harrybingham

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

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Last week, we said this:

A book, in any genre, is good to the extent that it absorbs its audience.

That means that the book holds your imagination when you’re not reading it, but also that it holds your attention with particular fierceness while you are reading it. You can’t glide quickly over a sentence (or paragraph or scene) because you’re aware there may be some crucial weight or implication which you’d miss.

Last week, we looked at how a fairly short piece of dialogue can convey whole layers of meanings to the reader. In fact, my explanation of what those meanings were ran to more than two times the length of the dialogue itself.

This week, I want to illustrate how you can build absorption into your work at almost every level, from bog to small. So for example:

The Twist

The classic plot twist isn’t something that features much in my work, but you can think of Big Twists – like the mid-book reveal of Real Amy in Gone Girl, or the shower scene in Psycho – where the entire book hangs on a moment of revelation or upended expectations.

Those twists work in part because the book is forcing the reader to work hard.  So, to take the Gone Girl example, the reader spent the first half of the book trying to figure out the relationship between Nick and Amy, based on his (basically honest) narrative and her (very dishonest) diaries. Then you hit the plot twist and all the past understanding has to be recomputed in light of the new information. Nick’s position suddenly looks very different. Amy’s character looks very different. The reader can’t coast through these changes. They have to ditch one map and rapidly, construct a new one … while also mentally understanding the genius-but-diabolical nature of Amy’s fraud.

Plot complexity

I don’t really go in for the kind of twist where the book hinges in a moment. But – like many crime writers – I do make use of plot complexity. Think, for example, of a Raymond Chandler novel. The plot is tangled enough that, even when you’ve only just finished the book, you’d struggle to recap what you’ve just read.

That means, of course, that as you read, you need to pay close attention. (“Hmm. So Marlowe is chasing Moose Malloy’s girlfriend, but then he’s to help deliver a ransom payment for another client, when he’s banged on the head, and that client is killed, but then Anne Riordan picks him up – and, hold on, who the heck is Anne Riordan anyway?”)

The sheer intricacy of the structure means that you have to focus relentlessly on each page, because you’re worried that you’ll miss some essential fact if you don’t.

Result: absorption – and a happy reader.

World-building

Another example: world-building.

The phrase (a good one) is used mostly in relation to speculative fiction but, really, you construct a world for every book and the interest you create in that world is a powerful mechanism for absorption.

So take Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Early in chapter one, we encounter the famous sentence, “The King is pregnant.”

Bam! You can feel how electrifying that phrase is. In four words, the reader learns something crazily unexpected about the world they now inhabit. The result: they start reading the text with intensity, keen to gather further clues about the way this world operates.

That’s a classic SF example, but you can take something as simple as Before I Go To Sleep, about an amnesiac who comes to doubt the story she has about who she is. That world is our world – muesli-eating, clipped-lawn suburbia – but it’s still the fascination of the world-building that keeps people glued to the text.

Locations

Even much smaller descriptions of place can force the reader to pay close attention. In one of my books, Fiona is abducted by bad guys, has a very horrible experience, and ends up taking shelter with her friend Lev, who lives in a squat. Here’s Fiona’s arrival at that lovely place:

The downstairs room is lightless. The doors and windows have been boarded up front and rear. There’s a poor-quality kitchen in place – white formica doors loose on their hinges, chipboard surfaces bubbling and splitting with damp – but I already know there’s no water in the tap, no power in the sockets.

Lev says nothing. Just points me upstairs.

Upstairs: two bedrooms, one bathroom, nothing else. Bare boards. No furniture. No heating. No bathroom fittings, even. Lev has taken over the larger of the two bedrooms. A military looking roll of bedding, neatly furled. A ten-litre jerry can of water. A wash bowl. A primus stove and basic cooking equipment, all clean, all tidy. A black bag, of clothes I presume. A small box of food. The front window was boarded, but Lev has removed the boards and they stand leaning against the wall.

Light enters the room in silence. Leaves again the same way.

I don’t say anything.

There’s no dialogue in this scene. No astonishing bit of writing. Much of the text is basically a list of nouns: a can of water, a wash bowl, a primus stove …

Yet the contrast between Fiona’s fragile emotional state and the uncomfortable starkness of this places forces itself at the reader. Again, the reader is being made to work. They have to assess how this place is going to work for Fiona. There’s also the tremble of some kind of conflict in the air: Lev presumably thinks this place is OK, Fiona thinks … what? The work involved in figuring these things out keeps the reader (I hope!) glued to the page.

Humour

Humour plays a huge role in writing and not only in books that set out to be comedies. The reason is simply that humour (like dialogue) has a vibrancy that keeps readers on high alert – like an audience hanging on the words of a talented stand up.

The extract above about Lev’s squat continues thus:

I am not what you would call a girly girl. I don’t have a particular relationship with pink. Don’t revere handbags or hoard shoes. I don’t love to dress up, or bake, or follow faddy diets, or learn new ways to decorate my home. On the other hand, I have just spent the weekend being tortured in a barn near Rhayader and I was, I admit it, wanting something a bit homelier than this.

I mean, that’s not laugh-out-loud funny or anything like that, but – in context - a funny response to the situation Fiona’s now in. The description of the squat introduced a hint of conflict (is this place suitable for Fiona right now?) and here we get the first outright declaration of Fiona’s feelings. So short paragraph delivers some humour – that contrast between “girly girl” and “spent the weekend being tortured” – plus a development of the nascent conflict. The result is intended to be a paragraph that the reader can’t safely skip over. The text demands absorption not skimming.

Words

You can take this emphasis on absorption right down to individual words. In an email a while back, I wrote:

Here’s a sentence made up of the Dull Five Thousand [ie: the most common words in English]: “A bird had somehow got into the room and, unable to find a way out, flapped feebly at the windows.”

Here’s a sentence that draws richly from the glittering parades [ie: more interesting vocab]: “There was the ballroom, gleaming and empty, where once – in the chill of late autumn – Alma had encountered a trapped hummingbird, which had shot past her ear in the most remarkable trajectory (a jewelled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon.)”

The second sentence is from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things, and its language forces attention in the way that my first version of that sentence clearly didn’t.

That phrase – a jewelled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon – isn’t particularly hard to decode. It’s not like the kind of literary writing that you need an English degree to understand. But it forces the reader to do some work: “OK. Yes. Parabolic flight of bird = missile shot from cannon, got that. And right, hummingbirds are colourful, hence jewelled missile. Got it.”

The sentence forces the reader to do some work, but that work is rewarded by a valuable payoff

Rewarding work

And that’s the whole deal. Getting readers absorbed in your book is all about:

  1. Making the readers work damn hard, AND
  2. Rewarding that labour as generously as you can

That’s the whole deal. The secret of writing.

Adult fiction, kids’ fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poems. Heck, it’s the secret of writing emails like this. It’s the secret of query letters or book blurbs or pretty much anything at all. Your mission – maximum absorption – operates at every level from plot to word choice. So all you need to do now is implement that strategy.

Easy, no?

Oh, and thanks to Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash for the delightful header image :)

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I got a fair few responses to my “Curse of Cool” email last week.

The majority of replies, obviously, were people disagreeing with my “Tom Cruise, I am not” statement. Indeed, the email triggered another set of annoying calls from Barbara Broccoli at Eon Productions badgering me – again – to take up the Bond role. (And, Babs, no means no. This is getting silly now.)

But I also got this (from someone who was grappling a bad guy and hanging by one hand from a speeding train as he wrote.)

Nothing can be substituted for depth and character work … [But] there is a difference between an archetype and the end product in my view. It's not the what of it, it's the writer's chops. Raskolnikov is the original bad boy from every teen book and uses tropes popular at its time (a 'pure' fallen woman), but hardly anyone would consider Crime and Punishment shallow.

And he’s right, of course. You can take what looks like a battered old archetype and just write it well. The result won’t feel battered or old at all, while still generating power from the depth of that cultural history.

Which brings me to the actual point of this email, which is the Maximum Absorption Theory of Writing.

What makes a book good? I mean: there’s a purely literary set of criteria which work (kind of) for separating the kinds of book that compete for Pulitzer and Booker Prizes. But there are good crime novels, good literary novels, good SF novels, and so on. What makes a good book good? What do they have in common?

I think the answer is a simple – and illuminating – one.

A book, in any genre, is good to the extent that it absorbs its audience.

That’s partly about the book’s afterlife. If you lay a book down, reluctantly, and find yourself thinking about it later in the day – as you drive, as you wash up, as you walk the dog – then that book has absorbed you.

But it’s also about the experience of reading itself. Do you read every sentence with intensity, keen to break open the richness of each one? Or do you already roughly know how this scene, or this character, or this bit of dialogue will unfold? Because if you do already know, you’ll find yourself scanning forwards to get to the next juicy bit of plot, or whatever else keeps you engaged.

Once you think about writing in terms of absorption, it clarifies every task you approach.

This week and next week, I’m going to unpack that theory a little bit more in terms of its implications for the way you write. Today, I’ll show you what I mean in terms of dialogue. Next week, we’ll look at the same issue in other aspects of writing too.

In the bit we’ll look at now (from This Thing of Darkness), the two people speaking are Fiona Griffiths and her boss, Dennis Jackson, a senior and capable detective.

‘You hurt your hand,’ he says, exhibiting the observational prowess of a seasoned officer.

‘Yes, sir. I splidged myself in a car door.’

‘Did you now?’

‘Sir? That stuff in Rhayader. You and DI Watkins. I want to say that I really appreciate the way you handled that. I couldn’t have managed it if we’d gone down official routes. So thank you. You really helped.’

‘You’re more than welcome.’

This isn’t hugely remarkable or significant dialogue in some ways, but it’s mobile. You can’t predict its next move. So:

  1. He notes the injury to her hand
  2. She narrates a sarcastic comment about him stating the obvious …
  3. But she also answers the implied question, using a word – splidged – that isn’t a real word.
  4. His ‘did you now?’ comment implies some scepticism, but not really an intent to take the issue any further.
  5. She jumps on the opportunity to change the subject and does so via a statement of gratitude that’s perhaps intended to appeal his emotions or his vanity.
  6. He accepts her thanks, but this is now the third of his comments which is so flat as to be almost opaque. It’s as though he hasn’t yet shown his hand.

Those numbered comments are twice as long as the text itself, but that’s good. Because there’s a lot going on in that dialogue, the reader can’t safely skim it. And although readers won’t consciously remark on, let’s say, the repetitive flatness of DCI Jackson’s comments, they will somehow notice them and integrate that flatness into their computation of what’s going on in Jackson’s brain.

Sure enough, what we have is the start of a much longer bit of dialogue, which ends up with Jackson virtually accusing Fiona of being one of the crew-members of a trawler that sank – the crew-member in question being a woman of approximately Fiona’s height and build, and with a damaged hand.

As he loops back to the accusation, Jackson notes the hand issue again:

‘Remind me, Fiona. You “splidged” your hand?’

‘In a car door, sir. I know “splidge” isn’t a real word.’

‘Odd though. The same injury.’

Here, you start to feel the weight of Jackson’s interrogation technique. He doesn’t bang the table and shout. He just returns, forensically but neutrally, to the challenging facts.

You also note the little reward for attentive readers. Anyone who was paying attention to the earlier bit of dialogue would have noted the use of ‘splidged’ and probably also noted that it’s not a real word. Here we come back to it, find the reader’s previous attention rewarded with a nod, and encounter Fiona’s characteristically deflecting comment about it not being a real word.

That deflecting comment is kind of funny, but it also signals a ratcheting up of the pressure. Fiona looked like she won the first round of interrogation (she gave nothing away; Jackson didn’t push), but the weakness of Fiona’s deflection here suggests that Jackson is winning this bout.

The key thing here is that our early bit of dialogue didn’t just yield absorption-rewards as the reader first read it. It is paying off again, several pages later.

It’s as though the book is trying to say to the reader, “The more you pay attention to this text, the greater the rewards you will collect.”

Just contrast that with a non-absorbing version of the same rough sequence:

‘How did you hurt your hand?’

‘I hurt it in a car door, sir.’

‘You have the same injury as the mystery woman on board the trawler. Are you that woman?’

’No.’

The non-absorbing version here is much, much briefer, because it replaces all the text I’ve already quoted, plus plenty more. And brevity is good, right? I personally bang on about brevity a lot, and prize it greatly.

Except nothing trumps absorption, and there’s nothing here to hold the reader – literally not a single word. So yes, the reader might be intrigued to see if Jackson can stand his accusation up. (Not least because Fiona is, of course, the mystery woman.) But really, this is the kind of dialogue that an intelligent reader would want to skim through. Should want to, in fact. 

The more you absorb the reader – with hints of emotion, with humour, with unexpected words, with unspoken conflict, and so on – the more intently the reader is forced to read.

Which means the more they attach to the book.

Which means the more likely you are to find a publisher and make sales.

We’ll come back to all this next week.

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Ah, Top Gun. A film so shimmering with a certain kind of macho cool that a studio can successfully bring its star back to reprise the role, even though he’s in touching distance of collecting his pension.

And – that star is good at flying. He looks cool on a motorbike and, well, just looks cool. He walks with swagger, talks with attitude. Women love him. Men have bro-crushes.

And with a character like this, you already know a lot. They won’t walk smack into a glass door when they’re leaving an office. They won’t get ketchup on that gleamingly white T-shirt. They’ll wear the right sort of watch but won’t bore you stupid telling you about it.

They might or might not have a preference between a ’55 Petrus and a ’53 Petrus, but – if they were less James Bond and more Die Hard’s John McClane – you know they’d order a cold beer from a fancy wine waiter and somehow end up looking confident and right. They’d make it look like ordering beer in a fancy restaurant was the coolest, smartest thing to do, like anything else was somehow missing a trick.

And there’s the physical prowess, of course.

This hero doesn’t merely ride a motorbike; he rides it fast and has perfect control of the machine at all times. The same with the plane. Those flying scenes might look tough, but you know that, in the end, you’d rather have the 59-year-old Cruise flying for your life than any number of beautiful 20- and 30-something hotshots.

The moral of these thoughts? Presumably that Cool Works. Cool, in this case, has already gathered $600 million at the box office. That’s good, right? You wouldn’t mind too much if your current Work In Progress gathered, oooh, even one tenth of that sum on publication.

But, oh my friends, Cool is Bad. Cool is Boring. 

It’s not in film, of course, where there’s a pleasure in seeing Cool on the big screen. It’s just damn sexy. Tom Cruise has got his smoking hot brand of sex appeal, but all those big stars – male and female – bring their A-list charisma to their parts. We just don’t ask too much by way of character or story from a Tom Cruise film. We just want him to be the fullest possible, most daydreamy version of Tom Cruise for the film’s two-hour running time.

But in books? Well, Cool is just dull.

It’s actively hard to think of a really successful hero who’s as cool as Cruise – or, really, anything like. Just to take a few names from crime thrillers:

  • Sherlock Holmes – super-smart and physically capable … but also cold, arrogant, tin-eared around emotional things, cutting to his friends, a drug-addict, often mournful. Verdict: NOT COOL
  • Hercule Poirot– You don’t even need to ask. The guy’s Belgian, for Pete’s sake. Verdict: NOT COOL
  • Miss Marple – Ditto, only not Belgian.
  • Philip Marlowe – OK, this character is smart, tough, funny, and has chemistry with women. But he also drinks too much, lives alone, is visibly lonely, and gets plenty of things wrong. He’s flawed in a way that Top Gun’s Maverick just isn’t. I don’t think we can quite give him a verdict of NOT COOL – Marlowe beats the heck out of the first three on the list. But he’s SEXY, COMPLICATED AND INTERESTING, more than cool.
  • Tom Ripley – OK, an anti-hero, but also the star of multiple classic novels and films. But he was something like sociopathic. His romantic orientation was, by the standards of his homophobic age, a wrong one. He’s definitely not someone you half fancy, or would want your son/daughter to marry. Verdict: NOT COOL.
  • Jack Reacher – an interesting one that, as he is super-tough and super-smart about the things you want your tough guy thriller hero to know. (Weapons, sniper-positions, military law, criminal tattoos, and so on.) That list feels quite Cruise-y – and sure enough the diminutive Tom Cruise has played Reacher, the man mountain. But whereas the audience, male or female, just kind of wants to marry Tom Cruise in the role of Maverick, they’d think twice before marrying Reacher. Reacher is basically a hobo. He’s not exactly emotionally blind, but he’s a million miles away from being able to sustain a complex relationship. He’s like a thriller version of idiot savant, incredibly dumb and incredibly capable, both at the same time. The overall verdict? Well, heck, if Maverick is the standard here, we just have to rate Reacher as NOT COOL.

And so on. You can throw my Fiona Griffiths onto that list too. Yes, she’s smart and, in some ways, confident, and, in some ways, skilled. But she also does say the wrong thing to waiters, she does walk straight into glass walls, she’s a useless cook, she’s mechanically inept, and so on. Very definitely you wouldn’t get her played by a female Tom Cruise type (Angelina Jolie? Charlise Theron?). And if by chance you did find Angelina or Charlise in a role like that, you’d know they were sniffing around for an Oscar.

The real point here is that cinema worships the exterior: that’s really all they can show. And yes, we can see great actors frown, or tremble, or add a shading when they speak their lines. But it’s still a basically exterior experience. Cinema therefore glorifies the exterior. It gets beautiful humans doing the sexiest possible thing in the most amazing possible locations. Obviously, there’s more complex cinema too, but complex isn’t cool. The cooler cinema gets, the simpler it gets.

And books are interior things. Readers want complexity. Sherlock Holmes would have been a lesser character if he hadn’t been annoying and brilliant in about equal measure. (Fiona Griffiths the same, of course.) Philip Marlowe would have been duller if he’d always got things right, if his life wasn’t a bit of a mess. Without the whole hobo-schtick, Jack Reacher would have been just another thriller character, entertaining and forgettable.

I see quite a few manuscripts where the Lure of the Cool has, in my view, led the author astray. The writer is, I suspect, thinking about film and considering what would make a great scene in cinema.

But forget that. You almost certainly want a character who is both glittering and frustrating, heroic and flawed, sexy and infuriating. How you exactly whip up your ingredients is up to you, but the main point here is to forget Tom Cruise and insert the complicated character actor of your choice instead. Find things for your hero to be bad at, find ways for them to fail, find ways for them to annoy the reader.

It reads better and, as always, it’s more fun to write as well.

That’s it from me. I once flew with a stuntman in a microlight aircraft and almost left my lunch all over the plane. Tom Cruise, I am not.

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After last week’s monster of an email, I want to offer something shorter and a bit more Zen this week.

So, the normal advice to authors is to proceed from big to little. First, get the basic idea for your novel. Hammer out your elevator pitch. Plan the novel out around that. Find the big markers first: set up, basic trajectory, denouement. Sketch out your character in the broadest strokes first. Define the basics of setting and theme.

Then go round again. Add more detail. Make sure story is talking to character is talking to setting is talking to story.

And again round, always refining the details, taking that first big vision and translating it into a useable blueprint.

Then you start writing. You bash out a draft, with Jane Smiley’s advice in mind at every point: 

Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.

And then you edit, working again – as before – big to small, big to small, big to small.

First you check the major plot turns are working, that your story-seals are watertight. You check that the basic structure is OK.

Then you might get onto pacing at a relatively gross level: is this scene needed? Could we compress these two chapters into one?

Then smaller and smaller, until you are fixing sentences, turning 12-word sentences into 9-word sentences and noticing that, gradually and over time, the whole book is getting faster and lighter in the water. Better. More saleable.

I said at the start with this was the ‘normal’ advice and it is. I give it myself. I think that the basic model is the way to go.

But …

It’s not the only way to go, is it? The week before last, I wrote an email (here) about one author’s attempt to secure an agent. The gist was that the author was great, she’d done our UNWC course which is super-great, and an agent LOVED her work, yay, … except that the agent ended up saying no anyway. The email turned into a bit of a meditation on elevator pitches and trying to stay true to that basic original vision with every page.

OK, All standard, wholesome fare. Except that when I do these emails based on the actual experience of an actual author, I always change names. A Kay might become a Carlotta, or a Carlotta the Mighty, or a Silesian princess called Karolina, or whatever the heck.

On this occasion, the author who inspired my email was a woman with a normal Anglo-type name beginning with J. I wanted to stick with that opening initial and find a woman’s name that appealed.

I went to one of those baby-name finder websites and scrolled through some Js. The name that most appealed was Jaroslawa, largely because I just liked the sound. Then I noticed that the root of the name means ‘fierce and glorious’.

So my Jaroslawa become an “accomplished circus trick rider, a part-time intelligence officer, and a highly skilled swordswoman”. In line with her general fierce gloriousness, and her ability with a sword, I said that when she received the agent’s rejection she “smote the heads off a couple of cabbages with her swordstick.”

There wasn’t any strategy here, no plan for the future. I just wanted a name beginning with J, found Jaroslawa, then discovered I had something ‘fierce and glorious’. Once I wrote the line about cabbages, I toyed with the idea that, over the course of the email, she would go through her entire kitchen garden decapitating vegetables.

That idea felt tempting but hard to deliver – how do you decapitate a runner bean? – so I took a different route, and gave her a castle, a forest extending to thousands of acres, and a hunt that accounted for a stag, some badgers, and so on.

Then she was in Ukraine, meting out justice.

Then finally, she “uprooted fourteen oak trees, tore the top off a mountain, hurled a cloud as far as Ireland, and quenched her thirst by swallowing a waterfall.”

In other words, she started out colourful but ended up in the realm of pure myth. And, because in the end we were only talking about agents and elevator pitches and the actual author involved quite likely does not have a castle or an extreme lust for bloodsports, the whole thing was pleasantly absurd as well.

Was the email better for those flights of fancy? I think it was. Indeed, if the email lingers in the mind, it’ll probably be because (a) there was a ridiculous flight of fancy that involved castles and cloud-throwing and that kind of thing and (b) there was some modestly helpful advice about elevator pitches.

The point of this analysis is simply this: I didn’t start out with the whole castle-and-cloud idea at all. I simply looked for an appealing name beginning with J. The whole thing started from there.

So yes, please, in general plan from big to small, write from big to small, and edit from big to small. That’s good advice and I mostly follow it.

BUT: be open to the purely adventitious. If you see something glittering and golden, then stoop to pick it up. Turn it over and play with it. Quite likely, the gods and masters and The Big will tell you that the geegaw you’ve just picked up will play no part in your book. In which case, OK, set it down.

But maybe not. Maybe by making time for this small, interesting thing, you end up with a strand in your book that would never otherwise have been there. I can think of countless examples in my own work where that’s been the case.

One small example: in my first Fiona Griffiths book, I had her be bad at cooking because that seemed like a sensible character move. But that little random element grew to be a significant running joke through the course of the series. At one point, she blags her way onto a commercial trawler pretending to be an experienced ship’s cook. That was a neat little plot device, of course, but it also tied up with my readers’ delighted awareness than anything involving Fiona and food was going to go catastrophically wrong. A minor early decision delivered on a larger scale much later.

A bigger example: at one point, I knew that my next Fiona Griffiths book was going to be about kidnap, and I started plotting out a perfectly sensible story around that basic idea. Then a clerical friend of mine, with an interest in church history, told me something about medieval anchorites, and my book took an amazingly different turn.

Big to small is always good, always right … but my goodness it’s also very sensible. And you’re an author, or want to be, which isn’t very sensible at all.

So sometimes, yes, pick up the little thing and allow it to derail the bigger thing. It’s fine doing that – a lot of fun – and your book will get better.

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Quite often – a couple of times a month – I’ll get an email from someone asking me about ‘hybrid’ publishers. Are they good? Are they bad? What’s the difference between them and a vanity publisher? Should I invest my cash? And how much to invest? And what can I expect to back in terms of sales and royalties?

I’ve put off writing an answer because the area is complex and just doesn’t lend itself to easy guidelines. So let me say upfront, this email will not provide you with any certainties. In every case, you need to do your own research and figure out what’s right for your situation. I don’t know what’s right for you.

That said, let’s start off easy, with some definitions:

Traditional publishing

Trad publishing comes big or small. You can access it with or without an agent. Pretty much every book you find in a regular bookshop comes via a traditional publisher of some description, though of course the same books are available online as well.

The one thing that really defines traditional publisher is that the author pays nothing and will expect to receive some money. With bigger publishers, you’ll get an advance plus (if book sales are sufficient to pay out the advance) royalties as well. With smaller publishers, advances may be small or even zero, but you’ll still get royalties on sale. And you, the author, never pay anything. I mean that literally. I’ve been an author for more than twenty years and I have never once paid a publisher any money for anything. I’ve never paid my agent. I’ve never even paid for a lunch. The flow of money is always from them to you. That’s trad publishing.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing, in its truest sense, means that you take responsibility for writing, editing, designing, producing, distributing and marketing your book.

That doesn’t mean you have to do all those things personally. It’s not just fine but positively sensible to outsource certain tasks to experts. Jericho Writers offers great editing and copy editing services. Cover designers can create great covers for you. And Amazon and other online retailers offer the world’s most extraordinary distribution platform. A solo self-publisher today can access – easily – more readers than I ever could with my first book, which was a super-lead title sold by a major Big 5 publisher, with a ton of marketing spend behind it. (And yes, there’s a difference between the ability to access readers and selling books - but you need the first to achieve the second.)

In financial terms, self-publishing can be defined as this: You own your work. No one else has a claim on your royalties. You have complete authority for every aspect of the book (text, design, blurb, pricing, etc). The costs and the revenues all flow through to you.

(And, OK, to be really precise about this, some online distribution services such as Draft2Digital take a percentage of sales for their distribution efforts, but you can choose to operate direct at any point. Arrangements like that are a convenience, nothing else.)

Book production

Where it starts to get tricky is that some firms offer to bundle the whole book production process together for you. Lulu, for example, says: “Whether you need 1 copy or 1,000 copies, you can create and print bookstore quality books online with Lulu.”

Originally, in fact, Lulu was mostly there to help you simply produce a nice-looking book. My sister, for example, took some of the best photos from my father’s memorial service and put together a beautifully produced photobook to commemorate the day. Kate didn’t think she was publishing anything, and the purpose was never to make sales. Lulu just offered a slick online tool to get a great-looking book. The book was never on sale, nor did we want it to be.

A pure book production company will charge a set amount for delivering a certain mumber of books. The amount will vary with book length, format, number of illustrations and so on, but in the end, it’s not all that different from ordering canned fish. You specify what you want. You agree a price. You take delivery. What happens next is up to you. Services that do an honest job and charge nothing in terms of ongoing royalties include Scribe Media and AuthorImprints.

Inevitably, however, plenty of people who use these services also have an ambition to make sales, so many such companies don’t just offer a ‘print and deliver’ service, they offer a ‘publishing’ service too. In most cases, that means your book will be uploaded to Amazon and the other online retailers and made available for sale, most likely as both print and ebook.

When something that is basically a production service starts to get branded as a publishing service, things get murky. (And, just to be clear, I think Lulu is fine. I’ll have some nasty things to say about some companies, but Lulu isn’t one of them.)

Vanity publishing

Vanity publishing is best understood by its ethics – or lack of them.

The classic vanity publisher is one that purports to operate like a traditional publisher but is nothing of the sort. There’s one toxic British vanity publisher which invites writers to submit work, just as though this were a trad publisher looking for manuscripts. But when it comes to it, you’ll be told, ‘Hey, congrats, we loved your book. But you know what? This is a really tough market and our editorial board didn’t quite have the confidence to take this on in the regular way. But we’d love to handle this via our partnership process and …’

Inevitably, the nature of the ‘partnership’ is that you end up paying a lot of money for the firm to produce, distribute and market the book, with sales royalties split between the two of you. (It’s that royalty split which allows them to claim a partnership exists.) The trouble this causes is many-fold:

  1. The vanity publisher has a strong financial incentive to take on any old rubbish. If they can convince an author to pay up, the firm makes money. So they honestly wouldn’t care if the were sent an old dishwasher manual. (I’m not making that up, by the way, I once did send one of these firms an old dishwasher manual. They were very excited to accept it for publication.)

  2. Real bookshops know that these firms have a strong incentive to take any old rubbish, so they don’t want to stock the books. That doesn’t apply to Amazon, of course, which essentially doesn’t vet the material being uploaded, but it does apply to all physical bookstores.
     
  3. There’s a hard upper limit to how much cash writers are willing to hand out in exchange for ‘publication’, so publishers can increase profits by saving money on editing, copyediting, cover design, and everything else. That means the quality of books being produced is likely to be poor, even setting aside the lack of quality control when it comes to the actual text.
     
  4. Marketing is hard even where good books are concerned. Marketing rubbish is effectively impossible. Since vanity publishers mostly publish rubbish (plus some good texts in the mix as well), they are not about to do any real marketing. So yes, they may offer you some marketing services for a premium price, but those services are not likely to be effective. They’re not intended to be effective; they’re intended to make you part with your cash.

The ultimate problem here is simply the dishonesty. Vanity publishers aim to sell their (typically shoddy) service, while persuading writer that what they’re getting is very largely the same as they’d get from a trad publisher.

I’ve seen some absolutely loathsome behaviour from vanity publishers over the years – and the list of culprits is sadly long.

Ethical hybrid publishers

Which brings us to the central question in all of this:

Is there such a thing as a full-service, ethical, hybrid publisher?

To be specific, we’re looking for a publisher, where:

  1. You, the author, would be paying a significant sum upfront and a significant share of ongoing royalties.
  2. In exchange, you wouldn’t just get a pure book production service, or a pure production / distribution one. You’d also be getting one that looked to market and sell your books

The answer is yes, such services do exist.

Names that are usually mentioned positively in this context are She Writes Press, Girl Friday, Greenleaf and (in the UK) Matador. Please note, I’m reporting here on the general industry consensus. I haven’t recently vetted those companies and can’t guarantee that what they offer YOU will be right for your needs.

But before you rush to send your book to these outfits, you need to note:

  1. They are somewhat selective. You can’t be an ethical publishing service without refusing a proportion of the books that come your way.

  2. The upfront fees can be large. She Writes Press charges $8,500 for a service with additional fees on top. You could self-assemble that core service yourself for very much less money – and with highly acceptable outcomes in terms of quality.
     
  3. Most authors lose money, and maybe a lot of it. With the best companies out there, perhaps 10-25% of authors recoup their investment. Maybe even 33%. The rest all lose. For very few will the investment make financial sense, when your time and effort are taken into account.

When to consider an ethical hybrid publisher

By now, you’ll understand why I – and most people like me – are deeply dubious of any hybrid publisher. Wherever possible, my strong preference is to steer authors towards proper trad publishing or proper self-publishing. Both of those routes are great. They offer different things and pose different challenges, but the basic pathways are sound as a pound.

Equally, if you just want a nicely produced photobook, then go to a Lulu or similar and bodge one together. It’s simple and fun.

But that still leaves a whole heap of authors whose books aren’t salesy enough for a trad publisher and whose talents or ambitions don’t run to self-publishing. What then?

Well, I think there is a role for ethical hybrid outfits. I remember one client of ours who had spent almost fifty years as a nurse in her home community of Leicester. She wrote a memoir about that experience, which was true, touching, nostalgic, wonderful – the record of a good life, well spent. But there was nothing especially remarkable in the story. A big commercial publisher couldn’t possibly have seen a way to strong five-figure sales, or even four-figure sales. The trad route essentially doesn’t exist for books like that.

At the same time, the writer was elderly and clearly not about to start wrestling with all the tech and interfaces involved in self-publishing. So, with our encouragement, she hooked up with Matador, a reputable, full-service, hybrid. I know the lead publisher there and know him to be a decent man. Critically – this is just essential – he’s honest with his clients. He tells them what to expect. He tells them that they’ll probably lose money. The process feels like explanation, not selling. As I understand it, She Writes Press for example takes the same, full disclosure approach.

Personally, I think writing a memoir is an utterly brilliant thing to do – and who cares if the resultant work isn’t one that a trad publisher wants to handle?

If you write a memoir, then please, get it printed. Get enough copies that you and your loved ones can all have one. Get the things handed out like teacakes at your funeral. If you want to do that by handling the tech yourself, then fine. If not, pay someone. Either way, it’s a wonderful thing to do.

As it happens, my Leicester nurse had a ton of contacts in her area and proved to be a capable saleswoman. She sold upwards of 500 copies and earned back what she’d spent. But if she’d sold nothing, but given away 500, that would still have been a great outcome. What matters was the book, not the revenue.

There are other examples where it might make sense for you to just pay someone to handle things. Let’s say you run some kind of consultancy business. You think that authoring a book would prove your qualifications and be a great thing to hand out to potential clients. In that case, you’re intending to monetise the book in a way that lies outside of book sales and you just need to deal with book production and swiftly and cost effectively as you can. 

Snakes and angels: how to tell the difference

As I warned you early on, it’s hard to give easy conclusions here, but here are some:

  1. Trad publishing is always a perfectly honourable route to publication
     
  2. The same goes for self-publishing. I like both routes.
     
  3. If you just want a physical book produced, then go for it. The key here is that there’s no royalty-sharing – there’s no pretence of this being a joint publishing venture.
     
  4. Most ‘hybrid publishers’ are deeply sleazy. To repeat: a hybrid arrangement is one where you pay upfront and via royalties. The majority of these services are, in my view, deeply deceptive and fundamentally dishonest. I know many, many authors who have been injured by them.
     
  5. That said, there are some honest hybrid publishers and there are some circumstances where such an arrangement could easily make sense for you. I’ve mentioned memoir and business books, but there’ll be plenty of other situations too. Hybrid publishing – with the right publisher – can make sense for some people some of the time.
     
  6. If you think you might be in that category, then do your research, ask questions, and trust your gut. If you feel you’re getting truthful and full disclosure answers to your questions, your putative publisher is probably honest. If you just feel heavily sold to, then treat that publisher like a rat bulging with buboes. If in doubt, run.
     
  7. Be pessimistic about your chances of making sales. when you are figuring out the finances of your venture, run the figures assuming that you’ll sell 50 copies. For many authors, that 50 copy figure will prove to be a gross overestimate. Books are hard to sell. What happens if you sell none? Can you live with that? Would the venture still be worthwhile? In publishing, you have to assume the worst because the worst is really quite likely to happen.

That’s it from me. And lordy me, this email’s a whopper, but the topic’s important – and difficult.

Added a post 

A little while ago, a writer (Jaraslawa, an accomplished circus trick rider, a part-time intelligence officer, and a highly skilled swordswoman) wrote to me to with details of a rejection letter she’d had from an agent. That letter read, in part, as follows:

I love the way you write, I’m intrigued by the characters, but something isn’t hanging together for me and I’ve pored over it trying to see how I’d work with it to ‘fix’ it but it’s not coming to me. 

I’ve taken on books I feel this way about before and it’s never been a good decision. I believe so strongly in agent-client fit and while I think we’re ALMOST there, I think the fact I don’t have a clear vision for the book means I’m just not the right agent for you.

Having said that, I think it’s an excellent novel, and I think you’ll have no trouble securing representation elsewhere.

Jaraslawa (whose name means fierce and glorious) smote the heads off a couple of cabbages with her swordstick and asked me what I thought she should do. Try more agents? Get a manuscript assessment? Or what?

And look. Aside from inactivity and despair, almost any option here is a good one. The right path for you really depends very much on your circumstances and priorities. I can advise, but only you can decide.

That said, this particular combination of agent enthusiasm with agent rejection is very often a sign that you have an excellent novel that doesn’t yet know quite what it is. So I wrote back to say, among other things:

What’s your elevator pitch? Very often a failure to get an agent comes from a core offer that isn’t quite strong enough. There are plenty of flawed books that did superbly, just because they nailed their pitch. (Hello, Dan Brown, and many others.) So: what’s the pitch? 12 words or less, please …

Jaraslawa rode out into the forest that spreads for thousands of hectares about her castle and slew a stag, two foxes, three promiscuous badgers, and an animal that possessed the head and body of a boar, but the tail of an ordinary woodland squirrel. She wrote back to me thus:

Arrgh I hate this. I’ve been tussling with an elevator pitch for 18 months and I’m useless at it. This is the best I have come up with:

Young man learns that sex and Beethoven are no cure for grief.

That sort of sounds like an elevator pitch ought to sound like, right? It has a certain salesiness to it. A certain spring.

But salesiness isn’t the point. Hard-hearted as I am, I said:

I have no idea why I’d want to pick up that book. But you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to encapsulate the whole book in a few words. You can’t, so don’t try. What’s the one single element of the book you’d pick out for a reader?

 One element. You’re trying to tell me about the man (young), his issue (grief) and what doesn’t work (sex + music). Result is an incoherent pitch. Your book may be coherent enough, but why would I pick it up?

Jaroslawa uttered a great roar, the roar of a bull elk in fighting season. Saddling her best horse, she galloped east to the Ukrainian steppe, where, in a single day, she brought about the destruction of twelve Russian tanks, two self-propelled howitzers, one anti-aircraft battery and three slightly moth-eaten Cossack colonels. She wrote:

I know this is crucial but I actually think it would be easier to write an entire new book! 

What I want to get across is that it’s a story about an immature young man in a casual relationship whose parents die horribly. His grief forces the relationship onto a more serious level than it was ever supposed to be and inevitably it cracks. He then spends the rest of the novel trying to win her back/not win her back/win her back, but it only comes together at the end when they’re both battle-hardened and ready for the full-on, proper serious thing. Lots of other stuff happens alongside, but this is the centre of the story.

But how to encapsulate that? Everything I try sounds either too convoluted or too bland. How about this:

Jamie and Zoe’s relationship is all about fun. But what happens when one of them suffers a terrible, life-altering loss? 

I know it’s 20 words, but is it any better?

I wrote back – happily this time – to say:

Yep! That’s it, or roughly:

A man’s casual relationship gets rammed by the life-altering loss of both his parents.

You’re not looking for a shoutline or piece of blurb. This line is only really for you. It connects you to the heart of why people might want to read this thing. You don’t have to say how things finish (“orphan goes to wizard school” explains the first few chapters of the entire HP series and nothing else.) The pitch doesn’t have to bring out all the other elements – readers will encounter those in the book, or via the “tell me more” conversation with a friend, etc. You just want to understand the heart of the reader appeal: why people might pick up the book in the first place.

Then I think it’s worth you thinking about whether every page of your book and every significant development somehow honours that basic promise to the reader. It really may be that the answer is “yes” --- in which case, it’s really quite likely that another agent will pick the book up. Or it may be – it quite often is – that the book’s premise gets a bit muddled through the course of the plot. So (for example) a musical subplot might take on a weight that it wouldn’t have if the “casual relationship rammed by tragedy” was always foremost in your mind. It’s those cases, I think, where an agent most often loves a book but can’t quite commit to taking it on. It’s there but not-there. If the actual book lines up perfectly with a pitch to the reader, that “how would I market this?” question is solved

As I say, all this MAY be helpful, but it also really might not be. I haven’t read your book and good books are rejected for more than one reason. But the one we’ve been talking about is, I think, usually the commonest [so far as good, well-written novels are concerned.]

Jaroslawa uprooted fourteen oak trees, tore the top off a mountain, hurled a cloud as far as Ireland, and quenched her thirst by swallowing a waterfall. She wrote:

I can’t thank you enough. Everything you say makes total sense and I can almost feel the path clearing before me. I shall leave you alone now and get to work.

It’s obviously nice to be of value, but – now that Jaroslawa has finally stopped throwing clouds around – a few sober reflections too:

  1. When you get the kind of rejection letter that Jaroslawa got – excited, positive, but still no – the answer is very often something to do with the basic sales pitch of the book.
     
  2. If that’s the case, then finding the one single thing you’d want to tell someone about the book is massively helpful. Forget about salesiness. Forget about encapsulating everything. You just want one thing. A casual relationship is struck by tragedy. What happens next? That may or may not be a book you’d want to pick up, but you know immediately what it’s offering.
     
  3. It’s not enough to know. You also have to deliver. Does every page of the book honour that basic promise? If it does, your agent knows how to sell the book. If it doesn’t, she doesn’t.
     
  4. And although the answer to this kind of conundrum often lies in understanding the book’s elevator pitch better, it doesn’t always. Sometimes an agent just doesn’t quite click. Sometimes the elevator pitch is fine, but the characters aren’t quite singing. And so on. I happen to have come out of this email exchange looking prescient, but quite often the issue lies elsewhere. In other words, if the elevator pitch line of attack delivers something for you, great. And if not, OK. Don’t worry about it. You’ll find the issue lies somewhere else.

That’s more or less it from me, except I did have to quote one more email from a reader who is sick the back teeth of everything to do with elevator pitches. Tuck into her rage in the PSes below.

---

PPPS: Emma wrote to me (in relation to last week’s “round and round, round and round” email.) She said:

Yes, I absolutely agree with you about the usefulness of repetition. Apart from one notable, infuriating exception.

The concept of the elevator pitch.

It is explained in detail (often giving the same 'Aliens' example) in practically every ****ing workshop/webinar/video on novel writing ever.

It is akin to the presenter holding up a biro and showing the pointy end.

And uh, yes. This is another email about the pointy end of the biro. To all the Emmas out there, I beg your pardon. By way of compensation, I shall get Jaroslawa to steal, flay and roast you a herd of bullocks.

Added a post 

As you all know, I have about a million kids. (Don’t ask me for an exact number; I haven’t counted recently.)

The older boy, Tom, is bright, imaginative, interesting, kind, wise – and absolutely hopeless when it comes to anything involving pens, pencils and paper. He’s coming up to nine years old and his hand-writing is worse than that of his six-year-old siblings. It’s not just bad, even. It’s bananas. When writing his name, he’ll write a giant T, a teeny-tiny O, and then an M placed orthogonally to the other two letters. He’ll then probably colour in the O, add a bird, drop his pencil, then forget completely what he was doing.

The process is joyous, and liberated, and inventive … and unlikely to pass any exams.

In part, we’ve decided to address that challenge by side-stepping it. OK, he can’t write. So help him type. He’s learning to touch-type and is about 100 lessons into a 450-lesson course. He already knows the placement of every key and is reasonably accurate in using them.  The process remains slow, so it’s a labour to produce a sentence – but there’s definitely progress.

But what about his experience right now? Just this week, my wife and I realised that Tom’s inability to write meant that he couldn’t see his thoughts. His twin sister, for whom writing comes fluently, has the ability to come up with poems, think great thoughts, write cards, make jokes – and to see those things on paper. Tom’s never really had that joy.

Nor is it simply that Tabby can see the product of her mind. It’s that, seeing it, she can refine it. You can’t easily hold a poem in your head. But if you get the first line or two down, you can stop thinking about them and move on to the next one. If all you have is a fragile memory to rely on, the anxiety around your ability to retain that material essentially disables the production of further content.

All that’s been heavily studied, of course. Plenty of purely oral societies don’t have a word for ‘word’. How could they? And why would they? To a non-literate culture, the notion of a word feels like a dubious scientific hypothesis. As soon as you’re literate, the existence of words (and sentences, and clauses, and verbs, and everything else) looks like accomplished fact.

Because oral cultures don’t have a way to pin down the spoken word, they tend towards fierce conservatism (“No, that’s not how we build a barn”). They value mnemonics, no matter how dodgy (“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”). They venerate collective and ancient wisdom over anything else. Preservation of knowledge is way more important than challenging and, possibly, improving it.

Up till now and in some respects only, our little Tom (whose reading is absolutely fine) has been like an oral-only child living in a highly literate world.

We realised we needed to give him the gift of seeing his thoughts.

So I sat with him with my laptop at the ready. We created a new document – The Book Of Tom – and I told him that he could simply dictate anything he wanted: thoughts, poems, jokes, inventions, ideas, songs, sentences, anything.

For about two minutes he was shy and uncertain, but then we got going on “An Invention” – and he lit up. He became fluent. His words became text, and not even the scrappy text of normal eight-year-old handwriting, but the text of a beautifully sculpted font (Gill Sans, if you want to know.) His words didn’t just take on permanence, the perfect typesetting lent them a kind of beauty too.

The Book of Tom is now a document that’ll grow a little bit longer every day. A mostly-oral child has hopped over the fence into full literacy and he loves it. It’s like there’s a halo around his writing, which means around his thoughts, which means around him. Tom has seen his own halo, and it’s wonderful.

Now, OK, that’s a beautiful story, but what does it have to do with you? (I’m taking a wild guess here and am assuming that you don’t yourself labour to generate text.)

More than you might think, I suspect. We all share the joy of seeing our words take shape on the page. Tom, it’s true, experienced the pleasure particularly sweetly, because this was the first time he’d had that feeling, because it overcame a deficiency he knew in himself. But still: seeing our thoughts take physical shape – that’s still a reliably golden experience. You have it. I have it. We all do.

What’s more, though you’ve most likely been a confident writer from childhood onwards, the first time you wrote real long form text – that novel, your memoir, your whatever – you did have something of a first-born experience:

I thought up a story in my head, and here it is, and it’s wonderful.

Because you can’t hold 100,000 words in your head, or anything close, there’s a step-change between day-dreaming a novel and actually having my_great_novel.doc live on your computer. The aroma of that first story is intoxicating. You’re like Tom, seeing his invention come to life in Gill Sans before his delighted gaze.

Cherish that joy! What a gift it is to have such a deep and reliable pleasure on tap – and where the only cost involved is the tiny effort involved in opening a laptop. We’re writers; we’re lucky.

But also: beware, oh beware of that that joy.

The joy can easily trick you into thinking that what you’ve written is actually good. And maybe it’s not. The invention that Tom wrote about? It’s rubbish. His first story? It’s terrible. Of course they’re bad: he’s eight.

For Tom, right now, that doesn’t matter. What matters now is our giving him a power and him learning to use it. It’s the learning that matters, not the outcome.

You’re not like that. You want some actual readers to read your actual book. You want them to like it. You might even want to get paid.

But because you’re giddy with the joy of seeing your story unfold in rich and beautiful detail on the page, you may not see its inadequacies. Agents – those brutes – don’t feel your joy and they’re keenly attuned to the inadequacies. Editors are worse. Critics are horrible. Readers are fickle.

In a strange way, the process of maturing as a writer is one of retaining the joy while developing your critical eye. You have to love your work and harshly critique it, both at the same time, and, ideally, without your head exploding.

Love your work too little and you will never finish it. Critique it too little, and what you have will never pass muster in those cold commercial winds.

Finding the balance ain't easy - but it's also one of the most crucial tasks you face.

Good luck.

Added a post 

I don’t always talk enough about non-fiction, which is daft in a way, because plenty of you write it and I’ve always enjoyed doing so myself.

So this week: a few thoughts on non-fiction – which novelists should read as well, as there are some thoughts in here for you too. In particular, there’s are two basic motors at the heart of the acquisitions process which matter every bit as much to fiction as it does to non-fiction.

Those motors take the form of two questions that an editor has to be able to answer for every potential acquisition:

  1. Will readers like the book? That is: is the book any good, given its target market?
     
  2. Can we sell the book? It doesn’t really matter, in a way, how good a book is, if the publisher doesn’t have an effective way to sell it.

With fiction, a positive answer to the first question doesn’t necessarily mean that the second is taken care of. Ages ago, I remember helping an editorial client with a kids book that had bullying as a theme. As far as I was concerned, the manuscript’s obvious warmth and quality meant it would sell, and deserved to. And sure enough, the writer found an agent, only to be told that bullying was sooo last year, and the book couldn’t sell to retailers jaded by too many bullying-books in the last few seasons.

Likewise, a really strong answer to the second question can overcome some nerves on the first point. I know one writer whose book was pretty mediocre, but she had a great backstory that tied into the themes of the book. She was extremely capable on social media, on TV, with journalists and so on. And in the end, her brilliance at supporting the selling of the book drove that book high, high into the bestseller lists.

The looming importance of that second question – the “can we sell it?” one – is, for me, a massive reason why writers have to nail their elevator pitch before they start to write. Mess that up, and you may have a completely competent and well-written book … that no one will ever buy.

For non-fiction writers, the questions are the same, but the types of answer are different.

Take Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann – a book about the difference between our slow/reflective thinking and our fast/instinctive thinking. The topic is obviously interesting, but maybe a little niche. Suppose, for example, that you are a clinical psychologist of no particular note who just happens to be interested in these topics. And let’s say, you went ahead and wrote the exact book that Kahnemann wrote, but with the first-person stuff suitable modified.

Would a publisher have picked that book up? Well, maybe. It’s an interesting topic, for sure. But Kahnemann wasn’t just some random clinical psychologist. He invented the entire field of research. He won a Nobel Prize. He had a decades long partnership with Amos Tversky, who died before the book came out and in whose memory it’s written.

In other words, any publisher knew that they could essentially snap their fingers and get media attention from any outlet they wanted. The book still needed to be clear, not unreadable – you can’t sensibly drive people to buy a terrible book – but the basic sales job was going to be easy.

That’s one kind of answer you can have to the sales question: if you bring clear authority, many of the sales questions are just taken care of. Back in 2020, my sister masterminded the UK’s vaccine procurement programme, with stunning success. That’s clearly an interesting topic. She’s a clear authority. That book will get a ton of media coverage.

But authority isn’t the only kind of sales-power you can bring. The other one frequently mentioned is platform. When Pippa Middleton – Prince William’s newly minted sister-in-law – brought out a book called Celebrate, no one really thought that she brought any kind of ninja power to the business of planning parties. But who cared? She was hugely famous. She was gossip column gold. She got a huge advance for the book. (And, though UK sales were lacklustre, the book made a profit for the publisher before it was even published: overseas sales were that good.)

You don’t have to be near the British royal family to deliver platform. You can be big on social media, you can be a broadcaster – you can be an anything, so long as large numbers of people know your name. (And, by the way, the numbers in question need to be in six or seven digits. It just doesn’t really make a difference whether you have 100 Twitter followers or 10,000. Those numbers aren’t going to be enough to sway a publisher’s sales decision.)

Now all this can be slightly depressing to people who have managed to clatter their way through life without (a) picking up a Nobel Prize or (b) having a major royal for an in-law.

But, but, but …

It’s just not true that authority and platform are the only routes into effective non-fiction sales, just as you can sell a thriller without being an intelligence officer, or science fiction without being an astronaut.

The fact is that if you bring (A) a great elevator pitch and (B) a great writing style, then publishers will want the book. When I wrote This Little Britain, a popular history book, I brought absolutely nothing in terms of authority. I don’t even have a history degree. I wasn’t a member of any specialist historical societies. I didn’t bring a particular skill (like military architecture, say) to bear. I brought damn all by way of platform as well. On the two great axes and authority and platform, my score was exactly 0-0.

But who cared? I had a great idea. (Roughly: what are the ways in which British history has been exceptional – unlike the histories of its neighbours?) And I could write with humour and inclusiveness. People didn’t have to feel smart to read the book. They could treat it as a Christmas gift book with a bit more depth and interest.

And that was enough. It’s still enough in non-fiction. The same basic principle works in fiction too.

Nail the elevator pitch. Write well. And toss in a Nobel Prize, if you have one.

That’s it from me. Something REALLY GOOD is happening in May, but I can’t tell you about it, or the Special Ops team at Jericho Writers will have me killed in what looks like an ordinary road accident.

Added a post 

Earlier this week, I did a members’ webinar on Trad Publishing vs Self-Publishing, and how to choose your route. I can’t recap the whole of that – very enjoyable – session here, but let me run you through four key questions which we spent time considering. They are:

What books?

Some books work well with self-pub, others not so much.

Genre fiction does particularly well with self-pub. If you look at a category like romance, it’ll be dominated by e-book sales, not print, and by indie-authors, not trad. The self-pub/trad split is probably something like 85:15.

The same is broadly true for loads of other genres: paranormal and dystopian fiction, lots of science fiction, lots of fantasy, and so on. The crime category is more mixed (partly because there are some huge brands from the pre-ebook era who still sell loads.) As you move upmarket, the balance shifts towards trad publishing. With proper literary fiction, you’ll struggle to find any real self-pub authors at all.

At the same time, don’t place too much weight on genre. My books sit at the most literary end of crime fiction, and they’ve done absolutely fine that way. In the end, if your books connect strongly with readers, you’ll do OK.

In terms of non-fiction, indie authors can do fine with the kind of books where the title could be a Google or Amazon search term. So, for example, my Jericho-published “How To Write A Novel” does fine, because it’s linked to an obvious and popular search term.

Conversely, if you have written a dazzling memoir about (let’s say) your mountaineering adventures in the Ruwenzori, it’s hard to think of any way that your book would naturally appear on Amazon. Yes, if you had a chain of six such books, you could start to build a readership and work that way – but a single quirky book is near-impossible to sell successfully on Amazon. Authors like that should head firmly towards a traditional route.

How many?

The next question is simply: how many books do you intend to write? And at what pace can you write them?

There’s an outfit called 20booksto50K (check it out on Facebook) whose core idea is that if you can write and publish 20 books, you can earn a $50,000 a year income from them. Increase the number of books beyond that point, and you can earn more than that. In other words, you can plausibly target a proper fulltime income from your work, should you simply commit enough.

Now I don’t really love the “just churn em out” model myself. When I was self-publishing most intensely, I wrote just one book a year and did fine with that.

But … the point remains. Most successful self-pub authors are successful because they are good AND prolific. It’s essentially impossible to make real money from a single book. Write a trilogy, and you have something. Write a longer series or two trilogies and you have a shop with enough products to start putting cash in your pocket. You are unlikely to make meaningful cash until you have 3-5 books for sale. (And again: the quality of the books really matters. The better and more distinctive your work, the fewer you need to build an income.)

So again, if you are definitely a one-book-only author, or a one-book-every-two-or-three-years author, then you should head to Trad world. Planet Indie is not for you.

For similar reasons, by the way, I’d strongly advise any indie fiction author to write in series. A series just works much better than a group of standalones.

How bossy?

Another question to consider is how bossy you are.

The gist of any commercial book deal is simple: you sell your book for an advance plus royalties. So it’s not your book any more. It’s the publisher’s.

The publisher will end up having the final say, and perhaps the only meaningful one, on book cover. And title. And blurb. And marketing. And pricing. And formats. And timing. And promos. And, really, everything. Yes, they’ll be polite and try (mostly) to include you. But politeness has its limits. It’s not your book.

It’s easy, as an unpublished writer to think, “Yes, but don’t I want these experts making all those decisions for me?” … to which I can only gently suggest that you don’t find many experienced authors thinking the same thing. Those expert publishers have a lot of things on their mind and they don’t always make the right calls. They will also, never, ever care as much as you.

By contrast, the indie author can make any decisions they want, whenever they want. Got a book cover you like? Use it. Decided it’s not as effective as you thought? Change it. Want to put the price up? Then do it: it takes 2 minutes. Want to change the blurb? Do it.

Some authors just don’t want the hassle of all those extra decisions. Other are peeved when they see salaried employees making decisions more lazily than they’d do themselves. The type of person you are should definitely guide your path to publication.

How greedy?

On the whole, self-pub authors make more money than traditionally published ones. That sounds odd, not least because nearly all the authors you’ve ever heard of are traditionally published.

But, if you want an oversimple rule of thumb, trad authors get more acclaim. Indie authors make more money.

The root of disparity is not hard to trace. Let’s say a trad author is selling their ebook at $9.99 (or, to make the maths simple, $10.)

Amazon’s share is $3, or 30%.

Of the remaining $7.00, the publisher will keep 75%, or $5.25, leaving $1.75 for the author.

The agent then scoops between 15 and 20% of that, leaving under $1.50 for the author. And, of course, because $9.99 is a lot for an ebook, the author is likely to sell a lot fewer too.

By contrast, the arithmetic for the indie author is simple. You sell your book at a penny under $5.00. Amazon keeps $1.50. You keep $3.50 per book. That’s more than double what the trad author makes – and you sell more books.

Easy!

And yes: trad authors sell plenty of paperbacks. And yes: they sell via bookstores. And yes: this, that and the other.

The fact is, however, once you view all this in the round, there are more indie authors at any income level you care to name than there are trad ones. There are more indies earning over a million bucks a year than there are trad ones. There are more indies earning above quarter of a million. More indies earning over $100,000. And so on down.

If you’re serious about money – and you’re willing to take on the entrepreneurial burden of selling as well as writing – then self-pub ought to look more tempting.

Thanks, all!! It's gone really well - so much better than expected and everyone is being incredibly supportive. We've gone back to Blicks basically saying, "Go take a look at YouTube and the comments and content elsewhere as well. Now: can we move towards getting an arbitration decision on this?" Before they had no incentive to say yes. Now, they really truly do.

Hate having to waste time on this stuff, but the JW community is THE BEST.

Added a post 

Folks, I’ve had covid all week and today is my birthday. So I reckon I’m justified in giving y’all / youse a slightly cheaty email – because most of it is made up of text I’ve already written.

And it follows on from last week’s email, about how sex scenes needed to be all about conversation. I said the same, in passing, about fight scenes as well, and a few people wrote back to say, in effect, “All very interesting, oh Pale Lord of the Email, but how do you actually write a fight scene when people take turns to whack each other and make interesting conversation? I don’t get it.”

So here’s an example – from my (extremely realistic) novel, The Dead House. This culminating scene has Fiona spend the night with a monk in a small stone cell. The monk (Anselm) is not a nice guy – he wants Fiona to spend the rest of her life praying in this cell – but their past relationship has always been warm. In the opening bit of dialogue, Anselm essentially tells Fiona that her own spiritual needs have led her to this place and this situation. There’s a part of Fiona which can’t easily disagree.

Anselm is a big, strong, fit man. Fiona is a short and slightly built woman. My fight scenes nearly always start with this kind of disparity so part of my challenge as a novelist is finding a plausible way to flip the odds.

The italics type is the fight scene as I wrote it (slightly edited for clarity). My comments on that scene are in bold.

***

In a very gentle voice, Anselm adds, ‘And what happened in there, in our church tonight: can you really tell me that you did not feel the Spirit of the Lord moving within you?’

I don’t answer.

Can’t.

‘You chose us. It was you who chose us.’

I bow my head.

‘Forgive me, brother.’

‘You are already forgiven.’

This material feels – and is – at least partly authentic, a spiritual and loving moment between the two of them. Yes, as we’ll see, Fiona is also thinking strategically, but she’s both things – strategic and moved. It’s a moment of loving union. 

We move to the glass and pray again.

Four o’clock and Anselm yawns.

My own relationship with sleep is so impaired, so strange already, that a night spent awake hardly signifies. But Anselm is different. His monkish body-clock is all askew. Kneeling all night when he should be asleep, and these hours of prayer are hard on any bones, old or young. This isn’t the first time he’s yawned, but it’s the biggest so far.

I yawn too. Ampliflying that contagion of tiredness.

The first whisper the reader has that Fiona’s been thinking strategically all along – she was captured many pages back.

‘Excuse me, brother, I need to use the chamberpot.’

And do. I’ve been drinking water half the night and have a whole bladderful of urine to release.

More insight into how her past behaviour has been strategic. As readers, we’re getting a prickle of excitement – but also wondering how much of the past few pages has been a true insight into Fiona, and how much was a deliberate sham. That also means we’re at the point of reconsidering the Fiona/Anselm relationship. Perhaps we’ve not been reading that right at all?

I squat over the little pot and pee, as noisily as I can.

Use the sound to cover me, as I empty the little ewer of water out over the floor.

Use the sound to cover me, as I take two handfuls of finely powdered lime [there for making mortar].

A natural product. Beautiful when used right, and one that does all those good things to do with letting old buildings breathe, that sort of thing.

But also caustic. Fiercely, dangerously caustic.

When wet, lime is one of the most strongly alkali substances available outside a chemist’s laboratory. One that will react, and react strongly, to moisture of any sort. The cornea of the eye, for example. The soft linings of the nose and mouth.

Stepping up behind Anselm, I give him one handful of lime in his eyes, the other over his airways.

Such a violent act in the context! Here’s a man she’s prayed happily with and she’s squashing a ‘dangerously caustic’ powder into his cornea, the soft linings of the nose and mouth.

This is what I mean by ‘conversation’ in a fight. We know that Fiona’s spiritual moment with Anselm was at least partly real. But here’s the other part: utter fury and refusal to comply. This is the moment when Anselm realises he hasn’t understood all of Fiona at all.

All of a sudden, the relationship shakes into a new phase.

He gasps in pain and surprise and the gasp allows me to shove a whole big handful into his open gob.

He’s in pain. He’s surprised. That’s an emotional response – a new turn in the conversation. How does Fiona respond? With more violence: her response to his awakening.

There’s no treatment for caustic burns, except plenty of fresh water and I’ve just emptied all the water we have.

Stepping quickly back as Anselm roars and flails, I snatch up the chamberpot. Smash the thing over his saintly little head. Which stuns him, if only a little, and makes more of him wet. I take the bag of lime and pour it, throw it, scatter it over him.

He’s a man powdered and, beneath the powder, burning.

My fight scenes need to explain how a small woman can defeat a big man, so I’m careful here. He ‘roars and flails’, indicating that he still has a ton of strength and power. It’s also a moment when the reader realises how Fiona has been planning this thing the entire night. She’s played a long game to get to this exact point.

When he opens his mouth, it’s white and void inside. The same thing with his eyes. It looks like they’re closed, but they’re not. They’re open. Just white and grey and staring.

He tries to clean the lime away with his robe, his hands, but he’s like a fish trying to wash away the river. Whether he’s permanently blind, I don’t know, but he’s functionally sightless.

He thrashes around. Cries out, I think, saying ‘Sister! Sister!’, but his mouth is full of a powder that burns and his roar is the roar of a beast.

He’s sort of defeated now, isn’t he? I mean, Fiona still needs to deal with the power of those thrashing arms, but the odds are now heavily on Fiona winning this one. That means, the reader can now consider Anselm as a victim. His mouth is ‘white and void’. He’s basically blind, a fish trying to wash away the river. And he’s saying ‘Sister, sister’ – how the monks referred to Fiona – which is hardly the most aggressive possible response. He’s trying to call on that old relationship, trying to summon its memory to deflect Fiona from her current course. That’s yet another emotional turn in the fight. A plea, a cry for mercy.

I stay clear of his arms, ducking and weaving as I have to, but I don’t actually think he’s trying to hurt me. To restrain me, yes, but not actually to hurt me.

And again, this shifts our emotional understanding again. He cries ‘sister’, and seeks to restrain, but not hurt, her. This man was going to do great harm to Fiona, but there’s a true godliness, or something like it, there as well. Once again, the fight makes us ever so slightly adjust our emotional calculations. Yes, he is a bad man, but no, the praying wasn’t all nonsense either. There was and is something holy here as well.

Choose the fight you want, not the one they want. If you can’t win, don’t start.

Any time before now, those monks would have had the fight they expected—and that Brother sadist Thomas wanted. Right now, I’ve got the fight I want, and one that takes place when and where and how I want.

A strong, blind man whose instincts are for gentleness versus a petite, but seeing woman who has her entire life hanging on the outcome.

No contest.

Fiona finally places all her cards on the table. “Hi reader, you thought I was just going along with these horrible monkish plans, right? But of course, I wasn’t. I’m always smarter than you and I’m always thinking ahead. You want to know what happens next? Right? Simple: I win.”

I wait until Anselm is a little off-balance—skidding on china and urine—and kick hard at his only standing leg. He starts to fall.

As he goes down, I grab his head and throw it downwards against the stone. It bounces horribly, but just once.

He starts to move, just a little. Not in combat mode now. Not even restraint mode. More am-I-still-alive mode. I put in a few more considered, disabling kicks and stamps, then leave it.

That brother ain’t gonna bother this little sister no more.

And that’s the sentence that tells the reader, yep, we’re done.

Except that … well, the fight is done, but isn’t there some closure needed to the relationship? We’d thought these guys had one kind of relationship. Now our thinking on that score has changed rather abruptly. But at the moment, we don’t quite have a nice place to settle.

I step up onto the bed. I can’t reach the gap in the ceiling like that, but my little glass prayer-niche gives me a foothold and—clumsily, clumsily—I scrabble up to the roof and through it. [the only way out of this, unfinished, cell.]

Look down.

Anselm is dragging himself upright, or sort of upright. But he’s not trying to stand, he’s trying to kneel. My kicks were scientific enough that he’s going to have problems with his ribs, knee and testicles, but he somehow accomplishes a kind of lopsided lean up against the wall.

His burned hands search for and find the little palm cross. The bit of glass through which a pair of seeing eyes would find the altar.

He’s seeking to pray: final confirmation that Anselm’s piety wasn’t all horse-poo. Perhaps his piety was even the bigger part of things. Perhaps the bad-monk thing was just piety taken too far. But this closing snapshot gives us a somewhat kind and tender image of this complicated man.

I leave him at it.

A basic clip-together tower scaffold provided support for the monks as they built the roof. There are stones still here. Some mortar left overnight with a square of plastic keeping it moist. I add a few more stones to the roof. My stonework is of the very crudest sort—Anselm would hate it—but it doesn’t have to hold for long. There’s still a gap here, but not one that a man could climb through.

That is: she effectively imprisons him, at least for as long as it takes to summon the cops.

‘So long, Brother,’ I call down. ‘You were always nice to the pigs. I’ll remember that.’

And this is the closure we needed: an acknowledgement from Fiona that she recognises there was a good man in with the bad. This is her talking without strategy or duplicity now, because she doesn’t need them. We move, in effect, from the fake-union of the opening prayer sequence to this truer kind of friendship-voice here.

And leave.

***

That’s it. There’s dialogue before and after the fight, but nothing during it, apart from Anselm’s ‘Sister, Sister’, which doesn’t really count. Yet I hope the fight itself conveys the shifts in emotion and relationship that are similar to the beats you’d find in a really important bit of dialogue.

That’s it from me. Cough, cough.

Added a post 

The missus and I have slightly random TV habits and don’t generally just sit down to watch whatever the show-of-the-moment is. But I will say that I often go to bed earlier than Her Mightiness and she occasionally watches a bit of extra TV in that time. And during that first year of the pandemic, there was a week or two when I seemed to be going to bed early every night, the TV was always running late, and Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton seemed to colonise the ‘Continue Watching’ spot on our TV dashboard.

There was, of course, quite a lot of critical conversation about the series, reinvigorated by the release of Season 2. I was interested enough in all this that my wife and I ended up watching, or rewatching, the whole of Season 1.

I think the series did well in part because it involved a (gently managed) collision of two genres. Yes, the series looked roughly like your standard issue Jane Austen drama. Same dresses, same carriages, same houses, same reliable mixture of unmarried women and dashing dukes.

But where a BBC Jane Austen drama will aim for precision on language, clothes, settings, and the rest, Bridgerton simply didn’t care. Its string quartets played themes by Nirvana. The Regency landscape was suddenly full of people of every race and colour. The wisteria which was in full flower at the start of the season bloomed and bloomed and went on blooming week after week after month. The cinematography was often given a hyper-real tint, a child’s Cinderella remade for adults.

All this was done with the lightest of touches. The multicultural invasion of the Regency period was barely alluded to. It just was. The ever-blooming wisteria was never mentioned. An improbable monarch reigned happily over a world that never was.

This broad strategy works like a dream for any kind of storytelling. If a reader or viewer loves a genre, they’ll read plenty of it and it won’t be long before they find themselves wanting the same thing (because they love it) but done differently (because they’re human and humans, bless them, get bored more easily than any creature except the show-poodle and the Barbary macaque.) Mixing up your genre conventions is a delicious, subversive-feeling way of delivering that same-but-different sensation.

I’ve done it myself in my crime writing. The Deepest Grave took a standard-issue police procedural (the genre beloved of my core readers) and rammed it with a storyline revolving around King Arthur. The whole thing was just about a plausible procedural – I adhered to the basics, just as Bridgerton did – but the whole thing was plausible only if you closed your eyes to the shimmer of absurdity that flitted across every page.

However, it’s actually illegal to talk about Bridgerton without touching upon the sex scenes and making specific reference to (a) Regé-Jean Page’s torso and (b) the way those scenes were shot for the ‘female gaze’, not the male one.

Now, I’ll admit I don’t quite understand the fuss made about RJP’s torso – it looks much the same as my own. But the female gaze idea is really quite interesting, especially for the writer.

Through the whole series, which contained plenty of bedroom scenes, one almost never saw a naked breast. Not one of the main female characters were ever shown bare-breasted. During the sex scenes, they were either clothed or covered by sheets. The same was absolutely not true for RJP’s character, the Duke of Hastings. It’s not just that he was asked to reveal his pecs during bedroom scenes. The Duke had a merrily improbable friendship with a boxer that called for a whole lot of gratuitously bare-chested scenes as the two of them sparred.

So in part the female gaze idea is just a boring one. Men like boobs. Women like hunky torsos. So if you’re doing a show aimed mostly at women, offer fewer breasts and more torsos. Obvious, right?

But one of the things that struck me was that the radical female gaze of these sex scenes seemed mostly to feature … Daphne Bridgerton’s face. The single sexiest thing in the whole series wasn’t RJP’s pecs, it was the face of the central female character.

Where a series directed by a man might have concentrated on the act of sex, the physical activity, the female-led Bridgerton concentrated relentlessly on relationship. So when Daphne Bridgerton has sex for the first time, we see her shocked delight dawning in her face. That’s what’s sexy. That’s what’s emotionally charged. The act of sex was (nearly) always subservient to its emotional context, because the emotions were what mattered most. Again and again, the camera returned to Daphne Bridgerton, so we could read her emotional transitions.

That’s a good lesson for writers. We don’t have RJP’s torso to conjure with. Yes, we can describe such things, but in the end our written descriptions will fall short of what a TV-screen can show.

But emotions? Yep, we can do those, and we can do those better than Bridgerton, or anything else, because can climb inside the human brain and tell readers what we find. Sex, for the novelist, is a continuation of relationship, by other means. That’s it. Don’t think of sex as sex. For novelists, it’s a relationship that unfolds in the bedroom. Any physical activity is really just a way of nudging that relationship forward into new places. It’s a different type of exploration. That’s all.

Same with fights. I saw the lovely phrase recently that a fight scene should be thought of as a ‘conversation with fists’. Exactly so.

Fight scenes can become incredibly convoluted very fast. ‘He placed his right hand on my left shoulder and, as he did so, the blade in his free hand flashed up towards my thigh. I saw the move and countered by twisting my leg round to the tree behind me. At the same time, I …’ You can sort of imagine what’s going on there, but only by working hard at it. In a way, you decipher that kind of writing the way you decipher IKEA instructions – bit by bit, frowning, manipulating shapes inside your head.

As soon as you consider the fight as a conversation, everything becomes easier. You can drop the judo-manual type language, and simply focus on what’s happening in the relationship. There’ll be more room for dialogue. Less need of complicated explanation. The scene will breathe more. It’ll read with greater clarity. Your story won’t be interrupted by the fight; it’ll be moved nicely forwards.

A conversation with fists. A conversation with bedsheets. That’s how to write your sex and violence – and keep your reader glued to every word.

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