Fairytales

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Fairytales
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"A world in which there are monsters, and ghosts, and things that want to steal your heart is a world in which there are angels, and dreams, and a world in which there is hope."  -Neil Gaiman

A group for writers of contemporary fairytales

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Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

___

So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

It's  a rainy day in the Cevennes today, and it was a dark and stormy night last night, so I thought I'd write a folk tale. It is loosely based on a local legend from Birmingham and the Black country, where I was brought up and where Harry Ca Nab is reputed to lead the wild hunt out of the hell mouth that is Halesowen (and to think we thought it was in Sunnydale).


Harry the Nab.


To the south east the old coach road ran, through Worcestershire and onwards towards the distant sea. It wound and it wandered its way through green hills scarred with quarries where the red sandy stone was cut from the ground to build God’s churches and the houses of wealthy men.

Harry had trod many roads. He had marched along roads in the midst of great companies of men, hidden in ambush in roadside ditches, he’d scouted along the edges of roads in search of one enemy or another. Harry was as weary of the road as he was of the battles and wars from which he drew his own name. Ten miles from the city of Birmingham Harry Battle decided that this would be his last road.

“Here’s where I stay.” Said Harry, looking out at uncluttered hills, at woods that hid no enemies.

After twenty years in one army or another Harry had no real trade but war, but he set himself to do the best he could with whatever skills he had.  

He was no builder, but he knew how to set camp and he had constructed many a stockade to strengthen one position or another. He found himself an nice defensible patch of land. The plot he chose was close enough to a stream to fetch fresh water but not so close as to turn boggy, close enough to the woods to fetch timber and firewood but not so close that he could not see what was coming before it got there.

He built his house from black poplar and caulked his walls with mud from the stream. It was warm and cosy and, if it looked a little like a fortification – well, he was used to that.

He was used to foraging and hunting for his food. He was used to looting too but had decided that, if he was to settle here, that part of his life was best left behind. In any case the place that he had chosen was running alive with rabbits and hare, there were deer in the woods and berries, nuts, roots and apples were to be found in plenty. He built a smokehouse near to his new home to preserve the meat, having suffered through many a long hungry winter on the edges of battle.

He had no head for commerce, but he had often picked over the valuables of the fallen and traded them for food and armaments. He headed to the nearest village with pelts and smoked meat and earned a pretty penny at the market, enough to take himself to the pub for a mug or two of ale.

Harry was a small man, wiry and scarred from a lifetime of fighting. His accent was strange for these parts for he had come long ago from the north and still spoke with a Celtic lilt that stood out among the flat nasal tones of the locals.

Sadly there are parts of this world where a small, scrawny stranger draws attention of the wrong sort from people of the worst sort. The Thomson brothers were just such people.

“Yow ay from ‘ere.” Said the larger of the two, opening up a conversation that could lead to only one conclusion.

“Colin’s roit. Yow gorrer ‘ave ackers ter drink in ower gaff.” A pearl of wisdom, added to the discussion by his brother.

Harry had served in many lands. He had gossiped with Germans, argued with Arabs, bargained with Belgians, he had fond memories of his time in France. He had no idea, however, what it was the two large men who loomed above him now were saying, or even of the language in which they were saying it. Still, he had heard the same tone of voice all across continents.

He stood to speak to his two aggressors, tilting his head backwards to look up into their faces.

“Away wi’ ye now, lads. Let a man have a quiet…”

“Yow ay from ‘ere.”

The first brother emphasised his original point by swinging a ham sized fist in Harry’s direction. It was a hard and damaging blow and, had it connected, would have knocked him across the room, through the door and into the yard beyond.

Had it connected the pigs in the yard would have flown to the top of the church steeple to sing with the birds and the angels. It would have been a day for miracles.

Harry gave a little dip, like a fine lady’s curtsy, and passed beneath the big man’s arm. His own smaller arm he extended rapidly upwards so that the heel of his hand made hard contact with the exposed right jaw which rammed sharply closed, causing Colin’s teeth to snip neatly through the end of his tongue. This, to Harry’s regret, landed in  his own half finished mug of beer.

Colin would, no doubt, have howled with agony at his loss had the force of the blow not continued, twisting his head sidewards and continuing upwards to rattle his brains and drop him to the floor unconscious.

“Yow cor do that to ower Col…”

The second brother, to whom Harry had not been formally introduced, caught the point of his left boot firmly in the groin and interrupted his sentence to fall to his hands and knees and vomit into the sawdust on the floor.

Harry turned towards the company in the room, ready to see if another assailant would step forth. There was a moment of silence before the chatter recommenced and analysis of the  finer points of the evening’s combat added interest to the conversation. The drinking continued.

The Landlord, wiping a mug on the tails of his apron, looked across the bar at Harry.

“Yow’ll be wantin a fresh pint. Er’s on the ‘owse. They twins tend ter do a lot more damage when ‘em pick a foight.”

**********

This land was kind to Harry. After his brush with the Thompsons he was treated with respect by his neighbours and his ability as a hunter and preserver of meat was much valued, bringing him a modestly comfortable living.

Of course the beasts that he hunted were not strictly his to hunt since the lands hereabouts were ceded by his majesty to one of his earls, who would ride through from time to time with his noble cohort and his fine pack of hunting dogs. But Harry was not greedy, he took no more than he needed for his nourishment and comfort. When the hunt rode through he would steer well clear of their path, and would even drive boar, deer and game animals towards them so that his Lordship and his Lordship’s guests would go home happy and fulfilled from a good day at the chase. After all, there was plenty here for everyone. He bought himself a decent horse and he roamed and hunted the land from Hagley to Lickey End, from Hopwood to Tardebigge and came to know every square inch of it with his soldier’s eye. Harry the Nab, they called him, because there was no beast that could escape him once he set his mind to nabbing it.

Harry also came to speak the local language, mixing it with his softer Caledonian tones. He was greeted in the streets by his neighbours, even the Thompson brothers met him with a nod, Colin lisping greetingth with his tipless tongue. His opinion was sought and his company was welcome in the pub.  

And it was in the pub that Harry set eyes on the love of his life. Grace, the landlord’s daughter was nineteen, old for a spinster it is true but her father adored her. He would not countenance the suit of any man who was not worthy, and in his eyes no man was worthy.

Grace, for her part, was fascinated by the little man. Yes he was sixteen years her senior, but by the time he was her age he had already travelled the world. Yes he carried scars but they were the scars of experience won with bravery. When he spoke to her he spoke courteously and modestly of far off things and the skies of other realms. He did not try to touch her or pinch her as she squeezed past with jugs of ale or plates of food, but stepped aside with a little bow to allow her space. It was with her full and delighted agreement that Harry determined to speak to her father.

“Now I ay saying no. Yam’s a good man and our Gracie could do worse.” The Gaffer said. “But ‘er’s special, see? Any man who wants to wed ‘er needs to prove imsel first.”

“How do I prove myself?”

“Buggered if I know, that’s for yow to find out.”

The conversation was paused. The door was not closed but to open it wide Harry needed to prove that his worth.  

He thought of all the things that would make a man worthwhile. Wealth, piety, honesty, courage, modesty.

Harry was not badly off these days, though in this world real wealth was the province of his Lordship the Earl and his noble cousins, it rarely went alongside honesty and seemed to leave no room for modesty.

Piety for a man like Harry was a thing out of reach. He had seen too many pious souls sent to meet their maker on the battlefield, too much fighting in the name of a God that each side cleverly claimed as its own. He had neither the will nor the wit to be a pious man.

Courage he had, as a tool of his trade. Courage was a spade or a sword, a knife or a plough. To be used when needed then cleaned and put away for the next time.    

Harry was used to the quick decisions needed on the field of battle or when the chase was up. How to show himself to be a man of worth was something that he would need to ponder. Sometimes things take time.

**********

The Earl of Plymouth, for it was he who owned and hunted the land for many miles around, was puzzled. On the one hand, fine huntsman though he was, he had never had such good hunting as he had these days. Deer seemed to form orderly queues to cross the path of his horses at just the right time, the boar made their way to convenient clearings where they gave themselves up to their fate. His larders overflowed with venison and wild pork.

And yet he heard rumours amongst his servants and vassals of a skilled and cunning poacher on his land. A man whose skills surpassed his own, who plied his trade freely in village markets across the county.

The Earl was neither a greedy nor a jealous man, after all he had made a bargain with his Lord that provided him with everything that he had ever wanted or needed. He did not, within reason, resent what his people took from the land, after all they worked each day to increase his wealth and influence. But he was curious about this hunter, indeed he saw in him an opportunity.

The bargain that he had made with his Lord, a bargain struck in the morning of his youth when the twilight seemed far away, weighed heavily on him as the days and years went past. The Earl had riches, he had many children, his long life had been a happy one full of hunts and hunt balls, wine and women, song and celebration.

By the terms of this bargain he would reach the agreed span of his life, the three score years and ten that was promised to all men but given to few, with health and riches and all that his heart desired. After that he would pay to the devil, for Lucifer was the lord with whom he had struck his deal, ten years for every one that he had lived, serving as his huntsman. He would bring to him the flesh of the beast that he needed to feed the hungry mouths of his demonic vassals and the souls of wicked men to feed the furnaces of hell.

The Earl had seen those furnaces with his own eyes. The entry to that dark realm lay to the north of his own lands, not ten miles from his home.

Hell’s opening, Halesowen as it was called in these parts, was shunned and avoided by those who lived in the surrounding lands, but he had passed through it, had entered his master’s domain and signed a contract with his own blood, sealed it with wax melted on dark obsidian hobs.

Now that contract had fallen due and the Earl saw seven hundred years of servitude stretching ahead of him. But the devil loved a bargain, and he was always willing to make a better one. The Earl decided that it was time for him to meet Harry the Nab.

**********

In the bar room of the Cock Inn the visit of the Earl of Plymouth gave rise to considerable discussion. Not that his Lordship had not previously graced the village or its establishments with his presence, though such an occurrence was not common and would, in its own right, have been worthy of comment.

On this occasion, however, the excitement arose from the fact that a peer of his majesty’s realm had asked after the newest inhabitant of the village of Rubery, and had asked after him not by his given name, but by the nickname that he had been given during his short tenure in these parts.

“Where might I find ‘Harry the Nab’ ?” He said to the gaffer.

Such an enquiry did not, in the opinion of the regulars, bode well.

“Him’ll be ‘bout his business, my Lord, ‘im drops in ‘ere from time to time.” The gaffer was a cautious man, he gave away as little as would not cause offence.

“He is to attend upon me at Tardebigge. Noon, this coming Monday. Please be sure that he is aware of my wish in this matter.”

Harry, in the shadows at the far end of the room, was already aware of this great man’s wish. Great men had often made their wishes plain to him. Sometimes those wishes had led to glorious victories, sometimes to loss and defeat. Generally the wishes of great men were fulfilled by the sacrifice of those who were merely good men. That was the way of the world.

Be that as it may the wishes of such great men were not to be denied. Come Monday Harry saddled up his horse and set out attend upon his Lordship.

The great house at Tardebigge, built out of hard red stone quarried from the Lickey hills, was a far cry from the wooden stockade in which Harry had made his home, but he was accustomed to such places. He had seen them in their splendour or their ruin, he had attacked them and defended them, fought to protect them or burned them to the ground.

He had never, until this day, been entertained by the master of such a house. The Earl was a fine and considerate host.

“Harry the Nab.” He said, waving away a servant and filling two jugs by his own hand. “It seems an incongruous name. How may I call you?”

“Harry, My Lord, Harry Battle is my given name.”

“I think, Harry Battle, that you have done me a service from time to time. I have had some fine hunting in my lands of late. So, I hear have you.”

Harry held his tongue in reply.

“I’d call us even.” The Earl dismissed the matter. “I am in your debt, and you in mine, a good bargain. Shall we make another?”

“My Lord?”

“I’m forgetting my manners, first we must break bread together. Eat freely and without obligation.”

Cautious and courteous Harry inclined his head at the invitation. He had had some dealings, in his long years of travel, with the old ones, the faery folk. He knew that with them the taking of food and drink might raise up a debt that was best avoided.

He looked more closely at the Earl. A handsome man, it was true, who bore his years well. But to Harry’s eyes he showed no sign of kinship with the fair folk. Perhaps he had simply chosen a curious form of words.

“Thank ye, My Lord.”

Harry put his thoughts to one side and joined his host at table. Just another mystery in a day of mysteries.

They lunched simply and well on bread and cheese and cold meats, in deference to the time of day they mixed their ale with water and at the end of their meal both were well fed and clear headed.

The Earl stood, signalling Harry to join him and they left the table to the servants, walking out across the well tended garden.

“I have a contract.” Said Harry’s host. “To provide my master with the services of a huntsman.”

“Your master the King, my Lord?”

A king, certainly, though not the one you have in mind. You see I serve two masters…”

**********

Harry’s had much to ponder as he rode home. His thoughts were awhirl, not from the small beer that he had consumed with his fine meal but from the offer that had been made to him by his noble host.

The compensations that the Earl had offered to him had been great, more than enough to tempt a man of Harry’s humble origins. They were set out for him in dark ink on a fine piece of vellum which he carried now in the breast pocket of his coat, next to his heart.

Health and wealth and lengthy life,
the woman you love to take for your wife,
land without rent to build you a home,
children aplenty to carry your name.

Thus read the first part of the contract. His dark majesty liked a rhyme, it seemed, even if it wasn’t a good one.

Harry considered these terms.

He had been a soldier for twenty years, cheated death on so many occasions that his fair share of luck had been used up fifty times over. The old grey reaper must be whetting his scythe in anticipation of the day when he would harvest the life of Harry Battle. Harry liked the idea of keeping him waiting for many years yet.

He thought of Grace and how he would dearly love to make her his wife. A wealthy wife at that with a fine home in which to raise a family. His own home was  fine to him, and rent free to boot, though humble enough. But the land on which it stood belonged to the Earl and could be bestowed or taken back at his whim.

Of course he doubted that the gaffer would see a contract with the Devil as evidence of his worth as son in law, but such contracts were private. By the time payment was due the old man would have gone to his grave, happy that the daughter he loved was the prosperous mother of many children.

The contract was short, setting out in its doggerel rhyme the responsibilities that would fall to its obligant. To provide the flesh of beasts to nourish the demons of hell, to provide the souls of wicked men that would feed the flames those demons stoked. Harry had hunted men and beasts all his life, he had sent his share of souls to their fate. Some to heaven, more, he guessed, to perdition. He had no qualms about accepting this part of the bargain.

It was the last two lines that most gave him pause for thought:

No definite time to this service allot,
our contract will hold ‘til your name be forgot.

For the contract had promised children. Those children would beget their own children whose descendants would carry on Harry Battle’s name for many years. Hundreds of years, thousands, perhaps.

As he entered his home he took the deed of contract from his pocket. The Earl of Plymouth had provided him with a quill from one of the swans that graced his lake and he sharpened it to a point with his knife. With the same knife he cut a line across the pad of his left thumb, a tiny wound, far less significant than many that he had suffered.

The devil was a cunning old boy, and Harry was happy to have spotted the twist in the tail of their bargain, but Harry went by another name, a name that would be forgotten in no more than a generation or two.

Dipping the quill into his fresh blood he signed the contract in the name of ‘Harry the nab’ and thereby bound himself to the service of the Devil.

**********

The devil keeps his bargains, for good or ill. The old Earl died the following year and was buried in the house of Christ. In his will he granted land in perpetuity to Harry and his descendants.

Harry prospered and built a fine house. The gaffer recognised that his daughter could live a good life with a man that she loved and gave his consent for Grace to become Harry Battle’s wife. The two raised a large family and lived to see their grandchildren grow up, marry and have children of their own.

But the devil always get his due and he does like a rhyme, even a bad rhyme. In the schools and the streets of these parts, in the fields and the playgrounds, the children sing a song. At first the song was put into their heads by the devil’s imps, but then it grew and carried on in hopscotch and skipping games.

Lock the doors and stay inside.
Shut the shutters, don’t look out.
Harry the Nab is on the ride,
blind dogs howl and hunters shout.
His coal eyed horse leads Hell’s own ranks,
wings on its heels and blood on its flanks.

The moon is dark in pitch black skies,
out in the night time the Wild Hunt flies,
to fill the board at the Devil’s feast
with heedless man and hapless beast.
Poet or parson, soldier or squire,
flesh for his plate and souls for his fire.

To this day children still sing about Harry the Nab, and for as long as they do Harry will carry on riding at the head of the wild hunt to bring his master the flesh of beasts and the souls of wicked men.



I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

I had plans for today, plans that involved some interesting and actually useful work.

But –

Our boiler sprang a leak. Even with the mains water turned off, it went on leaking through the night. Finding an engineer who could come out today (for a non-insane price) took the first half hour this morning. The engineer is coming at 3.30, and that’ll eat the last part of the day.

And –

I have a vast number of kids: four, in theory, but most days it seems like a lot more than that. And one of them, Lulu, spent most of the last couple of nights with, uh, a stomach upset. Of the intermittent but highly projectile variety.

So –

Not masses of sleep. And today’s interesting work plans have been kicked into next week.

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

The fact is that even if you’re a pro author, life gets in the way of writing all the time. Because writing isn’t an office-based job, almost no writer I know keeps completely clean boundaries between work stuff and life stuff. Life intrudes all the time. Indeed, I know one author – a multiple Sunday Times top ten bestseller – whose somewhat less successful but office-based partner always just assumes that she’ll be the one to fix boilers, attend to puking children, etc, etc, just because she’s at home and not under any immediate (today, next day) deadline pressure.

And that’s a top ten bestseller we’re talking about. Most of you aren’t in that position. You’re still looking for that first book deal. The first cheque that says, “Hey, this is a job, not just a hobby.”

So Life vs Work?

Life is going to win, most of the time. And it’ll win hands down.

The broken boiler / puking kid version of life intrusion is only one form of the syndrome though. There’s one more specific to writers.

Here’s the not-yet-pro-author version of the syndrome, in one of its many variants: You have one book out on submission with agents. You keep picking at it editorially and checking your emails 100 times a day. But you also have 20,000 words of book #2 on your computer and though, in theory, you have time to write, you’re accomplishing nothing. You’re just stuck.

That feels like only aspiring authors should suffer that kind of thing, right? But noooooooo! Pro authors get the same thing in a million different flavours, courtesy of their publishers. Your editor quits. Your new editor, “really wants to take a fresh look at your work, so as soon as she’s back from holiday and got a couple of big projects off her desk …”. Or your agent is just starting new contract negotiations with your editor, and you are hearing alarmingly little for some reason. Or you know that your rom-com career is on its last legs, so you’re looking to migrate to domestic noir, but you don’t know if your agent / editor / anyone is that keen on the stuff you now write. Or …

Well, there are a million ors, and it feels like in my career I’ve experienced most of them. The simple fact is that creative work is done best with a lack of significant distractions and no emotional angst embedded in the work itself. Yet the publishing merry-go-round seems intent on jamming as much angst in there as it can manage, compounded, very often, by sloppy, slow or just plain untruthful communications.

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

The fact is, these things are just hard and unavoidable. Priorities do get shifted. You can’t avoid it. The emotional strains of being-a-writer – that is, having a competitive and insecure job in an industry which, weirdly, doesn’t value you very highly – are going to be present whether you like them or not.

There have been entire months, sometimes, when I should have been writing, but accomplished nothing useful because of some publishing drama, which just needed resolution. No one else cared much about that drama, or at least nothing close to the amount I did, with the result that those things often don’t resolve fast.

Your comfort and shelter against those storms? Well, like I say, I don’t have any magical answers but, here, for what it’s worth, are some things which may help:

  1. Gin. Or cheap wine. Or whatever works. I favour beers from this fine brewery or really cheap Australian plonk. The kind you can thin paints with.
  2. Changing your priorities for a bit. So if you really needed to clear out the garage or redecorate the nursery, then do those things in the time you had thought you’d be writing. You’re not losing time; you’re just switching things around.
  3. Addressing any emotional/practical issues as fast and practically as you can. So let’s say you have book #1 out on submission, you can help yourself by getting the best version of that book out (getting our excellent editorial advice upfront if you need to.) You can make sure you go to a minimum of 10 agents, and probably more like 12-15. You can make sure those agents are intelligently chosen, and that your query letter / synopsis are all in great shape. (see the PSes for a bit more on this.) You can write yourself a day planner, that gives some structure to the waiting process: “X agents queried on 1 May. Eight weeks later is 26 June. At that point, I (a) have an agent, (b) send more queries, (c) get an editor to look at my text, or (d) switch full-steam to the new manuscript.” If you plan things like that upfront, you don’t have to waste a bazillion hours crawling over the same questions in your head.
  4. Accepting the reality. It’s just nicer accepting when things are blocked or too busy or too fraught. The reality is the same, but the lived experience is nicer. So be kind to yourself.
  5. Find community. Yes, your partner is beautiful and adorable and the joy of your life. But he/she isn’t a writer. So he/she doesn’t understand you. Join a community (like ours). Make friends. Share a moan with people who know exactly what you mean. That matters. It makes a difference.
  6. Enjoy writing. This is the big one, in fact. The writers who most struggle with their vocation are the ones who like having written something, but don’t actually enjoy writing it. And I have to say, I’ve never understood that. My happiest work times have nearly always been when I’m throwing words down on a page, or editing words I’ve already put there. And that pleasure means you keep on coming back to your manuscript whenever you can. And that means it gets written. And edited. And out to agents or uploaded to KDP and sold.

Of those six, then cultivating that happiness is the single biggest gift you can give yourselves.

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

MIR folk tale festival short story comp - unfortunately deadline is 31 May, but in case anyone has a story hanging around that might fit. http://mironline.org/folktalefestival/

With others sharing their ideas I would feel churlish not putting a little about my own. 

I have a species called the Tevatai,  diverging from the same evolutionary roots as humans but able to see and use spatial and temporal dimensions that we cannot.

Over the centuries they have been venerated, feared, worshipped and persecuted. They are witches, gods, angels and demons.

To escape persecution they used their abilities to find and take sanctuary on another world.

But now we've found them and, better still, we know they hold the key to the resources of a whole new planet.

Here's the place to talk about today's email - "The days that say no" - in which I talk about that feeling of reluctance to grapple with your current draft. We've all been there. What's your solution? What's worked, what hasn't, what's your advice?

And here's a picture of apple blossom to make us feel happy.

Just for fun, here's a bit of flash I wrote a little while ago for a writing prompt that was something like 'night time intruder'.


It takes a lot to wake me up. It’s an evolutionary thing, but these three managed it, crashing around like the three musketeers on steroids. I guess they expected the place to be empty in the middle of the afternoon.

They were wrong.

As if listening to them ransacking the rest of the house wasn’t bad enough, they then had the nerve to come into my bedroom and go through my underwear draw looking for hidden valuables. I drew a line at that.

I unstuck my feet from the ceiling and dropped to the floor, panther light. The looks on their faces was classic. The ‘where the hell did he come from’ moment, while their brains tried to process what they’d actually seen. Yes, I did drop from the ceiling. You’ve chosen the wrong house, my friends. The shuttered windows should have been a give-away, but people are in denial about us now a days. Their bad. At least I wouldn’t have to go hunting for a meal tonight, though damn this was going to mess up my bedroom. 

I worked some saliva into my mouth, getting rid of that wake-up dryness, and unsheathed my fangs. They screamed, but the beauty of triple glazing is that nothing gets through.

I went for the quick fix and snapped the first one’s legs to incapacitate him. The second was smart, went for the window, ripping back the black-out curtains, but there were still the shutters in the way. Padlocked. No human was getting them open without an axe. Light is seriously not good for my complexion. I whacked his head against the wall, knocking him out cold. A useful technique I’d learnt to keep the blood fresh until I was ready.

The third had made a run for it. Out the door and down the stairs. I waited a couple of seconds, letting him get a head start and giving him hope that he might get out. No chance, but there’s fun in the hunt. A flex of muscles and I was after him, knocked him flat in the kitchen and almost skidded onwards into the light where they’d smashed in the back door. That wouldn’t have been fun. 

They’d made a right mess of the place. Pulling out drawers, emptying cupboards. The family silver was in a swag bag, waiting for them to pick it up on the way out. They were going to get what they deserved – plus I was thirsty. I sank my teeth into the guys jugular. Umm, sweet.

Kate and her helpful angel/ pixie duo encourage me to share part of my present cover letter. You'll notice I'm not going the 'fantasy' route as I'd have to label Celandine a spirit (or some such automatic turn-off). So she's from dark matter instead, which means we're talking 'SciFi' (gotta find some way of sneaking past the gatekeepers of orthodoxy):-

*****

'Dark Matters: The Peggy Lee Question' (88,000 words), is a science fiction/ crime fusion along the lines of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Books it might sit next to on a shelf include The Humans (Matt Haig) and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.


Briefly: Sam Lamb, a failed physics teacher, joins forces with Celandine, a dark-matter visitant, to haul a rogue scientist to justice.


That scientist, Doctor Neil Birch, has been moonlighting from his post at a pharmaceuticals giant to synthesise an ‘obedience’ drug intended to pave the way for a human/robot slave society. The old failed Sam Lamb would have been helpless to oppose such a scheme, but since the invisible Celandine came into his life he has been re-energised. Scarcely stopping to wonder if she is for real or a bizarre projection of his needs, he plunges into action.


But how can a middle-aged man of unexceptional abilities challenge powerful criminal forces, especially when his partner, if she even exists, has no physical presence? Science, that’s how. Weaponising dark matter, that’s how. Or, at least, that’s the way Sam thinks.

I'm writing a mid grade story at the moment about an angel and a pixie who travel around in a camper van helping people. The idea came from a short story I wrote for a writing challenge, and now I'm having to fill it out and work out how they ended up in that situation and what the big adventure they're going on will be. It's great fun to write. I'm not sure it's strictly 'Fairy tale', perhaps more Urban Fantasy, but I think there are fairy tale elements. 17k words done, only another 48k to go! 

Here is a very short fairy tale I wrote a while back. Comment is always welcome, but it's really just for fun.

Quarry

He can’t help but notice the girl, slight and slender though she is. Even in the market crowd she stands out with her dark skin and her bright hair. He sees the hint of an oriental cast to her features as she walks past the window, elfin and alien on this English street.

Finishing his beer he slips from his stool, out into the market buzz.

She must be a quick walker - he casts around for a minute or more in the direction she took before seeing the purple flash of her hair, already on the far edge of the square. 

Brisk but stealthy, remember your training. Never lose sight of the target, never become too obvious. Be sure to wait for just the right spot.

By the time he reaches the market’s edge he has halved the distance, slowing and hanging back as they enter the quiet streets where the village peters out. She doesn’t look like she belongs in the countryside any more than she belongs in his village.

He feels the familiar excitement, the quickening of heart and breath as she turns off the road into the woods by the quarry. He speeds his pace.

The woods are dim and silent, his rapid footsteps dulled by the thick pine carpet. She is only yards ahead, he breaks into a trot, grasps greedily at her shoulder.

She turns and smiles, eyes like warm silver, red lips parting in her dark face, white teeth showing between her red lips. White needles.

Not every chase is this easy, she reflects, snug in the darkness of her cave. She licks the blood from her hands, fastidious in her cleanliness, while her young feed.