harrybingham

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Written some books. Drink lots of tea. Prefer dogs to cats. Can't juggle.

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Really interesting feedback on our excursion into the present tense last week. More on that – sort of – in a bit. But first may we have:

  • A toot on a trumpet
  • A fat man thumping a kettle drum
  • A peacock riding a donkey
  • A small elephant with a richly jewelled caparison
  • A cart full of slightly tired dancers in leotards and top hats
  • Some children handing out bottles of water
  • A rumpus, a brouhaha and a hullabaloo

Because …

It is the 2020 launch of our Ultimate Novel Writing Course.

This course won’t be for everyone. It’s quite demanding and it’s quite expensive. But if you were thinking of doing an MA or MFA course with an emphasis on creative writing, then our UNWC is probably something to think about.

I’ve included more about all this in a PS. We ran a course last year (it’s just finishing up now) and it was excellent. That said, we’ve learned stuff in the course of 2019/20 and we’re aiming for this year’s course to be even better. If you’re interested – and, to repeat, this isn’t for everyone – then do read more below. (Or just pop over here for more.)

Righty-ho. That’s one thing.

The next thing to say is that my Friday email next week

  • may come to you on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday;
  • it will be very short;
  • it will ask you to take one simple action

And that’ll be that.

Normal service will resume the week after – at which point I’ll tell you exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it.

Right.

Nuffothat.

Let’s turn to the altogether more interesting topic of the walls of time and space.

The big takeaway from last week’s excursion to the present tense was that you don’t have to isolate yourself in a little dot of always-on consciousness. You can just talk about the external world, and the recent past, and the near future, and your narrator’s thoughts and memories in a much more fluid, more natural sounding way.

Now I got quite a lot of correspondence on that email. Much of it – oh, OK, most of it – was concerned with moustaches and tress-tossing. But a few people wanted to know if that I had similar observations in relation to the past tense.

Well – kinda.

On the one hand, the past tense doesn’t lure you into the same bad habits. But it’s still possible to write a past-tense story with the narrative viewpoint jammed at the same distance from the protagonist and the story the entire time.

So perhaps we see everything at middle-distance focus – windows, coffee cups, mattresses – but see nothing that’s either tiny or huge, nothing either utterly intimate or broadly universal.

Now if you handle things really carefully (and have a dab of genius) you might just write a wonderful novel that way.

More likely, though, you’ll bore the reader.

So mix things up. Cheat. And cheat merrily. As often and wildly as you like.

So, let’s say your needs you to follow Character A and Character B through some fairly tedious city streets. Fine. So do that. But you can pull in anything from anywhere along the way.

Take, for example, this little chunk narrated by my own little Fiona Griffiths:

The bar is only a twenty-minute walk away and parking could be difficult, so we walk. After a couple of minutes, Buzz puts his arm around me and squeezes me in close. It’s a gesture that moves me every time he does it. Like I’m not just being hooked in close to one large and well-proportioned male body, but like I’m being gathered back into the world of the living.

It makes me think of those astronauts dangling in space on the end of their tethering ropes. You think that those ropes are pipes feeding air to the space suit, but they’re not. They’re just ropes. If someone cut the rope or unhitched it from the spacecraft, the astronaut would be left dangling for ever, hanging a thousand miles above the Earth, waiting to die. Buzz’s enfolding arm brings me in from the void, through the airlock, back to the community of the human race.

I usually become girly and affectionate when I feel these things. I become that now.

 On the one hand, this is just a comment about Fiona’s boyfriend squeezing her close and her warmly affectionate feelings about that.

And on the other hand – wow!

All he’s actually done is squeeze her close. But what she talks about is being an astronaut dangling alone in space, until Buzz brings her “in from the void, through the airlock, back to the community of the human race.” There’s such a huge gap between their actual situation (a normal, short walk) and the one in her head that we feel the power of his gesture far more than we would otherwise have done.

And we’ve been able to skip a dull little description of early-evening Cardiff, because we’ve just thrown in an utterly unexpected description of dangling astronauts. No mattresses or coffee cups there. Note that the passage ends with the short sentence, “I become that now.” That “now” marks the transition from flight-of-fancy to dutiful-return to the actual present. 

I’ll give you another example.

In this instance, Fiona is hooked up with a trawler captain (Honnold) by video link. Fiona’s boss wants to know if Fiona was the mystery woman on board the trawler. If Honnold answers truthfully that she was, her career as a detective will be over. Here’s how the moment goes:

Jackson [Fiona’s boss] waves a hand.

At me, at the chair, at the end of my career.

I stand up, of course. There’s nothing else to do. Move towards my doom, but – a funny thing – have this almost literal sense of getting smaller as I approach. A kind of Alice in Wonderland experience, in which I find myself shrinking until, by the time I have somehow clambered onto that evilly rocking seat, I feel myself no bigger than a tiny white mouse, nibbling, and twitching, and combing my whiskers.

I face the screen.

Honnold’s face, but I’m so spacey, so gluey with apprehension, that I can read nothing at all in his expression, his tone, his smile.

Somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto, I hear Jackson say, ‘Can you see all right, Captain?’ Jackson adjusts the webcam at our end and rolls my chair forward.

‘Aye, that’s fine.’

‘And? Is this the woman?’

There’s a pause.

I feel the silence fill with the bones of a thousand winters, the death of galaxies. My limbs are lead. My mouth is glue.

Again, this is as wildly different from that window-mattress-coffee-cup view as you could imagine. Fiona has become a small white mouse, travelled beyond the orbit of Pluto, waited a thousand winters and witnessed the death of galaxies – and she’s done all this, whilst making a very short video-call.

Those vastly over-the-top comparisons are obviously a way to emphasise how much this moment matters. But they also turn time and space into a rubber that you can bend as far and as creatively as you fancy. I’ve done that here with a narrator using the present tense, but the same basic approach would work just fine with the past.

Yes: my first-person narrator writes in a handbrake-off sort of way and you need a basic synchrony between the images you use and the person you’re dealing with, but the basic approach can be used almost anywhere.

And also –

A weird thing happens. Even though these two passages relate merely to (i) a conventional loving boyfriend-girlfriend gesture, and (ii) two people looking at each other via video, the whole book seems to have enlarged.

The action seems bigger. The emotional stakes seem greater. The whole canvas seems enlarged and more alive. And a boring street scene / office scene takes on a colour and a charge that it could never have had with imagery drawn from the mattress-window-coffee-cup playbook. Those are a lot of cheap wins, right? Plus it’s fun to do.

Remember to take a peek at the UNWC info.

Remember too that next week you will be getting a very short email from me on a random day of the week. Everything will be explained (and back to normal) in two weeks’ time.

Right now, though? That damn peacock has fallen off the donkey and the elephant has made off with one of the dancers. I’m off to deal with them.

Give me one of your space & time bending comparisons / images. You get a double vodka if you beat a thousand winters. If you also travel beyond the orbit of Pluto, I will have the vodka brought to you by elephant.

AND I'M NOT JUST SAYING THAT. I REALLY WILL.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, people used to write in the past tense. In the galaxy we live in today, people increasingly write in the present tense.

I don’t know why. I used to write in the past tense. Now I use the present (albeit for a very specific character and for a very specific set of reasons.) You quite likely do the same.

And if you do – fine. There’s nothing wrong with the present tense and for that matter, there’s nothing wrong with the past tense. If you’re a Past-Master, then fine. You can safely print off this email and hurl it, flamboyantly, into a burning waste paper basket. You may want to add a ‘huh’ of disdain or perhaps twirl the tips of your luxuriant moustache. This email is not for you.

If you are a Present-Tenser, however – or (worse!) if you have no moustache to twirl – then then read on.

OK. So:

The thing about writing in the present tense, and especially first person in the present tense, is that it is the easiest way – the very simplest method ever devised – to write badly.

F’rinstance, take this passage, which I have just concocted for your joy and delight:

I enter the room. The door clangs shut behind me. Jared Coad is there, in shorts and a black T-shirt. Bare feet.

I smooth my skirt and smile awkwardly. I move to sit and as I do I can feel his gaze on me. I feel the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

His gaze on me never wavers.

‘You came back,’ he says.

‘Yes, Jared.’

‘Interview time.’ He says that like it’s a joke, but if so, I don’t know if it’s a joke I get to share. ‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. He’s not my boyfriend as you perfectly well know.’

I try to keep my look and tone professional, but I feel my cheeks starting to burn. I reach for the tape-recorder and my hands shake a bit as I try to get the tape into the machine. It’s only a distraction anyway. I try to distract myself. I want to get back on track. I don’t want to lose this interview before it even starts.

I hope you realise this is not good prose. It’s not terrible, but if I were an agent or an acquisitions editor, this isn’t a book I would read any further. I already know the author isn’t one I trust. (And most agents would read on. I’m exceptionally picky.)

And the reason? The primary reason? It’s all those “I + verb” constructions, especially ones that start sentences. Here’s the passage again with those things bolded and (at the start of the sentence) in capitals as well:

I ENTER the room. The door clangs shut behind me. Jared Coad is there, in shorts and a black T-shirt. Bare feet.

I SMOOTH my skirt and smile awkwardly. I MOVE to sit and as I do, I can feel his gaze on me. I FEEL the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

His gaze on me never wavers.

‘You came back,’ he says.

‘Yes, Jared.’

‘Interview time.’ He says that like it’s a joke, but if so, I don’t know if it’s a joke I get to share. ‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. He’s not my boyfriend as you perfectly well know.’

I TRY to keep my look and tone professional, but I feel my cheeks starting to burn. I REACH for the tape-recorder and my hands shake a bit as I try to get the tape into the machine. It’s only a distraction anyway. I TRY to distract myself. I WANT to get back on track. I DON’T WANT to lose this interview before it even starts.

That’s 15 uses of the construction in fewer than 200 words, and 9 sentences that start with it.

What’s more, some of those sentences are quite awkward.

There’s something quite blunt about the Simple Present in English (eg: “I try”). In ordinary speech, we often prefer the Present Continuous (“I am trying”) or the Present Perfect (“I have tried”). But because those forms don’t immediately leap to mind when we think ‘present tense’, we can easily end up grabbing for the most obvious tool in the box, even when it’s the wrong one.

The result is sentences like “I try to distract myself”, when “I am trying to distract myself” sounds more natural – more fluent.

You could say much the same about “I try to keep my look and tone professional.

That’s something she has tried to do since coming into the room, it’s something she is continuing to do, and something she will also do in the near future. And (cos this is English, the world’s most over-stuffed language), we have a tense for that – the present perfect. So that sentence would become: “I have tried to keep my look and tone professional …

Already better, right?

OK, now because you’re in the zone, may I suggest you take a look at this sentence and figure out why you hate, loathe and despise it:

I feel the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

You hate it because the real subject of the sentence is the skirt, and you’ve just shoved a totally redundant “I feel” at the start of it. So we just rewrite the sentence restoring the proper subject, so:

My pencil-skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

Better, right? Not just better, but shorter. We’ve said the exact same thing in fewer words.

I’ve gone super-specific in my niggles so far, and specific is good. It tells us we’re on the right lines.

But there’s also a broader sense in which I want to yell, “Loosen up! Relax!”

You can write first person, present tense in a very intimate, very interior way … but where the actual prose is much less me, me, me. For example, by having your narrator observe and relate telling external details, you can convey a lot about what’s happening inside.

Here’s yet another crack at that interview scene – except this time, it’s a real extract from my current work in progress. My narrator is Fiona Griffiths, and she’s about to interview an extremely dangerous psychiatric patient. I’ve put some comments in square brackets as we go.

Interview time.

Jared Coad.

Him again, me again. Except with just the two of us in his room, and no great apparatus of recording equipment, the space seems different. Bigger, certainly, but also more liquid. Brimming with possibilities that seem to lie round a corner, just out of sight.

[This in a way is about Fiona’s interior feelings, but it’s delivered without a single use of the word ‘I’.]

Coad is in shorts and a black T-shirt this time. Bare feet.

His legs and arms are medium-hairy, and have the inevitable sheen of recent sweat. The smell in the room has a roughly even balance of recent perspiration and shampoo.

‘You came back.’

‘Yes, Jared.’

I’m wearing a dark grey pencil skirt and an oversized jumper in a duck egg blue. His eyes rotate through my various different components. Memorising me, consuming me.

We’ve now had Fiona’s observation of Jared physically and his of her. It feels a lot more intimate and sexual than in the first version of this scene, but the word ‘I’ has scarcely featured.

My outfit is hardly provocative but, if I’m honest, it’s probably on the slightly sexier end of the not-very-sexy stuff I have with me here. Partly, it’s like a little gift I can bring. If Coad gets off on seeing my bum in a fitted skirt, then he’s welcome to the pleasure. But, as I enter his room, and turn slightly to adjust the cushions on my little bench before I sit, I realise I quite like his gaze. Quite like his admiration. I linger a half-second longer adjusting cushions than I really need to. Bend a little lower. Smooth my skirt as I sit.

‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. No, he’s not with me today.’

‘And you haven’t brought your tape recorder.’

‘No.’

‘Which means you aren’t about to arrest me.’

‘I’m not interviewing you under caution, no. And I’m not about to detain you either.’

Coad interrogates me a little further with his eyes. That troubled gaze. He has a habit of moving his lips, almost as though speaking or externalizing thoughts, but no sound comes out. The effect, however, is almost as though he is talking to an unseen colleague. And if he were doing that, he could only be talking about me.

That’s 330 words and the word “I” hardly features, except in the one paragraph where Fiona is intensely self-conscious of his gaze and her enjoyment of it. In that context, it doesn’t feel awkward, it feels part of the sexual tension in the room.

The main lesson here? Just loosen up. Write naturally. Be suspicious of too many “I + verb” constructions. Be doubly suspicious when they start a sentence or feel awkward or introduce bodily sensations. All those things are fine in the right amounts. Just … don’t overdo it.

That’s it from me. Now please find your pot of moustache wax and start twirling.

I understand that some of you ladies receiving this message may not (yet) have a luxuriant moustache of your own, in which case you can Toss Your Tresses In A Haughty Manner. That would do absolutely fine.

Till soon – twirl, twirl.

OK. What about you? Do you write present or past? Do you want to expose some of your present tense writing to my Ultra Pedantic Gaze? Or do you merely want to practise your Tress Tossing? In which case, get a load of this ...

Quite soon, Jericho Writers is going to turn, in a small way, into a publisher. We want to source and publish really great books on writing, publishing and author-led marketing. And of course, you folks will get first dibs and the sweetest deals.

We’re going to start simply. Ages ago, I wrote a couple of books for Bloomsbury, owner of the UK’s venerable Writers & Artists brand. The books were on Getting Published and How To Write, and were nicely received by readers, and – over time – sold plenty of copies.

But since those books first came out, the world has changed rather a lot. For one thing, the text of Getting Published was creakily out of date. It really had nothing to say about e-books or about the digital revolution which was, back then, still only a looming shadow.

For another thing, that revolution utterly transformed the way books like those are purchased.

Back in the day, people bought niche non-fiction in bookshops, because there was nowhere else to buy it. So a bigger bookshop might have a section on writing, but stock selection was inevitably a bit hit and miss. The turnover of those sections was slow and a bookseller wouldn’t feel they had to stock everything. So a reader could easily turn up looking for books on publishing, and find only a fraction of what was available – and a poorly curated fraction at that, because booksellers wouldn’t have the expertise or incentive to research the niche in depth.

Amazon blew that old system up completely – a good thing.

If you want niche non-fiction, Amazon offers you everything. It allows you to compare rival texts at rival prices by rival authors. You can check book blurbs, and browse the text, and see reader reviews. For the two books I had out with Bloomsbury, my online sales as a proportion were at 85% of the total and rising. I’m surprised there were any offline sales at all, to be honest.

So for these reasons, and others, Bloomsbury and I chose to part ways. (Which is nice of Bloomsbury, by the way. They aren’t under an obligation to revert rights, so it’s kind of them to do so.) I’ve utterly overhauled the Getting Published book and given a good old facelift to the How To Write one too. We’ll launch Getting Published properly in a couple of weeks – and we’ll do that modern-style. That is, instead of a book launch process designed around physical stores, our process be designed, from the ground-up, to be online-friendly.

What does that mean?

Well, a few things, and I’ll make sure you get some really good insights into the whole process over the next few weeks.

Today I’ll tell you how we’ve approached book covers and how we’ve approached the whole business of securing reader reviews.

Okiedoke.

Book covers

In physical world, the art of the book cover is 50% “What book cover will most appeal to readers?” and 50% “What book cover will most appeal to supermarket retail buyers?”

Yes, a cover has to work in every format and through every channel, but traditional bestsellers are built via volume sales through the supermarkets, so those retail buyers are key. Since those buyers are professional, and since they’re looking at every catalogue from every big publisher, it’s hard to game the system. That’s why so many covers in a particular genre look similar. Loads of publishers home in on the same solutions to the same question.

And another thing: in physical world, you can’t change a cover if one doesn’t work. Publishers’ catalogues come out six months or more before publication. Orders are placed weeks before. By the time readers have actually encountered the book, it’s way too late to change it.

That’s not the case in online-world. Sophisticated digital publishers like APub and Bookouture will simply trial a cover. If they don’t get the sales they want and expect, they’ll change the cover overnight and re-analyse the data. A cover is as much changeable and malleable as the Amazon blurb itself, which you can change just by entering a dashboard and altering the text.

We wanted to take a similar approach. We developed five different covers from a total of three designers. I’m sure we all had views as to which cover was best, but honestly, it’s hard to know for sure. In particular, we’re not buyers for that particular book. We’re a tiny sample. Opinions vary. We could just be wrong.

So we went to Facebook and created five advertisements. Each had the exact same copy, and just asked people if they wanted a free copy of the book. The only variation was the cover image we showed in the ad.

That ad showed to a total of 8,000 people (all of whom were interested in writing and publishing – we’re able to select that audience using the tools provided by Facebook.) Of those 8,000, a total of 370 chose to get a free copy.

Crucially, though, the different cover designs did not all perform the same. The best cover performed almost exactly 50% than the ‘worst’ cover – even though that ‘worst’ cover looked amazing and was by the same designer. Honestly, I don’t think we’d have predicted that result beforehand. We just didn’t know.

And that’s it! That’s the whole technique right there. We have compelling data justifying our choice of cover, so we can launch confident that our sort of readers like that sort of look. It’s a brilliant way to handle things.

And yes: it’s a somewhat costly approach – only not really.

The Facebook ads themselves cost about £100 / $130. We stopped running the experiment at that point because the answer was already clear. And yes, we needed various different cover designs – but designers always offer you several anyway. I’m sure we spent less overall than a Big 5 publisher would spend on a regular cover.

That’s cover design run in a modern, data-led, online-first way. We’ll do versions of that experiment many more times before we’re done.

And now – 

Review teams

Reviews obviously matter on Amazon. Partly, people want to know what other people have thought of a book, but also people just don’t like to be the first dummy to hit the Buy It Now button – just like you don’t want to turn up early to a party.

Additionally, traffic to a book page on Amazon is typically at its highest around launch. Amazon works much harder to promote new books than old stock, so visibility generally spikes at launch and drops away after that.

So you want your reviews to show very soon after launch.

That’s a really big deal that will affect your launch sales, but also your book’s future trajectory – as higher levels of early sales will keep you selling for a long time after and will give Amazon’s databots a much clearer idea of who your audience is.

Right. So you want reviews and you want them promptly after launch. But how do you achieve that – and achieve it in a non-spammy, ethical way?

Answer: you go to your mailing list – that’s you – and say: “Would you like an advance review copy of my book, for free?”

If people want the book - in ebook format - , they have to agree to post an (honest, genuine, sincere) review of it on Amazon within 48 hours of the book launching. There’s nothing spammy there. You may get some negative reviews as well as some positive ones. You’re asking people to write their genuine thoughts, not just automatic 5-star praise.

Those reviews can populate quickly. The last time I brought a Fiona Griffiths book out, I had 50-80 reviews posted in a matter of days. Those reviews comforted newcomers to the series that it had legs and merit and have supported sales ever since.

Yes: you do need a mailing list before this technique works with ease. But yes: there are ways you can do something similar even from a standing start.

But since this email is already too long (gosh, what a surprise), I’ll leave it there for now.

If you would like a free advance review copy of Getting Published, by me, please see info in the PSes below. It’s first come, first served, and we have 100 books on offer only. I’d love it if you chose to help.

Oh yes: and the book’s quite good too. It’s Getting Published completely rewritten for the market of 2020 and beyond. I hope you love it. More on all this shortly.

____________________

If you want a free Advance Review Copy of Getting Published, by me, then do as follows:

  • Email publishing@jerichowriters.com
  • Put ARC PLEASE in the subject line
  • In your message, tell us which Amazon store you mostly use – Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
  • We will give ARCs to the first 100 people who contact us – 50 for those using the US Amazon store and 50 for those using the UK one
  • Please be aware that the review copy will be an EBOOK. We don’t have physical copies to give away, though physical copies will be available for sale at launch.
  • If you are asking us for a review copy, you do need to leave an honest review within 48 hours of the book’s publication, please. We’ll contact you around the time of publication to nudge you.

Oh dearly beloved, I have news, I have news.

This isn’t news of some new lovely Jericho thing; it’s the opposite. I’ve been busy for a long time with all things Jericho. Admin, tech, staffing, products, finance, blah. And now, those things are all still busy and thriving. But –

Increasingly, those things don’t need me. I have people more capable than me in most of the roles that matter. When we have weekly e-meetings, and someone asks me, “Anything from you, Harry?”, I mostly now just say no.

Oh the bliss of that no. Because, for well over a year now, I’ve had a half-finished Fiona Griffiths novel on my computer. It’s a novel under contract too, albeit contracts with deadlines that I’ve felt able to ignore. (Douglas Adams said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – that’s never been me before, but Jericho hath made it so.)

Any case, point is, I have some time available again and I have restarted work on the book that will one day be THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD. It’s a joy to be writing again. It’s a joy to re-encounter the whole set-up I’ve built for myself – Fiona Griffiths has to investigate a crime that seems to emanate from a secure psychiatric hospital on the west coast of Wales. She’s had some bad personal experiences of psychiatric hospitals herself. And this one is stuffed full of ex-Special Forces veterans, with scrambled brains and a remarkable capacity for violence. And – well, there’s a whole plum pudding of ingredients, which I’ve assembled mostly because I think they’re yummy.

So: it’s a pleasure to be back.

The biggest pleasure? It’s to be with the characters again. Fiona especially – she and I have walked together for three quarters of a million words so far and there’s plenty of road still ahead of us.

Coming back after this long away, I realise that the relationship we writers have with our characters IS a real relationship. That is, it has elements of actual love in it.

You think that because the character isn’t real, the emotions can’t be either. But they can. It’s not like parent/child love, or romantic love, or human/dog love, or anything like that. It’s its own thing. It's writer/character love, and it’s one-way only, but it’s real. If by some weird twist of brain chemistry I was prohibited from “seeing” Fiona again, I’d have a real bereavement, a genuine loss. And now that I’m back with her, writing actively, not just thinking wistfully, it’s like an old friend has flown in from Australia after years away and we can pick things up again, almost exactly as they were when we left off.

To have that kind of loving relationship on tap is a kind of gift. Writers have it. The rest of the world (poor saps) are forced to rely on real people, with all their flaws.

That’s not the only pleasure. For me, there’s a pleasure in writing. There’s a painful pleasure – or a pleasurable pain – in plotting. There’s a lot of pleasure in editing and re-editing. I like most of the stuff around publication too, whether trad or self-pub. And, though I’ve been off the circuit just recently, I love the crime writing scene. I love the writers and the gossip and the booze and the inclusive insiderishness of it all.

By about this point in an email, I occasionally check myself. Have I actually delivered any actionable and useful advice, or have I just waffled around talking about boxes full of elegantly dressed women and other such nonsense?

Mostly, I pass my actionable advice test with flying colours. This email, so far, flunks completely.

Useful advice for you to take home and cuddle at night:

Nada.

Zip.

A big fat socially-distanced zero.

Except, here’s the thing.

Your happiness – your many and varied sorts of writing happiness – all matter. You need to cherish and nurture them. If you notice one of them wilting, you need to figure out what’s going on and fix it.

Partly, that’s just a question of good life management. If a thing doesn’t make you happy, then twizzle it around until it does. That’s all the more important with things connected with writing. Writing is, in most cases, badly paid enough that you have to love it for its own sake. If you’re a hedge fund manager who doesn’t much love (erm) funding hedges, I’m sure the other compensations are plentiful. That’s not the case with writing.

But also: you will work better and faster and with stronger outcomes if you love what you do. Take the editing process. If you love that, as I do, you’ll be reluctant to leave the task until it’s really truly done. Things that were not quite right in the first or fourth draft manuscript start to glitter and shine. If editing is just a chore to get through, you’ll almost certainly end up finishing a good bit before you should.

So find your happy.

That is the actionable advice of this email. Find your happy. If you love some parts of the writing process and hate others, then look to see how you can transform your experience of the parts you don’t like. Do you gamify it? (“Hmm. I don’t like editing, but today I’m going to see if I can find 5,000 words of unnecessary text to cut. Ready, steady, go…”) Do you just add kindness? (“Right. I don’t usually let myself work in a coffee shop, but while I’m editing, I’m going to do it with coffees and muffins every day until I’m done.”) Do you just add self-love? (“You know what? I didn’t like this, but actually I can see this book starting to take shape and I’m genuinely proud of what I’ve accomplished.”)

Or whatever. But find your happy. Your work and your characters will be grateful for it.

Here endeth the epistle.

But what about you? Do you love writing? Or is it more pain than pleasure? What parts do you love and which would you willingly ditch forever? let me know in the comments, and we'll all have a Heated Debate.

I mentioned last week that I was reading Linwood Barclay’s Elevator Pitch, in preparation for talking to him as part of our upcoming Summer Festival.

And – it’s big.

It’s not super-long – I’m going to guess it runs to something like 150-160,000 words – but it has a scale that goes beyond mere length. It’s a thriller that encompasses the whole of Manhattan. The mayor. The son. The journalist. The daughter. The terrorist. The terrorist’s boss. The cop. The victims. The families. The ambassador. The FBI agent. And more.

I haven’t counted the number of points of view, but the total is probably two dozen or more. So disposable are the POVs, you get whole (entertaining) chapters written from the perspective of someone that the reader, not the character, realises is about to die.

The book is a big, fun, entertaining read. Though the thriller thrills as it should, it’s never nasty. There’s no gratuitous violence. No voyeurism of pain. A kind of compassionate humanity lives over the whole book.

But it’s the POVs I want to talk about.

Most of you will be working on a book with a single viewpoint, or maybe two or three carefully judged ones. You’ll agonise over whether one of your characters should be allowed her own POV, or whether she should have her little bit of fictional consciousness squeezed off the page altogether.

And then Linwood Barclay just manufactures points of view as though they didn’t matter. He’ll pop someone in a lift (= elevator, oh my American friends), give us three pages of insight into that character’s immortal soul, then splat that character from existence.

What’s going on? Why do you have to curate your characters with all this astonishing care, when Linwood Barclay can just manufacture and discard POVs with wild abandon?

Well.

Big question.

(And OK, I realise in my head I was doing that “well” in a Sven-Goran Eriksson voice. The guy used to be manager of the England football team, and he turned “well” into a two-syllable, very considered, Swedish-accented word, whose role was to live at the front of every sentence. If you were in a car with him as navigator, every time you asked for directions, he’d have said, “Well,” with such depth of thought that you’d have sped past the turning before he had time to give you an actual answer. So, now that you know that part sounds like in my head, we’re going to do it again.)

Well-ll.

Big question, but it resolves quite easily into three rough choices.

Utterly intimate

If you want to be utterly intimate with your main character and you want your reader to share that intimacy, you need a single viewpoint. It doesn’t matter too much whether that viewpoint is delivered first person or third, what matters is that the reader is living completely in that character’s shoes.

I do it myself. I’ve written about three quarters of a million words about my little Fiona Griffiths and every single one of those words is written from her point of view. Never once do the novels peep even for an italicised page or two into another mind.

The big win in this approach is depth and intimacy of characterisation. And it’s no coincidence that the element readers immediately foreground in my novels is the character. Yes, they’ll talk about the plots, but only after they’ve dealt with the character.

The big loss in that approach is that you risk a kind of claustrophobia. In my world of crime thrillers, for example, the strictly one-POV approach is relatively rare, because you have no access to dramatic action unless your character is there. That’s tough: it’s the most limiting, most difficult constraint that emerges from the way I’ve chosen to write.

My techniques for dealing with it are varied. They include: (a) locating my character at the point of drama more often than is actually credible, (b) making her a generator of drama in her own right, (c) giving her enough other points of interest – funny, crazy, romantic, interesting – that we don’t need non-stop drama, and (d) making those points of drama as long and intense as I can.

Epic, broad-sweep

The Linwood Barclay approach is the exact opposite. One of his point of view characters is the Mayor of New York, Richard Headley. The insight into RH’s inner world is so scant, it’s only just there at all. At times, it can be quite hard discerning whose point of view a chapter comes from.

That’s not bad writing. That’s careful, judicious writing.

Barclay knows that RH is not one of his primary characters, in the sense that readers aren’t hugely going to bond to him. So a dab of paint here and there is enough. He’s not an automaton. He’s in charge of this chapter. But you don’t really care about him, so I’m not going to go all-in with this character. With the characters Barclay does care about (and that readers care about), we have a much more detailed inner-life portrait.

The big wins of this approach are roughly twofold.

One, you generate a sense of scale. A Dickensian sense of an entire city, crawling beneath the novelist’s lens.

Two, you can jump to whichever piece of action is most dramatic, most involving. If you actually just traced the path of the book through one character’s journey alone, that character wouldn’t encounter nearly enough dramatic action to keep the reader involved.

And the loss?

Simply that none of Barclay’s characters register as intensely or in-depth as is possible with the one-POV only approach. They simply don’t get enough time on the page to generate that alchemy.

What you win in terms of scale and flexibility, you lose in terms of intimacy. In both cases, good writing allows you to claw back some of your losses, but the losses are real, no matter what.

Two or three

And then there’s an intermediate group of novels where there are multiple characters, but not in Linwood Barclays’s all-you-can-eat buffet kind of way.

There are romantic novels where he and she each have a hand.

Or historical novels where, the duke and the factory girl and (oh I dunno) the ship’s captain all have a role.

These are the novels that, from experience, generate the largest number of anguished emails. Roughly: “Hi Harry, I’ve just organised all my chapters into a spreadsheet and the ship’s captain has only 20% of the total page space, maybe less if you exclude the flashback where he worked in the ship’s chandlery, and I worry if maybe I should scrap the captain and given the girl the scene on the ship where the storm arrives, only then …”

And – I don’t know.

I mean: I haven’t read your books, so I don’t know. But you have basically two lamps to guide you. (And these are Lamps of Truth, so they’re good ‘uns when it comes to the whole guidance thing.)

Lamp the first: Don’t give your character a POV unless they have an actual story. That means a challenge, a crisis, a resolution. It means jeopardy. It means internal and external obstacles to victory. It means that all the plot ingredients needed for an entire novel are present, in miniature, for your point of view character too.

Lamp the second: Don’t give your character a POV unless you actually care about them. If you don’t, the reader won’t.

*** 

This whole business of POVs causes more anguish than almost any other, I reckon. And in the end, these general rules, while helpful, are only guidelines. Before you email me with one of your duke / factory girl / captain emails, just remember that I DON’T KNOW. The guidelines are helpful in terms of clarifying your thoughts, but the final decisions and judgements can only be made with a specific manuscript to consider.

That is all from me.

I will e-see loads of you at the Summer Festival next week and over the next few months. The rest of you will just have to sob bitter tears of remorse that you didn’t get your tickets in time. (Or – alternative thought – you could just go and get one. Details below.)

That's it from me. And I don't think that my trio of duke / factory girl / ship's captain is a very good one. What trio of characters do you have? And which one do you worry should be for the chop ...? Chime in below and let's all have a Heated Debate.


Oh blinking blimey. I’ve got lots of things to tell you and I’m not quite sure what order to do it in.

It’s like I’ve come home from a trip to Hyderabad by way of Phuket, Osaka and the Kingdom of Gog. I have eleventy-one interesting items in eleventy-one boxes (one of which roars and one of which sighs) and I can’t start to arrange my items until I’ve unboxed them all and stared at them a bit.

There’s going to be a mountain of packaging that I’ll have to cope with somehow.

Hey ho, and here we go.

Box 1

I did a webinar for Jericho members on Wednesday and there were almost 200 people there and it ran half the night. It was very interesting and I’m going to tell you more about this in a moment.

Box 2

Virtually all of our Summer Festival sessions are going out live and interactive, except that I did one with Adam Croft as a pre-record.

He’s an indie author and, if you don’t read psych thrillers and you’re not in touch with Planet Indie, then you don’t know who he is.

But when he brought out Her Last Tomorrow, that book sold so well he had paid off his mortgage in a matter of weeks.

His previous books had each earned maybe a few thousand dollars in total.

The shoutline for Adam’s breakout title was “Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Box 3

I find nothing inside this box except a note from Sophie, our monarch of marketing, saying “Tell them about the 1-2-1s.”

I always obey Sophie, so I comply:

You lot gobbled up our first batch of 1-2-1 slots with literary agents so fast that we had to bake some more. You can find all the information right here:

https://jerichowriters.com/festival-of-writing/one-to-one-sessions/

Those cookies get eaten quickly though, so don’t wait too long.

Box 4

What is the elevator pitch for a book? I mean: what is it really?

It’s not the shoutline. It’s not the blurb. It’s not the synopsis. It’s not your query letter. It’s not even a sentence from your query letter. (I mean it might be, but certainly doesn’t have to be.)

So what is it really? And does it actually matter?

You are not, in fact, likely to find yourself in an elevator with a Top Literary Agent, so why stress about what you’d say if you were?

Box 5

By strange coincidence, I’m interviewing the #1 international bestseller Linwood Barclay as part of our Summer Festival. I’ll be talking (among much else) about his current thriller.

Whose title is Elevator Pitch.

The book opens with a guy trying to pitch his screenplay while in an elevator with a top entertainment exec. The elevator goes up to the fortieth floor then – geddit? – pitches downwards.

Closing lines of chapter 1:

The elevator was in freefall.

Until it hit bottom.

The story is about a chain of induced elevator crashes in New York and the effort to find the person responsible.

The screenwriter pitching his screenplay got as far as telling the movie exec his Big Idea before they were both splatted from existence. In his story, a character discovers a time machine, but the time machine can only move you five minutes forward into the future or five minutes back in the past.

What would you do with that tiny superpower?

Box 6

This is the box that was sighing and is now making a small mewing sound.

I poke some lettuce through the airholes and the mewing stops.

The box has leaked very slightly and smells of wee.

Box 7

OK, so the elevator pitch for my first Fiona Griffiths novel would be something like this:

Fiona Griffiths is a homicide detective in recovery from Cotards Syndrome. Cotards is a genuine psychiatric condition in which the sufferer believes themselves to be dead.

You notice (because you are alert to these things) that this formulation isn’t at all slogan-y – you couldn’t put it on the front of the book.

It tells you nothing at all about the plot. It doesn’t even say “this is a detective novel with murder at its heart” although you probably guess (correctly) that it is.

And it’s not vague. It doesn’t wave its hands in a mysterious way. It gives you two facts. Fiona is a murder detective. And she used to think she was dead.

I suppose it actually gives you one more fact – that her condition is a real thing from which real people suffer – but that’s really only to make it clear that this is at least a somewhat realist novel. It’s not fantasy. It’s not speculative.

Box 8

This box is very small and inlaid with a wondrous array of minutely carved woods.

It contains nothing except this observation:

“Harry’s elevator pitch doesn’t look like a marketing thing at all. It doesn’t have that gaudy, aspartamine-flavoured brightness. Maybe Harry is completely crap at marketing.”

I do as it happens agree with the first two parts of that observation and maybe even the third – except I wish to dispute the word “completely”.

Box 9

This box is rather large and lists slightly. We need a stepladder to open it up properly, but there is nothing inside but a waft of scent.

While breathing and enjoying that scent, we find ourselves thinking:

“What would it like to think you were dead? How can an alive person possibly think they are dead? And wouldn’t it be strange to be caught between life and death like that – and be a murder detective. I’d like to know more about that book.”

And aha!

And snap!

And all that Harry-is-rubbish-at-marketing tosh!

My elevator pitch has snapped itself shut over your leg and now you can’t get yourself free.

Box 10

In the webinar, I said that the elevator pitch was two things, two vital things:

  1. It was a very short way to get someone to say, “Ooh, that sounds interesting, tell me more.”
  2. It was the soul of your book and every page of your book had to vibrate with that inner soul.

Which were clearly interesting and powerful things to say, but no one actually knew what the second one meant.

Including possibly me.

Box 11

Inside this box is a tall and elegantly dressed woman. 

She fixes me with a glittering eye and stalks away, out of the room and out of my life.

When I look at the box more closely, I discover that the name and address on the packing label are not my own. I feel somewhat embarrassed. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 is “very embarrassed indeed”, I’d be about a 6.

In the bottom of the box, discarded or forgotten, is a veil. It is very soft and has the pale grey of a pigeon’s underbelly.

Box 12

Twice, oh reader, have I been in an elevator TRAPPED right next to the Chief Executive of a really big publishing company.

I didn’t pitch my book.

I talked about the weather, or something dreary.

Maybe I really am crap at marketing.

Oh God. I mean: maybe I actually am.

Box 13

This is the one that roars.

I have telephoned London Zoo. I hope they will come and take it away.

There is a terrible scratching sound from within and the box does not look the strongest.

I regret everything about this box. I should not have brought it home.

Box 14

OK, so one of the people on the webinar – a wise and noble human named Jon – said this in a subsequent comment on Townhouse:

I’ve been thinking a lot about your description of the elevator pitch as encapsulating the ‘soul’ of the story.

The ‘soul’ of my book, I think, is Membra’s growing understanding that what she sees as her flaws and imperfections, and her adaptations to them, have contributed to the strong, resilient and ‘worthy’ person that she is and always has been, and that removing them - i.e. achieving ‘perfection’ - risks her becoming a different, and perhaps less self-actualised person. She understands that imperfection has value and that perfection is a chimera. It is this that enables her to make the final decision she makes at the climax of the book NOT to use the Perfection Engine to revert the universe to its perfect state - both from a selfish perspective (she doesn’t want to lose the person she is) and from a wider moral perspective. So she (to use my ‘slogan’) ‘saves the world from paradise’.

That internal journey is what I think the soul of the story is, and the primary candidate for the single focus of the pitch. It’s the ‘real’ story.

Now if you are actually still reading this email, you should sit bolt upright and mark the moment somehow – perhaps you want to bark or hurl a teacup.

Jon, mate, you are saying something important.

I think you are saying something true.

Box 15

Contains nothing but a forlorn tune.

There are no words to the tune, but the following words fit the melody in a hand-meet-handmade-kidskin-glove sort of way:

Maybe the soul of the book (in my Box 10 / Ooh-tell-me-more sense) is intimately connected with Jon’s more profound take on the subject.

Like maybe they’re the same thing, only in one case you’re just looking at the trunk and leaves and in the other case you get to see the roots as well.

Aha!

The tune lingers and is strangely pleasing.

Box 16

When you think about it, Adam Croft’s million-dollar shoutline (“Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”) is everything in one:

  • It is perfect copy for a Facebook ad. Like perfect copy. It was Facebook ads that propelled that book, and its author, to superstardom.
  • It has the quality of intriguing specificity. You instantly want to know more about the story. It rings that Ooh-tell-me-more bell, ring a ding ding.
  • It completely honours the book and vice versa. That shoutline echoes in every single page of the text.
  • The shoutline itself is all wood and leaves, but you already have a sense of the roots. What happens when family ties are strained like that? What happens when that terrible moral choice is forced on what is already an uneasy marriage?

Boom! Maybe the marketing soul of your book is just the soul-soul of your book wearing gaudy clothing. Maybe the “Ooh tell me more” bit is just a pathway (for you and the reader) to the deeper stuff.

Box 17

Contains a skitter of anticipation.

I really want to know whether Linwood Barclay’s latest bestseller takes that 5 minute time travel superpower idea beyond the first chapter.

I need to finish the book. I’m going to have a lot to ask him.

Box 18

Contains the soul-soul of my detective book, the one with roots as well as leaves:

Fiona struggles to assemble her complicated and unwieldy parts into a functional human being. Because that process often fails for her, and because she has to work hard at it, we notice how much effort she has to make. And then we realise: we all face the same challenge and we face it every day. Fiona is us.

Somewhere outside in the garden, a silver bell rings.

 

That is the end of my boxes.

I am still worried about Box 13.

How about you? And what did you bring home of Phuket?

Are any of you missing a tall and elegantly dressed woman?

Hi folks, If you're a JW member and were on the elevator pitch webinar tonight, then feel free to ask any questions here. Or just chat. What was your favourite pitch? There were some good uns!

I'll dip in and out of this chat over the next day or two so keep an eye on it. NB - I'll post the replay link as soon as I have it

Murder and love in the time of anarchy.

A young British police officer struggles with integrity in the face of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Milo's home life with dad is a nightmare. Puberty and prostate cancer are, after all, a toxic mix. But everything changes when Milo is kidnapped at Glastonbury and Alex is forced to channel his inner Tom Cruise... 

A comic exploration of manhood and family, told in dual voices. 


One person, one decision could kill or save the human race.

A socially insecure widow (friendless, but for one invisible companion) sets out to reinvent her life.

Hello JW members

As per my email - can I have your elevator pitches please for the webinar next week. Webinar info here:

https://members.jerichowriters.com/content/perfecting-your-elevator-pitch-with-harry-bingham/

(That link does work - I've just checked it - but you do need to be logged in to the JW site to see it.)

Rules for the elevator pitch:

  • One submission per person please
  • JW members only (sorry everyone else - but this is a members only event)
  • Max 50 words per pitch
  • But aim for less. Most pitches can be done in <20 words, and often <10

Hope to see loads of you at the webinar. I'm looking forward to it myself ...

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