harrybingham

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

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I got an email recently from someone who had come to us for an editorial review. He found the report helpful and full of insight, but he was worried by his editor’s opinion that:

“my protagonist is currently ‘unfashionable’ in the publishing world. This character is, like me, a guilt ridden white, middle class, middle aged to elderly man, recently retired from a very successful but dull career.”

Literary fashions come in a lot of forms and we’ll talk all about that in a second, but first:

It turns out that some people missed their Black Friday bonanza last week because they didn’t open their emails, or were being chased by crocodiles up the Zambezi, or were being targeted by mobsters in a Volgograd crack den. So, for today only, and with no more exceptions (stern glance in the direction of the Volgograd people), we’re reopening the Black Friday discount. Just use the BLACKPASS code at checkout. The membership signup page is right here.

Okiedoke. Fashions.

The chap emailing me raised one kind of fashion issue, but there are plenty of others you can think of:

  1. Misery memoirs. There was a time when misery memoirs were massive. Then that market pretty much burned itself out. They still sell, a bit, but aren’t the automatic bestsellers that they used to be.
  2. Vampires. Once didn’t particularly exist as a category of fiction. Then were Twilighted into being huge, and a whole ‘paranormal romance’ category was born. Vampires are still a thing, but the category has expanded and morphed and branched out. Vampires are just one amongst a whole medley of possibilities.
  3. Bullying. Used to be the thing in children’s fiction, a burning issue that had to be explored. Then it suddenly seemed overdone. So it became hard to sell books on bullying.
  4. Unreliable narrators / psych thrillers / domestic noir. Gone Girl made this category huge. Then Girl on a Train overextended it. The category is still huge, but it’s become complicated and competitive. Girl on a Train wouldn’t really make much of a mark today (and never really deserved to.)

And so on.

Writers are left feeling like they don’t know what they ought to write about. And if you are pale, male and stale – like me and like my correspondent – what are you to do? You can change your story; you can’t easily change your skin.

Well.

What we really notice here – give or take a bit of temporary overreaction in both directions – is that something comes along which gives the literary market a good kick in the pants. Sometimes that kick has been an unambiguously good thing (eg: a greater awareness of diversity amongst writers and readers. For an industry based in the multicultural cities of London and New York that awareness was decades late in arriving.) Other times – vampires, misery memoirs – the change seems a bit more random, a bit more happenstance.

But then fashions gradually sort themselves out. The literary world moves in the direction of something more subtle and more interesting.

So today, for example, you couldn’t sell a teenage love story simply by marrying up an ordinary teenaged girl with a handsome vampire. You have to address more interesting questions of worldbuilding and purpose and storyline. Do all those things in an interesting way and, yes, the basic girl + vampire model can still work. But it works because you’ve created something more interesting and more shaded than that simple formula suggests.

Indeed, it’s worth asking whether Stephanie Meyer could even sell Twilight today, assuming she was an unknown debut author? Well, possibly. The book was capably written and its basic hook still works. But that same book, released today, wouldn’t cause much of a splash. It would be just one more contribution to an overstuffed genre. No one would particularly notice it. It wouldn’t even deserve to be noticed much.

Same with the pale, male and stale protagonist. Of course, there are still stories about such people. People still buy them. Publishers still sell them.

But thirty or forty years ago, it was possible to sell that kind of book in a world where the underlying assumption was this book is being published by people like us for people like us and we don’t really need to address the fact that there are other sorts of people in the world. That view has, thankfully, collapsed. And about time too.

One strategy that evades this trap is the one I’ve adopted. I write in the voice of a young woman with mental health challenges. She’s not remotely like me. Nothing in my books makes people think that the author has a closed or exclusionary world-view.

But maybe the book you want to write does have a protagonist who is pale, male and stale. Fine. You just need to avoid the feeling that your world is all there is, or all that matters. You need to address the upheaval that is taking place in literary awareness and respond. So for example Amazon Prime has a thriller series, Jack Ryan, in which a white, clean-cut, Ivy League analyst is teamed with his boss – a black, Muslim, grizzled CIA guy, played by Wendell Pierce.

If everyone in Jack Ryan’s world had been white Ivy Leaguers like him, the show would have felt utterly removed from the reality of the world we live in. It would have felt exclusionary and hard to love. As it is, the show feels modern, complicated, dramatic, realistic. Yes, the show is more diverse. But it’s also just plain better.

Literary upheavals have their sillinesses, of course. But the silliness tends to happen in the year or two after a new wave has broken. (So it’s either “no books on bullying” or “buy anything with vampires”. Both of those approaches were too crude and didn’t last.) Longer term, upheavals simply force fiction to become better – more interesting, more subtle, more responsive, more inclusive.

So you can’t just write about vampires, you have to justify your use of them. You have to figure out the metaphorical structure of your universe, and why it matters and what it’s for.

Equally, you can’t just write about heroines-who-are-unreliable-narrators. You actually have to craft an interesting and coherent book that just happens to use that as a technique.

And in the end, the only way to get ahead of the next fashion wave is to read the books that are being published today. To stay abreast of contemporary fiction. That way, you’re part of the wave. Your writing will respond to the changes that are happening right now.

And that means, your writing will be better than it otherwise would be. It also means more likely to sell.

Can’t beat that combination, huh?

Let me know what you think below. I promise to comment on your comments. I'll comment on your comments on my comments on your comments. I'll comment on your comments on my comments on your comments on my comments on your comments. I will not be outdone.

Last week, as you know, I ran a big free self-editing webinar, which hundreds of you attended. There’s always a lot to pick out of those things, but there’s one little trick that I particularly want to call to your attention. From the feedback in the webinar, it’s something that a lot of you don’t know, but this is a trick that is incredibly easy to deploy and it always works.

As a matter of fact, I’d say you won’t really achieve strong writing unless you know it and use it. Good, huh?

OK. But before that, two things.

One, the Penguin Random House colossus has just (and as expected) bought Simon & Schuster, so the Big 5 are dead. Long live the Big 4. That probably demands an email of contemplation in itself, but if so, that’ll come next week. The immediate difference the news makes to your life? None at all. (The header image for this post is some S&S books by the way. They have plenty of big authors.)

Two: folks, if you aren’t a member of Jericho Writers yet, this is the best time ever to become one. Why? Because we are constantly adding to the joys of membership. More webinars. More courses. More access to literary agents. More events in the US. A wider range of speakers, a broader range of topics.

Our aim, quite simply, is to go on doing more for you, and at no extra cost.

But also: today is Black Friday and we’re giving all this writerly goodness away for 30% less than normal. So:

  1. If you’re thinking of joining us, this page tells you more about membership benefits. My one promise? We’re going to make things better than that page implies, because we’re busy investing now for a ramped-up programme in 2021.
  2. If you have a question, ask away. Our (unbelievably brilliant) customer service team will be on hand all weekend. Just contact info@jerichowriters.com 
  3. If you would like to join us, we’ll be thrilled to welcome you. Just sign up here and use the code ****** at checkout.
  4. As a hello and welcome to new members, we’re running an “Ask Us Anything” webinar on Monday 30 November. You can literally just turn up (for free, of course) and ask us anything about how Jericho works, how the industry works, or anything else. Registration (for members only) is via this page.

Right ho. Now back to self-editing, and I want you to start by considering this sentence:

The words sound lame even to Ted.

What do you think about that? For that matter, what do you think about this one?

I quicken my step, searching the undergrowth in case anyone jumps out at me.

And let’s have a think about this one as well:

There’s a smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation.

Now, ideally, you will actually pause reading to consider the sound and weight of those sentences in your head. If you encountered those sentences in your own manuscript, would you leave them or adjust them? And if you were going to make changes, what would you do?

And look: let me say right away that none of those sentences are calamitously bad. They’re clear. They communicate their meaning. There’s a bit of colour and interest in each one.

But they can all be improved, and improved easily, because the strongest location in any sentence is the very end. The second strongest location in the sentence is the very start. That means, you should try to give each sentence real weight in at least one of those places. With shorter sentences, the real kick – the purpose of the sentence – should come either first or last. Never in the middle.

With that rule in mind, let’s look again at that first sentence:

The words sound lame even to Ted.

Pretty clearly, most of the ingredients in that sentence are a little dull. The one that isn’t – the squeeze of lime that gives life to the whole sentence – is the word lame. But that word is buried away in the exact middle of the sentence, which is the least salient place to have it. So we need to rephrase the sentence as follows:

Even to Ted, the words sound lame.

And, bada-bing, the sentence springs to life. The phrase ‘even to Ted’ drained the energy out of the first version of the sentence. In the second version, they act as a tiny springboard into the rest of it. The word lame, which was lost before, now dazzles under the spotlight.

Now, OK, I recognise that’s a tiny shift, but it also took about three seconds to do. Perform that same magic over the 10,000 sentences of your novel, and you’ve made a really important difference – and done so easily.

Here’s that second sentence again:

I quicken my step, searching the undergrowth in case anyone jumps out at me.

Now you can already see why I am going to object to the current structure. The first part of the sentence is fine – that word quicken is a nice introduction. But the out at me bit at the end is just a clutter of small, dull syllables.

One easy change would be to delete the at me. It adds nothing in terms of meaning. The sentence is definitely better without them.

But as soon as you start to think like that, a more radical notion suggests itself. What about just deleting the whole last part: in case anyone jumps out at me? The scene, after all, is set in a narrow urban path at night. It’s pretty clear why the protagonist would be anxious, so perhaps we don’t need to spell it out. And if searching the undergrowth isn’t quite clear enough, we can always give that a bit of extra weight, like this:

I quicken my step, anxiously scanning the undergrowth.

We’ve deleted almost half the words from the original sentence, but we end up with something that is strong at the beginning and end (and, as it happens, in the middle too.) The slow hiss of deflation that affected the earlier version of the sentence is gone. And again, this change was easy. Notice a weak sentence ending. Start to trim it. Get a bit more radical. Boof! Done. OK, that probably wasn’t a three second change, it might have been a twenty second one, but it’s still nice, easy, anyone-can-do-it editing. Apply that kind of improvement over a whole manuscript and, again, you’ll make a massive difference.

I won’t spend much time on the third sentence:

There’s a smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation.

I’ve adopted that example just to remind us that sentence beginnings matter as well as sentence endings. In particular, I want to warn you against any sentence that starts off with there is or there are. It’s an easy crime to commit – my first drafts always have such sentences – but it’s also a waste. You’re putting the least colourful words in English at the very start of your sentence. You might as well just say ‘Blah blah blah the smell of damp earth...’

And again, it’s easy to fix. The normal fix for a there is type sentence is just to make the thing you’re talking about the subject of its own sentence – and using a better verb than is to do it. So we might end up with something like this:

A smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation floats over the path.

I don’t absolutely love that solution – though it’s definitely better than the previous version – because I’m not sure we’ve really nailed what the smell of damp earth is doing in the story. Why does it matter? Why is the character thinking about it or noticing it? Figuring that out will make the sentence better again.

But that’s a different point. What matters here is that we’ve moved A smell of damp earth to a prominent place in the sentence and we’ve murdered the blandest of all possible sentence openings. In doing so – another benefit – we’ve allowed ourselves to bring in a more interesting verb. And again, the basic change is incredibly easy and obvious once you start becoming alert to this sentence start / sentence ending issue.

Easy, huh? And powerful? A nice combination. Needless to say, and sad to say, most editing is a little more tricky than that.

That is it from me.

Or is it? I think we’d prefer to edit that down to a simple: that’s it.

Have fun with your editing – and do join us, please. There’s a huge amount to look forward to in 2021. A quick recap of what you need to know in the first comment underneath this post.

Two weeks ago, I told you, roughly speaking, that you don’t have to be good at everything. You won’t tick every author-marketing box. Your work will have its weak spots. You can’t be great at everything.

Last week, I talked about that scary abseil moment. Your book isn’t going quite right. You don’t feel in love with the solutions that present themselves. And my advice was just to push on through. It won’t be fun, but just the action of laying down sentence after sentence will push your story on into a place that releases you back into the happy land of inspiration. Nothing says you have to enjoy every moment of writing a book. (Or, for that matter, of climbing a mountain. The two experiences have quite a lot in common.)

This week, I want to close this little trilogy with one more message:

You don’t have to be fast, you don’t have to be flash, you don’t have to win everything.

Yes, you read about authors who got their very first book published. (I did. Most don’t. My second manuscript was a car crash and I had to rewrite it completely, start to finish, to rescue my contract and my career.)

Yes, you read about self-pub authors who write four books a year AND are highly adept at marketing them AND are making lots of money AND who have the time – and the gall – to go on podcasts to tell you about how much more productive they are than you. (Me, if I wrote four books a year, I’d write rubbish. So I don’t even try.)

Yes, there are people who never take a course, read a how to write book, get an editorial assessment or any of that stuff. Some of those people still end up writing the kind of books that get six or seven figure advances, and have the literary press all a-twitter with excitement.

But who cares?

I mean, really, honestly, who cares?

In the end, this game of ours comes down to one thing and one thing only. Do we get pleasure and satisfaction from the stuff we write?

That pleasure is multi-dimensional, of course. If you earn money from your writing, there’s a glow of satisfaction in that – and a heating bill paid off. If you get a fancy publisher, your mum can boast about you to her friends, which is a nice thing for all concerned (except, probably, the friends.) And if you do have the whole agent / publisher thing going on, then there’s a pleasure in the whole business side of the affair. The lunches in London or New York. The whole being an author thing. Speaking at festivals, signing books, guesting on podcasts.

But the real glow comes from writing a scene and liking it, then editing it and liking it more, then reading it back and thinking, “yes, this pretty much nails what I was trying to do.”

If you write stuff you like reading, you’ve won the game. The red rosette, the silver cup, the top of the podium.

That truly is all. If it takes you ten years to get there, you’ve done just as well as if your first book was a bestseller. My first book was a bestseller, and I’m still fond of it, but the stuff I write now gives me a deeper pleasure, because the writing is better.

In fact, the public face of my career looks sort of scary. “Guy writes book without help. Becomes bestseller. Writes lots more books for lots more publishers and makes plenty of cash. Gets prize-shortlists and TV deals and all that malarkey.”

But the inner story is more like this: “Guy writes a book that’s zippy and bouncy and fun. It sells a lot of copies, but he isn’t really a master of this writing game. He’s still a novice. So he writes lots more books – which, fair dos, all sell for good money to decent publishers – but it’s probably a good ten years into his career that he actually achieves mature writing. And those books do fine, but there are plenty of people who sell more books and make more money and win more gongs.”

And that’s always going to be true. Unless you’re Usain Bolt in his prime, there’s always someone you can look at and think, They’ve achieved more than me.

But so what? I don’t care.

The only writers I genuinely envy are ones who can do things on a page that I can’t. And that doesn’t make me think, “Oh, so I must be crap.” I generally think, “Gosh, I’d love to be able to do that. I wonder if I could bring a bit of that into my work.” The envy is there, but it feels like a productive, generative envy. Something that actually nudges my work forwards.

And in the end? When you drop your pen and look back on what you’ve done?

I’ll bet you a mountain of Vietnamese dong to a couple of rusty Russian kopeks that you most cherish the books you loved writing. Those will also be the books that you still love as you re-read them.

The rest of it still matters, don’t get me wrong. Yes, you should want to get published, and make money, and market yourself, and all of that. All those other wants are a worthy part of an urgent, busy, aspirational life. It’s what Jericho Writers is here to help with.

But write books that you love to read.

Do that and you’ve won. The rest is all secondary.

Oh my fine fat furry friends, this time last week, I was stuck. The door to my Shed of Ideas was jammed and I couldn’t lay my hands on a crowbar, or even a flat-bladed screwdriver and a dab of oil.

And this week? The door has been flying open in the wind. There are ideas – dusty but beautiful – lying all over the floor, spilling off the shelves, getting tangled up in twine and squashing the seedlings.

There is enough stuff here that I already know what I want to tell you next week and maybe even the week after that.

But, for now, one little bit of housekeeping:

Because Covid is a pest and because lockdowns are boring
AND
Because we got lovely feedback on my live self-editing webinar a few weeks back (one that was open to JW members only)
AND
Because we love each and every one of you, not just the wise souls who pay us money,
AND
Because self-editing is the only sure and certain pathway to a book as beautiful as you want it to be,
WE THEREFORE DECIDED
To offer a live self-editing webinar to everyone.
*** For free ***
 You just have to pitch up.
It is on 19 November at 19.00 GMT

What we’re going to do is take chunks of YOUR work (see the PSes for more about that) and edit it live on screen. I’ll show you exactly how I would change the text, if it were my own piece of work, and I’ll talk you through my thought process as I do it.

You lot, meanwhile, can use the live chat to pour scorn on everything I do, offer suggestions of your own and generally participate.

The webinar page is here. Remember that although the event is free, you do have to register, because otherwise the system doesn’t know who to admit. Registration is sweet and simple. You’ll get emails telling you exactly what to do. All you need is a computer and an internet connection. More details in the PSes if you need it.

Right-ho.

The Shed of Ideas.

Last week, I told you that you don’t have to be good at everything. That’s true if you only think about marketing. That’s true if you think about writing. It’s most certainly true if you consider yourself as an author in the round.

That was – to judge from the responses I got – a useful, bracing, encouraging message. It permits you to be a bit shit at certain things and still to feel OK about yourself. It matters more that you have genuine dazzle in one or two respects, than that you can handle every aspect of an author’s craft with real competence.

OK. Good. But even knowing this, it’s still easy for us to get stuck.

In my Life Before Kids, I used to do a bit of mountaineering, and I remember one time in the Alps where my buddy and I were descending a mountain. The ascent had been a bit more scary and painful than we’d expected and we were tired and very much wanting to get down to somewhere warm and with hot food.

We were following a ridge that we thought would take us all the way down to the valley, only then – our nice little ridge turned into a 250-foot cliff. There was no way we were going to down-climb that, so we had to abseil off, belaying halfway on a crappy little ledge that wasn’t built to Switzerland’s normal excellent standards.

I’m not scared of abseiling in general, but I do remember being afraid this time. I was cold and tired. I knew that cold, tired descents is where most climbing accidents occur. There was just something about that long, wet drop which I still don’t like to think about. I remember tying a knot at the bottom of the rope to make sure that I couldn’t just abseil accidentally off the end. That’s not something I normally do, but I was scared of my own dulled reflexes.

Anyway. It all turned out fine. The crappy little ledge halfway down already had a bit of climbing tat fixed to the rock, so we hadn’t been the only climbers to have chosen the wrong way down. We got down to the valley. Got warm. Got fed.

But – that fear.

That’s something we all know, isn’t it?

We’re 60,000 words into a manuscript. We know the start of the story, because it’s written. We sort of know the ending (because the thought of it has been keeping us going for that long middle-of-book slog.) Only then, we hit an unexpected plot obstacle. A wet 250-foot cliff that faces north and whose granite has a tendency to come away in your hands.

The fear halts us.

And, OK, your plot obstacle may come earlier in your book, or later. And the metaphor you might choose to describe it might be different from this one. But this I bet is true:

You avoid contact with the obstacle because you’re afraid of it.

Instead of tackling the problem directly, you engage in any kind of displacement activity. You re-edit the stuff you’ve already written. You follow idiots on Twitter. You walk the dog. You hoover the floor. You (ahem) waste your time reading this email.

But you need to tackle the problem directly. You need to take that rope off your back and throw it down that dirty, wet cliff and do what needs to be done.

In plainer language, you just need to write. Don’t know what the next chapter is going to be? You don’t have to know. Write the next sentence. Any sentence. Just get it down. Then write the next sentence.

The trick is to force your character into motion. Force yourself into motion. Yes, it’s possible that a chapter you write in this way is rubbish, but even the act of writing a rubbish chapter will show you the way need to go.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

That’s a Picasso quote that one of you sent me a few weeks back.

And damn the man – he’s right. With plotting problems more than anything else, m’lady Muse will only solve your problems if you put a shift in.

Here’s another thing: it may not be fun.

Abseiling down that cliff was not fun. It did a job and delivered an outcome. (The blessed, blessed valley floor!)

We mostly think of inspiration as joyous, but that thought can be a blocking one in its own right. Sometimes, the right thing just isn’t going to be entertaining as well.

So, if you are facing a problem that you don’t know how to fix, just say to yourself:

  • This isn’t going to be fun
  • I don’t have an answer
  • The chapter I write now may be rubbish and have to be deleted
  • But in doing these awkward and unpleasant things, I get myself closer to the valley floor and the full joy and happiness of writing my lovely denouement.
  • What’s more, the gifts of invention and understanding will only return to me if I get stuck in. If I move my character and story along.
  • The best solutions are always specific, which means they mostly come when you are working at very specific issues. (Not, “where should the book go next?” but “What paragraph follows this one?”)

And heck. My self-editing style means I edit as I go. I hate leaving crappy chapters in my book and want to scrape them free of barnacles before I proceed. But that’s me.

If you want, just write your bad chapter – your wet, dark, dirty abseil chapter – and move on. Leave it. Finish the book.

When you come back to that place as you edit, you come to it from a place where you know everything else about your story. Exactly what happens and when and how and why. And if the chapter still feels wrong, it’ll be a hundred times easier to fix, because you know so much more and because that sense of fear will have left you. Worst case scenario? You have a couple of dodgy chapters in an otherwise good book.

And so what? We’ve all written a dodgy chapter or two.

We’re not perfect and don’t have to be.

It’s an odd one this week.

Normally, I don’t find any difficulty in finding stuff to talk about. There’s a lot I want to say, so I stumble blearily into my Shed of Ideas, crash into a couple of seed trays, spike my foot on a garden fork, grab something off a dusty shelf, and stagger back out into the light to discover, properly, what it is I’m holding.

And today? Well – 

An American election, a hugely consequential one, is stumbling towards some off kind of denouement.

England has just entered its second national lockdown. A lot of things that were normal on Monday are illegal on Friday.

And (something that doesn’t theoretically seem like it should belong on the same list, but is about equally insistent in my head) – 

This morning is brilliantly sunny. The beech trees are towers of gold. Field maples flare in the hedges. There’s something about so much beauty that makes it hard to concentrate on the page.

So what do I need to tell you this week? I don’t know. My normal Shed of Ideas strategy isn’t quite working, so instead I’m going to steal.

The person I’m stealing from today is David Gaughran, the Lord High Wizard of Self-Pub. (And if you are self-publishing and don’t yet subscribe to his newsletter, then you should.) A week or two back, he launched a little homily reminding you that you don’t have to be great at everything.

He meant this in marketing terms. With self-publishing, if you can attract traffic via Facebook and retain readers via emails, you’re fine. You have enough. Just write good books, put good covers on them, do the other bits intelligently, then rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Yes, there are other tools for getting traffic. (Amazon ads. Bookbub ads. Newsletter swaps. Blog tours. Giveaways. Social media. Yadda yadda.) And if you enjoy them, if you’re good at them, if they make you money, then great. If not, leave them.

I’m a good writer and a moderate marketer, but that’s been enough for my self-pub stuff to do well. You don’t need to deploy all the tools that exist. You just need to use the ones that work for you.

Same when it comes to writing.

If you have a great idea and a powerful plot, then quite honestly, if your goal is Big 5 publication, you can probably achieve that so long as your other things (prose style, characterisation, etc) are reasonably professional. And ‘reasonably professional’ is a very achievable standard. It’s the sort of thing that you may arrive at naturally, just through your own savvy. Or maybe you work at it – take a course, attend some webinars – and make the grade that way.

Likewise, if you aiming at something more literary than genre fiction, you don’t have to excel at everything. Most literary fiction is limply plotted. I remember my editor at Orion talking about a Booker Prize winning novel and shaking his head in disbelief at the story’s calamitous failure to cohere. But – the idea was interesting, the writing was strong, and the book worked those assets hard enough to secure its victory.

You don’t have to be good at everything. And you won’t be good at everything. So don’t fret about it.

It doesn’t even matter whether you are a natural born talent or just someone who works hard. The reader doesn’t know or care. Your editor won’t know or care. It just doesn’t matter.

So maybe you built your writing and self-editing skills by living on a remote island and honing your craft, page by page and book by book. Or maybe you do those things in company – on a course, via our lovely webinars, and whatever else.

And it doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you. You don’t get extra points for figuring something out entirely by yourself. All that matters is what you end up putting down on the page. No one cares how you built the skills you have.

And yes: there are some real, honest-to-God geniuses out there. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was perhaps the best crime novel of the last twenty years. The idea was a gem. The writing was golden. The characters were perfect. The plotting crunched a bit in places, but it was better than fine overall.

And OK. Probably none of us are going to write a book as good as that one. But you can be outstandingly successful – commercially and artistically – without being a genius. Most very successful books are not works of genius. Most very successful authors aren’t geniuses.

They’re not perfect. You don’t have to be.

Don’t beat yourself up.

Go look at some autumn leaves. They'll still look pretty no matter who wins the election.

The things writers do, right?

A couple of days ago, a bunch of Jericho members and I got together to co-edit some text. The text came from the members themselves. We had dozens of submissions, but we had time for just five or six chunks of text, each of about 250 words.

And then – we edited. Live online. I shared my screen, so people could see me editing the text and hear my thoughts as I did so. Meantime, everyone commented on what I was doing – or what they thought I should be doing – via the live chat.

The webinar was a proper experiment, one that could easily have gone either way. After all, live editing a Word document for an hour and a bit wouldn’t strike most people as a brilliant way to spend an evening. But writers aren’t most people. And (in my view at least) the thing was a real success.

The best part? It felt utterly authentic. I deliberately hadn’t prepared my edits or my comments in advance, so I came to the text very much as I would do with my own work:

Hmm. What do we have here? What’s working? Yes, that bit’s OK, but this strikes me as wrong. How can I fix that? Well, let me see. Here’s an easy, obvious edit. But something extra needs to go here. Don’t know what yet. I’ll put something in square brackets and move on …

If nothing else, I hope it shows that what looks like a fairly slipshod, make-it-up-as-you-go-along process can end up delivering polished, professional text. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, it can even deliver a little bit of magic too.

Now there’s probably a lot else to talk about (and I’d love feedback from anyone who attended), but I did want to pick up one point, because it’s one I often come across in manuscripts by newer writers.

The point is this. Short, sweet and simple.

When you’re starting a book, your very first task is to get readers to board the damn train.

Getting them onto your train is the single hardest thing you do as a writer. When the reader has even a scrap of investment in your character, even a morsel of interest in your story, their default inclination is to read on. You actually need to do something horrible to stop them. (Like being boring. Or writing terrible prose.)

But when the reader is on chapter one, page one, paragraph one, they have no specific impulse prompting them to read on. At this stage, they liked your cover, they maybe heard something from a friend or a blogger, but nothing else. No attachment to character, no germ of story.

And in fact, the situation is worse than I’ve just made it sound.

To make any progress with your story, your reader has to do some serious work.

They have to understand who your character is. What her world is. What her relationships are. What her situation is. They have to start piecing together a huge amount of information from the fragmentary information that you offer.

For sure, that chore never entirely goes away. New characters arrive, new emotions swirl, there’s always new information to digest. But that labour starts from a much different base. Sure, we may not know everything about the Luke Skywalker / Darth Vader relationship, but we know plenty about the basic world they inhabit. We can add new information to a generous existing stock.

Not so at the start. The start of your book is the most perilous moment. The read-on incentives are at their scantiest. The work you are demanding is at its peak.

So: you have to get the reader on board your story-train. That’s the first thing. The first and most important.

So don’t overload them. Don’t:

  • Start one paragraph in 2020 then leap back ten years in paragraph 2
  • Start one paragraph with Character A, then immediately start telling us about character B
  • Have a quick sequence of short chapters with each one starting with a new character and a new place. (There might be some counter-examples here, but be careful.)
  • Introduce too many characters too fast
  • Tell us about place A in one section and, almost immediately, tell us about place B
  • Throw too much new-world information at a reader too quickly. So if you are writing a book set on a different world, then use one settled not-too-weird situation to start out in. Same thing applies if you are writing about our world, but an unfamiliar corner of it (say, 1890s Manhattan). You need to start with some simple vignette that gives place and time and situation, then start expanding from there.
  • Introduce more than one big mystery. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the opening scene is atmospheric all right, but not too weird … or at least, not until you get to the line ‘The king was pregnant.’ And boom! Le Guin has unwrapped her Great Big Mystery. Most of the rest of her world-building could simply wait.

And really, all these exhortations amount to just one:

Be gentle with the reader. Don’t encumber them with too much baggage while they are still boarding your train. One light satchel and a sandwich containing some sustainably caught fish. That’s plenty for the start of the journey.

Once the reader is on the train and rattling comfortably towards their story-destination, you can get as baroque and as over-the-top as you like. Throw that sustainably caught fish and serve them a banquet featuring smoked oysters in aspic. Tip that satchel out of the window and bring in a set of matching leather valises along with a couple of smartly dressed footpeople.

But not yet. Not while your reader is still boarding the train.

Be gentle. Get them on board. Then gather speed.

So. My original plan was a logical one. Next week, I’m going to be doing a live webinar with JW members, in which I’m going to edit members’ work live on screen, talking about my thought process as I do so. The hope is that we all learn something about the working process, and the thinking process, behind that self-editing task.

OK. That seems like a nice sensible idea for a webinar. And my equally sensible idea for this email was that I’d talk about about that self-editing task (one I love) as a way of geeing you up for the webinar.

And –

Well, we’ve got to Friday, and I don’t feel like talking about self-editing. I want to talk about goats. So goats it is.

(And, by the way, before you commit any more of your ONE AND ONLY LIFE ON EARTH to reading this stuff, I should tell you, hand on heart, that you will learn absolutely nothing of practical value here. Despite the subject line of this post, I am not even going to tell you how to fold a goat.)

Right-ho.

Now, for a long time, up to the birth of Christ and for the next century or so afterwards, the ancient world had plenty of written texts, but the longer, more complex ones were all written on scrolls. The scrolls were mostly papyrus, a paper-like sheet made from the pith of the eponymous plant.

Scrolls were great. Writing was easy. Reading was fine. The things were easily stored and transported. You didn’t have to carve stone or store wax tablets.

But, they were also a pain. The damn things didn’t lie flat. There was no easy way to navigate within the text. Storage was wasteful, because of all that empty space in the middle.

By about the first century AD, a new technology arrived: the codex, where the written sheets were laid flat, one on top of the other, and sewn along one side. Every page lay flat. Navigation was easy. Storage was a doddle. (Except, oddly to us, the spine of the codex was generally stored in, facing the wall, a fact that presumably enraged all professional authors of the age.)

The codex was such an improvement that, in the Western world at least, the scroll was pretty much dead within a mere four centuries – a pace of adoption which counts as shockingly fast by ancient-tech standards.

At the same time, papyrus too went out of fashion. It didn’t fold well and cracked easily. So, over the first few centuries of the Christian era, the papyrus scroll was replaced by the parchment codex.

And ‘parchment’ might sound like a term that denotes any kind of old manuscript, but it doesn’t. A parchment is made from a sheepskin, stretched out, scraped down, cleaned and dried. It was then rubbed down with pumice stone for a perfectly smooth finish. Then given a light dusting of powdered chalk.

The very first parchments were as clumsy and thick as you might imagine them to be. By the later middle ages, parchment achieved a kind of tissue-like thinness. And if you didn’t have a sheep, then you could use a goat, or a calf, or a lamb, or a kid. If you split the skin into two layers (as you did with sheep), you called the resultant product a parchment. If you didn’t split the skin into layers (as often with goats), the result was a vellum. 

But what next?

Let’s say you have a pile of goatskin vellum and you want to assemble it into your witty chick lit masterpiece, you have a range of choices.

You could simply take cut the largest rectangles you can out of your goatskin, pile em up, sew one edge, and bingo – you would have an extremely giant and goaty book.

But all the convenience of the codex would be largely lost. How would you manouevre such a thing? Except for impressing people, or display purposes, you wouldn’t really want something of such bulk.

So the goatskins were folded and sewn, and any remaining folded edges cut, so you could read them.

An once-folded goat made a giant book – a folio.

A twice-folded goat made a handsome, but smaller book – a quarto.

A thrice-folded goat made an octavo.

You could go on folding your goat, if you were patient enough, to form a duodecimo or a sextodecimo.

Because goats varied in size (and ditto sheep, kids, lambs and calves), these terms didn’t really denote a specific size. A goat-kid quarto might not look so different from a calf-skin octavo.

But still. As paper came to push aside parchments, printers still used the same terminology to describe their products, which were still made by the same process of folding, sewing and cutting.

The standard US definition of a medium octavo book gives you a book of six-and-a-half by nine-and-a-quarter inches, or about 17 cm by 23 cm. The most common format, the mass market paperback, is the duodecimo, or about 13 cm by 19 cm. The standard “B-format” paperback in the UK is roughly the same size.

And, one day in California, a man named Jobs decided it would be fun to make an electronic device that could store and display writing and images. But what size to make it? There was no particular boundary on what could have been made. A square screen? A very long one? A very giant one? Or what?

Well, the natural device to think about was the codex, a technology honed over two millennia and beautifully shaped for the human hand.

The 10.5” iPad has a screen size of about 13 cm by a handsome 23 cm – which is, near enough, the modern duodecimo format.

And that, my friends, is what I wanted to tell you today. Fold a goat – get an iPad.

I just thought you needed to know.

My missus is half-German and speaks to our kids mostly in German. Recently, she’s been reading to them from Cornelia Funke’s Hinter Verzauberten Fenstern – literally, Behind Enchanted Windows, a book about entering magical worlds through the windows of an Advent calendar.

The kids absolutely love the book. It’s probably beaten Roald Dahl in the race to favourite-ever story.

Part of what they love is precisely that portal fantasy element – entering a magical world from this one. That portal element is so central to kids’ enjoyment that you can think of a load of books which place that portal front and centre: Through the Looking Glass, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tom’s Midnight Garden, for example. Even where the portal isn’t there in the title, it’s still often one of the central emblems in the book. Just think how important Platform 9 ½ is to the symbolism of Harry Potter: on one side of that platform is – just London. One the other side – everything magical and wonderful and dangerous and strange.

Those transitions are critical. You can’t mess them up. One of our editors, a much-published and acclaimed kids’ author, Brian Keaney, used to advise writers of portal fantasy that they write the first draft of that key transition scene in poetry, before remastering it in prose. His idea was to make sure that the magic of the moment was captured properly, before you started working on all the boring detail.

First poetry, then prose.

As a practical idea for me personally, that idea has never worked. I’d feel too self-conscious about the poetry to really let rip. And, contrariwise, my prose never worries too much about playing by standard prose rules, so I don’t feel especially constrained to avoid the strange or the magical.

Also, of course, I don’t write portal fantasy for kids and young adults, so the idea didn’t really relate to me.

Or so I first thought. But the advice stuck with me, because I came to realise that almost every book worth a damn has a portal scene of some sort in it. Books start with some kind of status quo. Then some inciting incident comes along and – another world beckons. Not a magical one, necessarily, but one whose rules and possibilities have that glitter of danger and possibility. If you don’t have that kind of moment, it’s questionable what in heck’s name you think you’re writing about. 

And the essential quality of the key portal scene is still the same, no matter what you’re writing. It’s to convey the transition from workaday (safe, known, stable) to magical (dangerous, unknown, unstable, replete with possibility.) That transition will have a specific quality to it, a quality that comes close to the essence of your story.

Here, for example, is a key moment from my The Deepest Grave. Fiona is at a murder scene. The woman, an archaeologist, has been decapitated and spears plunged into her chest. This is already no ordinary murder, but then we get the first flicker of portal:

Charteris’s empty eyes are turned towards the wall, where there hangs a piece of framed text, in that hard-to-read medieval script. I take a photo of the text for later reference, but try to read it anyway. It says, I think, something like this:

Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum . . . Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.

—Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

I don’t understand Latin—though ‘Britannorum’ and ‘repellunt barbari’ presumably mean something like what you’d think they mean—but I feel the tug of that ancient world, its torments and darknesses. Perhaps there, in that tug, is an important part of Gaynor Charteris herself.

That’s not quite a wardrobe you can step through – but this isn’t a fantasy and it’s not written for kids – but it comes close. That phrasing ‘the tug of that ancient world’ is, clear as a day, an announcement of the magical world that will dominate the pages of this modern police procedural.

Over the next dozen or so pages, that first flicker firms up into something more definite, more certain. Fiona soon comes back to the murder scene, but this time in the company of an archaeologist (Katie) capable of reading the Latin. Here’s how the portal moment comes again, but more strongly this time:

I point her to the medieval fragment hanging on the wall. The one Charteris was looking at.

‘Oh, that? It’s Gildas. The groans of the Britons.’

I don’t say anything, but my face probably does a ‘Gildas who?’ kind of look.

Katie: ‘Gildas was a sixth century monk. A saint, in fact. His writing is one of our earliest sources for the period.’

And, reading the Latin, she translates:

‘To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons . . . The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.—Gildas, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.’

‘And the barbarians in question . . .?’

‘Northern tribes. Modern day Scots and Irish basically.’

She answers the question, but the words drop noiselessly, pebbles vanished in a well. We both share a sudden sense that it is almost disrespectful to be talking about these long ago conflicts when what we are dealing with is a very twenty-first century corpse. It’s strange how this investigation, young as it is, keeps getting tugged under by the past, and the deep past at that.

Stolen Dark Age finds. Iron Age spears. Gildas and his Latin lament.

That last paragraph gives you, in list form, the disconcerting elements of our portal-world. And notice that our extravagantly murdered corpse is not in herself disconcerting. To Fiona, homicide investigation is part of her day job. The corpse alone doesn’t create the portal. It’s the bits all around it. The parts that don’t belong. That parts that make up the music of this particular book.

When I think of it, probably all of my books have some kind of portal moment. I bet yours has one as as well.

And the advice that emerges from this set of thoughts? Simply this: notice the magic. Notice the music. Write in poetry first, if that idea appeals. But if it doesn’t, bring the poetry in anyway. This is the place where the music of your book sounds its first true notes. The rest is preamble. This bit matters. Make sure the music pushes through. Do that, and your book already has the glitter of something that the reader wants to read. 

Now, m’lords and ladies, I walk a tightrope this week.

On the one hand, I love good editorial services as much as I love apples fried in butter and cinnamon. Good editing is the rock on which all of Jericho Writers is built, and it matters hugely.

But, but, but.

Editing is advice. That’s all it is.

And yes, the advice is usually right. And if you take it books get better.

But you’re the writer. You’re the monarch of your text. In that little realm, your writ runs absolute. And in the end, the rule that matters is simply this: does a proposed change sound right to you? Or do you prefer it the way it is?

When Elizabeth Gilbert was told by an editor that she had to kill one of the female characters in her A Signature of All Things, she said no. That character stayed in.

In one of our Summer Festival webinars, Sophie Hannah was asked what to do if an agent told you that you couldn’t write the sort of book you wanted to write. She said (my paraphrase) to hell with that. Write the book anyway. It’s your life, not theirs.

When a copy-editor wanted to change the tone of my writing (meaning, specifically, Fiona Griffiths’ maddeningly quirky voice) I said no. And, because it was a copy-edit, I had to say no about a million times.

Insert a main verb into a sentence fragment, which I had deliberately wanted as a fragment? No. Stet.

(Stet is the Latin for “let it stand” and has long been the traditional way to undo a copy-editing change.)

Take a list of proper nouns and separate them with commas instead of, as I had done, with full stops? No. Stet.

Take a series of abruptly short sentences and link them into one longer and more elegantly flowing one? No. No way. Stet stet stettety stet.

And you. You’re the same.

Let’s say you are wise enough to come to Jericho Writers for a manuscript assessment. We’ll come back to you with a long report on where we see problems and possible solutions.

Your job is not to obey us.

On the contrary, if an editor says to you, “I think there’s a problem with X and you should probably consider doing Y,” ask yourself how that feels.

Mostly – I’d think about 60% of the time – you’ll think that the editor is right about both problem and solution. Great.

Then maybe 20% of the time, you’ll think, shucks, I can see the issue, but I’d really like to do Z not Y. Also great.

But in both these cases, you’re relying on your own gut. Your own sense of perfect. Your sense of this story and what it should be in that luminous land where all of your artistic goals are perfectly achieved.

You’re not obeying an editor. You’re simply using that editor to refine your own sense of what your manuscript wants and needs.

And that leaves the final 20% where you think, “You know what? I get why you think this denouement fails / this character is unnecessary / this twist is implausible, or whatever else. I get why you think that and I DON’T CARE.”

When I’ve had those situations with my editors in the past – often with minor issues, sometimes with big ones – I haven’t apologised and usually haven’t even explained.

I just return my manuscript with the changes made to my satisfaction. The 20% of issues where I’ve just ignored my editor – well, so what? If they want to cause a fuss, they can, but they never have. Their job is just to get me to deliver the best damn manuscript I can. It’s not to get me to check a series of boxes on some kind of Manuscript Approval Checklist.

You’re the same. You’re the boss. You’re the monarch of your text.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

All hail!

Over the past couple of months, we’ve released two books: GETTING PUBLISHED and 52 LETTERS. Reader response to those books has been lovelier than a basket of white roses brought to you by a unicorn.

This week, we’ve released the third book in that trilogy. It’s called HOW TO WRITE, and it’s about – duh! – how to conceive, plan, write and edit your novel.

It’s a massively practical book. With lots of “how to” and “how very damn not to” examples taken from a huge variety of actual bestselling books. If the book doesn’t help you write better, I promise to eat my own leg in penance.

Now, as a way to celebrate the completion of the trilogy, and as a way to wave goodbye to the Summer Festival, for just a few days only, we’re making all the books as cheap as we can:

HOW TO WRITE

Ebook $0.99 / Print $10.99 / Kindle Unlimited $0.00

My best attempt to set down everything I know about conceiving, planning, writing and editing a novel. 

“I must have read 50 books on writing, style, editing etc, but I found Bingham's book in a way the most useful of all.”—Reader Review

View on Amazon

 

GETTING PUBLISHED

Ebook $0.99 / Print $9.99 / Kindle Unlimited $0.00

Your one-stop bible for everything to do with getting an agent, getting a book deal – and getting published well.

“Truly, the best book I've read on publishing. The truth and nothing but the truth no matter how hard hitting. It will save you much heartbreak.”—Reader Review

View on Amazon

 

52 LETTERS

Ebook $0.99 / Print $8.99 / Kindle Unlimited $0.00

A compilation of my Friday emails – mad, discursive, practical, and enthused.

“Not since Stephen King’s On Writing have I so valued a writer’s writing on writing! These aren’t just 52 Letters—they’re 52 love letters.”—John David Mann

View on Amazon

 

All prices ping back to full price on Sunday, so grab your bargains while you can. And just think. For just three crinkly little dollars you could give your writing library a fancy new lease of life. Be crazy not to, huh?

Next week, I’ll have some data on this promo. What worked and what didn’t. It’s the first time we’ll have used Facebook ads at scale for a book promotion, so we’ll let you know how those went. As ever, we’ll be ruthlessly honest about our experience, so you can start to get a feel for exactly how online publishing works.

As you know, I’m an author first and a Jericho Writers person second – and author-me would really love it if you went out and bought one or more of those books. I raise my hat to you, and will name my next child after you to boot.

For some reason – probably that we all love words – last week’s email generated the biggest response I’ve had for a while. A lot of you have a quite prodigious vocabulary and I raise my hat to you all. Or rather: I raise my hat, my cap, my boater, my beret, my trilby, my cloche, my helmet, my tricorn, my deerstalker, my pillbox and my elegantly laced yet somehow menacing fascinator.

All your responses were interesting – they always are – but one really hit home. Someone tipped me off about a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. (The link’s in the PSes, if you’re interested.)

The gist of her talk was this:

Writers get frightened of being writers.

We’ll get too much success! The success will eat us. We’ll never be able to perform under commercial pressure. I couldn’t work with an agent, an editor, a publicist, a host of foreign publishers.

We’ll get too much failure! We can’t do our best work thinking about those rejection letters, thinking about those bozo Amazon one-star reviews. We can’t create with joy and spontaneity when we have to tangle with the complicated limbs of the publishing industry.

Or some other reasons. Or some set of mutually contradictory reasons.

It doesn’t matter what, really. The point is: writers get frightened of being writers.

This is, as Gilbert points out, a panic largely confined to the creative arts. Her dad was a chemical engineer, who never got frightened of chemical engineering. My father was a lawyer and a judge, who never got frightened of being a lawyer and a judge. I seriously if most plumbers doubt they can do their best bathroom-installation work under the pressure of a client wanting a new bathroom.

So what’s going on? And how to combat the panic?

Her take is interesting and, I think, has real merit.

Back before the Enlightenment and, especially, before the Romantics, we didn’t think of people being geniuses, but having geniuses. Creativity and inspiration dwelled somewhere outside – as a Muse, perhaps, an actual spirit. In Latin, genius loci, the spirit of a place, was something that dwelled at a given site, the divine spirit given specific form and nature.

The human’s work was therefore not to be the genius, but to listen to the genius. To catch the music and set it down.

That sounds a little spacey if you put it as bluntly as that. And yet – you will all know what it feels like to be in true creative flow. The words just come. The vision. The characters. The dialogue. To be sure, it doesn’t come down perfectly: you still need to edit the damn thing. You still need to use your brain and craft to shape the material. But it feels like the origin of all that good stuff lies outside you – or, at the very least, way outside your conscious ownership or control.

Contrast that experience with the post-Romantic concept of genius: It’s us! We’re special! We’re brilliant! We wear floppy clothes and drink laudanum!

There’s a me-me-me quality here, which gets all the benefits of genius (aren’t I wonderful, darling?) but all of the costs as well (what if the damn work doesn’t come? What if it’s no bloody good?)

Now I don’t really want to argue about the ontology here. (Ontology = the study of what exists.) So is there really an external genius? Or a part of our subconscious? Or just a free-flowing form of imagination we can access in the right mental state only? I don’t really care.

What Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we do is just separate the things. You showing up for work: that’s the part you’re in charge of. The creative genius may choose to turn up that day, or may not. You know damn well that if you don’t come, the creative genius can’t.

But you can’t control that part. You never could, never did. Your job is to show up for work and apply yourself.

Just make sure to leave the window open a little, and maybe have a little dish of rose petals somewhere on the desk beside you. Geniuses love hard-workers – and who doesn’t love a rose petal? If you want to say a prayer - and that Liz Gilbert, she loves a prayer - then say a prayer. Invite the genius. Or swear at it. Or just communicate. You might just get blessed, once again, by that golden hand, that silver tongue.

Go well my friends. Bite into those PSes. They’re chewy this week, but with a soft caramel centre.

One of the simplest insights in writing is that words matter.

That sounds so perilously obvious that I ought to scurry away from it and come up with something a little more rewarding. Maybe a list of 100 Fancy Words that everyone ought to use more.

Inimical
Crepuscular
Ullulate
Chiasmus
Arboreal
Sussuration
Ductile
Canticle
Colostomy

But – y’know – that kind of approach to writing mostly leads to unreadable rubbish. I’ve published over two million words in my career. I’ve probably used the word inimical from that list. Maybe ductile. Certainly canticle. I seriously doubt if I’ve used the others without a kind of ‘Oooh, look at me’ glitter in my eye when I did.

The fact is that the vocabulary that you have – that you are genuinely master of – is almost certainly sufficient. You just have to use the right damn word.

What’s more, the vocabulary you already have is a place of treasure. It is richer and brighter and with more movement and dazzle than you realise. But you probably aren’t using it. You are, quite likely, drawing from the easy first five thousand words, the ones you use all the time, every day, week in, week out. But native English-speakers typically have a comfortable range of 20-35,000 words. Those aren’t words you use all the time, yet they’re words that you can deploy perfectly easily when the need arises. (See the PSes for a brilliant website where you can test your vocab.)

Here’s what I mean:

How often in a year do I use the word cockle? Answer, very seldom. But when my older girl came home with a cockle shell she’d found somewhere, I knew what to call it. When my older boy was recently diagnosed with possible appendicitis, I knew perfectly well what the doctor meant, even though I might not have used the word once in the five years beforehand.

So you have a broad vocabulary of words you understand perfectly well. But do you use them, my friend? That’s the whole soul and purpose of this email. Do you use the words you have?

Right now, you can do this for me. And I mean RIGHT NOW THIS MINUTE, YOU LAZY DONKEY.

Open up your current manuscript and bring up a random page. Not one with too much dialogue, but apart from that, any page you like.

And ask yourself: are the words you use interesting or boring?

Specifically, do your words feel like they’re all drawn from the Dull Five Thousand? Or the glittering parades that beyond those plodding, quotidian footsoldiers?

So here’s a sentence made up of the Dull Five Thousand:

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:

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.)

This second sentence (from Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant The Signature of All Things) doesn’t use any fancy vocab in the sussuration sense of fancy. But – ballroom, encountered, hummingbird, trajectory, jewelled, missile, cannon – it draws happily and broadly and precisely from our thirty-thousand word storeroom and creates treasure on the page.

And you can do the same. You know the word cannon. And ballroom. And trajectory. And jewelled. Those words aren’t even hard or obscure. They don’t live at the outer reaches of your vocabulary. They are yours to use.

If you look at your manuscript and find your language feels a little dull, then pay close attention to the nouns especially. The dumb way to enrich your work is to take a boring sentence and shove it full of la-di-da adjectives, with one or two ridiculous verbs thrown in for good measure:

A pulchritudinous bird had somehow inveigled its way into the grandiloquent room and, unable to find a manner of egress, flapped disconsolately at the unfortunately glazed windows.

If you anchor your sentence with some excellent nouns (ballroom, autumn, hummingbird, trajectory, missile, cannon), the rest of the sentence kind of falls into place. You can use adjectives from the Solid Five Thousand (empty, late, tiny) and the sentence does fine. You can throw in some slightly more splendiferous items too (gleaming, trapped, jewelled) and the sentence remains beautifully balanced.

Pay attention to the nouns first. The rest is easy.

That’s it from me. Go and burrow in the PSes, though. There lie riches

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