Why the pen is sometimes mightier than the keyboard

I’ve written quite a few books now, and while my writing process will probably always be evolving to some extent, some things are fundamental. For me, one of those things is advance planning. I write better – and more happily – when I outline and plan in detail. I need to get, not just the story, but the characters, clear in my head before I start. If I do that, I will generally have very few wasted words. If I don’t, revising will be much more painful. 

It’s not just about the pain of revision though. It’s also about exploring the possibilities fully. I realise that might sound counterintuitive to some people. After all, what could be more possibility-laden than a blank white page? But in my experience (and ok, it is only *my* experience) as soon as you begin writing – like it or not – you begin to make choices and at each of those forks in the road, you close down certain options. You can double back, of course, but not always. Some roads, once taken, can’t be retreated from. 

Besides those practical considerations, there’s a degree of preference here. Outlining is one of my favourite parts of the process. I love the ideas stage, when your brain is popping and fizzing with excitement, and the story is all wide-open potential. When I’m outlining a historical, there’s usually a fair bit of research going on at the same time (sometimes for a contemporary as well, but never as much). I love how research will not only inform things like setting, backstory etc. but will actually introduce new plot ideas. 

Outlining with a co-author is particularly fun. When Sally (Malcolm) and I are outlining, we usually end up creating a bunch of different Google docs and responding to each other’s comments in new colours. The result is a sprawling, chaotic, frothing rainbow of ideas. We do it very much ‘in the moment’ and in a conversational style. That’s a function of co-writing. When there’s two of you, the sparking of ideas back and forth is very much a dialogue. 

When I’m outlining alone, it’s a much more introspective affair. Without another person to spark off, I need other tools. That’s when I turn to good old-fashioned pen and paper. I do have the outline in a document on my laptop, but I do much of my thinking in handwritten form. 

Interestingly, I was reading an article recently that said we retain more information when we take handwritten rather than typed notes. The two activities involve different cognitive processes – as a purely physical act, writing is a far more complex activity (just think of the difference in motor skills required between tapping a few keys and writing a word). Something about parsing the words, reconstituting them in cursive, often summarising if you’re taking notes of what someone is saying verbally, helps with processing what is being said and being able to remember it later. Different brain processes are working together. 

I feel like something similar happens when I outline in pen and paper. The act of handwriting seems to help me think more creatively. Why should that be? I think – going back to what I said about the sense of dialogue you have with a co-author – that it’s similar to that sort of process. When I use a pen, it feels more like a conversation than a unilaterally drafted plan. Like questions and answers. In fact, I very often do start an outlining session with questions. This is the one I started last night. 

There’s just something more… interrogable about outlining by hand. It’s inherently more fluid, more like my actual thoughts. Less fully formed. It captures the blurriness of thought better somehow. Sometimes a question will have arrows that lead to five different answers. And those answers will have more arrows that lead off them, and to each other. And yes, of course you could create this pictorially on screen, but it wouldn’t be the same – the brain process would be entirely different, entirely less spontaneous. For me, at least.

All of which is a long lead up to this: I had one of my rare highly satisfying late night breakthroughs last night. I wasn’t planning on doing any writing. I popped off to bed with my Kindle, planning to read, but I found myself picking up my bedside notebook instead and – once again – turning my mind to the outline of the next book in the Enlightenment series – George’s story (which, incidentally, will be called Liberated). 

I’ve been tinkering with this outline on and off for ages, trying to get the story and characters straight in mind. It’s gone through a few different iterations – George is pretty much the same in all of them, it’s the other character I’ve been niggling away at. And then last night, as I was scribbling away with my pen, asking and answering questions – and sometimes just doodling – something new came to me. A kind of instant feeling of what the dynamic between these two characters needed to be. Two problems that had been hanging around for a while were instantly resolved, and a throwaway remark I’d made once about what would be in this book assumed a new and sudden significance. I scribbled away for an hour on and emerged blinking on the other side, much happier. 

Incidentally, I’ve already got the cover for this book, though it’s under wraps for now. 

Till it’s written. 

Happy reading, friends.

Preorder form for UK Meet

If you’re going to the UK Meet in Southampton in September, I’ve got a pre-order form set up for books. I should say that I’m not actually planning on carrying many books as I’m getting the train from Scotland but in case there’s anyone out there who is going who has a burning desire for a signed paperback from me, I wanted to make this available.

Sally Malcolm will also be there so we can do dual-signing on Total Creative Control and (hopefully, if the paperbacks are ready on time) Home Grown Talent.

Dropping imminently…

The revised edition of Unforgivable (now the first book in a new series called Unmasked) will be out in the next couple of days and this is the absolutely amazing new cover by the fabulous Natasha Snow.

I’m really looking forward to sharing the cover for the second book in the series, Unbuttoned, which the new title of my first published novel, previously called The Lady’s Secret (not my choice of title… the previous publisher insisted on that one…)

Unforgivable and Unbuttoned are mf romance re-releases (revised and updated). They will be followed up by a third mm romance title featuring the brother of the hero of Unforgivable and the brother of the heroine of Unbuttoned.

A reader-me post: my book of the year (or, the Tao of Teancum Leon)

This is a very rare blog post about a book (or rather, trilogy) that I recently read (or rather listened to) that I’m feeling rather evangelical about.

This is not a review by the way. It’s (a) a wholly inadequate summary of what the books are about; and (b) mostly some incoherent gushing that gets a bit embarrassing towards the end. In short, all it will probably do is demonstrate that *I* loved these books. Heigh-ho.

Incidentally, it is not author-me writing this post. it’s reader-me. Author-me is (or at least tries to be) painstakingly reasonable, fair and objective. But reader-me is none of those things. Reader-me is savagely subjective about the books I read and does not particularly tolerate other points of view. Reader-me’s view of this trilogy, is as follows: you must read it. If you don’t read it, you are a fool. If you do read it and don’t like it, you are also a fool. If you read and love it, I will accept you as my family for all eternity.

That’s one of the joys of reading, I think: that it is gloriously subjective. Every reading experience is a unique collaboration between the book and the reader – and in the case of audiobooks (which is the format I consumed these books in) there is a third collaborator, the narrator, in this case, JF Harding, whose narration is extraordinarily wonderful and which deserves a post all of its own.

In fact, there are a lot of things about these books that deserve a post all of their own. The fantastic writing; the incredible characters and their respective journeys; the setting (Utah, Mormon society, the desert); the banter between the two MCs, Tean and Jem, which manages to be really funny without in any way detracting from the emotionally complex context it’s happening in (such good light and shade in these books!) But if I talk about all these things, this will end up being 8000 words long and I’ll never finish it, and never post it, and no one will every know how much I loved these books. And that can’t happen. Not when I’m pretty sure there are at least nine people out there who might read this post.

So my plan is this: give you a bit of context about the books, then ramble incoherently about one thing that I really loved which is, in fairness, probably the least obviously compelling sales point (thereby cutting those potential nine readers down to maybe, four?) This is the thing that I referred to in the title of this post as The Tao of Teancum Leon. Obviously, this is a wee nod to The Tao of Pooh, proving once again that I am a sucker for a hooky title, no matter how inaccurate. Because what I really mean here is The Camus of Teancum Leon and… no wait! Don’t leave!

Okay, if you’re still here, I need you to stick with me, to the end. I promise to get on with it!

The basics are as follows: this trilogy follows Dr Teancum (‘Tean’) Leon and Jem Berger through a series of mysteries. Each book centres on a self-contained mystery, while the story of the central relationship between Tean and Jem stretches over all three books. Tean is a wildlife vet and Jem is a con artist. They meet when Jem’s foster brother goes missing and their investigation into his disappearance is the subject of the first book.

Jem and Tean are incredible characters, both strong and funny and kind in their own ways. And both damaged and scared and flawed too. Tean comes from a large, devout Mormon family that loves and disapproves of him. Jem grew up in foster care and juvenile detention. Like all the best romance couples, they bring things to one another that they each need, so that they can become the best and happiest versions of themselves that they can possibly be.

One of the ways Gregory Ashe shows this (that Jem and Tean belong together) is through the other central relationship in the books, which is between Tean and his long-term on-off lover, Ammon Young, a closeted, married detective. Tean and Ammon’s scenes show the reader, in the best and must nuanced way possible, just how perfect Jem is for Tean. And actually, that’s all the more the case because Ammon is not (though some will undoubtedly disagree with me here) wholly terrible. In fact, there were moments when I ached for Ammon – he is wonderfully ambiguous – though I suspect some readers will just detest him outright and not feel that way at all. (Disclosure: I have a long track record of crushes on villains).

*Sort of spoiler alert*

The Tean/Ammon vs Tean/Jem dynamic plays out in a final and comprehensive way in book 3 in a series of scenes that are sheer perfection. One of my favourite things in any romance is when the MC is finally given everything they ever dreamed of… and it turns out to be a disaster. And so it goes here. And then Jem makes everything all right with his deepdown, non-judgmental kindness and unshakeable belief that nerdy, awkward, difficult Tean is… amazing. And that’s another thing I love in my romances. When a key character is misunderstood by almost every other character in the book, and the author makes you feel that it’s only you – and the other MC – who can see the truth of that character. It feels like you’ve been entrusted with this wonderful secret. Because you’re special.

So delicious.

*End of sort of spoiler*

Among Tean’s many qualities is his ability to simply and beautifully explain different philosophical ideas. He’s actually not, like Pooh bear, a Taoist (though he does sometimes get quite spiritual when he’s in nature). No, he’s more of an existentialist with a distinctly atheist bent. And yes, okay, I’m an atheist, and a sucker for accessible existential philosophy (because ‘raw’ philosophy is brain-hurty) so Tean’s occasional meanderings down these paths were much loved by me, not to mention preaching to my personal choir. Which is to say, I share Tean’s vision of a bleak and disinterested universe that is nevertheless richly, endlessly beautiful. And I share his view that there is no meaning to anything, except the meaning we give it ourselves. And yes, that it is in confronting that truth, bleak as it is, that we begin to find meaning.

And that – that is what I mean by The Camus of Teancum Leon.

What is the universe, he wanted to ask, except a desert? And what is a desert except a place where life holds on?

All three of these books are my ‘book of the year’, but if you really forced me to choose one, then I would choose the last, The Same End (which is how it should be with any trilogy, I think – #3 should always be the best). After I finished listening to the last chapter of The Same End, I went back to the beginning and listened again. And a week later, I listened again.

Sometimes, when you read/listen to certain parts of a book, you feel it in your own body. Your heart might physically ache, your stomach close like a fist. Your eyes might sting and your throat might burn. Sometimes, too, there is a sense of familiarity, of recognising the thing you are reading about, or maybe of feeling known or seen yourself. That is meaning, I think. That connection. Meaning in a meaningless universe. A smoke signal from far off lands.

Beep beep boop.

Confused? Well, I warned you. I did. I said all this post would do is demonstrate that *I* loved these books. But if you four are still here, I expect you to go and read these books now.

And now you must excuse me. I have a rock to push up a hill. And I’ve been looking forward to it all day.

Coming very soon: Total Creative Control

I have a new book coming out very soon – 28th October 2021!

It’s a co-authored book, written with my good friend, Sally Malcolm, who is a really awesome, wonderful writer. Cover and blurb below. I’m really excited to share this one!

Sunshine PA, meet Grumpy Boss…

When fanfic writer Aaron Page landed a temp job with the creator of hit TV show, Leeches, it was only meant to last a week. Three years later, Aaron’s still there…

It could be because he loves the creative challenge. It could be because he’s a huge Leeches fanboy. It’s definitely not because of Lewis Hunter, his extremely demanding, staggeringly rude…and breathtakingly gorgeous boss.

Is it?

Lewis Hunter grew up the hard way and fought for everything he’s got. His priority is the show, and personal relationships come a distant second. Besides, who needs romance when you have a steady stream of hot men hopping in and out of your bed?

His only meaningful relationship is with Aaron, his chief confidante and indispensable assistant. And no matter how appealing he finds Aaron’s cute boy-next-door charms, Lewis would never risk their professional partnership just to scratch an itch.

But when Lewis finds himself trapped at a hilariously awful corporate retreat, Aaron is his only friend and ally. As the professional lines between them begin to blur, their simmering attraction starts to sizzle…

And they’re both about to get burned.

New(ish) release and update

I sort of have a new title out – it’s a 13k short called The First Snow of Winter and it’s part of the Winterbourne series (Winterbourne #3).

I say “sort of” because it’s already appeared in a Christmas anthology called Gifts for the Season (yes, it’s Christmas-themed, and I appreciate it is now February – I am nothing if not current!)

This is a prequel story set 6 years before Winterbourne #1. The heroes are Sam Alderton and Jasper Huxley, who will feature as secondary characters in my next release, The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish (Winterbourne #4) which I plan to release on 28th April 2021. Covers are by the very talented Natasha Snow.

Click the cover of The First Snow of Winter for more details and buy links. More info re Lord Perry coming soon.

Cover reveal coming soon!

Gentleman Wolf and Master Wolf audio release – 7th December 2020

Here’s a taster of Hamish McKinlay’s awesome narration on Gentleman Wolf, the first book in the Capital Wolves series. I’m really excited to release these books in audio. Hamish has done an amazing job.

Sample from Gentleman Wolf

I’m releasing these audiobooks through Findaway Voices which means they will be available through 30+ vendors including Apple, Google Play (here and here) and Authors Direct.

I won’t, however, be releasing them through Audible at this time (if you want to know why, you can read about #Audiblegate here). I hope to be able to release them on Audible soon, but I want to see how things play out for the next few weeks. In any event, even if I had chosen to release them on Audible right now, chances are they would not have been available anyway. Reportedly there are currently long delays on new book projects being progressed at Audible…

I’ll give an update on this as soon as I possibly can, and hope it won’t cause difficulties for any of you meantime.

Finally, keep an eye out for my December newsletter which may include a chance to win freebie codes…