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May 6, 2019

From bully victim to bully romance: the journey to my latest book, Shunned.

Ask a Metalhead, Rage against the manuscript, Writing Runes

May is an interesting month for me. I have two books coming out which may on the surface appear at odds with each other. Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones – the Kickstarter success story about a little grim reaper who learns to celebrate who he is – officially launches 17th May. (Although you can already order copies online from Amazon and Book Depository). And Shunned – the first book in my new bully romance series – comes out on the 21st.

It might seem weird that I’ve got a picture book designed to help kids deal with bullying coming out and also a romance book where the love interests are bullies. I don’t think so, but a couple of people have asked about it, so I just wanted to unpick that a little bit.

Packaging up books and art prints of Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones for Kickstarter backers.

What is bully romance?

Bully romance is a new, reader-determined name for a romance trope where the hero bullies the heroine during their initial engagements. A bully romance is usually set in a school or academy. Over the course of the story, the heroine stands up to her bully (often with an elaborate and highly satisfying revenge plot), the bully realises he’s in love and that he’s been a complete plonker, and he works his ass off to redeem himself and become a better person.

It is basically an enemies-to-lovers romance, only on steroids. The bully/victim relationship creates a power dynamic that has to be upset during the course of the romance in order for it to work and create an emotionally-satisfying story.

This type of story is not new, but it is having a moment in the spotlight thanks to some immensely popular books like Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, Erin Watt’s Paper Princess, and CM Stunich’s Filthy Rich Boys.

Why do readers read bully romance?

You might be asking yourself why anyone would want to read a book where the heroine ended up with a bully. Isn’t that highly problematic? Isn’t that kind of gross?

Not if you listen to the readers who love these books. To them, it’s the exact opposite. They find bully romances to be empowering.

Recently, I asked readers on Facebook to tell me why they loved bully romance. Here’s what some of them said:

“I like when people are redeemable but who are also put through the ringer a bit when it comes to getting forgiven.”

Robin

“Everyone loves a bad boy or boys…especially when those bad boys are actually really good at heart and have that hard outer shell to protect them from their own insecurities or past traumas….these type of books have more depth and character development.”

Hilary

“I love a heroine who dishes out justice!”

Erin

“I love them because of the amount of time and effort that has to go into the characters turning themselves around and changing their behaviors. It’s not an instant Happily-ever-after.”

Julie

“I love bully romance because I love seeing the bullied person win. <3.”

Jennifer

Readers don’t fall in love with the bullies. They fall in love with the broken, hurting people behind the bullies, and the strength and determination of the heroines. They find these books empowering because they speak to the capacity of the human spirit both to learn from their mistakes and to forgive.

The point of these stories isn’t to justify an abusive relationship type, but to show how love has the power to transform. And that’s basically the same message I give in Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones.

Writing Shunned

I’ll be posting something tomorrow about the process of writing this book, because it’s been interesting creating an entire novel from scratch in three weeks. But I wanted to touch on another part of the writing process – the research that went into creating the characters.

As part of the research for Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones, I read a lot of literature and studies about bullying. One thing that interested me was, what made people bully?

If you’re interested in the why, you can see the results of some research here. Mostly, it comes down to a few factors – bullies have often experienced stress or trauma that makes them feel as though their lives or relationships aren’t secure. They’ve often been raised in aggressive environments and taught to use violence and intimidation to solve problems, and they have low self-esteem and use bullying to deflect attention to someone else (and in fact, most people who are bullies have been bullied themselves).

I’ve written about my own experiences with bullying here and here). It was fascinating as a victim of past bullying to look back on that experience through the eyes of that research and see just how much of it wasn’t about me.

As an adult I can see now what I couldn’t see then – that I was chosen not because of who I was, but because my bullies needed an outlet for their own pain, and I was there. And maybe if we want to stop bullying, we can’t just teach victims how to stand up for themselves and love themselves (although that’s super important) but we also have to do the super-hard work of using our empathy to lift up the bullies, too.

So all this research was percolating around in my head when I first had the idea for Shunned, and I used it to explore and create the characters. There are three heroes in this story who all start off as various degrees of bully. They are not inherently evil people, because I don’t believe in that. But they are hurting deeply, and they are trying to do the right thing and keep themselves and others safe, but going about it in a horrible way because they don’t know any better.

Pit them against the heroine, Hazel Waite, who is the most badass protagonist I’ve ever written, no question. Hazel takes no shit. She gives as good as she gets. She burrows under their skin. She sets them on a path toward redemption that also sees her healing from her own pain.

(And there’s also a creepy gothic school and scratching in the walls and a book bound in human skin and all sorts of other Lovecraftian treats. Because it’s a Steffanie Holmes book, so of course.)

For me, writing the book (and the next book in the series, Initiated, which I’m working on now) has been a cathartic, healing experience, especially following some of the things I’ve had to talk about in interviews, etc, for Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones. It’s a story of survival and forgiveness, and I think writing it more than anything else I’ve ever done has enabled me to 100% forgive my bullies.

So no, I don’t see Shunned as being a weird addition to my backlist. It’s not the kind of story I think you should read to your kids at night (there’s adult content, and also elements of cosmic horror and the aforementioned human skin book), and it’s definitely not for everyone. For some people, a bully romance could be triggering, and that’s okay. You gotta look after yourself. But please know I have very carefully and deliberately made sure that this series tells a story about survival and strength and love and forgiveness that will pack that empowering emotional punch readers crave.

Shunned is available for pre-order at a special discounted price. It will go up upon release, so I suggest grabbing it now!