rise with him from the roof of the Pascoe Vale swimming pool, and he looked at me from under the brim of his blue Glasgow cap. He hid from me at Heathrow until I was forlorn then hugged me for twenty whole minutes without letting go.

Maybe people are just better, when you have misunderstood them entirely.

some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.